Changing Directions: My Departure from the AT
“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading” -Lao Tzu
Some decisions are pretty easy to make, for example;
- Do I order the burger or the chicken wrap?
- Should I get gas here or on the way home?
- Do I feel like hiking 15 or 18 miles today?
Some decisions are harder. Some decisions are made before you realize you’ve made them. Like deciding to wear sandals into Tractor Supply. That decision was a bad one; I know so because as I walked through the store looking for cat dewormer (oh the glory) I accidentally kicked a pallet and broke my pinkie toe. The Friday before I was going to return to the Trail.
For those of you who have been following me, I’d like to explain my decision to leave the AT. For those of you casually reading, I hope you find a new perspective on daily life and hiking here.
Love the Ones You’re With
When I set out on this hike, I thought 6 months away from home would be no bigs. Everyone wished me well; enthusiastic and happy for my big adventure. I thought I was leaving everything behind to go out into the world to seek, find, and return victorious with my new experience conquered and tucked neatly underarm.
Our culture as a whole is in love with the image of the frontiersman. The idea of abandoning our known lives and setting forth into the vast unknown has been romanticized in so many ways. What I experienced was the other side of this; during the course of our lives we build rich and meaningful connections with other people, our communities, even our cats and dogs. We pay the price of abandoning everything we have built in exchange for wild individualism. This affects us, and perhaps more importantly, it affects those we love. In my case I’ve realized that:
I care more about the people I love than I do about eating ramen alone in the woods.
Since I’ve been home I’m so much happier and have recommitted myself to showing those around me the love and attention they deserve. Because, you know, you guys are pretty rad.
Who would want to leave this face??
My Body is a Temple
Alright, this is pretty straightforward to me. Thru hiking destroys my body. I am not one to flinch from soreness or even a good thwack in the name of necessity, fitness, or even plain fun. Bruises and scrapes are a part of life and our bodies heal them pretty efficiently. In this case though, I decided the risk of a severe or chronic injury was not worth saying proudly ‘I made it all the way’.
Our bodies are not rental cars.We can’t just go buy a new one when the one we’re in gets destroyed.
I want to do things and go places for decades; not sit around with early arthritis from when I foolishly pushed an overuse injury, or go through months of rehab for a broken bone only to feel it for the rest of my life. Believe me, if I was hiking the Trail to carry medicine to a bunch of sick children in an isolated fishing village, you can bet your ass I’d still be out there. But when my pride is the only reason I continue to beat my poor, suffering bod into a pulp, that’s just not showing myself any love.
On the pragmatic side (take note, politicians), I honestly couldn’t afford to continue my healthcare AND hike the Trail. Living in fear of breaking a leg and the ensuing hospital bill is not a recipe for a carefree hike.
This Was Never a Competition
I love to run, but hate to race. The idea of this Trail having an endpoint never really sat well with me, and I fell victim to the hiker bubble frenzy. Make it to Katahdin. No rain, no pain, no Maine. Hearing people at home ask me ‘How far are you? How long do you have to go? When will you be done?’ just fueled this misconception that this was some athletic event.
When I found myself ignoring stunning mountain views because I had miles to get in, or passing a water source because I felt too rushed to stop and filter, I knew something wasn’t right. This isn’t why I hike. I hike for the experience, not to text from my tent that I pulled 22 miles that day before I passed out for the night. Ignoring the majesty of nature is a party foul to me like cutting someone off in traffic, grabbing the last cookie without asking, or not holding the door.
By quitting my ‘thru hike’ I’m recognizing that one of the things holding me to it was a competitive streak, and not a respect for what I was doing and where I was doing it.
The Quest Has Been Completed
The definition of a quest is “A search for something”. What was I searching for on the Appalachian Trail? It wasn’t Katahdin; Google maps could’ve told me where that was. There was no need for me to go to the end of the Trail, because I had already found what I was looking for. Here are some realizations I had in the woods:
- Happiness comes from within. Most people know that happiness doesn’t come from material goods. It doesn’t come from experiences either. We are our own source of happiness. Experiences can give you new perspectives, but they cannot make you happy.
- There is no “I”. A lot of issues come out of a sense of the self as an individual. The thing is, there is no detached individual. Remember how I was talking about cutting ourselves off from the things we love? We do that whenever we think or say ‘I’. Once the self is removed from our reality, we’re off the hook for a lot of the things we torment ourselves with; my success, my legacy, my desires, my needs, my mental condition, my personality. Even the rain is making ME wet and cold. Once you quit obsessing over ‘I’ and realize the whole universe is one big amazing THING you’re a part of, it’s all kumbayah and marshmallows.
- Love and compassion. If there’s no me versus you, why wouldn’t you choose to show compassion to all people and things? I started hiking slowly so I didn’t squish snails or centipedes; that’s how hard this point hit home.
- The present moment. Living in the EXACT moment is really, really hard. There are so many distractions (reading this blog may be one of yours…) and the temptation to think of the future or the past is constant.
I didn’t find peace or freedom in running off into the mountains; I found it in learning to keep my focus on the here and now. Whether I’m making coffee, going for a run, or listening to my husband tell a story I consciously try to experience that moment with my full, undivided attention.
Not all the pretty views are on the Trail.
The Path Forward
So, where does this decision leave me? Well, I am a really efficient backpacker now and my love of the outdoors has survived this experience unscathed. There will be trips to Shenandoah and the Whites in my future, although I haven’t set any dates. I’m really looking forward to hiking loops again, instead of linear trail. Hopefully some of the folks who wanted to hike with me for a day or two will still want to (now that it’s much easier logistically to meet up), instead of yelling ‘quitter!’ and booing me 🙂
As far as everything else goes, I plan on practicing what I preach; living each moment to its fullest, finding ways to express love and compassion, and keeping my eyes open to the path I’m on. I can’t wait to see where it takes me next.
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