The Thru-Hiker Metamorphosis, Part 2: Mind

The Pre and Post

Aspiring thru-hikers take to the trails for a variety of reasons.

For some, a long-distance hike is a physical challenge unlike any other; out-of-shape hikers seek to drop pounds and gain some semblance of athleticism outside traditionally stale and stark fitness center interiors. Others see thru-hiking as a natural reset for the mania of “normal” life.

Whatever the reason may be, all aspiring thru-hikers see the trail as finite, with an established beginning and end. On either end are the pre and post; the “I’m gonna do this” and the “I just did that” that allow hikers to draw the lines marking a thru-hike’s finality.

But when your feet hit the dirt and rain soaks your jacket, the “pre and post” mentality gives way to something more.

From Physical to Mental

I remember the anticipation that saturated those days leading up to my thru-hike.

A thru-hike is a daunting task. From the outside, a monthslong walk in the woods seems like a purely physical challenge. Because of the average person’s lack of hiking experience and knowledge, the mental aspects of thru-hiking often go undiscussed.

For me, the Appalachian Trail was the perfect post-Peace Corps adventure; an opportunity to reacquaint myself with an active lifestyle while processing the chapter of my life that had recently ended. I was ready for solitude, and wanted to keep my life from reverting back to what I had previously thought to be a stale existence.

In the days leading up to my departure, I played up the physical challenges and preparation while skipping over the mental aspects of the hike. When talking with friends and family, I reassured them of my preparedness with false confidence and excitement.

In reality, I was terrified.

I knew the physical strength would come in time, but the mental strength required for success was noticeably lacking.

Dealing With Monotony

A thru-hike isn’t all sunshine and rainbows.

Sure, there are beautiful peaks and stunning sections of trail too numerous to count, but what occupies the spaces in between often feel like endless monotony. Days previously crammed with work and errands are suddenly freed up for nothing but walking, eating, and sleeping. For the unprepared, the excess free time can easily become overwhelming.

But for others, that monotony is part of what makes the AT and thru-hiking so special.

On trail, life becomes very simple; a stripped-down version of reality that allows us to reflect on what we value and want in our lives. Technology loses its firm grip on existence, giving way to meaningful face-to-face interaction while hiking and at camp. I remember worrying about the what-ifs that surely would come up during my hike:

“What if I don’t meet anyone?”

“What if I don’t have cell service?”

or “What if other hikers don’t like me?”

Every thru-hiker experiences a similar monotony on trail, and thus finds camaraderie through boredom. When you can no longer fill your time or avoid social interaction through technology, you find yourself embracing the boredom; passing the time talking, joking, and bonding with fellow hikers. Over the course of a thru-hike, hikers will talk about anything and everything; what was once uncomfortable becomes comfortable. Those what-ifs that plagued my mind at the base of Amicalola Falls dissolved within a few days as I fell in with those around me.

As I wrote in a previous entry, I was lucky enough to meet and hike with my trail family from day one. What started as coincidence soon became a conscious plan to stick together, with our original group forming a cohesive unit almost overnight.

With so much trail to cover, hiking and connecting with others fills the monotony quite well.

Pushed to the Limit

A thru-hike carries a myriad of hardships. Hikers face the full gamut of weather conditions from Georgia to Maine, each bringing their own challenges. While rain and cool temperatures may be minor inconveniences in daily life, they can be serious morale killers on a thru-hike. The inability to avoid hours in the rain can dull the senses of even the most seasoned hikers. The summer warms numbed fingers and extremities, but sweltering temperatures and humidity create an inescapable heat that wraps itself around you like a blanket.

Some hikers manage to avoid major injury during their four to six¬† months on the AT, but they’re few and far between. Foot, knee, and ankle pains are common from day one, and can persist for days, weeks, or months. Pain becomes a hiker’s best frenemy; you either learn to love the pain or quit. Even if you manage to avoid these pains, many hikers fall victims to brief yet severe digestive problems and illnesses as their bodies adapt to trail foods and germs.

Couple these with increasingly achy joints and lethargy, and you’ve got the ingredients of a classic thru-hike.

Powering Through

My advice? It’s nothing that hasn’t been said before.

The Appalachian Trail is a both a wilderness and social experience. While I applaud those who choose to hike solo for some (or all) of the trail, the social aspects of the trail are what make or break a thru-hike. I personally cannot imagine surviving the trail if it weren’t for my trail family and the hiking community.

Before I started the AT, I was given a valuable piece of advice by a past thru-hiker: “Don’t fight the trail.”

The trail is both an active force and a careless observer to your thru-hike; it is only as powerful as you choose to make it. Regardless of what you believe, allow it to take hold of you in some way, shape, or form. Let it break you down and put you back together, as it has down thousands of times before.

The trail is no joke, but that doesn’t mean you can’t laugh.

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