The Hardest Question for this Aspiring Thru-Hiker to Answer: Why?
When I announce that I’m planning to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail next year, I get all kinds of questions. The most common ones are easy to answer:
“The whole thing?” Yes, all 2190 miles, God willing.
“Are you going alone?” Well, I’m starting solo but I’m sure I’ll make friends along the way.
“Will you carry a gun?” No, I don’t need one. They’re heavy. And the carry laws are different in every state. So no.
“You’ll take bear spray, right?” No, it’s not really necessary and I don’t want the extra weight.
Then there’s the one question that most people don’t ask. Maybe they assume they know the answer, or they think I’m crazy, or they really don’t want to know. But I want to know and some days, I have a hard time answering for myself:
“Why are you hiking the Appalachian Trail?”
I’ve given this a lot of thought since the thru-hiker bug first bit me several months ago. When I’m feeling flippant my response is, “Because it’s there.” C’mon. Does anyone really want to hike a 2190 mile long because it’s there? I doubt it.
When I dig a little deeper, I wonder at my own inspiration. I’m a middle age woman, an empty nester…am I running away from the current reality of my life? I don’t think so, although the idea of an escape to clear my head and find my heart is certainly appealing. I think we all long for that.
Am I filling a void? Looking for something that’s missing? Having a mid-life crisis?
There’s a level of peace and clarity that I only find in a few places – usually on the water or in the woods. I crave those times when it’s just me and the world God made. When I can reflect on where I am and where my life is going. When I can consider my role in the universe and contemplate whether I am actually making a difference. Surely I’ll find that peace on the trail, but I can also find it walking on the beach, which is a whole lot easier!
Finding myself is a little why, but not the Big One.
Is It a Thirst for Adventure?
I’ve always loved exploring the world and I’ve been to some pretty cool places. That doesn’t make me a die-hard adventurer. You’d be more likely to find me strolling through a museum or poking around a castle than bungee jumping or cliff diving. (Actually, anything that involves free fall terrifies me, so no parachuting either!)
“Adventure” is fun, but it isn’t the right word for why the AT is calling me.
I’m deeply curious and I’d love to see every inch of the trail. I’ve been intrigued by the AT since I was a child camping in the Smokey Mountains. If I had all the time in the world it would take me two years instead of six months to thru-hike, just so I could really see it all. I’d stop in every town, savor every view, absorb the experience through every pore.
That’s how I traveled when I was a corporate road warrior. Even on short trips, I’d make time to wander around the cities I visited, seeing how people lived. I’d skip the touristy meals found in the center of town and drop by the grocery store instead to see what the locals really eat. I’d take breaks near churches and city parks, people watching and soaking up the culture.
No doubt there will be plenty of characters to see on the trail and I’ll certainly immerse myself in a new culture. But that alone isn’t driving me to hike.
“I don’t want to die having never done anything really interesting.”
That was my stock answer for a while and I guess it sounds a little morbid. I’m not at the end of my days. I’ve actually done lots of interesting things in my life, although my parents planned many of them when I was much younger. I was just along for the ride.
Those experiences shaped me, but as an adult married to a much less adventurous husband, I let the past 30 years slip by with limited excitement. Sure, I traveled whenever I could (see above), but my life overall has been pretty tame.
Thru-hiking the AT will help me answer the “Tell us something interesting about you” icebreaker question. Is that reason enough to step one foot in front of the other all the way from Georgia to Maine? Probably not.
“Because I can.”
We’re getting warmer, but I can’t help thinking it sounds a bit silly. After all, thousands of people “can” hike the trail and few do.
The reasons “I can” are all blessings. I can hike the trail next year because…
- I have family – parents, daughters, siblings, cousins – who believe in me.
- My husband is supportive and willing to take on the duties of a “trail widower.”
(He even plans to do some Trail Magic.)
- I’m in good health and physically able.
- I don’t have family obligations like caring for aging loved ones that would keep me home.
- I’m self-employed. A 6-month sabbatical will be a big financial sacrifice, but it won’t ruin me.
I’m thankful for all these things, although they alone don’t have the power to propel my feet through 14 states. When I say, “Because I can,” that means the universe has aligned to make it possible next year. There’s an open window I can choose to go through, or not.
I’ve Got Something to Prove…to Myself
I say, “Because I can” and the nagging follow-up question in my mind is always a girlish, “Can I?”
The real answer to why I’m thru-hiking is hidden in that one little question. It’s not “Because I can” but because I want to know that I can. I thrive on challenges and I need to prove to myself that I am the woman I imagine myself to be.
It’s one thing to sit around reading books by other through hikers, watching videos and dreaming of getting out there. It’s another to actually do it. I can plan, research gear, and have everything ready to go on day one. Then I actually have to start walking. And keep walking. I hear it’s about 5 million steps.
Only a fraction of those who start will make it to the end. Will I? Do I have the fortitude? Will I get tired or bored or homesick and give up? I hope not. I don’t see myself as a quitter. I know the adventure, the experience, will feed my soul. I know that the endeavor will change me and I’m excited about that.
I know I could get hurt, or sick, or that things beyond my control might derail my hike. I also know I’m resilient and determined. I’m ambitious and curious. I know I’m strong, even when I feel weak. I know in my mind I can do it.
Now I just need to prove it to myself…and no one else.
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