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.
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.
- Backpacking for months is a huge change from my normal pace of life.
- 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.
- 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.
- The woods will give me a well-needed break from technology and society.
- In my free/walking time, I can listen to interesting music, podcasts, or audiobooks. In ordinary life, I rarely have time for this.
- I’ll meet so many different people and form wonderful friendships.
- The limits of my optimism will be tested, and in turn, my resilience will be strengthened.
- 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.
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.
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 😉
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