6 Ways My Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike Changed My Daily Routine

Life is full of what I like to call “bullshit layers,” layers that a thru-hike can simplify and easily put into perspective. The trail reminded me to get back to basics, and those lessons have stuck in my off-trail life. These are just some of the ways my Appalachian Trail thru-hike changed my outlook and daily routine.

1. Making my bed

This is first on my list because it still blows my mind. The constant packing and unpacking on trail has improved my bedroom cleanliness and organization back home. Finding my groove in the Tetris game that was my backpack became effortless after six months of repetition and practice, after all.

This isn’t something that always came easily to me. Growing up, I didn’t always have my own room. Sharing with my mom and sister as we bopped around family members’ homes affected my sense of self-structure and space.

In high school, my room was chaotic. Hot pink and lime green sponge-painted walls, bulldog mascot posters scattered, a 30-colored blanket my abuela made for me, and clothes EVERYWHERE.

As a 28-year-old, I am now striving for structure (and less lime green chaos). Something I never realized I lacked, and something I never knew I craved. The Appalachian Trail’s daily Tetris game has finally spilled over into my bedroom. Sleepy and puffy-eyed, I pull my sheets taut and fold over the top. Order in my room helps me breathe and feel accomplished before even starting my day.

2. Makeup? Nope.

Being seen, being known, and being accepted as is has helped my self-love journey. I should note that I already didn’t wear makeup prior to the A.T., but it was reinforced during my thru-hike.

I remember my thought process as a 14-year-old self back in 2006. It mainly involved a lot of makeup and my potential forever partner. At the time, I wore black liquid eyeliner (top and bottom), black pencil eyeliner (top and bottom), and black mascara (top and bottom) daily.

My thought: “My future husband can NEVER see me without makeup!”

My solution: “I’ll probably have to wake up before him and go to sleep after him so that he never sees ME me.”

How ridiculous, right? My insecurities ran DEEP. My sense of self-worth was low and I hated my body and face.

As a child, I had been chubby, had crooked teeth, wore only plain, solid colors, and wore my hair slicked back in a ponytail with rock hard hairspray. The women in my family tried their hardest to change my outfits and fix my lack of “girliness.”

So it was obvious to me that something was wrong with me.

In my 20s, I stopped caring about the unwanted pressures and expectations placed on me. The more outdoor experiences I had, the more I felt loved in nature. I was raw and accepted as is. People I met didn’t treat me differently. In fact, they enjoyed me. Something I never would’ve imagined as a teenager.

So here I am, raw, exposed, and here to show women that they can do whatever the f*** they want.

3. Routine and Structure

Routine is yet another thing I didn’t even know I craved before hiking the AT.

My old routine:

  1. Snooze three alarms, wake up at the last alarm (or even later).
  2. Scramble to get dressed and brush teeth, because now I’m running late.
  3. Throw hair up, skip breakfast, and run out the door. Always.

My AT morning routine:

  1. Blink my eyes open to either sun, alarm, or foot pain.
  2. Close my puffy eyes, open the valve to my pillow and sleeping pad to release its air while sleepy giggles fill the shelter or neighboring tents.
  3. Several minutes later, I sit up, stretch my body, and put on my Hawaiian hiking shirt.
  4. Next, I boil water as I play my Tetris packing game.
  5. Dressed and sitting with my special coffee oats in hand, I breathe in the morning before tackling the miles.
  6. Eat, clean up, fill up water bottles, and I’m off. Every morning. Every day.

My current morning routine:

  1. Tortilla, my beautiful cat/personal alarm clock, rubs her head and body on my hands to snuggle her.
  2. Puffy eyes closed, I roll over and love on her. I stretch my body the length of my bed and exhale the relief of rest.
  3. I stand up, shuffle to the kitchen to feed my now meowing ‘Tilla.
  4. Make my bed, change my clothes, brush my teeth, comb my hair, drink water, and make breakfast.
  5. Breathe and eat before starting my day.

Routine feels calming. Routine feels predictable. Routines help me start my day with no surprise or rush that alter my “me.”

4. Saying Hello

On trail, interactions with new people were limited at times. I didn’t see another human for the first three days of my hike. It became normal to acknowledge fellow hikers with a “Hey, how’s it going!” or a “Happy trails!” or at least a wave and a smile.

On the trail, meeting new people was uplifting. Learning about their decision to hike the AT was always different: adventure, career change, mourning, self-care, and more.

As a stranger, lending your ear can be therapeutic for both parties. Chats with people you don’t know are a needed reminder that kindness still exists in the world. A theme I like to call, strangers loving strangers.

Returning to the “real world” was a shock. It was difficult and saddening to relearn that people here often don’t even acknowledge one another. But I don’t accept that reality for myself.

I still do a quick smile or “hello” to people walking, people shopping, and just people in general. Whether it leads to a conversation or not, it can be so beautiful to have a simple connection with someone for just a moment. Nowadays I make sure to smile with my eyes since my mask covers half my face.

Kindness still exists, as long as you’re open to it.

5. Stop. Pause. Take it in.

Crushing miles on a thru-hike can make it difficult to soak in the surroundings. But on the AT, beauty was everywhere. I always made it a point to have lunch by a water source or an overlook to breathe it all in.

In McAllen, one of the most southern parts of Texas, there aren’t mountains and there aren’t any beautiful overlooks. However, there is my abuelito‘s garden, my mom’s green thumb, palm trees at every turn, and birds galore. I try to soak up the moments when I feel connected to nature. Like these:

  • Concha (my abuela’s nickname) re-potting her overflowing Corona de Cristo plant.
  • Gazing up at my mom’s pecan tree with the canvas of a clear sky.
  • Palm trees dancing in the wind.
  • Yellow-bellied warblers flying in the neighborhood.

The everyday kind of beauty.

6. Play. Always play.

Boulder climbing, creek splashing, mud sinking, and sleeping bag giggling are all for the child at heart.

I hear people say,

“You live in some kind of fantasy world.”

“That’s childish.”

“I’m not a kid anymore, I’m not going to camp in my backyard.”

This upsets me.

I NEVER want the reality of people’s lives to be strict, calculated, and not in tune with their inner playfulness again.

Early on, I checked my boxes (especially religious boxes at the time). I went to church. I was abstinent. I graduated with my bachelor’s degree. I landed a job right out of college. I was self-sufficient. I was fucking miserable.

Later on, those checkboxes disappeared. I moved to North Carolina. Spent half my time backpacking in Pisgah National Forest. Worked in therapeutics. Went to therapy. Made new lifelong friends. Explored sobriety and eating disorder support groups. Tried new things. Graduated with my master’s degree in social work. Started to learn how to give myself permission vs. policing myself.

Exploring, learning, playing, seeing, and meeting are all words I never want to lose.

To be frank, after the trail I moved home from North Carolina to Texas. I substitute taught as I job-hunted. I lost my job during the pandemic. I started selling my macrame artwork for income. I am still working on my life eight months post-trail.

Do I regret it? Absolutely not! Will I get my shit together? Absolutely.

Giving myself space to process, grow, and learn has been something I’ve had to practice. To be rid of those damn checkboxes and breathe off everyone else’s expectations has been freeing (although those boxes still came with the price of student debt).

I plan to keep exploring, learning, and playing while I figure out my next step.

Possible? Absolutely.

I am grateful to have experienced playing on the AT and to experience my truest self and happiness. When I feel that part of me slipping, I’ll know what to do. Breathe and just fucking play. I don’t care who’s watching.

How were you impacted by your thru hike? Comment below!

Gabriela Cortez — A.K.A. Trader Josephine
Appalachian Trail ‘19

Bio: Gabriela, AKA Trader Josephine, is a licensed social worker with a background in wilderness therapeutics. South Texas raised, she didn’t have access to trails nor did she know how to approach such a lifestyle, yet she managed to still fall in love with the outdoors in her early 20s. She feels the most herself when she’s smelly, gross, and playing in the dirt. In 2019 she thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and her world view and view of self were completely redefined. She currently attempts to navigate her pull for adventure, her student debt, and of course the unpredictable world around her. To see more of her work you can follow her on Instagram @_cortez_gabriela and on her Medium https://medium.com/@_cortez_gabriela.

 

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Comments 2

  • John Kapustka : Aug 31st

    Very inspiring and well written. Your journey continues. God Speed!

    Reply
  • Pinecone : Sep 18th

    Woohoo love this!!!!! Beautifully written!!

    Reply

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