Springer and Katahdin: The Alpha and The Omega

Long before deciding which down jacket to buy or sleep system to use, a thru-hiker will decide which direction to hike. There are only two options – either head northbound from Springer, Georgia or southbound from Katahdin, Maine.

When I think of these two peaks, the bookends of the Appalachian Trail, I immediately think of them as the Alpha and the Omega – “the beginning and the end.” No matter which direction a hiker chooses, there will be beginnings and ends that accompany their journey.

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Someone drops you at the starting peak of the Appalachian Trail, your Alpha. It’s the start of simplicity, of walking from wake to sleep, of getting in shape. It’s the beginning of challenging yourself – pushing your body and mind further than you ever thought possible. You discover a new you with a new trail name. That first peak is the start of stories, of detoxing, of forgetting social norms and loving it. You develop weird, wonderful friendships –  a network of people all chasing the same dream. You leave society, carrying everything you own on your back in order to get in touch with nature and yourself. This new solitude may feel weird – it’s rare in your old life to be somewhere you feel completely alone. You develop confidence in yourself and your decisions, experience the highest highs and lowest lows, and see more amazing views than you ever thought possible.

And yet this first peak of your hike is also the end of many things. It’s the end of modern comforts – of beds, of bathrooms, of fresh produce, and of owning more than 3 pairs of clothes. It’s the end of applying makeup, shaving, and wearing jeans. You no longer have 24/7 access to technology, Starbucks, or cars. It’s the end of knowing what celebrities are up to everyday. That first peak, whether Katahdin or Springer, is the end of keeping precise schedules, of having a job, and of stressing over silly things. You suddenly stop taking small things for granted and no longer keep up with surface level relationships.

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You carry on this lifestyle for almost 2,200 miles. It becomes all you are and all you know. Suddenly, things you’ve lost don’t seem so important compared to what you’ve gained. But then, you approach the end. You climb the last mile and find that place you’ve been chasing for 5 months of your life. You reach the end, the Omega.

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The end of knowing what your goal is and walking towards it for months. The end of an (almost) carefree vacation. The end of striking up conversations with (and often sleeping next to) complete strangers. You no longer have to plan your day by the sunlight, the next town, or the next mail drop. No more eating the same mix of trail food again and again and again and again. You’re done receiving free stuff just because you’re you. That last peak is the end of being totally in touch with your body and its needs. And it may (or may not) be the end of you trusting complete strangers for rides. As soon as you touch that final sign, there will be no more white blazes to guide you in the exact direction you should be heading in life.

It’s easy to think of all these lasts. Of all the things you’ll lose when you walk down that last peak and return back to “normal” life. But you must also realize this final peak has it’s own beginnings. You begin to readjust to society and return to family & friends. You begin to brainstorm new adventures to fill your time. You start to reevaluate the life you had previously been living. You get to eat all the food you’ve missed. You start to feel lazy, not walking all day, and begin to find some new form of exercise. And, if you’re me, that last peak is the start of acting like a grown-up & finding a real person job.

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For all you soon to be thru-hikers, all I can hope is that you have the patience and strength to accept these Alphas and Omegas. This is the life you’ll be living soon enough and I know you can make it to the end.

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