Is Quitting the Same as Failing?

In June 2015, I quit hiking the Appalachian Trail. I know a bunch of other people who quit too. Some of them quit before me, some after, all for different reasons. Some of us have moved on and some others were so crushed by their failure that it has been hard to recover. And to this, I beg the questions:

Is quitting the same as failing? Always? Or only sometimes? What constitutes failure?

When we set goals for ourselves, we rarely leave room for interpretation. I am going to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail is a huge goal with a fairly specific set of parameters. Sure, there’s some wiggle room for blue-blazing or a little bit of yellow-blazing *depending who you ask.* But if you followed Zach Davis’s sage advice and made a list of reasons why you wanted to hike the trail, and what would be acceptable reasons to quit. Were any of the reasons for hiking “because I desperately need to hike exactly 2,190 miles?” And did you make room on your list of acceptable reasons to quit “because I accomplished the reasons I came out here and I’m ready to be done?”

When I came back on trail after my mom’s death, I never claimed to be a thru-hiker. When people asked if I was headed to Maine, I would reply with, “I’m headed towards Maine,” or “I haven’t decided how far I am going.” It was awkward to try to explain my mind-set to others. Of course, I had originally intended to hike the whole trail; that’s the thing to do, right? But with the loss of my mom, I also lost my reasons for thru-hiking. My purpose in life and my basic understanding of who I was and where I belonged in the world were being rearranged, and every day when I woke up I was forced to consider greater questions than “am I going to make it to Katahdin?”

By the time I decided my hike was done, I had covered well over 600 miles and I felt satisfied that that was enough. One of the main reasons that I wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail was to learn to trust my body again after a traumatic spine injury left me feeling incapable and trapped in brokenness. I think 600 miles was enough for that. Another reason was to meet people who were living their lives differently than I had been taught. I think 600 miles was enough for that. Another reason was to prove that I could do something alone, without someone there to rescue me when I’m afraid and unsure of myself. I think 600 miles was enough for that.

There is a lot of pressure on and off the trail to finish what you started and for some people that is one of their reasons for hiking. To finish something they started, and that is an admirable goal. But for some people the thing they need to finish isn’t the hike itself, but some other learning experience that the hike may only be facilitating, but not defining. For some people, the goal is reached long before Katahdin is summited. And for those of us who feel “done” before the end, to quit can be a function of being ready for the next thing, rather than a failure in itself. I could have kept walking for another 1,400 miles, but I had other things to do.

So should we sum up our efforts by saying that we quit? Or can we maybe find the self-love necessary to acknowledge that while we did not do the thing it seems like everyone is out there to do, we did do something, maybe even the actual thing we set out to do in the first place?

My time on the Appalachian Trail was the start of big life changes for me, and without those miles, I would never have made it to where I am now. I am happily living an alternative lifestyle, traveling the country in my van/house, rock climbing and hiking, and pushing my body to do things I never would have thought possible back then. I think 600 miles was enough.

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Comments 12

  • Rowan : Apr 4th

    This is great. I personally am planning a long section hike (Virginia and a bit more after), after I looked at the whole trail and thought- do I really need to take 5 or 6 months out and do the whole thing? Or will I get the idea after two months, and there’s not really a need to fulfill an arbitrary goal many people won’t have heard of outside of the hiking community, that I’m not really a part of anyway?

    I find it really strange that more people don’t seem to have the same attitude- a month or two away from work is much easier to achieve than five or six, and being out in the woods for more than even a week is more than most people will ever achieve- particularly if you look at the number of complete novices setting out.

    I fully intend on bringing up the fact I hiked (fingers crossed!) across the whole state of Virginia- more than 500 miles- and I know I won’t feel like a failure or a fraud for not going from Springer to Khatadin. I think it’s a real shame that there seems to be such an ‘all or nothing’ attitude. I’m also not quite sure how I’ll explain myself on the trail- there’s a lot I’ve read that indicates thru-hiker privilege. I absolutely understand the need to differentiate between weekend hikers in shelters and grizzled veterans of a couple of states just trying to get their heads down.

    I will hike my own hike, and I cannot wait. I just don’t understand why more people don’t seem to be planning the same from the outset- I think there’s a lot of implied failure in not doing the whole thing, which is absolutely the wrong attitude.

    • Christine : Apr 9th

      I definitely appreciate your attitude about recognizing the accomplishment, and you’re right, when I talk to regular people and say I’ve hiked 650 miles, their heads explode, “WOW that’s AMAZING!!!”
      BUT, you are absolutely a part of the hiker community, and if you don’t feel it yet, you definitely will when you get out there. Lots of people haven’t quite found their trail families by Virginia, so you should have no problem making friends. And there was a section hiker around for part of my hike and she was just as welcome as the thru-hikers, she did everything with my group for a week or two. The only thing I would be wary of is thru-hikers trying to convince you not to go home. They’ll say, you have to go back to work? Nah just forget it, just keep walking! And it’ll be very tempting!

      Anyway, have fun out there, and if you don’t make a point to differentiate yourself, most others won’t, and the ones that do, you don’t want to hang with anyway. 😉

  • Vince : Apr 4th

    What started as a thru hike in ’16 has turned into a LASH. Everyone must hike their own hike. Continue to enjoy your journey.
    Vince aka The Dude, SOBO, ’16-’19

    • Christine : Apr 9th

      Definitely! Do you plan to continue someday? Or have you moved on from this particular dream? I get that question a lot, and my answer has changed over time.

  • craig von bargen : Apr 6th

    Christine you pose a wonderful question. I think it is one only you yourself is allowed to determine. Never any one else. Yes HYOH. Hiking for five months or not hiking for fives months. Life is so full of so much follow your. Happy Trails. I am happy that you are hiking and reflecting on your self. These are real life feelings coming out because you are so on HYOH. Every thing else fake is gone and you are awakening.

    • Christine : Apr 9th

      Thanks for that reminder. I think HYOH is such a funny refrain to hear on the trail, because people interpret it so differently and sometimes even use it to justify doing things they don’t want to do. But I often think of this motto in my life now post trail, and I try to live truly to it. More on that to come. 😉

  • Gerard : Apr 7th

    We do what we have to do in life. We do what’s best for us. 600 miles with a bad back is remarkable. Better than I could ever have done. I always wanted to hike the AT, but had to be realistic. Lack of time. Lack of conditioning. Eventually, The desire to hike it faded, but not the excitement of reading stories from courageous people like yourself. It takes guts to step into that trail and hack it out 2,000 miles. It’s a whole new life with challenges every step of the way. Telling people your goal is tough. If you don’t complete a goal, some tend to become more disappointed than you. They hold it against you. Rather than say, you gave it your all, they pull a Yoda. “There is no try. Do or do not.” You’re not a Jedi Knight. However, you are a Jedi of hiking. Look back on your accomplishments and revel in all that you have done.

    I have hiked just over 30 mountains in my lifetime. Nothing near what you or other Jedi Hikers have done, but I revel in those hikes. I’ve seen waterfalls very few people have seen. I’ve seen clouds below me. I’ve seen mountain passes and felt the breath of God. The loss of your mother was a blow to you, yet you ventured onto the trail. You could have sat home and cried in your beer. You got out there. That’s courage, Jedi Hiker. Failure? No. You succeeded in doing 600 more miles. Come back one day and section hike another 600 miles. Then, finish it up on Katahdin. It’s all about the journey.

    • Christine : Apr 9th

      Thanks for the encouragement, seems like the AT is getting pretty crowded these days, but I’ve started to set my sights on some other journeys for the future. I am thinking hard about the CO Trail and the AZ Trail. The money thing and the conditioning thing don’t happen on their own, but they aren’t as hard to work out as we seem to imagine them in our minds. I didn’t physically train for the AT at all, and I was slow AF at the beginning, hiking 5-9 miles a day, and people were blowing by me, but a few weeks in, I started to catch up.

  • Dave : Apr 7th

    Ha!… My first section hike went like this:
    Day 1: Easiest Day, only hiked 3 hours up a mountain. Friend “A” says “i don’t think I can do this”
    Day 2: 3 miles up to the top of the mountain, 3 miles up and down. Friend “A” is ready to quit. I let him know the rest of the way is mostly downhill or flat… we will get in town the next day and if he wants to quit, that’s the best place.
    Day 3: We hike into town. He quits. We were only about a mile to the next camp site and… I think the majority of us decided to quit that day.

    I regretted quitting. But made a plan to continue on and I have several times. I went out to the trails to test myself, to give myself confidence and to tackle my fears head on.

    You hiked 600 miles!!! (I’m probably around 100 miles), I don’t think that is a failure, that is an accomplishment! You went to the woods to clear your mind, find your way and at some point, you were ready to leave the trail. If you have regrets, you can get back on the trail. My plan one of these days is to start from Springer Mountain and see how long I can make it. If I make it 600 miles, I will feel accomplished! Good Luck!

    • Christine : Apr 9th

      I definitely feel accomplished and for years when people asked if I intended to go back out, I always said “heck no! Been there done that!” But this past fall I hiked the Wonderland Trail and it lit a fire in me again, and I think I may be in for some big miles in the future. After the release of my book of course. 🙂

  • pearwood : Dec 21st

    Well said, Christine. I came to read this one after reading today’s post. It sounds like you did what you set out to do. That is enough.

    • Christine : Dec 21st

      Thanks Steve!
      That’s exactly what it’s about– knowing what you’re there for.


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