I started my Appalachian Trail thru hike two years ago on March 24, 2017. I heard about the AT six months prior when I was reeling from a blindside divorce, desperate for a huge change. It only took a few weeks of Googling to reconfigure everything in my life to make it happen.
The 2200 mile hike required every ounce of my mind, body, and spirit to finish. The rewards were more than worth the effort. Thru hiking is all-consuming, in preparation and execution. The experience sunk into my bones like nothing else I’ve ever known. It would an understatement to say I think about it daily.
Sometimes it feels so huge–so far outside my typical life–it’s almost like it couldn’t really have happened; like my memories are actually fantasies.
Open the Flood Gates
Mid-March to Mid-April is the traditional starting season for northbound AT hikers (traveling in the direction of Georgia to Maine). This timeframe limits severe winter weather in the southern mountains while allowing time to reach Baxter State Park in Maine before it closes in October.
Around this time of year, the internet fills with stories and pictures of thru hikers starting their grand adventures. Considering how eager I am to launch into Appalachian Trail talk, I found it surprisingly difficult to follow thru hikers on social media last year (my first anniversary). I assumed I’d feel a jolt of excitement seeing familiar places, vicariously recalling the classic “firsts”. Perhaps even some homesickness.
I could read general AT content, but following specific hikers bummed me out too much to continue. The flood of pictures caused something unexpected: a blunt bitterness.
I sincerely wish the best in health and heartiness for every thru hiker (except the guys who are seemingly only there to instigate competition; they can fuck right off), and I had no problem tracking several friends along the Pacific Crest Trail. So what was my issue with AT hikers?
Take a Look in the Mirror
I’ve learned that when something makes me uncomfortable, it’s probably because I’m avoiding dealing with some related personal stuff. I spent so much of my hike envisioning how I’d carry my newfound passion for life going forward, but I had yet to capitalize on any of it. I saw new hikers as having all the potential in the world at their feet.
Simply put, I was jealous and had no clue how to handle it. It’s common for folks returning from travel or adventure to struggle conveying the magnitude of their experience to others. This can lead to isolation. I spent a lot of time reading about post-trail depression. It’s a real thing.
In many ways, transitioning back to normal life was more challenging than the actual hike*. I was living with my parents (fortunate to have them), broke, spinning wheels waiting for my summer work contract to start.
After undergoing seismic personal changes, I was back in my childhood home. Wearing the same clothes from before the hike, falling into the same old routines. I knew it was all temporary, but I still felt trapped in between my former life and the one I wanted.
And here were all these fresh-faced hikers on Instagram with their shiny new gear and smiles full of hope and optimism.
I worried that talking about it would make me sound selfish and ungrateful of my privileged experience. What right did I have to be jealous of anyone for anything? It was even scarier to admit I felt disappointed in myself for stagnating, after so publicly celebrating my success only six months prior.
I’ve since spoken with several former thru hikers who’ve gone on AT social media blackouts. We each have our own reasons, but it’s good to know I wasn’t alone in struggling to celebrate. Letting my guilt subside allowed me to take a sober look at the whole situation.
This year, I’m throwing myself into the online AT and hiking communities as much as possible. I’ve already connected with more queer outdoorsfolk than ever before. Squirreling myself away during this exciting season doesn’t help me confront self-judgment, and it certainly doesn’t honor all the work I’ve done the past two years.
I’m currently following a couple dozen hikers, highly enjoying watching dreams their dreams come to fruition.
As familiar sights pop up–views, shelters, hostels–it is fascinating to feel intense nostalgia for places I’ve been exactly one time. The entire Appalachian Trail is like home even though you’re constantly on the move. I’ll see an Instagram photo of a random fire pit that looks identical to every other fire pit, and somehow I remember exactly who I was with and what we talked about that spot. Couldn’t tell you what I ate last weekend. Brains are so weird.
Sometimes I still get a bittersweet tinge. Particularly on days I’m feeling stuck in my writing or bored by routine. Then I remind myself that my success (or failure) is neither affected nor determined by the success of others. This is easy to forget in a capitalistic, social media-driven society where you’re constantly prompted to one-up others and yourself.
If you’re intrigued by thru hiking or backpacking, I highly recommend following some hikers this season. Now’s a great time to start. The Trek features a bunch of ways to play along. Podcasts, blogs, profile pieces, gear trends, you name it. I’m particularly excited top cheer for southbound hiker Appalachian Gail, an utterly badass self-proclaimed chronic pain warrior. You can also follow hashtags rabbit holes on Instagram like #atclassof2019.
And if you’re someone struggling to articulate a sticky web of emotions after a life-changing experience, please know you are not alone. That may not be much, but I hope it helps.