In Pursuit of the Barbarian Utopia…

You’ve got to start somewhere…

The famous white blaze, the brainchild of Myron Avery, marking the way north.

Sometimes you get a thought in your mind, and no matter how much time passes or how much life changes, this thought never seems to go away. It is an idea that you become so fixated on that it starts to shape who you are. It is an ember, deep within your mind, which begins a fire. For me, thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail was that idea, and ever since I first learned about the trail I have known that one day I was going to walk its white-blazed path all the way from Georgia to Maine.

I was very fortunate in life to be introduced to camping and the outdoors by my family through our own camping and hiking trips, the scouts, and playing in the woods at my grandparent’s house in Goochland, Virginia while I was growing up. My childhood was filled with moments that shaped my love of the outdoors and my love of wild places. I also read as many books as I could on life in the outdoors. I read and re-read Hatchet by Gary Paulsen until I could recite it verbatim. My copy of My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George looked like it had been on its own thru-hike and was held together by tape at the end.

Needless to say, this love of reading about the outdoors and the adventures that can be had there continues to this day and helped to prepare me for my own adventure. Over the years, I have grabbed every book I could find on the trail and read them cover to cover, dreaming of the day when I’d be able to set off on my own great adventure.

A slice of the reading I did this year in preparation for my thru-hike attempt

How does anybody ever do that? How do you resign from life for five or six months to pursue it?

If you haven’t already done so (and if you’re reading a blog post about AT thru-hiking, there is a good chance you’ve already done it) do yourself a favor and watch Barbarian Utopia: Encounters on the Appalachian Trail,¬†a documentary on Amazon Prime Video by Thaddeus Lamar. It has been the constant soundtrack and background to many nights spent planning the pursuit of this impossible dream. While watching it early on in my planning process, one of the interviews centered around a man who asked the very question I posed above before giving his answer as to how and why he decided to hike the trail.

I have thought about thru-hiking the trail for as long as I can remember, but it was always one of those things that kept coming back to the very question above… how does¬†anybody ever do that? For me, it all started with a decision to leave my career as a teacher and make a dramatic change in my life. I loved teaching and was fortunate to teach at an amazing school with incredible colleagues who became friends, gifting me a lifetime of memories, from the classroom to the soccer fields where I coached. I will always look back fondly on the 12 years that I spent in the classroom helping in whatever ways I could to prepare the young minds that walked into my class for the world ahead of them.

Then in March of 2020, as we are all aware, COVID-19 shifted the reality of life and forever altered my view of teaching. I won’t go into the full details of why exactly I decided to leave teaching after two years of pandemic teaching, but I can succinctly describe it as realizing that I needed a change. Once I realized that I was going to take this step into the unknown, I saw a very blank canvas ahead of me for the first time ever… and it dawned on me.

Why not now?

And at that moment, I decided that in February of the coming year, I would head down to Georgia to begin my journey north along the Appalachian Trail.

Sunrise from The Priest, along the AT, taken last summer on an overnight trip.

Letting people know…

You know how you feel when you start something new and you’re really nervous about telling people? Well, multiply that feeling by about one thousand, and you’re getting close to how I felt about revealing this idea to everyone in my life. Would they laugh? Would they even care? If you’ve ever wondered about this or worried about it, I can say that I was blown away by the support I received from friends and family. I could write an entire post about the gratitude and gratefulness I have for all of the support I received from my wife, family, and friends upon making the announcement. For all of those people generally mentioned above, if you’re reading this, thank you so very much. Your support and love mean everything to me.

Throughout the whole planning process, I have been hesitant to talk about my plans and the adventure that I am on the precipice of taking. I often felt guilty for having the freedom and ability to simply step away from life and go off to live in the woods for half a year. And yet, throughout it all, my wife has not only supported my dream but has encouraged me to share it with others. She was right, as is often the case, that my anxiety and fears around discussing the trip were unfounded.

What I’ve discovered in talking to folks I know, and even complete strangers, is that people are excited for me and want to hear more about the trail, my plans, and if they can help in any way. I have had conversations with people in stores while picking up gear, while on training hikes in the middle of nowhere, and at family gatherings or friends’ houses. I have had so many discussions and questions about the trip from people that it’s honestly a bit humbling. Having this outpouring of love and support from the people in my life has been an amazing reminder of the network of support that is behind me, walking with me every step of the way along the 2,198.4 miles of the AT.

AT Trail post along the Doyles Fall/Jones Run loop in Shenandoah National Park

In pursuit of the Barbarian Utopia…

There is a little countdown timer on my desk next to a Zippo lighter with the Katahdin sign on it that I purchased when I first started planning this trip over a year ago. I bought it as a reminder that it really is happening and to keep the final goal in focus, no matter how slowly it feels like time is moving. I remember that when I first set the timer, it read “412 days.” Looking at it on my desk now, at the time of writing this article, it is down to 38 days, 19 hours, and 48 mins. I can’t believe it’s getting this close. Time is not moving slowly; if anything, it is moving so fast that I can hardly keep up.

This brings me to the closing of my little introduction, rambling as it may be, as the time before my hike grows shorter and shorter. In a short five weeks, I’ll be heading out on the adventure of a lifetime. 2200 miles of mountains, enough elevation gain to climb Mt. Everest 16 times, and a lifetime of memories. I hope I find this Barbarian Utopia that lies among the trees and vistas of these old and wonderful mountains that have called to me for my entire life. I hope to reconnect with people, nature, and to myself.

To quote my favorite author on the subject, the peerless John Muir, “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.” Maybe this is the true meaning of the utopia I seek, a refreshed sense of life, the energy to embrace change, and the shedding of the old.

So off I go, into the wild and the wonderful, in search of the Barbarian Utopia.

See y’all on the trail!

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Comments 1

  • Gecko : Jan 11th

    Great intro, Tucker. I’ll be LASHing north in CT, MA, and VT when my school year ends. John Muir is also a favorite writer. “Of all the paths you choose in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” is at the end of my signature block for school email.

    Hike on,
    Gecko

    Reply

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