Timing Quitting Failing … Winning?

A few days before I was set to run the Marine Corps Marathon in 2011, my cousin, Ken, flew out to D.C from Chicago to join me for the race. All weekend, I joked that if I were lucky, I’d twist an ankle or fall grievously ill. It was my first (and last) marathon, and I was nervous. I didn’t want to decide not to do it; but if calamity made the decision for me, I would not have been mad. In the end, no disaster befell me, and Ken and I ran the marathon. We had a blast, going absurdly slowly, singing and dancing, stopping for sandwiches, and rousing weary spectators. Although I later wrote a three-part blog series questioning the wisdom of marathons for middle-aged women who aren’t elite athletes, that day is one of my favorite memories.

Even so, the fact that an injury—not a conscious choice—ended my AT thru-hike attempt after 675 miles isn’t the end of my world. No, it’s a bit of a relief. It was my body’s fault, not my brain’s—a weakness of the flesh (bone, to be precise), not a failure of spirit.

I’m not mad to be back among loved ones. I won’t complain about daily access to fresh produce. Do I miss many aspects of long-distance backpacking? Yes. Am I disappointed that the injury’s glacial pace of healing means I’m benched for the season? Yes. Have I endured a period of grieving for the hiker life, the freedom, the purity, the glory? Yes, yes, yes.

Do I have unfinished business with the Appalachian Trial? No.

I would not have walked all the way to Maine, even without a broken foot. I was willing to stay out there longer, but the struggle was mighty, and I was planning to go only about 350 miles farther.

Many times, what kept me from calling my boyfriend for a pickup from the first summit with signal was a vague notion that “there’s still something here for me to learn.” That notion, in fact, had more or less kept me on the trail for everything beyond the first 250 miles or so—the point at which the novelty wore off and the reality of near-constant physical and emotional exhaustion and hardship set in.

And the notion wasn’t wrong—there was something there for me to learn. And I’m sure if I went back out there still would be.

But as with so many things that matter, timing counted for a lot when it came to my AT adventure. The idea to do it came at a time in my life when I was able to make it happen. That was sheer privilege; many people plan and save for decades. I decided in December and set off in April. The timing was right emotionally, too. My life needed a nudge in a new direction, and planning for and setting in motion an AT hike gave that change a framework.

The question I ask myself when contemplating trying to finish or even do another long section next year is basically pragmatic: Did I already pass a point of diminishing returns on what the AT had to teach me?

Of course there’s no way to answer that without returning to the AT, but I can’t help thinking there are more efficient, straightforward paths to enlightenment.

Ah, but you note, efficiency isn’t the point of the Appalachian Trail. After all, the crow-fly distance between Springer and Katahdin is a fraction of the actual AT distance.

True. And that brings us back to timing. Quitting my job marked the end of a kind of arc in my life—the arc in which I was financially comfortable doing abstractly important and good but tangibly unfulfilling work. Hiking the Appalachian Trail was viscerally gratifying and tactile, and I desperately needed that.

But maybe only for a little while—maybe only for 72 days and nights.

There’s no need to “finish what I started.” As far as I’m concerned, I did finish that phase of my journey. Quitting—let’s call it stopping—doing something makes room in our lives for starting something else. Now that my broken foot and the time of year have made the hike-ending decision final, I’m eager to see what the universe will send along next.





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Comments 3

  • Ronnie Hull : Sep 27th

    Rock on Mattie. Whatever you decide to do with ‘the rest of your life’ is your decision. I’m glad you did what you did.. if you hadn’t, I would neve rhave been able to adopt yet another person into my family, and I will always consider you that. When I attempt my Thru.. I have a goal.. thanks to you.. and that’s to try to last long enough to go one mile farther.. Hehe.. and I do not mean that in a bad way.. your my inspiration!

  • Maria : Sep 27th

    So happy to read this and that you’ve gained meaning in the journey.

  • Kraen : Sep 27th

    You rocked it! I hope you continue to backpack. Some of the best memories I’ve had were on backpacking trips – you go where few have gone. Seen in person what most only see in magazines or PBS. Fortunately, there are amazing places to go that only require a long weekend! You have a place to stay in Idaho 😉


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