The 10 Lessons I Learned
On December 12th, I reached the Southern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail. After nearly two weeks of rain, it was finally sunny. I heard birds singing for the first time in weeks and saw blue skies. I practically danced down the trail I was so happy. I was grinning like a child all day long. And then it was over. I’m not sure if I was completely ready for this whole thing to be done so suddenly, so simply. I got to the top of Springer, took a picture, and sat down. “Was this is?” I kept asking myself. It must have been because then I hiked down to the parking lot and went home. I have spent the last week or so reeling from that day. I originally envisioned these last reflections being much less list-like, but I found a lot of peace in laying it all out so cleanly and reminding myself of all the good I have taken away from the last long months. I hope you all can also find something useful in these ramblings – thank you for following along.
1. How to battle loneliness
I’ve written several times on this blog about my experiences with loneliness on trail, so forgive any of my repetitiveness. It was the great struggle I never anticipated going through. I have always been a very independent, introspective person. As a child I preferred to spend my time reading, thinking, or engaged in mostly solitary activities. So naturally I assumed that hiking alone would not pose much of an issue. I was very wrong.
What I noticed was so difficult about being alone was that my emotions quickly became overwhelming and impossible to regulate. With no one around to relieve the stress of being constantly alone with my thoughts, feelings, and emotions, what I would have had the chance to work through in my normal life instead built up and overwhelmed me. Even though I spent all day, every day, talking to myself and living in my mind, I simultaneously felt that I had to bottle things up and focus instead on surviving. So while I felt the constant presence of sadness, confusion, anxiety, and other emotions linked to the changed I was watching myself go through, I never felt comfortable enough to lean into those emotions fully. Instead I prioritized hiking more, sleeping more, and changing my diet in hopes that I could just hike my way out of feeling sad. And when that did not help get rid of what I was feeling, the pent up emotions felt that they had already became too massive to get through on my own. It was at this point in the cycle that the loneliness was always the worst.
I wrote extensively about how the mindset of the “short-term” quit helped me get through some of the worst of these feelings. As I experimented with that mindset throughout the trail, I found that the short term quit also helped with my loneliness. Instead of trying to tackle all of my feelings and needs at once, I tried to set aside time where I would just journal about the changes I was going through and ask myself what I needed in the moment to get up and keep going the next day. Sometimes I just decided to sit down in the woods and cry. Giving up on trying to tackle the massive nature of my aloneness, I just leaned into feeling whatever emotion was at hand.
2. How to face crisis
In addition to the crises of injury and health that I have written about previously, there were innumerable other little crises. I don’t really want to delve into the details of these situations, but I do want to reflect on the things I learned as a result of living through them. I know going into this experience that I could not predict the struggles I would face or the times when my resolve would be challenged. I knew I had to be prepared for the unexpected.
I learned that before I started freaking out, I needed to ask myself four things;
- What is the worst that could happen?
Since the worst case scenario was never death, I could immedtialy start to calm myself down.
- Do I have a last resort safety plan to deal with the worst case scenario?
As long as the answer was yes (and it always was), I could lay out my last resort plan and then stop worrying about what might happen. Once I did that, I could focus making a plan for what I wanted to happen.
- What needs to happen right now?
Focusing only on solving one problem at a time meant I would not waste time worrying about all of my other problems. The most important part of my survival always came first, and I could forget about everything else until the first problem was fixed.
4. Am I capable of solving this problem given the resources that I have?
The answer was always yes. Everything was going to be alright as long as I stayed calm.
The wonderful thing about trail, is that there is always a way to dig yourself out of whatever hole you are trapped in. People are so willing to help, and trail angels are never more than a few miles hike or a phone call away.
3. How to ask for help
Going hand in hand with learning how to face crisis, went learning how to ask for help. I have never been good at asking for help. I would so much rather solve a problem on my own then admit to someone else that I don’t know what I am doing. Teaching myself to overcome the fear of being judged or pitted was not easy. I have never before had to ask strangers for food, water, rides, or help in any way. I depended on the kindness of strangers to give me places to stay, take me to grocery stores, let me charge my phone, fill up my water bottles from their garden hoses, or help me find post offices. It was incredibly humbling to realize I would not survive without the help of my fellow hikers and the people I met along the way.
Eventually, I got a lot better at sucking up my pride and just approach people when I needed help. The wonderful thing I found was just how kind and willing nearly everyone was. Often that was because people envied or respected what I was doing and so they felt a strong desire to be helpful and considerate. I am in awe of every person who took a chance, put their lives on hold for a little while, and gave me help when I really needed it. But more than anyone else, I haves so much respect for the people who helped me without even knowing what I was doing. In a world that grows ever more cynical and isolationist, it was constantly humbling and inspiring to meet people who helped me just because I needed help, not because I was walking the east coast.
I may have been self-sufficient, but that did not make me invincible. And asking for help did not negate my own hard work and capabilities. I may have known this before, in theory, but learning it in practice shifted my perspective on so many things and has made me much more willing to help others.
4. How to find imperfect joy in a world that demands perfection
My hike was not perfect. I do have a couple miles I need to revisit from my time being sick. I was sad sometimes, and I didn’t get to have some of the experiences I hoped that I would. I don’t have many glamorous photos or videos of myself doing crazy things. I had my expectations and confidence rattled and my trust betrayed. I did not write on this blog as much as I had planned too. Sometimes, when I look through other hikers’ photos, videos, or blogs I feel that I missed out on so much. I feel a strange pressure to prove that my journey was just as instagrammable and exciting as everyone else’s sometimes seems. I have to remind myself that that is not why I embarked on this journey.
I did not hike to impress other people or appear stronger, happier, and more resilient than I really am. The reality is that I found joy in the imperfection I lived through. I found joy in overcoming challenges, in being happy in spite of my struggles, and searching for beauty in the mundane. I found incredible joy in the immense openness and complexity of the world I lived in and explored. I think back to the person I was six months ago and I know that I am not quite the same person. That gives me joy. I might not have figured out everything about my soul and my future as I had hoped, but I had my life touched and changed by people and places I never imagined I would see. I found joy in just doing what made me happy, going where I wanted and relying on the inspiration I received from nature to keep me going.
I realized that I did not need my journey to be about accomplishing something great, or being a perfect inspiration to all who followed along. I did not need everything I did to make me look more impressive and capable. Instead I could happy for the things I lived though, both grand and simple, and the stories I now have to tell. I could find joy in the passion and freedom the trail gave me, and the purpose it gave to my life for several years. This is, without a doubt, the greatest thing I have ever done. My joy in that accomplishment exists because of, and not in spite of, the hard things I had to go through. I have never been happier in my life than I was for those 5 and a half months, and that in and of itself is something to rejoice in.
When I look back on my journey, I remember the sun burning through clouds after dark days of rain. I remember smiling to myself while I watched Jack chase chipmunks. I remember trying to sing with the birds, I remember running up mountains and chasing sunrises and sunsets. I remember shedding tears and feeling the trees hold me. I remember the shock and wonder I felt each time I saw something new. I remember walking with deer and running through fields. I remember laughing around campfires and singing to the stars. I remember traveling at the smallest mushrooms and the grandest waterfalls. And I remember being happy. That is what matters most to me.
5. The diversity of American culture
I remember quite vividly hiking out of Glasgow, Virginia and needing to stop for a moment to take in my surroundings. Behind me was a small town with three stores scattered crossed empty streets, looking like it had been dropped down from Ohio. To my left were fields of corn, to my right were train tracks and a river. As I walked across the bridge, I looked up at mountains that loomed over me, rusty orange and deep red. I am not sure what I thought America looked like, but it wasn’t this. Perhaps it was the combination of all these things that was so striking and strange, or perhaps it is just how I remember that day. Nevertheless, I snapped a mental picture and stored in the back of my brain.
I have hundreds of these little snapshots now. Some are real pictures, but most are not. Almost all of them are of small towns and pieces of rural America I thought no longer existed. Perhaps some of my wonder over these little things is due to where I grew up, but I think it is more than that. I doubt that most Americans will ever travel through other small towns in this country the way thru-hikers do. People rarely travel off of interstates an highways unless they need to. When we travel, we rarely take the time to explore the little places that thru-hiking gave me access to on an almost daily basis. Forgotten farmhouses, cow pastures, and old battlefields. Overgrown cemeteries, crumbling ruins, cabins away in the mountains, tucked into fields of ferns. It was the Amish in Burke’s garden or the little farms in rural New England. It was the old motels and general stores on the sides of outdated roads or half-abandoned railroad towns. It was the wrap-around porches on old Victorian farmhouses or the red roofs on Chestnut cabins. It was the plaques to people the world would have forgotten about if the trail did not pass the places of their deaths. It was the strangers who gave me rides in their pickup trucks or gave me their old mountain wisdom.
There were so many facets of American culture that I ignored because I had never visited the places and lived with the people who kept those cultures alive. There was a whole way of life I thought must have died off fifty or sixty years ago, and yet there are people still living it. I think I understand a lot more about American history and politics as a result of learning this lesson. At least I now have a way to contextualize so many of the people and micro-cultures that exist outside of urban America.
6. Ethics over Morals, or finding common ground anywhere
I noticed towards the end of my hike that there was a pattern to who I gravitated towards on trail, and who I tended to avoid. What I discovered was somewhat surprising.
Now, for the purposes of this argument, I am going to have define two terms, ethics and morals. For my purposes, a person’s morals will be a their internal values and rules for personal conduct and the habits they form. Sometimes people rely on religion to dictate their morals, but many people don’t. A person’s ethics are their standards for how they treat others and exist in relationships outside of themselves and their personal values. What I found was that people who prioritized ethics over morals were better friends and companions. No matter what a person’s morals were, people who had a strong code of ethics were just kinder, more patient and better friends.
On the other hand, people I met who advertised their morals or took time to impress upon other people the importance of having a specific set of morals tended to be more likely to mistreat other people. When their focus was on what made them a good person in their personal lives, their focus was removed from how to accommodate the lives and values of other people. When I realized this, I tried to shift my own behavior as best as I could to line up with what I observed. And I realized that if we were more willing to focus our interactions with the world around how to treat other people well, rather than how to impose our personal values on the lives of others, we would be a much more productive society.
7. The power of your Peers (or lack thereof)
One of the most interesting revelations I went through on trail is how far the thru-hiking community is from being truly diverse and inclusive. I am not an ethnic minority, and despite growing up in a very diverse neighborhood in NYC, I always had fictional characters, friends and role models in my life who looked like me and did the things I did. I spent most of my life attending schools that were largely female. Hiking the AT was probably the first time in my life where I experienced consistent discrimination and isolation because of my identity as a woman. I cannot imagine how much worse these experiences would have been had I not been a white, Anglo-American. And although these experiences did not define or destroy my beauty and joy of my journey, there were an undeniable part of my day to day life.
Despite the often perpetuated ideal that the AT is a place where everyone goes through the same experiences, no matter their backgrounds, it isn’t quite the case. As a community and a culture, we need to be more mindful about acting and speaking on trail in a way that reflects the values of equality and respect that I know we all hold.
Just because we have rejected society and fled to the woods for a few months, does not entitle us to throw away the guidelines for respectful behavior society has given us. Just because we spend weeks or months traveling with strangers in close confines, and through times of intense vulnerability, we are not entitled to say and do things we would not say or do to strangers we met when not on trail. Being nomadic hermits who have chosen to live without duty or responsibility does not make us impervious to the criticisms and expectations of those in our community and the communities we pass through. Being a member of the AT community should burden you with the responsibility to make each place you stop a safe space for any hiker who chooses to join you there. Being a part of this change means that you listen when another hiker tells you they have been harassed, disrespected, or mistreated. That means that even if you had only good experiences with the person or hostel another hiker with a different background had negative experiences with, you still listen.
I was greatly alarmed many times on trail when a fellow woman would tell about negative experiences they had with a man on trail, only for other men to listen in and try to shut down the woman because he had not shared a negative interaction with the hiker being discussed. Each time, I wanted to scream “of course you didn’t, you are a man!” We share a responsibility, whether we like it or not, to keep each other safe on trail. We are our own safety network, our own greatest defense, and our only resource in case of an emergency. We have seen repeatedly this year that police have refused to arrest men that have been reported and filmed assaulting others on or around trail. Women and other oppressed groups need to know they can trust their peers to listen and look out for them when these situations arise. Put aside your pride and listen. When we can trust in our peers, we have the power to shift the narrative and make our nation’s greatest trails safer places for everyone.
8. The power of Found Family
I am not sure I figured out completely how to deal with the effects of loneliness, but I did also learn to appreciate other people more, and to put greater value into the conversations I got to have with my friends and family back home. I also gained a greater appreciated for the importance of trail families. While I had never, at any point, intended or expected to join a tramily, I spent my last 3 weeks (roughly) traveling with three other hikers, El Gato, Delorean, and Fuzzy Duck. After separating briefly around Thanksgiving time to do our separate things, we met back up halfway through the Great Smoky Mountains for the last stretch. After spending a few days hiking on my own again, it was absolutely amazing to be back together again.
Everything seems easier when you have other people to share the hard days with, the views feel more beautiful when your friends are in them, and the hours hiking alone feel shorter when you look forward to seeing each other again. The minute I caught a glimpse of Fuzzy Duck waiting in the Newfound Gap parking lot, I broke into a huge grin. El Gato and Delorean caught up not long after and we spent what would have been a very cold night camped out in a heated public bathroom. Which, sounds disgusting and depressing, and it might have been had I been alone. But instead it became one of my favorite nights I ever spent on trail, despite being decidedly unglamorous and a little disgusting. Especially after the mice came out.
Finding people who made me feel comfortable, happy, and understood was so important to helping work through the craziness of the trail finally coming to an end after so long. And through some of the hostel craziness (if you’re on AT Facebook/reddit you may know what I am talking about, for the rest of you I will spare you the details), weather insanity (it rained for almost the entirety of those last two weeks), and the emotional roller coaster every mile closer to Springer seemed to bring, they were there for me in a way no one else on trail had ever been. And after spending so much time feeling isolated and alone, those weeks were heavenly.
Remembering that there is, beyond my little trail family, a massive network of trail connections out there that know exactly what I have been through, is so comforting. Despite the internal struggle I faced with finding my place on the AT, I have never felt as accepted and understood by a group of people than I have by the trail community. Without it’s open-mindedness and positivity I would not have believed that this was something I was capable of doing. Without the people all along the way who gave me their stories and wisdom, I would not be the person I am now.
After the cold really picked up in early to mid November, every day became an exercise of patience. Having patience with being cold, tired and hungry all the time and never being able to solve all three of those problems at once. Just getting through basic tasks like hanging my food or setting up my sleeping kit at night became so hard to get through. I have never been a particularly patient person, but I learned a lot about overcoming that impatience on trail. Partially that is because I had no other options. I had only whatever was in my pack to keep me warm and happy, so I had to learn to be uncomfortable most of the time.
Of course, the whole trail was an exercise of patience. To take almost 6 months to walk what can be driven in two or three days is almost an absurd test of endurance. But after a few weeks, the constant discomfort just becomes a part of life. In some ways, testing the limits of what you conditions you can withstand and what temperatures you can survive is wildly empowering. I feel a lot less urgency now to speed my way through life and its hurdles, and to instead enjoy taking things slow.
In my first post for The Trek, I talked about not really know the reason why I was hiking the trail. My trail name, Migrator has a lot to do with that as well. I simply felt a desire to hike, like I was being pulled onwards by some innate need. But I think I can honestly say that I now know what it was I was looking for; freedom. Within days on trail, I noticed immediately that the sense of freedom that filled my lungs and occupied my days. There is a freedom (and tradition) in leaving behind all you know to explore the unknown. The world seems so open, so full of possibility. Where there was stagnation, there is now movement. Where there was fear, there is now experience. Where there was confusion, there is now clarity. Where there was a whole world to appease, there is just now you and the trees. It was the greatest feeling I’ve ever felt, and I’ll be chasing it for the rest of my life.
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