Appalachian Fail: What I Learned from My Failed Thru-Hike
The following is a guest post courtesy of John Desilets. If you have a story to contribute, submit it here.
On April 4th, 2017, I set out to hike the Appalachian Trail. As you may have gathered from the title of this article, it didnt go as planned. They say the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. I dont know specifically who they are. They sound pretentious as hell. But theyre not wrong.
On the bright side, my failure may give you a better chance to succeed. I catalogued the 15 biggest lessons I learned from the trail, and as a bonus, theyre all applicable to life off the trail. Ill share a few with you here. Then you can learn from my mistakes and be a better hiker and person. Maybe. Youre welcome.
Ask other people about themselves, but dont be offended if they dont do the same.
The world is full of people with stories that would blow your mind. Everyone around you has a story, but you wont hear most of them if you dont ask. The ones you do hear will be from the people who are waiting for a conversational silence just long enough to launch into their life story. Theyll unload onto anyone willing to listen. And often people who arent willing to listen. While this might sound like Forrest Gump, most of those people dont have stories nearly as interesting as his, so you really owe it to yourself to ask people their story so you can hear the good ones.
Keep in mind while collecting stories that some people will ask you for your story and some wont. This has nothing to do with you. There are people who genuinely want to hear about others. They’ll ask everyone they meet for their story. There are other people who prefer to talk about themselves. They arent super interested in hearing about others. I know that sounds selfish, but thats most people.
Heres something else Ive found since being back from the trail. A lot of people will ask about your trip because its this grand adventure. People feel obligated to ask about things like that. Most people dont actually want to hear about your trip though. Most are looking for a response like Oh ya, it was great. Definitely the experience of a lifetime. Anything past that and youll start to see their eyes glaze over. That can be frustrating because it really was the experience of a lifetime and theres so much to tell! Again, dont be offended. This happens to everyone.
My advice to all of you who have a friend who has experienced a life-changing event like this, is really listen to them when they return. Its difficult to integrate back into society after these experiences. Unless you’ve been through them yourself, it will be impossible for you to understand. And that’s ok. They dont need you to. They just need you to listen to them. Sometimes all it takes is having someone you can say these things out loud to. That can be the difference between feeling like youre alone in the world and feeling like you have someone on your side.
You might not accomplish your goal, but that doesnt mean youre a failure
Success is a funny thing. Sometimes you can accomplish your goals, but still not feel successful. This can happen if the goals you set for yourself are less ambitious than you know youre capable of. For instance, take the following goal: I will wake up before 2pm every day. Yes, if you work crazy weird shifts at work, theres a circumstance where this goal could be ambitious. If youre not working at all and spend most nights playing video games into the wee hours of the morning when you should really be working on your book about the AT (purely hypothetical example and not at all based on my personal experience), there’s a good chance accomplishing this goal wont make you feel like a success.
On the flip side, its also possible to fail in accomplishing your goal, but still feel like a success. Its all about how you defined success when you initially set out to accomplish the goal. Before I left for the trail, I made a list of reasons why I wanted to complete the AT. You may recognize this as one of the many great suggestions made by Zach Badger Davis in Appalachian Trials. Despite failing to complete the trail, I accomplished 22/25 things I set out to do. With those numbers, its hard not to feel like I succeeded. (Even though I failed.)
Youll accomplish unforgettable things in life, then youll forget most of them
Life is full of huge moments well carry in our memory for the rest of our lives. If youre a mother, Im sure youll remember the birth of your first born forever. Long after the memory of that embarrassing thing you said that one time in 4th grade fades, youll still remember how it felt to hold your child for the first time. You’ll remember how it felt to hear their cry for the first time.
Life is also full of moments that have such a profound impact that you tell yourself, I will never forget this moment. but then you do. You can never be sure which moments are those for life moments.
Early in my planning, I decided to keep a journal on trail. Im not a journaler. Ive always wanted to be, and Ive tried many times in my life, but it never stuck. As such, I was a little nervous about it. The trail was hard enough without forcing myself to stick to something I didnt even have the motivation to do in normal life.
It turns out I had more success with my journaling than with my actual hike. There wasnt a single hiking day I didnt make the time to journal. When I got off the trail and decided to write my book, the first thing I did was read all my journal entries. What I found was both sad and enlightening. There were moments from the hikeand sometimes entire daysthat I had completely forgotten about. I was only on the trail for around four months, so losing memories that had been significant enough for me to include in my journal was very disturbing. It made me think about how many memories we non-journaling folk lose every day.
When I talk about losing these memories, its important to note that some of these were incredibly significant to me at the time. Seriously, you cant predict the things that will stick with you. For that reason, I have two suggestions for you:
1) Try journaling. Even if youre not a journaler. Or just try writing about a single thing every day that made you happy. It could be one sentence long. I read an article about failing the Appalachian Trail and it changed my life. Something small like that. Having them written down will help you hold onto moments in your life that might not be world-changing, but are still worth remembering.
2) If you do something youre proud of, write it down. This could be completing a project at work, volunteering your time at a charity, sticking with exercise for an entire monthwhatever you want.
This is a great pick-me-up when youre feeling down. Everybody has those days where we feel like we have done nothing with our lives. Weve all been there. Nothing pulls you out of that quite like looking at a list of every time youve volunteered your time to a cause that made a difference, or every time youve made someones day, or every time youve accomplished a goal you set for yourself. It reminds you youre capable of doing good and achieving what you set your mind to. You cant look at that and still convince yourself that what you do doesnt matter.
I hope these are helpful. These are just three of the lessons I learned. It would take a whole book to cover all of them. As luck would have it, such a book exists. If youd like to read more about my trail takeaways, the full story is free to download at appalachianfail.com.
My name is John “Toestee” Desilets. I worked in video games for 10 years before attempting a thru-hike in 2017. I made it 1200 miles. Now I section hike and hope to finish the rest of the trail over the next few years. What I learned on the trail inspired me to write a book helping others succeed where I failed. You can read it for free here.
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