My Feelings, Days Out from Starting on the Appalachian Trail

I want to write down some thoughts about what I’m feeling with a few days left to go before I leave friends and family behind to attempt a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail this summer. 

But first, I want to introduce Barry Stroud.

Barry Stroud is an 80-something urban farmer who manages a half-acre garden across the street from where we’ve lived the last two years. 

He’s lived in his home for 70 years, and is responsible for many of the trees, shrubs and flowers in his yard and around the neighborhood. His Merlin-like beard tapers from a mane around his cheeks down to a point around his belly button. His eyes are a little watery with age, magnified by thick glasses, but he never squints. 

We’ve spent a lot of time together this last year, weeding, hoeing, wheelbarrowing compost, digging, harvesting, mulching, watering, etc. He was a grade school biology teacher and has been a leader in the Kansas City Sufist community for 50 years. He smiles a lot, and he’s shown me one can work for decades to learn a skill and stay humble enough and gentle enough to laugh at their mistakes. 

He’s also taught me nothing is so recklessly, joyously optimistic as planting a garden. I’ll come back to Barry in a second. 

“How are you Feeling?”

I run into anyone who knows I’m hiking the AT and the conversation starts like this:

“Almost time for your trip, huh? How are you feeling?”

An honest answer follows:

Mostly just anxious. Swinging from terrified to excited and optimistic three times in every hour. Full of expectations and desperately trying to fight having any expectations at all. I haven’t slept well in three weeks, using the hours between 3:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. to run over the plan again and again in my mind, but only so much can be planned. A lot feels like it will be dependent on actual conditions on the trail. 

My number one anxiety is about what and who I’m leaving behind. Suffice it to say the conversation about a thru-hike with a partner who won’t be hiking with you is never done until the thing is done. 


Holy Cow, Turns Out I’ve Made a Big Decision

Starting around Thanksgiving and with increasing frequency, I’ve been overwhelmed with waves of realization that make the choices I’ve made feel frighteningly concrete and irreversible. I’ve quit a job I love in a city that feels like home with plans to leave behind friends I adore and a partner who brings depth and richness to my life. 

“For what?” asks my conscience, visualized as an eight-foot-tall version of myself in a judge’s robe. 

“You don’t have to answer that,” responds my lawyer, wearing a bad fitting suit and greased hair like we’re sitting in a Midtown car lot and he’s trying to sell me a 2008 Toyota with enough miles on it to wrap around the world twice. 

Instead, I break out the list of reasons I’m hiking the Appalachian Trail (TL/DR: There are 28 of them). After I read the list and calm down, there are three or four days where I feel more confident in my ability to meet this challenge than ever. 

But like I said, they’ve been coming more often, and it’s starting to affect my sleep. I just need to get on with it at this point. The anticipation, the not-knowing is what is hardest right now, for me and for Annie. 

Saying Goodbye to Barry.

I visited Barry in Tracy Garden to say goodbye. Annie and I are moving from the house across the street, so I was cleaning up in the last days of our lease and saw him lying on his belly in one of the beds, planting oregano. I brought the dog over to say hello and see ya later, but he never stood up– just kept working the weeds with his hands, smiling and saying, “Enjoy all the weather,” like he’d be seeing me next week.  

I told him I was terrified, and he said, “You know that comes from inside yourself.” I ignored him and rambled off all the answers to the same questions everyone has been asking: when do you leave? How long will you be gone? What will you do for food? 

Except Barry never asked anything. He said only: “Don’t go looking for dark nights of the soul. They’ll find you either way. Enjoy it.” 

The entire interaction occurred in less than five minutes. He went on planting oregano, and I took the dog back to the house to clean.

Terror will probably be part of the next five months, and I’m ok with that. Expecting it. On some level, I’m desirous of it. Cold, dark, winter soil is the only place last year’s seeds get ready to sprout. The same goes for people. Darkness can have a fostering power. It’s where foundational growth will occur if there is foundational growth to be had. 

BUT I can’t become preoccupied with it, either as a goal or as a condition of life on the trail. I’ve been breaking my own rule against having expectations. 

The image of being alone on a mountain top, tent flaps snapping in gale force winds and thunder clapping around my head is nightmare fuel, and my nervous system loves replaying it again and again throughout the night. Storms won’t be the only thing I experience though, and I have to remember that. Remember that I actually have no idea what’s ahead of me, only that it will be a trek. 

With that said, it’s on to Amicalola Falls, Georgia. The rest will be some sort of history.

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 4

  • David Groce : Apr 4th

    Another great and thoughtful post, Ben. Thanks for the message. HYOH.

  • Lorie : Apr 4th

    Great read!

  • Donna Engels : Apr 4th

    Be thinking about you the whole time! Think a trip to Daytona would be better though. Good Luck and stay safe .

  • jen l : Apr 5th

    Get out there and do this! We’ll be cheering you on and looking forward to being part of it. Thanks for sharing!


What Do You Think?