In Search of Cleaner Air: Why I’m Hiking the AT
When you ask yourself, “how did I get here?”, often times there isn’t a simple answer. Life is a meandering path, with bends and curves like a river. When I sat down to write this blog about introducing myself and why I’m hiking the Appalachian Trail this year, I wanted to open with a nice little story about where and when I was first inspired to thru-hike. But as I sat at my desk, sifted through my memories, and tried to put words to screen, I realized that I didn’t have just one inspiring point, but rather a lifetime of buildup and a new drive to act upon that build up. Specifically, seeking places away from the stagnation of suburbs and the newfound melancholy of cities. To find some cleaner air to breath.
I don’t remember my first hike. I’ve seen photos of it however. Me, barely six months old, strapped to my father’s back as he and my mother conquered a family favorite mountain. Suffice it to say, I’ve been in the mountains since an early age. Those early hikes all sort of blend together now into one big jumbled mess of a memory. I wouldn’t be able to tell you if the hike where I fell off an over look and busted my knee open the same as the one where we watched a snapping turtle crawl it’s way across a lake shore.
However, the one hike that sticks out clearly within my brain, is one I underwent when I was around seven or eight. It was up Bear Mountain, a smaller but famous peak here in lower New York, which notably towers over the Bear Mountain Bridge, named for the peak that towers above it. Those familiar with the AT will know that this is where the trail crosses the Hudson River. I rested at the peak after what then had seemed like a hike to rival Everest, and noticed a group of people likewise taking a break. They were the image of thru-hikers. Packs bigger than seven year old me, wild unkept hair and beards, and a smell that could be picked up downwind from a football field away.
Confused by their strange appearance, I asked my father who they were. He explained to me that they were hiking the Appalachian Trail, which went from Georgia, where parts of our family live, to Maine where we spend our summers. I asked if that took a week or two weeks to do. When it was explained that it took months, I asked “Who would ever spend that much time in a tent?” Little did I know that that moment would spark one of the biggest decisions of my life
Flashforward twelve years. Spring Break 2020. I was at home, sleeping my life away. The Spring Semester of my freshman year was not what I would call the best period of my life. I was having trouble adjusting to college, and my mental health was not in a good place. Meanwhile, the virus was already looming in the distance. I knew it was likely that the rest of my Spring Semester would be spent locked inside, and so did my friends. As a last hoorah before the spread reached us, we took a day, and went hiking in the Catskills. Over the past year at school, I had forgotten the healing powers that hiking has for people. By the time I sat back down in the car that day, I felt more refreshed than I had in a year. It was then that I resolved myself to hike more as soon as it was available to me.
This past summer, I fulfilled my commitment. I spent the majority of it on the trails in Acadia National Park, safely distanced and masked when required. I can’t stress enough the benefit of even a day on trail can have for you. It’s a wonderful feeling to be out in the woods.
Then, one week, a storm passed through that left me confined, not unlike quarantine, in a cabin with nothing to do for a day. One of the materials I had at my disposal was a book from my Grandmother about hiking the Appalachian Trail. Remembering that fateful hike when I was seven, I opened it up out of curiosity. I was, like many before me, entranced by the tales from this trail. I read it within the day, and immediately began to consider a hike. Nothing crazy like a thru, just a section the next time I could. Then my brain started turning. I was already considering a gap year, with the stipulation from my parents that I had to do something interesting with it. I thought about all the good hiking had done me in the past year, and what I really wanted.
There’s more to my reasoning than just wanting to breath a bit better for a few months, no covid pun intended. But whenever I sit back to think on the “why” I’m hiking, I keep coming back to that idea of the healing power of hiking and mountains. It’s already been written about at length, but I can say with first hand experience that it’s entirely true. That clean high mountain air rejuvenates you, and though I don’t embark on this journey with the expectation of a permanent solution, or that this hike won’t be taxing in it’s own way, or that this will be like the romanticized trail stories that inspired me with pandemic still raging, I’m excited to go out and breath free for the next few months of my life.
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