The Logistics and Cultural Whiplash of Getting Off and Back On the Appalachian Trail

I was in the car with my parents on the way back to Newfound Gap in the Smoky Mountains, where they had picked me up to get off the Appalachian Trail for a wedding. I was chowing down on Zaxby’s fries when my mom asked me, “How do you feel about going back?”

I didn’t hesitate when I said, “I’m nervous.”

I was. There were butterflies in my belly.  My mind was racing. I felt like my heart was beating faster than normal, and my legs were tense with anticipation. In response, my mom said, “You know you don’t have to go back.”

Without hesitation again, I responded, “No. I want to go back. It’s not that.”

That was the truth – I wanted to go back. I missed the simplicity of waking up and walking, the simultaneous feeling of triumph and humility, and the trail camaraderie between my little crew. However, my mind was also screaming to my body. The best way to describe the feeling is a fight or flight response: my body was going back into battle and my brain was trying to wave the white flag.

Thru-hiking is one massive contradiction. To take a quote from one of my favorite Harry Potter movies, the Prisoner of Azkaban, “You’re going to suffer, but you’re going to be happy about it.” Getting off trail during a thru-hike only intensifies the stark differences between trail life and “real life.” All of a sudden you remember how easy things can be. You have a flushing toilet again, and you can use it without running through the woods looking for a safe spot to dig a hole, only to be infringed upon by fellow hikers or poison ivy. You have a bed with endless amounts of blankets and even pillows. You have loved ones to laugh and confide in.

You also realize how much more complicated things can be, and there will be a persistent voice in your head telling you to go, go, go. To run far away, back into those woods.

Knowing I had a wedding to attend in April, I scoured the internet looking for examples of how people worked out getting on and off trail: what does it cost, how do they do it, what does it feel like? The logistics of getting off and on trail, as well as the feelings it stirs, would be a hurdle to jump through while completing my thru-hike. I had so many worries prior to leaving for my hike about how I could possibly arrange to get off trail and how to avoid the dreaded “leave but never come back.” But that’s just it – it’s a hurdle. You don’t have to stop your life to go on a thru-hike, but you will need to be willing to make a few sacrifices.

The crew on a cold day enjoying the view from Wayah Bald Tower

Make a plan. Then throw it out the window.

When I knew I was attending a wedding the same year I planned on thru-hiking, my first thought was: I need a plan. After all, planning is the first step for success, right? Wrong. The only good part about my plan was not delaying my start time. I had an opportunity to leave on March 23rd, but I was tempted to wait to leave until April 15th after the wedding to avoid the hassle of getting on and off trail. A friend that hiked the AT a few years ago (shoutout to Onward!) gave me some very good advice – to just go. He said that delaying my start would only cause more stress down the road if I needed time for something unexpected, such as an injury. He was right – if I wanted to make it to Katahdin, leaving later was counterproductive to that goal.

Views from Wesser Bald Tower

However, when it came to actually planning to get off trail, things got way more complicated. I figured I would be somewhere between Gatlinburg, TN and Hot Springs, NC. When I started to experience some rough knee pain after 30 miles, I wrote those plans off as not happening. Instead, I thought I could just get off somewhere at the beginning of the Smoky Mountains. We crossed plenty of roads hiking the AT! Again – wrong. It turns out that the Smokies only have a small stretch between NOBO mile 200-208 where there is actually road access to the trail. If I entered the Smokies, I would have to make it to one of those miles or else I wouldn’t be able to get off, which could mean departing earlier than I wanted.

My pick up spot at Newfound Gap

Even the day before my anticipated pickup, the plan went to hell in a hand basket. My crew and I woke at Derrick Knob Shelter in the Smokies still drenched from the downpour the day before. We were already cold, and the wind was whipping. Fog had settled in on the mountain as we ascended Clingmans Dome, making visibility very poor. It was what I call “Type 2” fun – miserable at the time but a great story later. Hikers on the trail were telling us that the next day was calling for even more rain with wind gusts up to 50-60 mph. When we got to Clingmans Dome, my friends departed for their ride, and I decided to call my dad to see if he could get me that night instead of the next morning. Because he is the best dad ever, he came that night to pick me up at Newfound Gap. I ended up hiking my longest day yet – 18 miles – to meet him in the parking lot. As he pulled in, the rangers were closing down the road due to high winds and urging people to get off trail. I was very lucky to have been able to get off when I did. The moral of the story is – flexibility is essential for “planning” a thru-hike and an excursion off trail for an important life event.

My view from Clingmans Dome

Be willing to spend some extra cash.

While the Appalachian Trail generally crosses many roads and towns, they aren’t necessarily big towns. When I was looking at possibly booking a flight somewhere off trail to get to the wedding, they were expensive because the closest airports were small. If I wanted to get to a larger airport, I would need to get a shuttle or a hitch, adding yet another layer of logistics. And then there is getting back on trail…brain overload.

Renting a car in advance was also hard to plan because I wasn’t sure what town I would be near, and I was looking at spending a good chunk of change for that too. Thankfully because my parents are *the best* and lived within four hours of where I would be, they offered to shuttle me off and on trail. My biggest piece of advice here is be willing to put yourself out there – post online and see if a friend or family member would happen to be in the area to give you a ride. There is also an extensive network of gracious and helpful people in the AT community that offer to shuttle hikers as well. The culture of the AT still amazes me.

Emilia (Birdy), me, and Holly (Poe)

Life outside the trail will feel…weird

I can’t imagine what post-trail life will feel like after 6 months. I had only been on trail for 19 days before leaving for the wedding, and things still felt weird. Besides having a running toilet and pillows, it was odd hearing conversations that didn’t revolve around mileage, pack weight, and sore feet. Speaking of sore feet, I definitely elicited some laughs from my fellow bridesmaids when I bandaged my heels before putting on my shoes for the wedding. The hardest part for me was answering this question over and over: “How is your trip going? It looks amazing!” How was I supposed to possibly describe how it really was?

It’s great!

It’s hard, but it’s going well.

It’s a damned pilgrimage.

No one except past or fellow thru-hikers can really understand what it means to complete this journey, but I am incredibly thankful for all of the support that I have received.

Enjoying some off trail time with my best friends

It felt like the first day again when I started back

As I said above, coming back to the trail felt like Amicalola State Park all over again. I had just spent time with friends and family, and I was going to miss them. I said goodbye to my parents as I walked away into the woods, not knowing when I would get to see them again. My nerves were amped up about getting back on trail, where I would once again be walking for 8-12 hours a day. My crew was now ahead of me, and I was alone. Spoiler alert – I caught up to them and also met some more awesome people along the way.

And my feet…my poor feet. When I left, I started to think that I was finally getting some “trail legs.” When I restarted, my feet were so sore at the end of my 10 mile day that I was wincing with each step into camp. I was gone for too long, I thought. I’ve lost all my strength. Spoiler alert again – I got my strength back, but I was still shocked at how much the first few days back hurt.

Mom’s snap of me as I walked back out onto the trail at Newfound Gap

You are not alone

As I began to meet other hikers and explain my situation about getting off trail, I realized that this is actually quite common. One of my trail fam members and fellow Trek bloggers, Emilia, also has to get off for a wedding. It is easy to get “caught up in the miles” here, and I fretted some about losing days. It was comforting to know that I wasn’t the only one who would be getting off trail to attend something that was important to them.

Trail magic at Fontana Dam Shelter

Remember your “why.”

To steal a common phrase from the teaching world, I found it to be especially important to “remember my why” about choosing to hike the Appalachian Trail to begin with. Getting off trail is common, but it is apparently also common to get off trail and not come back.

We chose this. We made this happen. We saved up money and bought expensive gear. We said goodbyes to parents, kids, loved ones, and friends. Some of us left jobs or sold our possessions to start a new journey. There is a reason that someone chooses to walk 2,194 miles over the course of many months. It’s important to not forget that when the flushing toilet sounds like angels singing.

Morning view from my tent in the Smokies

If you read one line from this blog, read this:

You do not have to completely stop your life in order to hike the Appalachian Trail. I think it is a common misconception that people that hike the AT just shirk all their responsibilities, but that’s not true (at least for some of us – by all means leave it all behind if ya want to). You can still attend the wedding. You can go on your family vacation. You can even go on job interviews (per Appalachian Trials). You just need to be willing to make it happen and to never lose sight of the goal – that great mountain in Maine and the miles it takes to get there.

More fire tower views from a side trail excursion in the Smokies

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Comments 3

  • Joe : May 1st

    Keep going, young lady! I’ll be looking forward to many more posts as you work your way north. I live in Maine so I have hiked some of the mountains you’ll be on in the Whites of NH. Happy trails and don’t forget to post! -Joe

    Reply
  • Kelly : May 5th

    Carly, you are so resilient! I love following your blogs, you are an inspiration to so many! Thanks for sharing! Kelly

    Reply
  • Anna : May 20th

    Love this. Great points and well written, from the heart. Knowing your “why” will take you all the way to Katahdin. You are blessed to have that conviction from the get-go. Not everyone on the trail has that, even the ones that make it to the end. Keep pushing, gal!
    – Soundbite, AT class of 2023

    Reply

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