Homeward Bound: My Story and My “Why”

On my 19th birthday, March 6th, 2022, I will start my attempt to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. I will be walking from Georgia to Maine. I am Homeward Bound.

In 2020 I traveled to New River Gorge National Park (only a few months before it officially became the US’s newest national park).

You may think that would mean that Maine is home to me, but the explanation behind the words “Homeward Bound” is a bit more complicated than that. “Home” is a strange concept to me.

First things first, who am I?

My name is Chris. I’m an 18-going-on-19-year-old from rural southwest Michigan. I recently graduated from high school with a very clouded vision of what my future would be. Clouded by what exactly? I had lots of grief and lots of emotional baggage.

My high school career was simultaneously the best years and worst years of my life. They were full of new experiences: marching and concert band, track and cross country. I had created a network of friendships with people across the state of Michigan who all shared the same love of running I had.

They were also marked with death and change, as I lost six close family members (including three of my still-living grandparents) all in the span of four years. By the tail end of it all was Covid-19 (miss Rona as I call it). My entire plan I had for my life, which was moving to metro Detroit to study nursing, was completely chucked out the window. I had felt like I had completely lost control of my life. Nearly everything that made Michigan feel like “home” was gone. I felt like I was living in an empty shell of my past.

My plans changed radically. Instead of metro Detroit, I wanted to move to rural western Nebraska, still to study nursing. I had met someone online from that area and thought that I belonged with them.  I even traveled there twice between 2020 and 2021 and was so sure I wanted to start my new life in the Great Plains. Scottsbluff, Nebraska felt like “home.”

However, it was not.

As I quickly learned that it was not the place that I loved,  but the person who lived there. That person is no longer in my life, and when they left me, the “home” that I had thought Scottsbluff had given me was slowly burned down inside my mind. There I was again. Lost. Still lost in a clouded vision of my future. I had no idea where to go or what to do.

The view from atop Scotts Bluff National Monument when I traveled there for the second time during the summer of 2021. Western Nebraska has some very underrated landscapes!

I was lost, but how did I find myself again?

During the past six months, I’ve worked for a residential/commercial cleaning company where I often worked by myself. I had the time to work through my trauma and have an intimate conversation with my inner child and the person who I used to be before high school. Who was he? What did they enjoy doing?

I was reminded of a story I now tell people all too often. In August of 2015, I was standing with my grandparents at Newfound Gap in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Appalachian Trail crosses right through Newfound Gap. I read a sign telling me how far away was Springer Mountain in Georgia, another stating how far away Mount Katahdin in Maine was.

I saw some backpackers taking pictures by the Tennessee/North Carolina border sign. I ran up to them and asked them what they were doing. They explained they were thru-hikers, hiking from Georgia to Maine, and called themselves NOBOs,  or northbounders. I thought they said that they were “hobos.” You know, because they hadn’t showered in days and were carrying all their belongings with them everywhere they went. Ah, the mind of a 12-year-old boy! I ran back over to my grandparents and told them, “someday I’m going to do what they’re doing! Those hobos!” pointing to a couple of thru-hikers taking pictures.

“If you want to, do it. The only thing stopping you is yourself,” my grandma told me, probably thinking I never actually would. She probably thought it was just another pipe dream of a middle school pre-teen who didn’t know how many things would change in his life, including her inevitable passing. However, I know that she’s still here with me. Pushing me to follow that pipe-dream.

When I originally told people my intention to thru-hike the AT, people have told me my trail name (a nickname you are given either before or during your hike)  should be HOBO. I heard this from both past thru-hikers I have talked to and fellow members of the AT Class of 2022. I’ve accepted that trail name, but it means more to me than just a simple little anecdote. HOBO has such a deeper meaning to me. To me, it meant Homeward Bound.

Me and my aunt at Newfound Gap circa 2015, moments before meeting the orignal “hobos”

But what does home even mean to me?

Recently, I traveled to New Hampshire to visit a friend that I’ve known since late 2019. Flying into Boston Logan International Airport and driving up to his house in Concord, I felt a feeling that I hadn’t felt in a long time. Comfort. The comfort you’re supposed to feel at home, but I haven’t felt back in Michigan in a long time. A sense of belonging even though I had never been to that area before.

This feeling was amplified when he and I hiked up Mount Major, near Lake Winnipesaukee.  Hiking up that mountain, I felt something calling to me, like the distant voice Elsa kept hearing in the song “Into the Unknown.” Some distant voice saying “you belong here.”

It was very difficult for me to leave New Hampshire. I remember being torn apart on the jet bridge boarding my flight back home. I wanted to stay and restart my life there, but I knew that wasn’t the right path to take. Looking back on the whole experience, I realized that feeling of home I’ve never felt that feeling anywhere else but on a trail. Not necessarily on that particular trail leading up Mount Major, but just being outside in general.

In the months following my trip to New Hampshire, I started finding places around my area to do shakedown hikes. Places like Saugatuck Dunes State Park and sections of the North Country Trail. Surprisingly, I started hearing that voice calling back to me again, this time in my local area. That same “you belong here.” It all started to make sense to me. The answer to that question: What did Chris enjoy doing before everything changed in his life? What did home mean to Chris?

Lake Winnipesaukee emerging from the fog as my friend and I descended from Mount Major.

Chris loved being outside!

When I was little, before high school, my maternal grandparents would always take me to go camping in nearby state parks. We would ride bikes, hike, climb sand dunes, and just be outside. They took me to National Parks.  Those were my vacations; not to Disney World or amusement parks or man-made attractions, but attractions made by the Earth and the Universe… They raised me to appreciate and respect what was given to us long before we were ever alive and will exist long after we die. The places that must be protected.

To me, that’s home. Home is the outdoors. Home is not what we create, but it exists wherever we are.  At the end of the day, you can always find a home within yourself wherever you may be. That being said, I still long for a sense of belonging somewhere, though. How could I possibly figure that out?

That’s when I made the decision. I would follow that dream I had told my maternal grandmother in 2015. The question that people come up with after I explain this to them is, why the Appalachians? Why the AT? I feel like they can tell me where I belong. I am asking the mountains for advice.

My maternal grandparents climbing a sand dune at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore circa 2014.

Why the heck am I asking the Appalachian Mountains for life advice?

A friend recently asked me, “the Rockies are so much better than the Appalachians! They are bigger and much more gorgeous. Why would you want to hike in the Appalachians?” There are three reasons.

The first, of course, was that was the original dream I had in 2015. The second reason comes from my paternal grandparents. They are from West Virginia, born, raised, and eventually died in the same area. Many of their ancestors lived off the land in those mountains. For me, this is a return to my roots. A return to where many of my ancestors lived and died. In a way, I’m coming back home in that way.

The third reason is a bit different. I firmly believe that the Earth and its formations have sacred knowledge that is granted to those willing to listen and respect. I’m from the Great Lakes, which are infants on a geological timescale. They are about 3,000 years old in their current form. Practically fresh from the womb!

Ask a baby a question. They may make a facial expression or gesture, but can’t tell you exactly what they are thinking. The Rockies are 55-80 million years old. They have aged more than the Great Lakes, but still are teenagers on a geologic time scale. Teenagers are still forming their beliefs. They still have amazing ideas to share with the world, but lack wisdom, as wisdom is a bit different than knowledge. Wisdom comes from age and experience.

The Appalachians, however, were formed 500 million years ago. Some rocks date back over 1.2 billion years. To put that into perspective, 500 million years ago, life did not exist on land. 1.2 billion years ago, life did not exist at all. The land there is old. Stupid old. It has a consciousness greater than any of us humans and heck, any animal can comprehend. They witnessed life on Earth evolve to its current form. The Appalachians have ancient knowledge. Those mountains are wise.

“To be tall is not a virtue. To be short is not a sin”

I seek the wisdom these mountains have to offer me. What would that wisdom be? Possibly where I belong. Where is home? Maybe I’ll find that New Hampshire is my true home. Is home back in Michigan?  Could it actually be back in Nebraska?  The mountains may teach me that home is nowhere. Maybe my true home is wandering, seeking the knowledge that both the land and the people there can grant me. Wherever home is, I’m coming there. I am homeward bound. I am HOBO.

While I was doing a section of the North Country Trail on a shakedown hike, it was a time in my life when I felt the most calm and present. For once in my life, I felt belonging.

I’ll leave you guys with a song that my friend from New Hampshire sent to me about a week ago. He sang this song in choir during high school. The song’s title is Homeward Bound. This song just doesn’t resonate with me, I feel like it is a part of my soul. Listen. And maybe you’ll hear the same voice that called to me saying “You belong here.”

See you guys at Springer Mountain!

“In the quiet misty morning

When the moon has gone to bed,

When the sparrows stop their singing

I’ll be homeward bound again.”

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Comments 10

  • Kathy Haynes : Feb 16th

    Beautiful well written and thought provoking. I’ve been crying for a half hour. A beautiful testament to your grandparents and how they helped to inspire you. May the Life Force continue to be with you. Your Aunt, who loves you very much.

  • Russ1663 : Feb 17th

    Chris, you have a poet’s soul. I get the drawn to the mountains connection, I’ve had it for years, just not as intense. You will feel that pull for the remainder of your days. I started late at 66, still going at 72 but a bit lower. I will follow your progress north. Best of trail luck to you Chris. Take in the silence and beauty. Hint, linger at Dragons Tooth, McAfee Knob and Tinker Cliff, they are magic.

  • Catherine : Feb 17th

    Chris good look on your quest for “home”. I feel you are going to find someone on your quest to “make a home” with you!! Happy trails HOBO!!

  • Smitty : Feb 17th

    I find the west beautiful on the grand scale but then it becomes barren up close ( with exceptions ) the Appalachians are mystical and beautiful down to the microscopic but also wet and muddy. I’ll try to follow you maybe buy you a pizza if you make it to CT where I live good luck

  • Kim Thompson : Feb 18th

    You seem wise beyond your years Chris. I enjoyed reading this and hope that you find your “hone” I have a feeling you’ll find it hiking the AT. I’m hoping to someday do this hike myself. I love the outdoors and hiking, that’s where I feel my ‘home” is as well. I wish you the best of luck!! A friend of mine had a son that hiked the AT a few years ago and he loved it. I look forward to reading about more of your adventures. I’ll leave you with this: hone is where your heart is. ❤️

  • Bob Norton, Jr. : Feb 18th

    Awesome job – will be following. Looking forward to your start.

  • Jan : Feb 18th

    Wow!! What a beautiful soul and brilliant mind. You touched something in me.
    Is there anyway we can help you?
    I am friends with Kathy.
    Safe travels ??

  • Susie : Feb 19th

    Loved your story, Chris & excited for you–you Can Do It! Taking the long view you have lots of time to find a place that feels like ‘Home’ Will be sending you lots of good vibes & enjoy your journey!

  • Jabez : Feb 20th

    Hi Homeward Bound. Great writing-you’ve lived a lot in your young life and the trail will add much more. I thru hiked in 2019 at 61 and hope to do it again-first time camper-long time day hiker. Don’t say “attempt” to thru hike the AT. One step at a time-you can do it! Jabez 1st Chronicles 4:10. Looking forward to your journal.

  • Sharon Camp : Feb 24th

    You have really done your homework. Not many people know that the Appalachian Mountains is the second oldest mountains on earth. Enjoy your journey. Take it one step at a time, and as they say, “hike your own hike”. Looking forward to following you. Stay safe HOBO.


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