The Healing Path: A Thru-hiker’s Origin

Before we start, leave your preconceived notions at the door. You won’t need them where we’re going.

A picture of me looking cute

My name is Austin Hays. I’m 24 years old, nonbinary (they/them pronouns, thanks), and neurodivergent (a big word for having a weird brain). I’ve dreamt of thru hiking the Appalachian Trail for years, and come May, I hope to make it a reality. Rather than a traditional NOBO starting in Georgia, I’m going to do a Flip Flop starting in Harpers Ferry. I have a few reasons for choosing this:

  1. It will allow more time in warmer weather and less of a rush to finish.
  2. My impact on the trail will be lessened and I’ll avoid the biggest crowds.
  3. Harpers Ferry feels like a perfect starting point, due to both its history with the trail and its history with the abolitionist struggle that continues to this day.

These next few months will be all about logistics, planning, and training, and I’ll be blogging through it all. But today, I want to take a look back at how I got here.

It’s been uphill as long as I can remember.

Growing up, I never really had much use for what the world around me wanted me to be. I never fit into strictly masculine or feminine roles, even as a kid. I had a lot of trouble with socializing and focusing on tasks, and people around me weren’t always understanding. There were many long stretches in life where I felt like I could only trust myself. I can’t fit all of the joys, traumas, and life-changing moments that shaped me in this article, but I can tell you that it all led to the trail.

Selfie at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

I always liked the mountains and enjoyed a good walk in the woods, but it wasn’t until college that I found something deeper. In a time where I wasn’t sure of who I was or what I wanted to do in life, nature brought certainty. It’s easier to hear yourself think when all you can hear is the wind and there’s only one path to take. The most visceral memories I have consist of me hauling ass up a mountain, sitting in silence at the summit, then hauling ass back down. Boy, if only I could make a living doing just that!

Towards the end of college, I started pursuing the dream harder. I got my diploma (skipping graduation to go rock climbing in West Virginia) then decided to spend some time soul-searching. I spent a year in California as part of a service corps and finally got the space I needed to reflect on who I was. And, of course, I ran up some hills along the way.

Sitting on hill near golden gate bridge

COVID eventually stalled my career path in CA and forced me to move back to South Carolina. It sucked to leave, but the socially-distanced road trip home was really fun and I understood who I was better than ever. I now know 3 things to be absolutely true:

  1. I am neither male nor female, and I don’t care what people say about it.
  2. My Autism and possible ADHD, annoying as they can be, are a proud part of me.
  3. I am going to hike the Appalachian Trail, damn it.

Prepare for trouble (and make it double?)

Every once in a while, I have to remind myself that this is really happening. I’m going to do this! I’m going to hike the whole Appalachian Trail! It’s hard to explain the feeling of watching a lifelong dream you’ve had be slowly realized. What’s even more amazing is knowing I won’t be alone on this journey.

I’ve been lucky to meet a number of other transgender and nonbinary thru-hikers that I will cross paths with this year. We even started a Discord server that’s growing to this day! Together, we’ve talked gear, our experiences with our own identities, and shared our excitement. I’m really optimistic about what the trail holds for us, and I’m really excited to tell my story through the Trek.

There’s just one problem:

Sitting in a wheelchair with broken ankle

In November, I suffered a bad ankle fracture while skateboarding and I am still recovering. While I’m no longer in a cast, I’m still not allowed to bear weight on my left foot yet. This means all of the shakedown hikes I had planned are effectively scrapped, and I’ll be going into the trail a little more blind. Thankfully, recovery has been going well, and I should be walking without crutches soon. But when I said in the title that the AT is going to be a healing path for me, I meant it literally.

But hey, there’s a lot to look forward to!

Between now and May, I’m going to keep telling my story. I’ll tell y’all about what I’ve been doing to get my ankle back to full strength. I’ll share my gear list and the steps I took to save money and plan this hike. Hell, maybe I’ll talk more about being queer as hell.

No matter what, I hope y’all will stick around for more. Maybe even learn something.

In the meantime, you can follow me on insta @morninhays and subscribe to me on the Trek to get my posts sent to your inbox. If you’re another trans+ or queer thru-hiker I’d love to chat, and could even add you to our Discord server.

Other than that, I’ll see y’all out on the trail. Take it easy.

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Comments 6

  • Avatar
    Jenny : Jan 13th

    Can’t wait to live the AT vicariously through you!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Wazo - David Smith : Jan 13th

    Hey Austin. I am another 2021 AT flip flop queer blogger. I subscribed to your blog and look forward to following you.

    Wazo.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    pearwood : Jan 13th

    Austin,
    This straight, white-haired, white guy says, “Good for you.”
    Go for it.
    Blessings,
    Steve / pearwood

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Marmot : Jan 14th

    Found your blog looking for CDT 2021 thruhikers. So excited about the trails finally beginning to reflect the world. It’s been a pretty narrow group of people out there until recently. Have a wonderful hike and I’ll probably run into you on some trail. Maybe even the AT because I will be finishing my second hike of the AT in the summer.
    Come to one of the Gatherings( ALDHA OR ALDHAWEST).
    All the best
    Marmot

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Cody Eyman : Jan 16th

    Hey Austin! I haven’t had the pleasure to meet you yet, but I’m a fan of your fam, and my dad Bill Nichols was a big fan of you. I feel the need to comment on his behalf and tell you he’d be so impressed with your journey thus far as well as this coming adventure. Happy healing to your foot!

    Reply

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