The following is a guest post courtesy of John Winder, an aspiring 2016 thru-hiker.  Have a story you want to share on Appalachian Trials? Send it through our “Submit a Story” form.

John Winder 1What brought me to a thru hike on the AT is a stagnation that I feel is shared by many hikers and young people. We’re tired—tired of the feeling that our daily grind can’t possibly provide anything but deficit—both to our happiness and our future. Like so many young college graduates, I let the media, my teachers, and the people I care about pressure me into outrageous debt for an education, because “that’s what you’re supposed to do.” Right? Well, that left me with a huge emptiness, that no amount of baby boomers saying “Go get a full-time auto industry job!” could fill.

I grew up in a small, white-picket fence community in Metro Detroit. The kind where you have to get the township to approve what color flowers you can plant, or if you can paint your house or not. So, basically the movie Footloose… except no Kevin Bacon. Never thought we’d need a Kevin Bacon character… Anyway, if you weren’t extraordinary, you got written off the show.

Being introverted and socially anxious, I was internalizing other’s opinions of my inadequacies. I believed that because I wasn’t the competitive sports type, or one of the other social archetypes you’re taught to fall into, that I could never feel successful because my talents would never make money. When I started to seek psychological treatment for the resulting panic attacks, I was told by close family and friends just that: I would never be successful. More than a few people didn’t want to be around me all together. That’s when I decided to get back to the only place that ever made any sense to me: the woods.

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My love of nature sprouted in me when I was too young to remember. There was never anything that felt more like home to me than the smell of iron-rich clay at the base of the Porcupine Mountains, or the anticipatory stillness when you walk up on a birch glen filled with dozens of whitetail deer. I took it for granted then, but those memories and places quickly became my life preserver when the waves of student debt and “social competition” left me drowning in hopelessness.

One piercingly cold and snowy morning, I woke up and walked for a little while. I didn’t have a direction or a distance in mind; I felt so detached from anyone else that it was just an endless flat space for me to fade into. Slowly, with every step, I started to feel a reason to take the next one. I got to the top of the hill and wanted to see what was over the next one. I knew I was underdressed for the weather, but the harder each step through the ice became, the longer distances stacked up and the better I felt. I started to become aware of the animal tracks again, what the wind tasted like, the crack of the powder under my feet, frozen before it fell through the -10 air. I felt alive again for the first time in years. The next week I bought my first mountaineering pack.

I had been hiking since I was a little kid, and like so many fools, I rushed in assuming I knew more than I did. I loved hiking near my mom’s place in Las Vegas. Red Rock Canyon and Valley of Fire National Park were great day hikes a number of years earlier, but I never pushed my experience of the open desert like I wanted. I was on my own. I had been practicing, and it was time for a real test of what I could do.

I wanted to hike the big nothing. The huge kind of expanses you used to see in the old Westerns and National Geographic documentaries. Big Sky! That glaring secret, the one everyone in the open Western expanse experiences and nobody talks about. I wanted to hear the world turn. I mapped out a nice route with a couple springs and other sites along a 20-mile stretch of trail just outside the city, printed two copies of the map for my mom and I, and packed my bag for the morning. The first few miles went by in a sweaty haze. The 120+ degree June heat started to get to me almost immediately, but strangely, I felt my first hiker trance. The next ten miles of my day hike melted by in a haze of purpose, I was no longer counting the miles or the liters of water (four) that I had, but I was living every moment. I finally felt free.

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Then it hit me, the stillness. I crested a hill near a popular viewing area and I realized why it was so popular. I could see for what felt like hundreds of miles, all the way down the valley and I could just make out the city in its basin. The wind stopped and seemed to hang still in the air. It had a peculiar quality to it, like it was stopping to take witness of a special time and place. I could feel the whole pressure system change density as it started up again and as quickly as the moment presented itself, it was gone. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was part of something bigger than myself. In that small rest stop, I realized the petty scope of a human perspective, and experienced a profound sense of serenity.

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I got back home to Michigan and I was hooked! The outdoors became my main focus and I could feel a purpose in my days again. The internet was full of a backpacking community so vibrant and full of people with amazing and powerful stories, the compassion and kindness of it all seemed so unreal. Like an underground movement full of people that didn’t buy into a cutthroat, dog-eat-dog, world. And so I walk… with crooked feet.

I want to say thank you to all of you in the hiker community for helping me find my life again. I’ve never seen such love like you’ve given to strangers, and like the time I felt the world turn, I stand in awe of it. Hope to see you guys out there on our pilgrimage to Katahdin!

John “Crookedfoot” Winder.

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Comments 7

  • Karla : Feb 1st

    Good for you, John….you go for it. Hope to see you on the trail this year!

    • John Winder : Feb 2nd

      Hey thanks for the encouragement. Right now, my buddy Jason and I will be leaving for Springer on March 12. See you out there!

  • Sandra Moore (Kennedy on fb) : Feb 1st

    Good job, John. For me also, getting out into the woods or the snow or just walking 20+ miles down the highway makes sense of my life. You are a great person and I am hoping that I will have the pleasure of meeting you somewhere on the AT. I am beginning my first hike on the AT and am anxious, nervous and even frightened. I will only hike 4-5 days, but at my age and with my poor health, I have so many fears. I am just going to go for it. I grew up not ever being told by most of my family that “I mattered”…that I would be successful at anything…I have even allowed relationships to somehow spin this into our lives and it is a tough thing to handle. I have dropped friends that were negative in their thinking of me, that thought everything I did was absolutely ridiculous and am now going back into the woods to do what I know I can do and do it successfully. I find myself in the woods and it seems you also do. Best of luck in everything that you do. YOU ALREADY ARE SUCCESSFUL! YOU ALREADY ARE AMAZING! YOU ARE TRULY WONDERFUL! And, you are a great writer/blogger. Thank you for sharing your feelings with us.

    • John Winder : Feb 2nd

      Wow I would love to meet up with you and share some stories. Thanks for the words of kindness and encouragement. It’s tough being the one that goes unnoticed and I definitely understand a small part of your struggle. Keep on chugging and doing what’s in your heart, all the NO people can just find something else to worry about, haha. Small people are always pushing small perspectives.

      • Kristin Perry : Oct 8th

        John. Where have you gone? Please call me back at 7028832316. Or anyone with any information on John wilder. Please reach out

  • Kevin Neal : Feb 3rd

    John you are perfect whole and complete. You GET do do this for John and you GET to do this for others that dare to take themselves on. I hike 1900 miles of the AT this past season and will hike the 114 miles from Monson to Katadhin this June with my amazing wife Karyl. She gets to feel some of what you will feel when you are out there. The quietness and the smells will amaze you John.

    Great Luck and restful nights await.


  • Jeff : Feb 4th

    Summiting Katahdin is on my list of favorite moments in my life. You have an awesome attitude and put your feelings into words that i’m sure so many can relate to ( myself included) Happy Trails. Be Safe. – Jeff


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