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.

The Southern Arch of the Twin Arches, Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.

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.

The summit of Mt. Leconte in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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.

A visit to Facebook in Menlo Park, Calif.

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.

The poor old beast.

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.

An Epiphany

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.

A warm welcome back to Tennessee – Cherokee National Forest.

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.

The view from Mt. Buckley the day I decided to thru-hike the AT; Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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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Comments 12

  • MS JOEY MF WILLIAMS : Feb 7th

    I live in Knoxville too! The Roan Highlands remains one of my favorite places on earth!! Happy hiking and good luck on the trail!!

    Reply
    • Luke Mills : Feb 7th

      I love the Roan Highlands! Visited them a while back – so stunning. Can’t wait to return to them on my thru-hike!

      Reply
  • Spamtown rick : Feb 7th

    “As you go through the travels of life you will come to a great chasm, JUMP, it’s not as far as you think.”
    I love this quote. Once you take your first step on the trail you will have “jumped”. I’m confident you won’t be sorry!
    See you out there. Spamtown Rick

    Reply
    • Luke Mills : Feb 7th

      That is an excellent quote indeed! I’ll for sure do my best to heed it’s advice. Thanks and see you out there Spamtown Rick!

      Reply
  • Rachael Upchurch : Feb 7th

    I really liked your article Luke! I literally have “Life is too short to be anything but happy” tattooed on my left forearm so I loved the intro to your last paragraph lol. I think it is amazing that you have decided to take this summer to hike the AT. When our last days are near, you won’t look back and wish you had spent more hours at work, but instead, making memories for yourself and with family and friends. I am also quitting my job/career to attempt a thru hike. My start date is February 28th. I wish you all the best out there and happy trails!

    Reply
    • Luke Mills : Feb 7th

      That’s awesome Rachael! That has been my new motto ever since my epiphany – I will surely keep it as such!

      And that’s great to hear that you’ll be out there on the trail! Perhaps we’ll cross paths, as I am going SOBO starting June 1.

      Good luck to you as well!

      Reply
  • Chris Guynn : Feb 7th

    I think the only possible comment from me is “Go Vols!” I too graduated with an engineering degree from there in 2011 before getting a real job for 6 years. Hiking the AT was amazing and all those awesome jobs will await you when you get finished.

    Reply
    • Luke Mills : Feb 7th

      Haha! Go Vols indeed. This is definitely true; I know that hiking the AT is the most important thing I can do right now. I’m looking forward to what unexpected opportunities might follow!

      Reply
  • Nanook : Feb 7th

    Hey Luke,
    I wanted to congratulate you and many others of your generation for figuring out what not many of my generation have(I’m 60).Unless you have a glass stomach, don’t go through your whole life with your head up your ass, you will never see where you are going.
    You sound like a intelligent, adventurous person and if the world doesn’t end this year while we are on the AT, pretty sure you will have many years to use your talents to make a living.
    Hope to see you somewhere on the trail, I’ll start my SOBO hike July 17 so maybe see you in Whites ( NH).
    Be safe and good luck,
    Nanook

    Reply
    • Luke Mills : Feb 7th

      I am humbled Nanook; your words of wisdom surely ring true!

      I too am doing a SOBO, but am starting June 1!

      Good luck to you as well!

      Reply
  • Brandon : Feb 8th

    Great story! Hope to pass by you this summer.

    Reply
  • Cheryl : Feb 10th

    So much of your words are true and I’m so looking forward to sharing your journey. I’m not a thru hiker but maybe we will meet in a section. Good luck !

    Reply

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