January 2, 2016 is the official day I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail (AT), however the initial seed was planted in my mind in 2003 as a college student.
My decision to hike the AT started when I was an undergraduate college student at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, where the trail passes through. It was then and there that I hiked small sections of the AT and first learned what the trail was.
After graduating I was invited by a friend to section hike a longer portion in Virginia, but was unable to go. The idea of a thru-hike (the whole trail from Georgia to Maine) rather than just a section then became more intriguing as the years went on.
After college I started my career in the field of environmental conservation working with Conservation International (CI) and the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF). Our work focused on protecting beautiful and important natural places around the world and the biodiversity in those places.
Those early years of my career working for conservation and among dedicated colleagues reinforced my love of the outdoors and the importance of spending time outside in nature in order to feel that we must be closer to nature to know, appreciate and protect it.
With CI and CEPF I was also fortunate to travel around the world to many of the great biodiversity hotspots, including Caribbean Islands, Polynesia-Micronesia, Eastern Afromontane, Wallacea, IndoBurma, the Mediterranean and the Tropical Andes. I learned that conservation is not easy. It takes a long time, it takes a lot of commitment, it takes money, it takes volunteers, and it takes people willing to work hard and tirelessly to speak for places and species that don’t have a voice. And for people working in that field or those that may come to understand conservation’s importance it requires a commitment from us to go back to nature when we can–to connect with why it is so important to protect.
The commitment, hard work and detailed nature of my colleagues and the partners we worked with at CI and CEPF, whether it be tree planting, trail building, species protection or species eradication, monitoring and evaluating projects, or simply building the capacity of organizations, made me appreciate the pioneering commitment of people that have come before and working hard to contribute to creating and protecting wild places around the world, including trails like the AT.
As the years went on I hiked and camped more and often wondered when I would finally choose to thru-hike the AT. Near the end of 2015, I reflected on my personal and professional goals and what opportunities in life I would have to do it.
In the last year I had spent many weekends hiking with friends and on my own in Maryland and Virginia sections of the trail, visiting the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and hiking Mt. Katahdin, the northern terminus of the trail with a dear friend and former AT thru-hiker, trail name “Tully.”
The more I got to know, hiked and explored with Tully, the more he shared his thru-hiking stories, anecdotes of friends met, lessons learned, beautiful places seen and personal growth on AT. For he and other thru-hikers I have since met, I have learned how defining the AT was and is to their core. For instance many of Tully’s friends who never knew him on the trail know him by his trail name Tully. We all have a version of this–stories that define us, stories that we tell over and over to ourselves and those around us because they make us proud of the person we became because of them and the person we were for choosing to have them. My interest in the AT, his stories and that trip to hike Mt. Katahdin reminded me not to overlook a dream I had thought of years ago.
I can’t underscore how impactful knowing another thru-hiker like Tully can be, if you have the itch to do one yourself. When life brings people into your life that remind you of your dreams, it is so important to recognize how lucky you are that you’ve met them. A fitting quote that comes to mind when I think of the impact it has had on me is, “You are the company in which you keep. Surround yourself with amazing friends and people that motivate you and make you strive for more.”
After hiking Katahdin in October 2015, I started to read and consume books by other AT thru-hikers, including Appalachian Trials and AWOL on the Appalachian Trail, and blogs about the AT. I connected with other thru-hikers online, through friends, in person in local hiking groups and started to consider the logistics of getting prepared in four months time to hit the trail.
In November 2015 I started to seriously consider my thru-hike. On January 2, 2016 I started writing my annual goal list for the year, a tradition I started five years ago. On that list I wrote, “Hike the AT in 2016 or 2017.” I then crossed out 2017 and I gave myself 30 minutes to write a list of reasons to thru-hike this year rather than delaying any longer:
-to reset my priorities.
-to get to know myself better.
-to reconnect with why I work in conservation.
-to use my body for the physical challenges and limits it is capable of.
-to have an unshakable confidence in myself unlike ever before.
-to have a greater understanding and appreciation of the importance of conservation and environmental stewardship.
-to turn a daydream about moving, walking, being in nature for an extended period of time into a reality.
-to take advantage of a window of time in my life when I’m healthy and so is my immediate family when I can do this.
-to see the seasons change before me everyday.
-to see the mountains of Smokies, the Shenandoahs, and the Whites.
-to sleep outside for 6 months–how many people get that chance?
-to step outside the comforts of my wonderful, yet comfortable, life.
-to see parts of the United States I have never seen.
-to seek a beautiful, enriching and life changing experience in the woods.
-to be even more positive, contented and determined to live a good, purposeful, minimalist and meaningful life.
-to gain new skills in the backcountry (cooking, camping, hiking, and mental toughness) that will make me a stronger and better person for the rest of my life
-to have a greater discipline for how to use my time and set positive routines (eg wake early, sleep early and long, fret little, live with self purpose)
-to know that I have given myself the greatest gift one can give to oneself–time, space and a trail to get to know who you are, who you want to be and how to get yourself to be that person
-to be an example to myself, my family, friends, colleagues and future partner and children that following your dreams is worth the effort, the struggle, the commitment
-to become a better, stronger person with the pursuit of a big challenge!
-to know that I’ll never have to say, “Remember when I was 33 and I considered hiking the AT; and then I didn’t do it. Why didn’t I do it? There wasn’t really anything so important that I couldn’t do it.”
I scheduled a call with Zach Davis, writer of Appalachian Trials and founder of a website by the same name. Zach helped me to talk through my reasons and the practicalities of planning with only 3.5 months before my planned start date, April 2, 2016.
After getting my lists together, talking to Zach and feeling like I had read the basics of what I would need to know to start planning I decided that I would start in April 2016! And then I told my work, my friends and my family.
The last four months of planning have been a whirlwind that most they hikers go through-transitions with work and my apartment, getting new medical insurance, establishing, testing and finalizing my gear, getting a blog set up, saying goodbye and thank you to so many friends.
One thing I wasn’t fully prepaed for was the love and support I’ve received since telling people my plans. My family, friends, colleagues, roommate, landlord, strangers at coffeeshop sand gear shops, the Sounds of the Trail podcast, books and blogs, former and future thru-hikers on the trail, soccer teammates and more have offered advice and contacts of people they know who have done it. Anyone I told about the adventure had a positive response or helpful questions, advice to offer, or friends to connect me with.
While I made the decision to hike, I have learned the journey to the first step of my AT thru-hike is truly a team effort. Thank you to all of you who have and continue to support me.