From Aspiring CEO to Aspiring Hiker Trash – Why I’ve Decided to Thru-Hike the Appalachian Trail
As I settle in to my mummy bag, I hear chatter from an adjacent tent. Final remarks before bed. I listen to the calm hum of the nearby stream in the heart of Big South Fork. As always, this trip brings clarity and refreshment; to me, this is what life is all about. I can’t help but think of my upcoming thru-hike, and grow ecstatic at the fact that this will be my everyday life in the near future.
A Bit of Background
The Appalachian Trail has long been a part of my identity. Growing up in northeastern Pennsylvania, my parents often took my brothers and me on hikes along the trail, where we’d scramble over boulders and encounter cantankerous rattlesnakes. Fast-forward 15 years and I find myself frequently bagging peaks along the AT in the Great Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee. I’d not considered a thru-hike until just last year though, after returning burned-out from a software engineering internship in Houston, Texas.
I’d found myself conflicted in my time as a software engineering intern. I loved the creativity I could express on the job and the challenging problem-solving I was responsible for. Being stuck in an office all day, however, left much to be desired in day-to-day life. My life lacked balance, and during my experience working in an office, this became glaringly clear.
From Aspiring CEO to Aspiring Hiker Trash
There was a time when I was convinced that I’d be more than content to spend my entire life working, with little focus on anything outside work (including creating a family, hobbies, or the like). At the time, I let work define the meaning in my life. As I progressed through college, my dedication paid off: I maintained the coveted 4.0 GPA in an intense computer science curriculum, received recognition from my college in the form of awards and colossal scholarships, and was invited on all-expenses paid trips to Kansas City and Silicon Valley to visit the likes of Garmin, Google, Facebook, HP, and IBM. Paradoxically, though I was immensely stressed and lonely, I was certain the business life was for me.
An Unexpected Wake-up Call
The only element of life that is certain, though, is that life is uncertain. On the day before my trip to Silicon Valley, I was driving back to Knoxville, Tenn., and found myself in bumper-to-bumper traffic. I was in a rush to meet a friend for coffee, and as traffic sped up, became antsy and demanded acceleration from my five-cylinder Volvo. Pistons churning, turbo spooling, I was relieved to see traffic pick back up. Just I’d reached cruising speed, the jalopy three cars ahead stopped suddenly when its hood flew up, obscuring the driver’s view. The next two cars braked hard, avoiding collision. I too applied my brakes, but after a semester of strictly bicycle transportation, I grossly underestimated how much force was necessary to stop the 3,700-pound station wagon. Seconds later, I found myself smashing into the back of the Mercedes-Benz SUV ahead. This would be the catalyst for a complete reconsideration of priorities.
As Volvos are quite safe cars. I was able to walk away from the accident without a scratch. Unfortunately, my car was rendered undriveable: the windshield cracked, the airbag deployed, and the front bumper mangled. I had to leave for my flight to Silicon Valley the next morning, where I would remain for a week before returning to Knoxville. Two days after my return I would then need to report to my internship in Houston. There was no way I would get the car fixed before the long drive to Houston.
As fate would have it, my flight back from California stopped in Houston for a layover, at which point I decided to hop off and settle in for my summer internship. Throughout the duration of my internship in Houston, I did not possess a car. I commuted solely via bicycle or carpooling with fellow interns. This left me time to reflect, as during commutes I could focus on my breathing when cycling or on the passing scenery when carpooling instead of on traffic. Having just survived a life-threatening car accident, I couldn’t help but consider my life decisions over the past few years.
It was at this time that I realized the folly of my ways. In focusing on work, I hadn’t left time to significantly develop a life or relationships outside work, which was taking a toll on my happiness and satisfaction with life. I looked back over my past 20 years to identify what had given me the most value outside my studies. I couldn’t help but recall the family camping trips, days snowboarding on the mountains, and rejuvenating hikes in the woods. Furthermore, I recalled the relief I’d experienced after returning to the mountains of Tennessee from Houston for an internship the year before – the mountains were calling.
At the end of the summer, I’d return to Tennessee, lush and green in its summer beauty. Soon thereafter, I took a solo trip to the Smokies, where I hiked a section of the AT near Clingman’s Dome. I found myself refreshed, relieved, and ecstatically happy.
Inevitably, I crossed paths with a thru-hiker headed north. After this encounter, I began to recall seeing thru-hikers in the town of Erwin, Tenn., where I’d lived during high school, and recalled taking their orders at the McDonald’s I’d worked at during high school. Though their smell was nothing short of offensive, I’d wished I’d been on their side of the counter. They were jovial and carefree, even when it was pouring rain outside and they were drenched to the bone. After this flashback, I decided that I would thru-hike the AT after graduation next May.
Focusing on the Experience
As I wrap up my college career, I now find myself diving deep into the forums of Whiteblaze.net, researching gear, reading books on thru-hiking, and seeking advice from a successful thru-hiker friend. With my mind focused on the trail, I can’t help but find myself daydreaming during class. I know for certain that no class or instructor can provide the clarity that being outdoors furnishes, and long for the start of my journey for this very reason.
Life is too short not to make decisions that would ultimately make us anything less than happy. Thus it should be our priority to seek that which makes us most happy in life, be it the outdoors, our loved ones, or contributing to the things we care about the most. As Ferris Bueller famously suggested, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.”
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