For me, the world is full of new adventures – so many places to see and so many cultures to experience. I’ve learned that to keep my brain activated, I occasionally have to break free and do something outside of the norm. The Appalachian Trail has been in the back of my head ever since I came across an instructional book about it in college. I bought that book, and was fascinated that something like this even existed. How does one really just drop everything and head off into the woods? How do you manage all that gear? Where do you sleep? How do you eat? It seemed impossible. I learned that it’s not.
Last year, I decided it was time. If not now, when? I had taken several multi-day backcountry hiking trips, so I had just enough confidence to think that I could do this. The actual hiking was not my biggest concern, though; it was the challenge of coordinating the trip. What about my job? My house? I discovered that I’m fortunate enough to work for a firm that sees these types of experiences as a benefit to everyone. They understood that this experience would benefit me both as a landscape architect and as a human being. With that, I rented my house, set all my bills on autopayment, resigned from my job (temporarily!), and flew off to Atlanta to begin this half-year journey.
I love to talk about this hike. It was the most life-changing, inspiring, confidence-building experience. If you haven’t really heard about it, you might need some background. The Appalachian Trail is a footpath that essentially follows the ridge of the Appalachian Mountains. From near Atlanta, Georgia at a place called Springer Mountain, it heads north up and over the peaks, along the ridges, across rivers and highways, through small towns, across National Parks, and into farms and fields, before triumphantly ending 2,183 miles north, on the top of Mt. Kathadin – Maine’s tallest peak. Every year, around 3,000 people attempt to hike the whole trail in what’s called a thru-hike. Five or six months later, about a quarter of them finish.
The on-the-ground experience is an intensely personal reawakening of oneself both physically and mentally. You have to get used to not only the physical rigor of carrying 35lbs of gear, food, and water, but also the mental challenge of keeping your spirits up in the rain or cold. You also have to become comfortable with being alone for most of the day. This is not to say the trail is lonely. It’s filled with the greatest assortment of wonderful people on earth. These people are out there for similar reasons as you – adventure, a change, a challenge, or figuring out what’s next in their lives. And they come from all walks of life. I hiked with idealistic college students, “career” hikers, a NASA scientist, retired IBM executives, and even an internist from Florida. You get to know these people intensely over the several months you’re out there, because you’ve been caught in a thunderstorm together, or helped when someone fell, or been stopped dead in your tracks when a bear appears directly in your path (I saw 12!). They become your trail family.
At camp, you have a great opportunity to hear people’s stories, make friends, find hiking buddies, and discover your trail name. Yes, I said your trail name. Everyone uses a moniker. You are not the person you left back home, and once you find your trail name, you are known only by this name throughout your hike. Mine was Dune, a reference to the Frank Herbert novel, after I survived on very little water for days at a time.
There’s also an extended family of trail “angels” along the way. Trail angels are a network of people who provide what is known as “trail magic” – they give you rides, or buy you a meal, or set up a grill at a trailhead to feed hungry hikers who pass by. While we’re on the subject of food – I must say that eating takes on a whole new meaning when you’re on the trail. The amount of calories you consume is just phenomenal – you really can’t keep up with the “hiker hunger.” Despite the many pizzas, hamburgers, pop tarts, and fried chicken I ate along my journey, I still managed to lose 42 pounds by the end!
If you’ve read this far, you probably realized that I indeed managed to complete an official thru-hike! On August 9th, five months and one day after I started, I, along with my hiking buddies DaVinci, Lady Moose, Bean Dip, Survivorman, Dino, and Gandalf worked our way up that craggy mountain – originally hiked by Henry David Thoreau – and made it to the summit of Kathadin. Check mark in that box!
What does one do after an adventure like that? Well, you march triumphantly back home, of course! I’m happy to say that I am taking all of my new experiences with logistics, coordination, not sweating the small stuff, and staying calm under pressure…and turning them into a new role at RVi, as the Director of Project Operations. I’ve just been through a pretty wild ride, and now I have an entirely new adventure in front of me.
If you’d like to read more about lack of showers, how to get a pizza delivered to a shelter, or removing mice from your beard, feel free to read my blog: www.trailjournals.com/Dune.
Below you’ll find a few select photos from the trip (click to enlarge each one).