Why are you thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail?

The question is the one I ask myself. “Why *are* you planning to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail??”

Pretty much everyone I talk to who has actually complete a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail tells me the same thing: Barring injury and illness, anyone in reasonably-good physical condition can thru-hike hike the AT. The biggest challenge isn’t the physical, it’s the mental.

From the perspective of seventy years, I can tell you that’s true of most of the physical challenges I have faced. It’s about the focus and determination to keep at it long after the initial excitement has worn off.

Enter Appalachian Trials

I have been reading books about thru-hiking to help wrap my head around all this. I read the description of Zach Davis’ “Appalachian Trials” and decided I needed to read it. Zach insists that we make three lists.

  1. I am hiking the Appalachian Trail because…
  2. When I successfully thru-hike the Appalachian Trail I will…
  3. If I give up on the Appalachian Trail I will…

I made the three lists and wrote down my answers. I figured out a few things in the process.

I am hiking the Appalachian Trail because…

  • It has been far too long since I have done anything really outrageous. This is my official tongue-in-cheek reason, but it’s not far from the truth.
  • I’ve wanted to do this for a long time. I’m 70 and in good health but I don’t have forever. If I don’t do it now I never will.
  • I want to spend six months with God in the Abbey of the Appalachians. (I told this to the previous abbot at the Abbey of the Genesee in upstate New York. He said, “I envy you.”
  • I want to prove to myself that I can keep my pants zipped for six months around all sorts of strong, intelligent, and attractive women. ‘Nuff said.
  • I want to prove to myself that I can keep at it and do the whole thing.
  • For Mom and Dad, who believed in me.
  • I want to do a show at Image City Photography Gallery in Rochester entitled, “2192 miles”.
  • I want to take the photographs.
  • I want to be part of something much bigger than myself.
  • I’ve been computer geek most of my life (blame my parents). It’s time to do something different.
  • I’m not finished yet. (If you aren’t following Anubis and Winnie on Instagram, do so. https://www.instagram.com/a_walk_with_winnie/)
  • I’m tired of being a wimp.
  • It’s time to revisit my love of being outdoors (again, blame my parents).
  • I could not do this before due to family obligations. This is my chance.
  • I want to prove to myself that I can get off my ass and actually do this.
  • I am desperately lonely. I am looking forward to the people I will meet on the trail.
  • For my grandson, Wesley, to demonstrate to him that hard things are doable.

When I successfully thru-hike the Appalachian Trail I will…

  • …be different.

I know the Appalachian Trail will change me. How? I really don’t know. I will wait and see. Another good bit of advice I have read is to leave my expectations at the trailhead. And I’ve lived long enough that sometimes it’s best just to let it happen. Keep your eyes open. Accept the gift.

If I give up on the Appalachian Trail I will…

  • Have to admit failure to myself. I’m not stranger to failure but I’m no stranger either to success. I much prefer the latter.
  • Have to admit failure to far too many others.
  • Let down the people who have believed in me.
  • Still be an Ok person. (Whatever happens, never forget this one.)

Reflections

As I looked at my reasons for wanting to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, I realized they are also reasons I want to hike it in on one shot. If I start NOBO in June I cannot finish in one continuous hike. A few options came to mind.

  • Go southbound (SOBO)?
  • Try to start in April and finish before Katahdin closes down in mid October?
  • Delay until 2022? (That would make it 22 for 72.)

I do not want to start my thru-hike with Katahdin, the Hundred Mile Wilderness, and the Whites. I want to have the preparation of the rest of the trail behind me before hitting these closing challenges. I want to be able to enjoy them rather than suffer through them.

If we make reasonable progress against the pandemic during the first quarter, an April start might be feasible. But social distancing and avoiding shelters will certainly still be in effect. As I think back over the thru-hike books I have read and descriptions I have heard, it impresses me that one of the most beautiful parts of a thru-hike is the people you meet on the way. Thru-hiking with COVID-19 precautions in place sounds like a lot more effort for half the hike. That’s not the hike I want to hike.

But I’ve already pushed back one year. I really don’t want to push my thru-hike back yet another year. What to do?

What to do?

I explained this all to my wife. She’s not a hiker but she knows me pretty well after forty-eight years of marriage. She listened quietly, then said, “Wait a year. Do something else this year.” Realistically, I have to agree that makes the most sense given all I laid out here. We shall see.

“Appalachian Trials” is a most helpful book.

Pictures

The header image and the rest are from a hike I took a couple months ago in Stonybrook State Park, a bit southeast of Letchworth. Trails are for people.

Blessings,
Steve / pearwood
Soli Deo Gloria

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Comments 25

  • Avatar
    Ruth Nasrullah : Dec 18th

    Hey Pearwood. Someone commented on my Punchbowl Mountain post that she put her thru hike off till 2022 in part so that the fear of covid isn’t always hanging over her head. I agree with that. I really don’t think this is the year to do it the way we’ve all dreamed of. And if I end up being a LASHer, at least I am still hiking the AT!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      pearwood : Dec 19th

      Thank, Ruth. “Hanging over her head” captures it exactly.
      Blessings,
      Steve

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Shannon : Dec 19th

    I really enjoyed your article, Pearwood, thanks for sharing. I think its very powerful and meaningful to know your “why” and motivation to hike the AT since it is such a massive undertaking both physically and mentally. You are clearly aware of your “why” and I have no doubt that you will be successful whenever you do decide to go out there. I personally decided to postpone my thru-hike until 2022 since covid is still very prevalent and I would much rather hike without having that concern in the back of my mind. I’ve learned you can’t put a price on peace of mind. But everyone is different. I completely understand why some are choosing to thru-hike in 2021 and believe that they will be considerate and careful when they are out there and I wish them well. Fortunately, you do have a bit of time to decide and I would just say listen to your gut. The trail will always be there and while I’m not one who likes to put things off or wait until the “perfect moment”, these circumstances are unique and fortunately, since we now have a vaccine, I have no doubt 2022 will be a safe year to get back out there again. Regardless, I wish you all of the best and I look forward to following your journey. And “Appalachian Trials” is an excellent resource. I also really enjoyed “How to Hike the Appalachian Trail” by Chris Cage, it is very informative and an easy read but Appalachian Trials does have just about everything you need to know to complete a thru-hike. I’m just a sucker for reading as many AT books as I can get my hands on!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      pearwood : Dec 19th

      Thanks, Shannon. I’ll check out Chris Cage’s book. I’ve read a bunch in the past few years. I’ll have to do a list here sometime.
      Steve

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Martin Welch : Dec 19th

    Your journey has been/will be interesting and inspiring to follow.

    I am another older, retired person. I have been struggling with giving up the comforts of home and embracing the lack of of a household that would be required for me to fully commit to the thru-hiking or chunk-hiking lifestyle that calls to me.

    I woke up this morning thinking of the Bhikkhu traditions of few possessions and the alms round. For me the trail will offer similar benefits and challenges. In confirming my understanding of this way of life I found this quote:

    “…Confined is the household life, a path of dust; the going forth is open and spacious…”

    This is my primary “Why?”. I share many of your whys and appreciate your openness and honesty. My quest is slowly evolving.

    Love the photos.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      pearwood : Dec 19th

      Thanks, Martin. Something my wife and I discovered yea many decades ago on leaving Alaska after six years with the Army in Fort Richardson (Anchorage) and the Federal Aviation Administration in Nome was that everything in the lower forty-eight seemed so tame. Even the woods had been tamed.
      Steve

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Pete Schiller : Dec 19th

    I would like to thru-hike the AT in 2021, but I have the same concerns, that I don’t want to miss out too much on of the social aspects of the journey, and I’m also not willing to completely ignore the state mandates or ATC requests that are in place. I’m playing it by ear at this point. If I can do an early May flip flop start from Harpers Ferry, that would be wonderful. A June or July flip flop start from the CT-NY border, or somewhere north of there, that works for me. If starting that early isn’t reasonable, then I think my fallback will be starting SOBO from Harpers Ferry on 9/7 (day after Labor Day). Then I’ll head NOBO from Harpers Ferry in May of 2022, finishing within 12 months of my start date.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Julie Hysom : Dec 19th

    Might want to consider starting earlier so you will miss some of the extremely hot and humid of the southern weather. Otherwise
    .good luck!!!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      pearwood : Dec 19th

      Julie,
      Thanks. Yes, I’ve been warned about the brutal southern summer weather. And I spent significant amounts of summer months yea many decades ago at Fort Benning, Georgia, Fort Wolters, Texas, and Fort Rucker, Alabama. In fact, my Request for Assignment, AKA dream sheet, when I finished army flight school, included the comment, “I am a Yankee by birth and preference. Send me some place that has a winter.” The result? Fort Richardson, Alaska. The army could not have given me a better assignment.
      Blessings,
      Steve

      Reply
  • Avatar
    pearwood : Dec 19th

    Thanks, Pete. I’m seeing all sorts of different ways to mix and match. So much of his is simply wait and see how the COVID-19 action goes.
    Blessings,
    Steve

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Norma : Dec 19th

    Hi Pearwood,

    I really enjoyed your article and those photos are terrific. I also had planned and trained for a thru hike in 2020, put it off til 21 , and am now grappling with the reality of a more likely 22. Who knows what will happen…if we end up being in the same class, I hope to meet you out there. Love your attitude and wish you a satisfying and meaningful hike 👣

    Norma

    Reply
    • Avatar
      pearwood : Dec 20th

      Thanks, Norma. Maybe I’ll see you on the trail. Whatever I end up doing will get posted here.
      Steve

      Reply
  • Avatar
    dave beaty : Dec 19th

    That was a really good read Steve.. its good to have a lofty goal like that…(especiallhy at our age.. )…. fingers crossed that we can get the damned virus situation on the way out so people have an opportunity to interact again.. good luck

    Reply
    • Avatar
      pearwood : Dec 20th

      Thanks, Dave.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Nightingale : Dec 20th

    Great article! I’ve been following your posts and I love your honesty. I didn’t have time to read all the comments but have you considered a flip flop? You could start when you want, head north first, then flip and head south. Just wanted to throw it out there. Happy hiking!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Dan Vaughn : Dec 20th

      Pearwood, I was wondering the same. I put my hike off 20-21 due to Covid and then a home build. I will flip flop in ‘22 in hopes of missing the crowds at Springer.

      Reply
      • Avatar
        pearwood : Dec 20th

        Thanks, Dan. As I just told Nightingale, I’ve thought about doing a Harper’s Ferry flip flop (and finishing at both ends!), but there’s something in me that wants to do the whole thing straight through. I agree about trying to miss the March bubble. I’m considering a February or April start. With a February start I’d have to brush off my winter camping skills.
        Steve

        Reply
    • Avatar
      pearwood : Dec 20th

      Thanks! I’ve thought about doing a Harper’s Ferry flip flop (and finishing at both ends!), but there’s something in me that wants to do the whole thing straight through. We shall see.
      Steve

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Bruce W. Berry (Grampa fuzzy : Dec 21st

    Good Afternoon Steve/Pearwood,

    This post is an absolute first for me and I commend you on a great article. I set my sights on 2021 two years ago and started planning for my A.T. start and planned (including some dehydrated vacuum packed food). After a long workaholic life style, I retired at 67 two and one half years ago. Within the last five years I recovered from a brain bleed, two types of cancer, and a hip replacement (unplanned fall from bicycle). With those issues behind me, I’ve have a greater understanding for the love of life and I am ready for this adventure however four weeks shy of seventy, there are fewer tomorrows. My target start date (registered with ATC) is/was March 20th but I too am struggling with concerns of the virus. I will delay some if it is possible to get the vaccine, I will put it off if I have too cause at my age I feel it would be irresponsible to leave unprotected. Tough choice.
    Grampa Fuzzy

    Reply
  • Avatar
    pearwood : Dec 21st

    Good evening, Bruce!
    Tough choices indeed. It’s looking more and more like the responsible thing for me, at least, is to bag it for 2021 and shoot for end of March 2022, which means I would turn 72 on the trail. I am trying to shift my focus to what how I am not going to sit on my butt in the meantime. Even at this age, I don’t expect to make it to the front of the line for the vaccine until next spring sometime. We shall see.
    Where are you located?
    Blessings,
    Steve

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Bruce W. Berry : Dec 22nd

      Steve,

      located in Southern NH, my brother and I hiked the Long Trail of VT in sections (2015-18), and I have done fifteen of the forty-eight Whites (brother’s done 24). Had hoped to finish the Whites this year (leading into the A,T, prep) but totally pulled back (too crowded to feel safe). My son was/is going to spend the first week with me in Georgia, learned yesterday his (and family) are in self quarantine from an exposure (the scariness hits close to home). Not even close to the same but I try to stay active by walking the streets (twelve to fifteen mile wonders).

      Stay safe!
      Bruce

      Reply
    • Avatar
      Emma Slaughter : Jan 21st

      I really loved reading this article! Appalachian Trials also sparked an interest in the AT for me and seeing as you really took Zach’s advise I forsee you completing this amazing journey. As for the comment about feeling lonesome and wanting to meet people on trail, look at how far youve already come! I have found the Appalachian Trail community to be such a diverse, welcoming community and have cherished every moment spent with those I met on trail and through social media outlets, including this one.

      I will be hiking NOBO end of Feb, I hope to see you on trail and if not, rock on Pearwood! Good luck out there.

      Also, amazing photography.
      – Thirteen

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Anna Kulinski : Dec 23rd

    Hey Pearwood! Love the photos and it’s awesome to hear your reasons. I hope to see you out there in 2022!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      pearwood : Dec 23rd

      Thanks, Anna! That would be cool.
      Blessings,
      Steve

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Shenglan Zhang : Feb 8th

    Hello Pearwood,

    It is good reading what you wrote about why AT. Thanks for sharing.

    I’m also planning to do a thru-hike starting from early March 2022. I hope that I will be able to meet you there.

    Reply

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