45 Days In: My Top 3 Highs and Lows of the Appalachian Trail

I’m now 45 days into my attempted thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Yesterday, a few hikers and I joked that—regardless of our ages —we’ve all grown up a lot in just a few weeks. The trail has thrown a lot at us, physically and mentally, and we’ve either adapted or learned some hard lessons.

For me, it’s been a lot of both. Here are a few of my top highs and lows from my first 45 days on the AT.

The Highs

1. The people.

I’m not the first to say it and I certainly won’t be the last: The AT is a social trail. It provides an opportunity to meet and share experiences with not only fellow thru-hikers, but hostel owners, library managers, trail town residents, day hikers, volunteer trail maintainers, and good samaritans up and down the east coast.

Hiking with Just Bob, a 75-year-old section hiking the entire AT.

So far, virtually everyone on that list and beyond has been pretty darn rad. Our B&B hosts drive us to the hospital when a friend dislocated her shoulder. We caught a ride from Clayton’s friendliest driver. We’ve received dozens of free meals as trail magic from former hikers. And I’ve witnessed hikers literally give the clothes off their back to someone else in need.

I’m not sure if the trail community attracts a certain type of generosity, or if the trail helps bring out a better version of all of us. Either way—and perhaps ironically— the people are one of the best parts of this long walk in the woods.

Trail magic from a former thru-hiker and his family.

2. The pace.

I don’t mean how fast (or slow) we hike. Rather, there’s something about the pace at which life comes at you on the trail that feels easier to absorb, easier to remember. In “normal life,” I’m notoriously oblivious to my physical surroundings. Yet on the trail, I can take in and recall the precise shade of purple of the spring beauties in the Smokey Mountains, the face of the person I passed a few miles ago, and the names of virtually everyone I meet (though to be fair, trail names really help. It’s pretty hard to forget “Butt Flap”).

Spring beauties in the Smokey Mountains.

When I move through my day by walking—as opposed to clicking, zooming, and emailing—even the small moments feel like big ones, ready to stand out as a key feature of my experience.

3. The quirky mishaps.

Perhaps it’s because we have to create our own entertainment, or because those small moments stand out in a day full of mile after mile of hiking—but our mistakes and quirky mishaps we didn’t plan for tend to be some of my favorite moments on the trail so far.

Salamander in our water filter

Salamander in our water filter.

Like the time we accidentally caught a salamander in our water filter (he was fine). Or the time I had to poo so bad I had to retroactively dig a cathole (gross, but funny). Or the time I ate too much chickweed and it turned my retainers green for the day. Or the time the 8-year-old at the hostel painted Austin’s face blue.

I’m pumped and perhaps a little nervous to see what quirks the next 45 days bring.

My green teeth after eating too much chickweed.

The Lows

I’m endeavoring to share the good, the bad, and the ugly on my journey—so I’ll be real about the low points. The AT is certainly not all scenic selfies and free hot dogs at road crossings.

1. The Physical Trials.

It feels as though each day, the trail picks a new part of my body to pick on. At first, it was my calves and glutes. Then my knees. Then the outside of my left ankle (who knew that could be sore?). Then my right shoulder. Then my left shoulder. And on, and on. And every day, I have a similar mental debate with myself: is this a normal part of conditioning my body for the trail, or is it a precursor to a more serious injury? I also realize that if choose wrong, it could end my hike.

So far I’ve been lucky and my body seems to be adjusting slowly but surely. At least I think. Is it “normal” to hobble around on painfully sore feet for the first 10 minutes every morning? Is it “normal” to have bug bites the size of a quarter on my ankle? We will see.

Our friend at the ER after falling on the trail and dislocating her shoulder.

2. The Curse of 5 Million Steps.

They estimate it takes about 5 million steps to hike the AT. And it only takes one bad step to potentially end that hike. I call it the curse of 5 million steps, as I’m hiking downhill in the rain, stressing over every foot placement and wondering if the next step will be the one that ends my hike.

I’ve caught a toe on a root or rolled an ankle on a loose rock about five times a day since I started. Those stumbles haven’t been too severe yet, but one day they could be.

I know I need to learn to appreciate the steps I’ve taken so far (literal and figurative), and not fixate on the what-ifs. But frankly, I’m not quite there yet.

Hiking on a rainy and slippery day

3. The Rabbit Hole.

We hike for about 8 hours or more per day.  Hiking becomes something akin to a job — though to be fair it’s a job no one asked us or is paying us to do.

Some days, in those hours of hiking and thinking — I feel creative and optimistic. And plenty of other days, I feel self-conscious and anxious. I start to replay my past mistakes in my head. I think about relationships or interactions I regret. I wonder if I’ll ever find a job I like as much as my last one again.

We call this the Rabbit Hole on trail, when your brain sends you down these deeper and darker thought patterns that suck you in and become hard to escape.

One of the reasons I’m hiking the AT is to work through some of those things and learn to develop new patterns in my brain.

Luckily, I’ve got lots of time and 1,724 more miles to figure it out.

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Comments 1

  • pearwood : May 23rd

    Hi, Meredith (and Austin)!
    Oh, do I understand the Rabbit Hole. Give yours an extra kick in the butt for me.
    My feet and ankles have been well behaved. I bless my Pilates instructor over and over. When I was a kid I rolled my ankle a lot. Now that I’m ancient I appear to be doing better.
    Blessings on your way!
    Steve / pearwood


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