Roads Rivers and Trails

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Reflection on a Thru-hike

One Year Reflection
I keep my eyes on the calendar, watching the days move by and watching October 11 creep closer and closer. A day that is inscribed in my memory just as much as any birthday or holiday, an occasion I can’t forget. When the calendar reaches October 11 this year, It will have been one year since I completed my northbound Appalachian Trail thru hike.
I’m not sure what emotion to feel as I think about my one year trailversary approaching. A part of me is excited to celebrate that one year mark, but more than that I’m feeling the post trail depression that I had fought so hard in those first few months after the hike creep back into my life. I’m reluctant to admit that I am one year separated from the trail, that I haven’t hitchhiked into town, eaten an absurd amount of Honey Buns, or slept in a mouse infested shelter for a full year.
Lately the trail has been on my mind more than usual, scrolling through the pictures I took a year ago and reminiscing on those genuine experiences. Not a day has gone by since I finished that I haven’t thought about the AT, the mountains I climbed, people I met, experiences I had that have shaped who I am and who I will be. But I’ve been spending more time than usual thinking about the trail as October 11 approaches. I miss the trail, I miss my trail family, I miss everything about the experience, but I’m also realizing that I can’t dwell in the past forever. At some point I need to look to the future. The trail will always be a part of my life, but I need to make it part of my future and not my past.
My first year off trail was a year of remembering, but I’m going to make my second a year of learning. The trail changed me in more ways than I realize yet, and in this second year off trail I’m going to learn how the trail has changed me and how I can utilize the lessons I learned in those 5 months for the rest of my life.
Any thru hiker will tell you that the hike changed them, but ask them how and it becomes difficult to pinpoint exactly. I know that I came off the trail more mature, more independent, more responsible. The trail deepened my appreciation for nature and instilled a whole new set of passions in me. Because of my experiences on the AT, I’ve become an obsessive backpacker, developed growing interests in climbing and kayaking, and landed every hiker’s dream job as a part time worker and full time gear junkie at RRT. Beyond that, I know that the trail changed my personality, impacted my beliefs, influenced my perceptions on the world, but I can’t put into words how it did.
I look back on the trail and think about where I was one year ago. One year ago today, the day I’m writing this, I was crossing Moxie Bald Mountain in Maine, camping beside the Piscataquis River and staring at the reflections of colorful trees in the water. I think about who I was then, and who I am now. One year ago, I never would’ve imagined where I would be today. I knew that I would be a first year student at Ohio State, but I couldn’t have known the friendships I would make or the experiences I would have here. And there is no way to know what experiences I will have in the future. But I can look to the future, and know that the AT will be part of my future, the lessons I learned on my hike will be used in college and beyond.
I’d be lying if I said thinking about the AT doesn’t bring tears to my eyes sometimes, that writing this didn’t bring tears to my eyes. I miss spending my days climbing up and down mountains with Archer and Snakebait and No Way, spending evening playing cards with Love and Ditto. I can never go back to those times, but when I start to get stir crazy from being in a city too long, I can always take a quick weekend trip down to the mountains or plan another thru hike. I know that in a year or two I might be on the John Muir Trail, and maybe a few years after that hiking from Mexico to Canada along the Pacific Crest Trail. There is always another trail to hike, and with each new trail, as with the AT, there are lessons to be learned and things to experience that will change your life.
That is the essence of a thru hike. It is a journey, a long one, that leads to self discovery. A journey that doesn’t end on top of Mt. Katahdin or on a wooded summit in Georgia. Many people hike the trail simply to learn about themselves, to rethink their lives and become a new person. Whatever your reasons for a thru hike, you will come away different, no matter how far you make it. And if you are thinking about hiking the AT, or any other long trail, I can’t recommend it enough. It is an experience that will test you in every way possible, but it is an experience that you will love and will not regret, an experience you will learn so much from. The trail is unbelievably difficult, both mentally and physically, but the journey is enjoyable every step of the way.
If you are thinking about doing something, especially a thru hike, don’t only ask yourself if the end justifies the means. If that is all you ask, the answer will be no. Also ask yourself if the means justifies the end. And for that, the answer should be yes. For it is the journey that is the reward, the final destination merely a byproduct of that journey. If you cannot enjoy the means of achieving your goal, is the goal really worth striving for?
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