The Day I Got Off Trail… Last October

Like many have written on this site, the only socially responsible decision I can make is to postpone my thru-hike. Even though I’m not planning to start my flip-flop hike until May, there are too many unknowns ahead and my financial situation is too shaky for me to fully commit to thru-hiking this year, especially as I’ve lost my source of income due to coronavirus. 

I could outline what I’m planning to do next, but the truth is I really don’t know.  

In recent days, I’ve found my mind returning to the last day I was on the AT in October last year. It was my first real backpacking trip, hiking north from Carvers Gap to 19E over the span of three days. After camping at Doll Flats on the second evening, my friend and I were making our way back to 19E, Mountain Harbor Hostel, and our waiting car.

Though we were walking an easy three miles downhill with no views to rival what we’d seen on previous days, I was filled with an excited energy. “This is like what it will be when I’m thru-hiking, I thought to myself. I was seeing the mountains up close, hiking not to climb a summit or chase views, but to see the details of every mile as they passed under my feet. At the time I was sad to see the trail stretch past our exit point, feeling the yearning in me to continue, knowing that this marvelous trail could take me all the way to Maine if I put in the effort. 

To soothe my sad, wannabe thru-hiker heart, this week I read AWOL on the Appalachian Trail. I’ve devoted hours of the past few days to reading, filling myself with AWOL’s stories, picturing what it could have been like for me to hike this year. Reading has connected me to the trail, and then I read this quote from his Pennsylvania section:

“On foot inside the woods, I am much more attuned to the sights, smells, and changes in terrain… The trees, plants, and rocks on different sections of the trail have variations too subtle for words. Added together, the differences give each segment of the trail, each day, each hour, a substantially unique feel.” – David “AWOL” Miller 

Reading this reminded me of the emotions I felt that cool October day. Hiking downhill, I was just as happy to walk among rocks and trees as I had been under the sun and sky on the open expanses of Jane Bald and Hump Mountain days before. This shaded section of trail was unlike any section I’d experienced yet, and though some may have dubbed it boring, I was fascinated by the shape of the land as we went down, following gullies, seeing rock formations that I’d never seen arranged in this way before. 

I’d spent the previous days dancing over the ridges and peaks of the mountains behind me, and now here I was, walking along their foundation, realizing for the first time just how small I am in comparison to their monumental scale. 

Trail with Large Rocks

Rocks in the distance may be larger than they appear. I’m in the lower right!

It is one thing to stand on top of a mountain, feeling accomplished for having conquered something so large and daunting, but a completely different feeling to come down, to be closer to the roots and small creatures, to see the features that make up the mountains I’d “conquered.” If mountains could talk, they’d laugh at the idea of us conquering them. Walking downhill to 19E, I realized what a humbling experience backpacking could be. Seeing the mountain that close made me realize I wanted to hike on. To see what new feature, experience, or lesson I could find on the side of the next mountain.

This is how I feel now: humbled in the face of something that is so much bigger than me. As thru-hikers before me have said, the trail doesn’t care about your plans. And neither does coronavirus. 

This was the perfect year for me to hike, an opportunity handed to me on a silver platter. Hiking this year was a goal for me to work toward immediately following my layoff, something I could focus on while I struggled with the bigger question of what comes next?

So, what comes next? 

Though it’s hard to plan much of anything at this time, last October when I stepped off the trail I made a promise, to myself and to the trail, that I would come back to hike its full length. I thought what I was promising was only six months away, but now I know that isn’t the case. 

Where once the trail was a far-off maybe, I made it my goal to change that “maybe” to “this year.” With the global developments over the last month, “this” year has cooled into an enthusiastic “someday soon.” I don’t know when I’ll get back, but the pause on my thru-hiking dreams is only temporary. 

One day, the “someday” will be “today.”

See you then, AT.

Mountain Harbor Hiker Hostel.

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Comments 1

  • John Folsom : Apr 4th

    I am not a thru-hiker but I have back-packed several hundred miles along the AT. I just finished “The Unlikely Thru-Hiker” by Derick Lugo. A fun read.


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