“But Why?”: Understanding the Motivations for my Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike
In graduate school, my research explored different social dimensions of outdoor recreation. Talking to dozens of hikers, bikers, horseback riders, birdwatchers, and all matter of nature-loving folks from across the country, I asked about perceptions of nature; gendered experiences in trail communities; and the reasons outdoorsy folks to do what they do.
Among the interviewees, the motivations of a certain category of outdoor recreationist stuck out: thru-hikers. I talked to hikers of the AT, the PCT, the CDT, and myriad others in an effort to uncover just what drove folks to take that long walk.
To the Woods!
Escape was a big motivator for many respondents. “Getting away from society,” to heal, to rejuvenate, but also to figure out who one becomes when they’re removed from the friends, family, and work environments to which they’d adapted their identities. To hone in on abilities and limitations pitted against sleet and rain and rocky slopes for months on end.
As I prepare for my own thru-hike, gear is tested, routes are mapped, and finances raised. Another facet of my preparation has included being really clear about my motivations for wanting to thru-hike the AT, not just to others, but to myself. Identifying those things which will keep me going when the going gets tough is critical.
Why the Hell Am I Doing This?
The Physical Challenge
Talking to friends and family, I usually start with emphasizing the unique physical and psychological challenges a thru-hike presents. These seem like the easiest to communicate. There is glory in the hike, but self-satisfaction and demonstration of personal ability are also important. What am I capable of?
The Appalachian Trail has a (more or less) defined beginning and end, a northern terminus and a southern terminus. In other words, it is a well-bounded project. The world shrinks to the single track running out from under your feet up and over the mountain.
Throughout daily life, our interests and successes are really tangled up with one another, even on the trail. Think of the web of trail towns, land managers, fellow hikers, friends, and family that make thru-hikes possible. Yet, a thru-hike is one opportunity and privilege where the individual is afforded an unusual agency over the outcome of their projects.
Release and Reflection
I turn 30 this year. The opportunity and privilege to slow down, reflect on my twenties, and plan for the next big move is something for which I am grateful. Considering what I find, where do I go from here?
Whether in the Ozarks or the Adirondacks, the problem-solving that trail life involves is that sweet spot between practical and emotional. Sure, there’s the day-to-day reckoning of the miles, hours, and elevation before the next shelter or water source, but what do I want and need to keep morale up? The trail provides the opportunity to experiment, to strategize, a puzzle with many solutions, a time for creative problem-solving. It’s also rich material for creative projects (like this blog) that help frame the journey.
“There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot.” Aldo Leopold, a contemporary of Benton MacKaye, belonged to a generation of conservationists who articulated for the broader public the landscape’s power to inspire.
Wilderness is a fraught concept, but the intense power of wooded hills and dale on certain minds can’t be denied. I’ve lived in urban areas for the last 5 years of my life. I love it. I also miss the proximity to public lands, vast tracks of pine, and free running water.
The tail end of my twenties has found me in reasonably good physical shape. But the last few years have also seen me slip into less than healthy habits and mindsets. While these haven’t become too disruptive to my daily life yet, it typically isn’t prudent to wait until they do.
For me, the Appalachian Trail is not itself a solution for something like alcohol abuse. One can’t go hide in the woods until the conditions that underly something like alcoholism disappear. Those will have to be dealt with in the context in which they occur, e.g. steering committee meetings, long-distance relationships, or family issues. But I do believe in the outdoors as a site for self-affirmation, and reflection on those relationships, and relationships with stress, and various coping mechanisms in life off the trail.
This one is probably the most important to me. Long trail hikes are emblems of independence. Often they’re framed as walks out of and away from social settings. But I’ve come to think of them as walks into different social settings. The communities that support hikers; our families at home who wait for months; the trail crews and land managers and nonprofits that maintain public and private lands. That’s to say nothing of the friends and tramilies we make along the way.
As someone who has benefited from the human and nonhuman members of the outdoor community, a thru-hike has for years presented an opportunity to explore those social connections in their most intimate forms.
That’s a question thru-hikers entertain a lot, from friends, family, and co-workers. For me, I want to keep the doubts of others out of my own head, and so keep these conversations short. But when thru-hikers ask themselves, “why, the hell am I doing this?” it helps to answer honestly. These are mine.
In preparation for the 2021 Appalachian Trail thru-hike, motivations have been the hardest list I’ve had to compile. Often it just seems enough to say, “because it’s there.” Frankly, I think that is enough. But for my own hike, for this year, it felt important to dig a little deeper.
A Thru-Hike? In This Economy?
The world is in a hard spot right now, and the pandemic dramatically affected trail life in 2020. Spring 2021 looks like it’s going to be similarly challenging. To some, stepping away from it all may sound irresponsible, and I can see why. But I think of the healing and tangible good that exists in old forests, and young forests, and prairies, and marshes. I’m going to go find it, and I’m going to go knowing why I must.
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