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The Appalachian Trail Effect

Appalachian Trail Sign

Appalachian Trail Sign

As a 21-year old I thought I knew it all and could do it all, that is, until I tried to hike from Georgia to Maine.  Take it from me, if you ever want to reveal your ineptitude and ignorance then consider hiking the 2,175 mile Appalachian Trail.

I had very little experience when I started the trail, my longest backpacking trip had been an overnight, but that didn’t deter me.  I had grown up in Hendersonville, North Carolina a few hours away from the AT and I knew that after college, I was headed straight to Georgia.  For me the trail meant putting off a job, having a great adventure, and making new friends.

What I hadn’t counted on was how hard it would be.  I didn’t expect my body to hurt every morning and my shoulders to scream under the weight of a pack.  I hadn’t calculated that the mountains would be quite so high or that the early spring weather would be quite so cold.
Mountain Laurel with Snow Dusting

Mountain Laurel with Snow Dusting

But I could handle the physical challenges.  I could handle being struck by lightning and hiking through two feet of snow in the Smokies.  What I had a harder time dealing with were the people.

I had a hard time suppressing the image of the exhibitionist in Pennsylvania, telling the thru-hiker in Virginia that I really didn’t want him following me anymore, and making sense of the man in the middle of the trail dressed in a hooded cloak and screaming at the sky.

I had no idea how to deal with heightened emotions and people that seemed so different from me.  When I reached New York I was alone and scared.  And then I discovered something I didn’t expect to find, myself.

With nothing familiar nearby, I looked to nature to heal and I found inner strength that I didn’t know existed.  I learned how to show my emotions, not as appropriate social cues, but as genuine expressions.  I learned to laugh out loud with no one around and feel shameless while crying in a crowd.  And I learned how to trust people, people that I didn’t know and that didn’t owe me anything.  I found an overwhelming spirit of generosity, love, and compassion within the trail community;  the trail didn’t taint my faith in humanity, it restored it.

Mount Katahdin

Mount Katahdin

It took everything I had to reach Katahdin and complete the journey.  It took every ounce of my physical strength, deep reserves of mental fortitude, and emotional reliance on old friends at home and new friends on the trail.  When I climbed the final mountain in Maine, I had never been as proud… or tired.

I had experienced a life-changing journey on the Appalachian Trail, but still, I swore that I would never thru hike again.  I thought I could be very content to spend the rest of my life as a recreational day hiker.  However, a few months after finishing the trail, things started to change.  I started to miss the trail – not just reminiscently, but passionately.

I was thankful for my warm showers, clean clothes and soft bed at home, but I missed the woods.  I missed making new friends and sleeping somewhere different every night, and I missed seeing wild animals and taking my lunch break on a mountaintop.  I longed for the self-sufficiency of carrying everything I needed on my back and the simplicity of walking – everyday, all day – just walking.

Another Path

Another Path

Off the trail I had great friends and a good job, but I didn’t feel alive.  I didn’t feel the pain, or loneliness, or joy, or satisfaction like I did on the trail.  Everything felt muted.  Well, my feelings felt muted.  But my senses felt over-stimulated; the trail had made me acutely aware of the overwhelming noises, smells, and speed of modern day society.  Off the trail were bills and commitments and headaches, but despite all the hard work I wasn’t going to bed tired.  There was something very primitive about working hard outdoors during the day, filling a voracious appetite with a large meal in the evening, and ending your day along with the sun.

Sitting at a desk all day in front of a computer made me want to scream.  But I needed to sit for a little bit.  I needed to sit and reconnect with friends and family, I needed to sit and tell my stories of the wilderness and how it changed me, and I needed to sit so I could save up more money in order to once again go into the woods.

Trail Tip:  A lot of people prepare their gear and bodies for the AT, but very few prepare their mind.  Here are some steps to help you mentally shape up for the AT, or other long distance trail.

1. Don’t expect it to be easy, it is not a vacation. It is hard work.

2. The trail will give you more than what you expected, but probably not what you expected.

3. Instinct is your most important piece of gear and your feet are your best defense. Remove yourself from uneasy situations as soon as possible.

4. Bringing unnecessary items to the trail does not mean you will be more comfortable. The less you learn to live with the lighter you will be – in body and spirit.

5. Stay Flexible. If you bring an agenda to the trail, it will be crushed. Come to learn not to conquer.

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