Hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2003

It’s that time of year again. All of the planning and preparation is no longer in anticipation of a far off dream, but instead merges into reality. Beginning in early spring thousands of ambitious hikers will set off on the Appalachian Trail in search of something. That “something” varies for everyone. For many it is simply the challenge and experience of a thru-hike; others are looking for freedom, a change, or even a new direction in life. Physical and mental pain will be unbearable at times, and some remnants of it may never be overcome. Most won’t succeed by completing the entire Appalachian Trail, but all who make the attempt will leave the Trail leaner, wiser, and with memories that will last a lifetime.

Even after a long Minnesota winter, spring’s approach is bittersweet for us. I can’t help but think back to last year (spring 2003) when my husband Andy and I were getting ready for our own hike on the Appalachian Trail. It’s hard to say whether we planned too much or too little. We only wish we had the chance to hike the Trail again and to put what we’ve learned to good use. The passion behind the idea of a thru-hike was our biggest preparation. We were living in the city, working 9-5 jobs, and things were pretty easy. We would shop, spend, give, entertain, and vacation, but with all that we were able to do, there was still a void left in place of what we were missing.
So how did we free ourselves from the rat race? Once in a while when we were bored, we’d sit around, looking at the atlas and imagine all of the places we’d like to go, and think about how great it would be to just hit the road for awhile. Go wherever our whims take us – maybe somewhere warm, maybe to the middle of nowhere, maybe to some big city or tourist trap. But what would we really accomplish? How could we afford driving around day after day? When would we know we were “finished,” and what would we do when we were done? One night, looking at our USA atlas, we saw a little pink dotted line running through state after state – the Appalachian Trail. We didn’t know much about it – well, nothing, really. But the more we thought about it, the more it seemed to make sense. Every vacation we’ve ever taken together has been to somewhere in the middle of the woods.

For a year or so before our hike on the Appalachian Trail, we did some research, and a bit of planning. We read a lot of online journals from past hikers, bought the entire set of Appalachian Trail maps from the ATC, and even made out a loose schedule, if only to comfort ourselves in knowing that by hiking only 12 miles per day, we would reach Mt. Katahdin before the park was closed for the winter. And even if we only made it halfway, that’s a hell of a lot of hiking. We spent hours looking for the right gear, and shopping at our local REI. Our final preparation was to sever all ties with the “real world.” We gave up our apartment, put our belongings in storage, quit our jobs, opened a PO box, and bought two train tickets to Gainesville, Georgia.

I remember sitting on the bare wood floors of our apartment. All of our things had been moved to the storage locker a couple hundred miles away, and we were left in such a lonely, echoing place. All of our comforts were gone, and all there was to replace them were about 15 cardboard boxes and piles upon piles of Ziplocs, Ramen, and other assorted and equally dull things strewn about. There were so many things that we thought were necessities for the Trail; I remember barely being able to lift my backpack onto my shoulders, and having twinges of doubt welling up in my stomach. How in the world would we actually be able to hike 2,173 miles with these loads, across mountains, for God’s sake? What had we done?

But in all truth, the magnitude of it all never really set in (and still hasn’t.) Distance never seemed like much of a factor; we simply hiked, day after day, mile after mile. It was what we did. There didn’t really seem to be much point in thinking too far ahead. There was only one way to get there, one speed. My husband always seemed to be upbeat. Sure he missed everyday things, like food, shelter, and TV, but he also enjoyed almost every day of the hike. I, on the other hand, had a hard time being alone with my thoughts, for hours at a time. Climbing hills that never ended, soaking in rain that never stopped, imagining our old life that seemed like something we would never know again. I loved the Trail, and the idea of the Trail, but there were times I actually hated being there. I sometimes have a hard time keeping my emotions at bay and the Appalachian Trail was witness to every variety I am able to conjure up.

As I sit here now, spring is creeping in to Minnesota’s northland. Sun streams in the open windows, I hear the birds singing outside, and the snow has disappeared from the city lots bringing the promise of green. We’re back to our “old lives” now, living under a roof and four walls that always remain in one place. I’ll be starting a new job in just a few days. I am wondering how I will feel about the daily routine of working, as opposed to life on the Trail where you’re never quite sure what will happen next. One year ago on this date, we climbed Blood Mountain in Georgia, and reached Neel’s Gap, never even expecting that in six months we would actually complete our thru-hike.

The woods are calling now, and there are nearby trails to explore. The Superior Hiking Trail Association told us over the phone the other day that there’s still about a foot of snow on their trail. It won’t be long…

2003 Appalachian Trail thru-hiker