I Kept Going on All the Bad Days… and Stopped on a Good One
I didn’t quit on a particularly bad day. After perhaps my best week on trail, I realized I couldn’t keep being OK with having so few good days. I ended my thru-hike. I stopped in New York, around mile 1,400, at a place in the hike where the conversations about quitting often involve notions that anyone who gets off trail is injured, ran out of money, or had a family emergency. Since I did a leap I was about 1,200 miles into my hike, but I was counting down to Katahdin, and most days wishing I could close my eyes and fast forward to October when it would all be over. Isn’t that what I was doing before? In school? At work? I don’t want my life to be like that anymore. I chose this path in the first place to escape that.
I got on the trail to find peace, happiness, spiritual connection, friendship, and a stronger sense of self. Instead, unfortunately, I found that I was still depressed, still struggled to make and keep friends, still felt surrounded by body shaming, and worst of all, felt like I had entered a major competition with no end in sight. The end for me is not at Katahdin, or the Mason Dixon line (which would be my finishing spot). There is no end when I was out there comparing myself to other hikers every day and trying to overcome insecurity by replacing it with the thru-hiker identity. I got tired of trying to “make it.” I pushed myself when I thought I couldn’t make it out of Georgia, when I thought I wouldn’t hit the 100-mile mark, over and over again when I thought I couldn’t get through the day. I hiked some 20-mile days, I hiked up mountain after mountain, I hiked in rain, hail, snow, thunderstorms, wind, extreme heat, bugs. I hiked sad, angry, depressed, lonely, distracted. I pushed so far beyond my limits and expectations, pushed past so many fears. I fell down more than a handful of times on the trail, and each time I got up and kept walking, even if it meant crying or cursing all the way. And none of this is spectacular on trail; all hikers go through these things. Sometimes that creates a sense of camaraderie and community, other times a sense of competition.
I changed my trail name before leaping forward into Pennsylvania. For the first 1,000 miles, my trail name reflected what I thought of myself. Being Caboose made me feel slow, and so I was slow. I changed my name to Katniss and joined two women who made me feel welcome and strong (shout-out to Booster and Bright). Once I joined them with my new name, I hiked faster and longer than I ever thought I could. Some days I beat them to our destination. I did a 19-mile day, the longest day I’d done with my full pack. I climbed over or teetered on rocks that terrified me. I finally felt proud of myself. I felt accomplished at the end of the day. I felt like a real hiker. Once I fully grew into my new name, my mind shifted. The caboose “always makes it,” but Katniss does what is right. I no longer needed to “make it.” It became more important that I discover what I was hiking for. I went on this journey to find faith, to believe in myself. Changing my name woke me up to that. I finally realized that I am a hiker, that I could reach Katahdin in time, that I do hike fast enough, that I can hike a lot of miles in one day. I recognized that before I started my hike I believed I couldn’t do it; I thought that I would fail. I continued to believe that on the trail, even when I hiked farther or faster than I thought I could, even when I finally got my trail legs, I still had a mentality of “I can’t.” When that finally shifted, I knew I didn’t need to keep going. I’d found it. I’d found that place where I believe I can truly do anything.
My Mind Is Heavier than My Pack
I came to realize that I was clinging desperately to a label: thru-hiker. I wanted so badly for that to be a part of my identity, perhaps in part to absolve, excuse, or erase my body type. I wanted living in this world, in this body, to be just a little bit easier, but it isn’t, and it wasn’t even on the trail. I wanted a reason to like myself, to be proud of myself, to prove my worth to myself and others. I wanted to be seen as adventurous, athletic, strong, brave; I wanted a quick way to make people understand that the stereotypes about my body are wrong. I wanted to inspire others to see beyond the limitations they believe they have because of their bodies. I wanted to prove that someone like me could do this thing just like anyone else. The pressure of needing to be the one to show the world what someone like me can do started to crush me. The desire I had to represent the fat community on the AT was heavy at the beginning, and only grew heavier. It felt like I had to carry the whole world on my shoulders, for 800 more miles, over the harshest terrain on the whole trail. Then I realized two things. One, hiking 1,200 miles is impressive, and people outside the hiking community would likely find it just as astounding as 2,190 miles. Two, trying to prove something, to yourself or others, cannot cultivate healing, it can only generate more pain. I discovered that I had to be able to love and accept myself–even if I got to Katahdin, even if I didn’t get to Katahdin, even if I never even tried.
I went into my thru-hike not wanting it to be about finishing, labels, competitions, comparisons, or set expectations. It became about all of those things. It started to feel like an Olympic event; a race and a marathon all at once. That feeling of running through life, never able to stop and rest, is so familiar to me, and that’s not what I wanted for my hike. I wanted to meditate, to heal, to gain clarity on what I want from life. Instead my brain ran over the same thoughts like a broken record. What will I have for dinner tonight? I wonder when we’ll go into town. I wonder where that guy is. I hope it doesn’t rain. I hope it stops raining. I wish I was dating that guy. I wish it was October and I was done. I wish I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I wish I was faster. I wish the terrain would get better. What if I die slipping on these rocks? What if that’s OK because I won’t have to keep hiking? If I died it would be a pretty damn good excuse for not hiking. If I break my ankle it would be a pretty damn good excuse for not hiking. Why has only one friend kept in touch with me? Why am I so lonely even when I’m with people? Why don’t I feel like I fit in? Why do I feel like a fraud? I don’t feel like a thru-hiker. How could I be an athlete? Broken record. Rumination from the deepest recesses of my insecure mind. All day. Every day. With no distractions unless there was a mountain strenuous enough to make my mind turn purely to the physical. That is sad. That is not what I want for myself.
I did not expect or want my mental health to decline on the trail. I did not get injured. My feet were in extreme pain, I was chafed in several places, my left hip ached some days. I could handle all of that, I’d handled it for over 1,000 miles. But I could no longer stand how my mental health had taken a nosedive. I could not keep walking with these thoughts as my companions. This kind of injury is invisible, but it is there.
Can is a Place
For so much of my hike I told myself I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t make it out of Georgia, then I did. I couldn’t make it to 100 miles, then I did. I couldn’t make it to Harpers Ferry, then I did. I couldn’t make it the whole way, and I didn’t, but now I know I can. I finally understand that I can do things I never thought I could do. I’m no longer scared to take that chance. I no longer believe I can’t climb Kilimanjaro or run a marathon. I can do it. If I wanted to hike all the way to Katahdin and be a thru-hiker, I could do it. I just got to a place where I realized that’s not what I need. I don’t need to get there anymore to know I can do it. I’ve gained faith. Faith in myself, faith in the universe, faith that there is purpose to everything that happens in my life. That’s what I came out here for, and I found it before I reached Maine. So I stopped in a place that wasn’t really a place. I didn’t have to rush or slow down any internal process of healing, self-actualization, or introspection. There was no timetable because, as it turns out, there was, and is, no endpoint to this journey for me. I got to experience being a thru-hiker, but it is not part of my permanent identity, and I am OK with that. Maybe I’ll hike the rest of the trail someday, maybe I won’t. For me it was never about finishing, and my best week on trail reminded me of that. Some will still call me a quitter or a failure, or ask why I didn’t go all the way. I think my best answer now will be that I didn’t need to. I stopped because I reached my Katahdin. I arrived at a place where I know I can do anything, but I don’t need to prove it to anyone, including and most especially myself.
And so begins my next adventure.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.