People often ask why I set out to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. It’s a good question.
I hadn’t even backpacked before. I guess you could consider my “training” the fact that I lived in a six-floor walk-up building on the Lower East Side. I had read a National Geographic article that stuck. It stuck for 12 years. Be careful kids, those National Geographics are dream seeds.
Then I was down in Savannah, Georgia working on an art project and actually met a real person who had hiked part of the AT. He talked to me all night and even though he never made it past the 500-mile mark in North Carolina, the way that his eyes lit up when he described the months he spent on the trail, well it cemented my future plans. I had some money saved up. I just needed to commit. I wanted those eyes. I wanted those stories.
I was alone when I started. Yes, everyone had reminded me that this is how women die. Going out in the woods alone was not “smart”. But, there were 5000 other people starting the trail at the same time. I was going to be careful. And I, of course, had read every book on the subject and knew that a community is out there that looks after its members. Which is more than I could say for my roommates in the city.
I felt like life had already shown me the truth, which is that women can die lots of places – not only big, crime-filled cities but in their homes and in suburban parks on the way home from debate club. I can’t say I wasn’t afraid, but I could say that I was willing to risk it. And so I made checklists, bought supplies, took one practice hike, read some more, and headed out for the trail. It is true, the trail will teach you most everything you need to know.
Now that I have done multiple long trails, people ask which is the hardest. I think the AT was harder because I didn’t know yet what I could do. After the first hundred miles, you realize you can do things you never thought possible. Most people cannot imagine walking 100 miles, but suddenly you have and despite the blisters and all the pain in weird places, and all the Advil you’ve gone through – you know you can do it again. Barring major injury, external factors, or sheer boredom, you can repeat this over and over and you will have hiked across the country. It truly is the repetition and the mental challenge that is the biggest obstacle for most people.
I had to find one thing every day to make it worthwhile. When I started this little mind game, I thought for sure that I would realize there was no reason to keep going. But, that first day when I was pissed off at an irritating bee sting and low on water and needed a break, I sat on a pile of rocks and swore that I should quit at the next road. But as I got up to leave, I dropped a water bottle that rolled down an incline, and voila! – there was a weird little overhang where under some rocks three purple flowers bloomed on a bed of emerald green moss. Then there was the day that we sang Michael Jackson songs in the rain and couldn’t remember the words to most of them, so we made them up and replaced lyrics with hiking lingo. One day, there was the guy and his son at a road crossing despite high winds and the cold and they were smiling and handing out chili dogs and Coke. I hate ground meat. I hate John Cougar Mellencamp songs about growing up in small towns. I don’t even eat meat these days. Chili dogs! But, these were heavenly warm and spicy and the carbonated sweetness of the soda was a perfect complement as I wolfed down two, maybe three. I kept hiking.
The AT was harder because I was figuring out that I had opinions that I had never given any attention. I liked the outdoors and camping – even though my parents hadn’t taught me anything about hiking. I liked being dirty and sore and strong, even though in New York, I “hated” hippies and the Grateful Dead. I loved setting goals and reaching them, though I had mostly designed my “career” around being an underachiever in a business I resented. It was difficult accepting this person I was on the trail. It threw a lot of my notions of identity out the window. On the AT, I cried a lot.
The AT was hard because near the end of it I found out my mother was dying. It was hard because in the middle of it, I fell in love. I knew when I started I was running away – even as I walked at 3 miles an hour for the next 152 days. When I finished, I realized you cannot walk, run, or hide from yourself. The finish was both spectacular and an anticlimax. I was so brave. I was so fit. I was so proud. But, none of that matters when you have to go back on the job market and find a job. No one cares you walked through 13 states when you are in the line at the pharmacy to pick up your mother’s medications for the week. You forget how fast you flew down the trail during a rainstorm when you gain 20 pounds and are watching day time television wondering what to do with your life.
But the why is this: everyone deserves to do something like I did sometime in their lives. If we only choose to do the things we feel we must do or should do, we are not really free. I realize many, many people will not have this chance and that breaks my heart. Because, it human to want to strive. And sometimes you have to do the thing no one has told you to do, the thing people might think is crazy, the thing that you can own as a decision you, and only you, have made. It is a gift you make to yourself – if and when you can. This is the “why” of my hike.
Even though I came home to a whole mess of chaos, and that was when the real challenges began, I had this little piece of treasure inside my heart. I knew that one time in my life, I had made a choice to follow through with a crazy dream. I knew that if it happened once, it might happen again. That it was possible. And that knowledge and the hope it feeds, has kept me company through some very hard times since.
This piece is part of the #52essays2017 challenge where I will share one essay a week in 2017. To learn more about this challenge or to participate, check out writer Vanessa Martir’s website and post about it.