So it ends
I’m writing this blog to let you know that I have decided to get off the trail. After cranking out four 20+ mile days in a row, I developed some pretty severe shin splints where the front of both of my legs swelled up making it painful to walk. And as everything in the body seems to be connected, this exasperated some chronic lower back pain which I have had issues with since before the hike. Unlike other ailments I suffered on the trail, this pain did not lessen over time. I couldn’t walk it off. Therefore, I had to take some time off to rest. During this time, I did a lot of thinking about this experience and how it compared to the vision I had before I set out. One difference that I had known for a while is that I just wasn’t having much fun and chronic pain certainly didn’t help that. At first, I told myself that maybe this experience isn’t supposed to be fun. Maybe part of the reward when you finish is that you were able to endure and overcome a difficult situation that wasn’t particularly fun—like a six month stint in prison or a Lifetime original movie marathon. It was with that mindset that I pushed through the first two months. With some time off the trail, however, I realized that that wasn’t why I wanted to thru-hike the AT in the first place. I wasn’t trying to prove anything to myself or anyone else. I wasn’t looking to test my ability to endure a difficult situation. I certainly wanted to challenge myself and step outside my comfort zone, but more than anything, I wanted to enjoy this once in a lifetime experience. In my introductory blog, I vowed to hike with a smile on my face the whole time. Well that smile became a bit forced after a couple weeks. I’m confident that with proper rest and recovery I could physically make it to Maine, but would it be worth it if I didn’t enjoy the journey to get there?
As I debated this question, I noticed that most of my fellow hikers did not seem to have this same struggle. While everyone’s experience is different, it seemed to me that most of the other hikers I met were truly having a blast out there. At one trail magic stop, the trail angel’s van wore a bumper sticker that read, “The AT – the most fun you’ll ever have interrupted by long walks in the woods.” That’s the attitude one needs to make it to Katahdin I thought when I read that. Many of my fellow hikers seemed to be living that motto and that’s the way it should be. Hiking the AT should be a positive experience that one thoroughly enjoys and appreciates through the ups and the downs, literally. It should not simply be endured.
Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of moments on the trail where I greatly enjoyed the experience. The reward of a breathtaking view after an arduous climb; exchanging greetings and stories with fellow hikers and other members of the greater AT community; the liberating feeling of eating lunch under a tree in the middle of the woods on a weekday afternoon. I will cherish these and many other memories forever. I loved spending my days hiking, however I don’t think I was ever able to fully embrace the wilderness lifestyle. As much as I tried to stay positive and enjoy the freedom and beauty of the trail, I realized that my default mood was increasingly turning to a negative one and there’s no place for negativity on the trail. The AT is such a positive place where people are living their dreams and encouraging each other along the away. Knowing this, I was careful not to complain or show any sign of discontent. I tried to change my attitude, ignore the pain, and focus on enjoying each moment. I tried to set little goals to focus on like 100 miles instead of 2,000. I often read my list of goals for this trip for motivation and to stay on purpose. I even took the advice of my boy NKC and tried to pretend I was having a great time in hopes I could fool myself. None of this changed the undeniable feeling I had, however, that hiking the entire AT in one shot was not for me as much as I wished it was. The thought of another four months on the trail, especially with my nagging injuries, no longer appealed to me. After much deliberation, I made the decision to kindly leave.
On my last night in the woods, as if to clear up any uncertainty that remained about this decision, a bear visited our camp. Despite the words “bear encounter” filling the pages of the shelter log, one hiker decided he couldn’t be bothered to hang a bear bag. Instead, he hung his whole pack, including food, on the wall of the shelter since no one was staying in there. At about two in the morning, what sounded like a runaway boulder came thundering through the woods, breaking branches, and shaking the ground. Once it reached our camp, it thrashed about at the shelter for seemingly hours. For those of you who have never encountered a bear in the middle of the night and are fans of random 1980’s German cinema, perhaps this reference will illustrate the situation: the whole scene was very similar to when the Rockbiter first appeared in The Neverending Story. This nostalgic imagery didn’t immediately cross my mind, however, as I hid in my tent, heart pounding, and shaking with fear at the realization that I had left some delicious candy wrappers in the pocket of my pack inches from my equally delicious face. As I sat there silently in my now soiled drawers, I knew I was not long for the woods. Luckily, the bear eventually left and everyone was fine. Unfortunately, so was the lazy hiker’s pack.
I’ve now been off the trail for a little while and I am honestly happy with my decision both to leave the trail as well as to hike it in the first place. I’m proud of my time on the trail. I don’t look at this as a failure. Sure, I did not complete my goal of hiking to Maine, but I did hike the entire Southern Mountains section of the trail and beyond. That is no small feat for someone who had never backpacked before. In total, I hiked for about two months and covered over 500 miles from Georgia through Virginia.
In my first post, I explained that my motivation for this trip was to 1) simplify and eliminate distractions, 2) spend time in nature, and 3) gain a unique life experience / a story to have for the rest of my life. Though shortened, I believe this trip has provided me with each of these things. This was certainly a unique experience in which I spent more time in nature than I ever have before. The quiet (and lack of connectivity) in the woods definitely helps (forces) one to eliminate distractions. Additionally, I think it’s impossible to spend that much time in the wild and not come away with an appreciation for the comforts of the civilized world. I used to take for granted having running water, using a toilet in privacy, and sitting on a seat with a back. Not today!
I hope that this post does not discourage any aspiring AT hikers who may be reading this. As I said, I cherish the experiences I had on the trail and I am so glad that I pursued this goal. I believe that anyone is capable of hiking the entire AT. However, I also believe that this adventure is not for everyone. Although most of the hikers I met seemed to have some hiking/backpacking experience, Zach Davis’s successful 2011 thru-hike proved that experience is not a prerequisite for completing the trail. With that said, if I could give one piece of advice to aspiring thru-hikers who do not have much backpacking experience, it would be to do some overnight hiking before setting out on the AT—a week, if possible. This is not to learn how to use your equipment necessarily, but rather to see if the daily routine of hiking and living in the woods is something you will enjoy over a prolonged period. It’s difficult to fully imagine what hiking the AT will be like just by reading about hiking the AT.
After this experience, I have even more respect and admiration for those that are able to complete this epic journey. I wish all of the hikers I met this year the best of luck, especially my hiking partner, Carsoni. If anyone is going to summit Katahdin, it’s him.
I want to thank my family, friends, and coworkers for their support throughout my hike. This was an unusual endeavor to undertake (at least for me), yet I never received anything but encouragement. That meant more to me than anything.
Thank you also to Zach for allowing me to write for this site and share my experiences with a much larger audience than I would have otherwise. And thanks to the readers of this blog for following along on my adventure and wishing me well. I loved writing these blog entries. Seeing the feedback and positive response gave me so much encouragement and helped keep me going. Who knows, since I hiked more than Bill Bryson, maybe a bestselling book is in my future. I’m sorry I won’t have any more trail updates to share with you, but I’m sure my fellow ATrials bloggers will provide plenty of juicy details from their journeys. I look forward to following along with them.
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