Out of the Lab, Onto the Trail

Allow me to introduce myself

My name is Teressa, I’m a young scientist taking a gap year to thru-hike the AT this spring 2023. Over the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of traveling to a lot of cool places and taking tons of pictures. Naturally, I had to put my own twist on things…I’m a traveling scientist, so why not make an account about that and pose in a white lab coat? I created my travel Instagram @teressatravels and did exactly that, including little informational blips under each image. The lab coat saga must continue as I embark on my thru-hike, but I realized the writing space on Instagram might limit me. That’s what brought me here, to The Trek, to share all the ups, downs, and a little bit of science with all you wonderful people as I hike from Georgia to Maine.

Photo from @teressatravels on Instagram of Teressa at Smith Rock State Park in Oregon.

Why would you take a gap year to hike for months?

Education gets exhausting. I recently graduated from undergrad with degrees in neuroscience and zoology, the honor of summa cum laude, and several years’ worth of research in a neuroscience lab. These accomplishments are great, but they hardly stand out compared to every other young scientist. I’ve learned that science and the medical field are extremely rigorous and they revolve around a very uneven work-life balance. Taking a gap year is rare – we are all told that you have to keep going, to keep grinding and don’t stop, because you don’t want your career to fall behind the rest and you might as well get the schooling over with. This never sat well with me. I love learning and consider it a privilege, but to continue straight into graduate school would have been too much. To spend so much time and money on years’ worth of education that you hardly even appreciate because you’re killing yourself in the process is, to me, a terrible shame.

It doesn’t have to be this way, though. With my hike, I want to show that it’s okay to take some time off from a rigorous field. I want to show that if you take the time to prioritize your health and happiness, it results in an individual with a better work ethic and appreciation for their education/career.

Okay, but couldn’t you go on a vacation or something?

Thru-hiking is a vacation, just not a very stereotypical one. Vacations can be used to take a break from our day-to-day lives, to give our mind and body a change from the ordinary, to refresh ourselves, and to provide some perspective on our lives. The AT will give me all of this and then some. Don’t believe me? I’ll elaborate.

  1. Backpacking for months is a huge change from my normal pace of life.
  2. I will have plenty of time to think. For a young adult with much ahead of her, the time and perspective that the trail will provide will be incredibly helpful to give me a sense of direction.
  3. It will allow me to explore what my body is physically capable of. Ultimately, I’ll probably find myself at the most physically fit I’ll ever be.
  4. The woods will give me a well-needed break from technology and society.
  5. In my free/walking time, I can listen to interesting music, podcasts, or audiobooks. In ordinary life, I rarely have time for this.
  6. I’ll meet so many different people and form wonderful friendships.
  7. The limits of my optimism will be tested, and in turn, my resilience will be strengthened.
  8. I’ll gain appreciation for the little things in life. When you survive off the bare minimum for months, you’ll inevitably appreciate normal comforts and privileges much more.

Is hiking the AT going to be a walk on the beach? No, of course not. I’m fully anticipating some low lows, but those highs, man, those are going to be amazing.

Photo from @teressatravels on Instagram of Teressa at Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

Life Lessons from Neuroscience

You may or may not have heard of a chemical messenger in the brain known as dopamine, it’s famous for increasing feelings of reward and pleasure. One might think, then, that dopamine is released in our brain when we obtain a goal…it’s not. Dopamine is mostly released during the pursuit of a goal (check out this short video for more info).

Okay, science stuff…what are you trying to say?

The act of pursuing a goal is just as much, if not more, rewarding than achieving the goal itself. Basically, this is science’s way of telling you to enjoy the journey and not fret too much over the destination. I think this is a great lesson for a thru-hiker, but also anyone in general. If the journey excites you, achieving the goal will come naturally.

95% Confidence

In research statistics, we generally support a claim if the probability of it being wrong is less than 5%, meaning we are 95% confident it is true. I’d love to say I’m 100% certain I’ll complete my thru-hike, but the scientist in me can’t say that. I trust I’ve done enough research and physical preparation, but there are conflicting variables out of my control. What if I get sick? Or an injury? Or something happens in the “real” world that requires my presence? On top of that, I’m sure there are certain things I’m still naïve to and will have to learn the hard way. So, I’ll stick with 95% confidence – the odds are still very much in my favor =).

That’s all for now, folks. I can’t wait to start this incredible journey and to be able to share it with you all. Please feel free to follow along on here and my travel Instagram @teressatravels. Oh, and by the way, I’m starting my hike on pi day 😉

Photo of Teressa at Bryce Canyon National Park.

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Comments 20

  • YeeHa : Mar 4th

    Great post, Teressa! Just from this, not really knowing you, I’m already putting my confidence level in you finishing the AT at 97.5%. If we get to meet you at 1/3 of the way to Katahdin (Troutville, VA), I may update that number. I’m an amateur naturalist and would love to hear observations and experiences from your field trip up the trail. Stop by if you can – we’re just 30 yards from the Trail, and can share some wonderful mountain well water. BeeChHill B&B and Hikers’ Hostel.

    • Mitchel : Mar 8th

      As a third year undergrad plant bio major who dreams of hiking the PCT before heading off to grad school myself, I would just like to say that you are my new role model. It is fantastic to see a fellow scientist head down this path and I can’t wait to follow your journey.

      • Teressa Wesley : Mar 9th

        Hi Mitchel! I’m glad to meet a fellow scientist and honored to be a role model! I hope my posts can continue to motivate you to take the leap and hike the PCT during a gap year =)

    • Teressa Wesley : Mar 9th

      Thank you for your confidence in me! I will definitely keep you in mind when I’m in the area – I’d love to discuss field observations from the trail =)

      • Christine A Hespenheide : Mar 14th

        In watching you grow up I’ve seen you grow into a very beautiful successful and determined young lady. I know you will carry that through on this next Journey. Fred and I will be praying for you and your success

  • Darrell Smith : Mar 5th

    Best of luck ?!!

    • Jean F. : Mar 11th

      Wishing you health and success. Prayers for your safety, endurance and joy in the journey.

  • Ron Minnis : Mar 6th

    Hey Teressa; it’s only a few days left until your Mar 14 start. Want to wish you success and much fun on your journey.

  • carol wack : Mar 7th

    You gooooo girl! ?

  • William Wesley : Mar 7th

    You go Girl!!

  • Gene West : Mar 7th

    Best Wishes!

  • Mike & Do : Mar 7th

    We hope you find your will and way to mountainous heights of fun and adventure! Be safe and we look forward to following your trek on the trail.

  • John : Mar 7th

    What a great adventure!!! I’m even a little envious, but, in a good way though 🙂

  • Beth Gavaghan : Mar 7th

    If anyone can succeed, it is you! I loved reading your blog post and I’m excited to keep track of your journey!

  • Missie Burford : Mar 7th

    What an exciting adventure! You can do it!

  • Melissa Ola : Mar 7th

    Looking forward to hearing all about it. What a tremendous opportunity and adventure!

  • Mark Wesley : Mar 8th

    You got this sista!!! So excited for you! 🙂

  • Grandma Bev : Mar 8th

    I know you can do this. Be safe. Have fun.

  • Cousins Pat and Diane : Mar 8th

    Looking forward to following you on your adventure!

  • Karen and Joe : Mar 18th

    Every night we pray that you are warm and dry and able to rest well. We hope that the scenery is beautiful and that this adventure is all that you’ve wanted.


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