Go Forth and Break Wide Open
A year ago today, it was a rainy morning in Georgia. I was sitting quietly and nervously in the white Hiker Hostel van as it followed the winding roads towards Springer Mountain. I sat next to a man who had done the Continental Divide Trail twice, and was aiming to complete the AT in 100 days; a last minute challenge he decided to take on after a three-month bicycle trip was cancelled. Im never going to see him again, I giggled to myself.
Upon arrival, my hiking partner, Gruff, the others from our van, and I hiked the mile back to the top of Springer Mountain. It was soggy and grey, but we took lots of pictures and signed the log. Gruff and I looked at each other: do we need to take individual pictures with the plaque just in case we hate each other after a few weeks together hiking? We did take those pictures, although Im glad to share that we dont hate each other now.
As time passes, it softens the edges of difficult experiences. Hiking the AT was heartwrenchingly beautiful and humbling, took me to small towns and hidden waterfalls within a part of my country that Ive never seen, introduced me to old souls from fellow travelers to trail angels, and taught me lessons that I have yet to verbalize. It was also the most challenging experience Ive put my mind and body through. Shivering in my sleeping bag wearing every layer I had in my pack. Near-hypothermic experiences in Georgia and again in Virginia. Snowy days in North Carolina and constant rain in almost every state. Ripping off my trail runners during lunch breaks to submerge by feet in cold rivers or streams because of how much they hurt (I still have toes recovering from nerve damage). Day after day of hot sticky weather and bugs in the mid-Atlantic, not to mention the extra-destruction to my feet and shoes in the rocks of Pennsylvania. Waking up to the sound of a bear pawing at our food bag in a tree at 5:30 am in New Jersey. The wet slippery slabs of rock where I slipped and fell again and again, ripped my (favorite) shorts, and once almost almost broke my forearm during a chilly morning in New York. There was that time in Vermont when I face planted in mud, covered head to toe, and burst into tears. Gruff tried as hard as he could not to laugh. Even 1900 miles in, every fiber of my body ached with pain and exhaustion as we hiked into Maine in late July, and I wasnt sure I could keep going.
But I did.
The journey up Katahdin may have been the most satisfying of any mountain Ive ever climbed because of each mile, every day, and each person that led me to that summit. The tears flowed down my cheeks, I hugged the sign, and ate some jelly beans. We sang on our climb down, and then at the bottom of the mountain, convinced a very nice couple to allow three very smelly hikers into the back of their Prius and drive 30 miles into the closest town.
To those of you who have already started your journey, the trail has likely already invaded your blood stream. For me, it created a different type of addiction to the outdoors, strengthening the connection I feel to my body and the earth touching my feet, the mountains, to the sky above me, to flowers, streams, rocks, and even cold rain. Thunderstorms also have lessons to share. Be patient, wait out the storm, dance in the rain. Plus, those other travelers who you encounter, also walking 15+ miles a day with rugged clothing and strong smells, are kindred spirits; because they are crazy, stubborn, and wild enough to be out there with you, eating too much peanut butter and laughing darkly in the face of less-than-ideal weather and steep terrain.
For those of you who are about the start the AT – be it tomorrow, in the weeks to come, or in early June heading south – I offer you the same advice I received during my winding ride up to Springer: Take your schedule and rip it to pieces.
If you arent quite ready to do that (eventually, you will be), Dave at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy also offered the following: Just dont be stupid. I often heard his voice in my head.
Earlier this week, I got caught riding my bicycle in the pouring rain of Denver. It had been 60 degrees and sunny a few hours earlier, but the sky ripped open and down poured a freezing mixture of rain and snow. I repeated in my head This is nothing compared to the AT. This is nothing compared to the AT. This is nothing compared to the AT. Unlike the countless days where we hiked in nonstop rain,I arrived home and immediately jumped into the shower and let the hot water melt my cold bones. This, too, is impermanent.
Finishing my thru-hike and returning to a city was much harder than I had anticipated, full of hundreds of tiny disappointments and a life that is busier and more complicated than Eat-Hike-Eat-Hike-Eat-Sleep-Repeat. At times, I felt myself entirely removed from the adventure Id just completed – like I needed to re-learn all of the personal lessons I discovered while thru-hiking, but now in the new container of my life. But the trail doesnt leave you – your time with her has changed the very structure of your DNA. I will always yearn for her, and the promise of adventure, healing, and connection. I bow my head in gratitude and awe; Im now a person that can faceplant in mud and laugh, fall on rocks and roots and continue to get back up, and keep walking north – a resiliency that is necessary for being human and wearing your heart on your sleeve.
As you embark on your next adventure (whether thats a thru-hike, a bicycle trip, moving to a new city or country, just a normal day traversing your routine), I ask you:
How will you tread lightly, yet boldly and respectfully on the path in front of you?
Will you trust that the path unfolding in front of you will provide exactly what you need?
How will you let yourself break wide open?
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