The Long and Winding Road to the Appalachian Trail


That is, of course, the first word that tends to pop out of a person’s mouth the moment you tell them you’re planning a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail (otherwise known simply as “the AT”) from Georgia to Maine. Usually, it is accompanied by a(n extremely) skeptical gaze. That is, of course, if they even know enough about the AT to fathom what it is you’re trying to do. I have to assume that most of you do, indeed, know what it is since you have found your way to The Trek. But in case you don’t, let’s start with that instead.

The AT is an approximately 2,190-mile hiking trail crossing 14 states through the Appalachian Mountains of the eastern United States. It begins (at least for me – a northbounder) at Springer Mountain in Georgia and ends at Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Typically, it takes about six months to thru-hike, which means if all goes well (barring injury or insanity), I will spend six months of my life in the “wilderness” – carrying everything I need on my back. That includes my tent, sleeping bag, clothes, toiletries, food, water – everything. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, only about one in four people who begin the journey finish, with about half dropping out within the first 500 miles.

Alright, now that we’ve gotten the “what” out of the way, back to the “why!” I suppose I should start at the beginning. Bear with me, because this is a bit of a long story (but I promise it does lead me to the trail).

The Younger Years

Adventure has been a resident within my soul for as long as I can remember. Its presence expanded and contracted within me – taking up more space than others at varying times in my life – but it has always been there. I grew up on a dirt road in rural western New York, the edge of my backyard stretching into forest. It was the perfect playground for a child, where instead of staring at the screen for endless hours a day, I climbed trees, built forts, played hide and seek, chased fireflies, captured salamanders and crayfish, spent hours upon hours reading (a childhood favorite being “The Hobbit”), got dirty, and fell in love with nature. We only had two TV channels, and they didn’t even always work. “Go play outside” was often bellowed (in a loving way) in my house. The woods were home (and I miss them).

In high school, I won an AFS scholarship to spend a summer abroad. I originally wanted to go to France – I had fallen in love with the language and wanted to practice it – but my first-choice program was full by the time I applied. So rather than chasing romance in Paris, I wound up at an outdoor pursuits center halfway around the world in New Zealand, a country I hadn’t even heard of until then. There, I took my first backpacking steps in the land of “The Lord of the Rings.”

In college, despite leading a beloved life of hard partying on campus, I managed to peel myself away from my robust social calendar long enough to fulfill a childhood dream to journey to the rain forests of Madagascar. I spent three months living in a tent in spectacular Ranomafana National Park via a study abroad program through Stony Brook University. I lived a life belonging in a National Geographic story for a semester – chasing lemurs through steep cloud forests, scouring tree trunks for elusive chameleons, following frog calls in search of their owners, trekking through streams and climbing up waterfalls, getting covered in glittery gold mud and itch-inducing leeches. It was glorious. And while there, I befriended Natalie, who will become important later in this story.

I fell in love with traveling during those formative years. My eyes were opened to the world and I wanted more. My sights were set on distant lands and different cultures; it had not yet occurred to me that my own country had its own array of unique and beautiful places worth exploring. That realization came by way of a happy accident 10 years ago – in the summer of 2008, my very own summer of love.

The Summer of Love

Postcollege graduation, after a couple trips of abroad, I wound up parked at my parents’ house for a few months. My beloved and dear dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and I was terrified of losing him. So I put off life for a bit, working part-time as a bartender and keeping him company. After a few months of treatment (and an improvement in his health), my mother insisted that I couldn’t sit around our tiny town making sure he didn’t die. It was time to go, and so I went. (And very luckily, my dad pulled through).

My aspirations that summer, then, were to get out of town, make a buck, and cut loose of the stress I had endured during the previous months. As I drove through the mountains of Tennessee to my summer camp job, I had absolutely no idea what was in store for me. That summer will both bring me joy and haunt me for the rest of my life – it was such a beautiful time in my life. And it was a further step in bringing me here.

For reasons I won’t get into here (but that make for a great story over beers), I only spent about half the summer in Tennessee. The rest was spent road tripping across the country and falling deeply in love with an artist who I had met there. We left at the end of June, driving north from Tennessee, west from Michigan to Montana, north into Canada, and south to Washington state, hitting every state park, national forest, and national park along the way. We had next to no money, but we had a car and we had passion. And we had no real plan. For the summer, we were free. We bought a road map and chose each new destination on a whim. I had no idea how incredible America was until that summer.

Real Live Adulthood

The summer didn’t last and neither did the relationship. After a couple more years of seasonal jobs and travel, I settled in Washington, D.C., where I’ve been working on my career for the past 6.5 years and nursing a back injury – which is as healed as it’s going to get (and doing pretty well at this point). I got a master’s degree, survived 3.5 years at a fast-paced public relations agency, and pursued a passion to help save the environment at two nonprofits. But through all the hours spent at my desk, I’ve been dreaming of adventure. A great adventure.

For a long time, I was in so much pain that I couldn’t run, travel, work out, or even sit at my desk for more than 15 minutes at a time. I couldn’t meet my friends in crowded bars or even for quiet meals at restaurants. Instead, I worked and I read. One of the books that finally made its way onto my lap was Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods,” about his journey along the AT. That book had been trailing me for years. It was on the shelves of numerous offices that I worked in and of numerous friends, but for some reason, I’d never picked it up. Finally, while I was down for the count, spending a miserable couple of years confined to the adventures of books, I picked it up, and the idea of hiking the AT took hold of me.

That was almost five years ago. I’ve been talking and dreaming about it ever since. I decided to reread it last year, and as one does, posted something about it on social media. Natalie, who I met in Madagascar over a decade ago and have only seen a handful of times since, got in touch. She wanted to do it too. I’ve been obsessing over it ever since. Listening to podcasts, reading trail journals, squirreling away money when I could, hiking during my free time, collecting gear. Just in case. I didn’t know if either of us was serious. Could we really leave our jobs and our lives behind? Throwing away the things you’ve worked for for years tends to give one pause. But so does the idea of spending the rest of your life wondering “what if.” So yes, we can, and we are. It’s time for my next chapter anyway. D.C.’s a great place, but it’s not my place.

Several people have asked me if I’m afraid. These days, I constantly waffle between extreme excitement and outright panic. Of course I’m afraid. I’m afraid of a lot of things – of unemployment, of murderers and bears, of dark nights playing tricks on my overactive imagination, of adjusting to life without daily showers, of loneliness, of injury, of my body not being able to handle it, of my mind not being able to handle it, of hating the food, of endless days of rain, of missing my friends, of throwing my life off the rails. But that doesn’t mean I won’t go. It means I’ll go and fear will come too, and we’ll have to learn how to live with each other. I decided long ago that I wouldn’t allow fear to rule my life. Occasionally make a decision, or usher me into debate, sure, but not be in charge. I’d miss out on too much that way.

So here I am. Ready to make my body work harder than it ever has before, to meet the kindred spirits driven to this same narrow path by the hands of fate, to test myself in ways I can’t even yet imagine. I know the journey won’t be perfect, but I’m sure it will be worthwhile. And I hope you’ll follow along.

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Comments 6

  • Sue Kiley : Mar 1st

    Good luck my thoughts and prayers are with you

    • Audrey Payne : Mar 1st

      Thank you so much, Sue!

  • Casey Rogge : Mar 1st

    Thanks for sharing your incredible journey with us!

    Currently, we are section hiking and are at the Fontana Dam leg of our adventure.
    Hopefully your journey on the AT is as incredible as ours has been.

    • Audrey Payne : Mar 1st

      Glad to hear you’re having an amazing time! Thanks so much for the positive thoughts! 🙂

  • Violet B 2013 : Mar 6th

    You got this girl. It will be the best time of your life.

    Violet B AT2013

    • Audrey Payne : Mar 6th

      Thank you so much for the encouragement, Violet! I sure hope it will be!


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