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Important Life Lessons Learned While Thru-hiking The Appalachian Trail
In 2012 I hiked the entire Appalachian Trail. In late March a friend and I summited Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the trail in northern Georgia, and, after she dropped out in New Hampshire, I finished my thru-hike with a friend I’ve made on the trail. It was an experience much unlike most others in my life, and, not surprisingly, I learned a few things along the way.
After a few days on the trail it’s easy to realize that one’s basic needs are, well, basic. As far as I could tell, people need food, water, shelter, something to strive for, and community. On the trail these needs were frequently met, though on occasion you might find the trail strangely unpopulated because everyone has gone to town while you kept on hiking. Still, the sweet simplicity of being able to hike knowing that I would have everything I needed—despite not always having what I wanted—helped make my hike worthwhile and satisfying. Even now, more than two years after finishing my hike, I often look at the things people, myself included, claim they need and I am amazed at all the things I volunteered to go without while on the trail. For some the idea of giving up daily showers or access to running water or a microwave is unthinkable. Because of the months I spent without constant access to such modern luxuries, I now look at things like running water with a newfound appreciation.
A second lesson from my thru-hike was that many people admire someone who is on an adventure. In fact, while walking through Palmerton, Pennsylvania while wearing my backpack, a local woman informed me that I was her hero. In response I told her she could also hike the trail, but I don’t know if she believed me. Of course, not everyone I met while hiking was impressed with my undertaking. In central Virginia I remember a little girl whose mom was trying to tell her about our adventure; focused on finding batteries for a flashlight, she couldn’t have cared less what me and my friend were up to. Also, occasionally I met someone who would look warily at me when I told them what I was up to.
On my hike I was blessed with the kindness and generosity of strangers on innumerable occasions. From food left by the trail with a note reading “Trail Magic” and the name of the church organization responsible to a man in Vermont who let us stay in his home the night a thunderstorm and the threat of tornadoes made us wary about camping, rarely two days in a row passed when I was not touched by the kindness of others, whether strangers or fellow hikers. While I did meet a few suspicious and unfriendly characters during my hike, on the whole people were welcoming, inquisitive, and big-hearted.
One lesson I learned more fully afterwards is how time spent pursuing a goal together helps form and solidify friendships. My trail friends, some of whom I spent relatively little time with on the trail, remain some of my most trusted companions and confidants. After all, no matter how much my family and friends back home try to understand what I experienced while hiking 2,184 miles, they cannot understand this experience to the degree that the friends I made on the trail can. We are connected in a way that I almost cannot explain, and, even if we don’t mention the trail much now, the common knowledge and experience provide a solid foundation for these relationships.
Two images of the trail in Virginia
During this journey I learned that there is much truth in the expression, “Life’s a journey, not a destination.” This lesson was essential to learn early on, as I knew that I would miss out on much of what was presently unfolding if all I could think about was reaching Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, in central Maine. In the middle of my hike, I found that I had acclimated so thoroughly to trail life that it was impossible not to realize I was in the thick of a long journey. It was as if I’d been on the trail for much longer than I had, and my old life back in civilization—or the “real world,” if you prefer that term—faded heavily into the background. During this time I was able to savor being in transit without experiencing the bittersweet realization that I would soon return to the real, a sensation which decidedly impacted the final miles of my thru-hike.
On the trail I also learned that goals are important to living a fulfilling life. I’m not talking about always being on the quest to accomplish something, but more about having a large goal which will require you to march out of your comfort zone and see if you have what it takes to complete your quest. In other words, this is about the “why” behind your actions. Even in daily life it can be helpful to know why you are striving forward, as this should help you continue in the right direction when you experience setbacks.
The importance of perseverance, not surprisingly, is another thing I learned. It’s easy to be enthusiastic in the early days of an adventure; however, there will eventually come a time when you wonder if you should keep at it or throw in the towel. At several key moments I was tempted to quit my thru-hike and return home, yet I know that I had to persevere because, by doing so, I would learn how to keep going in other areas of my life when the going gets rough. As an aside, I am not saying that there isn’t a time and place to quit when it is obvious an adventure, relationship, task, or goal is no longer worth pursuing. There is an art of quitting wisely, and I don’t want my comments about perseverance to be misinterpreted.
The Appalachian Trail through the eyes of Flash Gordon and Miles To Go
While hiking it became quickly obvious to me that a sense of humor is essential in order to make the most of whatever comes your way. In central Virginia I almost stepped on a huge black snake, and afterwards all I could do was laugh. Other amusing moments included telling fellow hikers about when I almost peed on a rattlesnake, arriving at a shelter in Pennsylvania to find a tame house cat who, later that evening and the next morning, kept jumping into my tent, and finding a romance novel at a shelter in Virginia. There were tough days on the trail, and being able to find humor at such moments was crucial. One night my friend asked me to tell her if I smelled a bear near our camp, and, with a small laugh, I informed her that I wasn’t sure if I could smell anything aside from the pungent-smelling socks I had taken off and placed in my tent’s vestibule.
Still another lesson was learning to appreciate the small moments. This could mean anything from stopping to pick wild raspberries, admiring mountain laurel in full bloom, and reading the shelter log book and learning that your trail friends were two days ahead of you and doing well. Even having a shelter floor to sit on to eat lunch was miraculous, and excellent water sources were as good a reason as any to be thankful.
Don't forget to take the time to smell the flowers while on any journey...
Finally, I learned how essential it is to celebrate minor victories instead of losing perspective by getting lost in the big picture. One way to think about this is to remember what has been accomplished instead of what still needs to be done. In other words, taking the time to celebrate reaching the Virginia border while hiking north is essential despite the fact that, for all hikers heading north, over 1700 miles of trail remain between this border sign and Mount Katahdin in Maine. In Maine I remember feeling a sense of accomplishment after every river ford despite how many river fords I had remaining. Life is, after all, cumulative, and for this reason it helps to observe the smaller milestones instead of barreling full-force toward the larger goal without a moment of reflection.
These lessons have remained with me since I left the trail, and I hope that they never leave me even if I never attempt to hike another long trail. I’m reminded of the words of Enos Mills: “The trail compels you to know yourself and be yourself, and puts you in harmony with the universe. It makes you glad to be living. It gives health, hope, and courage, and it extends that touch of nature which tends to make you kind.”