Seven Life Lessons I Learned on the Appalachian Trail
So as you all may know, I took getting off the trail pretty hard. I felt lost, because I couldn’t possibly imagine bridging the gap between the life I’d had on trail and my regular “muggle” life. But, as someone wise pointed out to me, that’s exactly what I had to do. The AT changed me, and taught me some pretty important lessons. Why not use those lessons to shape what comes next? Well, after moping around for a month or so, I picked myself up and started making some plans for my next “Katahdin” that I won’t publish here (yet). As a part of that process, I also wrote down the lessons I’ll need to remember along the way.
1. Make your own opportunities.
This is probably the first lesson I learned, even before I got on trail. As a teenager, I always dreamed that some extraordinary opportunity would just fall into my lap, and I’d be swept up in adventure. Years later, I realized that opportunities don’t just drop out of the sky; if you really want something, you have the make it happen yourself. Yes, it is harder, but it’s also incredibly empowering to know that your dreams are within your reach, if you’re brave enough to go for them.
2. Leave room for adventure.
Every time I tried to plan ahead on the trail I ended up regretting it, because inevitably, something amazing that I couldn’t have ever planned would fall into place. Things come up. More importantly, awesome things that you couldn’t have imagined in your wildest dreams come up. Planning everything is overrated. Leaving enough questions unanswered is how adventure happens.
3. There are many valid ways to live your life. Choose the one that makes you happy.
I was told from an early age that the dream was to work hard, take vacations, retire, and then do all the things you’d dreamed of doing. Well that may work for some, but for me it’s unthinkable. I met a lot of amazing, down-to-earth people on the trail from all walks of life. 9-5ers, retirees, army vets, organic farmers, seasonal workers. It was incredibly refreshing to see that people do, in fact, live their lives in many different ways, and each way of life is equally valid, as long as it gives you the time and space to grow as human being, and makes you happy.
4. Pay kindness forward.
Again and again, in every state, I was blown away by the kindness of complete strangers; from Xena, who tracked Beast, Click Clack and me down in Buena Vista and drove us to the laundromat and grocery store for resupply, to the kind souls who created a water cache in Pennsylvania during the dry season, to the anonymous couple that paid for our breakfast in Hanover. I often asked these trail angels why they did what they did, and most of the time, they’d answer that they were paying forward someone else’s kindness, and say that the best way to repay them would be to do the same. Even outside of the trail community, I realized that too many of us are mistrustful or cynical of people we don’t know. But the moment you show a little bit of kindness, you discover that other people are just people, and paying forward a small kindness to them can do nothing but good.
5. Don’t take too much for granted.
Mother nature kicked my butt up and down the east coast. Anytime I got a little cocky she’d throw a thunderbolt down on my ass and chase it with a couple miserable days of torrential rain. Being dry, warm, and clean became the ultimate luxury. A coca cola left in a cooler by a road crossing made my heart constrict with joy. Being out on the trail forced me to examine of all the things I took for granted in regular life, and to appreciate them more. It also taught me that I need much less to live comfortably than I imagined. That’s why the first thing I did when I got home was donate most of my things away. Even now I’m constantly eyeing my possessions, trying to live by a rule similar to the one I lived by on trail; if I haven’t used it in 2 months, I probably don’t need it.
6. Save your energy for the things that matter.
Some things just aren’t worth worrying over or getting upset about. Shit happens. You lose things, someone says something nasty to you, you fuck something up. Getting upset and wallowing on something will just make you miserable, not actually solve the problem. I will admit I had to relearn this lesson over and over again, and I had my share of times that I’m not proud of, but it still stuck with me.
7. Friends are just about the most important thing you can have in life.
What can I say? Friends are the spice of life. You’ll talk about everything from poop stories, to your lives, to the meaning of life, to the dreams you’ve been harboring about your life; You’ll buck up and hike another 17 miles together after lunch; You’ll take turns posing on a lookout rock while making etherial Titanic music sounds; You’ll pass out on top of mountains together; You’ll eat burgers in the motel room beds while watching trash TV; You’ll have your low moments every once in awhile, but through all of it, you’ll know that you can’t imagine spending your time with better people.
Until next time.
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