5 Thru-Hikers on How the Trail Changed Their Lives (Part 2)
The Trek asked, “how has thru hiking changed your life?” From inspiring career changes to improving mental/physical health to meeting a life partner, thru-hiking has had a huge impact on the lives of these hikers.
Want more stories like this? Check out part one of this series to read the stories of six more hikers whose lives were transformed on the trail.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Liz “Zester” Bierly
“On the Long Trail, I finally found peace with my body: not love, not admiration, but a sense of being at home in my skin that I’ve been trying to find for a decade.”
Trail(s): Long Trail SOBO 2021
Prior to my 24-day thru-hike of all 273 miles of Vermont’s Long Trail, I had never done a multi-night backpacking trip and I had never camped solo overnight. Doing the Long Trail was an opportunity to give myself permission to be a beginner, to plan for something that would push my emotional and physical limits, and to – hopefully – allow me to “embrace the suck” in all areas of my life.
I graduated college in May 2021 and moved to D.C. in August, so I knew I had July 2021 to do something completely and totally for me. Thru hiking introduced me to a deeper, fuller piece of myself that I had not managed to unlock before. I wasn’t a different person, but I felt more grounded and connected to myself.
I’ve struggled with disordered eating and exercise habits since I was 12 and, at the age of 22, decided it was finally time to stop dieting and start giving myself permission to take up space. For a thru-hike, I was counting calories not to limit my body or to try to lose weight, but to give myself the fuel I needed to rock an epic adventure (and really, who doesn’t love fruit snacks or a Little Debbie snack after a long day of hiking?) On the Long Trail, I finally found peace with my body: not love, not admiration, but a sense of being at home in my skin that I’ve been trying to find for a decade.
Thru-hiking helped me sleep better, reshape my relationship with my body, and gave me the confidence to realize that I am totally and completely capable of doing something out of the box but that I’m also able to get myself out of situations where I am in over my head. July 2021 was the wettest on record in Vermont (I think I had a total of five days where it didn’t rain at all), I was a solo 22-year-old woman, and I had plenty of moments where the mud was over my ankles, I felt melancholy and lonely, and I had to push myself to remember why I was out there.
After several years of deep personal loss, life transitions, and being a college student in a pandemic, thru-hiking let me reclaim “difficult.” For once, tough circumstances weren’t being thrust upon me: I was choosing them, and that made all the difference. I’m still trying to find the person I became on the trail, but knowing that someone who is kind to her body, free in her spirit, and grounded in her abilities exists within me is one of the most beautiful, life-changing things to come out of a thru hike (and I can’t wait to tackle another in the very near future).
Kayla “Nugs” Bold
“I was in a rough spot before hiking the AT in 2020.”
Trail(s): AT (2020), Lone Star Trail (2021) Long Trail (2021), Florida Trail (2022), Arizona Trail (Start March 15 2022)
Thru-hiking has changed my life for the better. I have dealt with severe depression and anxiety for almost 15 years and the euphoric feeling I get while hiking has saved my life. I was in a rough spot before hiking the AT in 2020. I didn’t think it would heal me but I was hoping. While it did help heal me, it taught me healthy ways to deal with my mental illnesses. I learned new coping mechanisms and no matter what, there are bad days. But it’s how we choose to handle those days. I’m thankful that I’ve found Thru-hiking and being a server makes it easy to help fund my hikes. I’ve also decided to live as minimal as possible by staying in my Outback.
Melanie “Peanut” Harsha
“My career, relationship, lifestyle, and physical/mental health would be in a totally different place without these two thru hikes.”
Trail(s): AT 2016, PCT 2018
On an Appalachian Trail section hike with my mom in 2015, I had decided I would thru-hike the following year. I told her during a lunch stop near St. John’s ledges in Connecticut. It wasn’t something I decided out of the blue, but the bliss I had experienced during our week-long section had solidified my decision. At the time, I lived in Boone, NC, and had just finished my Master’s program at Appalachian State University. I was in the middle of applying to Doctorate programs to receive my Ph.D. in Anthropology and to say I was burnt out would be an understatement. I had been going to school for 18 years will no break, Highschool to Undergrad to Graduate school straight through.
My Master’s degree was in Appalachian Studies where I studied the culture of Appalachia and, more specifically, the dying practice of serpent handling in churches scattered throughout the region. As I was filling out applications for Doctorate programs, I realized I wasn’t done with Appalachia or learning about its culture. I’m going to walk through this region I’ve just studied for the past three years, I decided. I needed fresh air, a new surrounding—to stretch my legs and to stop being so stressed. all. the. time. So, I withdrew my applications to various programs, adopted a dog who I named Boo Radley, sold my car, and prepared to embark on the Appalachian Trail.
Upon returning to Nashville, TN after my thru-hike, I signed up for a popular dating app where people “swipe right” on potential partners. Just three weeks after being home from the AT, a man named James “super liked” me on this app and asked if he could buy me a few beers and talk about the AT, a trail he aspired to complete as well. While grateful for this app introducing us, The Appalachian Trail is the reason I met my partner. He went on to do a solo thru-hike of the AT, and in 2018 we completed the PCT together. We also plan to do the CDT within the next three years.
Before completing the Appalachian Trail, a career in the outdoor industry had never crossed my mind. After our PCT thru-hike in 2018, I began working at an outfitter in Nashville called Cumberland Transit. Utilizing my skills I had learned from two thru-hikes and knowing the culture of the trail, I became a women’s apparel buyer and social media/marketing coordinator for Cumberland Transit. In 2018, I was in the P3 Program for the PCTA during my thru-hike and also part of the Salomon Squad. These two experiences also furthered my resume for a career in the outdoor industry.
I now am a Field Experience Representative for HOKA and know that my thru-hiking experience can be attributed to furthering a career in this industry that can be difficult to break into. Overall, my life has completely changed because of thru-hiking. My career, relationship, lifestyle, and physical/mental health would be in a totally different place without these two thru-hikes. I will always be grateful to my mom for introducing the Appalachian Trail to me.
“Before the PCT, we were nurses. Now we’re nurses, entrepreneurs, writers, and it’s fair to say experienced outdoor adventurers and travelers.”
Trail(s): Camino ’13, PCT ’15, TRT ’18, WHW ’19, Te Araroa sections ’19, ’20, ’21
My wife and I hiked the PCT in 2015, the same year that my father was diagnosed with glioblastoma (brain cancer) and passed away. He became acutely ill shortly after we crossed the midway point of our hike, and we got off trail to spend his last weeks with him. After he passed, we decided to push to finish the hike because it had been what he wanted for us. My mom planned with us to meet at the northern terminus when we finished, on her first-ever overnight backpacking trip. She did, and we spread some of my dad’s ashes there.
In the aftermath of the trail, my wife and I decided to reorient our entire lives to be sure that we fit in the things that we care about, realizing that nothing is guaranteed, and that life has a huge number of possibilities. We didn’t return to our jobs after the trail, but instead spent 2016 traveling, including spending six months in Latin America. After that, we decided to start a business, hike and travel more. We’ve done several other shorter thru-hikes alongside a lot of other outdoor adventures (including multiple multi-day hikes with my now avid-hiker mother), visited more than a dozen countries, and spent significant amounts of time traveling and living abroad.
We’ve worked intermittently in our original careers (we’re both nurses), but my wife has also started two small businesses and I’ve written two books: The Dirtbag’s Guide to Life, and I Hope I Was Wrong About Eternal Damnation. The Dirtbag’s Guide to Life has developed a bit of a cult following and is really all about applying the lessons we learned on the PCT to build the type of life you want. Now we’re focused on making the most out of life while keeping things as simple as possible – values we learned and implemented on the PCT.
Before the PCT, we were nurses. Now we’re nurses, entrepreneurs, writers, and, it’s fair to say, experienced outdoor adventurers and travelers. I’m continuing to write, and we’re continuing to figure out how to prioritize the things we really believe are important. My father’s passing played a major role in our decision to change our lives, but the PCT was the bootcamp that taught us the skills and confidence to be able to do it effectively.
Martin “Trunks” Burnett
“Things usually do not go as planned on the trail.”
Trail(s): IAT (Ice Age Trail) 2021
Going on our Ice Age Trail thru hike changed the way we view career and life goals. There is a common experience and belief that taking multiple months off for a personal goal will negatively impact future career goals. What Brianna and I experienced was that our employers respected our personal goals and worked with us make it all happen. For my part, as a manager, my supervisor respected my team’s ability to function in my absence, and I was given a promotion opportunity upon returning from the trail. I know that not everyone will have a supportive workplace, but there are plenty of workplaces that value the drive, grit, and outdoors project management skills required to complete a 1,000+ hike.
The trail also taught us that it’s OK to be vulnerable, which has improved our relationship. Things usually do not go as planned on the trail, figuring out how to communicate during tough times and learning to accept help is an exercise in humility. Even on a less popular trail like the Ice Age Trail, complete strangers found us in our darkest hours and offered assistance for no other reason than wanting to help. People want to help other people accomplish goals, even complete strangers. Trail magic is as much about allowing the givers to give as it is about the receivers receiving.
Featured image: Graphic design by Jillian Verner (@yourstrulyjillian).
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