Where is my Mind? Motivations of a Thru-Hiker

What compels a person to abandon (albeit temporarily) their home, family and friends, creature comforts, and other worldly possessions to spend several grueling months in the woods hiking over countless hills, ridges, and mountains? I’ll use this de facto manifesto as an attempt to answer this question, but I suspect I won’t truly know until I’ve reached the finish line.

With your feet in the air and your head on the ground

Pixies lyrics aside, this isn’t a post about life’s crossroads, drug addiction, or even scuba diving adventures (see Pixies “where is my mind” song meaning). I suppose this post is a reflection of my random stream of consciousness on paper (the internet). Venture with me into my mind and my motivations for a thru-hike.

One could say this hike is a form of mid-life crisis (They’d be wrong, although at 36 years young, I’ll admit the irony of the timeline certainly fits that narrative). I lead a self-described happy-go-lucky life. I have a fulfilling career, a wonderful partner whom I love dearly, 2 wild pups, a tight-knit friend group and all of the trappings in life someone outside looking in would call “success”. So why take a hiatus from any of that? 

Your head will collapse, but there’s nothing in it

I’ve always been very forward-looking and goal-oriented. That mindset has served me well most of the time and allowed me to reach various accomplishments, however, at times it has been detrimental. How could that mindset be detrimental? When it detracts from living in the moment and enjoying life as it comes. Throwing a leash on life and leading it down a predetermined path. Trying to shape and mold the outcomes into the neat little box you’ve envisioned for your future. Sound familiar? Perhaps a Thru-Hike would be a welcome escape from that mindset.

“Maybe self-improvement isn’t the answer, maybe self-destruction is the answer”

Grand Canyon 2019

Perhaps progress is best made through a process of elimination rather than goal setting and milestone achievements. The last scene in the movie Fight Club, shows a city skyline of buildings collapsing one by one from demolition explosives, while The Pixies “Where is my mind?” plays in the background. What happens when you remove the hustle and bustle of work, answering emails, battling traffic, and all the minutiae of the 9 to 5? Is distilling life back down to nature, the essentials, and a little solitude the recipe for “finding one’s self”? While I’m on the tangent of Fight Club, maybe the movie can shed more light on why I might be hiking. Let’s look at some of the more poignant quotes from the movie. 

“You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else.”

Leave no trace, amiright?

“We are a by-product of a lifestyle obsession.”

Does this Osprey Exos 58 backpack define me as a person? 

Like the movie, my Thru-Hike might also be about rejecting consumerism (but who are we kidding?).  Sure, on its surface, hiking in the woods may seem like the perfect respite from an endless stream of Amazon boxes arriving at your doorstep. But if we’re being completely honest, hiking is about as commercial as consumerism gets (ie: The Best Thru-Hiking Tents of 2023, The Best Sleeping Bags of 2023, AT Thru-Hikers Gear List ). That said, I’ll link my gear list in an upcoming post, stay tuned lol.

“This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.”

Barkley 2011-2021

We’re all just slowly dying in life, some of us faster than others but it’s coming (morbid, yet true). What am I doing in the meantime to make it worthwhile? Maybe I’m hiking because of FOMO? I first learned about the Appalachian Trail from a close friend in medical school “Asian Med Student” AT 2012. He took a semester off and delayed graduating from medical school for a year to hike it. At the time, all I could think was:

“That’s crazy, you’re going to drop out of med school for a semester?”

“To hike across multiple states? From Georgia up to Maine?”

“2200 Miles? No thank you, I’d never do that”

Asian Med Student

Michael Kim “Asian Med Student” AT 12′

“It’s only after we’ve lost everything, that we’re free to do anything.”

And yet here we are, on the precipice of my own thru-hike. Am I hiking because the idea of a thru-hike is totally badass (valid) or is it something more? Back then, I followed his hike with interest via his Tumblr. I unexpectedly found myself captivated by his journey. I even drove down to Virginia to meet him and his trail family at an AYCE buffet called The Homeplace. Months later I learned one of his trail family that I met (“Parkside”), had died on the trail less than 200 miles from Katahdin (more on this in a future post). I had only known “Parkside” for a total of 2 hours but I was struck with emotion hearing the news. I’m not a big crier but I bawled my eyes out reading about it. There was something about this trail that had sucked me in. 

“Without pain, without sacrifice, we would have nothing.”

You’ve made it this far and maybe realize I have more questions than answers about my hike. I don’t know what the AT will present, however, I do know the sacrifice I’m making to experience it. Be it pain, joy, or any spectrum of emotions in between, I promise to be present and experience them all. Tyler Durden was poetic AF if we’re being completely honest. And while my middle name is actually “Tyler” in real life, who knows, maybe “Durden” will be my name on the trail if others deem it should be so. Hell, maybe by the end of the trail, I’ll have abs like Tyler Durden too (A guy can dream right?). One last quote he had was:

“You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet.” 

Hopefully, by the end of the trail, I’ll know the things that do define me. Stow away with me in my pack while I journey and find out.

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 1

  • Norma Rinker : Jan 26th

    Hey Derek, congratulations on your upcoming thru-hike. I really enjoy your writing style, I’ll follow along as much as life allows. Happy trails!


What Do You Think?