Wait… What? How? Why?

When people find out that I am planning a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail (AT), they usually react in two different ways. Either they freak out, tell me how jealous they are and begin to ask me a myriad of questions or they say something along the lines of “oh, what’s that?” Whether people have heard of the AT or not, they always ask some of the same questions and usually, I give some of the same answers.

What is the AT?

In short, it is a very long trail (over 2,000 miles) that runs from Georgia to Maine. Thousands of people attempt to hike the entire trail in what is known as a ‘thru-hike’ (this can be achieved by hiking from one end to the other either, all in one attempt or in many various section hikes) and only about 20% of people finish this fantastic feat.

Along with statistics about the AT, an entire post could be dedicated to describing and giving it’s long history. If you want to find out more about the original idea and intent for the AT you can read Benton MacKaye’s proposal for an Appalachian Trail here. His proposal explains everything from why he believes that a trail will be helpful for society to how it will be maintained.

Many have hiked parts of the trail since MacKaye’s proposal and the AT’s construction. The Smithsonian Magazine published an article in 2009 that gave 10 short stories from people and their relationship with the AT. Along with giving a brief history and information about the AT, the article sheds light on a fraction of the diverse people who spend months to a day on the trail.

Is anyone going with you?

After people grasp the details about the trail, they often ask if I am hiking with anyone. Usually, I answer this question with yes and no. Yes, I am going alone. No, I will not be alone the entire time. As I mentioned, thousands of people attempt a thru-hike and even more people spend time on the trail hiking. For this reason, I will never be completely alone, but I will spend some of my days hiking alone.

Completing a thru-hike takes anywhere from 5-7 months. During this time, people drift in and out of what are known as ‘trail families’. These families consist of a small group of hikers who choose to hike and/or camp together for a portion of the trail. Although some will stick together the entire trail, most will hike their own hike and eventually go separate ways awaiting the next time they see their trail brothers and sisters. It is by these mysterious ‘trail families’ that I know I will never be alone, but alone enough at the same time.

How do you eat?

Okay, I am going to spend 5 months hiking, sometimes by myself, how in the world do you eat? Any hopeful thru-hiker will tell you that there are many differing opinions surrounding this topic. Some suggest that you should prepare all of your food beforehand by dehydrating and packing it away in prelabeled USPS priority shipping boxes. Others insist that because your food desires will change over the course of the trial and that after the costs of shipping and inconvenience of coordinating your hike around your mail drops (those cardboard boxes with food and such), the freedom is worth whatever little increase in price you will pay at gas stations and convenience stores.

After much deliberating and honest frustration, I decided that the greater freedom and the attraction of minimal planning are worth the small amount of extra money I might pay at gas stations and convenience stores. “Appalachian Trial” author Zach Davis wrote an excellent blog about this very topic that articulates and expounds upon this very idea much more elegantly than I can.

Now that I have my food, how am I going to prepare it? Again, there are many different ways and ideas about which method is best. I initially thought I was going to use Esbit (a sketchy looking white cube that burns super hot), but I have decided to use an alcohol stove that will allow me greater functionality and hopefully warm meals when I choose to use it.

Why are you doing it?

To be honest, I don’t know or rather, I don’t know the exact reason. A lot of people come to the trail carrying recent and raw events on their backs. From the loss of a loved one, a hard breakup, a recent medical diagnosis to finally having the time to attempt a life-long dream, the reasons people hike the trail are diverse and expansive. Here’s mine, in short.

While working for Youthworks in Superior, WI, I was introduced to the idea of hiking for long periods of time as a way to escape and to enjoy communion with the Creator. A participant on that week’s service trip had hiked many miles and was thinking about taking part in the Colorado Trail Race. The idea of spending time in the wilderness seemed like something that I would enjoy, so naturally I picked up a book and began to read. After spending all afternoon in the local Barnes and Nobles reading about the trail and the gear that I would carry, I had decided that hiking was something that I would do before I died.

Soon I found myself standing face-to-face with my college graduation. While others were applying for graduate school, a year of service program (such as Lutheran Volunteer Corps and Americorps), and full-time jobs, I found myself longing for something different. I knew that eventually I would end up at Concordia Seminary St. Louis, but I wasn’t ready to start immediately following my graduation.

Many pastors had told me that those pastors who could relate the best to their congregation were those who had ‘real life’ experience. This made sense to me, so I began to put a plan into motion that would allow me to get ‘real life’ experience while working as a sales associate at a local warehouse retailer and to spend 5 months on a personal sabbatical in the woods. I don’t know what or who I will find in/about myself while on the trail, but if my experience is like anyone else’s, then I know it will be full of stories, transformative, and life-giving.

With only 141 days until I begin my thru-hike, I am beginning to ask myself; “Is this really what I am supposed to do? How am I going to pay for seminary after my hike? Am I going to be ready by the time March comes around? And most importantly, how am I going to pass my Greek exam before March 3?

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