Only the Essential movie release – Artist Susan Abbott paints her son’s PCT thru-hike

Artist Susan Abbott is a member of the Vermont Land Trust board. She’s interested in linking art and conservation. Her son, Colin Arisman, thru-hiked the PCT and made a film of his experience. Only The Essential just came out. Head to for the movie and for screening events. Here are some of Susan’s thoughts and paintings.

In the summer of 2013, I was in good enough shape to hike all 2,663 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. Lest you get the wrong idea, I am talking here about my mental, not physical shape, and a vicarious, rather than real, hike. My son Colin Arisman was doing the actual hiking, and I was the parent, at home in Vermont, watching from the sidelines.

Over the last few years, Colin has done a good job helping my husband James and me train for our roles as “parents of a PCT thru-hiker.” From afar we watched Colin’s many outdoor adventures – two thru hikes of Vermont’s Long Trail, backcountry skiing in Colorado, backpacking in Peru, hitchhiking and camping through Patagonia – with a mixture of awe and trepidation.

Susan Abbott - mexico

Any nervousness we had about his solitary outdoor adventures has diminished, and our admiration grown, as we’ve witnessed how carefully Colin plans his trips, organizes his gear, trains for wilderness emergencies – and most importantly, how vital and deep is his drive to experience the outdoors. His dad and I have never felt that Colin’s time in the wilderness is a diversion from “real life.” He seems to be on a path towards making that love of the natural world his life’s work. We have nothing but respect for that choice.

But still – when you’re standing with your son in the airport, about to give him the last hug for a long time, and when for five months of that long time, he will be hiking from Mexico to Canada – it gives you pause. My kid could be at home sitting on the sofa safe and sound playing video games. Instead he’s walking with a half bottle of water through 30 miles of rattlesnake-strewn desert? Where did we go wrong?? Or right??

Susan Abbott - kern.river.sierra

In my usual, calmer mode of thought, I know just how we ended up with a child who not only wants to walk from Mexico to Canada, but also make a film about the experience. Though Colin’s dad and I aren’t skilled outdoor adventurers like he is, we are travelers. James thru-hiked the Long Trail at Colin’s age, hitched across the U.S. and Canada, sailed with the Merchant Marine and lived for years in India and the east. My work as a visual artist takes me on frequent trips abroad. Colin grew up thinking that traveling, and recording the experience in film and paint are normal activities.


But there’s a difference between me lugging an easel and art supplies a hundred feet into the woods to make a painting and a PCT hiker with a 25-mile-a-day goal taking the time to stop and document the journey with film, photos, or writing. Art alone is hard enough, but combining it with that level of physical and mental challenge is truly impressive. Hats off to the intrepid hikers who manage to do both.

When Colin asked if I’d like to collaborate on visuals for the film Only the Essential he’s making about his PCT thru-hike, I was happy to sign on. We decided I would create a hand-drawn map, hand-lettered titles and seven watercolors that would segue into live action footage at the start of each new section of the film.

Susan Abbott - Susan Abbott - border.oregon

It’s been a fun challenge to register my watercolor “stills” in sync with Colin’s live action footage as precisely as I can, and to give them a painterly quality that will add some different texture to the film. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the finished film on the big screen this winter when Colin will be previewing it around the country, including here in Vermont.

I’ve found that my own work as a visual artist has been influenced by experiencing, even vicariously, a Pacific Crest Trail hike. We moved to rural Vermont from a city 20 years ago because we loved the farms, woods and fields here, but my painting didn’t always reflect that passion. Watching Colin live out his love of nature has inspired me to leave my studio more often to paint in the field, to unite the physical activity of being in nature with the mental and emotional challenges of making art. As any “plein air” painter will tell you, combining the outdoors and art is both difficult and exhilarating.

Susan Abbott - mt.adams.wilderness.washington

This summer and autumn I’ve been up in Vermont’s remote Northeast Kingdom working on the project Eyes on the Land with the Vermont Land Trust. Artists from around the state are spending the year working on conserved properties; in my case, a 1,000-acre farm and wetlands. Here’s my blog about getting to know that beautiful landscape:

I’ve also started a series of paintings along the Connecticut River that will take me from one end to the other looking at all the remarkable variety of countryside, towns and cities along its banks. Colin and I are already talking about another collaboration for next summer: I’ll paint my way down the river, while he walks and paddles the length, filming our adventure.

I’ve learned something about taking on such a big project and long journey from watching my son walk the Pacific Crest Trail and from my own time working as an artist: we’ll just put one foot in front of the other, and see where we end up.

Go to to see more of Susan Abbott’s painting. Go to for information about screenings and the movie.

Author: Jack "Found" Haskel

As the Trail Information Manager, Jack works to connect people to the PCT. He's involved with a wide variety of projects that help the trail, the trail's users and the community that surrounds the experience. He has thru-hiked (Pacific Crest Trail in 2006; Colorado Trail in 2008; Continental Divide Trail in 2010) and is an obsessed weekend warrior.