Let’s be honest, the idea of backpacking for 5 to 6 months in the woods does not sound all that appealing when you think at what it actually entails. Hiking the Appalachian Trail means hiking basically all day, in whatever weather nature decides to throw at you. It means being smelly pretty much all the time. It means eating the same foods over and over again because that’s what’s lightweight and easy to make. It means sleeping on the ground on a sleeping pad, which, no matter how thick, is never going to be as comfortable as a real bed. It means, at worst, missing important life events of your loved ones, and at best, not being able to talk to your loved ones until you get to the top of the mountain where hopefully there’s a cell signal.
So why the heck does anyone want to hike the Appalachian Trail? I don’t know about everyone else, but here are my reasons.
1) Experiencing nature
I’ve always loved hiking, camping, public lands, just the outdoors in general. I consider myself a conservationist, an environmentalist, a tree-hugger. I studied geology at university and career-wise, I work as an interpreter of our public lands to help others understand and appreciate them even more. To put it simply, I love the natural world. And I want to experience it in a more complete way. I want to see the seasons change from day to day. I want to see how the woods feel at 5am when the sun has added just the faintest rose to the sky. I want to become familiar with the bird songs (even if I won’t be able to identify them, unless any ornithology friends want to tag along…). I want to be inspired by the hugeness of the landscapes and still see the the beauty in the smallest details.
2) To prove that I can
This one kind of speaks for itself. There might be some haters out there who are thinking I can’t do this, and I want to prove them wrong.
More importantly though, I want to prove to myself that I can hike 2000+ miles. Last summer I was working at Acadia National Park, and one of my goals for the season was the to hike every mile of trail in the park and walk or bike every carriage road. This amounts to roughly 200 miles in theory, but in practicality it was much more since Acadia has a very screwy and interwoven trail system. This was a bit of a weird goal that I heard another ranger mention he had done his first summer there, and once I had told myself I was gonna do it, I became weirdly stubborn about making sure I did. So hiking the AT is basically the next step in keeping goals for myself.
3) “Because it’s there”
You might have heard that quote before. It’s credited to George Mallory, a British mountaineer who attempted to summit Mount Everest three times. I really dislike a lot of outdoors/mountaineering language, like “conquering” a mountain. Why does nature have to be something we are trying to beat? (see tree-hugger, above) But I’m a big fan of this quote because it feels really true to me about the Appalachian Trail. There’s something incredibly magical about the idea of stepping onto the middle of the trail and having it stretch hundreds of miles away in either direction. It just invites you to go take a jaunt.
I honestly don’t remember the first time I heard about the Appalachian Trail. There’s a family story about a time during a vacation to Shenandoah when my dad wandered off with me and didn’t tell my mom where we where going. It gets dark and she’s panicking, when my dad comes strolling up to our campsite with me sitting on his shoulders. “Where were you?” “Oh, I saw the Appalachian Trail and we went on a little walk on it.” This shows not only a good deal about my dad, but also the magical appeal of the AT. How can you not walk on it? Maybe it was this early trip on the AT that embedded the trail in my head (though I don’t really remember it). Maybe it was one or both of the first two books I read about the AT in late elementary school – A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson and On the Beaten Path by Robert Rubin. Whatever it was, I think a thru-hike as always been inevitable.