When “Someday” becomes “Now”

Great adventures start small. A tiny spark created by the collision of imagination and circumstance. With proper nurturing, that flash of heat can ignite a blazing fire. Or it can serve as a pilot light, tucked away and flickering contentedly until it’s fed the fuel needed to thrive.

My spark came in the form of a backpacking trip in western North Carolina when I was 12 years old. I was filled with apprehension as we loaded up our external frame packs and departed the camp that I considered my summer home as a child. Up to that point, my wilderness experience was limited to a handful of campouts on the trampoline in my backyard. We hiked what must have been 20 miles (or maybe it was 4) on the famed Appalachian Trail and set up camp next to a 3-sided wooden shelter. Circled around a fire after dinner, our instructors shared stories of life in the backcountry and of thru-hikers who spent months hiking the entire trail from Georgia to Maine. Starry-eyed, I watched as neon embers drifted toward the sky and let my imagination take flight with them. On that balmy July evening I made a decision: I would thru-hike the Appalachian Trail someday.

Fast forward nearly twenty years to my home in Asheville, where stories of the Trail fill several shelves of my bookcase. In the corner of my room is a collection of gear that swells with each UPS delivery. My backpack sits in anticipation, waiting to hold my prized possessions for five months of wilderness travel. “Someday” has become “now”.

On Thursday I will stand atop Georgia’s Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, and begin my journey north. My parents will hike the first mile with me, then wave me on as I leave the ordinary world and cross over into unfamiliar territory. I’ve spent a lot of time in the woods since that initial backpacking trip years ago; in fact, I can honestly say that I feel more comfortable in the mountains than in a city. But my longest foray in the wilderness to date is a mere three weeks, which is a far cry from the 4.5 to 5 months that I’ll spend on the AT. To be completely honest, I’m scared. I’m scared in the best possible way.

This journey began months, even years, before I will take my first steps on the Trail. I’ve read the books, studied gear, and poured over maps for hours. I’ve analyzed the pros and cons of down and synthetic sleeping bags, cooked over a number of different stoves, and tried several water purification methods. More importantly, I’ve visualized my daily life as a thru-hiker. I’ve imagined lonely nights, days that wreck me physically and mentally, and the feeling of soggy boots on sore feet. But for every tough moment I’ve pre-lived, there are twice as many happy ones: the joy of connecting with a community of new friends, hot chocolate at sunrise, watching spring and summer creep into the mountains. When I get anxious about planning, I remind myself how simple this really is. I’m going for a walk in the woods.

Just as I am setting off on my thru-hike, thousands of others are migrating to the woods as well. I imagine we are feeling similar things – a little fear, anxious anticipation, and unbelievable excitement. Though we’re drawn to the trail for different reasons, we will share the joys of simple living, tremendous growth, and summertime in the Appalachians.

And so it begins!

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