Life Lessons – Courtesy of the Appalachian Trail
I set out to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail on July 9, 2018. When I summited Springer Mountain on Dec. 9, I finished with extreme joy—knowing I didn’t have to sleep outside in the freezing cold anymore, but also knowing I had accomplished this life dream. Here are some things the trail taught me.
The Trail Provides
This is a saying that most hikers know well. Sometimes that means you get the last room in the motel on a rainy night or you have a quick hitch when you need it. My favorite example of this was on a day I just was not having it. It had started out fine, but I had rolled an ankle the week previous and every day I hiked I kept rolling it. We had just finished a section of road walking and were headed on a long downhill. Usually I love downhills, but with a sketchy ankle they were horrible. So here’s little ole me, using my trekking poles more as crutches than forward momentum, and wanting nothing more than to be done for the day. I stumbled across a local woman who was out walking her two dogs. I started petting them (instant mood boost!) and we’re having a conversation. As she realizes that I’m hiking the whole trail and it’s getting toward the end, she says, “Wow, what fortitude you have to continue.” Most people say something along the lines of “that’s cool, you’re able to hike that long and not have to work,” but this woman used the word fortitude. That was just a little piece of encouragement that hit me in the right way at the exact right time and boosted my morale.
Less Is More
I was able to spend five months of my life with everything in a 50L backpack. Some gear got swapped out, but generally speaking, everything I needed easily fit in there. I’ve never been able to feel some of the simple joys of life as fully as the AT allowed me to. Coming back to “real life” has me thinking about why I need to comply with the consumerism culture that surrounds us all. One of my favorite parts of the trail is the lack of cell reception. Less reception = more connection. It was refreshing to see people interacting face to face with others.
Perspective Is Everything
We’re all aware that the United States isn’t always so united. People don’t have to agree with each other, and that’s OK. We can’t be challenged and bettered if everyone has the same opinion. A major takeaway from my trail experience is that perspective is really important. How do you expect to understand a hiker’s sore feet when you’re only three days into your journey and they’re 150 days in? My tramily was told time and time again that after the Whites it’ll get easier. Well… yes the terrain got easier, but we also added about five miles a day. So it wasn’t really easier, it was just different. On the flip side, the NOBO who had hiked 1,800 miles to get to the Whites was thinking, “Man, I was doing 20s and now if I get 15 in that’s awesome!” None of us are wrong in what we’re thinking, we’re just having completely different experiences. If you’re able to remove yourself from your head and think the way someone else is thinking, and see the perspective they’re coming from… that’s a life-changing attitude.
Washing Your Hands Is a Necessity
Seriously. This sounds straightforward and you’re probably reading this thinking, “Flower Power, I learned that in kindergarten.” Actually, wash your hands because it prevents the spread of diseases. Don’t do a half-ass job when it’s cold out and you don’t want your hands to get cold and wet. Suck it up and clean them appropriately. The hikers around you who aren’t getting norovirus will appreciate you, I promise.
I realized this little tidbit once I finished and was off-trail. There are mirrors everywhere; bathrooms, by the front door as guests walk in, as decoration in a living room. I had been living inside for a few days when I finally placed what seemed so odd… I saw my face all the time! I was used to going days with messily putting my hair in a ponytail, only to see my face if QuickFix and I were taking a selfie. To be suddenly bombarded with 20 looks a day was bizarre. I already knew this pre-trail, but the AT confirmed that society is obsessed with how we look on the outside. The trail is starkly different, though. It asks hikers to do soul-searching, wear the same clothes every day, and ditch the make-up for the au naturel look. A hiker carries so little that there’s nothing to hide behind. No fancy clothes, cars, or bullshit. Just you, and whatever you decide goes in the pack on your back. It’s refreshing and challenging to question what you’ve been fed for years as “normal.”
While on trail I met people from every walk of life. There were retirees, graduates, burned-out workers, confused souls, even kids. Everyone had a similar mind-set. We’ve all been told to shape our life in a certain way to be happy: get the education, the job, the spouse, and kids. Oh, it’s not working for you? Well, just go to the next step, get a promotion; the elusive happy life will come. There’s nothing wrong with going to college, getting a good job, settling down with a partner, working until you retire, then moving somewhere warm to enjoy retirement with your family occasionally visiting. There’s also nothing wrong with not going to college and pursuing a different career path, maybe taking extended periods of time off to travel, or living “outside the box.” I think it’s really important to understand that living differently doesn’t mean you’re living the wrong way. Everyone has their own path to carve and it’s OK if Jane Smith’s path doesn’t look like yours. Hiking the AT has solidified that stepping outside the box isn’t wrong, it’s just different.
Lucky Lesson #7: Failing Is a Mind-set
In the beginning of my hike I was so intent on getting to Springer Mountain. I thought that if I didn’t make it I will have failed. As the hike went on, I realized that wasn’t true. I met countless NOBOs who shared stories of tramily members who were off-trail for many reasons. Hikers who had gotten hurt, suffered from exhaustible homesickness, and just plain didn’t like backpacking. Would you consider someone a failure who acknowledged the fact that they’re miserable and did something about it? I’d consider that strength. If you decide not to continue for whatever reason, you’re not failing. You’re choosing to pursue something that cures your homesickness, rests your broken body, or lets you enjoy your life. It’s important to remember hiking the trail is a choice. Every day you wake up and choose to walk toward Springer.
As always, follow QuickFix and me on our future adventures on instagram, @adventurous_als
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