All That Doesn’t Need to be Carried: Why I Decided to Thru-Hike the Appalachian Trail

This personal essay offers a glimpse into the quiet moments, thoughts, and reflections leading up to my 2022 Appalachian Trail thru-hike attempt.

Every day, I wake up to a different alarm. At 6:00, it jolts me out of sleep with a simple label, glowing faintly on my bedside table: 31 DAYS.

I turn it off, change the alarm label to 30 DAYS, then roll out of bed.

My apartment is tiny, less than 500 square feet. It takes me 1.5 steps to walk from my bed, past a sliver of closet full-to-bursting with backpacking gear, into the next room.

I walk through the kitchen/dining/living/working area—past my quilt that’s draped over my desk chair to air out after this weekend’s backpacking trip, the tent footprint on the floor, and a half-unpacked food bag—and busy myself making coffee.

Thirty DAYS before I’m due to set foot on the Appalachian Trail, it’s already taken over my life – my shoebox apartment, every nook and cranny of storage space, the dust-covered interior of my Subaru, every waking thought.

As I stand at the counter sipping coffee (every chair is draped in various gear that needs drying so there’s no place to sit), I survey the chaos with a strange sense of calm. At this point, I am no stranger to an upended, inside-out life. It wasn’t always that way.

A little less than two years ago, I was living what seemed like a pretty idyllic life.

Loving high-school-sweetheart-turned-husband. A little cottage within walking distance of downtown Baton Rouge. Summer road trips. Biweekly trips to Target. All we needed was a picket fence.

Then Covid hit. Quarantined together, my husband discovered that he was unable to keep hiding who he was, what he wanted from life. Spoiler alert: what he wanted was never me, or the picket fence. Enter: chaos.

“Our” cottage became mine, and the full brunt of renovations rested on my shoulders. As I painted, caulked, drywalled, and hired and paid contractors to do what I couldn’t, I had a lot of time to think.

When my realtor told me what I could sell my little cottage for, all plans to stay in Baton Rouge and do the sensible post-divorce thing (attend grad school, stay close to family/friends, recuperate and recover) flew out the window. I knew exactly what I was going to do next.

The favorable housing market had presented me the opportunity to do a less-than-sensible thing on a silver platter.

Deciding to Thru-Hike the Appalachian Trail

As an avid hiker and backpacker, the AT had always been a “someday-maybe” goal. If the time ever presented itself. If the budget ever cooperated. If I could ever convince my ex-husband to, ironically, agree to an extended time apart.

With a house sold, and a seven-month lease signed, no one waiting for me at home, and the savings needed to take half a year or more off from work, “someday-maybe” had arrived. Sooner than expected. In a way that I had never once anticipated. And with it, a rare opportunity to do something I’d never had to do before: be completely alone.

I’d met my ex at the tender age of 16, and after predictably getting married right after college, moved directly from my parents’ home with him into a shoebox apartment, not unlike the one I’m currently living in now. Without the opportunity to live alone. I was happy with my choice, and wouldn’t necessarily change it… even knowing what I know now.

I Needed a Change

But despite the real joys of this picture-perfect life… I couldn’t seem to settle down. I hated living in Louisiana, but he wanted to stay. I tried to make peace with it, but jumped from one career path to another, searching. I was a teacher. Then a freelance photographer. I worked at one of the two dedicated backpacking stores in Baton Rouge. Then, I made a sensible choice to use my English degree in marketing.

My sense of unease grew. I wasn’t happy. Deep down, I knew that updating my Linkedin every 1.5 years or even moving away from Baton Rouge wasn’t going to unravel that knot in my stomach.

For years, I would wake up long before the sunrise, load my camera gear and a notebook into my car, and drive for the sake of driving. I would pick a direction and turn on any dirt road I could find, seeking something I was too afraid to name outright.

I became adept at ignoring my own instincts during those years.

I doubted him, but to silence those doubts, I practiced doubting myself more.

And when he finally left, I packed up my camera and notebook as I had done so many times before, and drove straight to the Appalachian Trail outside of Franklin, NC. My first few steps into the woods were shaky and uncertain.  I was terrified of hiking without someone by my side for the first time in my life. Backpacking alone was unthinkable. After all… I had become very good at doubting myself.

These days, I’ll drive into the night on a three-day weekend to hike 30 miles into the woods, alone. The first time I packed my backpack, I had a panic attack and carried 40+ lbs of fears on my back. Now, I’ve whittled away all that I no longer need to carry.

Alone, but Not Alone

In 30 DAYS, all of my worldly possessions will be in a storage unit, and I’ll be hundreds of miles away from the only home I’ve ever known, stepping onto a completely unfamiliar path that somehow has a homelike draw.

I’ll be alone in ways I’ve never been alone before. And at the same time, not alone. It’s no secret that the Appalachian Trail, and all the other long trails, are places where many people going through life transitions go for reflection and a deeper sort of change. There’s something comforting in knowing that, while each of our stories and motivations and things to overcome are completely unique… I’m still just one of many.

I’ll see y’all out there.

-Newfound

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Comments 4

  • Rick Watts : Feb 17th

    Mary or should I say Newfound,

    The Appalachian Trail has been calling me for years!

    I retired last year and 2022 is my year to hike the trail, I start my hike on March 14th, so good luck and…

    Happy Trails
    Goonpa

    Reply
    • Mary : Feb 17th

      Thanks for the comment – I know the feeling! You’ll be just a bit ahead of me. See ya out there and good luck to you too!

      Reply
    • Shawn : Feb 21st

      Well Goonpa you have insprired me I’m
      Prob years away a from retiring but excited to see that ppl in midlife still are interested –

      Newfound –
      I am
      Rooting for you – newly separated after 31 years I could be you had you not chosen your path! Best of luck to you!

      Reply
  • Josh : Feb 22nd

    Great post. Looking forward to following your journey!

    Reply

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