Appalachian Trail Memories Surface as Colorado Trail Thru-Hike Draws Near

As my Colorado Trail (CT) thru-hike start date approaches, I find myself looking in the rearview mirror at how profoundly my 2018 Appalachian Trail (AT) thru-hike changed my life. Whenever I think of my trek, the Lord Huron song, “Meet Me in the Woods” comes to mind. Specifically, the line where Ben Schneider croons, “I took a little journey to the unknown. And I’ve come back changed, I can feel it in my bones.” That line resonates with me so much. Not only did the journey change my life in a practical sense, it helped me grow as a person in enumerable ways as well. I went through some sh*t before, during, and after, not to mention I had the time of my life hiking that freaking trail, and I’ll forever be changed for that.


The before

The sun sets in Washington, DC

Hiking the Appalachian Trail meant saying goodbye to Washington, DC.


Anyone who knows me can tell you the AT had a deep impact on me. I quit my dream job to do it, and I left my friends and my city of three-quarters of a decade behind with no intention of returning. It was the willful end of one life phase and the beginning of another. I was just so done with Washington, DC, at the time. I was sick of the rat race, the long hours spent at my desk, the disappointments and frustrations over none of my dating prospects ever working out, being trapped underground for an hour at a time on the regular due to metro construction, being forced to live with roommates because the city was so expensive, the constant obligations, the overdrinking…. DC will always have a special place in my heart for so many reasons, as will so many of the people that I met there, but I was past ready to move on when I left for the AT.


The during

A backpacker poses for a photo on the Appalachian Trail

Can you guess which Appalachian Trail state this photo is set in?


And the trail was… magic. I’ve used that word so many times to describe my Appalachian Trail hike. Four years later, I still can’t think of a better one. I went in with so many fears and anxieties over what I was doing. I was terrified that I was going to quit my job, give up my apartment, and leave my life behind only to find that I didn’t like it or couldn’t hack it. I was afraid that I was going to be lonely, or mentally weak, or physically weak. I worried that my decision to throw my life in DC away for a great adventure was, for lack of a better word, insane. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. I loved every second. Through ice cold rain, sweltering heat, and swarms of mosquitos, through my clothes smelling like mildew and my hair tying itself in impossible knots, through a broken heart and aching joints and swollen feet… I have never felt so alive, strong, and full of joy in my entire life. At any given moment on the trail, I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I can’t describe what an incredibly gift that is, especially for a fire sign like me. I had never before or since been so sure of anything in my entire life. The risk paid off.


The after

A hiker stands triumphant on Mt. Katahdin

Standing triumphant on top of Mt. Katahdin.


But then, I reached Katahdin. And post-trail depression set in deep. And stayed put for months. I went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows in a matter of weeks. Meanwhile, I was living with my parents as a 30-something, running out of money, and applying and interviewing for jobs (which is depressing even in the best of times). Once I landed said job, I moved across the country solo to a state I’d never lived in, where I barely knew a soul. I signed a year-long lease and discovered very shortly after that I’d signed on to work for an abuser. She left after a year, thank goodness, but my time working with her was traumatizing. Then, the pandemic set in. I am truly blessed to have been living in Colorado when it started; had I still been in DC, I haven’t the slightest idea what I would have been doing with my time. Crawling the walls, most likely. Here in Colorado, I got to hike, ski, paddleboard, backpack, climb…. I’m well aware of how lucky I got, and I’m sure the pandemic was much easier on me than a lot of people. But even for the luckiest among us, the pandemic has been really mentally and emotionally taxing. Combine that with all the hardship I mentioned above, and I feel like it has affected my decision-making and willingness (or unwillingness) to take risks when it comes to both life and adventure.


The next adventure

Let the next adventure begin.


I’d initially intended to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 2022. I’ve been dreaming about it since before even finishing the AT, and I’ve been singularly focused, trying to pay off debts and save as much money as possible in anticipation of doing so. But even as my AT hike went so damn well, I’ve been terrified of rocking the boat and upheaving my life again after the struggles of the past three and a half years. Also, I really love the life I’ve built in Colorado in that time. Maybe that makes me a coward. Maybe it means I didn’t learn anything from my first go-around, when I discovered how positively colorful the world can be when you take risks (not that the AT was my first ever risk, but it may have been my biggest and brightest one). “Fortune favors the bold,” as they say. Maybe I’m just being responsible. I’ve got a great job and you can’t open a news site without immediately seeing the word “recession” glaring back at you in huge, bold letters. Or, maybe I’m just comfortable in my life here. Either way, I didn’t find myself super keen to leave stability behind and shake things up in a big way this year. At least not yet. There has just been too much uncertainty in the world. (And in a practical sense, I’d like to save up some more money).

Instead, I have found a happy medium. I get to keep my job (which I’ve grown to really like, by the way, post-the unfortunate aforementioned circumstances), my apartment, and my stable life, yet I’m able to go on a smaller but still pretty epic adventure. Starting in August, I will be attempting a thru-hike of the 500ish-mile Colorado Trail, which traverses the state of Colorado from the Denver area down south to Durango, near the New Mexico border. I’m lucky enough to work for a manager and an organization that support my desire to take a month off to play in the mountains (seriously, shout out to Seamus and Mark and everyone else at my org for supporting my dreams and ambitions outside of the office!), so that’s just what I’m going to do. The PCT, on the other hand, will be there when I am ready.

Bonus, I’ve recruited two of my AT friends, Ibex and Dori! (that’s how he likes to spell his name, with an exclamation point!) to come along with me. We’ll have four and a half weeks to hike 491 miles through the Rocky Mountains. It’s going to be insanely challenging—we’re not ultralight bros who love pulling big miles, and we’re going to have to average about 16 miles per day right out the gate—but I hope incredibly rewarding as well. I’m pumped to get to know my (freaking amazing) state even better after living here for about 3.5 years, and of course thrilled to share the experience with tramily. I have faith that we can do it, that we’ll love it, and also that we will likely be very, very tired by the end of the trek. (I hope I’m right about us making it, because we’ve already bought non-refundable plane tickets from Durango back to Denver!).

If you’d like to follow along on our journey, you can find me on Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. And I will of course post updates here on The Trek as well. Wish us luck, our start date will be here before we know it!


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Comments 5

  • Ralph B. Mahon : Jul 18th

    “Meet Me in the Woods” was Bigfoot’s favorite song ?

  • Rick : Jul 18th

    Great. Next spring will be 50 years ago I did the End to End and it still is a big part of my life. Good luck with your next hike beautiful.?

    • Audrey Payne : Jul 18th

      Wow – I bet that was a great adventure. Thank you! 🙂

  • Audrey Payne : Jul 18th

    Wow – I bet that was a great adventure. Thank you! 🙂

  • Cumulus : Oct 25th

    Since nobody else guessed the state, I will. You’re in Maine, somewhere on the Bigelows. That’s the Sugarloaf ski area in the upper left. Right?


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