Appalachian Fail: What I Learned from My Failed Thru-Hike

The following is a guest post courtesy of John Desilets. If you have a story to contribute, submit it here.

On April 4th, 2017, I set out to hike the Appalachian Trail. As you may have gathered from the title of this article, it didn’t go as planned. They say “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” I don’t know specifically who “they” are. “They” sound pretentious as hell. But they’re not wrong.

On the bright side, my failure may give you a better chance to succeed. I catalogued the 15 biggest lessons I learned from the trail, and as a bonus, they’re all applicable to life off the trail. I’ll share a few with you here. Then you can learn from my mistakes and be a better hiker and person. Maybe. You’re welcome.

Ask other people about themselves, but don’t be offended if they don’t do the same.

The world is full of people with stories that would blow your mind. Everyone around you has a story, but you won’t hear most of them if you don’t ask. The ones you do hear will be from the people who are waiting for a conversational silence just long enough to launch into their life story. They’ll unload onto anyone willing to listen. And often people who aren’t willing to listen. While this might sound like Forrest Gump, most of those people don’t have stories nearly as interesting as his, so you really owe it to yourself to ask people their story so you can hear the good ones.

Keep in mind while collecting stories that some people will ask you for your story and some won’t. This has nothing to do with you. There are people who genuinely want to hear about others. They’ll ask everyone they meet for their story. There are other people who prefer to talk about themselves. They aren’t super interested in hearing about others. I know that sounds selfish, but that’s most people.

Here’s something else I’ve found since being back from the trail. A lot of people will ask about your trip because it’s this grand adventure. People feel obligated to ask about things like that. Most people don’t actually want to hear about your trip though. Most are looking for a response like “Oh ya, it was great. Definitely the experience of a lifetime.” Anything past that and you’ll start to see their eyes glaze over. That can be frustrating because it really was the experience of a lifetime and there’s so much to tell! Again, don’t be offended. This happens to everyone.

My advice to all of you who have a friend who has experienced a life-changing event like this, is really listen to them when they return. It’s difficult to integrate back into society after these experiences. Unless you’ve been through them yourself, it will be impossible for you to understand. And that’s ok. They don’t need you to. They just need you to listen to them. Sometimes all it takes is having someone you can say these things out loud to. That can be the difference between feeling like you’re alone in the world and feeling like you have someone on your side.

You might not accomplish your goal, but that doesn’t mean you’re a failure

Success is a funny thing. Sometimes you can accomplish your goals, but still not feel successful. This can happen if the goals you set for yourself are less ambitious than you know you’re capable of. For instance, take the following goal: I will wake up before 2pm every day. Yes, if you work crazy weird shifts at work, there’s a circumstance where this goal could be ambitious. If you’re not working at all and spend most nights playing video games into the wee hours of the morning when you should really be working on your book about the AT (purely hypothetical example and not at all based on my personal experience), there’s a good chance accomplishing this goal won’t make you feel like a success.

On the flip side, it’s also possible to fail in  accomplishing your goal, but still feel like a success. It’s all about  how you defined success when you initially set out to accomplish the goal. Before I left for the trail, I made a list of reasons why I wanted to complete the AT. You may recognize this as one of the many great suggestions made by Zach “Badger” Davis in Appalachian Trials. Despite failing to complete the trail, I accomplished 22/25 things I set out to do. With those numbers, it’s hard not to feel like I succeeded. (Even though I failed.)

You’ll accomplish unforgettable things in life, then you’ll forget most of them

Life is full of huge moments we’ll carry in our memory for the rest of our lives. If you’re a mother, I’m sure you’ll remember the birth of your first born forever. Long after the memory of that embarrassing thing you said that one time in 4th grade fades, you’ll still remember how it felt to hold your child for the first time. You’ll remember how it felt to hear their cry for the first time. 

Life is also full of moments that have such a profound impact that you tell yourself, “I will never forget this moment.” but then you do. You can never be sure which moments are those “for life” moments.

Early in my planning, I decided to keep a journal on trail. I’m not a journaler. I’ve always wanted to be, and I’ve tried many times in my life, but it never stuck. As such, I was a little nervous about it. The trail was hard enough without forcing myself to stick to something I didn’t even have the motivation to do in normal life.

It turns out I had more success with my journaling than with my actual hike. There wasn’t a single hiking day I didn’t make the time to journal. When I got off the trail and decided to write my book, the first thing I did was read all my journal entries. What I found was both sad and enlightening. There were moments from the hike—and sometimes entire days—that I had completely forgotten about. I was only on the trail for around four months, so losing memories that had been significant enough for me to include in my journal was very disturbing. It made me think about how many memories we non-journaling folk lose every day.

When I talk about losing these memories, it’s important to note that some of these were incredibly significant to me at the time. Seriously, you can’t predict the things that will stick with you. For that reason, I have two suggestions for you:

1) Try journaling. Even if you’re not a journaler. Or just try writing about a single thing every day that made you happy. It could be one sentence long. “I read an article about failing the Appalachian Trail and it changed my life.” Something small like that. Having them written down will help you hold onto moments in your life that might not be world-changing, but are still worth remembering.

2) If you do something you’re proud of, write it down. This could be completing a project at work, volunteering your time at a charity, sticking with exercise for an entire month—whatever you want.

This is a great pick-me-up when you’re feeling down. Everybody has those days where we feel like we have done nothing with our lives. We’ve all been there. Nothing pulls you out of that quite like looking at a list of every time you’ve volunteered your time to a cause that made a difference, or every time you’ve made someone’s day, or every time you’ve accomplished a goal you set for yourself. It reminds you you’re capable of doing good and achieving what you set your mind to. You can’t look at that and still convince yourself that what you do doesn’t matter.

I hope these are helpful. These are just three of the lessons I learned. It would take a whole book to cover all of them. As luck would have it, such a book exists. If you’d like to read more about my trail takeaways, the full story is free to download at appalachianfail.com.

My name is John “Toestee” Desilets. I worked in video games for 10 years before attempting a thru-hike in 2017. I made it 1200 miles. Now I section hike and hope to finish the rest of the trail over the next few years. What I learned on the trail inspired me to write a book helping others succeed where I failed. You can read it for free here.

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Comments 7

  • Nate : Jan 11th

    “They” is Robert Burns who included it in his poem “To a Mouse” and made popular again by John Steinbeck by naming his novel, Of Mice and Men.

    Reply
    • Ruth Nasrullah : Jan 11th

      (Nate, you beat me to the correction.)

      John, I downloaded and skimmed your book – sorry, I’ll read it in more depth later but wanted to get a deeper sense of what your story is.

      I love that it touches on contradictions an aspiring thru-hiker hears, like:

      “I never backpacked till my first night on the trail but I still made it from Springer to Katahdin” vs. “You should spend a year testing your gear.”

      “The trail will get you fit” vs. “Don’t start hiking until you’re in tip-top shape.”

      “You need a solid plan” vs. “The trail provides.”

      “Just follow the blazes” vs. “Bring a map and compass and know how to use them.”

      I don’t think you failed. The best advice I’ve heard, and at this point the only one I will heed, is “hike your own hike.” If that means leaving the trail before your planned finish, so be it. Your chapter 17 sums it up nicely. Great work!

      Reply
      • John Desilets : Jan 11th

        Thank you so much for the download and the kind words. The trail is just full of contradictions. It really highlights how personal and individual an experience it is for every hiker.

        Reply
  • tj : Jan 11th

    I’ll give you $$ just for the abbreviated pain that I felt just after reading thru CH2. LOL. I’ll be out there in 2019… maybe you’ll get back out there soon!!!

    Reply
    • John Desilets : Jan 11th

      Thanks TJ! It definitely wasn’t a smooth journey, but it was a journey. Wouldn’t have changed a thing though. 🙂

      Reply
  • Tony "Rocketman" Tull : Jan 12th

    Dude, I have spent many years attending conferences with motivational, life insight, leadership speakers. I am half way through the book. Consider this as something you could share in a speaking engagement. AT in 2022 when I retire. Donation for the lessons my man.

    Reply
    • John Desilets : Jan 12th

      Oh wow! Thanks so much for the donation. I hadn’t really thought of sharing these in a talk or anything, but I’d definitely be open to it. Thanks for the tip!

      Reply

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