Reflecting on my AT Thru-Hike: Part 2
After completing the Appalachian Trail on September 12th, 2023, I hadn’t written about it—or taken much time to reflect on the experience at all—until now. My life has continued to be an adventure since finishing my hike—I moved across the country to Washington State three weeks after getting back home to NY. There’s a part of me that was hesitant to dig into how much that 6-month period of time changed me and influenced my current situation—by putting off writing this post, I’ve been able to hold off some of the sadness of completing my hike. Does the adventure really end if you never reflect or write about it?
On my way across the country, I was lucky to stay with a trail friend in Lincoln, Nebraska. As we were discussing post-hike life, one thing he said really stuck with me: “sometimes it feels like I didn’t hike The Trail at all—like it was all a fever dream.” I felt this from the moment I stepped off trail. Sure, I have discreet memories of hiking, but on the whole, it doesn’t feel like something that happened in reality. It is a way of living that feels so far removed from the normal trappings of society, and when I compare them, something just doesn’t compute.
I’ve had so many friends and family members ask me about my experience, and I struggle to put into words the life of The Trail. While hiking, I tried to compile stories and memories that would illustrate it. Put into practice, I always feel these stories fall flat. I can tell them about the eccentric people I met, the thrill of hitchhiking, the breathtaking snippets of nature, the comradery of fellow hikers, silly or outrageous shenanigans that I was part of, but none of them encapsulate the whole. It is hard to explain something that can only be understood through experience. It may be something that only other thru hikers can truly “get”.
When I was first planning this journey, I expected to have plenty of takeaways that I would transfer to my day-to-day life upon returning, and this just wasn’t the case. Not much from the actual act of thru hiking can be transferred, unless I want to eat pop-tarts and ramen most nights of the week (hint: I don’t). The things I did learn from the experience are more intangible.
My first post on The Trek included a list of things I would acquire after finishing
When I successfully thru-hike the AT I will:
- Be more self-confident
- Have a better perspective on life’s joys and challenges
- More deeply understand the connections between nature and humanity
- Be calmer, more patient, and more independent
- Have deep, meaningful relationships with new friends
- Be able to live with only life’s necessities
- Have gained a profound sense of accomplishment and a new set of skills
From this list, I would say I acquired maybe half of what I thought I would. I know now that I have the confidence and independence to make big changes, big decisions that seem scary or impossible. Making these changes is less scary to me now, but this is a double-edged sword. The world feels so full of opportunity that I’m having choice paralysis. I suppose that this is a good thing—all of the choices I have are things that excite me. But one of the reasons I decided to hike was because I felt a little directionless and I wanted to gain a better perspective on what was important to me. On the other side of this hike, I still feel a bit rudderless. I wouldn’t call it post-trail depression, but I thought my path forward would be clearer to me than it is.
My perspective on life has certainly changed. This is something I’m still teasing out, but on the whole, I have a much more positive outlook than before. Joys are easier to find when I pay attention to the little things, and challenges feel more like opportunities to learn and become stronger. The things that are important to me are different now. Before the trail, I cared a lot about money. It is still something I recognize as important, but it feels more like a means to an end now, instead of an end in itself (something I may have been guilty of believing before hiking). Being present in the moment and taking time to form genuine relationships with the people around me are much more important now.
I am calmer and more patient, especially with myself. Walking for hours on end let me marinate in my thoughts, desires, and anxieties. I feel better now sitting in my emotions and recognizing them as just that—emotions.
I don’t think I gained any major insight into the connections between nature and humanity, but I better understand how I can fit into the picture now. I love being outside, experiencing nature. I love it, and I want humanity to protect it as much as possible. I can safely say that it is one of my passions, and I plan to focus my career on conservation moving forward. But this is where that double-edged sword comes in. Should I jump in and immediately start working to protect this thing I love, or should I spend as much time as possible enjoying it? Are these things mutually exclusive?
I did develop close, meaningful relationships on trail. I don’t know whether these relationships will fade or stay strong, but I will always have a special bond with those I hiked with.
As for living with only life’s necessities and gaining new skills/a sense of accomplishment, I feel like these things only count in the world of thru-hiking. I’m still working to pare down my possessions, but there is so much excess that is par for the course when working and living in a city that a lot of the skills that come with hiking and living frugally haven’t transferred. Maybe this will change as I continue to pursue a minimalist lifestyle.
So where does this experience leave me?
I have no regrets on deciding to hike the AT. Even if many of the things I learned were intangible, I believe it made me a better person and changed my future trajectory. Based off my first scary decision (hiking), I decided to upend my life again and move to Yakima, WA with a friend. I ended up getting a conservation job where I spend most of my time outside doing work that preserves and protects the environment. I’m happier than I was before starting the trail. I’m confident none of these things would have happened if I hadn’t decided to hike.
During one of my lowest points on trail, I stopped off in New York City for a few zeroes visiting friends. I happened upon a book called Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus while spending some time in a bookstore. For those unfamiliar with the myth, Sisyphus was a Greek king sentenced by the gods to roll a boulder uphill for eternity. Camus uses the premise of this myth to explore why life is worth living even when it feels pointless or absurd. For someone feeling a bit lost and walking on a 2,200-mile-long footpath—perhaps the epitome of absurdity—this topic resonated with me, and I took the book back on trail with me. Over the course of the next few weeks, this book changed my perspective on life and solidified my reasons for hiking.
At the end of Myth of Sisyphus, Camus writes that “the struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart…one must imagine Sisyphus happy.” If I could condense what I took away from this experience down to one thing, it would be that doing something meaningful to oneself—even if it seems absurd—is always a good use of time. I’m still struggling to figure out what to do now, but I have plenty of time to figure that out, and I know that I’ll look to my time in the green tunnel, on the peaks of mountains and the bottoms of valleys, to help me decide what boulder I should push next.
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