This time four years ago, I was somewhere in Vermont on the Appalachian Trail. I felt like my hike was almost over, clueless that I had endless memories yet to make and friends left to meet before reaching Katahdin. I had just started hiking with Sam who, unknown to me at the time, I would shortly be moving to Colorado with to reside for three years. I was eager to keep pushing for the end of the trail, and uncertain where I would go from there.
When I got on the AT at the age of 22, I thought it would be a fun, post-college vacation that hopefully might give me some direction in life. I wouldn’t necessarily say I found my life’s purpose, but I found direction in the form of usually knowing what my next right choice would be. I feel like I acquired an internal compass that always guides me toward what is good for me, even if I don’t follow it.
My thru-hike was the beginning of everything that came after.
After finishing the trail, Sam and I moved out to Telluride, Colorado to be snowboard bums for the season. That led us to Denver where we were joined by our trail buddy Radio for the next two years. Somewhere in there, I road my bicycle 1000 miles down the Pacific Coast and worked in Great Sand Dunes National Park on a trail crew.
Last year, I returned to Connecticut to work as a ridge runner for the Appalachian Mountain Club. There I met my friend Chance who is the most badass hiker I know. I’m on the same wavelength as her, more than anyone else I’ve met. Sam and I broke up, and I went to Nepal for 14 weeks. I already know that Nepal will be one of those places I’ll return to many times in my life. Hiking in the Himalaya helped me find balance again after ending a long relationship and saying goodbye to living in Colorado.
After Nepal, I came to my current wilderness therapy job in southern Utah. Since I arrived in January, I’ve left to travel to Nicaragua, Peru, and now back to New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
I’m not trying to turn this post into a resume of my hiking and travel experience. I do wonder, if I hadn’t hiked the Appalachian Trail would I have had all of the adventures that have since followed (or any of them for that matter)? I sincerely doubt it. Maybe there is an alternate reality somewhere and I live a different equally crazy and wonderful life. It’s possible. But I think my thru-hike is what opened my world to turning day dreams into real life (both cheesy as hell and very true). Everything I’ve done in the last four years has snowballed off of the previous thing, and it all started with the AT.
I’m currently in New Hampshire to spend the next week hiking in the White Mountains. Revisiting this place has led me to reflect on everything I’ve carried with me since I was last here. I’m sure I’ve forgotten much of what I learned during my thru-hike, but some lessons have stuck with me throughout the years.
This is what 2000 miles on the Appalachian Trail taught me:
- How to set and achieve goals. I’m not sure which is more difficult: actually hiking the Appalachian Trail or getting the nerve to believe you can do it and drop everything to follow through. Making that first big, unrealistic trip is the hardest. Every trip after is easier. Now when I have other goals I want to achieve, I have the ability to map out the small steps that will get me there. Anyone can think about all the achievements they wish to acquire, but far fewer people can make a plan to get there and stick with it.
- Being responsible with money. I know what you’re thinking, how can a six month vacation teach anyone about finances? To save for my hike, I spent a year working my ass off at a minimum wage job while finishing college. Then I had to make my inadequate sum of $2000 last from Georgia to Maine. I now know how to be frugal and go without my wants, how to make a budget and stick with it, and how to reduce the cost of my needs. Plus I have an iron will when it comes to almost never buying shit I don’t need.
- The time is now to take opportunities. How many people have you heard say, “I would love to teach English internationally/ work for myself/ backpack around Central America/ whatever”? How many people do you know who have actually done those things? There’s never a convenient time to make your unconventional dreams come true. I’ve learned that if I want to do something I better take that window of opportunity when it comes. And if the window doesn’t arrive, I need to make one. Nobody’s going to give you permission to do what you want. You have to give yourself permission.
Stop worrying and complaining. One day I was hiking through Virginia. I was alone and I stubbed my toe. I was having one of those bad days where I wanted to complain about everything. I thought about how in the next town in two days I would call my best friend and tell her about everything that was going wrong. Then I thought, “If I get to talk to her am I really going to make her listen to me whine?” That was when I realized that I don’t want to listen to myself complain either. And furthermore, what’s the point of worrying when 90% of the things I stress about never actually happen anyway? I started working on shutting out the internal negativity. After putting in the initial hard work of resetting my brain to default to positive thoughts, I have a relatively stress-free outlook.
Be brave. After seeing a dozen bears, almost stepping on two rattle snakes, and having lighting touch down 50 feet from me, there are not a lot of things left to be scared of. Setting out for my hike solo, starting a blog and opening my writing to criticism, and buying a flight to Nepal were scary also but in a different way. Now I have a mentality of, “Am I going to die from this?” If the answer is no, I feel less scared. I’m sure I’ll do more hard things in life, but thus far my thru-hike has been the most difficult. Everything after has felt easier, and I can usually find the bravery to jump into new things.
What lessons have you acquired over the years that have stuck with you? What has backpacking or travel taught you?