Why I’m Attempting a Long-Distance Hike
My decision to hike the AT started with a bet I made 19 years ago at age 12. It was a bet I made before I knew about the existence of long-distance hiking trails, and before I ever embarked on a walk that could be considered a hike.
“I’m going to walk from Florida to California one day,” I proclaimed to my friend.
“No you won’t,” she said. “That’s impossible.”
“I bet you three hundred bucks I will.”
We mutually agreed upon a deadline for the bet, that I should complete my trek by age 25 or pay up. I was solidly convinced that I could accomplish this feat, especially given that I had over a decade to get it done, but I was a bit baffled by the logistics. I imagined myself pushing a shopping cart full of my belongings down the side of a paved road. I had never been hiking and was unaware that it was a contemporary leisure activity. I associated it with some bygone era before television and video games.
Time passed and I never completely forgot about the bet, but there always seemed to be something more important going on in my life. Because of this, the memory of the bet would re-enter my conscious awareness only a handful of times in the intervening years. For the most part, I was distracted by my all-consuming ambition to become an academic scientist. A couple years ago, things changed and I left that career path, which gave me space to consider a long hike.
As I was leaving academia, elements of my personal life began taking shape to support a hiking adventure. In a desperate attempt to cope with the enormous stress of graduate school, I had taken up running after existing somewhere between sedentary and lightly active throughout my adult life. Running was incredibly empowering as I learned how to train my body to develop new adaptations, like an enormous cardio base that kept me going through runs over two hours long. I’m not sure I would have felt up to the challenge of a long hike as an adult had I not proven to myself that I could overcome my perceived fitness limitations.
Around the same time, I began spending more time outdoors, most frequently on a paddleboard. I was inspired to take up a paddling hobby after going on a sea kayaking excursion in Hawai’i, after which I asked myself, “why haven’t I been doing more stuff like this???”
I began regularly going out for short excursions on the flatwater rivers in my area and found myself wanting to extend my time in nature. While exploring multi-day paddling opportunities, I discovered the term “primitive camping.” I had never camped without access to a toilet or running water. When my dad would take me camping as a kid, we would stay at the KOA in Fiesta Key. The KOA had electricity, showers, a swimming pool, and an arcade. It was technically camping since we slept in a tent outside, but I spent the days playing Pokemon on my GameBoy and pinball in the arcade. After college, I went car camping with some extended family in Washington state. At that campground, there were toilets, but no showers or power outlets. I didn’t admit to anyone that I had brought my body wash and hair straightener, but the experience showed me that doing an overnight without a shower wasn’t a huge deal. The moment I learned about primitive camping years later, I was intrigued and interested in giving it a shot. If I could manage without basic amenities, I recognized that it would open up a huge world of adventure for me.
Around the time I was researching primitive camping, which was early last year in 2022, I discovered the existence of long-distance hiking trails. I saw a Reddit post with a map of all the long trails in the United States. I remembered the bet from when I was 12, my proposed walk from Florida to California. With my new knowledge about primitive camping, the logistics finally made sense. I reflected on how central walking has been to my life, how this simple act is somehow deeply spiritual to me. Walking has always been a comfort, a way for me to feel empowered in my body, to assert myself and go where I want on my own terms, and to discover the world at my pace. I felt a calling to tackle a long trail. It seemed the bet had stemmed from something fundamental to who I am, such that this kind of trek was still appealing to me almost two decades later.
I thought about actually beginning my walk in Florida. There was something very romantic to me about beginning my journey an 80-mile drive southwest of where I spent the first 18 years of my life, at the southern terminus of the Florida Trail. But the Florida Trail is uniquely challenging due to the humidity, extensive sections that involve wading through deep water, and the relatively small size of the trail community. I didn’t want to set myself up for failure by making my first attempt at long-distance hiking unnecessarily difficult. The more I read about the Appalachian Trail, the more I felt like it was the right place to start.
After my discovery of long trails, my research into primitive camping skills, and my purchase of a trekking pole tent, I took my first backpacking trip on a short stretch of the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park. It was my first experience primitive camping, and I managed just fine, undeterred by the lack of basic amenities. I later took a canoe camping trip for four days in the Adirondacks. Then I hiked a 22-mile loop in my area over two days. Each trip into the backcountry presented challenges and learning experiences. I loved it. And I found myself always wanting more. Although my backpacking and solo adventuring experience is relatively minimal, it has been enough to motivate me to quit my job, pack up my stuff, and attempt a thru hike of the AT. By embarking on a long hike, I am satisfying a part of me that feels innate, my love of walking, and a part of me that has grown over time, my love of nature.
As for the original bet, I guess I’m late, and have technically lost it. But somehow, as I prepare for my trek, unsure of how it will go or if I will achieve what I’m setting out to do, simply having a path forward and giving it my best shot makes me feel like I’ve already won.
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