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I Hiked the Appalachian Trail, 2,200 Miles and Still So Far To Go

Appalachian Trail

I’m celebrating. (And by celebrating I mean writing this post.)

Today is an anniversary, of sorts.

Two years ago, I started a walkabout on the Appalachian Trail. I started in Georgia, looped up to Maine, and finished in Virginia. I walked a distance that would stretch between Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.

Two years ago, I hugged my husband like I wanted to pull him into me and take him too. He didn’t come but he sent all the love I could possibly carry — it was my compulsion to do this, not his.

I had quit my job, and this was in my head. I couldn’t get rid of it. I couldn’t not do it. It was a calling, a vocation. It became part of me and part of who I was before I even started walking.

Appalachian Trail
At the start of the Appalachian Trail, Amicalola Falls, GA
It took four months. I was mostly alone and walked around 25 miles a day. Like most journeys, this one continued long after I finished. The topic is overwhelming; there are many things to discuss. Why did I go, what did I learn, superlative questions like what was the funniest moment, the scariest, etc. There is a longer story, but I haven’t written it yet. I can’t, not yet.
This blog is not my therapist, nor my confessional. I write about things I’ve processed, (i.e. the emotional stress has gone, and I can approach it in a detached, thoughtful manner). I share in the hopes that others might learn, not for catharsis. It’s been two years, but I haven’t processed much, which limits my subject matter. When I think about the Trail, I feel emotions, not thoughts. Thoughts I cannot put to words.
 But I knew this anniversary was coming, so I’ve forced the thought process. And one emerged, but it’s inchoate (and will have echoes of catharsis, I apologize). Now, however, after two years, I can definitively name the hardest part of the journey. Without doubt.

The hardest thing about hiking the Appalachian Trail is living in a world where I’m no longer hiking the Appalachian Trail. 

The Appalachian Trail is more than an extreme test of endurance: it’s an abrupt and complete lifestyle change. You bring a 35-pound pack to the woods, carry your food and shelter, re-wear clothes. You bathe in streams, filter water, sleep in the forest, and wake up every day, thinking “I’m alive! Time for dried oatmeal.”

This is your new life, one you are plunged into like an ice bath. And it lasts forever. And then longer.

It is what you do — it is all you do. And you adapt, you normalize. For me, the biggest success was not finishing it. It was the person I became in order to finish it.

Appalachian Trail
Bounding through New Jersey with alacrity and energy.

As I harmonized with myself and my surroundings, my priorities shifted, distractions abated. I had a singular mission: to move forward and realize my potential. I felt powerful and action-oriented. Ambitious. I thrived. I don’t know if this was self-actualization or just complete focus in the absence of distraction. It felt like a perfect state of harmony, a stability even, something I’m not often used to.

It was so intense, in fact, that I forgot I was ever not in this state.

And I liked it so much I promised I’d always be in this state. Of course, I was forgetting one very important thing: the Trail would end. This “me 2.0” would end.

Thru-hikers feel a great loss upon finishing. For me, it was more than that. I didn’t just miss the Trail, I felt paralyzed without it. Without this challenge compelling me to greatness, I fell and fell hard. I found myself indifferent, lazy, unfocused, useless, and restless. I had accomplished this amazing feat, but I was in a worse mental state than before I began.

Everyone goes through periods where they rise to a challenge and become the best versions of themselves. And in the best of the best versions, you might just achieve flow. It’s like a healthy drug, and like a drug it can’t last. It’s not a permanent state, nor should it be. I can go back to the woods, but for what? A life spent in the woods?

I know this. I say the words: It can’t always be like this, don’t be ridiculous. But that doesn’t fill my sadness or disappointment. I’ve seen what I’m capable of and no longer being that tears me apart. I can’t find a version of the Trail in my normal, everyday life. Because normal everyday life cannot be like that. It’s not sustainable.

Yes I realize I’m still the same person who did this.

My capabilities didn’t go away. I need outside stimulus, nothing wrong with that. I’ll find another perfect-state-inducing challenge and (hopefully) rise to that too. This is what I should focus on. But to be honest — and I’m always honest with you if nothing else, dear reader — I’m not there yet. Not entirely.

I’ll work on that and check back April 3rd, 2015. We’ll see.

Funny how you can walk 2,300 miles, return to your life, think you’re home, and only then realize, sigh, you still have so far to go.

Appalachian Trail
Me at the finish line of the Appalachian Trail. Because I flip-flopped, this finish was in the Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia. 2,300 miles
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