An Unruly Urge – How My Life Led to the Trail
The morning we drove into Baxter State Park to summit Katahdin, the sky unloaded on us. First with rain, then with hail. Fat chunks of ice drummed the roof of Ol’ Man’s utility van. From my seat in the back I watched as the barrage pelted the windshield, obscuring the dark road ahead. This was the day that I would begin my southbound Appalachian Trail thru-hike.
Hiking the AT was not a childhood dream of mine, though I’ve always had a preoccupation with long-winded ventures. When I was three, I crawled out of my crib, left my house, stole my next-door neighbor’s tricycle, and absconded down the sidewalk. The police picked me up after a concerned woman reported a diaper-clad waif pedaling unsupervised down a busy street. At summer camp, I used to gaze across Echo Lake to a mysterious trail that led up into the woods, daring myself to paddle across and follow it to unknown ends. I didn’t know it then, but that unruly urge to wander would come to define me.
I grew up. I went to film school. I behaved.
Five days after graduation I took a road trip to Canada with some friends. On my request, they left me there. Over the next few years I hitchhiked extensively around North America, motorbiked across Vietnam, and spent a winter washing dishes at a truck stop in the Alaskan Arctic. I learned about the AT and decided to hike it, thinking that my 2,000-miler status could double as a master’s degree in vagrancy.
Leading up to that point, I had never hiked more than a day-and-a-half in a single outing. I had no idea what a blaze was, much less a SOBO. So I dove into the forums, the blogs, the vlogs, volumes of information dense like thickets. I invested in gear what some people spend on a television. Then I put that gear on, found the only hill nearby, and got to know it well. I was aware that no number of hill-repeats could fully prepare me to hike through 14 states, experiencing an elevation gain and loss equivalent to climbing Mount Everest 16 times. There would be some on-the-job training required.
As the date of departure drew closer, my bravado collapsed into self-doubt. Back home, my friends were moving forward with their careers. For the first time, I could trace our divergent paths like contrails in the sky. What had felt mercurial at first was beginning to take shape and form as something solid, lifelong. I decided then, that if this was the life I chose, I would take it as far as I could.
“Whoa!” cried Ol’ Man, as lightning shattered across the sky. “I’ve been doing this for over ten years, and I have never seen it like this before!” He had a grizzled, toothy complexion, his gray hair pulled back into a ponytail. He seemed more like the captain of a ship caught in unfavorable waters than the owner-operator of a hiker hostel and shuttle service. I figured we would turn around and come back the following morning. Instead we pulled onto the shoulder and sat there, idling through the crescendo of the storm while I pondered the inadequacy of my rain tarp. By the time we reached Baxter, the downpour had subsided to a lingering drizzle.
I’ve been told to “get it out of my system” while I’m young. The thought makes me smile. I hiked that day, and the next, and the next, and ultimately, I touched my head to the stone at Springer.
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