Why I’m Not “Thru-Hiking” The AT
Ask my mom. Ask my ex-boyfriend. Heck, ask the regular cashier at Dunkin Donuts about that time they thought they were out of Mocha Swirl. I am a competitive, stubborn person. When I set my will to doing something, I would walk barefoot across broken glass to complete it. When I broke my pelvis, I rode a horse again three weeks later, mostly because I was told I shouldn’t. I don’t take the words “no,” or “you can’t” very well.
And it’s for that reason that I am not thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. And yes, it’s totally about semantics.
This trip is not about finishing. Knowing myself, my willpower, and my previous experiences with the trail, I probably will finish. I feel confident in that fact — likely too confident, and likely to eat my words, but confident. But hiking the Appalachian Trail is not about touching two imaginary endpoints. It’s about all the spaces in between.
It’s about the way Mother Nature seems to bring you a gorgeous sunset on the day you need it most. It’s about sitting down on a rock on the side of the trail and breaking down in tears, convinced you cannot walk any further and that the summit above you is permanently out of reach. It’s about finding the grits and enough trail mix left in the bottom of your pack to get you up to that peak, despite the very loud, very angry protesting in your thighs and chest.
My hike is about the people I will meet along the way. It’s about the group of young girls on the Long Trail that brought us S’mores cooked over their camp stoves after one of the crappiest, most humid climbs we could’ve had. It’s about asking everyone to take a selfie with me, so I can chronicle their faces. The faces that emboldened and inspired my walk, shared bad jokes, cheered me up when I didn’t want to keep going, or taught me new ways of managing blisters and soggy tent flys.
The Appalachian Trail is about every single step. It is about letting your world collapse in around you — yourself, your two feet, and the woods around you as far as your eyes can see and your ears can hear. It is about the smell of a pine forest and the way the needles dampen sound, the warm patch of sunshine on flat ground where you plop yourself for lunch and to photosynthesize a bit, the lightning that tears through the sky and the thunder that rumbles ominously behind it minutes after you make camp.
I may not make it to Katahdin. If I make it more than two weeks out there, I will be pleased with myself. It’s funny how “two weeks in the woods” and “I only lasted two weeks on the AT” sound like entirely different accomplishments. So, I won’t let myself see it that way. If I make it to Massachusetts and beg an old home-state friend to pick me up, I’ve still made it five months on the trail. Five months. Five months of getting up and walking literally every day, five months of living out of a backpack, five months of pushing myself to my limits.
It was this thought process that prompted me to forgo going to graduate or veterinary school in the fall. I do not want a deadline. Marching to an end date and doing hasty calculations to figure out if I’d make it on time seemed much too similar to the 24/7 stress-fest I am trying to escape. An AT thru-hike has been a goal of mine for over a decade, since I met my first thru-hiker near Mt. Washington when I was 8 years old. Life has finally made it possible for me to venture out. This hike, this life goal, deserves to be at the forefront of my responsibilities.
I’ve averaged 15 miles a day in the Green and White Mountains and I doubt I would struggle to meet a 6 month deadline. But that is not how I want to do my hike. I do not want to be worried about dates or mileage (beyond my next resupply point). I want to take my near-o’s and zeros if I need them, or rather, when I need them for my 20-going-on-90 body. I want to breathe in every breath of mountain air that I can, and I want to embrace every opportunity the trail throws at me.
I am not “thru-hiking”, because I may not make it “thru.” I am hiking, for however long I can or want to. And I will welcome its stresses, its trials, and its evils, for the way they make the good things stand out so much brighter and for the way they will make me stronger as a person.
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Good post and great attitude! Maybe I’ll see you between VA an PA when I do a LASH this Spring!
I was of the same mindset when I attempted my thru in 2015. For me it wasn’t about finishing, it was about having the courage to start. I get aggravated when I read so many people’s comments that they’ll feel like a loser if they don’t finish. How absurd! Any time at all out in the trail makes you a winner!
I love the way you put this! I’m trying to cultivate a similar attitude.
love the post and your attitude similar to my attitude when i head out this April I want to complete the trail but if i do it at the cost of not enjoying the experience and meeting the personal growth, goals, and challenges I’ve set then it becomes a pointless exercise. I think you are right on track one of the common things you see on thru hikers post trail blogs “I wish i had slowed down and….”