A little over a year ago, a dream that had been quietly percolating in the back of my heart for months finally revealed itself to me as the path forward. The next chapter. The undeniable truth. My decision to leave my life in Sonoma County, California to through-hike the Appalachian Trail wasn’t a decision at all, really. It was a physical experience of truth-finding.
I was curled up on my couch in despair, asking the universe why I was having trouble finding clarity in my life. I felt torn between obligations, people, and visions for my future. I wanted a plan. I wanted answers about my purpose on this planet. Up until that moment, I had been the kind of person who would mentally agonize over big life decisions, spending hours writing pros and cons lists that often didn’t get me anywhere. This time, however, I had an instinct that my mind alone couldn’t help me find the answers I was looking for. I knew I needed guidance from some “higher knowing.”
I cleared my head, opened my heart, and waited.
Then, suddenly, I felt something drop from my heart into my gut and begin to…fizz. Seriously. A tingly, champagne-bubbles-kind-of-feeling rose up and washed over my whole body. In the stillness that followed, I was left with a feeling of tranquility like I had never felt before. The feeling wasn’t an answer to my existential question of purpose. It was a simple kernel of truth dispensed from my higher self—the woman inside of me who is governed not by fear, but by what is deeply right. It was an invitation to go within and challenge myself like I had never done before. It was the call to embark on a pilgrimage on the Appalachian Trail. Through the gift of such a powerful physical experience, I knew that a through-hike was the right next step.
My body had informed and assured me, “This is what truth feels like.”
For the next three months, everything I did was singularly focused on preparing for the journey. Remarkably and uncharacteristically, I didn’t second-guess myself once. I knew that walking 2,187 mountainous miles with barely any backpacking experience would be no easy feat. Yet that somatic experience of knowing—my TRUST in that feeling of knowing—was the north star that led me onward.
Finally, in May of 2016, the time had come to depart for my flip-flop through-hike. I thus began my half-year experiment of marching (mostly) alone through the forest, dreaming and visioning and wondering about the answers to my question of purpose. Almost every day as I walked, I played out ideas and scenarios in my head of what my life could look like when I got off the trail. I became fixated on my pilgrimage as an opportunity to mentally identify concrete steps for how to live my life and my purpose going forward. As ideas churned, I turned them over one by one in my mind, gripping onto and becoming attached to some of them.
Existential questioning and plotting felt comforting to me on the trail; it felt like maintaining some element of control when I had control over almost nothing except the direction I was walking (and that was only when I wasn’t lost or accidentally turned around).
But slowly, the Appalachian Trail reinforced a more embodied way of being alive.
Every time something unexpected occurred on the trail (a thunderstorm taking me by surprise as I slept on an exposed mountaintop; missing the only bus from a trailhead into town by two minutes; losing half my trekking pole as I scrambled up the treacherous Wildcat Mountains in New Hampshire), I had two options for how to react. I could fret and suffer, clinging onto my attachment to things going according to plan. Or, I could bear witness to the event without judgment, noticing the place in my body where I somatically felt my attachment to things going according to plan—usually, it felt like a knot in my gut—and breathe deeply into that place until I could let the attachment go. Because the unexpected is to be expected on a through-hike, I quickly learned how to locate emotional pain in my body, breathe into it with tenderness and understanding, and let it go.
“Lose your mind and come to your senses.”
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I'm a Communications-specialist-turned-hiker who hails from the California Bay Area. I through-hiked the Appalachian Trail for five and a half months in 2016 to spend time alone in nature, removed from social commitments and my computer. Now, I'm hooked on through-hiking, and my new life goal is to be a triple-crowner. The PCT is next...
Karen : Mar 8th
Love your friend’s advice – how do you want to feel? Your story resonates with me as I am at a similar crossroad unsure of direction.
Thanks, Karen. Good luck with whatever you choose to do! As you probably got from the article, I recommend following your curiosity and your gut instincts when making decisions, instead of over-analyzing!
I think you have found the truth, the ‘secret’ of life. Do not over analyze your purpose, think (worry) less, feel more, cultivate trust. Words of wisdom. “For we walk by Faith, not by Sight.” 2 Corinthians 5:7