Why I am hiking the Appalachian Trail

Every person I talk to about the Appalachian Trail has one very difficult  (yet very legitimate) question: “Why?”

On the one hand, I think the appropriate question is more like “Why not??”, but I’m clearly not in the majority opinion there. Also, answering why I want to hike the AT feels more like a thirty minute conversation to me—which I am more than happy to have, anytime. But people are usually looking for a quick answer. I haven’t yet crafted a few concise sentences that adequately convey my intentions, so most often people get some kind of joke. Like, “Why not??”.

But I have thought it out. And I figure it’ll be handy when I’m climbing a steep mountain in the freezing rain to be able to remind myself why, exactly, I am voluntarily doing this to myself. So here goes:

1. Because it is there. This is just in my bones. If there is a big rock or a tree, I will try to climb it. A narrow log over water? A mountain? A freezing cold waterfall? I will cross it, summit it, stand under it. I’m just scaling it up here because I can: the mere existence of a 2,200 mile path from Georgia to Maine creates the need to walk it.

2. I need a break. I’ve been cautioned against going on the AT as some sort of escape from “real” life. And I get it—all the things I’m fed up with now will be waiting for me at the end of our hike. But I want a breath of fresh air. Right now there’s a pretty big gap between the way I’d like myself to approach life and the way I actually am approaching it, and I’ve been fighting that battle for a long time. Now, I don’t expect the AT to end that struggle. I know it won’t effortlessly evaporate my anxiety or cure my stomach or unveil an obvious career choice. But I feel a lot like someone who has been treading water for a little bit too long. I’m having trouble adjusting the way I handle uncertainty and stress and weird diets while remaining submersed in it. Life is just rushing along, too fast, and I’ve been longing for a pause button I can push, a way to put life on hold so I can catch my breath. I think six months of walking should help.

3. It’s time for minimalism bootcamp. Eric and I are minimalists. Meaning, we try to keep only what is very beautiful or very necessary or both. We resist the accumulation of stuff. And yet. We are two little sticks in a raging consumerist river. I’m starting to feel a little too tied in to society’s commercialism, and we’ve got a little too much stuff. I want to go back to basics and rebuild from there. Living out of a backpack for half a year should help accomplish that.

4. I want to experience crystal clear interdependence and meet some angels. I want to, but I don’t want to. I have a circle of close friends and family that I love deeply, and I’ll admit I’m ambivalent about everyone else. On an individual level, I’m overwhelmed and exhausted by strangers and social pressures—I’m undeniably the introvert who is happier reading on a Friday night than shouting at people in a bar. On a global level, I think people are ruining everything. “We” worry me. So, I would prefer not to see anyone’s trash, smell their cigarette, or listen to them passionately deny global warming (for example). But I also happen to think that the path to happiness lies in becoming fully aware of our complete interdependence on everything and obliterating every last feeling of being separate or sustainable on my own. I don’t need to go on a thru-hike like this to meditate on why this is true: at this very moment I’m living in an apartment others built, breathing air the trees made, eating food I didn’t grow, wearing clothes from the other side of the world. That list goes on an on. But a thru-hike lays that interdependence bare. You’re depending on and benefitting from a hundred little grocery stores, pizza buffets, laundromats, outfitters, shuttle services. A family on a day hike updates you on the weather. Someone feels generous and gives you a hitch into town. You drink soda from an ice chest left anonymously by the road. I’m prepared to meet some really annoying people on the trail, but I’m also looking forward to meeting goodhearted people and watching the network of AT support function. I hope to find some hope out there.

5. I want to feel strong and capable. By all outward appearances I already am quite strong and capable. But the last seven years have been eventful. I have an unhelpful sort of split personality. One half of me wants to go on adventures. That half wants to go out of state for college, live in France, move to the other side of the country with no job or apartment, get married, and work with 22 preschoolers every day. The other half is pretty sensitive and gets really upset by these things. That half is homesick, nervous about not attaining traditional markers of success on a traditional timeline, afraid I’m too much work for my husband, and utterly exhausted by 22 preschoolers. And both halves have had a stomachache for a long time. The adventurous half gets me places, but once I’m there, it’s the uncertain half I live with in daily life. I’m tired of self-doubt and anxiety. I hope after I’ve walked five million steps one after the other, through lightning and cold and heat and bugs and rain, it won’t be so easy to waffle around inside my head about whether I can actually handle life or not.

6. I want to feel slow time. I don’t want to move my body across the continent in a few hours. I want to walk.  I want to feel every shifting minute of the day, not look up from a computer screen and wonder where the last hour went. I want to know each day’s sunrise, afternoon, twilight. I don’t want to realize the daffodils have been out for a week already. I want to watch them grow. I don’t want to look out from a climate controlled box at the winter or summer. I want to feel the season shift, watch the landscape shift. I want to go slow.

All these reasons, though, are just the product of my brain scrambling to put words to a feeling. In some ways, I don’t know why I want to hike the AT. Or, I want to hike the AT because I want to. It’s not a words or brain thing. It’s a heart and gut thing. And my heart and gut want to hike.

5 thoughts on “Why I am hiking the Appalachian Trail

  1. If you need a quick answer to the question “Why?”, try this one out:

    The late distance hiker, folksinger, wilderness activist, and writer Walkin’ Jim Stoltz was once asked by the Wall Street Journal how he defined the term “Wilderness.” He said “Wilderness is a place where things happen the way they’re supposed to happen.”

    Just tell them you want to go to a place where things happen the way they’re supposed to happen.

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