“So, when did you decide you wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail?” she asked.
I stumbled over my answer. The truth is I’m not sure when I decided I was going to hike part of the AT. Perhaps I decided to go for it because I finally had the time.
I had just finished my residency and first call. I had one month to move across the country and get ready for my next call. But in the meantime… I wanted to do something for me. I didn’t need a beach vacation, or a cabin retreat. I needed to leave my world for a little bit and get out of my head. From what I had read, the trail was the place to do this. It’s a totally different world, a secluded transient community of people who hike miles upon miles each day.
Many people in my life were anxious for me. They wanted to talk to me about all of the concerns they had about my hiking alone. Yet my conversation partners were never able to talk me out of this venture by coming up with things for me to fear. Most of their suggestions (being alone, getting sick or hurt, the threat of wild animals) were easily met by factual information about the AT. So finally they would ask, “Well, what are you scared of?”
The truth is, I was scared that I couldn’t physically do the hike. I’m not in terrible shape, but I’m not super fit either. I like hiking, but I hate running and have very little endurance. I’m strong, so I wasn’t so worried about the weight of my pack, but I was very concerned that my knees would give me trouble or my asthma would act up. I was right to be scared about this. My little 40 mile hike was the hardest physical act I’ve done in 15 years.
The first day I only hiked five miles but I gained a lot of elevation; it was tough hiking, and it took me six hours. I wanted to die. I turned around to go back and quit at least 28 times. I berated myself for being an idiot and thinking I could do such a thing as hike part of the AT. But I told myself I would get to my campsite and if I wanted to, I could turn around and go home in the morning. It seemed like a fair compromise. When I arrived at the campsite a group of older men who had passed me earlier that day cheered when I finally hiked in. They helped me light my stove to cook my dinner, showed me how to hang my food pack from the cables overnight, double-checked my tent (which I naively had never set up before). They were kind, encouraging, and helpful without being condescending. A little later that night, a mother/daughter pair arrived to camp with us and I was encouraged by the female companionship around the campfire.
When I woke up in the morning, I felt refreshed and encouraged by my camping company the night before. I decided to keep hiking. I also decided to take my hike slower than I had originally planned. Instead of doing 72 miles in eight days, I chose to do only 40 miles in six days. I had a friend who was willing to pick me up at any time and I knew I’d be able to get her a text at some point to ask her to pick me up at Clingmans Dome on day six.
Over the course of the next few days, I slowly gained some strength, met some incredible people, meditated on scripture, prayed, and observed my fellow hikers. This was a healing experience for me. Though at different times in my life I’ve longed for a partner with whom to do outdoorsy things, I felt completely safe and content to be hiking solo. Going solo actually gave me the freedom to go as slow as I wanted and stop when and where I wanted. It was a relief not to feel embarrassed about my turtle-like pace.
It was also healing to be around women who could not care less what they looked like. No one had mirrors. Everyone was smelly and hairy. Everyone wore clothing based on function and feel, not visual appeal. Best of all, these women wanted to eat as many calories as possible. After about a week on the trail, your metabolism spikes and you experience “hiker hunger.” These women were hungry all the time, snacking on full-size Snickers bars like it was no big deal, and eating cheesy salmon instant potatoes wrapped in a tortilla for dinner. Sounds gross. Smells gross. Lots of calories. They ate for the energy and didn’t worry about weight loss or even nutrition. While I overheard their conversations about gear and food, I reflected on the fact that hiking solo also freed me from caring whether or not I was attractive. Though I was single, I did not want to flirt with anyone on this trail. I didn’t feel obligated to speak to anyone. I didn’t care if anyone judged me for my pack weight or pathetic number of miles per day. I was doing what I wanted on my own time. It was a revelation.
This freedom also led me to feel a great deal of pride in what I did accomplish. Originally I was afraid I couldn’t do it, but I did. I didn’t give up. I hiked five to six hard miles each day. The voices of negativity and doubt did not win over my mind, and I discovered I was stronger than I thought. I experienced what it felt like to push my body and instead of fearing my limits, I learned I could do more than I had ever dreamed. For someone who has struggled with loving her body, this was the greatest gift I could receive from this trip.
While I had fielded a number of questions about fear while preparing for the trip, I received a whole different set from fellow hikers on the trail. Conversations always began with, “Are you going through or section hiking?” Almost everyone I met was attempting to do the whole 2,200 miles, so when I said I was only doing a section, they would ask me how long I was going and what section I was hoping to complete. Then they’d ask me why I wasn’t doing the whole thing. The first time I was asked that question, it caught me off guard. Down in the real world off the trail, we think of thru-hikers as crazy people! But on the trail, thru-hikers think of us real-world folks as the crazy ones. My response, after a moment of thought, was this: “I love my job. I can’t do the whole thing because I want to get back to my job.” For many on the trail, loving your job is a foreign concept. Many thru-hikers work jobs they dislike to save enough money to do the whole thing, and then quit and go hiking for nine months.
I undertook this hike to get away, and I’m glad I did. I was in-between, transitional, and stressed out of my mind. I understand the allure of the trail community and do not fault the folks who seek respite from the world by engaging the peculiar and endearing trail culture. I loved my first little adventure into life on the trail. It was refreshing and challenging and beautiful and painful.
The final gift I received from this hike was a desire to return to my work and a joy in doing so. While I enjoyed the trail and learned much from it, the peculiar and endearing culture that I love most is the church. I am called to serve God’s people through my ministry inside and outside the church, and after six days on the trail I was eager to get back to it. On days when I do not love or even like my job, I will remember the trail and perhaps I will yearn for it. But the trail will always be there, I only need to carve out the time to go. And with the space to remember the depth of God’s call on my life and my heart, I pray I will always return with joy and gratitude for the gift of this odd and wondrous calling.