Staying Flexible: A Lesson of the Trail


This post is, sadly, the official acknowledgment of postponing my 2020 northbound thru-hike attempt. As you can imagine this was a difficult decision after months of planning, budgeting, and gear research. Even more so, the emotional investment that accompanied the thru-hike prep has weighed heavily. It took a lot to decide to walk away from work, from friends and family. Now I’m in some sort of limbo, sitting back in front of my computer once again with little sense of what the next three, six, or 12 months of my life will look like. The uncertainty is especially pointed because of the sudden contrast from the simplicity of trail life. Two weeks ago I had essentially planned out the broad strokes of the next six months and my day-to-day activities during that time.

I should take a moment and acknowledge that this is no pity-party. I’m much better off than most, as I’ve prepared to be without income for the next six months. I feel healthy, and I have a home to go back to (courtesy of my wonderful sister). So I’m in a fine position in the midst of this worldwide chaos, which many thru-hikers can’t say and many people in general can’t say. In light of that, I should apologize for the lapse in posting. I’ve been dragging my feet on just about everything since I got back.

Good Out of Bad

For a long time, I’ve held that the only way to stay sane is to find something positive in negative circumstances. It’s impossible to get through life without setbacks, but those that temper their negative experiences with positive insights are better off. This is one of the moments in life that I need that type of wisdom, as the decision to leave the trail sits on my psyche the way a bad meal sits in the stomach.

The insight I’ve latched onto is, quite fittingly, that the Appalachian Trail demands flexibility out of us. This roadblock was more or less unforeseen, with only two confirmed cases in the US at the time that we started. When Jack, Alyssa, Natalie, and I flew down to Atlanta, people were still making zombie apocalypse jokes about this virus. To me, COVID-19 was no different than swine flu, the overblown epidemic of 2009.

It was on the sixth day of our thru-hike, at Low Gap Shelter, when I realized that there was something much more significant going on. One of our fellow hikers staying at the shelter told us that the NHL and NBA seasons had just been suspended. Thinking about the gravity of that statement, the economic implications of shutting down two major keystones in the entertainment industry, made me realize that this virus, this pandemic, would come to affect me eventually. And it was then that I found a positive lens to view the situation in: the trail demands flexibility out of us in order to complete a thru-hike. Even if it means getting off trail for an injury, for illness, or for other life events, there are many that need more than one year to achieve this. I know now that even if my goal of a 2020 thru was derailed, I will still pursue a full thru-hike in the future.

Still managed some smiles before our final departure from the trail.

The Twilight Zone

The return to society has been more jarring than I expected, even after only two weeks on the trail. The contrast between the settings of the AT and my sister’s house is the proverbial icing on my depression cake. In returning to regular life with no job, no plan, and a damn quarantine, I’ve got a clean slate where I was hoping to have insight and revelation.

I’m not quite back at square one, though. The problems I identified before setting out on my hike are still here, and at least I know what they are. I know I want to instill discipline, I want to affect changes in my work life to find more fulfillment, and I want to be healthier (that goes for mental, physical and emotional health). So there is plenty to work on, and I’m going to use this platform to share the story of how I pivot my approach. I will find a way to replace grueling hikes (that’s easy, just work out until you fall over!) and the emotional drain of unpredictable rain (hmm, not as easy…). Plus I have some stories to share from those two weeks on the trail, so those will be coming as well.

Until then, be safe and enjoy quarantine!



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Comments 4

  • Eia : Apr 2nd

    Stay safe and well!

    • Luke Howard : Apr 10th

      Thanks Eia! We were very disappointed we didn’t make it up to your neck of the woods… stay safe.

  • Russ1663 : Apr 5th

    Good morning Luke

    I understand your position with variations. I’m a double retiree, military and then industrial.

    I was planning a couple of trips with my grandson. Nothing very long, the Virginia Creeper Trail that crosses through Damascus Va and places like McAfee Knob, Dragon’s Tooth and the Audie Murphy Memorial.

    I watch as the rumor of a plague became reality and brought everyone’s world to a halt. I glad for you that your fall back was available. I have local parks and trails to include the Colonial Parkway from Jamestown to Yorktown here in eastern Virginia.

    Good luck, with good fortune you will be able to return to the AT.

    Take care

    Russ Hobgood
    Toano, Va

    • Luke Howard : Apr 10th

      Russ —

      That’s a beautiful stretch of trail, I’ve done parts of it myself! Glad to hear that you have some other ideas in mind too. Getting out at a time like this is huge for the psyche. Especially if you can find some solitude out there!

      I hope you and your grandson are both well during this difficult time. Thanks for the well wishes.



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