It’s the end, but not really
At the beginning of the Appalachian Trail on Springer Mountain, a plaque embedded in a boulder reads: “A footpath for those who seek fellowship with the wilderness.” When I set out on my long hike this year alone, this was my goal. I sought a genuine wilderness experience, a vision quest of sorts to find God, find myself, and get away from normal life to re-evaluate my life’s trajectory within the uninterrupted space of nature. I can honestly say I achieved fellowship with the wilderness, but it wasn’t on the Appalachian Trail.
The Benton MacKaye Trail gave me everything I wanted from a long hike. I didn’t always know where I was going. I had to use my map and compass. There was nobody around to lift my spirits when I became physically and mentally exhausted. I went 70 miles without seeing another hiker, camped alone almost every night, and never met any thru hikers. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
The BMT and AT are different trails, and I am a different hiker. No hiker and trail is better than any other, but some trails and hikers are better for each other. The BMT was better for me than the AT. The solitude and wildness of the BMT matched my reasons for hiking more than the heavily traveled and highly social AT. The BMT gave me the best opportunity for fellowship with the wilderness. In the end, that’s why I have always been a hiker.
It’s also the main reason I decided to end my hike at the northern terminus of the BMT. Originally, I planned to continue north on the AT, but as I rolled across the finish line just like I started–alone and with little fanfare–I knew I had found what I set out to find. Certainly, my struggle to maintain a healthy weight made it easier to stop–I lost a shocking 17 pounds in three weeks!–but had I still felt a need to continue, I would have done so, skeleton or not.
Thru hiking the Benton MacKaye Trail was a life changing experience. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. While it is impossible to share exactly how it has changed me–I don’t even know it yet–I would like to share one takeaway of which I am certain.
I learned on my journey that I have a deep love for people. It may seem strange to say this after solo hiking a seldom used trail, often going days on end without human contact. It may surprise those who know how much of a lone wolf I can be. But the few encounters I had on the trail really touched me. Whether it was one of the kind souls who gave this scruffy, smelly hiker a ride into town, or a smiling face at a cafe who served me a burger, I learned that there is still good will, and good people, in the world. The kindness these people showed me transcended any political or religious persuasion, and it stirred up a sense of love and compassion within me, something I hope will guide everything I do and say for the rest of my life.
So what’s next? Finding a job I am passionate about is my immediate focus (another trail lesson), but I’d like to do some hiking on the Bartram Trail, Foothills Trail, Florida Trail, and sections of the AT during off-peak times. Even though my thru hike of the Benton MacKaye Trail is over, I know it is just one part of the grander journey I am on. It’s an exciting time to be alive!
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