6 Thru-Hikers on How the Trail Changed Their Lives (Part 1)
This spring, The Trek is highlighting stories of transformation on the trail. How has thru-hiking changed your life? We asked, and you answered. From inspiring career changes to improving mental/physical health to meeting a life partner, thru-hiking has had a huge impact on the lives of these hikers.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Tiffany “Archive” Chou
“I just couldn’t see myself sitting at a desk again in a corporate job.”
Trail(s): PCT SOBO 2019
Prior to the trail, I was working as a software engineer in the tech industry, and the truth is I hated it. I felt like I wasn’t good at my job, and the stress was taking a severe toll on my mental and emotional well-being. For the first time in my life, I had to start seeing a psychiatrist and a regular therapist because I absolutely needed it. It was around this time of intense unhappiness and stress that I decided to hike the PCT.
After I successfully completed my SOBO thru-hike, I just couldn’t see myself sitting at a desk again in a corporate job, at least not right away. I looked around for outdoor jobs and came across one for Youth Wilderness Instructors, taking kids out on backcountry backpacking trips for a week or two at a time. It sounded like a dream. Even though I didn’t have any instructing experience, I took a chance and applied. In return, they took a chance on me and I was hired.
I have since led over a dozen trips with kids from ages 10-19. I have discovered a huge love of instructing in the outdoors specifically, and of working toward getting young people outside, as well as increasing diversity in the outdoors. I’m currently searching for ways to instruct outside of this program, including opportunities to instruct adults.
As a result of spending so much time outside in my personal life and professional life, I also decided to get my Remote EMT, and am now Remote EMT certified, an accomplishment that is truly one of my proudest. It was hard work and one of the most difficult things I’ve done in a long time, and it was a very rewarding and educational experience.
I am currently working as part of a small BIPOC-specific cohort working toward creating BIPOC leaders in the outdoors at a non-profit. I spend my days learning about trail work and doing projects that help create more resources for those wanting to go hiking in my home state. It’s a limited program, and while I’m not sure where I’m headed next, I know it’ll be outdoor-related, and something that brings me happiness and a sense of fulfillment.
Before I left for the trail, I was unhappy at a stable corporate desk job that paid well but sucked my soul. After the trail, I work seasonal jobs, never quite knowing what’s next and not making nearly as much money, doing work that fills me with joy and pride.
“During the trail, I had plenty of time to ponder what my ideal life would look like if I had it my way.”
Trail(s): Collegiate Loop 2020, CDT NoBo Thru 2021, two LASH Florida Trail 2021
Prior to the trail, I was living in a big city and working as a VP for a large corporate company and was feeling rather disinterested in the lifestyle, material possessions, and people that surrounded me on a daily basis. During the trail, I had plenty of time to ponder what my ideal life would look like if I had it my way. Post-trail, I took those ideas and continued to minimize my life, rid myself of material possessions, move across the country, and am now running a Trail Center as an on-site caretaker on the Appalachian Trail! Can’t wait for hiker season and to hear their stories and feed their hungry bellies!
Ivey “Kaleidoscope” Smith
“Thru-hiking has given me so much to be grateful for. Most notably, it gave my life purpose and direction in a time when I felt truly lost.”
Trail(s): Appalachian Trail 2017, Vermont Long Trail 2020, Colorado Trail 2020, Arizona Trail 2021
I am a recovering alcoholic; today, I’ve been sober for almost three years and five months.
In March of 2017, when I began the Appalachian Trail, I barely knew the first thing about backpacking. All my gear was borrowed or hand-me-downed, and my pack weighed about 40lbs fully loaded—I blame the entire roll of duct tape and golf umbrella, less so the 5lb sleeping bag.
And I was deep in my alcoholism, so I carried that too, even as I hiked 2,180 miles over the course of five months.
Something began to shift, though, as I walked; I felt a seed of hope sprout in my heart and I wondered if things could be different… Could all of life feel so right as it did traveling on foot in the mountains?
My first attempt at getting sober happened that August, 10 days after climbing down from Katahdin, but it didn’t stick. The trail couldn’t do all the work for me. I had to radically restructure my life if I wanted to keep the freedom I’d found. I had to surrender to something bigger than myself.
Ironically, and without my knowing at the time, my new sobriety date coincided with National Hiking Day: November 17, 2018.
The trail didn’t get me sober—it didn’t change my life—I changed my life because of it.
I was headed down a bleak path. I was depressed, addicted, hopeless, and lost. The Appalachian Trail provided me an opportunity to change all of that, and I took it. Since then I have walked many trails; each one has taught me something beautiful about life and how to share the freedom and joy I’ve found with others. After many thousand miles, and only when I was ready, thru-hiking brought me love.
Zach “Cheese Slice” Staines
“Thru hiking made me fall in love with life.”
Trail(s): PCT NOBO 2021
I struggle with mental health even still, but it was especially bad prior to trail. The whole reason I decided to hike the PCT was because I was extremely suicidal and knew that if I didn’t do something to make my life better I was going to end my life. I had a job I hated in a town I didn’t belong with people who just didn’t understand and I couldn’t relate to.
Thru hiking made me fall in love with life. After the trail, I was homeless for two months just hitchhiking around putting in job resumes where ever I could until I got a job at a ski resort which I love and I get to keep having adventures in the mountains as I prepare to begin my AT thru-hike attempt in April. Sleeping on sidewalks and under bridges was rough at times, but so many hikers offered me places to stay and help in any way they could, even people I had never met on trail. The trail community is unlike any love I have ever experienced in my life. No matter where I am, whether it’s under a bridge in Moab or on top of a fire escape in Seattle, I will know that I am because I can always catch a hitch to a person I love.
Jason “MAV” Brocar
“I’ll continue to hike for as long as my body will let me.”
Trail(s): AT 2014, Scottish National Trail 2016, GR11 Spanish Pyrenees 2016, AZT 2019, R2R 2019, CDT 2019
After 23 years of military service with four combat deployments, I feel the interactions of people on the trail did change my perception of “people” altogether. Normally, I am a very guarded person, but the kindness of complete strangers really got me thinking while completing my first thru-hike. How are people so nice to strangers? Am I the odd one who guards his feelings and perceptions about others? Was my distrust of others because of combat, my service, my experiences? Is the world really all doom and gloom? I had 5 1/2 months to ponder these questions and feel quite confident it changed my perception of society as a whole.
I also met an amazing woman on the trail, and eight years later we are still madly in love with each other. Going into my hike, this was not even a consideration. Even when we met it was just two hikers who were going the same direction. There were plenty of people who warned me about the issues that come up after a thru-hike. But we apparently were meant for each other, and I love that.
When people ask what I do, I tell them I am a long-distance hiker. Even working at a concrete plant at home, it’s a two-year work period and then a year of hiking. After the AT and living out of a backpack, I do not care about the “American Dream” of the big house and white picket fence. Give me a trail, some dirt, and views galore. Hiking the AT has definitely changed my life. I’ll continue to hike for as long as my body will let me. And I am so lucky to share it with a woman who feels the same.
Terence “Mars” Copeland
“When I got off the trail, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”
Trail(s): Colorado Trail 2017 & 2018
When I first hiked The Colorado Trail in the summer of 2017, I was 26 years old and three months out of rehab. I had never backpacked or camped before.
Before the trail, my life was completely different; I lost my Mom in a car wreck in 2012, and from then until 2016 my life started slowly spiraling down the drain. I started using drugs and alcohol heavily to help numb all the pain I was feeling. I started hanging around gang members and drug dealers and would sell drugs or steal to fuel my drug habits. After many years of this cycle, I decided it was time to get help after a suicide attempt. I checked myself into rehab in January of 2017 and spent the next four months in treatment. When I got out, I moved in with my aunt and uncle in Evergreen, CO, and that’s where my life started changing.
My aunt introduced me to Wild by Cheryl Strayed, and right then I was inspired to do a thru-hike. I knew vaguely about the Colorado Trail, and after further research, I decided that was my trail! From April to the end of June, I began learning all about backpacking. I started the trail at the beginning of July and it took me 27 days to complete it.
Those 27 days had a huge impact on me, but I still wasn’t completely healthy. I relapsed on the trail and was drinking the whole time. When I finished the trail, I went right back to my old ways – I got into a toxic relationship and started drinking and doing drugs again. Now that I knew how being healthy felt, I checked myself back into rehab within two months once depression started to creep in. This time I was in rehab for around seven months, and those months were long and hard. When I got out of rehab around May, I was working at the mall at a clothing store. I decided, “why not hike the Colorado Trail again? It will give me some time to think about what I want to do for my future.” Two months later, I was on the Colorado Trail again! This time on the trail my experience was completely different.
When I was about 250 miles into the trail, I listened to this podcast about this guy who working at Outward Bound. He told his story and I totally resonated with it. I probably listened to it another 15 times before I got off the trail. When I got off the trail, I knew exactly what I wanted to do! I wanted to go to school for outdoor education so I could work at Outward Bound. I got off the trail in August and was enrolled in school two weeks later. Six months later, after working my butt off, I got hired by The Colorado Outward Bound School to become an instructor for the 2019 summer season. Since my thru-hike in 2018, I have started rock climbing, mountaineering, snowboarding, canyoneering, trail/ultra running, and have continued backpacking. I have become a snowboard instructor, Leave No Trace Educator, Wilderness First Responder, and Lead Instructor at the Colorado Outward Bound School.
I am getting married in April, and we are going to thru-hike the AZT as our honeymoon. I am also training to run a 50-mile race this fall. Oh yeah, and I did all that while being a black man! I would say hiking the Colorado Trail kind of changed my life.
Want more stories like this? Keep your eyes peeled for Part 2 of this series! Subscribe to The Trek’s newsletter to get the latest updates.
Featured image: Graphic design by Jillian Verner (@yourstrulyjillian).
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