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.
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?
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:
- Ensure I had a positive mind-set on achieving my goal.
- Obtain evidence of financial ties.
- 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.
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.
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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