Gaining Perspective on the Appalachian Trail

In 2012, I struggled with a pervasive feeling of failure.  It emanated from my core, casting shadows in even the brightest places.  

On paper, I appeared fine.  Grad school: check.  A fledgling career: check.  Long term relationship: check.  A strong community: check. Yet after a grueling first year outside of grad school, I opted to change everything.  

I left Colorado and moved back to the east coast.  I sought out a job that felt like the perfect fit, unlike the rush I’d been in to say yes when given my first offer after graduation.  I ended that long term relationship.  I felt empowered by taking ownership over my life for the first time in years.  You can imagine my disappointment then, when that perfect job did not pan out.  2000 miles away from Colorado and I’d returned to feeling powerless and lost.  Wherever you go, there you are.

On a solo snowshoe hike on New Years Day, I made my boldest resolution to date.  The fact that I’d never followed through on any resolution seemed to underscore the importance of this one: In 2013, I would hike the Appalachian Trail.

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A resolution made.

As I considered putting in notice at yet another job, I was plagued by this question: Was I quitter or a seeker?  I desperately hoped the latter, but then had to wonder, was I stubbornly searching for perfection or reasonably resisting settling?

On March 25, 2013, I set off to find some answers.  And learned so much more.

1. How to persevere

There is no way to avoid this lesson on the Trail.  It is the very reason I set out to hike the AT and is certainly the most tangible of all the lessons learned.  I found a combination of tenacity, drive, stubbornness, and perhaps a dash of lunacy, trumped most physical maladies and mental hardships.  Everyone will cry.  Everyone will flirt with the idea of quitting.

During my hike, perseverance took the form of walking in an air cast from Caledonia State Park to Kent, CT; hiking 22 miles in non-stop rain; walking through a week long heat wave that coincided with a massive gnat hatching; peeking at a map only to realize I was headed due east/west/south; and waking to find food bags frozen (again).  It also meant bearing simple indignities, such as inevitably peeing on myself and flicking slugs from the inside of trail runners in the morning.

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My bum left leg.

2. Assume the best in others rather than the worst

Prior to the Trail, I had never hitchhiked and the idea of asking anyone for help made me cringe.  Hiking reinforced the old adage, “It takes a village.”  While attempting our first hitch, my hiking partner and I nervously paced the shoulder.  In my mind, I weighed the ridiculous cost of a cab against the many ways I would likely be murdered, before finally (sheepishly) putting my thumb up.  From the back of a red pickup, tucked between trash bags, tires, and a rusty saw, we whizzed back toward the trail grinning like fools.  The kind soul who picked us up refused our gas money, asking simply for a trail tale in return.

I still miss riding in the back of pickup trucks.

I still miss riding in the back of pickup trucks.

Six months on the trail crumbled the resistance and defenses I’d spent a lifetime creating.  Acts of kindness were the norm, not the exception, and I slowly shook the notion that such acts indebted me to someone else.  Take what you need; give what you can.  To the man who once passed me on a back road, put his truck in reverse to stop beside me, unrolled his window, and held out an offering of three clementines and a smile – thank you.  I haven’t forgotten.

Assuming the best also meant an implicit trust within the hiking community itself.  It meant falling into an easy camaraderie on the trail and in shelters.  Conversations almost never included mention of real names or real jobs, the very things that typically defined each of us in our everyday lives.  As a result, the trail allowed us to redefine ourselves.

3. Getting grounded

Backpacking gave me such an appreciation for simplicity.  Each day came down to three basic decisions: what to eat, how far to go, and where to sleep.  And even these three simple decisions changed over the course of the day depending on the needs of my body, my mood, my hiking companions, finding a beautiful spot worthy of a few hours of lingering, and the predictably unpredictable weather.

It also instilled an ever growing sense of gratitude and humility.  Pure ecstasy could be found in the simplest moments, such as finding soda tucked into a streambed, putting on a pair of clean socks, biting into a fresh apple, or sleeping in a bed.  When was the last time you felt profound gratitude for the ability to turn on a faucet and drink water?  I’d unknowingly spent a lifetime taking nearly everything I owned for granted and assuming I’d always have my basic needs met.

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Orange soda at its finest.

4. Comfortable in my own skin

Yes, I felt comfortable in my own filthy, greasy, mosquito-bitten, sunburned skin.  And not only did I feel comfortable, I felt confident. This is not a new phenomena among hikers, but it was new to me.  In a world stripped of mirrors, showers, makeup, deodorant, and with only one change of clothes, the litmus test for beauty took a dramatic shift.  Beauty shone instead through charisma and compassion; the ability to laugh in an absurd situation; through shared experiences.  And killer calf muscles.

5. Epiphanies

I can’t say I had any specific “aha” moments, but something shifted over the six months I spent on the Appalachian Trail.  Everything shifted.  As ready as I was to be done with the physical act of hiking by the time I reached Katahdin, I shed tears of sadness and not happiness on my final descent.  Would this six month adventure be just that?  A vestige in my life that had now come and gone?

My greatest epiphany happened off the trail when I realized that although my hike was finite, its influence remained fluid and dynamic.  The lessons I learned continue to shape my outlook on life and inform my decisions.  The person I became on the trail is me. Always was, me.

Above all else, I know that I am a seeker.

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Comments 5

  • Avatar
    aimeerandall2013 : Nov 30th

    What a great post! You are an inspiration! What an adventure, and lessons to last a lifetime!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Sally Waite : Dec 1st

    Kate, I am so moved by your words. As one who hikes up and down the stairs in my condo, I’m so curious about the experience you chose. Thank you for filling in blanks for me and my understanding of “the hike.” Thank you for writing this piece. xoxo

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Hilah Clarke : Dec 1st

    Thank you so much for sharing this piece with me Kate! I was very moved. Though I have never hiked the AT as a whole, many days and hours have been spent on the trail with my siblings, and then my dogs as I worked though my husband’s death. I share in your experience.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Denise Larrabee : Dec 2nd

    I felt honored and privileged to read your heart felt writing ~ your life learnings through the “act of hiking”.
    I hope you know you’re such an inspiration to others on multiple levels. Thanks for nudging me forward as a continually growing writer and human being. Write on Kate!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Kimmy Morris : Dec 2nd

    This post is absolutely brilliant and wonderful. Who am I kidding? It should have come with a warning because it made me cry! I’m setting off in March searching for all of these reasons, plus a few of my own. I have always been a seeker, even when I wasn’t sure what I was looking for.

    Reply

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