Transformation on the Trail—Expectation vs. Reality

Like most prospective thru-hikers, I began the trail under the impression that I’d spend my journey healing, meditating, and finding answers to all the existential questions pressing me. This, to a degree, was true, but this process took a much different shape than I first anticipated. Here’s how:


Like many, I sought out the trail to heal, to face the shadows of my mind obscured by poor coping mechanisms, and to settle the lingering debris of my past. I was right to think of the trail in this way—as an opportunity to meet oneself stripped of any armor or defenses. But the “healing” that came from this process was not linear, not overt, and not easily discernible. Oftentimes, I wondered whether I’d made any progress at all. 

Amid the chaos of the trail—the grueling miles, months, injuries, and fatigue—it felt impossible to be the “best version of myself.” At times, I felt the opposite—defeated, exasperated, doubtful, lost. But what I didn’t realize was that this challenge, this trail, did not depend on a “centered zen” to heal or transform. Really, it just required me to show up and step on, trusting that the pieces would inevitably fall into place as long as I persisted. 

Forfeiting Expectations

Looking back, it’s silly to think I could’ve exacted expectations upon something so vast—something so much bigger than myself. But I suppose this is what makes the trail spiritual and transcendent—its magnitude stretches beyond our capacity to understand. Like religion, it requires our surrender to the unknown, our faith in the merit of our toil, and our unwavering humility, as the trail breaks one down before putting them back together.

Through forfeiting my preconceived notions and surrendering to the trail’s unknowns, I gave way to a much stronger power, and that was embracing my humanity in all of its smelly, hangry, and broken glory. This, I feel, the trail required of us all. As miles fell away, we learned to give grace to ourselves and each other, abolishing the pressures that compelled us to hide our humanity back home. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this was surely the most transformative aspect of my thru-hike: living in a way that demanded authenticity in the most primal sense; being unapologetically human, feral, free, and sharing in this with my community. 

The truth is, there’s no saving face in the woods. There, you cannot run, and you cannot hide. Inevitably, you must face yourself and be bold enough to let others love you through what you’ll later look back on and call healing. 

A Richer Reality

As many of us discovered, this process of “healing” and self-discovery isn’t a pretty one. It’s dirty, bloody, full of poop and sorrow, and almost impossible to appreciate until it’s over. Ironically, the mess of it all is what I found most beautiful, and I know plenty of my pals would agree. In this struggle faced both alone and together, we met ourselves, we met each other, and we fortified a community that is exceedingly rare and raw. This community, which is not confined by walls or city limits, ebbs and flows, embraces and surrounds, evolves, heals, and moves on an axis we’ve made into our home. I feel eternally grateful to have been a part of this community, to have been transformed by the path it took, and to see the world differently in light of it.

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Comments 1

  • Early Riser : Sep 17th

    Wonderful post. I wrote a book, “Pushing North: Tame the Mind, Savor the Journey” where I try to help aspiring thru hikers to understand these very realizations. It’s not that I think the lessons will make total sense before the hike, but to help uncover the lessons sooner on trail and help hikers stay motivated to not leave the experience before the magic has happened.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. I loved reading your thoughts. ER71


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