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2016-09-01 / Up Close

Pink Boots Go Further

Robyn Passante


For five years, State College native Jill Gleeson has been documenting her adventures near and far in a pair of pink suede hiking boots for her syndicated Go Pink Boots column. But those kicks are about to be retired.

“For what I’m doing now, they’re not good enough, they’re not strong enough,” she says, then pauses and smiles. “Wow, talk about a metaphor. They don’t have the support I need to climb mountains.”
Gleeson, 50, has shifted her focus from occasional trips and physical challenges to something farther, higher and harder: summiting Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Mount Aconcagua in Argentina in the next year and a half.

The (literally) lofty goal is not merely a graduation to more difficult feats of strength and will. It is a rebirth for the former radio DJ, a goal so massive she will be forced to rebuild her body, repurpose her focus, and reclaim the adventurous spirit that had become muddled beneath the stresses and heartbreaks of life.

It is, in fact, a total reboot.

“In a very real sense, my life depends on me pursuing this as hard as I can,” she says.

Gleeson studied theater at Penn State but dropped out her senior year to move to Chicago and pursue her passion. “Theater was my first love; I always wanted to be a performer,” says the woman whose shock of curly red hair and vivacious smile make her stand out whether on stage or off.

The budding actress married young but eventually split from her husband and, after six years in the hustle and bustle of city life, she moved back to the relatively rural confines of Centre County.

“When I left Chicago I was ready to be someplace safe and clean,” she says. “And I felt that kind of gratitude for how beautiful and safe this place feels.”

To make ends meet, Gleeson got a job as a DJ working overnights at QWiK Rock. “For awhile I was Skiing in New MexicoSkiing in New Mexicoreally horrible, but then something clicked and I became very good at it.” Before long her radio career took off, landing her gigs in cities across the country.

But all roads lead home, and by 1999 she once more found herself back in State College, finally ready to pursue the thing so many people had told her over the years she should do: write.  

Volcano boarding in NicaraguaVolcano boarding in NicaraguaHer new career found focus when a couple of editors sent her on press trips and she realized how much fun it was to see and experience new things and then write about them. One of her first experiences, which became the topic of the inaugural Go Pink Boots column, was a whitewater rafting trip in the New River Gorge area of West Virginia. To say she was out of her element is an understatement.

“I was such a disaster. I spent six hours on the river, and I didn’t even have a swimsuit on, I had shorts and a T-shirt.” She got swept under the raft in Class 5 rapids, knocked a girl out of her raft, and at one point had to be rescued by a raft full of 12-year-old girls. Upon flopping into their boat, the girls’ guide took one look at her and said, “Do you know you have your helmet on backwards?”

But in that same trip, Gleeson also went ziplining, flew in a biplane, and went horseback riding. She came home exhausted and exhilarated. “There was something about it that I loved so much. Even though I was such a disaster, it just rocked me,” she says. “The theme of Go Pink Boots has always been ‘If I can do it, anyone can do it.’ It’s really about facing your fears. Because if you can face your fears, then you can go on and do anything.”

But some of life’s harder moments take more than an internal pep talk to get over. In 2013, Gleeson lost a treasured aunt to pulmonary fibrosis, then a close friend to a mysterious illness. A year later, her younger brother, Gunnar, died of a drug overdose while her mother was suffering from serious health problems. Just after Christmas in 2015, her father fell and broke his neck.

Kayaking in SloveniaKayaking in SloveniaAnd then in June, Gleeson’s boyfriend of five years suddenly broke up with her and moved back to the South. That breakup was the straw that broke Gleeson’s emotional back.

“I still look back and I think, ‘I can’t believe I survived,’” Gleeson says. “That kind of pain should kill you. I can’t believe people are made to endure it.”

Gleeson knew that to move beyond the heartbreak she needed to plan the next chapter of her life, not merely let it happen. “This is the time when people either reach for something better and bigger, or they give up,” she says.

Tigers in ThailandTigers in ThailandSo she came up with a stunning goal and found a personal trainer in town, Steve Jury at Victory Sports & Fitness, who’d recently summited Kilimanjaro and could help her get ready. She also hooked up with a local photographer, Tamar London, to document her physical progress, and built a new blog through which to bring readers along for what could be the hikes of her life. Or at least the first two.

“You’re not getting out of this life without scars on your heart. And I think people are going to be able to relate to that,” she says, her excitement peeking through the pain. “You have to live. It’s never too late.” •SCM


Follow Gleeson’s journey at gleesonreboots.com and, next month, look for the renamed ReBooted column, which will recount the adventures she takes on the path toward her new goal.

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