The Expectations of an Aspiring Thru-Hiker
Venturing Into the Unknown
The aspiration to complete a thru-hike can be all-consuming and utterly thrilling. It’s hard as an avid hiker to avoid the allure of breathtaking photos, imagination-capturing movies and books, and the vast output of inspiring thru-hiking content. How, after seeing and consuming all of this material, can one not want to experience a long-distance trail for themselves? How can one not want to become immersed in the experience that is fresh air, ice-cold mountain water, panoramic views, and stories to create and share for the rest of your life?
I have caught ‘the bug.’ I don’t know that I’ve ever had a greater realization of pure excitement for the unknown than when preparing for the Appalachian Trail. Yet, at the same time, it isn’t entirely unknown. Many have trodden this path before, and their experiences are readily available. If there’s any worry as to whether your gear will suffice, there are endless resources to consult. Are you unsure where to find a water source, a particular shelter, or weary of a particular hostel? There’s an app for that. Do you want the preparation and experience broken down for you into the minutia? Look no further than The Trek itself.
Are long-distance trails truly the unknown, are they filled with an endless source of awe, and should you or I expect as much? I don’t know. But I think I have an idea.
I tend to romanticize the classic Appalachian Trail onset through the arches at Amicalola Falls in the Georgia spring. It’s easy to envision heartfelt goodbyes and the suggestion that loved ones will hardly even recognize me after the grand adventure I am about to experience has ended.
That’s a dramatically beautiful image, but I intend to go SOBO. I am choosing the rugged slog, climbing up Katahdin, and hiking through the notoriously challenging northeastern United States right out of the gate. Any goodbyes will have happened before boarding a flight or taking a long road trip up the coast from my home state of Florida.
I’ve repeatedly heard that SOBO hikes allow for more solitude. There is no real bubble to contend with. Though, anecdotally, I’ve heard that, while a far cry from the crowds of a NOBO hike, SOBO thrus don’t provide the same level of escape they once did (other than perhaps escaping norovirus). This factor of seclusion is an example of a minor unknown for me. I’m not exactly looking for solitude, but I’m also not looking for a deeply social hike. I desire to push my limits, face challenges, and grow as a person. Social growth accounts for a piece of this.
I hope to maximize the possibility of experiencing the unknown. A SOBO hike, I think, will facilitate this. Will I be unrecognizable to loved ones? Doubtful. But I expect to experience a rush of emotions, anxiety, and uncontrollable excitement, whether climbing the stairs at Amicalola or climbing the side of Katahdin on day one.
I know I can physically handle the Appalachian Trail. I would argue that most can. While there is no doubt hiking over 2,000 miles is a great physical challenge, the key is and will be for me to start slow and build up to a hiking pace that feels comfortable and keeps me safe. Ignoring the mental component of long-distance hiking, each prospective hiker should theoretically be able to succeed by personalizing this described pace and maintaining openness to changing their hiking direction (flip-flopping) if they are running late in the season.
This described equation simplifies the physical picture. Yet, there are countless stories of individuals who were not in what most would consider being their prime-thru-hiking condition that managed to succeed. I will be more than physically capable as I am a confident, yet appropriately cautious, hiker to begin with. The mental component is another story.
Thru-hiking is, in almost every way, like all other difficult things in life. It may be the most challenging thing I ever do, or it may not. Walls are inevitably hit with each great challenge presented to a person. Clearing these walls requires questioning oneself. Why am I doing this? What do I hope to achieve? Do I love thru-hiking and being outdoors so much that I am willing to endure struggle?
I do fully expect to struggle. Rain. Cold. Exhaustion. Hunger. It will all come.
In these moments of deep discomfort, it will be easy to go home. I will have a phone, enough money to travel, and loved ones who will happily see my return to a warm bed and a stocked refrigerator.
I’ll say it again, I’ve never done a thru-hike. This is the unknown. Who am I, and what can I endure? We’ll see.
Towns and People
I remember standing on the Appalachian Trail logo pressed into the concrete in Hot Springs, North Carolina. I was only there briefly, but I pleasantly experienced the hot springs firsthand. Stepping into the private tubs overlooking the river was nice, but it lacked the rewarding feeling I know will be felt when eventually hiking through the town. While sitting here at my desk, I can imagine my achy bones and muscles loosening and floating about in the steaming spring water after having already trudged along most of the trail.
People are mostly the same wherever you go, in my opinion. There is always good and bad to be found. The same day I sat in those springs in Hot Springs, I also witnessed a brawl break out just in front of my car while sitting in the dollar store parking lot. A man nonchalantly walked past my window directly into the neighboring building. Moments later, he exited with two men, one of which he engaged in a fight. The other acted as a sort of referee.
Despite that experience, I expect to encounter a vast majority of people with open arms and friendly demeanors, both on the trail and in the neighboring towns. I look forward to the community inherent to the Appalachian Trail.
After the Trail
We’ve all heard the phrase, ‘post-trail depression.’ The mere thought of experiencing rigorous hiking, a tight-knit community, and spending every waking moment outdoors for months on end only to simply return to your pre-trail day-to-day is bone-chilling.
Though, at the same time, after spending months breaking your body down, facing the cold and the rain, and surviving off of Snickers bars and instant mashed potatoes, there may be nothing more satisfying than returning to the place you call home.
I expect to anxiously anticipate my return home when nearing the end of my hike. Then I am prepared to long for the days on the trail while sinking into the cushions of my couch. I expect to dread returning to work, and I know that whatever amount of disbelief people have had about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail throughout my preparation will quickly subside. Normalcy will ensue, for better or worse.
I have made a wholehearted attempt throughout this process of thru-hiking preparation to manage my expectations. While my excitement has bloomed and fully boiled over, I have constantly searched for a dose of realism. Sometimes this comes in the shape of the experiences of others, while more often it comes from shouldering discomfort firsthand.
Every walk, camping trip, hike, or use of new equipment is an opportunity for something to go wrong. These moments of failure are good! They are lessons and a precursor to the laundry list of things bound to go wrong on a thru-hike.
At a deeper level, mentalities are bound to falter. Will the glamour and sheen begin to fade after I’ve been hiking for three straight months? Probably. But once finishing and reflecting on this long walk, I will feel even more proud that I overcame my self-induced hindrances.
Whatever unknown exists, I hope to embrace it. I expect to succeed, but am aware I may not. One thing seems certain, knowing myself. If I make it, there will be much more thru-hiking coming my way.
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