How I Found Food Freedom on the Appalachian Trail

I rest on the edge of a cliff in northern Virginia, spread avocado onto a smushed slice of bread, and watch as a bird gracefully soars above the valley. I continue hiking, pull a Snickers bar from my pocket, and thank the mountains for allowing me this experience of a lifetime. Humbled and filled with gratitude, I pause to reflect on how hiking the trail has freed me from my unhealthy obsession with food. 

Unexpected Consequences

In spring 2021, I hiked 1200 miles of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to my home state, Pennsylvania. I went into this hike with a list of goals. These varied from developing independence and self-confidence to increasing my spontaneity and building rock-hard quads.

I knew the trail would change me, and I thought I had a pretty accurate image of who I wanted the person starting in Georgia to turn out to be at the end of her hike. However, there was one accomplishment, one of my biggest, most meaningful achievements from the trail, that I did not plan for. 

After completing my LASH (Long-Ass Section Hike) of the Appalachian Trail, I had recovered from disordered eating.

A History of My Disordered Eating

When I was 17, I began struggling with eating. I was unhappy with my body and wanted to change it. I convinced myself that I needed to achieve an “ideal” body type, but to do so, I paid a price. I soon became unhealthily obsessed with my diet, which affected most aspects of my life.

I was constantly thinking about my next meals, tracking what I ate, and punishing myself for eating anything that I deemed unhealthy. I cut out entire food groups, exercised for the wrong reasons, and deprived myself of my favorite foods, all in service of achieving my supposed “ideal” body. I would sit at diners, surrounded by my friends drenching their pancakes in syrup and happily sharing milkshakes, while I anxiously scoured the menu for something I would let myself eat. I had myself trapped. 

READ NEXT – Meet the Eating Disorder Survivor Crushing Miles on the PCT.

In preparation for my Appalachian Trail hike, I did a lot of research on backpacking foods. As most backpackers know, food is a crucial part of hiking. In order to walk 15-20 miles per day, you need to eat the right foods to keep your body strong. However, this was nerve-wracking for me because I knew that I wouldn’t have as much control over my food anymore. There would be times that I would have to re-supply at small-town stores with limited options. Among everything else I had to worry about heading into the trail, I didn’t want food to be a major stressor. But I couldn’t help it—I was obsessed. 

Rediscovering The Joy of Eating

Waiting those excruciatingly long 10 minutes for my mac and cheese to cook was always made easier by a great view.

In early March, after months of preparation, I finally began to hike. I hiked, and ate, and hiked, and ate. And ate. And ate. And ate. I was always hungry—I truly did not know I was capable of consuming so much food. I graciously accepted extra food from trail angels and stuffed myself in restaurants in each town. I realize now this was my body’s way of asking me to finally take care of her.

Being on trail, I became highly tuned to my body and her needs. I could feel the difference of an hour of sleep, days I didn’t stretch quite enough the night before, and times my legs needed a nap even though my mind wanted to keep going. But most importantly, I gained a heightened awareness of the way food was affecting me. 

READ NEXT- The Uncomfortable Truth About Thru-Hiking and Weight Loss.

“Food is fuel.” I had heard this mantra countless times before, and I never quite understood it. But on trail, I finally realized why. Because food is not just fuel. As I experienced eating while removed from life in society, I began to shift my perspective on food. Food is fuel, but it is so many other things as well.

Food is sharing a pizza in the woods with fellow hikers. Food is making soulful connections with trail angels who were kind enough to bring us homemade soup. Food is exchanging stories with the day hiker who gave me their last piece of fresh fruit. Food is human relationship. Food gets me up mountains, and food is my reward at the top. There was nothing like throwing down my pack after a tough climb and smiling back at the mountains as I eagerly took a bite of a chocolate bar. 

Finding My Place in the Universe

Hiking for three months, I had a lot of time to just… well, exist. And with that time, I spent countless hours thinking about what I’m grateful for. As I put one foot in front of the other for over a thousand miles, I came to appreciate a very simple thing: I am just one small part of a marvelous living ecosystem. 

An excerpt from my AT journal: “April 16, 2021: I feel like I’m meeting myself over and over again. But whoever this person is, however lost they may be at times, they, at their core, belong to the Earth.”

I share this world with the trees and birds and clouds and mushrooms, and every day they remind me that my body is a gift from the world, and I should treat her as so. I became connected to a part of my inner self that I had never met before. The inner self untouched by society’s expectations, untouched by everything but the rhythm of the Earth.

With this discovery, I finally learned to release my negative thoughts about food. I gained so much gratitude for my mind and body, and I realized that I did not want to be fighting with myself anymore—especially over something that has the ability to create so much happiness if I let it.

READ NEXT – Disordered Eating and Weight on the Trail.

Staying Balanced

When I decided to end my hike, I’ll admit that I was nervous. I couldn’t help but wonder—if I left the trail, would I return to my old habits? Did I finally escape the hold of my obsessive thoughts, just to have them waiting for me at home? 

My dad stopped by the trail to help me out with the half-gallon challenge.

Despite the nerves, I vowed to myself not to let that happen. Upon arriving home, those thoughts were nowhere in sight. I’ve been off trail for a few months now, back to the routine of college life, but that little piece of my inner self that I found on the trail is still with me. She is constantly reminding me that food is so much more than fuel.

Every day I look in the mirror and thank the world for giving me my ideal body—it’s ideal solely because it is mine. My body has taken me up mountains, bathed in streams, and danced through fields. I am certain that if trees could look in the mirror, they wouldn’t be able to help but cry for just how magnificent and radiant they are. Who are we to look at ourselves and believe anything less? 

I can’t say that an old negative thought about eating doesn’t slip into my head once in a while. But what I can confidently say is that when that does happen, I don’t let it take control. I listen to the thought, remind myself of my newfound strength, and let it go. It isn’t always easy, but it’s always worth it. 

The Appalachian Trail allowed me the most important gift I could have received.

I finally set myself free. 

Featured image: Photo via Hannah Charlson. Graphic design by Chris Helm (@chris.helm).

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Comments 7

  • Kelli Ramey : Oct 15th

    That sounds about perfect.
    Just be.

    Reply
  • Ron : Oct 15th

    Awe, love the pic of you and your dad. Your a beautiful person and you should be proud of yourself. God bless

    Reply
  • cynthia wyatt-briley : Oct 15th

    this is SO me. since I was sixteen. (I am 56 now and it’s still a constant companion) it’s very exhausting. I start the AT in march. hopefully I will also find this freedom!

    Reply
  • Giles : Oct 15th

    Great article. I’m glad you found yourself. I have an 18 year old daughter and hope she develops the bravery and confidence you have.

    Reply
  • Tortoise : Oct 22nd

    Congratulations are finding peace and contentment with who you are. The trail can be a healing place; glad that it was for you.

    You made some very wise/powerful statements. Two that especially stand out are:

    * Food is fuel, but it is so many other things as well… Food is human relationship.
    * My body is a gift from the world, and I should treat her as so.

    Blessings as you continue your education, both in the classroom and elsewhere.

    Reply
  • Travellvr : Oct 26th

    Alright!!! Good for you! Keep widening your horizons and always read more than they tell you to read in college — and from all different sources to keep those eyes and your heart open.

    Reply
  • Dean Beaty : Oct 27th

    Thanks for sharing, I will start thru-hike 2-15-2022 in honor and tribute to my beautiful Arline. Lost her 11,12-2020. Your story is inspiring, continue your newfound freedom. We all have reasons for doing something this epic. If it was easy, everyone would do it. I will think of you while I’m walking.

    Reply

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