Five years ago today I woke up at about 5:30 a.m., giddy with boyish excitement. Today was the day I’d summit Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Upon reaching that weathered old sign that explained such, I'd have completed a 2185.3 mile walk from Springer Mountain, Georgia, through fourteen states, along the backbone of America’s Appalachian mountains.
Walk, however, is a bit of a misnomer.
Walking up and down mountains with a thirty pound backpack on. Walking in snowstorms, freezing rain, lightning storms, oppressive summer heat. Walking with blistered feet, aching muscles, and constant ravenous hunger.
No, ‘walk’ is putting it lightly, and yet this becomes the normal walking on the AT.
It was a grand physical and mental undertaking, one that would leave lasting impressions on me, and change the course of my life forever.
There are a lot of people who attempt to hike the entire trail from end to end every year, and the number is increasing, thanks to the popularization and glamorization of such pursuits in Hollywood and the modern media.
And that’s completely understandable.
I remember the seed being planted at 18 while watching a National Geographic documentary about the trail. Though, at the time, it seemed more like some crazy thing super-weirdos did. I had no concept of the fact that I was not mentally capable of such a feat at that point in time.
According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, only 25% of those who attempt the trail from either terminus (that is, beginning a hike in Georgia attempting to reach Maine, also known as Northbound or NOBO, or beginning in Maine and attempting to hike to Georgia, fittingly called Southbound, or SOBO) complete it.
Less than 21,000 humans have ever completed the entire trail.
The odds are daunting, the trail is daunting.
There are bears, ticks carrying Lyme disease, rattlesnakes, injuries, and let’s not forget the most dangerous adversaries, other humans.
So why did I hike the AT? There’s definitely no one answer to that. People who attempt a thru-hike (that is, end to end in less than one calendar year) do so for a multitude of reasons: college graduation, retirement, divorce, layoffs, death of a close one. The seeming commonality is a major shift in circumstances and life situation. What better way to thrust yourself out of a 9-5 and into a life of adventure than starting with, well, a grand adventure?
I hiked because the AT because it was a challenge: physically, mentally and spiritually. I hiked because I love not only physical exertion, but also beautiful sunsets, not solely deep, athletic mental focus, but also the focus needed in quiet meditation. I believe in living fully and wholly, sucking the marrow and juices out of life, and then sitting with the stark realization of the triviality and minisculinity of our existences.
I guess hiking the Appalachian Trail is a grand juxtaposition of physical and athletic challenge with the intangible, metaphysical and existential questions that, in my opinion, nature brings us closer to, and in some ways, at peace with.
I am guilty of having too much fun. Call it the artist’s plight: I like to drink. There’s lots of that along the Appalachian Trail. You will never meet a group of people so thrilled about an all nighter followed by an 18 mile hike up and over Franconia Ridge. The odd part is, I would do this, but then spend days quietly hiking alone with my thoughts, sober, meditative... Working things out, processing traumas, planning future adventures. Getting struck by random 16 year old memories and suddenly bursting out in laughter.
Gathering around the campfire at night, drunk with endorphins and content with our bellies full of rice and cheese, us hikers would laugh at the pain in our legs, flatulate loudly, pass around a flask of whiskey, and rejoice that we, yes we, bumbling, foiblous humans had just completed another day’s hike that, in all reality, only a tiny fraction of humans alive today could dream of completing. And it was just another notch in the long, long belt of the Appalachian Trail.
I say all this because it speaks back to the grand juxtaposition. You go out there for answers, for quiet, solitude. And you quickly realize that - while these are all good and well - you won’t get very far without camaraderie.
The Appalachian Trail was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Harder than running a marathon, completing an Olympic triathlon, graduating college, dealing with heartbreak. The mind wanders between jubilation at the thought of a grand human adventure and wondering why one is subjecting oneself to such physical and mental torture for days on end. Some days every step sucks. Some days you slip down a slick rock face and scrape your entire right thigh like a road rash from falling off of a motorcycle.
Some days you sit on top of mountains and watch the sun set for the who-knows-thousandth time in your life and it’s still just as beautiful, just as humbling, just as sweet.
I kept going because I knew I didn’t really have any other option. Go back to waiting tables and working the front desk at the YMCA? My life felt hollow and quite meaningless until the moment I set foot on Springer Mountain, on April 1, 2014. What did I have to offer? What could I do to affect change? What kind of man would I grow up to be? These are all questions that hiking 2,000 miles did not give me the answer to. What it did give me was the confidence and self assurance that I, too, could offer the world something, that I could affect change, that I would grow up to be the man I knew deep down I already was.
So, I walked, and walked, and walked. I met so many amazing, kind, loving, beautiful people along and around that trail. I cried at the sun coming through the trees on a July morning in Vermont. I took myself out there and taught myself lessons I already knew but just needed showing. I grew from a boy, to become not just a man, but a thoughtful, inquisitive, new, better version of myself. I was not the person I was when I first stepped foot on that footpath in Georgia. I was whole, distinctively evolved from the person I was just a few months before.
I was born on the Appalachian Trail.