It may happen as you’re going through your gear list a month before your thru-hike, or it may happen as you’re eating breakfast at the Hike Inn in Amicalola Falls, but it will happen. At some point before you begin thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, you will have that moment when you think holy crap, I’m going to walk 2200 miles!
I frequently use the term walk, because I like it, but lest the veteran thru-hikers correct me, when I say walk I really mean to say hike, climb, crawl, plod and drag yourself up every single summit grabbing onto every single tree branch and every stable rock to haul your tired legs the next step, and then the next. And then the next.
In any case, yesterday that moment happened for me, that moment that it really hit me what I would be doing. I don’t mean to imply that I haven’t thought about it, or that I haven’t had a fairly good understanding of what my thru-hike would entail. There just tends to be a moment when it becomes real, and for me it occurred yesterday as I was selling off yet another of my belongings to raise cash for equipment and empty out my apartment of the unnecessities before I put all my stuff in storage and hand over the keys. (Being single, childless and not independently wealthy, this is how one affords to take such a trip).
So I’m setting up a Roku to demonstrate it works for a craigslist buyer, we get to talking, and I explain that I’m not quite moving right away. First I’ll be thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. He has no idea what I’m talking about. So I explain a little more… You see it’s this really long trail from Georgia to Maine, about 2200 miles, and it will take me five or six months to hike it. He seemed to search for words for a while, judging by his expression going through responses like “Why?” or “No, really…” or “Ummm… I believe you, it works, I’m just going to take it and go now.” What he did say, somewhat awkwardly, was “Is that, like, your thing? Hiking long distances?”
I thought about it. No, I can’t say that it’s “my thing.” Sure, I’ve been camping and hiking and even taking backpacking trips on and off since I was a child, but that’s a far cry from walking 2200 miles. So what was my thing? Challenge. That was it. I’ll be honest, for me, the hiking part of the trip is not the end goal; the simplicity, the peace of mind (eventually, once I get past the crowds of Georgia), the time to read and write, and the gorgeous scenery are the true draws for me. Don’t get me wrong, I love hiking and walking. It relaxes my mind, gives me time to think, and it’s great exercise. But I would be just as happy hiking 3-5 miles every morning, looking for the next great view to wake up to.
I could, I suppose, wait til it warms up a little more and do the same thing in the nearby Adirondacks. The Adirondacks have more than 10,000 lakes, most inaccessible by any other way than hiking, and I could camp, enjoy the views, swim in my own private paradise, and hike as little or as much as I desired. But then I wouldn’t be an Appalachian thru-hiker, or a long-distance hiker, or anything but… well… homeless. There would be no challenge. It would just be a very long, very frivolous vacation. I think in some way I am drawn to the adversity (my life thus far would confirm this), drawn to the challenge, and I think that mindset is not only what inspires some to thru-hike, but also what helps them finish.
Since my Aha! moment occurred yesterday, I decided last night I deserved some real food. I knew the next morning I would be selling off the last tv in the apartment and calling to have my rental furniture picked up, and life, even in my apartment, would begin to resemble an indoor campsite. For the last three weeks I have been living almost exclusively on food that I could cook on the trail and cookware I would be bringing so I could get an idea for what was easy to cook, what I liked, and which tools worked the best ounce for ounce. So I decided to walk to the store and get some ingredients to cook a real dinner and enjoy a last night of television.
On the way back home, as I walked past my car in the driveway reaching my front door, I suddenly realized I was ready. See, the east coast had a bit of a cold weekend, and here in upstate NY it reached well below zero. I checked my phone, and sure enough, it was -9 degrees. It didn’t even occur to me to drive to the store. I had been walking as many places as possible leading up to the thru-hike, but tonight, even in the painfully bitter cold, it had become second nature. If I can’t walk a mile through the cold, albeit far colder than the Georgia summits, how could I expect to make it to Maine?
I think this confirms my belief that to a large degree, success or failure of thru-hiking the AT is probably determined before you even begin. While having adequate gear and supplies, knowledge, and preparation are important, I think there are two qualities that make hiking the eastern United States both possible and fun. The first is a pull toward adventure and challenge. If anyone could do it, it probably wouldn’t interest me. The second I’m going to call resilience. I’ve referred to Zach Davis’s book1 (Appalachian Trials: A Psychological and Emotional Guide To Thru-Hike the Appalachian Trail) on the psychological aspects of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, and while he uses different terminology, he’s saying essentially the same thing: your mindset is what helps keep you going.
Within psychology, resilience is a very specific and well-studied concept. Basically, it is an individual’s ability to maintain or recover their good mental health in the face of adversity, traumatic events, or even near-death experiences.2 Resilience is the x-factor that explains why some people walk away from traumatic events with a positive outlook, and some suffer severe, life-long consequences. As with most psychological traits, there are arguments as to how much of a role genetics and environment play in one’s resilience, but it is certainly a combination of both. Even better, there is research to indicate that resiliency can be learned to some degree before one faces adversity.2
I have never hiked 2200 miles, so I won’t claim to know how large of a factor having a 22 pound pack or using two elite Black Diamond trekking poles have in finishing a thru-hike, but I can tell you this: resilience plays a major role in how you react to any type of adversity, and there is no way to thru-hike even a section of the Appalachian trail without a serious dose of adversity. While I spend an equal amount of time studying the trail, equipment, cooking techniques, and reading about others’ experiences thru-hiking the AT, I am spending the other half of my time getting my head in the game, because I truly believe that is where the goal of reaching Katahdin is both won and lost. You can overcome adversity and choose to keep going dozens of times along the trail, but it only takes one time, one day, one moment to choose not to overcome, flag down a car at a road crossing, and go home.
Just as Davis explains in his book1, he had a veteran thru-hiker as a mentor to prepare him for the trail and tweaked this mentor’s advice into his own philosophy of preparation, I also take the advice of veteran thru-hikers and my own knowledge of psychology and form my own game plan. As promised, I am going to share part of this game plan, something which I think will help me a great deal on the trail and perhaps other first-time thru-hikers as well.
There are many mail stops along the trail where hungry thru-hikers rip through care packages that have been shipped, and possibly even letters of encouragement from friends and family. I imagine such letters are great to receive after weeks of walking through the woods, at times perhaps even spending much of this time in solitude, but I do not believe anyone can motivate you more than you.
Therefore, I will be writing a series of letters to myself and having them mailed to stops I will be making as I move my way up the trail. These letters will congratulate me for making it so far, remind me why I am doing this, and perhaps give me that extra bit I need to keep going after a particularly rough stretch of trail. Five or six months is a long time and a lot can change. Taking a moment to congratulate future you could not only help down the road, but even help get you psyched for the journey ahead.
I know some people prefer not to be tied down to certain stops, being forced to wait around until a business is open. For me this is unavoidable, because I will have to make certain stops to pick up essentials such as insulin and other medications, but if you want more freedom, simply carry the letters with you and open up them as you reach certain milestones. A half dozen envelopes should weigh a half ounce, if that. It just may make the difference, and it certainly can’t hurt.
So what do all the veteran thru-hikers and other first-timers like me have to say about it? What are your plans for building your mental muscle just as much as your hiking legs?
1Davis, Z. (2012). Appalachian Trials: The Psychological and Emotional Guide to Successfully Thru-Hiking The Appalachian Trail [Kindle Version]. Good Badger Publishing.
2Macedo, T., Wilheim, L., Gonçalves, R., Coutinho, E. S. F., Vilete, L., Figueira, I., & Ventura, P. (2014). Building resilience for future adversity: A systematic review of interventions in non-clinical samples of adults. BMC Psychiatry, 14, 227. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1186/s12888-014-0227-6