The AT Chooses You

I’m not sure I decided to hike the AT, so much as the AT decided it had to be hiked by me. All right, of course that’s anthropomorphizing the trail to an absurd extent, but I think the decision to hike (by me, by you, by anyone setting out on this ridiculous venture) is worth exploring more closely. For me, deciding to hike the AT wasn’t a decision I made once. It was a decision I made, reaffirmed, and repeatedly chose over the last ten years. Every time I said in passing, “Yes, I’m going to do that,” every time I talked about learning more about backpacking, every time I went to REI just to look around and dream about getting onto the trail, I made the decision. Moving from the decision to do it “someday” to the decision to “start 3 March 2016” wasn’t so much a decision as a weird revelation. I don’t believe in fate or destiny. I don’t think my life has a set course – I’m pretty sure all my decisions are my own and I must take responsibility for them. But I will say, the day I decided to hike the AT, really decided that next season was my season, it wasn’t so much a decision as coming to a realization of something I already knew.

There was no hesitation, no debating the pros and cons. I didn’t worry whether or not I could or I couldn’t. I just knew that I was going to try. No questions asked, do the research, and finally put my money (literally and figuratively) where my mouth is.

Logistically, I’ll never be in a better position. I have several temporary jobs that won’t mind if I take a significant leave of absence, hiring season for what I hope is a future permanent job will be in the awkward lull between submitting paper applications and calling for interviews, and if I pinch and scrounge all my pennies (and if my car stops breaking down every other day), I will have exactly enough money to pay rent/bills, feed myself, buy nice gear, and save money for the trail. Not a penny more and not a penny less.

Mentally, I needed the challenge and the incentive. Preparing for an adventure of this magnitude requires meticulous planning, abundant reading, and serious soul-searching. The planning pleases my organizational side. Figuring out permits, schedules, average weather, and the best gear necessary for all situations tickles my inner logistical coordinator. By the same token, researching the trail, what to do if a bear attacks, and how to cook in the woods keeps my inner academic happy. “Still learning!” this inner voice shouts, “We’re still learning something new – hooray!”

But perhaps most importantly, I relish the introspection that came with the decision. “Why are you hiking the AT?” Zach asks us in Appalachian Trials, “Make sure you know.”    Some serious soul-searching is necessary to tease out why my decision was not really a revelation, but more an unconscious, progressive movement towards this moment. The need to show 18-year old Rachael that today’s Rachael can still accomplish seemingly-impossible goals, the desire to avoid (or at least delay) entering the banalities of 9-5 working, civilized life, the need to know if I can rely on myself – really rely on myself for months at a time, and the inexplicable urge to see how far I can push my physical limits, are among a few of the reasons I’ve determined so far – and I still have six months to think about it!

And finally – incentive. At the end of a long day of commuting to and from work, reading endless student assignments, balancing several mundane jobs – I can remind myself that soon, I’ll be on the trail. The money I’m earning will buy my gear, feed me, and shelter me on the trail. There is an end (at least a temporary suspension) to the trivial day-to-day slog in sight. I have an adventure – a self-made, self-supporting adventure waiting for me in just a few months.

I can’t wait to get there!

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