Breaking Up Is Hard to Do. And So Is a Thru-Hike

Well, here goes nothing.

I’ve been postponing writing this for months, and now that I’m just over a week away from starting my Appalachian Trail thru-hike, I think it’s finally time to start spilling my soul. And man, do I have a lot to spill.

Let’s dive into some context, shall we? The name’s Tyler. I’m a college student from Indiana who has never gone on an overnight backpacking trip and can count the number of times I’ve spent the night in a tent on one hand. If you’d have asked me about the Appalachian Trail this time last year, I’d have responded with a blank stare. I had never heard of it, let alone understood what the hell a thru-hike was. Yet here I am, one week away from setting out from Amicalola Falls on the adventure of a lifetime. Cue existential crisis.

A tranquil Tyler in the wild (aka Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas).

This time last year I was in the midst of a much-needed yet incredibly anticlimactic gap year from school. I was working a part-time retail job and spending my free time pitying myself for having absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Seems like pretty standard behavior for a 20-year-old, in retrospect.

To put it simply, going to college made me miserable. But not going to college also made me miserable. Everything I did or didn’t do made me miserable for reasons I couldn’t quite understand. I was confused, frustrated, and downright dissatisfied with the life I’d created for myself. I knew there was a world out there waiting to be explored, but I had no idea how to pluck up the courage to embrace it.

Enter the AT

One night last March I stumbled across a documentary on YouTube about a family who thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail together. After finishing it, I mindlessly clicked on another one. And then another one. And then another one until I noticed it was four in the morning and I’d spent the past eight hours exposing myself to a world filled with white blazes, and I was absolutely mesmerized.

The notion of spending four to six months walking from Georgia to Maine carrying a 30-pound backpack filled with the bare necessities of survival seemed like madness to me. It felt like an adventure reserved for the likes of Frodo Baggins or Tyrion Lannister, not something real people in the real world could actually set out to accomplish. But all the proof I needed had already been uploaded to YouTube for me to behold, and I was sold.

Within a week, I felt with equal parts terror and excitement this gut feeling that I needed to give this thru-hiking thing a shot. It was the answer to my discontent. It was the adventure I had longed for. And, quite importantly, it was my way out of the monotony of everyday Midwestern life. And just like that, all the pieces fell into place.

Committing to the Crazy

I gave myself six months to truly think this decision through. The way I saw it, although I had absolutely no backpacking experience, little to no camping experience, and not a single piece of hiking gear, for the first time in a long time, I had a whole lot of crazed determination. In August I bought my first item of gear, a semi-freestanding tent from REI. And from the moment I clicked “confirm order,” my fate was sealed. I was committing myself to thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.

In the fall, I re-enrolled in school and picked up a second job to help finance my thru-hike. I researched my little heart out, went on day hikes as often as possible, solidified my reasons for hiking the AT in the first place, and started training my mind to prepare for the psychological battles that await me out on trail. I was in it to win it. And up until about a month ago, my confidence was unshakable.

A local trail after the season’s first snow (Indiana).

An Unexpected Reunion

I predicted that in the final weeks leading up to my thru-hike, my nerves would start to get the best of me. But what I didn’t see coming was the return of the first boy I’ve ever loved into my life. For privacy’s sake, let’s refer to him as Oberyn, his favorite character from Game of Thrones. (For the record, mine is Arya, feel free to agree with me in the comments.)

Oberyn and I met on our very first day of college, nearly four years ago. We quickly became close, ended up dating for a year, and then he broke things off. We were both emotionally incompetent and unavailable 19-year-olds, and we had a lot of growing up to do.

And so in the span of the following two and a half years, that’s exactly what we did: we grew tf up. This past December, we reunited as friends. In January, our feelings got the best of us and we started dating again. In February, we both ignored the emotional turmoil caused by my approaching thru-hike even though we were both going to therapy about it. And then last Friday we broke up. Again.

An Expected Parting

Now, why am I revealing all of this? What relevance does it hold in the greater tale of my impending adventure? Well, that’s exactly what I’m trying to figure out.

The past few days have been a nightmare for me, I’m gonna keep it real. Not only am I devastated that my second chance with Oberyn ended exactly like my first, but I’m also incredibly overwhelmed by just how dramatically my decision to thru-hike the AT has affected not only myself, but the people around me as well.

My head has been spinning with feelings of doubt, hesitation, and anxiety about what lies ahead. Mix in the utter sadness and disappointment that comes with a breakup, and you’ll start to understand my emotional state. I’m determined to be as honest as possible in these posts, not only for myself but for anybody else out there contemplating whether or not a thru-hike is the right decision for them.

As of this moment, a mere week away from my one-way flight to Atlanta, I’ve never been less sure of myself. But one of the main reasons I committed to this hike exactly a year ago is because I felt I had lost my ability to follow through. The motivation and perseverance that carried me through a successful high school career had seemingly evaporated once I turned 18, and it’s about damn time I took some of it back.

The Takeaway

Life is hard, man. And this thru-hike is going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever faced. I could fail, but that’s the point. I’d rather try and fail than back down from the challenge and regret it.

So when I step foot atop Springer Mountain next Wednesday, it’ll be with a heavy heart. But I’m hoping with each step I can prove to myself that I have the strength to carry myself forward. Fingers crossed.

Happy trails, everybody. I hope to see you all out in the wild.

-TJ

In the words of Stevie Nicks, I climbed a mountain and turned around (Boulder, Colorado).

P.S. From My Ears to Yours

In each post, I’ll be recommending some good tunes, podcasts, and audiobooks that help keep me going. Although I’m not on the trail yet, I’ve still got some recs up my sleeve:

Current Favorite Song: Hot Rod by Dayglow

I just discovered this song last night while shuffling through Spotify’s Indie Rock Road Trip playlist. It’s my favorite kind of breakup tune—the kind where the sad, melancholic lyrics mesh with catchy, upbeat rhythms. This is a hiking jam for sure.

Current Favorite Podcast: Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard and Monica Padman

I’m not super into podcasts, though in preparation for this hike I’ve been forcing myself to get on the bandwagon. This is one of the only shows I’ve listened to, and I’ve enjoyed every single episode. Dax merges humor and thought-provoking conversations with the most fascinating, eclectic group of guests. My favorite episodes are the interviews with Sam Harris, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and Elizabeth Gilbert.

Current Favorite Audiobook: Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Last fall I stumbled into a fascination with Eastern spirituality and meditation, and so it’s no surprise this ended up on my reading list. It follows a young Brahmin prince in ancient India as he leaves his luxurious home in pursuit of a spiritual transformation, and if that’s not enough to tempt you, Buddha (yes, the Buddha) makes a few appearances along the way. The audiobook is on YouTube, and it’s a pretty quick read, too. I highly recommend it for those hoping to do some soul-searching on the trail.

If you have any recommendations to throw my way, I’m all ears! I’m about to have a lot of free time.

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Comments 29

  • Traildoggy : Mar 12th

    Good luck. Stick to it. You will be better for the trip.

    Reply
    • TJ : Mar 12th

      Thank you, I certainly think so, too.

      Reply
  • Bloomington : Mar 12th

    Looking forward to reading about your adventures. Sounds like this might be just what you needed.

    Reply
    • TJ : Mar 12th

      You know, I think you’re right! What better time to take this sort of trip than right now?

      Reply
  • Julie : Mar 12th

    I think you may really find peace, inspiration and some awesome people on the trail. I look forward to following you via your Trek posts along the trail. Enjoy the adventure!

    Reply
    • TJ : Mar 12th

      Thanks, Julie! I’m definitely looking forward to meeting the variety of people out on the trail, it’s one of the things pushing me forward for sure.

      Reply
  • Robert Krupp : Mar 12th

    A Thru Hike is going to be hard. Probably the hardest thing you have every done but in that lies the reward. It’s unlikely you will find the key to life but with each mile you gain insight into your own abilities to survive and grow. Good Luck.

    Reply
    • TJ : Mar 12th

      I’m certainly expecting it to be the toughest challenge I’ve faced so far. Not sure if I’ll ever find the key to life, or if that even exists, but like you said the insight I’ll gain is enough for me. Thanks, man!

      Reply
  • TBR : Mar 12th

    Hesse … that’s some tough reading for the trail!

    Reply
    • TJ : Mar 12th

      Tough is an understatement! I tried reading “Steppenwolf” a few months back and definitely struggled with it, but I’ve been fascinated with Buddhist spirituality for a while, and so that helped me get through “Siddhartha.” It’s a damn classic in my eyes!

      Reply
  • Mcgruff : Mar 12th

    Hey TJ, I felt inspired to send you some feedback. Just wanted to let you know as crazy as everyone reacts when you explain your thru-hike, remember you are making a decision that will alter your perception of thinking for the rest of your life. Don’t let those nerves get you. It is completely normal my friend. I began my AT journey twenty years ago on March 20. Not one day passes since then when a memory from my hike pops into my subconscious. The people you will encounter are from all over this planet. Some will teach you things about your hidden self, while nature will educate the other half of your brain. I still keep in contact with several class of 2000 thru-hikers. All of them have used their experience for the better. I even receive a Christmas card every year from a very generous trail angel I met in Maryland. Your journey will be your own, filled with stories of hardships, faith and kindness. The best of luck as you make your way north along the long brown path. Peace……Jason Reinert aka Mcgruff

    Reply
    • TJ : Mar 12th

      Hey man, thank you so much for this. I definitely needed to hear it. What struck me most about the AT when I first discovered it were the life changing relationships people cultivate out on trail. The sense of community and comradeship really spoke to me, and I hope I’m lucky enough to form connections as deep as you have. Thanks for the support, and congrats on your upcoming 20 year trailversary!

      Reply
  • Liz : Mar 12th

    I hope that if it is meant to be, you and Oberyn will find each other again. A thru-hike isn’t forever! Have you read Appalachian Trials? I’m hiking the PCT this year and Pacific Crest Trials (PCT version, obviously) is phenomenal. It forces you to think about your reasons for hiking, in no uncertain terms, and prepares you for the mental challenges you’ll face on the trail. It might help to clear your mind.

    BTW, I love that you’re putting recommendations in your posts! Thanks!

    Reply
    • TJ : Mar 12th

      Hey Liz, I’m starting to feel pretty content with the whole Oberyn situation. Like you said, if it’s meant to be, it’ll be. We parted on really good terms, so I know I always have his support, and that feels comforting. As for if I’ve read “Appalachian Trail,” I have…twice! The psychological challenges of a thru-hike definitely scare me more than the physical ones, and that book had been essential in making me feel more prepared to adapt to the hardships as they come. Kudos to you for hiking the PCT, that trail looks breathtaking. Good luck to you on your journey!

      Reply
  • David : Mar 12th

    Just go. Don’t be in your 60s wishing you had thought of it when young.

    I’m probably doing it anyway in a couple years when I’m retired.

    Only advice… But the very best gear you can afford. Or maybe better stuff than that. Ounces matter.

    Reply
    • TJ : Mar 12th

      Hey David, that’s exactly the mindset I’ve been focusing on. Life isn’t guaranteed, I want to live it to the fullest now while I can. I always knew if I put this thru-hike off, I’d regret it. Coming to terms with the reality of that just took a while to process. Hope you can make it out there soon!

      Reply
  • Joan : Mar 12th

    Tj- this is the first time I’ve ever responded to a trek article. I plan to hike the at next year. But I just listened to Siddhartha in the past week. Your post 100% resonated with me although I am in a totally different demographic than you. You are on your journey, so be at peace. I just know that you will find what you seek.

    Reply
    • TJ : Mar 12th

      Joan, I’m honored to receive your first comment 🙇🏻‍♂️. “Siddhartha” is one of those books I’m gonna be coming back to multiple times throughout my life. Sometimes we all need a reminder to not only hike our own hike, but live our own lives, as well. I’m glad the post resonated with you, and good luck with your thru-hike next year!

      Reply
  • Mike "Fool" Perry : Mar 12th

    Speaking of waiting till your 60’s to do a Thru-Hike, I completed mine in 2013 at age 62 and plan on a 2nd at 70. (With no training program to get in shape)

    To have some concerns is natural. Use these “concerns” to motivate you forward. Keep your eye on the sky, feet on the ground and ear to the trail gossip and you’ll have a wonderfully successful hike.

    There are a lot of hikers giving advice on the trail or not. Each hike is different. But do not ignore advice of others. Don’t accept it as gospel either. It won’t take long for you to determine which advice is right and which is BS.

    Keeping it simple, I would like to pass on a few things that I learned in hope of making your Thru-Hike more enjoyable.
    * In the beginning do not worry about the miles, they will come.
    * “Hike your own Hike” (HYOH) Yes they really do give this out as serious advice. Timetables/Schedule can ruin a hike as well as a friendship.
    * Don’t worry about sticking with a particular group. Friendships will develop almost instantly.
    * Everybody hiking has similar, if not the same concerns as you. There are lots of people on the trail.
    * Do not pass up a HIKER BOX! A box where hikers leave unwanted food, equipment, etc.. Usually found at businesses, Hostels or stores on or near the trail.
    * TRAIL MAGIC anything or assistance “given” to a hiker. (Many times I found a cooler out in the middle of nowhere with cold drinks and snack food.)
    * YOGIING This is very close to begging but, not. You hang around a bunch of tourists looking all dejected & hungry/thirsty hoping you get offered something. Can’t ask!!!
    * HITCHHIKING very common. (Easier if your with a girl) The locals are very helpful. Never had to wait more than 10 minutes for a ride.
    * Kincora Hiking Hostel run by Bob Peoples a LEGEND on the Trail.
    * Damascus TRAIL DAYS 2020 May 15th thru 17th !!!Don’t miss it!!! Lots of free/cheap stuff — Food, equipment, haircuts, showers, equipment repair, information, etc..
    * Fontana Hilton Great shelter near Fontana Dam & Trail’s entrance to Great Smokey Mtns NP. PLUS free Hot Shower near by.

    TJ I could go on & on. If you need any more help email me at [email protected]

    FOOL
    *

    Reply
    • TJ : Mar 12th

      First of all, epic trail name. Second of all, congrats on your first thru-hike and good luck with your second! One of the main responses I get from people when I tell them about my hike is “oh I could never do something like that.” And I suppose if they’re gonna have that mentality from the beginning, they’re right. But the only thing standing in our way is ourselves. Thanks for all the tips, I screenshot them so I can come back to them when I need to. Thanks for your support!

      Reply
    • Kara : Mar 14th

      This is so encouraging to hear!! Thanks for sharing your experience!

      Reply
  • low run💛 : Mar 13th

    I’m blown away with how transparent and open you were in this article. I’m so proud of you. Subscribed and excited to read the next post! Be safe, I’m sending my love.

    Reply
    • TJ : Mar 14th

      Love you Lauren, thank you so much! Your unconditional support throughout the years means the world to me!

      Reply
  • Kathy : Mar 14th

    You’ve got this! Oh the Places You’ll Go! I Will be following you! Take it all in!

    Reply
    • TJ : Mar 14th

      Thanks Kathy! I’ll be doing my best to live in the moment every step of the way!

      Reply
  • Kara : Mar 14th

    I’m excited to hear how things go! Stick with it. You rarely regret the things you do — you regret the things you DIDN’T do. Good luck and keep us posted!

    Reply
    • TJ : Mar 14th

      Yes, that’s exactly the mindset I’ve been trying to maintain. Even though this trip scares the hell out of me, what scares me more is the regret I’d feel if I didn’t go through with it. Life is meant to be lived, not dreamed. Thanks for the support!

      Reply
  • Melissa and Dave : Mar 15th

    When you first told me you were planning hiking the Appalachian Trail, I didn’t even blink. You were sure and confident. I knew you you had it in you to succeed and more. What a fantastic opportunity to grow mentally, physically and spiritually at a young age. I wish I had been brave as you! I can’t wait to hear your stories! You are amazing and we love you!

    Reply
  • Tammy O’Connor : Mar 16th

    So very proud of you! Can’t wait to hear about your adventures! This life isn’t easy but you keep conquering it through the highs and lows! Remember for every bad day there is 3 good and that your stronger than you think on those days! Keep being you! Xoxo

    Reply

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