This article originally appeared on The Trek on May 26, 2021. Read it here.
If you’re just jumping in here and haven’t read my previous posts, know that I’m writing this as I head back to the trail after I decided to come home, and wound up being home for two weeks. This happened two weeks into a section hike intended to be from Boiling Springs, PA to Mt. Katahdin, a distance of just over 1,000 miles.
Coming home for the various reasons I did also gave me a chance to completely reset my mind. Looking back at my last few posts, I can feel the anxiety and rushed nature of my hike just by looking at my slightly all-over-the-place writing. I think I was in desperate need of some reflection. As I was looking over what I wrote in my journal the night before heading back to the trail, realized I had something that might be worth sharing. These are the unedited thoughts that I wrote to myself as I finally felt ready to go back and begin again, mixed in with some images from my hikes on the trail from 2019 until now. I hope that sharing them with you opens up some thoughts to ponder that apply to both hiking a trail and to other parts of life! So I quote myself: “I think the best way to go about this going forward is to remember why I first wanted to go on the trail, before I ever went out there. It had nothing to do with how many miles I hiked per day. It had nothing to do with getting to the next town. It was because I wanted the adventure of getting on the Appalachian Trail. I still want that. I want to walk in the woods, sleep in my tent, learn what some of the plants and flowers are.
I don’t want to set any limits for myself, both that I must hike a certain number of miles in a day, or that I must not go over a certain number of miles in a day at first. I don’t want to beat myself up for coming into town more frequently than I think I should, or for staying longer than I think I should. I don’t want to judge my hike in comparison to other hikers. I don’t want to be afraid of other hikers because I am nervous to make conversation, or think they’ll judge me. I don’t want to beat myself up if everyone leaves the shelter by 7 AM and I leave at 8 AM. I want to remember that if I feel like I’m hiking rushed, it is 100 percent my own choice and my own doing. Sometimes I like the bursts of pushing myself and the athleticism of it. I want to remember that I can do that when I want, and not do that when I want. I want to remember that if I’m out there wet, tired, hot, cold, sweaty, sticky, and I crave going into town for a shower and a cup of coffee, it’s ok because that’s part of the beauty of the trail – it makes those things feel SO good, and helps me remember to be grateful. I want to remember that it’s such a dream to be out there, in fact, it’s many people’s dreams, and to not remember how amazing this experience is would be a total shame.
It’s possible to spend my time on this trail always thinking about getting to the end. I do have a heart-set goal of finishing it, but that has never had a timeframe. It’s always been “as much as I can do” in each chunk of time off I get from work. As long as each time I get off of the trail I go back, and keep putting my efforts toward getting that time to finish the trail until it’s done, I’m doing what I wanted to do.
If I spend the entire time anxious about meeting new people, finding rides into town, worried about being judged, worried about failure, then I’m not doing what I wanted to do. This trail has been me living life to the fullest, being in the setting I want to be in and making time for it. It is not for me to beat myself up every time my hike doesn’t go the way I think it should. It is to help me get away from that. It is to get me in a place where I feel the most peaceful and can escape some of my anxieties. It is to push through the hard moments on trail while coming out on the other side and not beating myself down in my head for not being fast enough or for not having the perfect mindset all the time. What a shame for there being people wishing with all their heart they could be there, and there I am, yet I’m not really “there”. It’s time to put meditation into real-world practice and be there. Having just a little over two months of time now until the end of July, I won’t be able to reach Mt. Katahdin during this section unless I can get another leave of absence for August. I have to accept and know that the better approach for me is that I’ll get as far as I can in this time, just like the other times. My biggest goal was always to stay on-trail as much as possible, meaning going a little longer between town stops and working it out so that my town stops are more cost-efficient. This takes actual work, and is the goal I care more about than pushing myself to the max number of miles I can do per day. I feel blessed I’ve been able to do this trail in segments because I’ve experienced my relationship with it change in different ways each time, and it shows me different things each time I return. I’ve learned that just because I’ve been there before doesn’t mean I know everything yet. I still experience challenges I didn’t expect every single time. The beauty about the time in between each section is that I can make things more efficient, change or repair gear, or work on my mindset by reflecting on how I did or why I came home. I want to just do what I can these next two months. All I want is to be present the whole time. I want to really work on not letting the speed or seeming ease of others around me get to my head. Everyone started the trail at different times, is a different age, has different levels of athleticism or reasons for being there. Why is it so hard to remember this all the time, and start comparing? I’ve realized I was clearly taught to value success growing up. Maybe so much so that I’ve felt burned out at times. So much so that this place I go, the trail, to escape that, turns into another thing I MUST succeed at. Yes, I still must finish it. I must finish for myself. But beating myself up for not finishing it in some certain way makes no sense when I’ve already met the goal of sectioning it every chance I get until I complete it. I want to enjoy it. I will be so sad later on if I didn’t remember to appreciate the nature and lessons around me, because that’s what I’m there for. I’m not there to say I did it. Maybe I’m there for that a little… but it should only be for myself. And the completion of the entire thing should be the aftermath of all of the time spent on the trail. It should be a compilation of those experiences, a perk. I feel more rested and confident now that I can head back to the trail and remember these things. I can spend so much time on the trail with the mindset I want and the experiences I want to take in, like focusing on the nature around me, or I can spend it in a totally different rushed mindset. I’ll have spent the same amount of time either way reaching that completion, but with two totally different outcomes and two vastly different takeaways. I love this trail for what it is, for the beauty it is. Only I can choose to actively experience it in a certain way and help calm some of my anxieties in the process. What a shame it would be to get to the end of a section and feel like I didn’t take in the full experience while it was in front of me. Why even be there then? It’s time to go back, clear-headed, and I know I’ll do what I was meant to do in these next two months.”