Tales From The Trail: The Elements I Underestimated
It’s been eight years since the beginning of my hike on The Appalachian Trail. But, before I began my full hike in 2013, I completed one-month hikes with my Dad. We went for two consecutive years. First through Pennsylvania, and then from New York to Massachusetts. They were my first taste of the Appalachian Trail, and I was hooked. Those hikes were the reason why I set out to through-hike the entire AT. I thought that I had prepared for whatever the Trail could throw at me. In reality, I knew nothing.
On March 26, 2013, I started my hike with high expectations and false confidence. What I anticipated versus what happened were not the same at all. Here are the major elements that I vastly underestimated on The Appalachian Trail.
My first mistake was assuming that Georgia would be warm in March. I remember wearing a dress on the drive there. I had imagined the bright sun and blooming trees. Instead, there were below freezing temperatures and no sign of green anywhere. The first night at camp was horrible and cold.
While the weather did improve, it was not one to be accommodating. There were ice storms in April, pop-up thunderstorms everywhere, and merciless heat waves. One stretch of heat was so bad that I became dehydrated and had to leave the Trail for a few days.
I should have known that the weather would never be predictable. I was at the mercy of Mother Nature every step of the way.
The hikes I went on before gave me a basic idea of what my body would expect. But nothing would be able to get me ready for a six-month hike. Nothing. The body has to change during the journey. Even though I knew what was coming, I was not immune to the pain that befalls all hikers. The endless, challenging terrain kept me humble. There was never a lack of new and terrifying climbs.
It’s been so long that I have to remind myself it was me who completed the hike. Hardened by the Trail’s everyday struggles, my physical and mental strength changed. I’m proud to say that I underestimated my endurance and came out on top.
There is a saying on the AT: “The Trail Provides.” And it is true the entire way. Somehow, the Trail knows when you are in need, and things happen. I’ve never been more aware of Magic than when I was hiking. I didn’t think that I would rely on it so much. I wanted to believe that I would be able to do everything on my own. But the only way to make it was to let go of my natural stubbornness and embrace help. Multitudes of strangers showed me kindness. They saved me from hunger, dehydration, injury, lack of finances and, lack of transportation. I knew that I had to give myself over to the Magic or I wouldn’t survive.
One of the top reasons a hiker leaves the Trail is because they run out of money. I thought that I had saved enough when I left. I deferred my student loans and bought food to send myself ahead of time. But of course, it wasn’t enough. In the grand scheme of things, hiking is a cheap vacation, but it’s easy to get caught up in expenses. I spent the majority of my money on luxuries like town-day food and hotels. Towards the end of the trail, I had grown tired of my pre-boxed food. Instead, I started going to the grocery store for different supplies. It all adds up. If it weren’t for my dad sending me money every week and my fellow hikers helping me pay for things, I would have gone home. That, plus all the free kindness I received from Trail Angels, ensured my success. Money isn’t everything, but if I did this again, I would bring more.
Plans In General
I am not a “go with the flow” kind of person. I like to know where and when I’m going at all times. The Trail taught me to abandon that notion. Some days would work out as I had planned. I would walk the miles I wanted, have enough water and food, and make it to the endpoint on the map. But most days were not like that. I could never predict every element of every day. Some days I was too tired. Some days a rough climb would slow me down. Other times, a stop on the way would be so fun that I would stay there the rest of the day. Luckily, the AT didn’t care. It was always there the next day, ready for me to walk on.
Everything works out like it should on the Appalachian Trail, but never like you think it will. After eight years, I’m still mindful of the lessons that I learned along my trek. Life also never works out the way we think it will. That’s easy to forget. But nothing changed my perspective more than while I was hiking. It stays with me, and I never want to lose those life-lessons that helped me finish.
Photo by Author, Adele Z.