From Layoff to Long-Distance Trail: My Decision to Hike the AT

Two days before getting laid off from my job in June last year I was out drinking with friends. After a while talk turned to what we’d be doing if we didn’t have to work. Specifically, the question asked was, “If you had two months off and unlimited money, what would you do?” 

I answered without hesitation. I would go backpacking. 

At the time, I had not yet been on a backpacking trip. I was just getting back into hiking consistently as an adult. But it was summer, and the second summer in a row when, bored at work, I was finding myself on outdoor websites, reading about thru-hiking. Sitting in my cold air-conditioned office I found myself dreaming of what it would feel like to be out in the sweltering heat in the middle of the woods, miles away from my computer and the requirements of daily life.

Imagine my surprise when I found myself laid off only days later. Suddenly I had the time. 

Why I’m Hiking 

In the simplest terms, I’m hiking the AT because I feel called to do so. After getting laid off I gave myself a month to regroup. I did a lot of hiking. And I wanted to do more. My gut was saying there is something for me out on the Appalachian Trail.

But “feeling called,” while a great motivator to get me out there, is not going to help me complete the AT. 

In the months since I turned to working an amalgam of jobs to try to save enough money to thru-hike in 2020, I’ve had ample time to reflect deeply and consider my reasons for hiking. As time has passed and each of the following reasons have emerged, my resolve to complete the trail has only strengthened. 

I am thru-hiking the AT because: 

  • I want to use the journey as the next step in my continued development of self-love and acceptance.
  • I want to go on an adventure that challenges me and use it to further deepen my understanding of myself.
  • I want to break away from the mindset that success is found only in a career and high-paying salary .
  • I want the time to consider my future job and career options.
  • I want to do something unconventional that nurtures my creative spirit.
  • I want to connect with the calm truth I’ve experienced in nature on camping trips in the past.
  • I want to walk a fuckton of miles (technical term) and see what kind of person I become at the end of it.

Hiking just north of Carvers Gap.

How I’m Hiking 

But what do you do when you find yourself with loads of time, and not very much money? I found myself committing to my decision to thru-hike in August 2019. Doing some rough math, that left me about sixish months to save money for the trail, assuming a late March start at Springer.  

I dove into a job in the service industry at the start of August, and picked up a second job contracting for a startup in September. Even working two jobs, I quickly realized that six months was not a realistic timeline to save enough money for a full thru-hike. After making adjustments and finding a better-paying service job, I realized I was not going to have enough money by March. As the weeks went by, my thoughts turned to other ways I could make a 2020 thru-hike work. Enter the flip-flop hike. 

The Commitment to Flipping

I’ll admit it. At first I was reluctant to realize that a flip-flop hike was the best option for me. Like many, I was in love with the idea of walking continuous steps north from Georgia to Maine, starting where so many have started and ending on the epic summit that is Katahdin. 

But then I camped at Doll Flats one weekend last October. 

A friend and I were hiking the section of trail from Carvers Gap to 19E. Many say it’s one of the most beautiful stretches of trail on the AT, and I agree. It was a stunning section. And based on the number of people we saw on that trip, at least 50 other people agreed with me. 

photo of tarp at camp

Not pictured: the number of times we crossed the NC/TN border looking for this campsite.

Our second night we arrived at Doll Flats under the cover of mist. Having slowly moved at the pace of two desk workers who don’t usually carry packs of 30 pounds, it was about 5 p.m. and we were one of the last groups to arrive at the campsite. To our surprise, more than 15 other groups of tents were already clustered on all of the available packed dirt surfaces and spilling over into the surrounding woods. We spent a good 20 minutes scouting out possible campsites between the trees with our packs still on our backs, until we found a decent spot and began to build camp as dusk fell over us.

The groups of hikers themselves were not the issue, however; as much fun as I had that weekend, an escape to nature it was not. Once returning from that trip, the stories from previous NOBO hikers of experiencing the thru-hiking bubble, of finding it difficult to camp at shelters with 30+ hikers and tents in the surrounding areas, and reports of the impact of large groups on the land hit differently. 

As I thought of my ideal thru-hiking experience, I was not excited by the idea of sharing every campsite for the first few weeks with large groups of people. I want to find community on the AT during my hike, but I also want the backcountry to feel like the backcountry and find peace away from crowds of people (and norovirus). After more reflection, I found the idea of setting out on a flip-flop hike to strike what I hope will be the right balance of nature and community.

Dawn at Doll Flats.

The Goal as of March 2020

I’ve been writing pieces of this post over the past few months, in a completely different mindset before the coronavirus outbreak. My thoughts are with the current 2020 hikers already on trail, those planning to depart shortly, and the trail communities that don’t yet know how the virus will impact them this summer.

At the time of publishing in mid-March, I haven’t yet made a decision about changing my plans to hike. 

I am lucky in that I have the luxury of time. I am still two months away from my intended start date and will have my family drive me to my starting point on the trail. I can wait out the next few weeks as the pandemic progresses, wait to see if recommendations for hikers change, and change my start date and location to put less strain on areas near the trail affected by the virus. 

Even though I first intended to hike for myself, I am not the only person impacted by my decision to hike. Just as I have a duty to respect nature and follow Leave No Trace, I also must respect the communities I pass through as a hiker. I found Clay’s points about remembering the more vulnerable members of trail communities when planning for a thru-hike during coronavirus insightful. 

There are a lot of new and changing logistics to figure into my hike, and so I will be taking the time to weigh them as we get updates from towns, shuttle services, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. 

But if anything is getting me through this uncertain time, it’s having hope that the goal I’m working toward now will still come to fruition. Even if my hike is shortened, or if I have to put off my plans for a year, I’m excited to have the AT in my future. I hope we can all continue to work toward the things that matter to us, and find support in our trail community, even if that support is found online rather than on the trail this year. 

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