I’m over 2 months into my journey, have walked 700 miles, and I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the privileges I have in life. I’m progressing slowly compared to many other hikers but I’m not too worried about it. I’m not worried about much at all, except the possibility that I’m developing tendonitis in my feet ankles and knees, and hammer toe, and the fact that my big toes have been asleep since I started hiking. But I’m not THAT worried about any of those things yet.
My adventure has reached an interesting point- I’ve hit “hiker puberty,” if you will. I’m frequently tired and grumpy and achy, I smell terrible, I have acne worse than I ever did as a teenager, and my body is going through changes I don’t entirely understand (see: numb and occasionally tingly toes). I question my purpose and am trying to form an idea about where I want to be when I grow up. I have high highs and low lows. Sometimes I think I just want to live in a house and have changes of clothes and hot water whenever I want and that maybe I’ve already done what I’ve come out here to do- but then a cool breeze snakes its way through a gap in the trees which reveals a glimpse of distant mountains, or a deer walks by within arm’s reach, or I climb down the face of a cliff in a thunderstorm and realize that I can do anything. Times like these, I feel invincible.
My favorite moment so far on the trail is actually something that seems, by all sane standards, to be terrible and traumatizing. I was hiking towards Dragon’s Tooth as a storm rolled in, and I thought “Golly I sure hope there aren’t rocks on this descent, because the trail is going to turn into a stream.” The thunderstorm began as I took the blue blaze trail to see the rocky monolith, and by the time I got there it was raining way too much to risk taking out my phone for a picture. I soaked in the moment and went back to the trail, and much to my horror, discovered that I had to climb down huge rock “steps” to get to the cliff wall, which I then had to climb down. In the pouring rain. With a 30lb pack. While lightening strikes within a mile. By myself. I find most descents sort of daunting because I’m clumsy and they hurt my knees, and even on a dry and clear day without a pack navigating that descent would have been challenging for me. Somehow though, I made it all the way down the mountain without falling to my death. I had a few almost slips but I managed to catch myself and keep my balance on slippery narrow rock ledges which had transformed into miniature waterfalls. What began as an impossible task became a thing that I was doing, and eventually a thing which I had done with great success. By the time I reached the bottom of the mountain it had stopped raining and I was euphoric that the trail had shown me that I’m capable of doing seemingly impossible things.
Other times I feel stupid and clumsy, like when I trip on a rock on a flat portion of trail and skin my knee less than a mile away from my campsite and walk up to a shelter with blood dripping down my shin. Sometimes I pant and struggle up a mountain and get passed by all of my friends and take breaks and wonder why this isn’t getting any easier. Sometimes the trail wipes me out physically and emotionally, and when that happens I eat some chocolate in my hammock and sway to sleep and I usually feel a lot better the next day.
Before I left for the trail I did a whole lot of mental preparation. As per the Good Badger’s recommendation, I made my “why I’m hiking” lists and thought long and hard about what I wanted to get out of my hike. I realized the other day that I hadn’t looked at these lists once since I started hiking and that maybe it was time to reevaluate my motives and conviction, so here are my lists as well as commentary on how things are going. Please enjoy this novel of a post if you’re into that sort of thing.
I’m hiking the AT because:
- I need a reset. The opportunity that gave me the time and money to hike just happened to be a divorce, and following a huge and unexpected change in my life, I had a lot of figuring out to do. Before I got settled into some job or another for the sake of making money, I wanted to think about the type of person I want to be and what I want to do with my life. I didn’t even know who I was for a while- but I’m happy to report that I feel like myself again, after years of subconsciously trying to fit myself into a mold that wasn’t me. I feel free of other people’s expectations and judgment and I once again have a clear idea of the type of person I want to be.
- I want to prove to myself and the world that I can. Now that I feel like I’ve had my reset, I’m no longer worried about proving to the world that I can hike 2189.4 miles. Anyone can hike the AT. It’s hard to do but hardly exclusive. I still want to prove to myself that I can. I have no doubts about my ability to finish, but I sometimes get bored with things and end up not finishing them and the trail has morphed more into a thing that I want to have finished than a great feat of physical endurance.
- I need to know how strong I am. This is a big one. Somehow over the course of the past 4-5 years, I lost a lot of my chutzpah and by the time I was finalizing my divorce papers, “strong” is definitely not a word I would have used to describe myself. I needed to find and reclaim my strength, and I think I’ve achieved this both physically and mentally. I feel stronger in my convictions and rights and body. I feel braver and more confident about myself and my abilities than I ever have in my life. I know without a shadow of a doubt now that I made the right decisions in the past year and that I’ll be just fine no matter what happens. I feel empowered, and it’s such a huge relief.
- I need a healthy dose of perspective. CHECK. Currently I am showered, wearing a dress, have freshly painted nails, sitting in an apartment (so weird to be in a structure with more than 3 walls) typing on a real computer with a full keyboard. A year ago I would have taken all these things for granted and the day wouldn’t be much different from any other, but today I feel pampered and spoiled and lucky as hell. Living in the woods has taught me a lot about what I do and don’t need in life, and the reality is that we don’t need a whole lot to survive. I’m more grateful for the things I have that make my life more comfortable now, and less attached to material things in general. Moreover, I’m aware that I’m choosing to live unemployed and homeless while so many people on this planet are forced to live in such a manner without the necessary tools for survival.
- I want to be closer to nature and further away from everything else. When I first moved back to Florida after three years of living in rural Germany, I was overwhelmed and depressed by strip malls and cars and rampant consumerism. I still sometimes feel this way when I go into towns and spend time in a Walmart or a Dollar General. Towns can be crowded and busy and loud and overstimulating in general, and I’m always relieved to return to the quiet of the woods.
- I want to spend time alone, but I also want to form strong bonds with like minded people. After graduating from college, I discovered that forming close friendships is much more difficult as a real adult without a dorm or regular classes fostering relationships. I still made friends after college, but very few of them were close enough to share the most intimate details of my life. I felt sort of alone in a crowd for a few years and I was ready to change that- I needed to know that I could be ok being completely alone, but I also craved the comaraderie I enjoyed in college. The trail is the perfect place to find both solitude and friendship: I usually hike alone during the day, giving me loads of time for reflection and brainstorming for the future. At lunch time and in the evenings I end up in the same place as my trail family and we talk and hang out and I enjoy their company immensely. It took less than a month for these people to feel like family to me, and with so many people hiking with the aim to better themselves, it’s been easy for me to form friendships.
- I need a new direction. Why not North? Hiking the AT makes for pretty stress free planning. When in doubt, just walk north. I knew that my life was changing and that I needed to find my own path. Perhaps setting off on the most well travelled long distance trail of the US wasn’t the best way to “find my own path,” but heading north provides me with a comforting sense of direction and belonging and reassurance. It’s easy to follow blaze after blaze on a well trodden trail, and not having to think about where I’m going give me more time to think about where I’ll go after I reach Katahdin.
When I finish the AT:
- I will have a better idea about what I want out of life. The details change from day to day, but already I know that I want to be the type of person who lives a lot of life. I’m not ready to settle down anywhere, I need to keep traveling. I don’t need to make a lot of money, just enough to live off of. I don’t need fame or fortune or a booming career or multiple degrees, I just need some fresh air everyday and regular adventures to be happy.
- I will be ready to start the next chapter of my life. Transitions can be difficult, and I know that finishing the AT will be bittersweet. Post trail depression is a common thing, and it’s my hope that by being ready to start my next adventure I can avoid it. I already look forward to living on my own in a new city with a new job and making up for lost time with my dog and my cat (I miss them a lot).
- I will find gainful employment doing something I love. I’ve had a lot of my jobs in my life, and I’ve enjoyed some of them and learned new things and met great people, but I haven’t done anything yet that I really loved. Once this hike ends I want to break the cycle of working just to make money. I want to be a writer, so I’m going to take that leap and pursue writing as a career. I’ll probably be pretty poor for a while, but if all else fails I can always move back into my waterfront loft*.
- I will be less afraid to follow my intuition and do/get what I want out of life. I already feel good about this point. I’ve let fear and hesitation hold me back in the past, but I’m ready to go for the things that I want, regardless of traditionally wise life choices. As we say in my tramily, fuck all the dumb shit.
If I give up on the AT:
- I’ll feel like I’m letting down a lot of people. When I first publicly committed to hiking the trail, I felt like I was making a promise to the world that I would complete it, and that’s a lot of pressure. I don’t feel that way anymore. I’ve heard from several people that my journey inspires them, but I now know that I’m hiking for myself and that if I stop hiking it will also be for myself.
- I’ll feel like I’m letting myself down. There’s not really any getting around this one. If I got off the trail because I just didn’t feel like going any further I’d be pretty bummed. I’d also be really bummed if I got off due to an injury or something, but at least I’d have an excuse.
- I’ll be guilty of not finishing yet another thing. I really have a terrible habit of starting big projects and dropping them somewhere near the finish line, and it’s a habit I want to break. This hike is definitely an exercise in discipline for me. If I can hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, surely I can finish my master’s thesis and the scarf I started knitting a year ago. Right?
- I’ll have to face & accept all my weaknesses and shortcomings. This was a stupid point to put on this list because it’s sort of a fact of life and I’ve already had to face and accept most of my weaknesses and shortcomings on the trail. Everyone has weaknesses and shortcomings and that’s ok. If I didn’t finish, however, I’d have to face point #3 and that would be sad.
In short, I still feel good about my hike. The Virginia Blues haven’t hit hard (yet), and looking back on my lists has helped to re-motivate me a bit. I don’t think I’ve had a single day that was just terrible, but I’ve had a few days on which I felt tired and had a generally poopy outlook on life. Those days are bound to happen on and off the trail, and when they do, I just keep walking. The trail has provided so much already, and I’m a big believer that it will continue to provide in strange ways and will take me to exactly where I need to go. I feel like I’m coming into myself, both as a hiker and as a person.
*My waterfront loft is my hammock hung near a creek. It’s pretty swanky.
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