Transitioning to the AT, and Why I’m Walking

I spent the day crying.

That is, I spent the day crying while packing my apartment, crying while hugging my friends and boyfriend goodbye, crying while eating my Caprese sandwich from Glorioso’s in Milwaukee, Wis. Crying while driving away from the city I’ve lived in for four short years. I watched my small, blue Google Maps location dot move away from the people and places I’ve loved so much.

Four days ago, I graduated from Marquette University. Undergrad. In college, everything is laid out for you. There are small spaces of time – summer breaks, January terms, spring trips – when students have the freedom to pursue whatever endeavors they choose. Most other times, though, there is a plan and that plan is to learn, in a classroom, in the bubble that is your university.

I’m not saying this is bad by any means. Marquette was reason for some of the happiest memories I will have for some time. But it’s a little shocking when you realize that you are the one who has to figure out what to do with your life after graduation. Strange, no?

And, while transition periods are always hard, I think the one following a college graduation marks one of the more significant moments in a person’s life. Or that’s what people over 40 tell me.

On the way out of Milwaukee, I realized I had nowhere to be. But also that I had nowhere to go besides the trail. My apartment is no more, my boyfriend is moving to Utah following a road trip, my friends are all splitting in various directions, my dad lives in an old log cabin in North Carolina, and I have no desire to backtrack home to Minnesota. That amount of freedom, while thrilling, is absolutely terrifying to think about. You can picture all day, every day, what it will look like to leave and transition forward. But it never feels like it’s happening when it is.

“What are you hoping to get out of this experience?”

My friend Danielle slid into my Instagram DMs.

“What are you hoping to get out of this experience?” she asked about my hike.

The question stopped me in my tracks and made me realize I had no clue. I had always answered the “Why?” questions with stories of my Grandma Maxine and Grandpa Jack, of hiking the trail when I was younger, of just wanting to go for a very long walk. I thought about it for a while before answering.

“I think I just want some space from the world,” I said (and now think is a little obnoxious to say). “Something challenging that gives me a purpose but that I still love.”

When I decided to walk the Appalachian Trail, I never thought of it as a big decision. More, I thought about it as just going for a long walk and a reasonable next step after college. When I was done hiking, I would see what I wanted to do next, provided I had the funds to do so. I knew at least that, following college, I could not sit around. I like to move around for a bit, then maybe be stable for a bit. I like to have a purpose. For the next four to six months, the trail is my purpose. Check.

But what do I want to get out of the experience? That’s harder, and I don’t think I’m looking for some big, transformative thing. Instead, I think I would like some space to think – about my recent family troubles, about my place in the world and the impact I’d like to make, about what kind of person I might be when my socks are wet and so is my oatmeal.

I’m ready to start walking and find out.

Things could go wrong. I could get hurt or sick. I could run out of money. I could drink bad water or my hiking pole could break or my shoes could fall off a mountain.

Things will go wrong. That’s OK. It’s fine. Whatever happens on my hike will happen and at least I can say that I tried if I come out the other end on the not-so-hot side of the sliding scale of emotional, physical wellbeing. No matter what, it’s going to be a nice walk.

I start on Sunday.

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Comments 1

  • Nanook : May 25th

    Hey Clara,
    Glad to hear you are taking on the AT! Despite being on the other edge of the age spectrum,I’m 60, we do share that common goal of hiking the AT.(That, and the fact I grew up near the wine country you did in Rochester,NY) I’m starting my SOBO thru hike July 19 at, well, the big K of course! Hope to cross paths with you somewhere.
    You will find that of which you seek at the end of the trail. It won’t be some earth shattering moment yet it will reside in your memories for the rest of your life.
    I still remember with fondness a 150 mile, one day bicycle trip 45 years ago. That memory always was fresh I’m my mind as I went on to ride around all the Great Lakes and complete a 16,000 mile bicycle trip around the entire circumstance of the US.
    This past summer, I paddled a canoe (with my bicycle in it of course) the entire length of the Mississippi River.
    Now it’s on to the AT.
    Best of luck, be safe and happy trails.
    My trail name is Nanook!


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