How My AT Thru-Hike Helped Me Process the Loss of My Parents

It was April 5, 2019 and I had just gotten back on the Appalachian Trail at Dicks Creek Gap after my first zero day in Hiawassee, Georgia. It was, in traditional AT fashion, raining. The steady rain made the AT look lush and green for early spring, and I started to get back into the groove of hiking. But right as I was about to sink deep into hiker bliss, I sunk somewhere else. In the next moment, I realized that this day marked four years since my father had passed away. My face tensed up, and suddenly the rain wasn’t the only thing blurring my vision. I began thinking about my father, how he’d never know I was attempting a thru-hike of the AT, and how I could never be sure he’d even support me in this goal.

I allowed myself to think he would at least be proud of me for doing something with my life in the wake of his and my mother’s deaths rather than wallowing in my own self-pity. I was alone, and grateful for it. I was barely over a week into my thru-hike and I didn’t want to seem fragile this early on. Little did I realize it was my grief that largely brought me to the trail, and it was also my grief that ensured I was strong enough to get to Katahdin. 

I was 20 years old when my father passed away due to old age and health complications. I instantly felt lost—how could I be expected to grieve when I was in the middle of my sophomore year, and now had the added burden of making sure my mentally ill mother would be taken care of in my absence, since she had been financially and emotionally dependent on my father. So began mentally tumultuous years of juggling school and her well-being… at the expense of my own. Shortly after I graduated college, my mother died by suicide. This was more traumatic, simply due to the nature of how she left. I was 22 and found myself overwhelmingly lost. More lost than I had been two years prior. With my mother gone, someone I had spent so much time with, good and bad, so much energy trying to make her more comfortable and happy, I felt like I had lost not only a parent, but part of my own identity.

I had no idea what to do with my life, so for the next year or so, I did absolutely nothing. I didn’t work, I didn’t take classes, I just lived a life of no structure, no goals, and no plan. On some random day in the fall of 2018 while scouring the internet, I came upon YouTube videos about thru-hiking the AT. I remembered walking short parts of the trail on day hikes in New York and Massachusetts, I remembered I liked hiking, and the idea of the AT and the possibility of hiking all of it opened like floodgates in my mind. I researched like crazy, and the biggest obstacles most people had to overcome to make a thru-hike happen—time and money—were anything but obstacles to me. Several months later, on March 27, 2019, I was standing on the summit of Springer Mountain in Georgia starting my thru-hike. Much like the deaths of my parents, it just kind of happened. What set my hike apart, though, was how it felt like it was exactly what I needed to be doing. 

I took to thru-hiking like a duck takes to water. The beginning was a steep learning curve, but I learned how to use my gear, I made friends, I got in better physical shape with each passing day, and most importantly, I got into a routine. Wake up, eat, hike, eat, hike, eat, eat some more, sleep, repeat. It was so simple, and so great. Even the concept of time started to fade away, but I was reminded of things like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day through listening to my fellow hikers getting ready to call their parents, while I kept quiet. I learned that it was me worrying about how I might feel on an arbitrary day dedicated to parents which got me upset—when the day came, I generally felt normal and hiked on. What threw me for a loop were the random days that brought on my grief unexpectedly. 

Unaka Mountain, on the cusp of the Roan Highlands: it was rainy and cold and the pine forest at the top took on a mist that made the tree trunks dark and menacing, yet the air between them was eerily inviting. I am not a spiritual person, but I felt my mother there with me, giving me light and warmth in the darkness that was both my yearning to see her again and my immediate surroundings. I had been hiking alone, but on top of Unaka, I didn’t feel alone. This was the first instance of grief I had ever had that was more positive than negative, and it was all thanks to the deep, symbiotic relationship I had forged with the AT. 

Fast forward to the highest peak in Massachusetts: Mount Greylock. It was early August, the dog days of summer. My trail family—which I had acquired back in Southern Virginia—was getting antsy to cross into Vermont. This was largely my doing, because at my request, we had taken our time through the 11th state on the AT since I had spent every summer as a child in Berkshire County. It had been my father’s favorite place in the world. I had hiked Mount Greylock numerous times with my mother. The view at the top was familiar to me, and it was also where I had spread my mother’s ashes about a year prior to my thru-hike. I was antsy to get to Vermont too, just for different reasons. As I led the way out of the town of Cheshire, I thought of how conflicted I felt about following the AT to the top. I wanted to be there “with” my mom, but I also dreaded it. This mental tug of war became so unbearable that I started to violently cry. I stopped at a wooden post at the start of the climb and I urged my trail family to go ahead of me, trying to hide my tears. They knew something was wrong, but respected my wish to be alone and went on with the climb.

I deployed my strategy of hiking north no matter what, and cried my way up the mountain. It wasn’t pretty, or fun, but I made it to the top and looked out at the view I had seen so many times before and felt instantly better. It was a clear blue, sunny day and I sat on the grass not too far from where I spread my mom’s ashes. Tons of day hikers and tourists were exploring around me and one father actually commended me on my endeavor. I was amazed that he had assumed correctly I was doing the whole trail—I hadn’t been sitting next to my pack. It occurred to me that I had grown insanely strong on this hike and that, if I could get through this day on Mount Greylock, there was literally nothing preventing me from getting to Katahdin. I had an identity again: I was a thru-hiker. 

The remainder of the AT was a blast. I got through some of the most physically challenging terrain I’d ever encountered with my trail family by my side, never wanting the trail to end. Important days like the anniversary of my mother’s death and her birthday were commemorated in my mind only. I had learned that I didn’t need to live in the past unless I felt like it. If I felt happy on one of those days, I shouldn’t let how I used to spend those days dictate how I spent them on my thru-hike. On September 25, 2019, I summited Katahdin on a perfectly clear day and cried tears of both joy and sadness that the greatest, most meaningful experience of my life was now complete, and I had myself to thank.

I did feel a twinge of grief that I had no way to tell my parents about my accomplishment, no way to know how they would feel about it, or what they would say to me. Or maybe they somehow knew? Or maybe it didn’t matter? This was my accomplishment that no one could ever take away from me. I had started the trail raw and mentally fragile and ended the trail, still raw, but mentally unbreakable. I had brought myself through many hardships before the trail and those experiences, not my lack of prior backpacking experience, served as the backbone of my strength that carried me over every mile of the AT.

How did I move though all this grief on my thru-hike? It’s simple: I kept on walking, through it all. I walked through every emotion, every memory, every uncomfortable silence and conversation I had to endure. It was the most amazing thing I have ever done with my life, by far. Sometimes it wasn’t easy, but just like the Type II fun that makes a thru-hike a thru-hike, the reward was nothing short of exhilarating in the end.

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Comments 10

  • Drop Sticks : Mar 4th

    Pumala is a badass mofo hailing from NY. She was a speedy demon through PA while we all suffered. She wore SHORTS through the coldest weather. AND survived week long poop attacks. Watch out, she has only begun.

    • Julia Gladstein : Mar 4th

      Thanks so much for reading, Drop Sticks! I can always count on you to highlight my most… interesting qualities

  • Rachel Lee Lashinsky : Mar 5th

    Holy crap. This hits so close to home. I lost my dad at the age of 7 and was my mom’s primary care-giver for a long, long time due to severe mental illness. Her dementia has recently gotten too much for me to handle, so I had to make the very tough call of moving her in to a specialty care facility. I get this grief. When I did the Long Trail in 2018, I felt the same thoughts of, “Would he even be proud of me if he knew I was doing this?” Tomorrow marks 21 years that my dad has been gone, and I had that moment of realization yesterday evening of “oh shit, it’s about to be THAT day,” questioning how someone could be gone for such a long time, yet it still feels so fresh? Anyways. I hear you. I feel you. Losing a parent is rough. Having to step up to the plate and BE the parent for your parent is rough. Losing your other parent, be it to death or extreme changes in cognition, is tough. You’re a bad ass, and even though we will never be sure if our parents are ACTUALLY proud of the decisions we are making, I like to think they are always there being our personal cheerleaders.

    • Julia Gladstein : Mar 5th

      Thank you, Rachel, for your thoughtful words. It is so validating to hear other people’s similar experiences. I’m so sorry for your loss and for everything you had to and are going through with your mom. You’re a bad ass too!

  • Christine K. : Mar 5th

    Truly a joy to know Julia and to read everything she writes. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us!

    • Julia Gladstein : Mar 5th

      Thanks so much, Christine!!

  • Julie : Mar 5th

    I enjoyed your writing and look forward to following your future adventures. Plus Drop sticks comments only add to your cool persona.

    • Julia Gladstein : Mar 5th

      Thank you very much, I appreciate it!

  • Curtis Fackler : Mar 9th

    I lost my my mom 10 days before I started the Trail. She was so excited for my hike because dropped me off on my first attempt in 1978. On every overlook I thought of her.

    • Julia Gladstein : Mar 10th

      Thank you for sharing, Curtis, and I’m sorry for your loss. I’m so impressed you were able to start your hike so soon after—congrats on that!


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