6 Ways a Thru-Hike Is a Hero’s Journey

Maybe you don’t feel heroic out there, but make no mistake, a thru-hike is as epic an undertaking as any ancient tale. Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, argued that across cultures and times, there is only one story, told many ways. We relate to this story because it mirrors how we grow and change, whether physically, emotionally, or metaphorically: We are called to adventure, enter a strange realm, face and overcome trials, emerge transformed from an ordeal, and return with some treasure to our ordinary world.

Let’s look at how, as a thru-hiker, you do that:

1. You cross a threshold into a special realm.

Life on the Appalachian Trail is unremittingly extraordinary. Out there everything contrasts to modern life: what you do all day, how and where you sleep, what you eat, and who you meet. Too, the trail is a place of wonder, filled with kind strangers, astounding views, breathless despair, and searing joy. Not normal.

2. You have a quest.

Maybe your quest is straightforward: you have always loved backpacking, you have always wanted to complete a thru-hike. Your quest is to realize that dream. Or maybe your hike has deeper meaning. As I heard once on the trail, “Most of us come out here to unfuck ourselves.” Although I hadn’t thought of it in precisely these terms, this was my quest. I wanted to shake my addiction to comfort, overcome my need for security so I could live a more authentic life. Similarly, maybe you’re inspired by Henry David Thoreau, who “went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” This Thoreau-motivated quest is elemental: to live.

3. You sacrifice.

This hardly needs explication. No one who has ever backpacked needs to have it pointed out that living in the woods is unpleasant. It’s painfully obvious out there why civilization ever happened: to bring about roofs, backrests, places to set things from which they won’t topple.

And that’s all aside from the biggest, most obvious thru-hiker sacrifice: income! Unless you live off investments, you aren’t earning money while you’re hiking. For most people, this right here is the deal breaker that prevents even crossing the threshold. But everyone who gets out there has already decided that this one huge sacrifice is worth it.

One sacrifice that surprised me was aspects of my self, my identity, for which there’s not much call in the woods, like my mad vocabulary and grammar skillz or my slick salsa moves.

But wait a minute. Don’t heroes make their sacrifices for someone or something beyond themselves? How does a thru-hike help anyone but the thru-hiker? In fact some folks do have a higher purpose, raising money or awareness for a cause. Most, however, have realized, consciously or not, that their greatest gift to their loved ones is doing their own personal and spiritual work. Being on the trail can make that happen, no question.

4. You encounter trials, allies, and enemies.

You could call the Appalachian Trail the Appalachian Trial—oh, wait, ha ha. But seriously, long-distance backpacking more or less amounts to obstacles: hills to climb, broken things to fix, empty stomachs to fill, etcetera. As for allies and enemies, well, the allies are obvious: trail angels. Then there are the friends you make and keep or at least repeatedly run into. Enemies? You won’t likely find one person to be truly against you, but your own physical limitations, injuries, and other antagonists such as the weather and pitch of a mountainside certainly will be.

5. You transform.

There is the obvious physical transformation any long-distance backpacker undergoes, of course—the drastic weight loss, the tree-trunk strong legs. But the trail also often brings about a kind of unfucking. In the true hero’s journey narrative, this requires going into what Campbell calls “the cave you fear to enter,” which holds “the treasure you seek.” This is the supreme ordeal, the moment when Luke Skywalker, in the trash compactor, goes under. It’s the point at which the audience doesn’t know whether the hero will make it. Things are tense for what feels like forever, and then, triumph: the hero slays the dragon, overcomes the fear, rescues the girl, and emerges—but different.

6. You return with an “elixir” to the ordinary world.

You’ve transformed. You bring your new self, with gifts for your loved ones, gifts for the world in the form of a new and improved YOU, back to regular life, back to some version of your old status quo—only better. You’re kinder, more patient. You’re braver, more secure.

Do you live happily ever after? No. You listen for the next call to adventure, and you heed it. You start the journey all over again.

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Comments 2

  • John Edward Harris : Jul 31st

    Thanks for a great, introspective “think piece”. As a fan and devotee of both Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, I appreciate and resonate with what you have written. In many ways the AT, or any trail, but perhaps especially a trail that generally follow ridges, is a liminal place between worlds. Trekking such a trail can become what some Native Americans refer to as a “vision quest.” In addition to all your references and allusions, I am also reminded of this quote from T. S. Elliott: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

    • Notebook : Aug 1st

      Whoa. I was not familiar with that T.S. Elliot quotation. That is breathtaking: “arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”


      Thank you for the comment; I’m glad you liked the piece!


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