Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike Can Be Life-Changing Journey
Let me assure you of two things. First, if you have gotten the idea of attempting an Appalachian Trail (AT) thru-hike lodged in your head, the great odds are that sooner or later you will find yourself–backpack bravely strapped on–facing north at Springer Mountain in north Georgia. That is the good news. The bad news–and I am even more sure of this–is that you will never find a perfect time to attempt your thru-hike. The simple fact is that there will always be other commitments, people, hobbies, tasks, jobs, classes, to attend to. In order to do your thru-hike you will simply have to leapfrog it ahead of everything for the next five or six months. Is it worth it?
My answer is an overwhelming yes. The Appalachian Trail runs 2,181 miles through fourteen states, and is the best way to see the United States. When I am overseas hiking and meet foreign trekkers, I always tell them, “Don’t go to Disney World or Las Vegas. Hike the Appalachian Trail. You will get to see the country in an unforgettable way.” And I mean that. Many of the thru-hikers who arrive at Springer Mountain every spring are in the South for the first time in their lives. For the most part they are impressed by two things: 1. the hospitality of the locals and the ruggedness of the terrain. The same can be said for southern thru-hikers who arrive in the five New England states that the Appalachian Trail traverses.
I was working in a retirement home when I read Bill Bryson’s AT memoir when I decided I was going to attempt an AT thru-hike. Many of the residents in the home were World War II veterans. I had noticed from their conversations that many of them considered that to be the defining experience in their lives. That was interesting because it sure was NOT the time in their lives that they were living the most luxuriously. But ultimately that’s not what it’s all about. People seem to be most happy, most content when they are being challenged. It is interesting that the word travel comes from the word, ‘travails’. That brings up a great irony. In this day and age of instantaneous communication and jet travel, it is more difficult than ever to travel well. But the Appalachian Trail affords the hiker the opportunity to undertake a journey with deeper ramifications. One can expect to meet the denizens of the various states the trail passes through in an authentic, non-touristy fashion. You will feel like you know this country better upon completion. This is not to put down the cross-country road trip in the family camper. It’s just that you will probably find life thrumming at a higher pitch over a more sustained period of time than ever before, if my experience is any guide.
Of course, it is no insignificant matter to push all matters aside for several months, which is what a thru-hike entails. As mentioned earlier, you are unlikely to find the perfect time. But those interested in a thru-hike should remember the words of the novelist, Anthony Weller (author of The Land of Later On). “It is just as easy to waste a lifetime as an afternoon,” Weller wrote. That is a profound point. One point that sure was driven home in that retirement home where I was surrounded by virtually helpless people was that if I wanted to do something, I sure had better get to it quick. If it really is a life-changing journey, then pushing everything else aside should come naturally. Of course, those who fought the Second World War had no choice as to timing for their lifetime event. But you do. When making your decision, please remember this. There is something about long-distance hiking that narrows your choices greatly, yet enlarges you at the same time.
Bill Walker is the author of Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail. He is also the author of Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail, The Best Way–El Camino de Santiago, Getting High–The Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. Walker, who is nearly 7-feet tall, is currently working on a whimsical book on the subject of height.