Dear Thru Hikers: a letter to the Appalachian Trail 2016 thru-hikers

It’s taken me a while to settle down and find the words to express how it feels to have thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and what it feels like to be back home in Brooklyn. Perhaps it’s taken this long because I’m still trying to figure it out myself. I’m trying to figure out what it did to me and that’s sort of hard to put into words, especially with the rush of city lifestyle. I’m one of 2.5 million people here, and that’s just Brooklyn alone. I’m back in a land where smiling and asking a stranger where they’re headed is weird. I mean, just saying “good morning” or “how are you?” is off-putting. Perhaps that’s why I work at a coffee shop, for the normalcy of conversing with strangers (and also because I’ve gotten pretty damn good at working an espresso machine). Now, on my day off, I’m having a glass of wine at the same bar I had my last meal at before heading up to Maine. This time, I’m here seeking shelter from the rain and sporting a t-shirt that I found in a hiker box. It reads “Appalachian Trail – Tread softly – Maine to Georgia”.

Nobody here knows what I’ve done. They don’t know that the last time I experienced this heavy of a rainstorm, it was in the middle of the woods in Tennessee, where I hiked up and down mountains for over 20 miles, stopping in the heaviest downpour to filter water and eat a pop tart with my fully-pruned and completely numb hands. They don’t know I was borderline hypothermic and had to dress myself in a trash bag that I found at a road crossing. They pay no mind to the shirt, which may as well have been bought at a local thrift store. You may not know, living in the woods all these months, but being outdoorsy for the sake of Instagram posts is seemingly popular these days. They don’t know what I — and what WE — have done and that’s okay because we know.

We put our selves out there just by being on the trail. We know that the trail may not be a direct result of one situation we’ve been through, but it’s our individual perseverance and strength that planted this idea in our head and ultimately lead to us setting out on this journey. And we walked. One foot in front of the other. Step after step. Mile after mile. Day after day. Month after month. We know that we’ve overcome a lot and while the trail may be a solid accomplishment that people praise, we know that there are things in our lives that we got through, and that we may still be overcoming, that people may not recognize or applaud as outwardly.

But I’m proud of you. As a fellow hiker, I know that going back to the “real world” is tough, mainly because it can feel much much much less “real” than the world we have experienced. I am proud that we met people that we were meant to have in our lives — That we made the decision to go out into the wilderness and climb mountains all day with others who wanted the same. I am proud that we each, in some way or another, used the trail as a coping mechanism and not as a means of fixing or running from anything. We didn’t expect too much of the mountains because we know that this journey might help heal, but it cannot fix.

We have learned that there’s no magical oxygen exerted by the trees in Appalachia that will free a person from addiction. It cannot turn mental illness into ashes that can be blow into the wind over a beautiful viewpoint. The absence of mirrors cannot magically morph a self-conscious being into someone with a fantastic self-image. But being away from the regular triggers of an everyday environment certainly has its effects.

If you want to figure out what you want to do with your life, we be first to admit that confusion is even stronger upon returning to society (except, probably, to hike more trails). What it has done is help us reflect on our lives and recognize our strength. You got up that steep climb. You were so discouraged to find that there was no view. You made it though that really awful day when all you wanted to do was go home. You thought about how maybe you don’t have a home to go home to. You got more comfortable with the unknowns and the unexpected because there was no other choice. You had really dark thoughts and really beautiful thoughts. But you did it. We did it.

So, what do we do afterwards? Who knows! I bet you’re sure happy you read this god damn waste of time post now, huh? Ha! I mean it, though. I really don’t know. While I thoroughly appreciate my heat, hot water, and daily sushi delivery, I miss my non-traditional life experiences and the unapologetic relationship with nature. I’m trying to figure out what I want to do with my life. I’m trying to figure out how and when I can get back on the trail, where people don’t ask me “So what are you going to do for a living?” but instead ask me only the most logical and the most philosophical questions, like “How are the water sources north of here?” and “How much wood could a wood chuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?”

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Comments 7

  • Walter Linker : Jan 4th

    A woodchuck could chuck wood all day, if he only would…

    Nice article. Congrats on your completion and good luck!

    • Lauren Hafley : Jan 4th

      yes, yes i would if i could… assuming that chucking wood is just a metaphor for hiking ! Thank you very much, Walter.

  • WhiteGurl : Jan 4th

    You’re a damn rockstar, Woodchuck. Excellent read. I can’t walk by an empty garbage can without considering the possibility of a free poncho.

    • Lauren Hafley : Jan 4th

      YOU’ER a damn rockstar, too, and I’m glad you liked it. I thought of making the afterthought more of an “ode to White Gurl” for keeping Rooster and I together.. but you know how it is being internet famous and having to reach the hearts of the people.

      visit us in new york soon, please.

  • Zach : Jan 5th

    Beautiful post, Woodchuck.

    • Lauren Hafley : Jan 7th

      Thanks so much, Zach! Hopefully the PCT is in my future so I can continue to write for the wonderful site that is The Trek 🙂

  • Lisa : Jan 8th

    Nice article! I’m in NYC as well, would love to meet up sometime as I hope to thru in 2018. Congrats!


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