I didn’t think it would end this way. But I guess no one who takes that first step at Springer ever does. For the second time in four months, I’m leaving my home.
I sat down at Fullhardt Knob Shelter five miles outside of Daleville, Virginia to take lunch one hot, soupy day. I had signal, so I decided to do some number checking. In the next half hour, the truth that I would not be able to finish the Appalachian Trail this summer was slowly, but inexorably, revealed.
The truth of the matter is that I’m out of money, and out of time. I budgeted both far too optimistically, envisioning the best-case scenario for each, and my hike was not the best-case scenario. It’s no secret that I’ve been spending money pretty generously… Hostel stays, meals in town, slackpacking, and most expensively, replacement gear, ate away considerably more than I anticipated. It’s also no secret that I haven’t been making the miles necessary to get to Maine before it freezes solid considering an April start and over three weeks spent back home. Although I made the realization that I probably would not be able to make it to Katahdin this summer in Daleville, I still planned to make it as far as I could on what money I had. What really did me in was an incident further down the trail which, for the privacy of all involved, I won’t go into great detail about. But I can state the generalities as vaguely as possible while still telling the story. After an injury, I was slackpacking from a hostel. The owner of this hostel allowed me to use a spare car of his. This is not uncommon on the trail, as it’s easier to allow a hiker to use a car than it is to arrange to pick them up. I had finished my hike for the day and was driving back on a dark, foggy night. A deer jumped out into the road no more than ten feet in front of the vehicle, and try as I might, I couldn’t avoid hitting it without careening off the side of the mountain into a ravine. I plowed right into it. The deer, though alive, was obviously not going to survive the night, so I pulled out my .45 and put two bullets in its head to end its suffering before calling the owner of the vehicle. Although still drivable, the car sustained serious damage, and I decided to man up and volunteer to pay for the damage, or at least part of it. I had no idea what I would be getting myself into. The owner, to his credit, was fair with me, which is one reason why I’m trying to stay reasonably discreet. I didn’t have to eat the entire cost of the repair, but it’s an example of how doing the right thing doesn’t always have a positive outcome. At least I can sleep at night, though. But at any rate, I knew my trip was over. I could afford to make it to Harper’s Ferry and then home, which is what I did.
There were other factors at play as well. Exhaustion, homesickness, loneliness, etc. all starred a role. But none of those things would have taken me off the trail. I hiked over three hundred miles on intermittently bleeding feet, and the last hundred and twenty or so were on a sprained ankle as well. As awful as it sounds, that stuff really didn’t bother me much. As I said in my last post, there is glory in the hardship.
By the time you read this, I’ll already back in Georgia, and will have been for some time. When I decided to suspend this trip, I did it on the condition that I would be back next summer to finish. I’ve invested and sacrificed so much for this trail, and dreamed of doing this for so long, that there’s no way I could live with myself if I left the northern half undone, which is why I chose Harper’s Ferry for my jumping off point. It’s the traditional and emotional halfway point of the trail, and a perfect place to start back next year.
On one hand, I hate it. I failed. I fell short of a goal that I set for myself, and did so in a very public manner, two things I greatly dislike. Even when I complete the next 1,150 miles next summer, it’ll still never be a thru-hike, defined by the ATC as completing the trail in one calendar year. I didn’t discipline myself hard enough to accomplish the task at hand with the resources I had available. It’s probably something that’ll bother me on some level for the rest of my life. I’m one of the 80% of would-be thru-hikers who don’t make Katahdin in a single season. I hate being a statistic. I’m already deeply disappointed in myself, and I know that the post-trail depression is going to be a real problem. I feel like I’ve let everyone down, especially the ones who supported, encouraged, and believed in me from the beginning. And I feel like I’ve validated those who said I couldn’t do it.
On the other hand, it might be one of the best things that could possibly happen to me. I learned an excruciatingly hard (in SO many ways) set of lessons in logistics, planning, preparedness, and discipline. I also will have a renewed sense of appreciation for the trail when I return – absence makes the heart grow fonder, after all. In my last few weeks on the trail, I’d begun to become inured to the beauty and wonder of this place, and that, to me, is unacceptable, because the mountains, this entire land, some of the loveliest places in all Creation, deserve nothing less than the fullest attention and appreciation. Some time back in the man-made world will give me a new set of eyes. I’ll be able to set out in much better shape, carry far lighter and newer gear, and start earlier.
And regardless, it goes without saying that this experience has been one whole hell of a ride. You all know, you’ve been there with me. You’ve partaken in as much of this trail as I could properly convey to you. You, my readers, however many of you there are, have had a taste of the unfathomable beauty, the wrenching hardship, and the occasionally real danger. I’m not sure I was able to convey to you more than a fraction of what I was thinking and feeling when I was out there, but I did my best.
Everyone has to leave this place eventually. One of the earliest lessons you learn on the trail is that it isn’t just a trail – it’s a community. The Appalachian Trail is America’s strangest small town – twelve to eighteen inches wide, and twenty-two hundred miles long, counting as well the dozens of shelters, hostels, outfitters and small-town gas stations that make the trail what it is. It’s got a population of a few hundred to a few thousand people, peaking during the spring thru-hiker bubble and waning during the cold mountain winter. But no one can live here permanently, although some have tried. I met several dozen hikers who were on their second, third, or even fourth thru-hike or thru-hike attempt. Some of us have lived here longer than others, but it’s a short-term proposition by its nature. Some folks just pass through for the day, some stay awhile. But there are no natives here, no locals. It’s nobody’s hometown. One of the few things that every single one of us has in common is that we all have to leave. And for me, the time to leave this town is now. There’s no place, no culture, no experience even remotely like it anywhere else on earth, and to say that I’m sad to go is an understatement. As hard as the last few weeks were, I already miss it terribly.
People will ask me if this experience changed me. My answer is, and always will be, an unequivocal yes. Every place you visit, every new experience you have, will leave its mark on you. But some experiences leave such a mark as to totally transform you into someone noticeably different than who you were before, and that’s what the Appalachian Trail has done for me.
The simple act of spending all of your time outdoors and playing your role in the rhythms of the living system of the woodlands, will change you.
Being surrounded daily by life, beauty, and grandeur, as opposed to the dead, lifeless walls of the man-made world, will change you.
Simplifying your life to the point that your only tasks are walking, and doing things to assist your walking, will change you.
Learning how to take joy in the smallest and most humble of pleasures – an open spot in a shelter, water that isn’t too far off the trail, a nice flat space to pitch your tent, an unexpected granola bar – will change you.
Dealing with adversity, especially the curveballs – a harder climb than you expected, a thunderstorm that wasn’t predicted, a closed post office in town – and continuing your hike anyway, without it derailing you logistically or emotionally, will change you.
Learning to become comfortable with discomfort, whether it’s hunger, pain, weather, injuries, gear failures, hard terrain, or whatever else the trail throws at you, and forging ahead without letting it break your spirit, will change you.
Seeing God’s power laid out before you in the raw, stark form of a mountain thunderstorm will change you. My faith is stronger than it’s ever been, because I’ve seen His hand in both the power and the glory of the world He created, and also in how He protected me from it.
And maybe what changed me most of all… embracing the community of the trail and allowing myself to become part of this little town of vagabonds and gypsies, embracing the hiker trash lifestyle, and reveling in all the good, bad, and weird that brings us misfits together.
The people I’ve met out here are some of the best I’ve ever known. There are bad apples, to be sure. But they’re always the exception, never the rule. Kindness, generosity, authenticity, hospitality, and just plain decency are in abundant supply. Life-altering, paradigm-shifting conversations can be had with someone you’ve only known a few hours. As long as everyone is treating each other well and respecting the land, there is no judgment. We recognize that we’re all a little bit cracked on some level to be attempting an odyssey like this, so who are we to say what’s weird about someone or what isn’t? The idea of trail names allows us to truly be ourselves, or maybe what we see as ourselves. Back here, I’m Alex Bryant – responsible, ambitious, type-A, goal-oriented, somewhat law abiding citizen. But out there, I’m Mountain Goat – anti-authoritarian, reckless, free-thinking, goat-skull-toting, bear-fighting unwashed hiker trash, and damn proud of it.
Allowing that side of ourselves to flourish behind the relative anonymity of a trail name makes for the realest people you’ll ever meet. The culture will rub off on you, and that’s a good thing.
Like I said before, everyone has a time they have to leave this town, and this is mine. It’s not how I wanted it at all. I was supposed to walk proudly down from Katahdin with this journey completed, my goal achieved, and be able to move on. But that’s not how it happened. The good news is, the trail isn’t going anywhere. I’ve been bitten by the bug in a way that I never thought I would be, and now I have to come back. I’ve gone too far to leave this journey unfinished. If I don’t complete it, it will eat at me the rest of my life. Even if I were completely burned out on hiking and didn’t want to take another step on the Appalachian Trail, I would still do whatever it takes to finish, because I can’t live with the idea of leaving an endeavor of this magnitude undone. But I DO want to see the rest of the trail. There’s another thousand miles of experiences to have, vistas to see, and people to meet. I still have yet to hike the hardest, wildest miles of the trail – the White Mountains, the Mahoosucs, the Hundred Mile Wilderness, and of course, Katahdin. And beautiful. Some of my friends who flip-flopped have been posting pictures, and gosh, is Maine ever gorgeous.
Tentatively, my plan is to leave next May to finish the northern half. I’ll drive up to Trail Days in Damascus, perform trail magic all along the hiker bubble, stay at some of my favorite hostels, find a place to leave my car long-term near Harper’s Ferry, and start hiking north. I say tentatively only because a lot can change between now and then, and I still may not be able to raise the funds to dig myself out of this year’s debt hole, even if I work full time.
But if the good Lord is willing and the Creek don’t rise, as my grandmother says, I’ll be out there next spring.
In the meantime, I plan to stay connected with the trail community as much as I can. I want to join the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club and do trail maintenance. Given my background in wilderness search & rescue, I’d love to join either the GATC or Appalachian Long Distance Hiker Association search & rescue team, searching for lost hikers. I plan to do lots of trail magic, too. In another month or so, you can expect to see me with my Tahoe parked at Unicoi or Dick’s Creek Gap with a grill fired up and a case of beer on ice, feeding the SOBOs finishing up their hikes from Maine. And I’ll be back out on the trail myself, too. As soon as I can afford new gear, I plan to spend at least a weekend back out on the Georgia section.
I’ll probably spend most of the next six months working, but I do plan to do as many long-distance hikes as I can to test out my gear and keep my trail legs as best I can.
I may keep this blog going if there’s enough interest in it, since I’ll have a lot to talk about with what I plan to do in the above paragraph. There are also more stories from this past summer that I believe deserve to be told, even though they may not be fresh anymore.
To those who supported me, be it financially, morally, or spiritually, I thank you. You had nothing to gain from what you did other than see me work to achieve my dream, and that’s no small thing. If you’ve donated to my GoFundMe page recently, what remains in that account will be put towards paying down the debt of this year’s hike. I want to extend a huge thanks again to everyone who contributed.
I want to thank the ones who continually encouraged me from the start of this adventure until now. The Mellowship crew, my search & rescue family, Reinhardt University faculty, staff, and fellow alums, my church friends, and many more of you never stopped praying for me and believing in me. I’m sorry if I’ve let you down, but I wouldn’t have made it this far without you.
I especially want to give a shoutout to the ones who came and saw me on the trail, whether it was for a few hours, an evening, or longer. Joe Satterfield and family, y’all were a big help and encouragement in the early days when I was trying to get my trail legs underneath me. Robert and Travis… it wouldn’t be an adventure without you two, and I’m so grateful you were both able to hike with me and get a taste of my life out here. Connie and Peter Miller, thank you both for taking the time out of your schedule and adding hours to an already-long drive to help me get a decent dinner and to a place to shower. It all adds up, and I’m glad all of you had a chance to be part of this adventure with me.
And more than anyone else, I want to thank my support crew back home – Kayla, the work you did on pushing me to go through with this blog and then building it for me helped give myself purpose for this trip by allowing me to craft a narrative that turned a long walk into a truly epic journey. You stayed by my side, even in the lonely days when we couldn’t talk for weeks on end, and never once talked of splitting up. You sacrificed your scant weekend time and days off work to drive up and join me when you had no obligation to do so. And most importantly, your love for me and your constant support were a light for me on the darkest of days. You are truly the best I could ask for.
And of course, I couldn’t have done this without my parents. Mom, for being my one-woman logistics team, calling in hostel reservations and shuttles when you knew I didn’t have signal, for packing meals and planning food drops, for the advice, for making sure I was fed, clothed, and housed even from hundreds of miles away, for really… everything. And Dad, for researching replacement gear options, keeping me up to date on the weather, and keeping me updated on things back home, among much, much else. There is truly too much to list.
And finally, my trail family. It was you, all of you, that made this trip the adventure it was. Without the community of the trail, I was just a guy walking in the woods. Almost all of my favorite memories have at least a few of you in them. I learned SO much from each one of you – some of you come from backgrounds and hold views radically different from my own, and that’s beautiful. The conversations I had with some of you truly expanded my horizons and allowed me to view the world with a different set of eyes, and that’s an education that can’t be taught in any school.
In order of appearance: Whojo, Twinkie, Giant, The Dude, Smokey Jr, Trek, Feelgood, The Counselor, Shatterproof, Giant, Mustard Seed, Longspoon, Silly Sparkles, Fabulous, Padfoot, Grits, Bird, Drew Carey, Ranger, Elsa, Bambi, Blaze, Littlefoot, Sass, Supertramp, Newman, McQueen, Yogi, Skeeter, Captain Planet, Library, Rainbow Mama, Beehive, November, Fire, Lost & Found, the Raven, Lorax, Sota, Merlin, Gandalf, Friar Tuck, Violet, Hops, Trenchfoot, Magic Man, Rebar, Clarity, Exterminator, and everyone else; I was blessed to meet all of you. Some of you I hiked with longer than others, but all of you made an impact on my trip. I hope to stay in touch with all of you. If you’re ever down in the Atlanta area or really anywhere in north Georgia, hit me up. I mean that. If you wanna do some hiking and sightseeing, or just meet up and grab a beer, hit me up. There’s no family like trail family, let’s keep that vibe alive.
I’ll conclude with this. I still stand by the things I said at the beginning of this journey. Although I failed, I believe I’m a better man for trying. This was still a worthwhile endeavor, and I still gained tremendously from it. I just have to work a little harder now to finish achieving my goal. This, in itself, is a lesson to be learned. When we strike out to follow what we know deep in our souls is the right path, it will rarely be easy. There will be mountains in the way. Rivers to be crossed. Things that threaten to upend our journey at every turn.
But that doesn’t mean that the path isn’t worth following, in fact, quite the opposite. It is the hardships and the setbacks that make the final prize that much sweeter. Nothing worth achieving comes easily, so embrace it. Embrace the pain, embrace the struggle, knowing that every step you take when you want nothing more than to turn back is what forges the iron of your soul into something that will take a true edge, and cut through future challenges like a sword through a sunbeam.
My advice to all of you stays the same. Dare greatly. Find that thing that terrifies you, inspires you, takes your breath away, and go do it. Whether you make it or not, you’re better for having tried. One of my favorite quotes from Theodore Roosevelt goes something like this, and has helped me cope with the feelings of failure that I’ve been experiencing since I got off the trail:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
And lastly, I admonish you to make time to explore the wild places. Climb the high mountains, and let the air wash your soul clean. Feel the freedom flowing through your veins, and gain the clarity of mind that can only be found in the wilderness. Time spent in the woods is never time wasted. I’ll be back out there again before too much longer. I hope to see you there.