Meet Your Neighbor: Outdoor aficionado Kayla Carter

Zach Vance • Dec 11, 2018 at 11:03 PM

For Kayla Carter, it took getting away from the Tri-Cities for her to realize how special this region is.

Now, part of Carter’s job is to lead more people to that realization.

A Kingsport native, Carter promotes Northeast Tennessee’s abundance of outdoor and recreational assets as the outdoor development manager for the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership.

Growing up, Carter always had a keen interest in the outdoors, an attribute inherited from her father, but she also had an interest in moving away.

A graduate of East Tennessee State University with a journalism degree, Carter worked stints at the Erwin Record, the Johnson City Press and the Elizabethton Star, but she became burned out and had a yearning to do more.

“It felt like I was sitting on the sidelines to me, (like) I’m just a parrot. I’m just regurgitating information to the public that’s given to me, which is a really noble thing to do.

“It took me a while to let go of that reporter title because it was my identity. I had a lot of self-confidence wrapped into that title, but I just felt like I wanted to do something more. I wanted to contribute a verse instead of just repeating the verses of other people,” Carter said. “I wanted to get out there and make a difference.”

Around that same time, Carter’s fiance, Noah, was about to graduate college and had plans to through-hike the Appalachian Trail. So Carter decided, why not join him? She put in her two-week notice at the Elizabethton Star two months early.

“I needed a change of pace. My goal after that was to move away, which I think is an important part of my story,” Carter said. “I was one of those people who grew up here, took everything for granted, thought I was going to move to Portland or somewhere really cool like that. I guess I thought I was better than this place.”

For the next five-and-a-half months, between April 2014 and September 2014, Carter and Noah lived a more simplistic life as they trekked the 2,000-plus-mile route of the Appalachian Trail.

“It was something that took a lot of mental capacity to overcome. But I didn’t want to push myself too hard. It was like a balance, and that was tough,” Carter said. “In the beginning, I pushed myself too hard. I was trying to do 16-mile days, and I hadn’t ever trained. So I had to reel myself back in and go to eight-mile days in the beginning and work myself up. It takes time to get your body on track. They call it, ‘Getting your trail legs.’”

When she got back home, Carter had no definite plan for her future, but she did have a newfound perspective on the place she called home.

“After I through-hiked the AT, I came back and realized we are in one of the most amazing places in this country. I don’t know. I just made it my personal mission to stay here and make it better. It’s like that (saying), ‘Grow where you’re planted.’ I just wanted to give back to this community because it’s given so much to me,” Carter said.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail is also how Carter learned about trail maintenance programs, something she now considers a huge part of her life.

“I feel like I need to give back. I want to be a volunteer, and I want to give back to our public lands, not just use them. So that’s a big part of what I feel like I stand for as a person now,” she said.

Eventually, a page designer job at the Elizabethton Star opened up, and Carter needed to get back on her feet.

“As much as it killed me to go back to working in the same place after that experience, I had to to get back on my feet,” she said. “Without that job and without the connections I made, the relationships I built and the support from that newspaper, I wouldn’t have been able to get the job at the Chamber (of Commerce). The networking opportunities that I had by being a reporter and working at a newspaper is really what helped me get that next job.”

In June 2016, the Carter County Chamber of Commerce hired Carter to be their tourism coordinator, a position she held until December 2017, when she was hired by the newly formed NeTREP to be the first outdoor development manager.

In her current position, Carter helped orchestrate the first-ever Meet the Mountain festival in Johnson City, attended a National Trail System Conference in Washington state, launched the Appalachian Trail Tennessee podcast, and just recently, she traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby lawmakers to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

In November, Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine named Carter on its list of 30 outdoors leaders under 30 years old.

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