I am back. Back in Utah. Back from walking 466.9 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Back from 31 days of absolute clear thinking. Back from the humidity and NEVER being dry. Back from Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
People look at me like I'm crazy when I tell them where I've been. They say, "You are so much braver than I," or "I could never be gone that long, it would get old," or "Weren't you scared to be alone?" It's hard to understand the culture of the AT if you have never walked it. It's safer then a Wal-Mart parking lot at midnight.
The trail becomes a place of belonging. You begin to say things like, "When I get home tonight..." when referring to the place you will sleep that night. The trail becomes your home. Home is where you pitch your tent or throw your sleeping bag. Other hikers become your brothers and sisters and you are a family. You laugh together and walk together and eat just-add-water meals together. Although you meet so many wonderful people on the trail, it is still a walk of solitude. It is still your own walk. You make it what you want.
You worry about two things on the trail:
1. Where will I rest my tired body tonight? Shelter? Tent?
2. Where will I get my water today? How far is it to my next water source?
The freedom that is allowed a mind when it has so little to worry about is almost overwhelming. The act of thinking about almost nothing each day was meditative and therapeutic. Things I have worried about or stressed about before are easier to think about again because thinking isn't as clouded a task as before. It was like driving up Big Cottonwood Canyon from Salt Lake County in February out of an inversion: things were clear.
I was so nervous as I was leaving. I was scared to be alone. I was scared of injury. I was scared that it would be too hard. I was scared that I wouldn't be able to walk the distance I had intended. I was scared that my gear would fail.
Turns out you are never alone on the AT--I never camped alone. Yes, you may have days when you don't see a soul, but you also have days where you have abundant company. Injury is a very valid fear, but thankfully, I was free of any serious injury. I had a couple blisters on my toes the first week, but they soon calloused and I was blister-free. My knees were champions, and I have my trekking poles to thank for that. I carried my knee brace with me the whole time, and I swear that it acted as a threat to my knees and they reacted by being strong. At times the walk was so challenging, but the funny thing is that if you just keep putting one foot in front of the other, eventually that uphill will end and you will make it to the top. Distance was my favorite fear to overcome. In my first 10 days, I was challenged to get to a location that I was originally giving myself 12 days to get to, and I did it. In that first week, I pulled off my first 20 mi. day and several other high-mileage days. My gear was never once an issue, and if it had been, it wouldn't have been and ISSUE.
My fears melted away within the first two days. I felt so at home in those first days, and that set an excellent tone for the rest of my walk.
As I finished up my walk in Damascus, VA, I was so sad to leave. Better planning or other life circumstances might have allowed me to walk to entire trail, up to Maine, in one go, but perhaps it wasn't supposed to be. I left with a sad heart. Sad to be leaving a trail that had welcomed me and loved me and let me be. I have cried a lot since returning, but I'm satisfied with my walk. Sitting on top of a beautiful bald called Beauty Spot, I had a similar feeling to one that I had right before I left Brasil: I did what I needed to do and I have felt what I have needed to feel and I have done the best I could and I return with satisfaction and gratitude in my heart for the experiences that I have had.
Next year will bring another leg of the journey. I will walk another 500 mile of the trail, or perhaps more. I now know what to expect and how to better prepare myself. It's going to be an amazing journey, and I can't wait to continue.
Now for some pictures: