In March of 2012, I found myself on Springer Mountain in Georgia with the intention of walking to Maine. I planned to follow the footpath known as the Appalachian Trail, which would lead me through fourteen states over the course of 2,184 miles.
While I was in college, I began contemplating what I would do with my life. Getting a big girl job with two weeks of vacation a year didn’t sound appealing. I loved backpacking, and I assumed that hiking the entire Appalachian Trail would give me all of the answers I was looking for.
I carefully selected the gear I would need. Everything had to be lightweight because I would be carrying it on my back for six months. After buying a purple internal frame backpack, I filled it with gear: a twenty degree sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, a tent, a camp stove and cooking pot, a headlamp, my trusty guidebook, a small pile of clothes, and a few items for personal hygiene. When I added food and water, my pack weighed about forty pounds.
From Springer Mountain, I began walking north.
I was usually around other hikers who shared my goal of reaching Maine. There was a sense of camaraderie. We all had people at home cheering us on, people who also thought we were slightly crazy. If it was raining, everybody put on their waterproof pack covers and kept hiking.
On cold nights, we all crowded into the shelters along the trail, sleeping in a twelve person spoon. We shared tips on treating blisters, dealing with chafing in uncomfortable places, and trying to identify various insect bites. If someone was having a rough time and wanted to go home, the hiker code was to convince him to keep going a little further.
It didn’t take long for me to adapt to life on the trail. I loved hiking up mountains, building fires, and meeting new people every day. I even enjoyed hitchhiking into town to resupply on food. I didn’t totally mind having dirt smeared on my face, wearing the same sweaty clothes every day, or only getting to shower about once a week.
Sometime after my first 300 miles, I became obsessed with lightening my pack. The lighter the pack, the easier it is to carry, the more miles I could hike. I tried getting rid of small things at first like extra tent stakes and most of my underwear (they didn’t stay clean anyway). Then I traded my twenty-degree sleeping bag for a lighter, summer bag.
Eventually, I decided to send home my tent. I bought a hammock, and when it was time for bed I would string it up between two trees. I had a rain fly for bad weather and a bug net for humid nights. I dropped about seven pounds total off my pack weight, which made a huge difference to me.
While I was walking, I had the entire day to think about whatever I wanted. Most of my fellow hikers were bearded, smelly men, and I had few women to talk to. I became accustomed to smelling farts and hearing about ball chafing.
Sometimes I would come across a black bear or a rattlesnake, and then I would be scared for the rest of the day. If my feet hurt, if I fell down, or if I was tired, I usually didn’t have anyone to complain to at that moment. I would call my mom or my girlfriends when I was in a town, but in general, I was very disconnected to the outside world.
Occasionally, the trail brought out a roller coaster of emotions in me. Shortly after the 1000-mile mark, I had a small meltdown. I spent a week being in a bad mood. I had hiked for three months straight, and I wasn’t even halfway done with the trail.
It seemed unfair. I hadn’t figured anything out yet, except that I spent way too much time thinking about boys and I wouldn’t have any money when I finished hiking. I was expecting to have some direction as to where my life would go next.
I took my frustration out by hiking even more miles every day. As I got closer to Maine, I realized that I probably wouldn’t be figuring out the next step for a while. I accepted the popular mindset of the young thru-hikers, “I have no idea what I’m doing next.” I just wanted to enjoy the rest of my time on the trail. For a while, reaching the northern terminus of the trail, Mount Katahdin, was the only goal I had in sight.
When I reached the New Hampshire state line, I only had 500 miles to go. I entered the White Mountain National Forest, arguably the most difficult section of the trail. My daily mileage was cut in half. I had to use my hands to climb up mountains and slide on my butt to descend them.
Shortly after finishing the Whites, I crossed the Maine border in the pouring rain at nightfall. As the sun was setting, I reached a shelter full of fellow hikers. I had another mini-meltdown around that time. I still had 300 miles to hike before I reached Mount Katahdin. This whole time, I had been telling people I was hiking to Maine, I had finally reached Maine, and I still had a month of hiking left.
Other hikers were talking about what they would do for their Katahdin victory photo when one guy had his own meltdown, “What makes you think we’re making it to Katahdin? I’ve never had more doubt in myself than I do right now,” he shouted to nobody in particular. That statement summed up what I felt. I had come so far, and my goal still felt so far away. Or maybe I was upset by how close my goal was, and I still didn’t know what was to come afterwards.
Regardless, it was September, which is the beginning of fall in Maine. I had one last month of hiking in chilly, rainy weather. My mom and my aunt sent resupply boxes to the last trail town. I needed more food than usual because I was entering the last stretch of trail before Katahdin, the 100-Mile Wilderness.
That’s right, 100 miles of no civilization. I went in with my two best trail buddies, and we trekked together all the way to Katahdin.
I reached the final mountain on a sunny day in early October. Mount Katahdin lived up to her reputation. It was the most difficult climb on the entire trail. As I approached the top, I spotted a sign that read: “Katahdin, Northern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail.” I was filled with happiness, but also a sense of tranquility. I only had five dollars to my name, I didn’t know where my life was headed, but I was OK with that.
After walking 2000 miles, I didn’t make any huge revelations about much of anything. I just figured out that having nice things won’t make me as happy as having great people around, and I don’t need a grand life plan as much as I need to enjoy what’s going on right now.