I think after such an extensive trip, it’s a good idea to do a debrief (in my most corporate voice) on what I learned, about the trail and about myself. Otherwise, what was the point?
What I learned About the Appalachian Trail and Backpacking in General
- You can throw out your hiking plans the minute you start. There are always going to be variables that will mess them up. It could be anything from injury, animals eating your food, a need to just get off the trail, etc. The biggest for me was weather. I started changing them and speeding up because I feared being caught in the rain. Unfortunately, almost every weather report I received and followed was wrong. It caused unnecessary grief and anxiety to try and plan for something that was unpredictable in the mountains. Just go with it and take it day by day.
- The great (and worse) thing about the AT is that you are always close to a town. This is great if you need a quick resupply or get caught in a downpour and want to do laundry. It also means you are never truly isolated and on your own. My backup plans were based on these local towns and I wouldn’t have felt safe without this close proximity. Interestingly enough, the one strange encounter I had was in a parking lot close to a town. It’s a unique double edge sword, but in the end, I appreciated the laundry back up plan for my rain anxiety.
- It’s okay if your equipment fails, as long as you are prepared to deal with it. Some things are unpredictable, see number 1. On my second leg, I could barely use my water filter. It was leaking like crazy and the original squeeze bag littered with holes. While hiking plans are impressionable, equipment back up plans are necessary. If I was out there longer, I would have made an impromptu trip to a town and splurge on a new one. I came prepared though, and brought some chemical treatment tablets.
- Not everyone on the trail is an equipment junkie competitive speed thru hiker, but most are and that’s okay. When I did part of the Shenandoah last year, almost every thru hiker wanted to talk about equipment or mileage. I was shocked and bored. On this trip, I tried to understand more why that is. Duh, this all people do for the last year. I get it more now and more sympathetic as to why stove types and hostel experiences dominate the conversation. I even started to get into it. *shudders*
- Backcountry shelters are nasty but so is getting wet. The backcountry shelters in New Jersey are pretty terrible, so I grew up thinking tenting is best. On this trip, I experienced some nice downpours in my tent. It held, but just barely. A wet tent is heavy to carry and can get pretty dank fast. So on my second leg, I tried to give shelters a whirl. One I slept in with my tent and the other I did the full experience, mat on the platform. There were mice and some nice outdoor grunginess, but I was dry.
- If you are hiking the AT, you are in a green tunnel. I came to appreciate tree types more then the possibility of a vista. The green tunnel can be great. Where there was a small shower, you could barely feel it. Vistas were rare and even when there was one, it was mainly farm land. If you are hiking for sunsets and snow capped mountains, the AT is not for you. Hiking the AT is about learning appreciate the smaller things like a creek you can wade in or a meadow at the top of the mountain.
What I Learned About Myself on the Trail
- Panic and fear can be so unnecessary. I, like many people in America, have some day to day anxieties and can get very stressed easily. My first couple of days, I was nervous and scared to be out there alone. I wrote in my first days post about how I kept repeating to myself that I was not scared, that I was going to finish, etc. It really did settle my fears and stress. By day 3, I was becoming comfortable with the trail where I didn’t need to repeat this to myself as much and after day 4, it was completely unnecessary. I get why we feel fear and panic, its to identify and help us in life threatening situations. Why should I feel so many of these emotions for doing something simplistic like hiking or to bring it back to real life, doing a presentation at work? I think I settled something with myself during the hike that I need to start taking a deep breath more and remind myself that I am not afraid.
- Doing 14/15 miles days is not that hard (something I never thought I would say). This was my sweet spot for hiking by the second leg of the trip. When I exercise, I realized I generally take the easy way out because I hate most forms of exercise. If I hated hiking or was not feeling it, it would have been really easy to just not push myself and do 8/9 mile days. But I discovered, I am actually willing to push myself to do hard mileage days if it means getting somewhere faster and believe it or not, to keep me from getting somewhere to early and being bored. Also, I could feel my body acclimating to it which was really strange and rewarding simultaneously.
- Talking to people is better then talking to yourself. Spoiler alert! At one point on the trail, I was counting aloud thinking I was alone. Then a couple passed me. I thought to myself, “Great, I have officially became that hiker that talks to themselves.” After that, my bubble broke and I talked more to people. Besides hikers, I would have long conversations in town from a random couple from Ohio to the taco register guy. Pre trail, its very easy to just use your phone as a shield and not have any human interaction. On the trail, I couldn’t do that and got bored of looking at rocks and roots, singing one verse in my head in a never ending loop over and over again. I learned that when push comes to shove, I enjoy talking to strangers and need to do it more post trail.
- I got along better with men on the trail then women, and can only take guesses as to what that means. Maybe it’s because I have worked in all female environments since I was 16, have never worked in a co-ed or male dominant work place and thus just being in an environment that was different from what I was used was seen as a positive change? Maybe because of societal sexism, men pitied me as a female novice while women saw me as a foolish competitor? Not all my interactions with women were terrible, just like not all of my interactions with men were terrific. As I mentioned before, many of my interactions with women in the beginning were cold, distant, and general uninterest. (Could I be internalizing sexism in assuming that all women should be kind to other women? It’s possible.) Most of the men I met were respectful, interested, and strangely kind. I thought going into it that my interactions with men would be complicated because I am not a single woman on the trail so I am uninterested in being in a relationship and was concerned about my safety in general in a male dominant activity. I was even counseled to bring pepper spray and totally forgot about it. As someone who works for an organization that strives for female teamwork and who supports that mission statement, I am conflicted at my trail discovery.
- I will never experience true freedom that adventure can give someone and am okay with that. My first leg of the trip, I was reading Tracks by Robyn Davidson, a book I recommend. I gave the book away after I was done, but I kept this quote because it really hit me.
“That to be free one needs constant and unrelenting vigilance over one’s weaknesses. A vigilance which requires a moral energy most of us are incapable of manufacturing. We relax back into the moulds of habit.
To be free is to learn, to test yourself constantly, to gamble. It is not safe.”
Hiking is full of habits; habits of waking up with the sun, of pitching a tent every night, of roots and rocks. And while there are perils of the trail, it is a green tunnel of safety for the most part. I think we fill the need to create a sense of adventure and purpose because why else would someone hike in the woods? In actuality, hiking to me has now become a comfortable, at times frustrating, past time that I have become passionate about (the climb and the goal). After talking to many hikers about it, I think they would agree with that.
I went on the hike to understand myself better and to do something on my own. I had a goal that was just for myself, not for the improvement of my career or for a relationship. I succeeded. I don’t need to hype this up even more and say I found the awaited adventure. And, really, I don’t think I ever will find that and am on the path to accepting this.