Spirituality and the Trail
Physically, I’m sitting on my couch in the living room of my overpriced apartment in San Diego. Mentally, I’m staring into the eyes of an ethereal Snowy Owl in Vermont.
When I stumbled upon her, I immediately removed my headphones and eventually sat down. This was probably the longest and most spiritually enthralling staring contest I have ever had the honor to be a part of.
Now, there’s some debate about whether or not thru-hiking the trail is a spiritual endeavor– I say hell yes, and here’s why…
If you have some semblance of interest in thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, you’ve probably noticed the mere notion of hiking for five to seven consecutive months is esoteric.
Prior to thru-hiking I lived/survived in Los Angeles (the polarity of the trail and LA does not escape me, in fact I think this even brightened my experience). As my departure to Atlanta, Georgia grew intoxicatingly closer and closer, I began to tell people about the venture I was going to embark on.
Women most commonly responded by exclaiming “aren’t you scared to go alone? What about wild animals or worse– rapists?” Whereas men usually laughed while saying “you won’t last two weeks out there.”
To the former I would say “I don’t think there’s anything for me to be afraid of, as long as I use common sense.” After spending the majority of half a year in the wilderness, I can officially say I feel much safer in the woods than in a city.
And to the latter I would just smile in response, and I still smile at these guys. Although, I could throw in an expletive or two in there.
People just didn’t understand the ‘point’ of what I was doing, and that was (still is) OK.
Overall, this experience is understood by little, attempted by few and executed by even fewer.
When I learned about the AT three years ago, an overwhelming feeling saturated my being, my core, my soul. My third eye was on fire. I knew I had to do this, and I knew I had to go alone.
There’s a lot of guilt associated with putting your ‘life on pause’ to go on a hiking trip for six months. I heard phrases like this quite frequently on the trail– people would often refer to ‘the real world,’ like somehow we were no longer a part of it.
That’s certain peoples’ opinions, but in my perspective there’s nothing more real than a journey through nature. Life definitely continued in its own new and magical way.
If your energy is drawn to the trail, the feeling will only grow stronger within you, and I believe it should be satiated. The feeling will eat away at you until you feed it.
I don’t regret a single moment of my time on the trail, and I’m thankful everyday I did it. Guilt has no home here.
The Soul in Solitude
Solitude is a cool ocean breeze, which is refreshing and cleansing. Loneliness is the ocean when you’re hopelessly trapped in a rip current and there’s no one on the beach to save you.
I experienced both on my hike.
To save money, I had two different jobs. I was constantly inundated with people and their needs, (especially when I added on an internship). For eight months, my work week was anywhere from 50-80 hours per week. Needless to say, when I finally got to Springer Mountain I was desperate for some alone time.
The combination of solitude and nature nourishes the soul. I’ll compare it to eating Kale– it’s always healthy for you, but doesn’t always taste good.
It’s a deeply spiritual experience, which is clearly difficult for me to articulate– so I’ll let someone else do it.
“Let us be silent, that we may hear the whisper of God.”- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Emerson (like many intelligent people) sought out nature in order to rediscover and discover. I believe his use of ‘God’ in the quote refers to nature.
Solitude in nature allows us to deeply examine ourselves, our world and our place in it. During this time we also strengthen our bond with the five elements: earth, wind, water, fire and (duh) spirit.
The mind can be very dualistic– black and white, good and bad, etc. An idle mind may often dwell on regrets or worry about the future (I know this first hand).
On the surface a thru-hike may seem like a primarily physical battle. Sure, it takes an intense physical toll. However, the majority of the struggle is happening mentally.
The constant meditation inexorably helps you to just be with your thoughts and the moment. The ability to accept the moment is truly liberating.
Thankfully, I thru-hiked nobo, so when I didn’t want to be alone it was quite easy to be around fellow hikers. After all, humans are social creatures (my limit for alone time was 4 days).
I have never felt more connected with myself and nature than during my thru-hike. Subtracting frivolous crap from your life allows for a more authentic passage through it.
The trail strengthened my belief in minimalism and my respect for nature. It taught me how to accept the moment. And it helped me love myself, again.
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Enjoyed your blog…very inspiring. Leaving soon myself on the adventure of a lifetime … NOBO. Can’t wait!
What wise words. Its like you spoke to me directly. I was always attracted to the idea. But never acted on it. Untill about a month ago when i made up my mind to thru-hike the AT in 2018. The more i read about it, the more i need to go.
I agree, Julianne was very inspiring….I’m also planning a thru-hike in 2018…..you’re the 1st person I’ve come across that’s planning for 2018 so i thought I would reach out….hope to see you out there!
AWESOME so inspiring
Have some guilt feelings myself as I leave my wife to embark on this quest. Thanx for your wise words. Hopefully, the trail will set some things right
Very nicely done. Thank you.
The guilt regarding departure from “real life” is fascinating to me. I’m pretty sure I usually detect envy at its root, but often thru hikers are seen as “irresponsible” for choosing to walk away from the blind rigors of society.
Well said. Thank you for sharing. Your comments in the middle about the “real world” reminds me of a favorite Colin Fletcher quote:
“Dedicated urbanites ‘know’ beyond shadow of doubt – because doubt never raises its disturbing head – that civilization is the real world: you only ‘escape’ to wilderness. When you’re out and away and immersed, you ‘know’ the obverse: the wilderness world is real, the human world a superimposed facade… The controversy is, of course, spurious. Neither view can stand alone. Both worlds are real. But the wilderness world is certainly older and will almost certainly last longer. Besides, the second view seems far healthier for a human to embrace.” — Colin Fletcher, River, 1997.
One must be careful to presume those of us who enjoy, yea even seek deeply, a comnection with wilderness worship deepest the nature we proclaim. Referring to Emerson’s invocation of God is somewhat innaccurate. From Cliff’s notes on Emerson’s essays we read, “One of the greatest problems that readers of Emerson have is grasping his religious beliefs. We know that religion is important to him because every essay seems saturated with references to attaining a more perfect relationship with God. His emphasis on a universal soul flowing through individual souls can strike us as mystical and abstract, and, therefore, hard to grasp. The key to understanding his religious views lies in Unitarianism, a religious association that, to an outsider, might appear to be oddly non-religious. Not surprisingly, given Emerson’s belief in the sanctity of individualism and his accepting Unitarian principles, this denomination is based fundamentally on an individual’s private relationship with God — the God within each of us — and on the individual’s personal judgment in matters of morals and ethics.” . Consequently I believe Emerson’s God would perhaps reside in the oft sought still, small voice within.
The real strength in nature is the solitude, and silence, and seperation from the norm and its limits, that allows for the spirotual reflection to make one’s life more full.
This is the best and most accurate summary of the power of nature and solitude I’ve read yet. You captured it perfectly. I completely agree that the “real world” is in nature. People have created the chaos of the society.
This is my favorite part:
“If your energy is drawn to the trail, the feeling will only grow stronger within you, and I believe it should be satiated. The feeling will eat away at you until you feed it.”
I’ve hiked the AT three times and change, and yet I’m constantly drawn back to the trail. The desire is only satiated when I’m walking that beautiful path. I’m figuring out a way to get back as soon as possible.
Thank you so much for your exceptional prose.