Slow Motion: Reflections on my Seven-Month AT Thru-Hike
Whenever I tell anyone who knows how long it typically takes to hike the AT that it took me seven months to complete, they tend to ask what went wrong. Did I have an injury that required an extended break? Did I take time off trail for a wedding or other occasion at some point? Did I struggle with illness? (No, no, and no.) However, whenever I tell anyone who doesn’t know about the AT and how long it typically takes, they give absolutely zero… cares.
I had it in my brain before I started my SOBO thru-hike that five to seven months was the norm. What I learned on trail was that five to six months is the norm, and that over six months is considered slow. Taking more than six months did not even cross my mind. Until it did.
But let’s back it up for a second; there were a couple of things that I had to accept pretty early on in my trek.
1.) Thru-hiking is hard.
The first and most disconcerting thing was that thru-hiking was a lot more demanding than I ever could have imagined. Though I had been a consistent and long-time ultra-runner at home, I immediately found that my body was all the way—I mean back row, trapped in the window seat—on the struggle bus and in for a long, bumpy ride. I was an ultra-runner, but I was an ultra-runner in the Midwest. Turns out walking up and over mountains requires tremendous exertion. It made me semi-nauseous for at least my first week out. So, needless to say, I was not going to be cruising through this hike like you can through a single, albeit long, day of running. Not in Maine, anyway.
2.) I am slow.
The second dose of reality resulted from the first: I was going to be moving slower than I’d predicted. Through Maine and much of New Hampshire, I averaged one mile an hour. Even when the trail cleared up and flattened out later on, with stops for lunch, snacks, more snacks, to pee, to poop, and, when appropriate, to take in views and/or snap pretty pictures, I averaged only about two miles an hour. Because hiking at this pace, and stopping to camp before dark, was what made me most comfortable in—remember—my pretty uncomfortable seat on the struggle bus, I was very okay with it.
What makes one consider their speed (or lack thereof) while thru-hiking—other than trying to stay within a reasonable weather window—is other hikers. One of a handful of standard questions you will get when you run into other thru-hikers, weekenders, or even day-hikers, is “How many miles are you averaging ?” For me, because my six-month mark would have been right around Christmas, sooo many people asked me if I’d make it home for the holidays. I knew probably two months in that I would not be home for Christmas, but would often lie to people about trying to push to make it just to avoid an awkwardly depressing conversation about not making it. I ended up in Tennessee with my trail buddy and a few of our parents for Christmas. We ate ham. It was lovely.
Though not with malice, people ask these questions because they want to know how their own hike stacks up against yours. I asked the same questions for the same reason. Where a great majority of conversations include the topic of any given hiker’s speed, there is a palpable undertone of competition. I don’t think this is because hikers are particularly competitive (although, beat me at a good board game and it might get a little tense) but that humans generally tend toward self-comparison. We compare ourselves to our coworkers, classmates, family members, and strangers regarding intelligence, beauty, money, happiness, etc. This tendency does not disappear in the woods.
The standard on the AT falls somewhere between 16 and 25 miles per day, and between five and six months for completion. Of course there are amazing athletes who speedily exceed the daily mileage norm, which leads to a shorter thru-hike timeline. It seems like there are fewer like me, who fall behind the daily mileage norm and take longer than average to finish the hike. One of the factors that helps skew the curve more heavily toward the faster end is simply all of the talk about pace on the trail.
There are many reasons the hike took me longer than most. The task of the hike itself was a big one. Also, the people who came to hike with me along the way—my stepmom, dad, boyfriend, and brother—made me incredibly happy and, to be frank, slowed me down. In addition, I was pretty averse to night-hiking, because it’s creepy and because of eyesight woes. Probably the biggest factor, looking back, was that I took a zero-day nearly once a week. (Thru-hikers made me feel like this was a ridiculous number of zero’s but I have to insist that almost every zero I took, I took because I felt like my body was super ready for rest.)
Before quick hikers get defensive, let me just establish that I’m super impressed with people who fly down the trail. I couldn’t do that. I’m not asserting that I could have finished months sooner, or that hitting the seven-month mark was a calculated move for me. When it comes down to it, I’m a straight-up slow hiker.
At this point, more than a month after my finish, I’m not disappointed that I took longer than others to complete my thru-hike. Don’t get me wrong. This past summer, when I was watching almost all of the people I started with move ahead of me and, then, as winter approached, watching some of them finish, I was bummed. It took conscious effort to avoid the urge to try and push to keep up / catch up. When it came down to it, I had to admit to myself that I was less miserable and, eventually, quite happy after a shorter day (13 or 14 miles) than I was after a longer one (18 or 19 miles.) At some point, I gave myself permission to make mileage decisions based on how I felt, not on how many miles my peers were covering. Friendships on the trail can be transient no matter what your hiking speed. But take solace in the fact that you will run into people down the line who you never thought you’d see again. And part of the AT’s charm is that you’ll meet people along the way—at shelters, hostels, in town—no matter when you are passing through. For me, once I embraced this mentality, moving slower was a no-brainer.
In hindsight, I really enjoyed a lot of my hiking and camping experience because I took so long out there. I talked to so many strangers, took too many pictures, slowed to look and listen whenever I felt the slightest impulse, and I might have missed some things if I’d done the hike in the more typical six-month frame. On a practical note, I suffered no injuries or physical ailments, aside from aching feet; this is the case for many faster hikers as well, but injury certainly does correlate with higher daily mileage.
Hiking slowly, for me, was wonderful. It’s not for everyone. It’s not even an option for everyone. Sometimes a tight budget requires an earlier finish, which I get. I was also fortunate to not have to be home for school or a job or any other obligation by a certain date. A successful thru-hike for anyone, regardless of pace, is a powerfully fulfilling achievement.
A popular mantra floating around on trail (and in life) is that happiness is a journey, not a destination. There’s something to that. Before setting out, significant value must be placed on finishing a thru-hike the length of the AT for completion to be plausible. That said, the journey does end up being most of what a thru-hike consists of. Go figure. The challenge is maximizing that happiness throughout, and a happy pace is a strong component.
And remember: to a faster hiker, you are slow. But, to anyone who’s not hiking thousands of miles with their lives on their backs, you are magnificent. And, spoiler alert, most people aren’t thru-hiking. That’s easy to forget when you’re out there, and your world is filled with thru-hikers. Take advantage of any freedom you can, pace-related or otherwise.
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