Mistakes and Miracles: 677.7 miles on the Appalachian Trail
I just hiked over 677 miles of the Appalachian Trail, but my brain and body only tell me stories of failure for not being able to push through 2,190 miles to the end. I think one day (right around Virginia’s Grayson Highlands), the two consulted each other and said, “Hey, she’s not doing this right. She needs a timeout at home to think about what she’s done wrong. When she figures that out, we’ll let her come back out to play. Let’s starve her ego so she can see that her spirit needs to be fed.”
When I came off of the trail at mile 677.7, I was 12 pounds down from my starting weight, my body fat percentage was less than 6 percent, and I was exhausted. My stomach still hurts daily. Something is definitely off.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my trail experience, and what I will change when I am healthy and able to hike sections again. Working through this process, I’ve also been able to reflect on the miracles that make the trail so special, and why I want to get back out there so badly. Perhaps by sharing the Yin and Yang of my experience, I can help a fellow backpacker in his or her journey.
You must respect the distance.
During marathon training, my friend and coach Bob Wallace used to say that it was important to “respect the distance.” Whether you plan to hike for a week or six months, I think this is especially true on the AT.
From Day 1, you learn that this trail is not easy! There are so many factors involved: how much weight are you carrying? What is the ascent or descent for the day? Did you get enough sleep last night? Are there roots and rocks?
Your planned distance for the day may vary depending on all of these things! Listen to the trail. Take a break or a Zero Day if you need it. Slow down in the heat or snow, and never, ever try to keep up with someone else’s pace. In addition, I plan on researching trail foods so that I can have more healthy options available.
So many days I “powered through.” Waking up early, I would quickly eat breakfast and pack up camp, hiking from 7:30-8 a.m. to 5:30 or 6:30 p.m. Taking a short break every two hours, I would shove some sort of food that I no longer cared about down my throat. Sometimes I ate while still walking! I skipped many of the “views” if there were extra miles to get to them. Wearily, I would set up my tent in the evening and boil water for more food that I scarfed down like a dog. More times than not, I would zip my freezing body up into my sleeping bag and crash, only to rinse and repeat in the morning. The friends I made that are still doing really well on the trail took more naps, more days in town, and made time to hang out with people.
Talk to people! Make friends!
For the first month of my hike, I mostly kept to myself. All of that stuff I mentioned about making hiking my “job” didn’t allow me to slow down and actually get to know and enjoy the people around me. Some of my best memories of the trail are the days when I was able to meet new friends. Here I was surrounded by like-minded, nature enthusiasts, and I didn’t take advantage of it until it was too late.
With these changes in mind, I can’t wait to go back.
Marianne Williamson defines a miracle as a “shift in perception from fear to love.” The blessing of the trail for me was that I left behind a lot of fear of what hiking by myself might look like, and I returned home with a heart full of love.
Being capable and strong, I have mad respect for my body.
The trail angels, volunteers, and new friends who helped me along the way truly restored my faith in humanity.
My family, so supportive (yet so happy that I am home) reminded me how lucky I am to be loved.
Waking with the sun and sleeping under the stars gave me a new sense of freedom, and helped me to better understand the importance of the circadian rhythm.
After a year of wearing masks, the forest gave me my breath back, and there is no better water than from a mountain stream.
I visited really cool towns and places that I never would have gone to otherwise.
I lived outside, minimally, just walking this earth.
Sunrises and sunsets, waterfalls, mountaintops, animal sightings, fields of wildflowers seemed to be there for me when I needed them the most. My absolute FAVORITE part of the trail was seeing the divots made by hiking poles of those who came before me. These little holes made by others on the trail seemed to be a promise that the trail would be there for me, even if I wasn’t able to thru-hike.
I know now that section hiking fits my personality (and probably my body) best. I look forward to being able to take the time to really enjoy the weeks that I am out there. Section hiking also allows me the flexibility to explore the trail with the seasons without leaving my family for too long. Virginia, you’ll see me again in October!
Until then, you will find me playing outside in the State Parks of Texas, and you are ALWAYS invited to come. We may make a few mistakes … but magic awaits!
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