The Four-Year Journey Before the Journey
I am one of the seven in ten thru-hikers who don’t finish.
Two years of dedication and planning down the drain. In the blink of an eye, that was it. I was off the AT and waking up in Hiawassee, Georgia, a quitter. A failure. I left the city before the sun was up. What was remembered most vividly was sitting in the car in silence heading north through the mountains back to Ohio. I was beat and I didn’t know how to process it. I stared out the window and watched the morning sun slowly light up the mountains I was supposed to be walking. In all my research and planning I consistently came across a repetitive piece of advice: Don’t quit on a bad day. I should have listened.
For two years I made it public to everyone and anyone who cared what I was planning on doing. How did it all blow up so quickly? I knew in my bones this wouldn’t ever sit right with me. I had no choice but to face the music and go home and explain myself to those who asked: what happened? I’d go every day thinking about how I gave up so easily. After sitting in contemplation for a while over my brief experience on the Appalachian Trail it dawned on me that something, maybe instinct, maybe subconscious persuasion, was nagging at me. I’d be back one day. I promised myself. Maybe in a year, maybe in five, maybe in ten, who knows? But I’d be back. I convinced myself that I didn’t give up, I gave in. I was merely down, not out.
How It All Started
I decided I was going to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail in the spring of 2016; my senior year of college. I was struggling academically and in a terrible spot both mentally and physically. I was graduating college weighing 120 pounds soaking wet while slowly becoming a chronic insomniac and isolating myself from everyone. I ghosted friendships and ended relationships and took my frustration out on those closest to me. It was one of the lowest points in my life. I’ve never been certain where I’m headed next. Uncertain could be my middle name. I have a hard time planning my week let alone the next 50 years. One thing I did know for certain was I wasn’t interested nor was I ready to start a career at 23. My parents raised my brothers and me on the principle of having a job as soon as we were old enough. We were all financially independent the second we turned 18. As my college days were wrapping up I looked back and realized that all I ever did was work. I had never taken time to do anything for myself. Late one night as I perused the rabbit hole of YouTube I came across backpackers who “vlogged” their lives on the Appalachian Trail before a structure was in place for people like me to do it for the Trek. I don’t know why it took hold of me but I became engrossed with the idea. I told myself: that’s something I could do.
The Secret Was Out
Research and development went into effect almost immediately. Throwing together amateur gear lists and poor man’s budgeting was my mantra. I slowly began telling those closest to me, starting with my brothers and graduating to friends. I was testing the waters for their reception while preparing for the inevitable discussion with my parents. After all they were top of the line advocates for tough love parenting. My mother was in charge of all of us. We played by her rules. To make a long story short, my parents didn’t quite understand. How could they? I hardly understood my fixation as well. For a while I thought maybe it was just an excuse to not grow up. As 2016 went forward I found peace and solace in hiking. I threw outdated gear together from my scouting days into a fantastically terrible 20 year old Walmart brand pack accompanied by a 5 pound mummy bag that took up an estimated 10-15 liters itself. Two of my buddies were dragged along to southern Ohio to Wayne National Forest. I may or may not have lied to one of them about the length of our 28 mile overnighter (sorry Wilson, not really though). Two weekends later, without Wilson’s company, my buddy and I upped the ante and did a 36 mile overnighter in Eastern PA.
The desire to thru-hike increased dramatically. As 2016 turned to 2017 my relationship with my mother worsened. To put it lightly, we didn’t get along. She wanted me to have a serious job and I wanted her to understand that wasn’t going to happen yet. Outside of the discord she was still my mother and I still needed her in my life. One particular day I asked what any child might ask of their mother; the old cliché itself, to fix the button on their pants. She did without question. When I went to get my newly fixed pants from her we shared a long sought after laugh together at how she mistakenly had sewed the button back on but on the inside of the waistline. We talked for a minute and I eventually left her house pant-less. A week or so later while over the phone she and I shared our common un-pleasantries yet again. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the few days prior to that would be the last time I saw my mother alive.
The Biggest Test of My life
Sparing you the details, my family unexpectedly lost my mother on February 16, 2017. It’s impossible to plan for something like that. She was the one in charge. Everything went through her. Where do we go from here? What the f— do we do now? The unexpected loss of a loved one is something I never thought could happen to me. That’s something that happens to people in movies, the kind of story you simply hear about. After my father went to bed and my brother went home I sat there in silence with my oldest brother. Whether he knows it or not, I respect the hell out of his wisdom. His way to get the truth across to someone, whether they’re ready for it or not is something I’ll always admire. We’re a family of no bull-shitters, through and through. He knew only minute details of my rocky relationship with my mother, but nonetheless he knew. Looking at me, he calmly said: you know you have to do this now.
To add to this already unbelievable time in my life, two weeks after my mother’s untimely passing I found myself in the very same ER she spent her last hours. Whether you choose to believe me or not, given the coincidental circumstances, one might understand that I legitimately thought my time was up. Although the thought was seemingly rational at the time, I was simply freaking myself out. I know now that my time spent in that ER unit was the most pivotal moment in my then 23 years of life. It’s strange having a feel for the end. It makes one exceptionally existential towards most everything else in life. All the small troubles and obstacles become unimportant with ease. You learn to be happier; to smile more.
I spent the next four days in their cardiac unit being treated for acute pericarditis which is inflammation of the muscles lining the heart, coupled with “broken heart syndrome” (doctor’s diagnosis, not mine). After my initial fears subsided, I slowly became a celebrity on the floor. The nurses didn’t see people like me very often. After all not many 23 year olds have knockoff heart attacks and I was roughly 50-60 years younger than the next youngest patient. I couldn’t get out quick enough. After I was discharged, I was in the gym the next day. The next year was spent doing anything I could to prepare for this journey. Eat. Sleep. Breathe. Thru-Hike.
What Went Wrong
Fast forward to March 2018 as my sorry ass is sitting in Hiawassee, Georgia, a deserter of the AT, my mind was everywhere. What went wrong? Answer: anything that could. My doomsday clock shot to one second to midnight. I didn’t like the fit of my pack so I made a change, literally my home for the next 5-6 months, the day before I left. My bank account panicked off the starting block. My gear wasn’t right for the ~20 degree nights. My foreign knockoff MSR stove I foolishly trusted was already broken. My mentality was a no-call, no-show for work. Separation anxiety from my comfortable life set in like water to cotton socks.
Fast forward further to September 2018 when I was theoretically supposed to be finishing my thru-hike. Suddenly I found myself alone in an apartment that I was supposed to be living in with someone else; the 911 call I frantically used to save me from certain destruction on the AT. Needless to say, we were no longer affiliated if you’re picking up what I’m putting down. Rock bottom again. I went dark and stopped eating. Weeks were spent at my dad’s house because I was afraid of my thoughts when I was alone. I desperately longed for my mother and couldn’t help but think about how I should have stayed on the trail if I knew this is how the next 5-6 months were going to go for me. Hindsight is 2020; we all find that out in some capacity in our lives, usually the hard way.
In 2019, I stopped kicking myself and took action on my life. I did everything I could to turn my personality around. I reconnected with all of my friends I had tossed aside for what I like to call a year and a half lapse of judgment. They all welcomed me back with open arms which I will forever be grateful for. I found myself in the best shape mentally since before my senior year of college. Physically, I was pushing and pulling the most weight I ever had in the gym. I was the heaviest I ever weighed, which is a big deal. Picture my metabolism as an Olympic Gold Medal sprinter. Springer Fever hit me hard and I promised myself that come October, if I was still in the same apartment with the same job doing the same thing day in and day out, I was going again.
Seven in ten thru-hikers don’t finish what they set out to do. Four years later I’m still here, this time reinvigorated. I was grossly unprepared for how different my life was going to be from early 2016 to the start of my hike in 2018, and again from 2018 to now early February 2020. The difference is this time it’s on my own accord. I hate sitting still and feel as if I have unfinished business. I owe it to myself, but more and most importantly, I owe it to my mother. For any aspiring thru-hiker, don’t stress about solving the dreaded why? Everyone will ask you it, you don’t need an answer. It took me four years and a lot of nonsense to find mine. I owe it to myself to give this trail an honest and true piece of my time and I owe it to my mother to show her I meant it. My hope for my story is that it inspires someone else to pick themselves up and get after it again regardless of their circumstances. Seven in ten thru-hikers don’t finish what they set out to do. That means there are six others in my company that could potentially read this and be in the same boat as me. Reaching at least one of them is enough for me to feel accomplished in telling it.
Comeback Season Starts Now
I’m not someone who is fishing for self-pity. I don’t wish for anyone to feel sorry for me. Making mistakes is a part of life, learning from them is what makes people stand out. I’ve spent the majority of my 20s trying to play the table with a shitty hand rather than folding and starting over. I’ve worked my ass off mentally to come to as close as I can to a resolution with how my mother and I left our relationship. Survivor’s guilt is an ugly business but I believe now that in any time of trial and humiliation there is still room for triumph and redemption. But one thing is certain in all of this. Even on the worst of days, when I’m in the control of Mother Nature, I am so unbelievably privileged to have the opportunity to do this not once, but twice.
On March 5, 2020, I go back to Amicalola Falls and hoof my ass up those dreaded steps, this time with the biggest grin on my face. My leg will have to physically fall off for me to leave again. The only thing stopping me is myself and I know that better than ever now. Do I care if I finish what I set out to do? I haven’t concluded. I’d like to think not. I don’t think any thru-hiker thinks that on day one. It’s impossible to plan every day for the next 5-6 months let alone a week on the AT; which is the exact structure I want. What I do care about is doing this thing justice. I care about seeing something that isn’t my backyard. I care about riding home looking out the window with a smile on my face and a sense of accomplishment and closure rather than shame and misery, with or without a summit picture.
Be fierce in your passion. Let them tell you you’re crazy.
Feature photo courtesy of Aidan Tierney.
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