Recently, I posted about the Appalachian Trail and my wonderful friend who is in the beginning stages of attempting a thru-hike from Georgia all the way to Maine.You heard that right, he is going to walk there.
Each spring, thousands of individuals at Springer Mountain set their sights on Mount Katahdin, over two thousand miles north. Only hundreds of the most determined hikers will see it through to the end. To do so requires battling the natural elements for four to six or more months, a hefty investment in gear and necessities, and of course the psychological strength to carry out a commitment of such proportions. Some people don’t even know where they want to be in a week, let alone six months from now.
The trail has a long history, due to the nature of the East Coast being the first region to be settled in the country. It is one of the most well-known trails to thru-hike, due to gorgeous views, the community surrounding it, and the challenges inherent in hiking an enormous mountain range. The effort spent thru-hiking the trail is well worth it, though, based on inspirational firsthand accounts of the journey.
The Appalachian Trail is a place where people can go to truly connect with nature in all of her various elements. It requires total commitment, focus, and passion to become one of the chosen few who will traverse the entire trail from end to end in one complete journey. Who could not be inspired by those who are courageous enough to want to take that trip of self-exploration? That is why I decided to interview my friend periodically throughout his trip and find out just what he is experiencing and seeing.
This is my first discussion with him after his first week on the trail. He did me one better by letting me converse with three of his trail mates as well. Needless to say I was thrilled, and I hope you all feel as inspired by this group as I did!
I spoke via telephone from my hometown in Massachusetts to Pigpen, Jack Attack, Rabbit, and Angry Bird while they spent a night in town in Franklin, NC, already 107 miles into their journey. Pigpen is from my hometown, Angry Bird also lives in MA, Rabbit is not far away from us in Vermont, while Jack Attack hails the furthest from the trail, residing in Missouri.
They are all in their twenties, and represent just one segment of the varied population that makes up the trail community. Each hiker has their own story that brought them out there, but ultimately the common thread that links them together is their desire for a challenge, and to get to know what they are really made of.
Speaking with them, it was evident that the trail had been something that called to them for some time before embarking. Most of them, the ones living near the AT, had prior experience on it, and Angry Bird even spent a week and half with family members who thru-hiked it first.
But section hiking and day trips are a far cry from huddling in a leaky tent, forgoing rights to a daily warm shower, and sleeping outside every night. One of the things I have read the most about the Appalachian Trail is that many who are attempting to thru-hike for the first time find themselves unprepared in regards to having the proper gear for the trip. So I asked the guys about this.
Both Pigpen and Angry Bird did end up having to replace quite a few of their essentials, but Jack Attack stressed the importance of resourcefulness and not letting gear define the quality of the hiker. Rabbit’s answer was my favorite, as he discussed the pros of having brought a hammock on the trail, which included not having to sleep on a shelter/forest floor and lack of back pain after a full day of hiking. I purchased a hammock for the trail a couple months ago and I hadn’t heard of many people using them on the AT during my research. They are a relatively emerging trend, so I was glad to hear of his success!
The conversation about gear preparation led to the related subjects of physical and mental readiness for the transition. It is during the first week that resolve is challenged the most, it seems. I was very curious to find out from this group how their expectations had changed throughout the first hundred miles. I wanted to know if they already felt like changed people, and if their motivation to reach Maine had grown or dampened in the Georgia rain. There is a big difference between saying “No rain, no Maine” and actually living those words.
Pigpen endured quite a challenge early in his hike. Following another hiker through a torrent of rain, getting lost on Blood Mountain, and eventually hitchhiking back several miles to the actual Appalachian Trail would try anyone’s patience and desire to keep going. In fact, he described struggling with himself not to quit after that. And who could blame him?
What he wasn’t counting on, I think, was the supportive community to be found on the trail. It must cross any thru-hiker’s mind that hiking twenty miles a day might lead to boredom, or madness. But that quickly gets forgotten upon meeting all the interesting people both on and off the trail. Each hiker spoke a lot about the sense of support they received from fellow hikers and enthusiasts. When I questioned them earlier about the support of family and friends, Angry Bird said that was important, but the bigger aspect is on-the-trail support. Obviously, it is much harder to keep in touch with others thousands of miles away when things are going wrong in such a remote location.
When speaking about the importance of reaching their final destination, it was unanimous that Maine is the priority, but not the everyday purpose of being on the AT. Rabbit explained how waking up in the morning and having enough motivation to go on that day’s hike is more crucial to success than simply focusing on the end result. Angry Bird agreed that day-to-day events and experiences are more important than the ultimate goal when you are out there. Jack Attack discussed meeting individual goals and how important those are. Maine is not the end-all, but rather the compass point. As they say, shoot for the moon, and if you don’t make it you’ll land in the stars.
Without exception, the key aspect for each hiker was having others to share trail memories with and experience the journey together – both good and bad. Those who attempted a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail in the past, or want to in the future, comprise a wonderful group of people who take great joy in dispensing “trail magic” for current hikers. And while it is easy to build a reputation on the trail, there is also an intrigue in only being known by a trail name for months at a time. The trail allows a fresh start and a place where anyone can be who they really are. After all, pretenses and appearances matter little in the heart of the Appalachian wilderness.
Whether or not these hikers make it all the way or not, they have chosen to undertake a challenge that many never will. Just by taking that first step onto the trail with purpose and passion has linked them together for life. The Appalachian Trail lives in the hearts and minds of everyone it touches, no matter where they came from or where they are going.
The trail is not for everyone, and it can’t be. But we all have some form of a trail to hike someday. Whether literal or metaphorical, paths are followed because of what lies at the end. But as I learned from these four today, what happens and who accompanies you on the way there is more important than the destination. We all have paths we must walk that will take us over steep inclines and into deep valleys. The hardest part is simply deciding which direction to take.
I will be checking in Pigpen and hopefully the others while they continue along the trail. I am humbled and grateful to be able to part of their journey in some small way. I would love to hear about any additional experiences on the trail, or stories of navigating any other challenging or life changing paths, literal or not. Thanks for reading!