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.
What 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.
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.
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.
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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