The Hike Before the Hike: The Journey to Springer

With only one week until I set foot on the Appalachian Trail it is fair to say that I have had months to prepare. At times I do feel well and truly ready, whereas at other moments I am certain that there is so much more to do. In the literal sense I began my preparations in earnest when I had my visa application approved on January 4, 2019. However, my real preparation began 11 months to the day prior when my visa application was denied.

Overcoming Rejection

My heart sank when the embassy officer interviewing me stated that my visa was not going to be granted at this time, and that I could apply again if my circumstances were to change. I felt awful. This wasn’t my first time to the US embassy; in fact, I had successfully applied for not one, but seven J-1 cultural exchange visas, so I knew how to fill out the long application, I referenced my well-kept records of prior visits to the United States, and I knew how the interview process went. I made the journey from my hometown of Abingdon, to Central London and the familiar sight of the embassy at Grosvenor Square.

After the general greetings and information confirmation my interview followed as such:

Officer: Do you own property?
Me: No.
Officer: What will you do about your job?
Me: Well, I’ll leave it when I go hiking and get a new one on my return.

Acknowledging My Mistakes

I allowed myself a one-man pity party for several days (including a bout of the flu that hit me as I left the embassy feeling devastated). I reflected on my foolishness and arrogance, forgetting that just because I’d committed to hike 2,192 miles, it didn’t mean that the US government was going to treat me any differently to the many other applicants that come their way each year. As a British citizen, not looking to work during my stay, I made the assumption that there wouldn’t be an issue. My previous cultural exchanges were different as for the duration of your stay you had room, board, and pocket money. This time I would need to prove that I had the financial ability to not be dependent on the United States government for up to six months.

Action Plan to Obtain My Visa

I set about focusing my energy on how I could ensure to not repeat the same mistakes for my second visa application:

  1. Ensure I had a positive mind-set on achieving my goal.
  2. Obtain evidence of financial ties.
  3. Go into the application process with a humble attitude.

The First Step Is the Easiest

Have you ever been told “no” by someone in a position of authority? It doesn’t matter if it’s a parent, employer, or a complete stranger; it sucks and you instantly feel the need to do the exact opposite. By being pushed back you feel that burning need to achieve what it is you’ve set out to do. I had applied to hike the AT on somewhat of a whim. When I was told I couldn’t have the visa I knew that I would hike the trail from start to finish, no matter how hard it was for me to do it. This burning focus kept me attentive to my goal in the next 11 months.

Proof Is in the Pudding

Financial ties had to be in the form of a job to come home to. I am not great at saving money, have not embarked on a particular career, and love traveling too much to be tied down by a mortgage. Six months is a long time to be away from work, but I have been fortunate in finding the most fantastic jobs. My rejection came at three months into working as a finance assistant, as well as casual bar work at my town’s rugby club. I had not felt comfortable to ask for a sabbatical, as I hadn’t been there very long. When I told my colleagues that I had had my application rejected over the holiday period, I was chastised for not asking for a sabbatical.

The most supportive team of friends from Harwell.

I committed myself to working for the next 12 months, until which time I felt it appropriate to apply again. I approached the director of the company and asked for a sabbatical note. He graciously signed off on my request. I prepared myself again for the interview. This time the whole team had given me their blessing and I was ready.

Same Story, Different Ending

This interview took place at the new, but unfamiliar embassy in Vauxhall, London, with a familiar feeling of anticipation and more cautious optimism. I was expecting a “no” outcome. When the officer confirmed that we were in fact all done, and wished me a great hike, I had to double check that I had got the visa. I messaged my family and colleagues to share the great news. Eleven months of patience and hoping had paid off.

Trying to look cool outside the US embassy, but still in shock.

Four Months to Get It Together

The three and a half months that followed have been a whirlwind of preparation:

  • I have found the gear for my trip—a balance of low weight and affordability. There is a wealth of knowledge and experience on this subject and trial and error has worked very well.
  • Friends, family, and colleagues have provided me with gifts of gear, making better selections than I could have myself.
  • I have read several books to get me psyched up. AWOL on the Appalachian Trail and Appalachian Trials are rightly so very popular and insightful options.
  • I have spent more hours on the step machine than I care to remember. Swimming and extensive yoga practice have complemented this.
  • Lacking free time to go on extended hikes, I walk a lot more where possible. My hiking boots have become my second pair of feet. Getting hills in has been challenging as my home county is very flat.
  • I avoid eating ramen noodles as there’ll be plenty of time for that on the trail.
  • My flights are booked, insurance is purchased, and travel plans are outlined.

So Little Time, So Much to Do

Various lunches, dinners, and cups of tea have been consumed among friends, family, and me as I prepare to be apart from them for the next six months. There is still more to do. In fact, there is always more that can be done. I am ready for this journey. I am ready to laugh; prepared to cry; to be sore all over; to be unusually excited for a shower or a hostel bed (and I don’t even shower that often now). I am certain I will face unfathomed boredom. I know I will see sights that take my breath away. Hell, I’ll have just as many ascents to make that will take my breath away.

I’ll get to Mount Katahdin one step at a time. Even before my first steps from Springer Mountain, I have traversed this path in differing ways and I’ll greet its challenges and splendor as an old friend.

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Comments 9

  • Dani : Mar 25th

    Omg I can’t believe you are going so soon! What a thoughtfully written blog. I’m so glad that you got your visa and will be on your way soon – be safe and have fun!xxxx

    • Aidan Tierney : Mar 26th

      Thank you Dani. I aspire to write as well as you do about your travels! I can be the next Bill Bryson – except I’m going to finish the trail (no sass towards Mr Bryson intended)
      I look forward to seeing you when we are both in the UK next to trade stories! X

  • Julia Searight : Mar 25th

    Good luck Aidan. We are missing you in the office already but will be thinking of you often and sending you encouraging vibes…… J x

    • Aidan Tierney : Mar 26th

      Thank you so much Julia. I miss you all too. Nobody has offered me a tea in days 😁. I look forward to seeing you upon my return (after several industrial strength baths of course). Send my love to Fergus! X

  • Toby : Mar 25th

    Congrats on finally getting the visa – I’m making the same trek to the US embassy later in the year in prep for a NOBO attempt next year (and hopefully they’ll say ‘Yes’). As seems the norm on this site, any chance of the almighty gear list some time before you leave? Just curious to see what another male Brit managed to pack for the trip – the whole lightweight / cost thing rears its ugly head when shopping in England, so looking for ideas. No worries if time is the enemy. Anyway, good luck with your bear wrestling, mozzie swatting, shower dodging trip through the woods.

    • Aidan Tierney : Mar 26th

      Thank you Toby. To be approved just make sure you’ve got financial ties. I don’t know your situation but either a mortgage or sabbatical letter on letter-headed paper should be more than enough.
      I will do a gear list for sure. I haven’t yet as I won’t be picking up some of my gear until I get to Atlanta. By no means will I be Ultralight, but I’m packing conservatively. You’re right in noticing it is a challenge. Most gear lists come from Americans who have access to different gear and it’s no good trying gear for the first time right before the hike (for me this is a do as I say not a do as I do moment).
      Thank you for your well wishes. Bears are wonderful. It’s the ticks you have to watch out for!

  • Pops : Mar 28th

    Congrats, Aiden. Best wishes for an unforgettable experience. Hoping you have too much Type 1 fun.

    • Pops : Mar 28th

      Oops, sorry for the misspelling!

  • Lisa Long : Apr 19th

    Hi Aidan,
    Happy trails to you. I was the southbound section hiker almost to the campground towards Fontana Dam and spotted your kilt! Hope some trail magic makes the trails easier.


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