This article originally appeared on The Trek on February 17, 2020. Read it here.
For anyone following me, this is my version of the essential “why I’m hiking” blog entry. I learned last year that if you have plans to do a long-distance hike and fail to provide your acquaintances with reasons for why you would do such a thing, they will attempt to come up with their own reasoning to rationalize your choices. “Because I want to” doesn’t quite cut it, and at a minimum of three times it will be assumed you’re trying to “find yourself.”
Why is it that we need to rationalize a decision like this? At the core, I think it’s safe to say that a long-distance hike goes against the grain of what the average person’s day-to-day life entails. Most people are not making much—if any—money while they’re out on the trail, not advancing a career, not maintaining the upkeep of a place of residence or a vehicle, and the list could go on for days. To long-distance hike is to make an active choice to forgo these things, to go completely against the grain of what many of us were taught we were “supposed” to do.
So just what if I told you that I came to the harsh but true realization that my need to rationalize my decision for others was a disguise for my need to rationalize it for myself? That there comes a point when I have to just know I’m doing what is right for me, and I don’t owe anyone else an explanation, even though I want them to understand? Sometimes they might not, and in doing a long-distance hike, it’s important to know that not everyone will understand and at times you just have to let that be. If you have too much self-doubt, or let every different opinion of others swirl around in your head, you might not get very far.
Last year, I thought I was one of those people who didn’t need some big reason to hike the Appalachian Trail. I thought that my entire premise was that I just like hiking and being in that environment and I enjoy the challenge. I really wanted to stand behind that, because I was annoyed with the notion that I was “finding myself.” I still believe it to be true that you do not need some big or existential reason to hike the Appalachian Trail, that simply liking the outdoors or because you enjoy it or because you just want to are more than adequate explanations. I want everyone to know that. But I’ve gradually come to the realization that thinking I’m a poster child for this explanation, the very thing I want to show everyone so badly, isn’t quite my personal story.
The truth is that my need to “get out” of where I am is so incredibly strong. It has been since I hiked last year, and even since before I hiked last year. Even in reading over the words that I wrote about myself for my bio on The Trek, I felt fake. I felt like it painted this picture of a happy, successful person, of someone who has it all together, likes their job, and has figured out a way to fit long-distance hiking into that picture too without stirring up the other parts of life. I want to show everyone that this can be the case, because I know it can be. In reality, there lies a great unrest in me, and I don’t know that anyone really knows the extent of it besides myself or maybe my boyfriend.
Let’s start with November 19, 2008. That’s the day my mom passed away, and I was 18. Even in typing that sentence, I can feel the rise in myself, the inner voice angrily pressing on me saying, “Stop what you’re doing, you’re not supposed to go there, you’re not one of those people that has a story.” I guess I have a great fear in using a big life event like this as an excuse, or as a way to have people feel for me. But maybe whether I like it or not, I do have a “story” there to share.
She passed away after being diagnosed with breast cancer 13 years prior. I didn’t realize this until after the fact, but I was raised by someone who knew what it was like to live like she was dying. She loved playing piano, gardening, and running. She ran and ran and ran, trained for a lot of marathons and various other races. She worked part time at a meat market, and she always appeared happy. Whether she was or not, I know my brother and I thought she was happy and I think that’s a testament to her character. I don’t know if it was so much her passing, but rather being raised by her, that impacted the way I live and that I feel the need to do things before time runs out. Regardless, why should I pretend anymore that I don’t possess this “story”, or that it doesn’t have a direct impact on the way I live my life?
So there’s that, the overarching backstory to everything I do. Then there’s the fine details. Last year, I hiked a total of 680 miles in a few different chunks. I had been fueled by an obsession over the span of years before I began. I don’t know where it was or how it came about that I heard about the trail. I even had it on a little life “to-do” list tucked into one of my journals that I didn’t remember writing. The more I learned, the more I knew that my need to hike the trail was not going to go away until I did it, and I gradually started making plans. Then towards the end of 2018, I ended an almost seven year relationship. Again, I didn’t want to think that some major life event played a role in me taking to the trail, but there I was at the trailhead, 8 months post breakup. To say that the breakup didn’t make it easier for me to focus all of my energy onto getting myself to the trail to take my mind off of the changes would be ignorant.
Once I realized that I could combine some vacation with time off and hike for most of April and May continuously, there was no turning back for me. I didn’t tell my dad that I was heading out on a hike until two weeks before I left, because I didn’t want to be talked out of it when I heard his concerns and I didn’t want him to worry, despite knowing he always supports me.
That was last year. 680 miles later and I have not been the same since. I did that without quitting my job as a flight attendant or my side gig as a member of the Chicago Bears Drum Line. I did it while using my savings to pay rent on my apartment while I wasn’t there. I couldn’t wait for the perfect opportunity for a thru hike, but in my mind I had to go before I couldn’t go at all. I hiked nearly continuously from mid-April through the end of July, but had to come home for a week here, week there to maintain these commitments. I went back and hiked another 100 miles in September. I did most of that mileage with my now boyfriend, who I met a few weeks into April on the trail and who became, and still is, my other half through that journey. The unrest I’ve felt since I came back to my life, my apartment in the city, my job, has been nearly unbearable at times.
I’ve found myself virtually unable to live alone in my one bedroom apartment, go about my routine of going to work and catching up with errands and things around the dreary city on my days off. Sometimes I’ve found myself not leaving the apartment for days at a time, not showering, not eating much, virtually not doing anything. Then I pick back up with my life when I have work or commitments, get very busy, and then I crash again. Over and over and over. To think that I could shake things up, to partially pursue something I so badly wanted to do, and just come back to my life as it was before was somehow incredibly irrational, although I could never have known at the time. Although I don’t want to quit my job because I do love aspects of it and it is one of those unique jobs that allows me to do things like this while maintaining my employment, the rest of my life is not the image of someone who has everything set and also fits hiking into that. My life is that of someone who feels a great unrest and who is in need of change.
Going into this summer’s hike and knowing what I know now, I had a deep fear that I would be setting myself up for a difficult time if I once again came back to the exact same life that I put a pause on. I do desire to be more “settled”, but the life I live currently alone in my city apartment is not that settled life I envision. For that reason, I committed to the hike on a deeper level this time, and all within the past couple weeks. I talked to my landlord and have been given the all clear to end my lease early by the end of this month (cue a massive to-do list to accomplish moving my stuff into storage on a short timeline). I’ve been fortunate to be able to take a three month leave of absence March – May that was being offered at work and was awarded earlier this month. And in the most emotional decision of them all, I won’t be coming back to the Chicago Bears Drum Line next season, which begins with audition season in April before a slew of summer commitments, so that decision had to be made by mid February.
I don’t know if I will be able to continue hiking in June and July and finish out the trail this year around work plus some other commitments I have to come back for. For now, I know that I at least have mid March-May to spend on the trail, and it isn’t very important to me how many miles I manage to cover in that time. I’ll cover them at a pace that suits me and at a pace that I can maintain. Before last year’s hike, I was worried that not going for a full through hike in one go with that goal of completion would leave me with motivation problems when things got tough out there. That turned out not to be the case at all, as I learned that my love of being out on the trail trumps the need for that ticking time completion goal, even though finishing the entire trail is still what drives me.
I may be writing one or two more prep posts, but you’ll most likely hear from me again once I’m actually hiking in mid March. I have two southern portions of the trail to complete, and I’ll be starting with a 230 mile section from Standing Bear at the end of Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Damascus, Virginia. After this, I’ll be skipping to an approximate 218 mile section of Northern Virginia that I have yet to complete. Much like in life, I learned that most things on the trail do not go as planned, so I’ll keep the focus on those two sections for now until I see how long it’s taken me to complete them! I imagine I won’t hike more than 8-10 miles a day for the first couple weeks to ease in and avoid injury. My goal driven mind had to learn to accept setbacks and constant changes to plans on the trail last year, and I’m working on heading onto the AT 2020 with that same mindset and little to no timeline for how fast I’ll cover mileage. Until I’m back out there this year, here are some shots from my time on the portions of the trail I hiked last summer!