I’m not one to talk about hopes and dreams much. I’m not one to talk much, period. Talking is a dangerous thing. It can take you to places you only said you wanted to go.
I come from the school of thought that if you’re not prepared to take action on a particular topic, if you’re not ready to drop everything in pursuit of a lofty goal or high ideal, it’s best to leave those desires unspoken, withheld indefinitely until the button must be pushed.
I broke my own rule one day nearly three years ago, back when I was a sportswriter at The State Journal, while walking laps around the newspaper building on Wilkinson Boulevard, a practice encouraged by Spectrum editor Phil Case to burn a few calories between long intervals of desk work.
Though five laps around the “circular track” that outlined the building was only seven-tenths of a mile, it was enough to get the blood flowing, to take the mind beyond the omnipresent computer screen to places distant and romantic, which in my case meant the Appalachian Mountains.
“I want to hike the Appalachian Trail,” I told my co-workers – longtime sportswriter Linda Younkin, former State Journal reporter Charlie Pearl and Mr. Case among them. It was still winter as we plodded around the parking lot, the ice and snow of the season only heightening the fairy-tale quality of my preposterous statement.
I don’t recall much of a reaction to what I said, except from Charlie, who mentioned hiking parts of the Appalachians was on his bucket list, too. Maybe he meant it, or maybe he just didn’t want me to feel alone on my soapbox of aspiration.
The idea of completing an end-to-end hike of the Appalachian Trail, known as a “thru-hike,” had actually been lodged in my brain for several years prior to that declaration, planted in my mind as a youth during a summer church camp trip to Erwin, Tenn. for a two-day hike on the AT, as the trail is commonly known among its devoted enthusiasts.
It was during that trip at the age of 15 that the scale and scope of the trail began to take root in my mind: a southern terminus on Springer Mountain in Georgia, a northern terminus on Mount Katahdin in Maine, nearly 2,200 miles of undulating path between traversing 14 states and more than 200 peaks.
The leader of that two-day hike, a recent thru-hiker named Chris Sanderson, spread the gospel of long-distance hiking as a transformative experience in nature, where few of the constraints of modern living applied. Nothing sold me on the idea quite as forcefully, however, as the pristine campsite we settled into at the end of a long hiking day, a place called “Beauty Spot,” where the lights of the town below and stars above appeared to be mirror images of one another.
Ten years after that AT introduction and two years after my confession in “The State Journal” parking lot, I was finally prepared to act this past spring, though to what end I was not sure.
DECIDED TO DO IT
I quit my job, bought around $1,000 of new hiking gear and shared a tearful goodbye with my girlfriend on March 16 at Amicalola Falls State Park, just south of Springer Mountain, where the AT journey of every northbound thru-hiker begins.
I rode a wave of exhilaration that day, propelled by the knowledge I was finally acting on my long-harbored dream, escaping the unfocused activity of my modern life to fixate on my long-harbored romantic notions of the hiking life.
It didn’t last.
A thunderstorm ensured the first night of my AT thru-hike would be a sleepless one as I huddled in the loft of Stover Creek Shelter with several other aspiring thru-hikers like myself. The rain persisted into the morning, and I found myself plunging into muddy puddles on my second day, hiking shoes barely broken in and already soaked through.
By the end of that 12-mile day – legs leaden, pack already feeling like an albatross – I questioned whether I had the resilience to complete the journey, whether I would become part of the 75 percent of aspiring thru-hikers who bail out short of the finish line each year.
Having never spent an extended time in the woods, I knew I had to overcome a steep learning curve if I was going to walk from Georgia to Maine. Maybe that curve, like the never-ending, leg-zapping climbs I tackled early in my journey, was just too steep.
But past proclamations of my big, fat mouth kept me glued to the winding, rocky, infinite path.
NO GIVING UP
No way could I give up short of my goal, head home and admit defeat in the absence of illness or injury. No way could I abandon a dream during the times a thru-hike turned out to be as difficult as I anticipated it would. No way could I look family and friends in the eye after pontificating on my planned mountain march for years.
The next day I encountered my first unexpected boost at Woody Gap, walking into a church picnic set up just for thru-hikers. Scarfing down a couple of hot dogs and an orange soda, my troubled thoughts from the previous day of rain and doubt seemed light years away. I stuck with the trail.
Receiving food, drink or unsolicited aid from complete strangers, known as “trail magic,” became a theme of my thru-hike as the days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months. Each time someone made the effort to aid my quest – whether it be a hot dog in Georgia, a ride into town in Virginia or a bed in Massachusetts – I gained another reason to carry on, another reason to believe in myself by believing in others.
And while dozens of individuals kept my body fueled, the teeming life of the Appalachians kept my spirit soaring.
An Indiana native, I had never slept at 6,000 feet prior to my trek through the Smoky Mountains or made eye contact with a black bear like I did in Shenandoah National Park. I had never seen my shadow outlined in the glow of a full moon in a dark wood nor woken to the overzealous song of the whippoorwill. I had never waded into the crystal waters of a Northeastern pond nor taken the time to contemplate the stone handiwork of the Civilian Conservations Corps still standing in the South.
END OF MY ODYSSEY
In the face of such wonders, my struggles seemed minor, the burden on my back light. On the 168th day of my journey, I summited Mount Katahdin, marking the end of my Appalachian odyssey.
After placing my hands on the famous wooden marker atop Baxter Peak, a stiff wind persuaded me to huddle behind a boulder as I ate my final trail meal in silence.
If I felt any overriding emotion in that moment, my face numb as it scanned the bird’s eye view below, it was relief: Relief that I had accomplished my goal, relief of a dream as long as a mountain range fulfilled, relief that my actions had finally caught up with my words.
FOR MORE INFORMATION...
For those who would like to read more about Jonathan Hines’ hike on the Appalachian Trail, visit the website findblondie.blogspot.com. He can also be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and welcomes “conversation” about his experiences and those of others along the Appalachian Trail.