What Hiking 1,000 Miles of the AT Has Taught Me

On May 8, 2016, I set sail on the 12-hour car ride from Philadelphia to Springer Mountain, GA. I was on my way to begin a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail—a trip that I spent 2.5 years preparing for. The beginning of my journey wasn’t too different than that of most thru-hike hopefuls. My massive backpack, clunky boots, and blister-covered feet made things slow for the first few weeks. After a while, though, I finally found my stride and was happily traveling through the trail’s green tunnel.

I felt unstoppable when I hit my PR of a 21.5-mile day during week six. However, by the beginning of the next week, I was experiencing intense vertigo and started maxing out at only seven miles per day. A month went by before I found out that my Lyme disease misdiagnosis was actually an inner ear issue, and just like that my hike was over after 600 miles.

To say I was upset was an understatement, but I had a bucketful of dreams to accomplish so there was no time to sit and mourn the failure of my thru-hike attempt. After taking the proper time to recover, I began looking for ways to put my newly earned bachelor’s degree to use. I started working full time, but as much as a tried, I wasn’t content with letting my dream of reaching Katahdin die.

Tired, dirty, sweaty, hungry, and happy.

There wasn’t a whole lot of planning or a big “a-ha” moment when I transitioned into section hiking—it just felt like the natural next step in completing my larger goal. So I began checking off small pieces of trail whenever I got the chance. It took me a total of 2.5 years to reach my 1,000-mile mark on Nov. 4, 2018, and the magnitude of this accomplishment almost feels surreal.

These past two years have literally revolved around my next hike on the trail. They have been spent meticulously planning miles, coordinating shuttle rides, and budgeting PTO to allow for a maximum amount of distance to be hiked each trip. The Appalachian Trail has truly taught me what it means to be unshakably dedicated toward reaching a goal, and this lesson has had impacts on all aspects of my life. From my professional ambitions to other hiking-related goals, the trail has given me the confidence to tackle any challenge I can dream up for myself.

Warm summer days spent along the trail in the Smokies.

A lot has happened since I was the eager college graduate standing on top of Springer Mountain; I started working full time, became a “real adult” with rent and bills to pay, and spent nine months recovering from a complete ACL tear. Despite all this, the trail has always remained the most constant and important goal in my life. It has been with me through the happiest times, and some of the worst in recent memory. My efforts toward hiking the trail have helped me grow and dramatically shape the person that I am today. This dream has pushed me in ways I never thought possible, and has consequently taught me more life lessons than work or school ever will.

The Trail Has Taught Me Discipline

Reaching the 1,000-mile mark required discipline that far surpassed anything I have ever worked toward. It has shown me that conquering your dreams is the opposite of glamorous. Instead, reaching big goals often requires the sacrifice of your own comfort. Hiking 1,000 miles meant walking through rain, snow, ice, drought, and heat. It turned many of my Saturdays into a series of waking up at 4 a.m. to drive 200 miles to a trailhead, and required me to sit exhausted at my desk on most Monday mornings. The trail has literally taken blood, sweat, and tears from my body, yet has never been able to shake me from continuing down its path. There were times when the thought of these discomforts made me cringe. However, looking back and being able to say that I accomplished something this big feels way better than sleeping in ever will.

Smiling through the rain in Shenandoah.

The Trail Has Taught Me to be Flexible

I set out with an intention to hike the entire Appalachian Trail, but this journey has been nothing close to the original plan of the thru-hike I set out for. My hike has taken a form of its own and has manifested into a unique and beautiful adventure. This hike wasn’t the dream I intended, but I wouldn’t change the experience I have been given for the world. Continuing down the trail even after my thru-hike “ended” has given me a deeper connection to not only the trail, but all the people and places that are a part of it. I have been able to see the trail in a variety of seasons and conditions that many hikers never will. I have had the privilege of meeting countless trail angels and shuttle drivers who give their life to the trail. This experience has also allowed me to give back through trail magic and trail maintenance all while working toward my ultimate goal. I would argue that completing the trail through section hikes has given me a richer experience than my original thru-hike ever would have.

The Trail Has Given Me Confidence

Reaching for your dreams is often terrifying; it can require you to work hard and be vulnerable to failure. Having a dream as big as the Appalachian Trail has shown me that fear isn’t always a bad thing. Fear is what helps you grow and eventually become a more well-rounded person on the other side. At the risk of sounding like one of those cheesy, inspirational Facebook posts: your dreams are there to be conquered. Make a game plan and turn your dreams into goals. That mountain you want to climb, that place you want to live? The only thing stopping you from getting there is you. If it’s a dream worth pursuing, then no, it won’t be easy. In fact, it will probably scare you to death. But is there any point to life if you’re not continually working toward the things that make you feel alive? Pursuing your goals will inevitably change you. Trust me when I say that those positive changes will ripple into all aspects of your life.

Mountain sunset in Virginia.

Through rain, heat, and steep climbs, the Appalachian Trail is unrelenting. Its many challenges have pushed me to adopt this same attitude toward reaching my final goal. With every new adventure I find myself on, and every new goal I set for myself, the trail is always top of mind. It is truly a part of who I am. I don’t know how long this journey will take me to complete; maybe another 2.5 years, maybe another ten, or maybe I will throw all caution to the wind and set out to finish the trail next week. The future is truly unknown, but the one thing I know for sure is that one day I will stand on top of Katahdin with 2,200 miles under my belt. Until then, I am staying motivated while ticking off miles and crossing sections off the map.

This trail has given me more strength, confidence, and happiness than I ever fathomed. No amount of trail stewardship will ever make up for the endless debt I feel I owe the AT. I am forever grateful for the lessons it teaches and the person it has made me become.

Officially hiked 1,000 miles of trail. Pop the bubbly.

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