Answering That Question: My Reasons for Hiking the AT
I don’t know why every book, post, or website about hiking any long trail always starts with the the question, “Why?” Perhaps it’s natural to attempt to justify such a gigantic (read: crazy) adventure to someone who would never think to do it. And perhaps it’s just as natural for them to ask those questions: You’re hiking for how long? You’re sleeping in a tent? But what about bears? The brain goes to extreme places when faced with extreme ideas, and after all, type 2 fun is not everyone’s cup of tea.
I understand the thought process, but in the past I have had a hard time answering the questions. I don’t know how to explain the pull of the trail like a taut rope around my sternum. I don’t know how to explain the smell of the trees in the morning air. I don’t know how to explain the idea that walking in a line for days and days is the closest I can get to the heart of life. I also can’t explain why eating packets of tuna and ramen for five months sounds like fun, or why sleeping on a half-length mat on the floor of a shelter is worth it. (Sometimes. Just kidding.)
But this hike is important to me, so I’m going to try. Here’s a little breakdown of three of the big reasons (because there’s always three, right?) I’m hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Reason One: Freedom
It sounds ridiculous, I know, or maybe overly patriotic. Yeah, trees! Mountains! Fresh air, woo! Yes, these things are excellent and motivation enough for spending five months outside, but the freedom that the trail gives me is more than its physical features.
I read A Sense of Direction by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, which discusses the author’s year of pilgrimages, including the Camino de Santiago, a path that is very close to my heart. In the book, he talks about the idea of following a trail as being a counterintuitive source of freedom. A hiker might tend to think of herself as being wild, a vagabond, not bound to order. But when you step back and think about it, a hiker is absolutely following a kind of order. You’re walking in one direction, on a path that someone has thought to lay out, from one point to another.
While this might seem rigid if viewed from this angle, Lewis-Kraus says that this may just be what real freedom looks like. In adhering to a simple path, our brain is freed to wander elsewhere. Chaotic freedom is different—the lack of direction, wild wandering, uncertainty—these may be fun for a while, but they do not give us what a trail does. In the straight pursuit of a simple yet hard-to-achieve goal, we are allowed to open up in a way that is not otherwise possible.
So, though there is a clear direction and route, the mental space opened up on a long trail is what real freedom looks like. One line, one direction, galaxies of possibilities. I crave that space.
Reason Two: Challenge
This one is less poetic: I think, if I really dig down deep, I’m just obnoxiously goal-driven. Or maybe I just like the combination of suffering/manic joy/delight that comes with hiking for a very long time. Or maybe I just want to see how far I can get. Whatever the real reason, the Appalachian Trail is a challenge, a gigantic undertaking, and there’s nothing I love more than a good project.
There’s something weirdly satisfying about walking for a long time. You do it in stages, but when you get where you’re going you think, Wow. I saw every foot of this distance. I remember the feeling of arriving at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela at the end of my first Camino. My friend and I just stood there, looking, thinking about the journey. Finally, after a few moments, she just shook her head and said, “We walked here. From France.” In stages, the distance is reasonable; in one large chunk, it’s unfathomable. To walk each part and then realize the whole—there is nothing more satisfying.
In the moment, the miles are hard, the mud is annoying, the cold lingers too long, the sun is too hot. But the whole picture is a beautiful achievement. The challenge of reaching the goal is what drives me.
Reason Three: Fulfilling a Promise
In 2015 I hiked the Springer Approach Trail on Valentine’s Day with two of my very good friends. At this point, I already knew I wanted to do the entire AT, but I wasn’t sure when that could happen. I had never attempted anything like it, but it called me.
I wore my huge Merrell boots, Antarctic-level thermal socks that were too big for me so they gave me blisters, and way too much cotton. We carried an unreasonably large amount of indulgent snacks like Lunchables and sandwiches (ah, day hiking). We walked ever upward to the granite tiara that heralds the path to Katahdin, weaving through leafless trees. There weren’t very many other people on the trail, just a few other day hikers, and one early thru-hiker who had left her name in the register, along with the note: “Georgia to Maine, baby!” The air was crisp and the sky was clear.
When we got to the summit, I stared out over the gentle expanse of the patient Appalachian foothills. I saw my first white blazes, and walked a little past the trail register on the AT. It was silent, awaiting the crowds of hikers that would be coming in the next few months. But in that moment, no voices could be heard. The wind stirred slightly and seemed to whisper, welcoming. I put my hand on a blaze and whispered, “I’ll be back.”
The next day I fell out of bed, my entire body ached, and yet I couldn’t stop smiling. I knew I’d be back. And now I’m going.
There are so many more reasons I’m going out there. I can’t put them all in words. We all walk for our own reasons, some similar to mine, and some different. These are just the beginning.
I’m not special because I’m hiking; the trail is special because it calls so many. All of us, with all of our ideas and desires and motivations and joys and burdens. I can’t wait to find my place in this tapestry. I can’t wait to see who I’ll meet, what I’ll discover, what I’ll learn.
I’ll see you out there, class of 2019. Here’s to the trail, and to all of our answers to “Why.”
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Gorgeously written. I love all the bits of philosophy laced in this article. Safe travels!
Eres una campeona, love
Good luck with your hike.
Bagels and cream cheese are great on trail. Much to my surprise, cream cheese travels well and last several days on trail.
Have the best adventure possible! Stay safe and keep the great thoughts coming!
I know Warren Doyle can be a controversial figure, but….
Nimblewill Nomad quoted Doyle to me as saying, “The trail is not there for you. You are there for the trail.”
Seems to me you are heading out with that kind of good attitude.
Enjoy it. It’s a hell of a ride.
~Pony (CT’15, AT’16, Foothills Trail ’18, Pinhoti (Alabama) Trail ’18)
Excited to follow your journey this year!