A Year after the Appalachian Trail: A Thru-Hiker’s Retrospective

One year ago today, I took the final steps of my thru-hike.

After 136 days, 2,185.3 miles, four pairs of boots, approximately five-million steps, approximately five-hundred face-plants, and dozens of lifelong friendships forged in sweat and blood, I touched the sign marking the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, perched on the summit of Maine’s tallest mountain, Katahdin.

And then it was all over.

Special thanks to LoJack for documenting our summit day.
 

At the time, I was anxious to return home and see the family and friends I had left behind—and this little thing called a marriage, which has its moments. Yet as I touched that wooden sign smoothed by so many caresses, I knew that I would be leaving a piece of myself behind on Baxter Peak. Some of the best (and worst) days of my life occurred in those four and a half months, and within the brevity of a few photographs with fellow thru-hikers (it was official now!) and a few melancholy farewells, I descended back below tree line and became just another day hiker.

Well, first I had to get over Knife’s Edge without wetting myself. Then I was able to get sentimental.

My thru-hiking summit crew (clockwise from top right: Sloth, me (Yo Teach!), Birdman, Nails, and Ranger. Not pictured: LoJack, who had to run back to meet his father, and section hikers Spider-Man and Socks).

My thru-hiking summit crew (clockwise from top right: Sloth, me (Yo Teach!), Birdman, Nails, and Ranger. Not pictured: LoJack, who had to run back to meet his father, and section hikers Spider-Man and Socks).

Transitioning back into “normal” life wasn’t easy. I was accustomed to going to bed when the sun went behind a hill. For a while, the light stimulated my eyes so much at night that a daily headache would ease in at around sundown. My sense of smell was so enhanced from life in the woods that a whiff of perfume could immediately make me nauseous.

If I needed a conversation on the trail, I could always be assured that a close friend was just around the next bend in the trail, or I would find them lazing by a campfire later that night—now I have to coordinate seven separate schedules just to meet with someone for lunch.

And my wife likened the first time I was back in a car to letting a wild raccoon loose: after a few screams and a flailing of limbs—those cars are coming straight for us!—I ended up huddled over trembling in the backseat.

Yeah, I considered my reentry into society to be pretty graceful.

I met some of the most interesting, supportive  (and weirdest) people I've ever known while on the trail—and sometimes they even gave me food!

I met some of the most interesting, supportive (and weirdest) people I’ve ever known while on the trail—and sometimes they even gave me food!

But I eventually acclimated to—or, at the very least, learned to deal with—life in the fast lane. I found a job, started taking daily showers (most of the time), and actually know who recently got offed in Game of Thrones. Yet none of those things will ever come close to the experience of summiting the Bigelow Mountains on a sunny afternoon with a close friend.

Thankfully, I have the pleasure of writing about my adventure all the time on Appalachian Trials, which has allowed me to reconnect both with the trail and some of the faces I haven’t seen in far too long. Just last week, I shared a group meeting with fellow thru-hiker Mariposa, who I hadn’t seen since day 36 of my hike. She transported me back to the north side of Max Patch, when we, along with about 20 other hikers, had packed into Roaring Forks Shelter to escape an impromptu blizzard. We all thought it was hilarious until a falling tree missed the shelter by roughly fifteen feet. Then we all left. It seemed like the right thing to do.

One day in the Smokies was so cold that my neck gaiter froze in the shape of my face. It's moments like these when you learn just how much punishment you can take.

One day in the Smokies was so cold that my neck gaiter froze in the shape of my face. It’s moments like these when you learn just how much punishment you can take.

I tend to ramble whenever I reminisce about the trail, so I guess I’ll get to the point: there hasn’t been a day since the end of my trip that I haven’t thought about the trail.

Sometimes it’s the grand moments that creep into my memories—looking down on a cloud-filled valley from the top of Albert Mountain; cowboy camping under a clear sky in a Virginia field; gazing over the Green Mountains from atop the Stratton Mountain fire tower; scaling the Presidentials for 100-mile views; staring up at Baxter Peak after drinking from the crystal-clear waters of Katahdin Stream. The sights along the trail are even more tremendous than you have heard.

The beauty found along the trail surpasses any expectations you may have. (top: valley fog as seen from near Albert mountain; bottom: approaching Franconia Ridge)

The beauty found along the trail surpasses any expectations you may have. (top: valley fog as seen from near Albert mountain; bottom: approaching Franconia Ridge)

Other times I think of the miserable moments—going water-less in Shenandoah for a dozen miles after my water bag sprung a leak; experiencing the worst chafing in my life in the 100 Mile Wilderness; discovering that those trail runners I liked so much back home were actually blister magnets on the trail. The hardships you will encounter will be magnified by a thousand when you’re alone in the woods—which makes the satisfaction of overcoming these obstacles all the sweeter.

I found out the hard way: shoes that fit well before your hike may not fit as well after three months of foot-widening punishment.

I found out the hard way: shoes that fit well before your hike may not fit as well after three months of foot-widening punishment.

But most of all, I think of the small moments—when LoJack surprised us all with supplies for s’mores in the middle of the 100 Mile Wilderness; when Mumbles was chased for a quarter mile by an irate mother turkey; when Canadia revealed that the Canadian coin I found on Springer (and had been carrying as a totem ever since) had been left there by her; when Hawk asked some local fishermen if they had any luck, and they answered by giving us three massive trout for a trailside dinner; when Birdman convinced a restaurant owner to let us sleep in his supply shed out of the rain. While the trail is undoubtedly beautiful and oh-so-satisfying to amble along, the adventure would have been so much less without the moment-to-moment interactions with other hikers who were similarly entranced by the trail.

2014 thru-hiker Hawk sweet-talked some local fisherman into providing us with dinner.

2014 thru-hiker Hawk sweet-talked some local fisherman into providing us with dinner.

Seabiscuit (left) and I hang on for our lives after grabbing a hitch in the back  of a fully-loaded pickup truck.

Seabiscuit (left) and I hang on for our lives after grabbing a hitch in the back of a fully-loaded pickup truck.

Birdman and I relax after breakfast at Green Mountain House Hiker Hostel in Manchester Center, VT.

Birdman and I relax after breakfast at Green Mountain House Hiker Hostel in Manchester Center, VT.

Birdman takes a moment to grieve for a fallen comrade.

Birdman takes a moment to grieve for a fallen comrade.

Spider-Man (left) aids our digestion with some sweet, soothing ukulele music.

Spider-Man (left) aids our digestion with some sweet, soothing ukulele music.

So for the dreamers out there who are planning their thru-hikes, I envy you: you have one of the greatest trials of your life ahead of you.

For the hikers currently on the trail trudging toward Katahdin: reconsider going those extra ten miles today, and instead set up camp with a few friends—preferably near a stream and a fire pit. Revel in the trail and reap the rewards for doing so.

And for the former thru-hikers like me who reminisce daily about winding footpaths and green tunnels: who’s ready for another walk in the woods?

Summit Pose

Happy trails,

Yo Teach!
2014 Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker

 

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Comments 2

  • Avatar
    Nichole : Aug 12th

    Great read 🙂 Thanks for sharing!!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Willough : Oct 16th

    This was hugely touching to watch and read. Thank you for sharing these parts of your journey.

    Reply

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