Three Reasons I’m Thru-Hiking the AT
Hi everyone. Soon enough I’ll be babbling on semi-incoherently about gear, and likely a year from now you’ll all be sick to death of reading my posts. But for the time being, I figured I’d introduce myself and try to answer that question everyone asks: why am I thru-hiking the AT?
I’m 35. I have a good job I’ve been at for several years, and I love my life. Why shake it up so mightily? Why not wait for retirement, etc.?
What all thru-hikers-to-be do, I think, is to try to figure out how to express this longing in ways that make sense to people who don’t have it. We have a multitude of reasons, and they shift and turn. And I’d love to give you a long, poetic rationale of all of those.
But the truth is simple and probably a little dull.
I’ve thought about thru-hiking the AT for years; the last few years, especially, it’s been ever closer to the top of my mind. But there were always reasons not to: I had student loans to pay off; I had changed jobs and really liked the new job; etc.
And then my mom died from lung cancer in the fall of 2015.
I seriously considered thru-hiking that following spring, but though I wanted to, I was still really lost in grief and had a lot of fairly non-postponable commitments (like officiating two weddings).
So I did other things instead.
But this spring, gearing up to do the Trek Across Maine to raise money in my mother’s honor for the American Lung Association, I spent a great deal of time thinking about her. Or, more specifically, thinking about the end of her life.
And all I could think about was that once she started chemo, she couldn’t really do many of the things she enjoyed. She didn’t have the energy to even walk out to her garden most of the time, and travel was mostly out except for short road trips. And I thought about how lucky I am, to have a body that is healthy and strong, the strongest it’s ever been.
I thought a great deal about what I would regret not having done, if I got diagnosed with cancer tomorrow.
I want to live my life. Like Thoreau, I would like to suck the marrow from this life and experience it fully. I haven’t always said that, but the last few years, this has been my goal. I feel a bit like I’m living on borrowed time and I’d like to fill that time with as many amazing adventures and challenges as possible until it runs out. I don’t have kids. I’m not married.
So, reason #1 for thru-hiking the AT: a sense of my own mortality.
Reason #2: hiking makes me happier than anything else on this planet.
When I first left my partner of twelve years, I hiked in central New York and southwestern Pennsylvania. When I moved to DC for work, knowing no one, lonely, I day-hiked loops on the AT in Maryland. When Mom died, I hiked myself through my grief on frigid, chillingly windy winter summits in Maine and New Hampshire. When I spent three months trialing living abroad for work, I hiked in Provence and it was the sanest I felt the whole time. I have spent every Thanksgiving since I left my marriage—including the very first, only a few days in—out hiking. When others have been curled up eating loads of food and happily with family, I’ve been out in fat snow and ice pellets. And I’ve loved it. For views like this:
I make sense when I’m hiking. I don’t have self-doubt on the trail. I feel present and joyful, and even when I hate it because I’m hurting or it’s really hard, I still secretly relish it.
So those two seem like a totally reasonable set of reasons, right? A sense of my own mortality and a desire to spend as much time as possible doing the thing that makes me happiest.
Reason #3 is a bit harder to articulate, and that’s why I’ve left it for last. If you like tidy explanations, stop here.
I dated a girl once who told me that, rather biblically, I was the kind of person who could tell mountains to move, and they would. I didn’t always believe this about myself, but over time I have gradually tackled so many seemingly impossible challenges that I know it’s true.
I am a force of nature when I set my will to something.
In the last year, I took up running, snowshoe running, duathlon, a 3-day 180-mile bike trek, swimming, and triathlons. (And when I say “in the last year,” this is not an exaggeration. I didn’t own a pair of running shoes a year ago.)
In the process of becoming an endurance athlete, I realized that I really, really love doing really, really hard things. Physically hard things. Mentally hard things. Things that seem to push me beyond anything I previously thought possible.
I may not actually be able to tell mountains to move, but I can tell myself to keep hiking over the next mountain, and the next, and the next.
I won’t be hiking to run away from anything, or to find myself. I will be hiking because it is hard and I want to push myself, to see if I am capable of this task. Like the trail, I am difficult but rewarding, challenging but oddly giving. I know I am hard and I make no bones about that, but I can be sweetly, unexpectedly beautiful, too. And when I am on the trail, I feel so connected to and part of the world around me. All I want to do is keep hiking. So what better way to spend a chunk of my life than doing just that?
There are all kinds of things that can go wrong on the trail to prevent me from finishing. But this I promise you: I will set every ounce of my will and purpose to finishing this task. Not to prove anything to anyone else, or to sort my life out, or to disconnect for a while, or to find myself—though I suppose there are elements of all of those.
A fellow triathlete told me once:
In truth, tri has four sports, and the first and most important is the mental one.
I have pushed myself to physically compete in sports I’d never attempted, but becoming a triathlete was all about overcoming the mental limitations I placed on myself. In doing so, I’ve realized that when I set myself free and dig in, I have no idea what my limits are.
I am going to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail to see if I can.
Because I believe I can.
Because it feels like the only thing I should be doing with my life right now.
Because it is the single greatest regret I would have if I got diagnosed with cancer tomorrow.
I’d like to see if this sense of grit and determination and willpower is strong enough to see me through, to carry me past my swollen, throbbing knees and tight calves, and the seemingly endless amount of rain and bugs I know I’ll have to endure.
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