Faces of the Appalachian Trail, 2014: Katherine Denemark

Trail Name: Roots
Home State: Louisiana
Occupation: Before the trail, I was an assistant teacher in a Montessori preschool and taught a bit of yoga on the side. I have no idea what I’ll do next!
Hike Timeline: April 6 – October 7, 2014

Before: Katherine Denemark and husband

Before: Katherine Denemark and her husband

Why did you decide to hike?

When my husband half-seriously proposed thru-hiking the AT, I told him it was a bad idea because he’d hate me by the end of it. As a kid, I remember my parents listening to an audiobook of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, and thinking, “Why would anyone want to do that?” I grew up camping and backpacking and have always loved being outside, but it was thinking about five or six solid months and how long that was that made me dismiss it. Then my husband said, “If we thru-hike the trail, we can get a puppy after.” I started to more seriously consider it then, and almost immediately I was totally hooked on the idea. It’s like I had to do it simply because it was there to be done and I’d found out about it. I’d been feeling a lot of insecurity and anxiety about life in general, too, and I think I really craved the sense of definite completion and accomplishment that I imagined I’d feel at the end. I wanted to work on something really tangible. Also, I liked backpacking and didn’t like working, so why not stop doing what I didn’t like for half a year and do only what I did like?

What was the most challenging part of the journey?

For me, the most challenging part was twofold; constantly dealing with discomfort, and eating a really bad diet. I’m highly sensitive to physical discomfort. So six months of being hot or cold or swarmed by bugs or wet and not being able to do anything about it was difficult. Also, in my regular life I’m very choosy about what I eat, for both medical and philosophical/environmental reasons. On the trail, my usual way of eating was absolutely impossible. It was really hard for me to ignore how much processed food, sugar, food coloring, hydrogenated oils, etc. I was eating day in and day out. But I was hungry and there wasn’t anything else, so mostly I just tried not to think about it.

What was the most memorable part of the journey?

I think I’ll remember the final month or so of our trip the most. I was having a lot of knee pain and swelling and was feeling completely physically exhausted. There’d been a point, I think in Virginia, where I’d started to feel like barring some accident, we’d definitely make it. But I started to lose all that confidence. I wasn’t sure I could walk fast enough to finish before they closed the mountain. I was angry that we’d hiked all this way and gone through so much and yet I was falling short. But we rallied, big time. I got through by promising myself I’d hike one more week and then see. One more week and then see. It felt really good to overcome that.

How did you feel after the hike was over?

On the summit of Katahdin, I didn’t have much time to process. It was really stormy and cold, so we took pictures quickly and started down. Hiking down, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. Although I chose to hike, sometimes the challenge I’d accepted felt like a burden. There were a lot of times I wanted to go home, when I asked myself what was the point of continuing to hike. Sometimes I kept hiking purely because I’d said I would. Once it was finished, the stubborn directive I’d had in my brain to keep going and make it there lifted, and I could relax. It was surprising to me, because I hadn’t really realized I was holding that worry and expectation. In the two weeks or so after it was done, I felt a little bit sad. Not because I necessarily wanted to be out there still, but because I realized neither place will ever solve my problems. When I was hiking, I often longed for a shower or good food or just to sit down and spend an afternoon reading instead of walking. Now that I’m home, I miss the fresh air, the daily movement and exercise, the forest, our friends. I also miss the simplicity of life on the trail. Everything was for a specific and concrete purpose and you always knew what you were trying to do. It’s not like that in real life.

After: Katherine Denemark and her husband

After: Katherine Denemark and her husband

What did you gain from the experience?

I’m not sure I’ve been finished long enough to understand everything I’ve gained from the trail. But I witnessed an extraordinary level of support and teamwork from my husband. I will always have the knowledge, whenever I feel weak or unsure in the world, that I accomplished something really big. I gained the knowledge that I can withstand a lot more than I thought I could. I gained some friendships I hope will be lifelong. And I saw a part of the country I wasn’t very familiar with before, in the most intimate way possible. Also, I gained an appreciation for the comforts of civilization. I tend to be pretty down on our modern lifestyle, but I learned I really appreciate plumbing and hot water and staying in one place for more than a night.

What are your goals for the future?

It’s time to get that puppy! First though, we need jobs and a house somewhere, so right now we’re slowly, slowly starting to rebuild our life. ​My personal goal is to remember and implement the many, many lessons I learned during my thru-hike. I don’t want this experience to fade away and not change how I live in the world.

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