A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Maine
All good things come to an end… but it was never that good.
**Note: the following remarks are not meant to reflect adversely on the AT, but on my experience on the AT.
Let’s cut to the chase
I am off the Appalachian Trail.
I should have listened to my inner voice
I always had reservations about hiking the Appalachian Trail. These concerns included crowded trails, bugs, heat and humidity, and the legendary green tunnel. I was never really concerned that I wouldn’t be physically capable of finishing the trail. Once I hiked 20 miles on day one without any significant bodily malfunction or injury, I knew I was good to go. In fact, the last week on the trail I had begun to increase my mileage. It took my hamstrings a few minutes to stretch out each morning (I was a bit like a baby giraffe for my early morning wee in the woods), but otherwise no blisters or complaints.
I should have had more faith in my own inner voice. It was the green tunnel that got me.
But it’s more complicated than that
A little background
Many of you may have read my previous post when I discussed a depressive event that occurred upon entering the Smoky Mountains. I left the trail partly due to weather, but more so because I was not enjoying the closed-in feeling the trail gave me. It was a perfect storm of emotions that I got out of my system in the comfort of a warm hotel room in Gatlinburg, Tenn. The good thing is that once you’ve reach a low point, it’s like an inoculation. Things are placed into perspective, and I generally never have that same trigger point again. I’m glad I didn’t leave the trail in Gatlinburg, as I definitely would have regretted a decision made when I was unable to see things clearly. I still had unfinished business.
So I got back on the trail
Things improved after Gatlinburg. My depressive immunity was up and some beautiful winter weather allowed me to appreciate the rare views the trail provided. But I never really enjoyed the trail itself, or more accurately, got what I needed. I enjoyed the people I met along the way, the sub-25 pound pack due to resupply proximity, and the physical challenge of hiking 20-plus miles a day. In the end, I simply wasn’t enjoying or perhaps appreciating the trail. So much so that I was increasing my mileage primarily due to a desire to finish as soon as physically possible. But, because of the events in Gatlinburg, I stopped concerning myself with what people would think if I went off trail. I no longer worried that discontinuing my thru-hike would be perceived as a failure on my part. I actually left for very healthy reasons, none of which included the perceived disappointment on the part of third parties. I gave it multiple shots, but the AT was simply not the trail for me. I completed 568 miles and intend to get back on at the Massachusetts/Vermont border in June to complete the final 500. These comprise the most challenging sections of the trail, and it’s home turf, which will undoubtedly keep me motivated and engaged.
What I was looking for when I set out
What I was looking for in this thru-hike was the opportunity to break out of a malaise I have been in for the last six months. I needed motivation to move forward and make some fundamental changes in my life. I had just bought a house in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and was looking to change up my priorities and job focus. An adventure is a great way to clear out the fog, dust off the cobwebs, and see more clearly. When I hiked the PCT in 2015, I was able to focus solely on that hike to the exclusion of everything else, which was an extremely freeing experience. To completely separate oneself from the “real world” and all its expectations and norms is very healthy. Who knew I could go up to two weeks without a shower and not care? Backpacking allows you to focus on the moment, to be truly self-sufficient, take in your surroundings. What you have in your pack is all there is, and you learn to downsize and deal with situations with limited supplies. Societal expectations are put on the back burner. I love the freedom this brings.
But the Appalachian Trail is different
Woods vs. wilderness
I never really felt like I was in the wilderness on the AT. There was almost always a town in view, and I knew I could get out to that town within hours at any given time. We were in the woods, for sure, but I never got that wilderness feel. The trail crossed multiple roads a day and numerous towns. These are not bad things in and of themselves, but if you are looking to “get away from it all” you’re pretty much shit out of luck. Cell phone service was generally pretty good, especially at high points on the trail, so keeping in touch was very easy. I made multiple calls every few days myself. Consequently, I never felt like I was backpacking. On other, more remote trails, when the weather turned ugly, you had to make good decisions in terms of continuing on or setting up your tent to shelter in place. On the AT, sheltering in place means stopping at a shelter or dropping out to one of the many hostels or towns along the trail. Hell, after a 25-mile day spent in the rain, I spent the night in a pit toilet at Elk Garden when the 40 mile per hour winds prevented me from getting my tent up. For me, civilization was never far away, so I was never able to remove myself mentally from the “real world,” one of the great advantages of backpacking on a long trail. This is not the AT’s fault; it was a fault of choice.
Trail culture differs slightly on the AT
It is generally considered poor form to ask someone how many miles they are hiking a day. But I was asked this every single day, sometimes twice a day, my first two weeks on the trail. Occasionally, people would circumnavigate the direct question by asking you the date you started your hike. What is the purpose? Ultimately when I would say 20 miles a day or March 28, the person asking would immediately either judge themselves or judge you. These were the only two choices. I would either get, well, I’m only doing such and such miles as if they were admonishing themselves, or I would catch flak for my miles. One gentleman actually got aggressive, telling me I wasn’t doing it right, that there was no way I could possibly be taking it all in. I was quizzed on previous places on the trail, and subsequently judged when I couldn’t remember names as if this proved his point. For my part, I always corrected people when they admonished themselves in regards to their miles, because I genuinely believe in the adage hike your own hike. Hike your own hike is a term commonly quoted on both the PCT and AT. It is as close to live and let live as you can get in the backcountry. I don’t care what or how you do your thing, as long as you are having fun, living the dream, and being true to yourself, it’s all good.
No doubt, if I had stayed on the trail, this would have decreased. However, I got the feeling that for a lot of AT hikers there was a playbook on what you were supposed to do and this included mileage per day. One kid actually said, “They say you’re only supposed to do 15 miles a day, so that’s all I’m doing.” Well, I don’t know who they are, or why you give a shit what they think, but if it works for you that’s all that matters.
I don’t care if you smoke pot, or take mushrooms, or drop acid. But I also don’t need it to be a major discussion point either. There is a certain percentage of AT thru-hikers who treat the AT as an extended frat party. I spoke with one hostel owner who has noticed a big difference over the past five years on the trail. This is why I chose for the most part to camp away from the shelters and find a place away from the crowds. I couldn’t help but feel that the PCT was for backpackers, and the AT was for people who were willing to backpack if that’s what it took to get from town to town. Again, the attrition rate for the party population is undoubtedly higher than for those who appreciate the hiking experience.
The AT is a very social trail. This is not a bad thing. People actively sought to gather into groups from the get-go on the AT, whereas on the PCT I sensed it happened over a period of time. People were generally slightly more independent on the PCT, so trail families happened when you found yourself on the same trajectory for a period of time. On the PCT, I had a lot of people in my “orbit.” We didn’t hike together every day, but for the last 1,200 miles, I was used to seeing them almost every day or two. The rest of the time I was content to enjoy backpacking and camping alone and enjoying the beauty of the trail in solitude. I decided to hike the last week and a half with two of these individuals so we could all finish the trail together. Trail families are endemic to any thru-hike, but I think they are especially important on the AT. In fact, if I had found a hiking partner or group, I would no doubt be on the trail right now. The hiking itself wasn’t enough to engage me, so personal connections would have gone a long way toward refocusing my thru-hike. But I am by nature a loner and connections for me need to be organic rather than forced by necessity, and it just didn’t occur in time.
Please do not interpret this next paragraph as a disparagement of the Appalachian Trail. But it just wasn’t beautiful enough to distract from the green tunnel. The AT is scenic, for sure, but I found that my need for wide open spaces and majestic peaks was my undoing. Without something to focus and distract my attention, I was left with left, right, left, right. It’s not the trail’s fault, it’s personal preference, and ultimately finishing the trail just for the sake of finishing didn’t make sense.
You know those people who can just walk out the door and start jogging around the neighborhood randomly until they complete their mileage for the day? Yeah, I’m not one of those people. I always needed a lake to run around, or a trail along the ocean to hold my attention and distract me. On the PCT, you spend a lot of time above tree line. I was in constant awe at the scenery. Rolling hills surprisingly did not have the same effect. When I found myself thinking about all the things I could be getting done at the house (installing walkway and patio, rototilling the back 40 and seeding with wildflowers, placing window boxes on the house) rather than getting excited for the next day’s hike, I felt it was time to seriously look at my options.
Appalachian Trail, it’s not you, it’s me. I feel we had a great run of it, went through some deep shit, but in the end we just weren’t right for one another. Ultimately, isn’t it best we figured it out one-quarter of the way in before we ruined ourselves for others? You did help me accomplish my goal and rid me of the malaise I was experiencing, and for that I am eternally grateful. You are a good trail, and will make countless others very happy. You deserve someone who appreciates you for what you are, and doesn’t constantly compare you to other trails. If it’s any consolation, I’m really bored right now. We can still be friends; in fact, what are you doing around the first of June? I was thinking we could maybe hook up at the Massachusetts-Vermont border and hang out again through to Maine. You can show me your rugged terrain and exposed peaks without either of us having to commit to a long-term relationship. Hey, it’s June in New England, you could still make my life a living hell with the weather if that makes you feel any better. That way, if I decide to go out and finish the Colorado Trail afterward I wouldn’t feel like I was double timing you.
Photos courtesy of Quotefancy.com
A Thank-You Note
To those who supported me in my journey this last month, I thank you.
To those who are disappointed in me… my bad, but I’ll get over it, so I sincerely hope you will as well. There are other adventures to be had. Finishing for the sake of finishing is important if there is a payoff at the finish line. If finishing was necessary for my sense of self-worth and personal development, I would have continued. Other than my depression, and general lack of life direction at the moment, I feel pretty good about who I am. As this is not my first rodeo and I have completed a previous thru-hike, there is nothing to prove. If I had been hiking for a cause and had a responsibility to finish, that too would have made a difference. In fact, if I knew this trail had the potential to be problematic before leaving I should have done that.
Lessons were learned, growth was achieved, personal insights had. Appalachian Trail 1, Ronin 0. Well played AT, well played.
All that is gold does not wither, Not all those who wander are lost, The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost. ~ J.R.R. Tolkien
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Sorry to hear you’ve left the trail, I enjoyed reading your honest and eloquent writing style and was thinking only this morning that you’d gone a little quiet. Hope you continue here on thetrek.co in June.
Thanks Sierra Whiskey. I am looking forward to getting back on in Vermud!
Kim you are my idol, I am very proud of you and what you accomplished. I wish I had 1/4 of the drive to do what you do. I am impressed with your writing, you have me so engaged always. I hope now that you are home, you get settled, get that motorcycle out and we can meet up and go riding/catch up. You are a truly amazing and inspiring person, I am proud to call you a friend.
Thanks Ms Jodie. I look forward to getting together with you and Emma. Just let me know where you would like to meet. I am more than willing to drive south!
Great post and I agree with your thoughts 100%. If more thought it through like that there would be lower attrition rate in my opinion but we live in a gratitude now world. Enjoy life’s journey wherever it may bring you!
Thanks Bill. There will always be other trails to explore!
I think you shall enjoy VT, NH, and ME. I did them last year and stopped in Bennington, VT where I will pick up SOBO in early June. Good luck in your journeys. Fair winds and following seas.
Vince aka The Dude, SOBO, ’17/’18
Yeah, as New England in where I am from, I am looking forward to these three states in June!
after reading your experience of hiking the AT, which I plan on doing in March of next year, so the AT just wasn’t your thing, you made a great effort. And what other people think of you, surly doesnt matter, it’s how you had the great opportunity to go hiking and do your thing on how you wanted to do it. I’d say that is what matters.
My AT thru in 2014 sounds similar to your social experience on the PCT back then. I didnt identify any trail family until Vermont and NH, and my hike was all the better for it. I admit I’d also have found it difficult to go from PCT or CDT to AT geographically. There’s so much beauty out there; if there’s another place that lets you hike and take in the vistas at the same time, might as well be there. I hope you find more of what you’re seeking in the northeast, after a good number of the party groups have burned off their savings. Lots of love. -Poncho
Great post and self awareness. Its not the destination that matters but the journey and you had your journey. And is sounds like it was a great one for you.
Thanks for telling the story. You have the courage to admit when something is not for you, and you made the decision to look elsewhere for what you wanted. You didn’t fail. You won.