“So don’t sit back and watch the days go by; Are you ever gonna live before you die? So come on and leave the years when you watched the days go by, come on and leave the fears that you were afraid to find, cause while you wait inside, the days go by.” –Lifehouse song
Do you say to yourself, “Someday I will thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.” Have you been saying this for years?
I hope you put a date on your Someday and follow through with your choice, despite all the unanswered questions. I have never met anyone who said about thru-hiking the AT, “Gee, that was stupid.” I may have said it when I was hiking, but now that I’m done? Never! I am a firm believer that all experiences are worthwhile, that every chance to get out of the house should be seized and welcomed. Such adventures into the world often result in personal growth that can be gained no other way. Thru-hiking is something I will always have, something that can never be taken away from me not matter what loss and heartbreaks I’ve yet to deal with.
Here is a bit of a summary of some things I would change or some things I think are important to anyone considering a 2000 mile hike:
The one question I would ask anyone considering a thru-hike is why not? If you’re truly thinking seriously about it and it’s something you feel strongly about, then don’t let the uncertainty keep you on shore. Jump in! You’re not too old or too out of shape, too fat or too slow. Age is just a number; don’t let it be the determining factor for not hiking. Five or six or seven months may seem like a long time but in the whole scheme of things, it is a small amount of time when you consider your entire lifetime. So you’ve never camped. Or did any long distance backpacking trips. Or spent time alone in the woods. I met people who had NEVER even set up a tent before walking the AT, who had never backpacked a day in their lives, who didn’t know the first thing about stoves or camping foods… “those who want it bad enough will find a way, those who don’t will find an excuse.” When you reach the end of your life there should be an infinity of great memories playing in your head. You don’t get those by sitting home on the couch watching TV. If you can walk, then you can hike the entire Appalachian Trail, all the way from Georgia to Maine. If you want it badly enough it CAN be done.
Take time to enjoy the places you’ve worked so hard to get. Katahdin (or Springer) can wait. Savor the moments, collect them like a child collects bottlecaps or shells. There will never be too many, but there can be too few. Don’t forget to enjoy the journey. Take a ride in the canoe! Sit at the rocky overlook! Enjoy the sunrise! Lay out in the grassy field and look up at the ceiling of stars! Savor lunch at a spectacular vista, beside a pond or at the base of a waterfall. Do take time to smell the roses!
Take pictures, not just of the places but also of the people you meet along the way. And learn their names. When you’re done and you look back, it will be easy for one to blend into the other. I wish I had gotten the names of everyone who had helped me, names and addresses so I could have sent each and every one a thank you when I was done, letting them know the power of their kindness. We all carry such power inside us– with one small word or gesture we CAN impact the future.
Make time for detours…Don’t skip them simply because they mean even more miles. Most of the time they are worth it… to the ice cream parlor up the road, the waterfall someone told you about, the hostel with the to-die-for pancakes. All only enhance the adventure.
Take care of your body, listen to it, treat it with the respect you would give a cherished heirloom. I knew of people who were slightly injured and pushed on and pushed on and pushed on and then, hurt themselves more and had to give it all up. Is it really necessary to do 25 miles? Must you get “there” before dark? Pushing yourself once in a while is fine, but everyday? It’s a recipe for disaster. Rest, relax, take your shoes off, soak your feet in the stream, SIT and enjoy a snack, give your aching muscles time away from your pack. You owe it to yourself. A strong mind isn’t enough–it’s impossible without a healthy body too!
Try not to abandon your life and especially, all the important people in it. Walking the AT for months will CONSUME you, it will find its way into every moment of everyday and it will be easy to lose touch with, or take for granted the special people in your life. Your free time will be precious and you may be tempted to keep it all to yourself, but don’t. Call your friends, family, those people that are special to you.
Talk to strangers! The boy scout troop, school group, family of 5, well-dressed tourist standing at the overlook two feet from his mercedes, loner, waitress, hostel owner, grocery store patron.. they all have a story and are worth talking to. I was continually inspired by them and found joy in conversations with people whose lives crossed paths with mine, even if they were as different from me as humanly possible.
Don’t be married to the shelters. Perhaps I went a bit too far the other way, but I found such joy in camping, in laying in my tent at night surrounded by the gentle goings-on of the forest and stepping out in the morning, freshly rested and anxious to see what the day had in store. Sometimes solitude prefaces insight.
Don’t drink the water in Millinocket. I know folks in Millionocket will not love this but I feel I must mention it. There were four in my group, with two, who were not even thru-hiking but were simply there for support. They never drank ANY water from a stream or river or any water that we treated with our steri-pens but all four of us got giardia! The only explanation is that we all got it from drinking water in one of the restaurants in town. On my second trip to Millinocket, odd as it seemed, I used my steri-pen in every restaurant. And I was giardia free.
Notice nature. There truly is beauty everywhere, but sometimes you really have to look to see it. Find beauty in each and everyday, even the rainy and cold and windy days, the hot days. Most of the places you see you will never return to so memorize them, savor them, take time to sit and absorb the music unique to that single spot in the world. You can hear it if you listen.
My best equipment advice? A steri-pen. What a fabulous invention! Nothing like a cold, fresh drink of water from a mountain stream! There’s no waiting time, no work and no chemical aftertaste or artificial flavors. Just pure cold water. The small one only weighs 4 ounces! Buy the batteries ahead of time and send them to yourself to avoid being stuck paying outrageous prices at local outfitter’s. (Read more here.)
Make sure you have things to look forward to. Even if they are as simple as a chocolate bar, pack of skittles or cold soak in a forest pool, an ice cream in town or phone call to a friend. Make meals a celebration instead of a routine. Have something everyday, even if it is only the two minutes of silence before you drift off to sleep. Some days that thing may be the only thing that keeps you going.
In your moments of doubt, picture yourself at the finish line, wherever that happens to be for you. Imagine yourself there. Make it as clear as a photograph in your mind that you can recall at any moment you want. Let it be your driving force, your source of inspiration, your motivation to KEEP ON WALKING.
When you consider quitting, always sleep on it before making any decisions. Your mind will be clearer in the morning, things will not look so bad, you will realize YOU ARE CAPABLE, just like all of those who have walked before you. Imagine me and all those who have made it, walking right along with you. You are never alone, a part of each and every one of us is there with you always. Use us to lean on. We are a big group! And we are strong and powerful and capable of amazing feats.
Be aware that a good traveling companion is hard to find, and even harder to keep. And a lot more is required than familiarity. Experiences shared increase their value tenfold. The benefits of a good companion far outweigh any possible inconveniences and the only price you will really pay is more laughter, more pleasure, more joy. Few things are really and truly more fun alone. It is priceless to have someone to turn to with awe and say, “would you look at that!”
Please FEEL FREE to write to me or get in touch if you have more questions or just want to chat about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. I would love to hear from you! Contact Sharon.
If you are interested in looking at some great pictures from the Appalachian Trail, check out the book published by Rizzoli called The Appalachian Trail. They bought 56 of my photos to use in the book!