This spring I started my very much anticipated would-be thru hike of the Appalachian Trail. I did not finish. This is what I learned:
- I enjoy socializing on the trail much more than I ever have before. I sometimes found myself going out of my way to make it to a shelter where I might have an evening conversation with other hikers before turning in. It was the relationships I found out there that meant as much to me as my communion with nature. I actually returned most of the way home from the trail by getting a ride with Roy, a middle aged man with whom I had been leapfrogging for days. We met every night at the next shelter and swapped stories and advice about our struggles on the trail. He missed home. I was dragging one leg along as if on crutches. He drove me all the way to Kentucky in his beater Caprice and told me stories the whole way. He refused to let me pay him for the ride.
- Hiking with an 8.5 pound base weight will attract attention. My pack was very noticeably smaller than those of any other hikers out there. Especially when unpacking for the night at or around a populated area (shelter) I was grilled with questions about my pack and gear. It’s important as a lightweight backpacker to not look down on those with heavier or different gear choices, it’s simply an opportunity to share information. I try to listen more than talk.
- My legs are much stronger than the tendons and ligaments in them. My thru-hike was ultimately cut short by my decision to leave the trail due to increasing and consistent tendonitis on my right knee. While my muscles and mind were ready to (and did) pump out 26 mile days, the joints were not. It was, in hindsight, something I should have seen coming a long ways off. I didn’t. It took me off the trail.
- Bleach is a totally cool water purifier. Why didn’t I start using it earlier???
- Life teaches us new things when we embrace change and opportunities. I left the trail for a week at Hiawassee, GA to let my severely painful knee have a rest. It was there I happened across the welcoming arms of Dr. Swan and Enota Mountain Resort where I worked for stay during the Memorial Holiday. I made a dozen new friends who I will remember forever. I learned to love the early morning smell of the organic farm in Georgia. I read a book on vegan lifestyle and ate healthier there than I ever have. I had milk straight from the cow for the first time in my life. I went to bed having worked a 16 hour day and smiled about it. It was the best thing that could have happened to me.
- I enjoyed the trail more when I let go of my schedule, ditched my itinerary, stayed and talked with whomever and whenever the whim took me. I enjoyed finding a crashed plane with Chris who continually graciously complimented my overall hiking knowledge while never ceasing to speak about the spiritual connection he felt to the forest. He started to awaken a sense of wonder in me that I so often overlook. Thanks, Chris.
- Letting go of such an ingrained and heart felt goal as thru-hiking is difficult. It took me many many days to come to terms with my decision to leave the trail. Every day I lowered my mileage and pace hoping to relieve and restore the injury in my knee. When it became clear that an extended hiatus was the only foreseeable solution to my increasing knee problem I had to make peace with the decision to leave. The trail will be there next year and ten years from now. Permanent knee damage would render me useless to my two largest passions, hiking and skiing.
- It’s important to remember that hiking the trail (and in general) should be about pleasure. If you’re not enjoying it, then you’re doing it wrong. I love the sense of having completed a difficult and high mileage day but, as I mentioned, I also found I loved the people and the experiences as much or more. It took me a while to realize it was okay to make changes to my hike in order to embrace these new experiences.
It was surprising to find out so much about myself in so short a time. From the technical challenges (and failures) I encountered to the new interpersonal relationships I experienced. Every day on my journey led to a new and welcomed discovery.
My happiness came in knowing that no matter what I was doing or how things turned out, the trail was teaching me.
Even though I didn’t even come close to achieving my initial goal I am hugely grateful for the experiences I had and the lessons I learned. I will be back to the trail soon and I will be ready to embrace every odd and whimsical opportunity that presents its self. I’ll also be hiking a little less and talking a little more.