Why I’m Leaving Grad School for an AT Thru-Hike

Postponing my master’s degree for a thru-hike is the hardest decision I’ve had to make in two years. You might say that’s an oddly specific time frame to know it’s been exactly two years, but that decision was the one that brought me where I am now.

Let’s Take a Step Back

Two years ago I was a construction safety professional working on a tunnel project under Washington, DC. It was a great job. I got paid well, I had flexibility in my hours, and I didn’t have a team of management above me scrutinizing all my actions. The thing was, I wasn’t happy at that point in my life. I couldn’t give you exact reasons why, but I didn’t feel fulfilled. This unhappiness drove me to, in a short time frame, take my GRE and apply to graduate school at Colorado State University. After applying, my dad and I traveled out to Fort Collins to meet with the faculty, which was also an awesome excuse to visit Colorado (awful place, please don’t move here). See below how prepared I was for Colorado—leather shoes, Vineyard Vines quarter-zip, and out of shape.

Estes Park, CO.

Shortly after I applied I received notice that I was accepted into the program of my choice and offered full funding (thank you, NIOSH, you’re my boo). Thus began the grueling process of deciding if I wanted to stay in my comfy job or go back to school, which I promised myself I wouldn’t do after undergrad. Well, after changing my mind about 70 million times, I decided what the hell, I’ll try something different.

Colorado Livin’

Aside from when I was a Boy Scout back in middle school, I never really had much of a connection to the outdoors. Sure, I’ve been fishing, camping, and gone off-roading with friends, but that was the extent of it. Growing up in central Pennsylvania you don’t have the same access to public lands as you do out farther west. This all changed for me once I moved. Within the first couple months of me being here I did more exploring and hiking than I ever have before. I fell in love with Rocky Mountain National Park, climbed Horsetooth and Gray Rock near town, traveled to Albuquerque for the Balloon Fiesta, and much more. I began to have this almost renaissance within myself that connected me to the outdoors. Heck, on my 0.8 mile walk to campus every day you can always catch me staring at the Front Range for a majority of the trip. That is all personal life and it is fantastic, but school was another animal.

Rocky Mountain National Park.

My time at CSU has so far been an overall great experience. From the faculty I get to know and work with to probably the best, most supportive adviser anyone could ask for. Even with all this, I eventually became disillusioned by academia. Unless you’ve seen it happen, you might not be aware of how toxic some aspects can be. Regardless, I’m not here to complain about academics. I would rather spend the time explaining why in my last semester I would take a break from my program.

Planning

Around eight-ish months ago I started to become obsessed with the idea of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. This was, in part, the fault of people like Darwin and Dixie, who are fantastic YouTubers who talk a ton about thru-hiking. So after a while I began to think I might actually be able to complete it. I then floated the idea to some of my friends; thankfully, most were extremely supportive of the idea. OK. Great. I’m going to attempt it, but when?

Over the past summer, this is the question that I wrestled with the most. Should I wait until after graduation and do a SOBO? Should I wait, graduate, and start in Damascus on a flip-flop? Maybe I could wait over a year, have tons of preparation, and do a 2020 NOBO? None of these options sounded ideal to me. Then I thought, maybe I could take a break from school and do a NOBO in March 2019. For some reason this ended up being the one that really stuck with me. I guess I figure that graduate school is a time for personal growth and that growth doesn’t necessarily need to come from just education. Casey Neistat had a great quote in a video that goes “experience does for the soul what education does for the mind,” which I couldn’t agree with more.

Grand Teton National Park

Grand Teton National Park.

Around this same time, I took a solo road trip to visit an old friend who lives up in Missoula, MT. This wound up being a fantastic trip where I visited Glacier, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton national parks on the way. I got to sleep in my car at awesome campsites, experience solo traveling, and see amazing vistas. What this trip really did was reinforce my idea that I wanted to do this thru-hike ASAP.

What Will Mom Say?

Deciding to postpone my graduation for a hike is not the easiest thing to bring up to an adviser or parents. Yet, I actually got a lot of support from both. My adviser and I worked out plan so that when I came back I could graduate as quickly as possible. Also, he helped me expedite my comprehensive exam and thesis defense dates. The goal was to have all my research-centered work completed before I leave in March. Then came the harder part—telling my mom.

My mom, like most mothers, obviously wants what’s best for me.  This does not mean she was exactly thrilled with the idea when I brought it up. I received comments like you’ll get eaten by a bear. What about ticks? Look at this article about a missing hiker. Surprisingly, this only lasted for a short time. My mom moved from arguments like these to being supportive with: I got you a GPS device or check out this guy who just completed his Triple Crown. I still get the bear comments every so often, but it seems like she is at the peaceful acceptance phase of grief at this point.

Early morning training hike at Horsetooth.

Pros vs. Cons

So that was a long-winded way of getting you to where I’m at right now. I’m of the belief that context is key to a lot of decisions and I’d like you to weigh in if you think I’m making the right decision. I don’t think there is ever an ideal time to do something like a thru-hike. Life has an amazing way of messing things up. Isn’t there an old saying about how man plans and God laughs? Anyways, here is my non-exhaustive list of pros and cons for leaving in March to thru-hike the AT.

Pros
  • I need a break from grad school.
  • This will give me time to think about what I want to do after I graduate.
  • I want to go NOBO and finish on Katahdin (HYOH).
  • I can finish before I turn 26, meaning I’ll still have insurance.
  • Injury or illness in the future could prevent a thru-hike.
  • I’m eager to start and don’t want to wait an extra year.
  • Get to accomplish something great.
  • Meet tons of like-minded people on the trail.
Cons
  • I’ll have to pay for a semester of classes once I’m finished.
  • I need to find someone to sublet my apartment.
  • Don’t get to graduate with the students in my cohort.
  • Cramming to complete my thesis and defense before I leave.
  • Virtually no experience with backpacking.
  • I’ll miss Colorado.

In my opinion, the pros outweigh the cons in this situation. I know every scenario is different, but hopefully this helps someone take the plunge and make the decision to get out there. So let me know in the comments if (1) you think I’m making the right decision and (2) how terrible my writing is.

-Cory

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Comments 8

  • Rachael harris : Jan 21st

    Loved hearing about your in-depth thoughts on hiking and your arguments/decisions with yourself. Starting a thru-hike has so many components and not many people talk about individual thoughts before they start. Love the post!!! 🙂

    Reply
  • Emily A : Jan 21st

    Go for it Cory! Experiences are what makes life great and worth living. I always let my fears overcome my excitement to do things and because of that I now have a lot of regret. I say have fun, take lots of pictures and be safe!! Good luck!(:

    Plus, doing it while you have insurance is a smart idea! (Hopefully you won’t need it)

    Reply
  • Tammy Murphy : Jan 22nd

    I think that this is extra special as like you said this will give you time to reflect on what you want to do with life. Many people want to do things but never follow thru and they think of the ‘what ifs’. This NOBO will give you a perspective of another way of life and memories to treasure forever with forthcoming stories later in life. I wish you well with whatever you do and safety going thru this without a “bear attack” that your mom is afraid of if you definitely decide to venture forth. I think of you fondly when you worked at Martin’s and do miss you but glad to keep up with you thru your stages of life. Best of luck and hoping that you take great pictures to share with us all!

    Reply
  • SMREEDER : Jan 22nd

    Starting a nobo in March is a great idea… I myself have never done a thru-hike, but I have spent months in the Appalachian Trail area… From Georgia to Maine. Was at katadyn last year in early September… Go for it bro you’re only getting older , and what you said about injuries or health stopping you… that is the reason I have never done a thru-hike myself… After crashing a motorcycle at a hundred and ten mile an hour in 96’…I could try a thru-hike again…Many Blessings, SMR

    Reply
    • Cory Willson-Kerns : Jan 22nd

      I really appreciate your reply. Thats one of the main things I think about before pushing my start date back. Every day is a gift and you never know when you won’t have the next one. Thank you!

      Reply
  • Kimber Kerns : Jan 22nd

    I love you and I’ll always support you, no matter what! Great article!

    Reply
  • Annette DeCroix : Jan 23rd

    All your pros and cons where a good look at things that are important in your life at this moment. However, I must say that at age 55 with three grown children and many grandkids I have decided to go after my top bucket list item and hike a section of the AT this fall. I had a challenging marriage that lasted 23 years and then my husband took his life which placed my life into a whirlwind of events and recovery. Now looking at things from the other side I see that having a life that fulfills my dreams, crazy though they may seem to others, is what means the most and is what is right for me. Hope this journey becomes your stepping stone to the future, many blessings await upon your path.

    Reply
    • Cory Willson-Kerns : Jan 23rd

      Thank you for sharing that with me. I can’t imagine what losing a spouse like that would be like. I hope you get out there and it is everything that you imagined.

      Reply

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