Collision Course: How the Appalachian Trail Met Me

How did a Brit with little-to-zero interest in hiking end up on the Appalachian Trail in the summer of 2013 and how did that redefine everything he thought was important?

What Got Me to the AT in 2013?

Every step of my journey to where I find myself at this moment has been a series of why not? and give it a go! With less than seven weeks until I place my feet firmly on the Southern Terminus of Springer Mountain and start a 2,000 mile trek to Mount Katahdin, I want to take a moment and look back as to how I got here.

Sleepaway Camp in the USA

Brits don’t have summer camp ingrained into their culture the same way that Americans do. In fact, my understanding of this phenomenon came from the pop culture references of Heavyweights and Wet Hot American Summer. Needless to say, as a person who grew up in a culture where camps were either for scouts, or glorified child care, and never lasting more than a couple of days, I was somewhat taken aback by my first summer at Camp Vacamas, in West Milford, NJ.

What Changed?

I had never been fussed with hiking, but after university housemates telling me how much I’d love a summer at a camp, I found myself placed on a cultural exchange at a not-for-profit that served young people from New York City and the tristate area. This camp has a rural feel and a focus on enjoying the outdoors. From the moment we reached the peak of our first 30-minute hike, with our groups of ten-year-old campers, and caught sight of the view, I felt a sense of wonder in me like I hadn’t before.

The View From Bald Rock with my friend Lakeitha, at Camp Vacamas in 2010

The spark of joy I felt for my accomplishment, and for what I saw before me, profoundly changed my understanding of what it is to feel wonder at the world around you.

Getting into the Swing of Things

I quickly realized that one summer was never going to be enough, so after graduating from university, I took to returning summer after summer to my spiritual home in the woods. I moved to working in the teen outdoor pursuit programs and gained experience of canoeing, and enjoyed several six-day trips along the Delaware River, wild camping and caring for groups of up to 14 teenagers with my colleagues. We paddled all day, swam, cliff jumped, and found a store from which we gorged ourselves on ice cream. Furthermore, there was always time for a hike or two.

Bobbi and me on the Delaware River.

Group photo during a two-hour hike.

In 2013, as I was preparing for more canoeing expeditions, I was seconded to the hiking program, with a goal of hiking 33 miles along the AT over five days. We were to do this with ten young gentlemen with hiking experience that ranged from “What’s a mountain?” to “You’re crazy if you think I’m going up that mountain!”

C.B.C – Camping, Backpacking, and Canoeing

This trip had three elements that made up its name:

  • The third was my most familiar and I was confident in my abilities.
  • The second just involved putting one foot in front of the other for 33 miles.
  • The first I was not so sure about, as we would use A-frame tarp shelters.

I’m by no means someone who is scared of the dark, but sleeping in an open shelter… in the woods… with bears! didn’t necessarily fall within my comfort zone.

My co-counselors Nick and Rachel posing with our three-person shelter that we used during our trip

Luckily, Rachel had been leading these trips for some time and was a great teacher in setting up tarp shelters, so we stayed dry the whole trip. The campers were a little slower and less thorough with their shelters.

The campers getting there slowly.

The backpacking itself was a whole new challenge to me. I had never carried such a heavy pack (that included a first aid kit for 14, packed by an overly cautious summer camp nurse,) let alone walked 33 miles over five days. Luckily, as an adult walking with young people, I was able to keep up, and even excel at mastering the rocky terrain of New Jersey.

More Than Just a Hike

I had hoped this would be a fun experience; something that I could look back on as a cool story to tell my friends and family back home. What I didn’t expect was this to be the start of something that has been in the making for the last five years.

The group continue after a break at a scenic overlook.

There was a camper who seriously struggled with the rigors of hiking with a pack for extended periods. Downhills were challenging as they would jar his knees. Level areas were tough with all of the rocks that were major trip hazards. Uphills were a complete no-go. I spent a good chunk of my time at the back of the group, at times gently encouraging the camper as he struggled up the steep climbs, and at others reminding him, with less patience, that the only way we were getting back to summer camp and our dry beds was to get to the other end of our journey. (Sometimes you’ve got to use a bit of tough love.)

If there was any problem you can think of, he found a way for it to affect him:

  • Shoes gave him blisters.
  • Bag uncomfortable.
  • Too hot to sleep in his sleeping bag.
  • Too many mosquitoes not to sleep in his sleeping bag.
  • Muscles hurting.
  • Doesn’t like the taste of iodine treated water (even after neutralized), and so on.

A Turning Point

I still enjoyed myself, and would have left it at that, but when we had reached Worthington State Forest and left the trail, with only a day of canoeing between us and our return to camp, we gathered around a campfire and spoke of our lows and highs of the trip.

Everyone shared their trials and their tribulations. We laughed and joked about funny moments that we had gone through. Then it was the turn of the guy who had complained from start to finish. His low point was the whole trip: Hiking, mosquitoes, blisters, etc. Rather pessimistically, I wasn’t expecting there to be a high point to his journey.

He Surprised Me

His high was that with all of the struggles he had faced, and constantly thinking he couldn’t do it, he had made it there. He had put one foot in front of the other. He had walked up the steepest paths of his life, and although he swore he would never do something so foolish again, it didn’t matter as he had achieved what he had set out to do.

The group at a road crossing hoping for a quicker way to the finish.

A Profound Achievement

Everyone has different goals in life, which cannot be measured against any standard except their own. One man’s 33-mile walk is another’s 2,000-mile thru-hike. I have never forgotten the journey that our group went on, geographically and mentally, so when I ask myself, “Why the hell am I doing something so crazy as to walk 2,000 miles?” I know that if a young man with no hiking experience and the fear of failure in his heart can overcome his mountain, then anyone, including me, can overcome theirs, even if it requires some gentle encouragement.

The moment I fell in love with hiking.

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Comments 5

  • Tim Andrew : Feb 14th

    Nice story-

    Reply
  • Theresa : Feb 14th

    Love this. Thanks for sharing. Beautiful travels!!

    Reply
  • Lucy : Feb 15th

    A fantastic account Aidan and very touching. I’m looking forward to hearing more of your hike as you take on the next exciting journey in your life.

    Reply
  • Auntie Ree : Feb 15th

    This is a fantastic blog, looking forward to the next chapter! You go guy!!!

    Reply
  • Fiona : Feb 18th

    Beautifully written as always and I will be with you every step of the way – in spirit at least, willing you on to achieve your amazing ambition. Life’s an adventure! Can’t wait to hear more blogventure! 🙂

    Reply

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