I never really thought that I'd end up hiking the Appalachian Trail. It had crossed my mind as something that could happen. I even remember being about 21 and heading down to Georgia and hiking the beginning of it - but it never really struck me as something that I really needed to do. It never called out to me, and to be honest, it never sounded all that compelling either. I don't particularly enjoy camping, and most of the things I really enjoy about hiking have historically sort of been ruined for me when I had to carry a bunch of stuff on my back. And yet, just three weeks ago I completed the 2,186 mile thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in one hundred thirty seven days. Why?
The primary reason for hiking the AT for me was a relationship. Not the love of nature and the woods (although I do love nature, I do love the woods). Not the love of adventure and excitement (I do love adventure, as well as excitement). I was dating someone and hiking the Appalachian Trail was something she'd always wanted to do. As a result of the fact that I (almost) obsessively believe that you should follow your dreams (and want to encourage people I care about to do the same), I suggested that we just go ahead and hike the trail.
Yes, it was that simple. Let me repeat, for the sake of making my point. I just decided it was what we should do, then we planned, then we did it.
Again, there's not much more to it.
Why harp on that fact? Well, although it wasn't on my short list of life goals, I realize that it is on a lot of other people's lists. And the sad fact is that a huge number of those people aren't going to ever hike it. I'll get to that later though. Let's go back to the beginning of the hike.
In order to hike the trail, I had to be willing to take a year off from the thing that I love doing most in the world, teaching. I love teaching. If you were a bully in 4th grade and heard me say that, I'd respond to your follow-up taunt by saying, "Yes, if teaching were a person, I would marry it." I love it. I love working in a classroom, I love encouraging young people, I love to challenge them and love when they challenge me. It's the best thing I believe I could be doing with my limited time here on Earth. And I had to be willing to give this up for a year to attempt something that only about 25% of folks who start complete. I believe in taking chances though, so I did it, and I went into it confident that we would complete the entire hike.
Why did I have such confidence? Because there was no way I was going to give up a year of doing what I love to not complete it.
Now, preparing for the trail wasn't a huge deal. It was more fun than anything else really. I did some reading about it, I looked up stuff online, I got in touch with other folks who'd hiked it and asked questions, I looked at some maps, I made some care packages, I did some stair climbing. And it was all pretty much useless.
Well, that's not completely true - but it's pretty close.
The amount of information available these days online is absurd, and the great majority of it (no matter what you're looking up) is useless. It's exponentially more useless when it's all opinion (very little of what I looked up was factual information about the trail). Everyone has an opinion it seems (wait, isn't this an opinion?) and everyone believes their opinion is right (if this isn't, why am I writing it?) So there are hundreds of people out there telling you exactly how to pack, what food you need and don't need, what supplies you must take with you, what you'd be a fool to carry, how challenging different terrain will be, what you must fear, everything you should expect. And yeah, it's useless.
Nothing would have prepared me for this hike properly except section hikes of the trail, and that would have only prepared me for the section of the trail (assuming I also reached it in identical weather and feeling exactly the same mentally and physically as I did the first time). That's not to say some info wasn't helpful (much better to choose a stove that works for you, or know what the average temps will be so you can be prepared). Some was incredibly helpful (and I've gone ahead and listed the helpful info below). Most was totally useless.
And the silly thing is that one of the most common things I read before the hike actually was the most useful thing, but it sounds totally useless.
Hike your own hike.
Really, this cutesy little phrase should just be 'live your own life' and everyone should follow it and no one would ever be afraid to take big chances and live the life they want to live but since that might not happen anytime soon, let me relate it back to the Appalachian Trail.
I believe that the only thing you need to do to successfully complete a thru-hike of the AT is to hike your own hike. Yes, a 15 pound pack will put less wear on your knees (so if you have busted knees, the hike you should want to hike is one that's kind to them), but you don't need anything specific to be successful other than the right mindset and a willingness to let your hike be the hike you want and need. This is a big deal on the trail and in life.
Hike your own hike is probably the most common phrase I heard on the trail, and also one of the least followed. Akin to 'be yourself' in regular life, people loved saying it but were really concerned about what everyone else was doing and what everyone else thought about what they were doing. I met people who had spent their whole life dreaming about hiking the Appalachian Trail and then spent (seemingly) their whole hike fretting over whether they were doing it 'properly'. The idea that there is a right way or a wrong way to do it blew my mind the first time it became clear that there were a lot of folks who believed there was a proper way to do it. People were obsessive about critiquing other folks on their choice of gear, their choices for mileage, anyone who believed something different than they did about slackpacking. Basically, anything you believed that didn't jibe with their belief, they'd be sure to let you know they thought you were doing it wrong. And did many of these folks probably hike the Appalachian Trail? Yup, I'd guess about a quarter of them finished (well, maybe less), but they didn't get as much out of it as they could have, I'm certain of that (the same way I'm certain that folks who constantly criticize others aren't getting as much out of life).
See, life isn't about what other people are doing. And I understand that it's really difficult to acknowledge that because then you have to look closely at what you are doing and determine whether or not you respect that. It's a whole lot more work to improve yourself than it is to criticize someone else and remain stagnant (I know, I've done it before). The thing is that you gain nothing when you do that.
Hiking with my girlfriend was certainly a different experience because you can't completely hike your own hike when you're with someone else every moment of every day. The phrase managed to be just as meaningful (if not even more) for me because it made me realize that I needed to respect and try to understand where my hiking partner was coming from at all times, and I also needed to not sacrifice my needs. For us, it was a matter of hiking our own hike, and really, because we didn't waste much time judging each others actions, we were able to do just that. We were able to because we hiked the hike we needed to.
Are we special? Well, I don't want to sell us short but not really. I mean, we don't have genius smarts and we're not pro-athlete fit, so other than hiking our own hike, why were we able to finish something that such a small percentage of folks finish?
Well, aside from the fact that an alarmingly large number of people who start at Springer Mountain are totally inappropriately prepared mentally and/or physically for the hike even in the smallest possible ways, it also has to do with attitude. The hike isn't a ton of fun all the time. It's a 2,186 mile walk. Humans haven't been doing walks that far a really long time and there's a reason for that - it's physically demanding and incredibly monotonous. And so the most valuable thing you can have isn't the perfect sleeping bag, or the sweetest looking ultralight pack, it's a positive attitude.
This year it rained...a lot. And that isn't always so much fun, being out in the rain day after day. In order to be alright with that it really helps to be able to summon a positive attitude on a daily basis. That doesn't mean you have to love parts of it (if you love every minute of it, you should probably just move into the woods because you belong there), but you have to find parts of it that you do love all the time or you'll not likely make it without some serious help.
When we finished, I was pretty excited to return to a life of incredible comfort (I don't think people realize how good we've got it here). I was sad to know that I'd be parting from some terrific friends that I made along the way, but otherwise, I was ready to return to teaching and my regular life. And I'm certain that it'll be a few years before I really am able to understand how this experience impacted me as a person, but I know that it helped me remind myself that whatever I really put my mind to, I'm able to accomplish. It also taught me a lot about myself and how I view the world and the people around me and gave me ideas on how to improve myself.
It also reminded me that anything truly is possible. The only thing that holds any of us back is ourselves - our belief in our abilities and our willingness to put forth the effort to accomplish what we want to in life.
And this life is your hike. So if you're someone who has always dreamed about hiking the Appalachian Trail, what are you waiting for? There is nothing that's stopping you from accomplishing anything you want, you just have to be willing to take a chance. Then, and only then, can you really start to hike your own hike, and I promise you that it's worth it.
(Incredibly helpful things to look up and do before you hike the Appalachian Trail - understand what weather is possible and have clothing that will keep you warm/dry/safe, make sure you know where to get food and have a good idea of how much food you need to stay full/happy, maybe go ahead and take a multi-day hike to see whether you enjoy it or not and if the stuff you have is reasonable to carry and works to your liking...that's about it).