Why I’m Thru Hiking the Appalachian Trail – The REAL Reasons

The Germ of an Idea

In the spring of 2002, I flew east to North Carolina for a week of solo whitewater canoe instruction at the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC). Because my parents lived near Raliegh back then, I flew there and stopped by for a visit before driving up to the NOC. As I was leaving their house, my mom handed me a book she’d just finished that she thought I’d enjoy. Mom was an avid reader, but her eclectic taste made her book recommendations kind of hit or miss. I thanked her, gave her a hug, and tossed the book on the backseat of my rental car.

When I checked into my rustic cabin at the NOC that evening, I discovered it had no TV or WiFi, so I walked back down the hill to the parking area and fetched mom’s book from the backseat. Back in my room, I cracked it open and started reading what turned out to be Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods.” Whatever you might think of Bryson as an AT thru hiker (he didn’t), he is an excellent writer. “A Walk in the Woods” is one of his best efforts. By the time I fell asleep, I’d knocked off about a third of it.

The next morning, I decided to forego the paved road and walk the small path behind my cabin down the hill to NOC’s wonderful restaurant overlooking the river. As I left the cabin, I noticed a rather forlorn looking backpacker sitting on the cabin steps next to a row of dirty, overstuffed backpacks and a picket fence of hiking poles, but didn’t think much more about her. Then I noticed that the little path I’d chosen was marked with white blazes painted on trees. Wait!? Was I on the trail I’d been reading about all night?

I asked the waitress and found out that, sure enough, my walk to breakfast was my first AT hike. When I got back to my cabin, the young woman was still there, so I asked if she was thru hiking. She looked up sadly and said with a long sign, “I’m trying, but I just don’t know. I’m so tired and sore.” She looked utterly defeated. To me, it sounded like fun.

Later that day, when my canoeing group stopped for a lunch break on the banks of the Nantahala River, I mentioned that I was reading Bryson’s book and had been surprised that the NOC lay directly on the AT. Another student chimed in saying that David Miller’s “AWOL on the Appalachian Trail” gave a much more realistic account of an AT thru hike Bryson’s. Who knew there were more books about the AT? I read Miller’s book next, followed by Earl Shaeffer’s “Walking With Spring.”

More than a hundred AT books later, and my discovery of online hiker diaries, I knew I had a problem. And there was only one solution.

I had to hike this trail for myself.

I’m Thru Hiking the AT Because I Read a Book?!?

That’s crazy.

First off, no, it’s not crazy. Books inspire all kinds of things, most of which aren’t completely crazy.

Second, Bryson’s book was no more the reason for my wanting to thru hike the AT than the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand caused World War I. A Walk in the Woods may have been the spark, but it only triggered a need that had been lurking beneath the surface for a very long time.

The Real Reasons I’m Thru Hiking the AT

How long had this need been lurking, you ask?

Probably since I was big enough to stuff a leaky tent and some leftover hot dogs in my dad’s old Army surplus canvas backpack and head into the scraggly woods and abandoned farm fields behind my parent’s house in upstate New York. Back then, in the days before cable TV, Nintendo, and the Internet, I spent nearly all my non-school hours walking in the woods, climbing hills, and following creeks anywhere within a day’s walk of my home. And like just about every other boy in the 60’s and 70’s who liked the outdoors, I was a Boy Scout. My fellow Scouts and I were all at least vaguely aware that the AT existed, that it passed through New York state, and could be hiked north to Maine or south to Georgia.

As a kid, it never occurred to me I could thru-hike the whole AT in one trip. I’d never even heard of anyone thru hiking the AT. In the mid-70’s, only about 500 people had hiked the entire trail since its completion in 1921. Ever. In 50 years. And almost all those who had, did it in sections over many years.

I finished high school and left home, moving further and further west until I ended up in Arizona for graduate school. I spent the next 30 years in the desert southwest, which put the AT well off my radar screen until one evening when I sat on the back porch of an internet-free cabin at the NOC less than a hundred feet from the first white blaze I’d thought about in decades.

Bryson’s book didn’t have much work to do to get me thinking about an AT thru hike. I’ve always loved the outdoors and epic adventures. But running a business and raising a family left little time for such things. I’d managed to squeeze in plenty of day hikes, river trips, and long weekend backpacks over the years. But I’d always begin those little adventures looking the other direction from the trailhead, wondering what I’d missed further up the trail. And I’d finish every trip wistfully wondering what was around the next bend if only I’d gone a little further. Something in me would rather do all of trail than just a piece of one.

I also feel like a better version of myself when I’m outdoors, with the stars as my roof and North America as my pillow. I belong outdoors, and my soul lives in the woods. Bring on the long green tunnel.

And I love to walk. I was never the tallest, fastest, strongest, or smartest. But I could walk. All day. Any time. In any weather. I’m mostly retired now, and don’t have the oomph I did in my 20’s, but I can still walk. Plus, I don’t golf (“A good walk ruined,” said Winston Churchill) or fish. And I’m terrible at sitting still.

So, walking it is. And if I’m going to walk, why not take a long one? And what better place for a long walk than in the woods or up a mountain? Or both?

A Deeper Purpose

Benton MacKaye, who first proposed the Appalachian Trail, wrote that “there are three things: to walk, to see, and to see what you see.” I agree. But I also want to listen. Specifically, I want to hear what God has to say to me as I stroll through one of his grand cathedrals.

The past few years of political and social turmoil have left me feeling spiritually flat. Leaving behind my career identity, as well as all the aches, pains, and travails of getting older hasn’t helped my mood either. In the 5th century, whenever St. Augustine felt the same way as I do, he went for a walk. Without fail, he returned spiritually, intellectually, and physically refreshed, and pronounced “Solvitor ambulando” – which means “It is solved by walking.”

I hope for the same on my long walk in the woods.

See you on the trail.

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Comments 4

  • David Odell : Jan 19th

    Good luck on your AT hike. Will be looking forward to your blog. David Odell AT71 PCT72 CDT77

    • Jon : Jan 19th

      Thanks, David! Enjoy!

  • Julie : Jan 31st

    Solvitor ambulando indeed. Great quote. Great post. Looking forward to reading more from you. Thanks for the blister prevention info in another post you wrote. Really good, thorough stuff.

    • Jon : Feb 1st

      Hi,Julie. Thanks for the feedback and for reading…


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