Searching for Questions on the Appalachian Trail

I want to start off on the right foot. I want whoever is reading this to be able to grasp the reality and the impact of my decisions and the plethora of things that lead me to this specific place in time. I apologize if I seem unnervingly formal. I’ve been polishing my resume and practicing interviews for whatever short-term job will float me in the months leading up to my attempt at a thru-hike. So, with a firm handshake and uncomfortably prolonged eye contact, I’ll begin my personal introduction.

Who Even Is This Guy?

My name is John Mecklin, and I’m currently awash in the tumultuous hurricane-force winds of life that some people refer to as a “transitionary period,” which is a great way to say that I am a 23-year-old who is still trying to figure out what he wants to be when he grows up. I was raised outside of Memphis, Tennessee, in a town called Munford. I did well in high school and had every intent to go to college until a recruiter told me that I would never make it in the Marine Corps. Like a fish to a hook, I swallowed the bait and spent my formative years (5 ½ of them, to be specific) in the ever-changing, often-incomprehensible riptide that is life in the military. I got lucky. I had a cool job, I made some awesome friends, and I saw some cool places. But the military isn’t why I’m here and it’s certainly not what I will be writing about, not by a long shot.

I loved the outdoors growing up, spending most of my free time in the woods behind my parents’ house. My father was also an avid outdoorsman, constantly fishing and hunting. Much to his dismay, I lacked the patience to fish and had no interest in hunting for white-tailed deer. It might have had something to do with him bringing home a deer on Christmas Eve, its nose painted bright red, and solemnly informing us that Santa wouldn’t be coming that year, at best he would be severely delayed. But my father and I found ways to connect, to find healing and depth to our relationship through the natural medicine that wilderness, or at least the promise of wilderness, provides.

How I Heard About the AT

My first memories of the trail begin around age 14 when my dad asked if I wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail. I sat at the foot of his chair in the den while he regaled me with stories of a continuous pathway that stretched almost the entire length of the continental United States. He told me that people hiked the whole thing. The WHOLE THING. Dad told me that people carried whatever they needed on their backs and slept in the woods for months at a time, just to say that they did it. Dad told me that we would do it someday.

I bought my first backpack, a heavy external-frame Kelty, and my first boots, thick leather Danners that felt like bricks on my feet. Dad poured over guidebooks that he bought from Barnes & Noble and maps that came in the mail from the ATC. We always talked about hiking the trail, but we talked about it like people talk about climbing Everest, or buying a motorcycle. I think we both had the idea, in the back of our minds, that we weren’t really serious about it. We couldn’t be, could we?

Dad stayed busy with work, supporting our family and giving my mother, my brother, and me the best life imaginable. I finished high school and left for boot camp a week later. The spark was still there, but the kindling never caught light. Dad and I both placed the idea on the shelf and let it gather dust.

When I Realized that I Was Going to Hike the AT

In 2016 I found myself wanting more from life than what I was getting. I had a job that provided me adventure on a daily basis, but I wasn’t fulfilled. I was surrounded by one of the most tight-knit groups of people that I had ever seen, but I didn’t feel at home. I performed well at work, I had hobbies, I was in good health, but I just wasn’t happy. I knew that I desperately needed something else in my life. Unfortunately, it would take almost two more years for me to find out what that something was.

In 2018 I took a deep, introspective inventory of my life and my actions in an attempt to finally solve the mystery of what my life was missing. What I found was a monumental gap that was crying out to be filled with a life of adventure. In the years prior, I had thrown everything imaginable at that gap, searching for the missing puzzle piece. Drinking, relationships, and halfhearted stabs at filling out personas that I could not possibly fit into were just some of my feeble attempts to find true meaning and belonging.

During this time, I found myself taking a step back and asking: “Do I even WANT to fix this?” I was comfortable, with a good job that payed reasonably well and had room for upward advancement or lateral development. Financial security, a solid reputation, and a world of opportunity was within reach. I was so comfortable with the small corner of life that I had spent year after year painfully carving out for myself. “But at what cost?” I asked myself.

“Dad, I think I’m going to try to hike the AT when I get out.”

How I Expect to be Challenged on the AT

I intend to embark on this adventure with an open mind, knowing that with the correct amount of willpower, dedication, and positivity, nothing is impossible. I also know that the correct amount of foul weather, trail injuries, or financial trouble can easily make something like this into an “almost” thru-hike. I expect to be challenged, and I expect to want to quit frequently.

No amount of day hikes or time on the stair machine will mentally prepare me for what comes next. There isn’t a single piece of gear that can make me wrap my head around what my mind and body will go through during my time on trail. I expect to be in a constant state of mental, physical, and emotional weariness for the entirety of my hike, but I’ve read Appalachian Trials, so I should be good, right?

I am anticipating the challenges that await me because I believe that there is beauty in the struggle and there is completeness in the agony and failures of the day to day. Every inch of trail that I leave behind me will be a victory and even if I don’t make it to Katahdin, I think the challenges will shape me in ways that won’t be easily forgotten.

Why am I hiking the AT?

While I don’t have specific and measurable goals for my hike, other than finishing, I do have a very precise reasons for doing it. These things are what drew me to the trail, what made me commit to the hike, and what I trust to keep me on the trail when days get dark.

I’m hiking for my father and for the promises we made to each other, many of them unspoken, in regards to the Appalachian Trail. When I told my dad that I was going to hike, he snapped back into planning mode. Dad dusted off the old guidebooks and maps and hasn’t stopped researching gear, watching YouTube videos, and sending me articles to read. Dad has been my biggest cheerleader and the man behind the curtain in regards to the logistical preparation that I’ve been doing over the last year. I want to hike to fulfill the plans that we made when I was younger.

I’m hiking for myself and for my sanity. After years of built-up stress and internal friction, I don’t need a vacation, I need a challenge, a place to constructively exhaust all of the energy that would otherwise be misplaced. The chance to unwind, however tempting it may be, is also a perfect opportunity to let my health, both physical and mental, erode. I’m not looking for answers on the trail, I’m looking for questions. I want to use this time to examine myself in solitude and to surround myself with positive people when solitude cannot be found.

I couldn’t have even started this journey by myself. The endless amount of online resources, from articles to videos to gear lists, has been a vital asset in regards to my planning process. I have learned so much over the past year just from reading, listening, and watching what others have done. More than anything else, I’ve been inspired. The stories of change and self-healing have inspired me to begin changing what I can and to be open to the changes that I know will occur. If someone sees my blog posts, or watches my videos, or sees my pictures on Instagram, I want, more than anything, for them to come away challenged and encouraged on their own journey, whatever that may be.

I hope you all have a better grasp on who I am and why all of this is happening. I’m sure it’s a lot to unpack at the moment, but if you’ve made it this far, I’m sure you’ll survive a few more short blog posts. There’s more to come as I flail around in the realization that I know nothing and am woefully unprepared. There’s also about a 90% chance of me having some sort of existential crisis and going completely internal somewhere around Virginia, so stick around!

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Comments 6

  • Alicia : Sep 23rd

    Great post! Hope to meet you on the trail!

    Reply
  • Kyle : Sep 23rd

    Good read. And bio haha

    Reply
    • Major John schamel : Sep 24th

      Semper fi my brother. I’ll be waiting for your youtube vids.

      Reply
  • Lou Eckert : Sep 24th

    Your writing style is enjoyable, part story telling and part goal-setting. So write that book!!! Please…

    Reply
  • Susan Wilson : Sep 24th

    Congratulations John on this journey. I look forward to following you on the trail from my recliner. I’m sure your an impressive man from what I’ve read but I also know your mom and grandfather John Churchill (they are wonderful).

    Be careful enjoy the journey

    Reply
  • Cathy Nichols : Sep 26th

    Your intro is very thought provoking and entertaining, not to mention well written in true MHS fashion😘 I’ll be following along wishing I were with you! Very best wishes!

    Reply

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