Suffering, Purpose, and Stride: A Few Lessons from 110 Miles on the Appalachian Trail

My Journey to the Trail

My trail name is “Atlas” and, as I’m writing this, I’m a NOBO AT thru-hiker.

I don’t know what I was thinking when I set out to hike the, approximately, 2197.4 miles (yr 2024) of the Appalachian Trail. That’s not as much a self-reproach as it is a confession.

The Trail has always had gravity. Growing up in the Berkshires, it snaked its way near our backyards, through our hiking places, and tangled woodlands and as one crossed over it, looking north then south, it left one with a feeling of isolated connectedness. Seemingly, in the middle of nowhere, this ribbon of trodden earth and footworn stones connected almost the entire eastern seaboard of the U.S. Yet, without looking for it, it might remain invisible. In fact, it crosses Route 90, the Mass Pike, via a concrete and steel footbridge in Becket, but the small sign is easily missed as you cruise under it at 65 MPH on the highway. Hidden as it is, each intersection, when found, leaves that thought, “I could turn north and walk to Maine, or I could turn south and walk to Georgia.” The intrigue and simplicity of that thought inspires other wonders about what may be just beyond our view and connect other parts of our physical world still opening up more wonder within our minds. Or at least that was the looming impression the AT always left with me.

Fast forward 35 years from my first memory of The Trail, and I found myself in a strange place in life. At age 40, I had accomplished many goals, made a career for myself in tech, maintained some hobbies, you know, the things you are supposed to do while adulting through an ever changing and increasingly frustrating world.

After some heavy conversations with my very supportive wife, a thought emerged: maybe I can finally hike the AT. I honestly never dreamed that I would be able to do it now; I always imagined it would be a retirement pipedream, hoping my health and mind would hold out long enough to keep that dream alive. Nonetheless, the thought seemed to be manifesting as a feasible plan. In this way, there was no fully crystalized thought that I can recall; it was more of an instinct, a drive, to which I was surrendering. Furthermore, I can’t say for certain that I knew, or know now, what the drive was to or for or if even there was a goal. I just had this gut feeling, and as vague as that feeling might have been, it was strong.

Turning thought, or instinct, into action in a matter of 48 hours, I gave my notice at work, including a 30-day termination cycle, and my last day was scheduled for December 8, 2023. I took some time to decompress and then began planning, in earnest, on January 15, 2024 and set my start date for February 29th, Leap Day.

With almost 20 years of backpacking and backcountry experience, I had most of the gear ready to roll, which helped to cut down on some of the typical planning required. All of my experience had been in the mountains of New England, in every season and weather imaginable, but my weekend warrior routine required some tweaking in preparation for a long-range venture like the AT. So, with some gear upgrades (new tent and a new windproof cook system), and many struggles to distill the 135 pounds of gear that I wanted to bring into a hoistable 45 pounds, I rented a car and headed south for Amicalola Falls in Georgia.

Lessons from the Trail

With that history in mind and without recounting my day-by-day experience here, there are lessons learned, after passing the 110-mile mark, that I hope can help others, whether you’re still dreaming of the adventure, or repacking your gear for the 78th time in preparation for your start date.

Don’t Underestimate Georgia while Overestimating Hunger

Just some good ole fashioned rocky steep Appalachian terrain in Georgia.

Age-old advice that we’ve all heard is “Don’t Train on the Trail.” And while that holds absolutely true, I would add that Georgia is more challenging than expected. I’m used to the rugged steepness and unforgiving terrain of New England trails, and therefore thought that GA was more than doable. But the seemingly endless ups and downs of Georgia had me wishing for a steep incline to a flat-ish ridge that would just never arrive. I started with an extremely heavy pack, owing, in part, to slightly too much gear but mostly to way too many provisions. What I had estimated as 5 to 6 days of food, not knowing how many days it would take me to clear Neels Gap and the first feasible resupply, turned out to be closer to 11 days of food for me. I had drastically overestimated my hunger and caloric needs. The body adjusts to the demand of the trail and the task at hand, and I would wager that you simply can’t eat as much as you think you can while working that hard on the trail. A long-range shakedown hike of a couple of weeks, rather than long weekends would have helped me work this out sooner.

The other surprise was the weather. Georgia’s weather and the Georgia Mountain weather are two different things. Albeit it was early in the year, early March, but the weather was schizophrenic, ranging from a full-blown ice storm on March 1 on Springer Mountain, to 70 degrees and blazing sun on March 3 as I approached Woody Gap. I received several reports of hikers being rescued because of, or treated for, hypothermia.

I should have carried fewer provisions, but I was glad to have the extra range of gear to support the range in weather. I suggest you carry what you can to protect yourself in the Mountain Environment rather than adhering to seemingly impossible weight limits. Train by carrying the weight that will keep you thriving rather than minimizing below safe thresholds of gear. (I’ll publish a full gear list in a later article).

Listen to Your Body while Taking Its Message “with a Grain of Salt.”

Reaching 100 mil

The unexpected strain of the endless ups and downs took a greater toll on my body than I had expected, even after I had eaten down some of the weight in my pack.

I felt strong because I had been training before the trail, but when I tried to push the extra miles to make up for what I perceived as lost miles due to an unexpected weather-based zero day at Springer Mountain for the ice storm, I ended up injured (heel and knee) and had to rest even longer to recover. I should have stayed the course of around 8-miles per day for the first week and let my body, and mind, get acclimated to the trail and routine. That would have kept my spirits higher as well.

That in mind, when I was nearing 100 miles at Albert Mountain, while I had reduced my pack weight closer to 50+ pounds (the big pack is why a fellow thru-hiker named me “Atlas”) I still managed to do a 16-mile day over the top of Albert from Beech Gap to Rock Gap. My body was getting trail-hardened even without my direct knowledge. At one point I saw my legs moving but it felt like they were being robotically controlled by someone else! That’s what trail legs start feeling like and they come in quick!

Be kind to yourself; mind, body, and spirit. Set reasonable goals, or no goals, for the first part of the trail and just do what you can do. Don’t berate yourself for not achieving expectations. Even more simply, try not to have expectations. Add a couple of extra packs of ramen noodles or other lightweight options just in case and you’ll have plenty of provisions to reach Neels Gap and resupply. Keeping in mind that your body is likely more capable than you think it is, if you are kind to it.

This is Not a Hike

So, this lesson was a wicked “kickah,” as you might hear in the Northeast, and is most heavily connected to the history above while being the most unexpected. Full confession, even as the lesson was appearing to me on the trail, I fought to keep the information from settling into my mental framework. I came to Georgia geared for the elements, provisioned for the long haul, and ready to hike. But that’s not what the Appalachian Trail is.

I imagine now that some may think of it as more akin to a pilgrimage, which seems vaguely appropriate to me. Although, I have always thought of a pilgrimage as requiring an element of seeking; regardless of whether that which one seeks is spiritual or secular. For me, without an identified need or object to seek, the hiking and the trail routine soured very quickly. It’s not fun, in any traditional sense. It’s hard work and demands perseverance through inclement weather, sometimes overcrowded camp situations, rough terrain, hard climbs, and tricky descents. It left me with this odd and lingering sense of being homeless, purposeless, tired, and bruised. And this was all before reaching Hogpen Gap and 40 miles.

It was at that point on the trail, with some help and encouragement from many caring people in my life, that I realized I had perceived this all incorrectly. I forcefully and purposely began to reframe my thoughts to look at the trail as foot travel with interesting destinations along the way to broaden my mind like all travel is wont to do. The suffering, the hiking, and the camp routine are part and parcel to this form of travel and not separate components; they are required elements and deepen the experience. It all becomes a form of fun and aggregated into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

I would suggest that just as you pack your gear and provisions, pack a reason in your mind that is strong enough to make you excited to continue, and renewed every day for the adventure. For those Harry Potter fans out there, whatever thought could power your patronus charm, bring it along with you and make it a good one. Also pack some chocolate, it really helps.

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Comments 4

  • Cheryl Thomson : Mar 27th

    This is absolutely brilliant Sean you have captured the essence of this Journey. It’s a metaphor for life, and some of us need a reminder that it’s important to truly savor every step we take.

    • Sean : Apr 1st

      Thank you so much!

  • Keith : Mar 28th

    You are an outstanding writer and your insights are spot-on. Good luck on your trek northward!

    • Sean : Apr 1st

      That is truly kind, thank you, Keith! I hope it helps. Happy Trails!!


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