By now, people have started noticing I’m back home. The ones of you who read my blog know that everything’s going according to plan, and that I’ll be back on the trail in a few days. I returned home to attend a presidential inauguration banquet at my alma mater, which was an excellent and enjoyable event and well worth the time off the trail. (Congratulations, Dr. Mallard!)
After my last post at Neels Gap, my sweet Kayla came up to bring me a food resupply and hike with me for the weekend. The weather continued to turn for the worse, dropping into the low twenties at night and the wind holding steady at about thirty miles per hour. But we had a great time nonetheless! This was Kayla’s first real backpacking trip, and in spite of the weather, she was a real trooper and kept a great positive attitude. She learned about firecraft, setting up a tent, packing a pack, and identifying wild plants, among other things. I think she’s hooked, y’all. Oh, and if anyone’s guessing, her trail name is now “Strugglebus.” You should ask her how she got it. I can’t even tell y’all how great it is to have a partner who is supportive of me doing something of this magnitude, not just offering her tacit approval, but jumping right into the adventure with me and standing by my side. That is rare.
Sunday, I dropped her off with her dad at Testnatee Gap and continued on to meet back up with my loose group at Low Gap. With the large crowds of people on the trail right now, there was a sort of carnival atmosphere at the busiest shelters. Adults smoked weed and drank whiskey while heating up dehydrated meals, kids and dogs ran through camp excited to be alive despite the cold, strains of ukulele and fiddle music mixed with campfire smoke and rose out of the valley together. Clothes of all colors and sizes dried on paracord lines strung between the trees. A hippie couple played with matching hula hoops. How they packed them in is anyone’s guess. We’re like a traveling band of nomads, rising and resting with a singular rhythm. Gypsies on foot, but with more expensive gear.
I had planned to jump off the trail Tuesday morning, the 12th, but I heard a forecast of a three-day blowing gale that would drive wind and rain through the mountains for the next half a week, and decided to accelerate my timeline. My dear friend Matthew was gracious enough to take a scenic drive up to Unicoi Gap late Monday afternoon to pick me up right as the rain began to fall.
I’m a little disappointed about how far I didn’t get. I had really hoped to make it across the state line and make up all of the miles that I did in November. But, it wasn’t to be. So far I’ve covered 52.9 miles of trail plus the approach, which brings me to 61.7 miles in.
And so ends the first leg of my trip. Cue the lights, because it’s intermission. Time to get snacks, mill around, and get ready for Act II.
If all you’re reading this for is to follow my progress on the trail, feel free to stop reading this post here, and go back to whatever you were doing. I won’t be offended in the slightest. But if you have a few minutes and you’re wondering why I’m doing what I’m doing, read on.
I’ve always believed that no matter how good the “how” of a story is, if there’s no “why,” it always falls short. This story I’m writing with my life is no different. So far everything I’ve written, and most all of what I’ll continue to write, is all “how.” But one of the most common reactions when announcing to folks that I want to do this is, why? Why do I want to take a five-month chunk out of my (all things considered, really great) life here at home, away from my beautiful girlfriend, brothers whom I love, and family who has my back? Hiking in the exact opposite direction from safety, comfort, and familiarity, into a wilderness where the weather can kill an unprepared man in half an hour even in mid-spring? Away from good food and cold beer? Away from my church, my books, and my hobbies? Some people, kindred spirits who I’ve told about this trip, don’t ask. They get it. There’s an unspoken understanding, and generally their only reaction is a fierce jealousy that they aren’t getting to come with me. But for most people, the question always comes up: Why?
Every thru-hiker has a turn of events as unique as their own fingerprint that leads them onto the trail. This is mine.
This spark was first struck when I was twelve. I day-hiked the Appalachian Trail Approach from Amicalola Falls to Springer Mountain with Boy Scouts of America Troop 241 of Canton, GA, holding the rank of Tenderfoot. At the end of our nine mile day hike, we all took a group picture at the famous bronze plaque that marks the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, the same one that makes the hearts of thousands of thru-hikers skip a beat, mine included. But that day, it was still just a plaque. I can’t remember having ever heard of the trail before that day, and I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea that someone could walk twenty-two hundred miles when my chunky prepubescent self was struggling to do less than ten with a day pack. Anyone who would do that was clearly insane. I hadn’t even set foot on the actual Appalachian Trail yet, and wouldn’t for about another two years. But from then on, I couldn’t get it out of my head. Flint and steel had struck together to make the tiniest of embers.
As I grew in years and curiosity, I discovered a passion for backpacking. I rose through the ranks of Scouting and eventually made Eagle, realizing in the process that I absolutely loved this stuff. I hiked all around the mountains of the South, spending time and burning miles in the Cohutta Wilderness, where on any given day there are more bears than people, on the Benton Mackaye trail, named for the idealistic New England visionary who first came up with the idea of a long-distance footpath along the spine of the Appalachians, and hiking my first real stretches of the AT itself. Sometimes I was with friends, but sometimes – the best times – I stood in tantalizing solitude, just me and the woods. I began to grow in stature and in skills, learning wilderness survival and edible plants, the ways of the hunt and the habits of the wild animals, and the name of every tree on every ridge. How to skin a buck and run a trotline, as the song goes. My back grew stronger and my legs grew longer. Again, the spark was thrown, hotter and brighter than ever.
But this time, I could wrap my mind around it. Instead of seeing the trail as something unattainable, that was only something that others would do and I would read about, I began to picture myself being the thru-hiker, the one people called crazy. This was doable. This could happen. It was going to happen. The flame caught.
Then college happened. I bec
ame civilized. I learned how to tie a tie, get straight A’s, speak in public, hobnob at charity dinners, write essays, and craft a perfect resume. And the damnable thing was, I was good at it, and I loved it. College truly was one of the best times of my life. To this day and forever more, Reinhardt University will always be home. I was elected Student Body President my senior year, and I graduated with two shiny degrees, a B.S. in Business Administration, and a B.A. in History. I was constantly told things like “You’re on track for a great future if you play your cards right” or “If you work hard and focus you could have a killer career.” I lost focus, and the flame flickered. I became obsessed with what people told me “success” was. I hungered and thirsted for money, status, and upward mobility. My ideal future life ceased to include a thru-hike. When corporate recruiters asked what my future plans were, I regurgitated my pre-packaged elevator speech, something to the effect of my wildest dreams including being a hardworking team player for a major market-leading sales team. I didn’t dare tell them that in the back of my mind, there was still a tiny, dying ember of a plan to walk two thousand miles to Maine.
I made one of the most tragic mistakes a man can make. I sold out.
I listened to well-intentioned professors, loving parents, and a fearful, controlling girlfriend who all told me that I had better hurry up and grab a good job as fast as I could. And here’s an important life lesson: Just because a path is right for most people, doesn’t mean it’s right for you. I am not most people. And in your own way, neither are you. The majority of the people who I allowed to talk me out of my trip, I believe, truly wanted the best for me. But what others believe is the best for you and what you know in your heart is your true path are sometimes two radically different things. In the rare times I talked of my former trail plans, I either scoffed at them as an unrealistic and irresponsible dream of youth, or spoke wistfully, as an item on my bucket list that would remain permanently unchecked. Either way, the fire was out. I picked up a shovel and buried the ashes, and went straight to work.
And that could have (and by all rights, should have) been the end of it. But for the grace of God, I could have been one of those middle-aged corporate dudes you see on weekend trips on the AT, who never fail to mention the thru-hike they almost started after college, and never went through with it. They kick themselves with every step they take down the trail, and they inflect bitterness in every story they tell, because they know they’ve worked tirelessly for decades building their own gilded prison, that is, a life which is so masterfully run and planned that it has no room for real adventure. And they can’t escape, no matter how hard they try.
The summer after I graduated and took a job, everything began to fall apart. The cracks in the surface that I had done my best to patch and ignore began to rupture. I had done everything right, I thought. I followed the path everyone told me would lead to fulfillment and happiness. That same girlfriend who had told me my thru-hike was unrealistic and irresponsible was now talking about engagement, and I was saving up for a ring. I was on track to a high-powered sales career. Everyone was congratulating me. I had it all. The future was bright.
Then the panic attacks started. Horrible, wrenching, uncontrollable, hyperventilating bouts of anxiety that could either build over the course of a day or overtake me in an instant. The depression followed shortly after, manifesting itself as anger, making me lash out hard against those around me. I self-medicated with Xanax and whatever else I could get my hands on just to function day-to-day.
I fantasized about the woods. My schedule was so tight that the best I could muster was a walk in a tiny park a few afternoons a week near my workplace, but those walks probably saved my life. I followed deer tracks, ate wild summer fruit, smelled the woods air, and tried as hard as I could to immerse myself, even if just for half an hour. I hungered for nature harder than I had ever thirsted for money, and I would have traded everything I had worked for just for the chance to tear it all down and be free. Work was stressful. I quickly came to realize my job was a dead end, and that my girlfriend was an emotionally abusive sociopath who was using me for her own gain. We broke up. (On a side note, that engagement ring fund helped pay for the trip she made me promise her I would never take. Sometimes poetic justice is a real thing.) I had believed I was walking the road to a self-made Eden, but I took a wrong turn and ended up in hell.
And then one day, on my lunch break, my moment came. God spoke, and I woke up. I realized just how precious life was, and what a damnable, awful sin it was to waste a moment of it. I calculated about how many days the average person lives. I could expect about 19,000 more from age 24. That was the day I decided to quit my job, and set fire to the life I’d built.
Everything snapped into clarity. God often allows righteous destruction so that something stronger, something good, something right, can be built on the ruins of what once was. I stayed at my job for a two more months, saving up living expenses to buy myself the freedom to figure out what to do next.
The most delicious fantasy that had kept me sane during days of getting cussed out by prospects and surviving mandatory meetings was one that involved me setting forth on the Appalachian Trail with no plans, no itinerary, and seeing just how far I could get.
Three weeks after I quit, that’s exactly what I did. I hiked 94 miles through Georgia and part of North Carolina in the crackling cold November days right before Thanksgiving. In the swirling icy fog of late winter, the nearly-dead ember of my thru-hiking dream was rekindled by the long-bearded Southbounders I met finishing up their trek from Maine. Their stories awakened my long-dormant desire to do just what they’d done. Whether they’d loved it, hated it, or both, none of them regretted it. There wasn’t a single one of them who didn’t try to talk me into it. And they were right. My excuses kept sounding flimsier and flimsier. There wasn’t a thing I had on the horizon that couldn’t wait five or six months. There are always jobs, there’s always opportunity. Nobody was depending on me anymore. I was as free as I’d ever be. By the time I stepped off the trail at Deep Gap, NC, my heart was resolved.
And so here I am. I’ve spent the last few months working temp jobs ranging from farm labor to data entry and bookkeeping. I’ve been selling my possessions, paring my life down to the bare minimum in accordance with the backpacking ethos of not taking anything with you that you don’t need. In a few days, I’ll be back at it. Before I go, you’re going to get a manifesto. Just wait for it. But right now, I’ve got to spend a few more days tying up all the remaining loose ends of my life in civilization. Talk to you soon.
Donate to my GoFundMe at https://www.gofundme.com/25kjt5jg