I’m Moving Forward While Leaving Much Behind

I have a map of the AT above my bed. It was a gift from my cousin back in June; she saw it at REI, bought it, and proceeded to call me every other week saying, “I have a present for you and I’m really excited to give it to you. But I won’t tell you what it is.” When she finally gave it to me she said, “Not like this has to lock you into hiking it or anything. Don’t feel bad if you don’t.” Well, the map locked me into it (or at least it helped), and it’s been hanging over my bed ever since.

In these last weeks leading up to my thru-hike, most nights end with me staring at it and wondering what it will all be like – the walking, the views, the people, the green tunnel, the shelters, the towns. Then I turn out my light and think to myself,  “Man I hope I have a dream that I’m on the AT tonight.”

Sometimes I do, and the dreams are always strange (as dreams tend to be). Some nights I’m hiking and I’ll realize I’ve forgotten something – my sleeping bag, my gloves, my food. Some nights I’ll be sitting at a shelter and someone from work will be calling my phone. In those dreams, I blissfully hit decline and keep eating my ramen. One night I dreamed that I was about to leave for the trail – backpack packed, plane ticket in hand, the whole nine yards – when my sister told me that I was five months pregnant (I’m definitely not) and couldn’t hike the trail. Like I said, dreams are strange.

A Dream of White Blazes

Last night I dreamed that I was at a wedding. I don’t know whose wedding it was, but it was beautiful – all smiles and laughter and gushing with white ribbons, pastels, fresh air, and those little buttermints that don’t even taste that good but you keep eating them anyway. The wedding was in a green clearing, with dreamy tents pitched like clouds against the blue sky and encircled with blooming oak trees… everyone I loved was there: old friends, new friends, and family. They were all laughing and dancing and there was music.

I moved through the crowd, smiling, when I felt a tug. I turned, saw no one. Then the music seemed to dim like it was far away and – I saw the white blaze. It was on an oak tree next to a parting of trees in the woods. I glanced back at everyone else, but they were still chatting and dancing and didn’t notice the tree with the blaze, beckoning to that opening in the woods. I felt the tug again, and stepped closer. The dream ended with my feet at the edge of the field, looking back at the din of music and laughter behind me, and one foot poised to step forward.

Golden Hour

In a lot of ways, the weeks leading up to leaving for the trail have felt like this dream. It’s almost hard to describe just how beautiful and joyful this season has been – full of simple mornings sipping coffee with friends, meandering through the trails up the shore, eating pub pizzas and beers after climbing sessions, spending the holidays with family. Everything just feels really right and I feel unfathomably lucky.

In my mind, I’ve been referring to this blissed-out time in my life as golden hour – the photographers reading this will especially know what I’m talking about. It’s that hour near the end of the day where the sun is low on the horizon and your shadow melts over the landscape behind you like Dali’s clocks. Everything is soft and warm and bathed in gold. Nothing looks bad during golden hour. Everything is beautiful.

But golden hour doesn’t last forever. Soon enough, the day has to end. The sun has to set and leave behind this day in pursuit of the next and we’re left watching the sun slip behind the edge of the earth, wondering what new wonders will appear in its rising.

On Leaving and Losing

In her book “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” (not a book specifically about hiking, but it has fueled my own love of hiking), Rebecca Solnit describes moving through life as a constant act of leaving, losing, and arrival: “Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names. This is what the view looks like if you take a rear-facing seat on the train. Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realization, moments of discovery. The wind blows your hair back and you are greeted by what you have never seen before. The material falls away in onrushing experience.”

Preparing for a thru-hike feels a lot like the “rear-facing seat on the train”; I’ve been in a constant state of losing in order to prepare for this. Sure, I’ve been acquiring some things (um, hello gear spreadsheets), but for the most part I’ve been losing: donating clothes, cleaning out basement boxes that I haven’t opened in ages, selling things I never use so I can get some more money for the trail. And on a grander scale, in the next month I’ll be losing my job, my home, and my proximity to the people I love.

And all this for what? I’m not sure yet. I have a mile-long list of reasons why I want to hike the trail – one that gets harder to fully encapsulate every time someone asks me why I’m doing it. But even with all my reasons, the next few months are still a huge unknown to me. No amount of “whys” will ever give you a hint of what’s to come. Even though I’m confident in my decision, it’s still bittersweet to put my “real life” on pause – a life that I know is full of joy and comfort – all in pursuit of a hike that I don’t know and can’t control the outcome of.

The Unknown

But in all of this, I’m not worried. The unknown should never be a reason for worry, because it’s just that: unknown. It is as peaceful as silence, as curious as a question, and as neutral as a balanced scale. Worry is what comes from the scenarios that we play in our heads in anticipation of (or even in resistance to) the unknown. The only way to know the unknowable is to step forward into it – to take the forward-facing seat on the train and “constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realization, moments of discovery.”

So I’m standing here with my foot poised at the edge of the woods. I’m looking back at the culmination of people and places and moments that I’ve held close to me so far in life, and it’s a gratifying view: bathed in that golden light that marks the ending of a season. Some days the heaviness of leaving outweighs the excitement for the trail, while other days the anticipation of the trail makes me forget to soak in these last weeks at home. But isn’t that balance the beauty of it all? I’m learning to carry loss in one hand and anticipation in the other; I’m holding them equally close. I’m soaking it all in. I’m smiling. I’m following the tug of the trail. And I’m reminding myself that this is what it looks like moving forward – always leaving and always arriving.

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