Happy Appalachian Trailversary

Yesterday, March 24th, marked the four year anniversary of beginning my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. 14 states, 2200 miles, 5.5 months. I still think about it most hours of most days.

My first steps on the trail in Amicalola Falls State Park, fresh-faced, blissfully ignorant, massively overdressed.

Big Moments occasionally pop to mind, like my first steps on the trail in Georgia, bundled up like I was heading into the Arctic even though it was a mild spring morning, or when my parents visited me at the halfway mark in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, and I hiked with my mom for the first time. Or the utterly inexplicable sensation of touching the famous sign atop Mount Katahdin in Maine, and realizing holy fuck I actually made it.

The foggy finish line.

More often, my daydreaming drifts to smaller-scale, intimate moments.

Like waking up the second morning and realizing it was already the furthest I’d ever backpacked.

Sharing stories about life back home around a campfire with relative strangers who knew my deepest insecurities.

Setting up my tent during a fierce mountain rainstorm while night set in.

The rare opportunity to swap trail stories with another queer hiker.

Chainsmoking with a table of war veterans in a biker bar off a long gravel road.

Foraging for wild blueberries with my friends and realizing that 100 yards away, a momma bear and her cubs had the exact same idea.

Hitchiking with a badass female pastor, and a New Yorker who told me I smelled like shit, and a semitruck driver with too much Duck Dynasty merch, and a Korean family touring the American countryside, and a good ol’ boy who offered me a cigarette which I accidentally flicked onto a hiker in the back seat.

Seeking out backcountry fried chicken like a homing missile.

Laying in my tent for nearly 24 straight hours during a thunderstorm, lancing blisters set under calluses and reading Stephen King’s IT to pass the time.

Encountering my first moose, never having seen something so massive outside of a zoo.

Teaching a middle-aged lady how to load a pipe so she could assist with her elderly father’s medical marijuana treatment when she got home.

Meeting a man called Toe on a hotel balcony, named for his severed ring toe which he mounted in amber and wore as a necklace. He gave me a Snickers which I gladly ate.

A quiet moment alone by a lake, realizing it was time to let go of the venom I was bottling up from the divorce that instigated my hike, and giving myself a huge bearhug, wanting no one else’s company in the whole world but my own.

I journaled every night on the trail. (Well, nearly every night. Sometimes I passed out as soon as I laid down. The walls of my tent near my head were full of pen marks where my hand drifted off the page.) When I read the entires now, it fills me with warm nostalgia and extreme homesickness.

Re-reading the journal also makes me question whether I’ve lived up to the potential I set for myself by completing the hike. Thru-hiking is all about momentum; constantly putting one foot in front of the next and rarely looking back. For understandable reasons, my personal momentum ground to a halt in 2020 and I’m struggling to reignite it.

I’ve got a long list of things I wish I had accomplished during quarantine. I should have finished my book. I should have put more legwork into finding remote, safe places to hike while I was laid off for most of last year. I should have written at least one post on this blog I mean my God it’s just a blog post

Historically, I’m garbage at offering myself grace. I made huge progress towards being my own cheerleader on the AT, especially during painful, rainy, sloggy stretches where it was easy to beat myself up for not covering more ground.

As with most important lessons, treating myself with kindness is something I need to re-learn again and again and again.

So in honor of my fourth trailversary, I want to remind myself how thoroughly my life has changed in the intervening years.

Since completing the Appalachian Trail I have:

Learned how to paint houses.

Lived with my parents in my 30’s in my childhood bedroom, which, much as I love and appreciate my parents, was harder and more humbling than almost anything on the trail.

Worked two summers as a Tour Director in Alaska, the best professional use of my skills and interests I have yet to find.

Spent a winter house sitting in Fairbanks, Alaska where I helped to develop an after school theatre curriculum for two low-income schools.

Traveled to 32 states for work in the span of 6 months, hiking as often as possible in so many places I’d never been.

Day hiked on 3 famous American long trails: Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and the Arizona Trail.

Snowshoed, cross country skied and downhill skied.

Revisited the AT in Pennsylvania and the Smoky Mountains.

Written 8 chapters of my Appalachian Trail book. I’m halfway through a full manuscript, currently working on a chapter about owning my queer identity on the trail.

Wrote a horror play that I absolutely love and cannot wait to see fully realized one day.

Made it through a cancer scare, major surgery, and two months of near-continuous bedrest (a thematically perfect start to 2020).

Moved to Missoula, Montana last fall to ride out the pandemic by exploring some new-to-me wilderness, and unexpectedly met a wonderful man who treats me like I’m the greatest treasure he could find.

Overnight solo hike in Bitterroot National Forest, northwestern Montana.
Christmas in Whitefish, Montana (wearing the same jacket as my first two months on the AT!)

Reading over this list, I feel two major things: pride in myself for pushing my boundaries, and confidence that within a few weeks I will forget all of it and spend at least one restless night tossing and turning over my stunted potential.

My current life goal is to honor how much I’ve accomplished without needing to hike thousands of miles or earn a paycheck from a dream job to prove my self-worth. We’ll see how it goes.

Thanks for reading. It’s been too long.

2 thoughts on “Happy Appalachian Trailversary

  1. You are an inspiration Jake! You brought smiles and warmth to all that met you in Alaska – where I met you as a tour director. You are an amazing person with huge insight! So proud of you. Be good to yourself and keep pushing forward to whatever your dreams are!
    Hope to meet again-
    Wendy Close


  2. Very nice reflections on your hiking experience, and life thereafter… Glad to hear that lots of good things have come your way, hopefully softening the more challenging events along the way.


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