“A footpath for those who seek fellowship with the wilderness.”
When I was 13 I spent a summer in Maine at an outdoor adventure camp. We camped every night, cooked our own food and spent our days hiking and rock climbing, hopping from activity to activity. It was fantastic and I loved it so much that I went back the following year.
Only that year was different, it featured a four day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail, and it sparked inside me the burning desire to thru-hike. The hike that summer was hard, my whole body hurt and I was the slowest in the group, but was one of the only kids who loved every second. While everyone else was complaining, I was soaking it all up.
Even though I was the slowest in the group, I told my leaders that I was going to hike the whole thing one day.
There are a lot of things that drive someone to choose spending months in the woods instead of in civilization. For me, it was the idea of carrying my whole life in one backpack. I wanted to completely rely on myself in a way that was difficult to find while off the trail. I wanted to set out on an incredible adventure, and in the mean time fulfill one of my dreams.
Once on trail for a while, life changes and begins to revolve around your daily life of walking. It is very different than “off-trail” and perspectives of a thru-hike change in a big way. The big dreams and ideas of what a hike will be like start to fall away. The sense of accomplishment at the end is real. But along the way, the old ideas become less important, less tangible, and they change to accept the reality of what a thru-hike is like.
I remember coming home at the end of my hike and finding it very difficult to understand what the experience was, it was impossible to put into words.
It was the constant reassessment of what’s important and what isn’t. On one hand is the pain and challenge of getting up every day to keep going. On the other is the incredible feeling of reaching the top of the next mountain, and of having no worries except what is happening on the trail.
I think that before starting a thru-hike, many people have misconceptions about what they will find and what it will be like. Many expect to “find themselves” or just have a relaxing experience in the wilderness. A thru-hike is nothing like that. I remember a discussion one day amongst my trail friends a few months in, and everyone had different expectations than what the hike turned out to be. The truth is that this is what drives many people to quit before the end. On the other hand, the reality for me was that the changes and experiences I had on the trail will stay with me forever and have definitely helped shape and add perspective to some aspects of my life. But the immediate sense of “change” after completion that I was hoping for never came to be.
But my thru-hike was still incredible, and I still love the Appalachian Trail. When I encounter aspects of the A.T., I am washed over with nostalgia and a new longing to be back on the trail…