Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+ Sign up for Outside+ today.
This story is a sneak peek at our January Long Trails issue. Check back soon to read more.
They say the Trail is a cruel mistress. Uncaring, unloving, and unmoved by the human dramas that play out on her 2,189 miles from Georgia to Maine. That may be true, but to me, her cruelty is all absence and longing. I’m a section hiker. I’ve hiked 1,500 miles of open balds, grassy meadows, and more pointless up-and-downs than I can recall. My hike, if it were a person, would be old enough to drive by now.
Yes, it has taken (OK, is taking) me forever, but it follows the guiding principle of long-distance hiking: Hike your own hike. And mine won’t be hurried.
I was just a 20-year-old kid at the outset, with more enthusiasm than experience, and yet drawn to the Appalachian Trail by some notion of independence or self-reliance. And so there I stood, at the plaque on Springer Mountain, exhausted from the 8-mile approach and already hobbled by heel blisters. Ready for whatever.
Every day brought some new experience: shelters, privies, trail folk with weird names. Everything was optimism and everyone was welcome. I fell in with a group moving at the same speed beneath the leaf canopies and out to the overlooks of the South’s repeating ridges. In the Smokies, we flushed turkeys from the underbrush and inched out onto the end of Charlies Bunion to feel the world fall away. Nights went to fire and talking, often going late. The summer marched on.
Midway through Virginia, at a highway stop called Troutville, I bought my bus ticket home. I’d hoped to make it to the halfway point, but couldn’t once my heels sheared off my feet (a result of weeks of wet, ill-fitting boots).
But that was posturing. The grind had gotten to me. And anyway, I knew I’d be back. Section hiking is about the longest haul. The miles may be the same, but the time can stretch on for years
then decades. It becomes a single, unifying purpose that sticks around for me like religion does for other people—and probably serves the same purpose.
It took seven years for me to get back to Troutville, where I could practically see a younger version of myself limping down the highway. Time had scrubbed out all the hardship, reducing my idea of the trail to its essence: optimism. I road-hopped the Blue Ridge Parkway in Shenandoah under cool-then-cold September skies all the way to Front Royal, where life and my parents were waiting for me.
It wasn’t until my third section (the next spring) that I finally became what felt like a real long-distance hiker. I slept under a tarp, switched boots for Chacos and socks, ate meals I rehydrated on a stove I made from a cat food can and a hole puncher, and drew strength from the miles, no matter how rooted or rocky the trail became. I arrived at the Appalachian Mountain Center in West Virginia, sheepish to have my picture taken as a section hiker since it’d taken so long to get halfway. But it’s the commitment, not the distance, that counts when hiking a trail in bits and pieces. I knew I’d make the end some day.
That section ended at an ice cream stand in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, 600 miles from Katahdin. And now another six years have gone by. Sure, I’ve moved on, first to the West and then to the deserts, canyons, and mountain ranges of the world. But I can’t quit the Appalachian Trail. There is unfinished business there, a promise I made to myself that I intend to keep. I know if I persevere through miles, weather, and darkness—and all the obstacles that keep me from the trail in the first place—I will find some better version of myself.
He might be waiting for me in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, or Vermont’s Greens, or some nondescript place north of Mt. Greylock in Massachusetts, where the only thing you expect to encounter is more of the same hardwood forests and rolling hills.
No matter when I finish, I’ll have a lot to look back upon from the summit of Katahdin. My life, from Georgia to Maine, will have changed beyond the point of recognition. But there will be one common thread connecting the decades, organizing the years I sought the same dream, however distant it sometimes seemed: the trail.
I can’t imagine what it will be like to reach the end, and I don’t want to. I’d rather stand there and feel it. And I will.