The What and the Why: Journey to the Appalachian Trail
In more clear and concise terms… it’s less of being between a rock and a hard place, and more justifying your divergent decisions to your entire world.
What the hell am I doing?
Beyond the rose-hued nostalgia that descriptive writing brings me, the cold hard facts still follow. So, the real question arises quite often these days when it comes up in conversation. It is not just “Are you actually going to hike over two thousand miles?” or the “How are you going to feed yourself, bathe, shelter…?” but rather the simplest question: “Why?”
While home is currently a conglomeration of people, feelings, places and things, I like to assign the title of hometown to the bustling college town of Charlottesville, Virginia, where I grew up. Look at the roots that emerged in a blue house outside of Crozet, in the thick of a rolling forest a stone’s throw from Skyline Drive. After a certain point, childhood is reduced to the vignettes that unpredictably reappear through your mind. The gift of a shiny pocket knife, instrumental in fort construction. Plucking juicy blackberries off wildly scattered vines, spotting a black bear the next ravine over, doing nearly the same. Racing down the synagogue’s front steps to quickly change into hiking clothes to drive to a waterfall or lookout loop on Skyline Drive. Not wearing shoes for months on end as I follow the path of streams and uncover radiantly bright orange salamanders wriggling in leaf detritus.
Years went by and the leaf covered earth and sunlight between trees were replaced by the seashore, concrete landscapes, deserts and the cacophony of sounds in daily life in Kampala. Certain dreams shuffled to the back of my mind, replaced by humanitarian pursuits, took me to Jordan, then to Uganda. The ongoing pandemic and resulting flux the world has shaken into brought me remote work, and with it a realm of endless possibility, and travel. But on exposed granite summits and in the wide-mouthed opening of a slot canyon, I realized something. I always felt most at home in the woods. Where some see the Appalachian Mountains as rolling, steady predictability, I see the details in between. The sounds that emerge from layers of background noise when you stop, breathing heavily, at the top of a pass.
So what are we going to do about it?
It’s time for me to take a break. I want to take pause and take stock of my current situation, and there is no better place to do it than the woods I grew up in. I have lived abroad essentially since I was 20, with the majority of it spent in the undulating hills and diverse landscape in Uganda. I want to go back to another place I once called home. Before I pack, repack and put my head in my hands in front of my gear, and take a flight, another flight, and drive to Springer Mountain, I’ve been digging deep to understand why. Why now? Why this?
On the trail…
I write this as my pack stands at attention next to the front door, packed for an overnight clambering up rocks and through homesteads to Mount Kadam, in Nakapiripirit District, Karamoja. I am preparing for a ascent of Africa’s fourth highest mountain, Mount Meru (4,566 meters ASL), by the end of the year. And I continue to write, and wonder.
In a hiking community often preoccupied with summits, altitude gain and sheer brunt force, my friends are perplexed by the decision to walk in a relatively straight line over the course of several months. But to me, as Robert Moor says most aptly in his seminal book On Trails:
“We are born to wander through a chaos field. And yet we do not become hopelessly lost, because each walker who comes before us leaves behind a trace for us to follow.”
Walk along with me over the next year as I scale some more mountains, obsessively weigh all of my gear, buy, return and sell more items of gear, and make my long journey back to the United States. Tell me whether I should stick with my REI Quarter Dome SL2, or switch to a lighter but more finicky Z-Packs tent. Watch me debate on the pros and cons of a Culo Clean bidet to ditch the TP on trail.
I’ll be writing long, nonsensical prose, and witty (I hope) banter about my preparations for the Appalachian Trail. Telling you, my nameless, faceless Internet peers, makes it real.
All photos are from Mount Kadam, Nakapiripirit District, Karamoja, Uganda.
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