If At First You Don’t Succeed…

Thru-hike 2.0

Sitting outside my motel room in Bennington, Vermont, it still hasn’t sunk in that this is what we’re doing: returning to the Appalachian Trail to try and finish it all.

My dog Ollie and I are about to embark on the nearly 600 miles I have left of the AT, and I can’t fully process it.

A part of me feels so scattered and unready. And the other part is like, “Of course. This is what we do. Just picking up where we left off, older and wiser now. Leaving the world behind and embracing the trail ahead.”

But leaving the comforts of home and the familiar jobs and people and routines, takes a minute. There’s so much preparation to leave your life for a spell, and then the moment finally comes! And the doubts creep in-

“Can I do this?” “Have I lost my hiker edge?” “Am I too old? Too out of shape? Too slow?” “What about my dog? Will he make it up Mahoosuc Notch?”

It’s a quiet Friday morning and I’m eating breakfast grains and apples that I cooked over my new stove system. I replaced my Flash JetBoil with a new lighter Sno-peak stove, and it still seems shaky and uncertain. Like my knees.

Whenever you swap out one life for another- even for a path you want- there’s a learning curve. The heat from my new stove seems to blow every direction- unfocused and inefficient.

That’s how I feel too, even though I’ve been building up to this. I’ve sectioned my way through the mid-Atlantic and lower New England, since my attempted 2019 thru-hike ended in injury.

The making of a M.Y.T.H.

Maeve drops me off in southern VT, near North Adams, MA

I am embarking now on what my friends Doppler and Queue call a “M.Y.T.H.” Not a 2,200-miles-in-a-year, but not really a section hike, either. Rather, a “Multi-Year Thru-Hike.”

I love this term- not only for the way it dignifies what I’m doing, but for the word itself that implies story, legend, and symbol. Something not quite true, yet nevertheless revealing of human nature.

This morning I take in the nature around me- lush greens and birdsong, while sitting on my Z-Lite mat outside door #3 of the Catamount Motel.

A catamount is akin to a mountain lion or cougar, and the last one killed in Vermont is now stuffed in a museum here in Bennington. Nearly a mythical animal now, the silhouette of these creatures can be found all over town.

Sipping my instant coffee, I try to make myself eat the warm quinoa and bulgar wheat mix in my new pot. It’s titanium- light but strong.

I tell myself, “This is you- new again but light and strong and you will use those same mental and physical muscles you had before and just go as far as you can. If you can’t walk through Door #1 and complete the trail, you will have to discover what’s behind Door #2 and 3.”

When things don’t go the way you planned

This week on trail I met two other middle-aged hikers, with trail names “Sideways” and “Backup Plan.” Isn’t that the story of so many of us? That life went sideways of what we’d thought, so hiking the AT becomes a welcome backup plan?

Even this trek- this final quarter of the AT- is Plan B, because my 2019 attempt ended in a broken ankle. A sudden slip on an exposed rock ridge in New Jersey, in a thunderstorm.

I sometimes say I’m doing the AT because of all the ways I thought my life would shake out, and didn’t: I’m not raising kids, I don’t own a home, and I’m not indispensable in any daily way to anyone.

And yet- I leave behind a church congregation I love, a yoga class I adore, and a world that I’ve come to know my place in.

The heart’s home

If my initial reasons for attempting a thru-hike four years ago had to do with freedom, finding myself, and taking on a challenge, this year feels different.

Now it’s about finishing what I started, seeing what I haven’t yet seen, and catching my heart up to my life.

Bill McKibben said, “For those of us who live with wild places of the American East, the AT is more than a line on a map. Its EKG is the jagged path of our hearts’ desires.”

A year ago today, I met a man from Vermont who made my heart beat fast and my mind race faster- to keep up with his. Five months later it ended.

But this morning I squint up at the Green Mountains and note the irony of starting the trail in his home state. We’d talked about the elusive nature of home – what it means and whether you know you’ve found it.

As a Kansas girl raised on the Great Plains, the phrase “There’s no place like home” was practically our state motto. But I left at 19 because a part of me needed my own cyclone-whirling story to go explore the world.

I didn’t play Dorothy in our sixth-grade production of “Wizard of Oz,” I was the Wicked Witch of the West. A very small one, whose only claim to fame in that performance was cackling up at a much taller Dorothy, “Give me back those ruby slippers!”

For months after, the kids in my class imitated me until I learned to laugh with them. If I wasn’t as sweet as Dorothy, neither was I a very intimidating Witch.

But it’s not the west I later went to, it’s the tamer wilds of the east. The Appalachian range is one of the oldest in the world- its mountains shorter and more weathered than their western counterparts of the Rockies- thus rendering them more accessible to people like me.

“Shorter and more weathered” is how I feel today, as I breathe in the crisp 60-degree air and note the heat on my cheeks from yesterday’s sunburn.

I still marvel at the woods and mountains and rivers of the eastern seaboard. Though a resident of the northeast for most of my adult life, it never fails to astonish me how entering these forests on foot feels akin to the magic of Narnia.

What I’m looking for

“I am out here with lanterns, looking for myself.”  – Emily Dickinson

Before I left for trail, a ten-year-old in my church gave me a card in which she wrote, “I’m so sad you are leaving, but it’s good you’ll have time to think about yourself.”

I loved this but laughed as I read it, thinking, “Oh sweetie, what do I ever do but think about myself?” With no one dependent on me other than a dog, part of the goal here is to stop thinking so much about me and get out my head and into the wider world!

But at another level, I received her words as a blessing. “Go and take this trail time to think- among other things- about who you really are, what you most want to bring to this world, and what makes you fully alive.”

The wild edge of sorrow

Shauna Niequist writes, “Grief is somatic; it locates itself in our bodies and, therefore, needs to be worked out of arms and legs and chests with movement. For me, that meant walking.”

Yes. All the yeses.

Do any of us go through a season of life free from pain? My therapist Kristen gave me a book called The Wild Edge of Sorrow, by Francis Weller, about renewal and the sacred work of grief. The two go hand in hand, I think. In order to experience true joy, you have to enter into the depths of loss.

And for me, like Niequist, this processing comes through walking. From letting my body catch up with my mind and heart; from winding my way along the wild edge of storms and shivering, hunger and heat rash; from slowing down my days to the simple rhythm of breath and steps, doubt and discovery- and finding surprising companions along the way.

The people you meet

I’ve found the trail community experience to be not unlike opening the door on one of those “Little Lending Libraries” you find in front yards across America. You look in and don’t know if you’ll come across cheap romance, how-to manuals, or self-published books of poetry.

Some have asked me, “Haven’t you hiked enough? Why go back to this old thing? Don’t you want to see the rest of the world? What do you have to prove? This just sounds unnecessarily hard.”

And I get it. There are plenty of easier and more varied trips I could take, to places I’ve never been.

But as any pilgrim of the AT can tell you, there’s something about this trail, this landscape, this culture. Besides, who would hike the lower three-quarters of the trail, only to stop before the end? It’s like reading a great novel and skipping the last chapters. By all accounts, the final 600 miles hold the most spectacular views.

What’s changed and what hasn’t

“Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” – G.K. Chesterton

For starters, I’ve made some lighter gear swaps. It turns out that sometimes the best things in life aren’t free- as I found when I upgraded my pack to the Osprey Eja Pro 55. I loved my Lumina 45 for over 1,500 miles, but getting the Eja Pro is like going from a Honda Fit to a Ferrari. I feel lighter, faster, and nearly weightless as I hike uphill.

I mentioned the stove system already- but with that weight savings I added a few actual paper books: a small volume by Henri Nouwen and one by Thomas Merton. Will they last in my kit? Time will tell, but I have learned how much I relish the gift of real pages with words at night in my tent- morsels of truth that feed my soul more than any rehydrated rice.

The only other changes to my pack are my dog’s sleeping bag and pad (he carries his own food), and the fact that I carry less clothing now. There’s night clothes and day clothes- that’s it.

I also carry less food, which weighs the most. My metabolism has slowed, and I learned the hard way in 2019 that a diet of constant salt, sugar, and carbs took a toll. As a small female in my 40’s, my calorie needs- even while active- are in the lowest bracket. Even as I write this, I’m munching on fresh local farm greens- to counterbalance yesterday’s breakfast burrito.

The only other differences between 2019 and now are that I have Ollie the dog with me, and a church in Woodstock, NY, that I’m pastoring. Last time out, I’d left my job and apartment; this time I have a job and house to return to.

My congregation has given me a sabbatical, which literally means to rest. In one of the best trail blessings I know, Jesus said to his friends, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

What hasn’t changed

My pack has lightened a lot since I started in 2019. But similar to then, I go to the trail to recalibrate- to unplug from the screens, to go beyond my current roles and titles, to breathe space into my body and spirit, and tap into inner strength and divine love. In other words- to reignite hope, with just the smallest flame from a mini-Bic lighter.

Hello to here

Shauna Niequist writes, “Pádraig Ó Tuama mentions one phrase that has captured me so deeply: hello to here– or ‘I am fully present to this here and this now, not the past or the future, not fantasies or regrets, but here.’ A wise friend of mine says that true spiritual maturity is nothing more- and nothing less-  than consenting to reality. Hello to here– not what you wanted or longed for or lost, not what you hope for or imagine. Reality. This here. This now.”

As I pack up to leave Bennington, band-aids and beagle-mix in tow, this is what I know-

I’m stepping into six hundred miles that can bring a harsh reality, and it won’t all be what I want or long for. Sometimes a long-distance hike hurts like hell; other times it’s the closest thing you’ve ever felt to home.

So to every wild edge of weather and terrain that lies ahead; to the myriad heartaches ready to be reimagined; and to all the seeds of myself lying dormant, just waiting to sprout:

Hello to here.


Sprout 🌱

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Comments 18

  • Mun : Jun 16th

    Happy to see you out there again! I know you’ll love your time out there I’m cheering you on! Be safe!

    • Cari Pattison : Jun 25th

      Thanks Mun!!

      • Cari Pattison : Jun 25th

        Thanks Lisa!!

  • Lisa Kunstadter : Jun 17th

    Thank you, Cari, for “hello to here”. I needed that. ❤️❤️

    • Cari Pattison : Sep 4th

      So glad that connected with you too! Miss you, Lisa!

  • marsh : Jun 17th

    If at first you don’t succeed we have a lot in common.

    • Cari Pattison : Jun 25th

      Haha- love this! Thank you.

  • Redwing : Jun 17th

    Cari, I am so happy you are on the trail again and writing! I have missed your posts, so full of all of life and wisdom. Hello to here is especially meaningful right now. Thank you!

    • Cari Pattison : Jun 25th

      So glad that spoke to you too!

  • Connie Knapp : Jun 18th

    Cari, this is beautiful! I followed you last time when I didn’t know you as well as I do now (well, I know you *a little* from serving on CPM with you) but now I hear your voice as I read your words.

    Go in peace, my friend. Find rest and renewal in God’s creation.

    And I love that Ollie is going with you !

    Sending you a hug.


    • Cari Pattison : Jun 25th

      Thank you so so much, Connie!! Great to hear from you.

  • Julie : Jun 18th

    Seeing your name in my email made me happy! I followed you in 2019 and thoroughly enjoyed following your journey. Your writing is smart, insightful, informative and inspiring. I’m looking forward to “following” you to Maine. Yeah! You’re back!

    • Cari Pattison : Jun 25th

      Oh thank you, Julie! This means so much to me!

  • Joe Cleveland : Jun 20th

    Cari, Sprout,
    Good to see your name come up while checking emails. Had stopped reading the Trek but recently started reading select articles again in anticipation of trying some AT backpacking again soon. Enjoyed your previous post and this new one. Had wondered how you were doing and if you were doing any more backpacking and writing after being sidelined in NJ. Have a great Sabbatical!!

    • Cari Pattison : Jun 25th

      Thank you so much, Jo! Happy hiking!!

  • Barb : Jun 21st

    Wishing you love and prayers on your journey. Your going to love this part of the trail. VT, NH and especially Maine are beautiful states. Take care and be safe.

    • Cari Pattison : Jun 25th

      Thank you Barb!

  • Beth Malchus Stafa : Jan 7th

    I love the term MYTH rather than LASHER. We too had to get off the trail in VT this year.


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