Lessons from a “Failed” Thru-Hike
In 2019 I quit my job and sold my house to hike the length of the Appalachian Trail. I had planned this trip for about 18 months and was determined to complete the entire trail, and even had a rough estimate of how long it should take to complete. I began the AT with the wrong mindset, because I didn’t view the AT as a long-distance backpacking trip, or an opportunity to meet other like-minded people and enjoy our time immersed in nature. The Appalachian Trail was mostly another challenge to be completed.
Thru-Hiking Is a Mental Game
Assigning a time frame to complete my hike is ultimately what did me in. Every time a hiker passed me by, I felt like I wasn’t working hard enough and needed to move faster. Every zero day was a day wasted. I got so wrapped up in finishing the hike that most days it was hard to enjoy. I started the trail relatively early, on March 6. Because of my early start, time was never really against me. I had plenty of time to reach Katahdin before Baxter State Park shut down for the year. My rush to finish the trail was mostly for the personal challenge of finishing in a certain amount of time.
After a few weeks on trail, I discovered my hiking comfort range, and I tried to push more miles anyway. After a while, I even began to add up all my zero days and calculate where I could be on the trail if I hadn’t taken those days off. This turned my hike more into a job. Because of my determination to finish the trail, I was never really able to join any trail families. Not only did I hike my own hike, but I mostly hiked alone. This mindset eventually wore me down, and in the town of Harpers Ferry, I threw in the towel, and ended my thru-hike.
The People Are the Best Part of a Thru-Hike
The community around the AT is one of the wonderful communities to be a part of, and everybody I met on the trail seemed to be a genuinely good person. My determination to finish cost me the opportunity to spend time with the people I did meet on the trail. I believe now that a trail family of some sort is the key to the Appalachian Trail, and that for most people, you cannot make it without a few close trail friends. My fondest memories of the AT are not any particular location, but the people and the communities surrounding it. I know it’s cliche, but a thru-hike truly is the journey, and the company.
Beginning my PCT hike in 2020, things will be different. The biggest differences: I won’t be hiking alone, my girlfriend will be joining me, and I also learned many lessons from my first thru-hike attempt. My AT hike was not a failure. Maybe I didn’t make it to Katahdin, and I didn’t walk 2,200 miles. I didn’t even make it halfway. My AT thru-hike taught me lessons that never would have known had I not attempted it. I know my limits, and I know the pitfalls in my mind to avoid. I know that thru-hiking is an escape from the real world that should be cherished, and enjoyed. It is not a competition, nor is it just another challenge to be completed. A thru-hike isn’t Springer Mountain, Shenandoah, the Whites, or Katahdin. It’s the journey, and the people around you during that journey.
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