T here is a rugged footpath called the Appalachian Trail running 2,190.9 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. It is a wilderness, a sanctuary, a classroom, and a pilgrimage for those who travel it. The Appalachian Trail becomes deeply woven into one’s being—from transformed physical anatomy due to the stresses of walking, to the resilience and grit that no earthly challenge can steal, to a permanent change in perspective on suffering and nature and contentment therein. My own soul has been irreversibly remodeled by the Appalachian Trail, and for that I am eternally grateful.
Envisioned in 1921 by Benton McKaye to function as a wilderness corridor connecting one town to the next, the Appalachian Trail (AT) was completed in 1937 and remains the longest foot-travel-only hiking path in the world. Over its near 2,200 miles, the AT passes through fourteen states, gaining and losing elevation equivalent to sixteen summits of Mount Everest from sea level. While most of the volunteer-maintained trail lies in national forests, national parks, and other such wilderness areas, there are also sections of the trail that travel on roads, through towns, and even in private backyards. More than 2 million people visit the AT every year. Most go for short day hikes; others spend multiple days or weeks on the trail, and approximately four to five thousand attempt to hike the entire length of the trail in one season, called "thru hikers."
Most thru hikers walk Northbound, starting in Georgia during the months of March and April, hoping to make it to Mount Katahdin before the snow and ice set in at the beginning of October. A much smaller portion of hikers starts in Maine in June or July to hike Southbound with the fall, finishing at Springer Mountain before the harshness of winter. Still fewer choose alternative routes, most commonly a “flip flop,” which constitutes starting somewhere in the middle of the trail, hiking to one terminus, then returning to the starting point to reverse direction and complete the trail at the opposite end. Only one in five of those who attempt a thru hike complete their journey. In 2018, I fulfilled a dream I’ve had for as long as I can remember and became one of those people.
As I was considering the details of my thru hike, I took a position with The United Methodist Church as a “Trail Chaplain.” I was the only thru-hiking Chaplain appointed by the church for 2018 and the first female to have ever held this position. As Chaplain, my role was to thru hike the AT and to minister to the hiking community by connecting AT hikers to local churches along the way. The role consisted not of evangelizing in campsites but rather offering a listening ear, praying with and for others when asked, and bearing a witness of hope.
I started my 149-day journey on June 15, 2018 in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. I hiked over 1,100 miles northbound to Katahdin, then returned to Harpers Ferry and continued southbound for 1,000 miles, completing the trail at Springer Mountain on November 10, 2018. I hiked fifteen to thirty miles each day, slept in my tent or in one of 250 wooden, three-sided trail shelters along the way, and maintained a diet of junk food and ramen noodles. I hitchhiked to nearby towns every three to five days to eat a hot meal, take a shower, do laundry, and resupply food for the next leg of the journey.
My hike was long and hard. There were days that were blisteringly hot; my skin bled from chaffing; my head throbbed from dehydration while searching for water during a dry Pennsylvania summer. There were lengthy spells of cold rain—sixty-five total days, to be exact—when my raisiny skin sloughed off in chunks and my sub-dermal blisters pierced my resolve with each soggy step. There were days I felt too weak to stand, especially when ill with cryptosporidium (a waterborne parasite) while hiking alone through Hurricane Florence in Shenandoah National Park.
But my hike was the most joyful season I have ever experienced. There were warm, breezy days when I napped on mountaintops surrounded by panoramic views of the mountains I had walked over and would walk over. There were days I felt superhuman, propelling my 5’3” frame and my 30-pound backpack over the highest peaks on the East Coast with energy to spare by day’s end. There were days I felt deep companionship as I hiked on the heels of my best friends while we laughed our way through the daily mileage. Sometimes I felt a full range of emotions from joy to despair, allowing tears to flow freely down my dirt-streaked face. Sometimes I felt nothing at all; some days I simply existed in the rhythm of my footsteps.
People often ask if I was afraid. I was—although not of bears, snakes, or serial killers—but of lightning, yellow jackets, and norovirus. I did not take a companion on the Appalachian Trail. I hiked alone. But alone is a relative term. The AT is a tight-knit community of hikers from all walks of life. People travel from across the world to walk, to grieve, to heal, to transition between careers and seasons, to celebrate, and to strip life down to its essence in search of themselves.
As a reflection of this process, thru hikers on the Appalachian Trail drop their legal names to earn and live by a new one—a trail name. Trail names are not chosen, but are given by other members of the hiking community—usually coinciding with a quirky characteristic about the individual or something dumb they did early in their hike. As trivial as the origins of a trail name might be, the new identity that one takes on throughout their 2,000-mile journey is sacred. A new name is permission to heal, permission to shed what you brought to the trail, permission to try a new thing without pretext. It is permission to become what is at the bedrock of your being. I was named Blueberry, for my floppy blue hat that could be seen from the next ridge over. While I was initially frustrated with the conventional nature and origin of such a name, my journey, my identity as a hiker, and my transformation depended on it.
But why does this continue to matter? What is there to carry from the wilderness into the noise of the ordinary? What is essential?
In his 1862 essay, “Walking,” Henry David Thoreau wrote of a deep connection with Nature fostered through the constant act of walking. Simultaneously, he grumbled about the apparent contentedness of his peers who remained indoors, ignoring Nature, and who were permanently drawn to the lures of Society. When I crossed the Potomac and started walking north from Harpers Ferry, I expected to return to society five months later having found my own Walden Pond and a mindset that echoed Thoreau's. The transition from the freedom and simplicity of life on the Appalachian Trail to my daily existence as a medical student has been challenging. Thoreau declared:
“For my part, I feel that with regard to Nature I live sort of a border life, on the confines of a world into which I make occasional and transient forays only, and my patriotism and allegiance to the state into whose territories I seem to retreat are those of a moss-trooper.”
There are days now when my own conscience resonates with Thoreau’s frustration; however, instead of a traitor, I feel as an ambassador of that which I learned on the Appalachian Trail.
I started my thru hike expecting to return from the woods a modern-day Thoreau. I expected my time on the trail to make returning to—and meaningfully engaging in—society an impossibility. While I marched, leaving Society to commune with Nature, I wrestled with the grief of depression, suicide, and loss. I was still rattled from the fallout of a tragic exile from my college faith community, four years without rest or space to breathe, and the deaths of more friends than I could count on one hand. I came to the trail fully expecting to shed elements of myself, yes, but to shed plenty of tears, too, as I had during the last eighteen months of college. I did freely cry on trail. I did continue to seek and receive the healing that I desperately craved during that time.
However, in the aperture of long days spent walking through unnamed hills and deciduous forests, I also found hope. I made hope. Sure, there was plenty of hope to be had on sunny, mountaintop days, petting wild ponies in the Grayson Highlands on the first crisp day of fall, crossing Franconia Ridge on the rare clear afternoon above tree line. But the kind that surprised me—the hope I learned to manufacture—came from finding a buffet of forest mushrooms that could only survive in years as wet as 2018, and in blueberries that had the audacity to grow in crags above the Maine tree line. Everyone expects hope on sunny days, and I soaked up every bit I could find, but the hope that transformed—the hope that brought healing not prescribed in a binary—came in spaces created by Nature’s harshness.
Setting off to find my own Walden, I intended to run away. While I knew the path I would travel was marked by 2x6 inch white blazes and was detailed in my guidebook, I was there to physically walk away from the city I spent years calling home, and to figuratively walk away from the pain it carried. As I trudged through rain and hauled my pack over mountains, I had every opportunity to walk off my frustrations. The climbs up mountains flowed together into hours, days, weeks, and months. Over time, my focus shifted from running away to cultivating a sense of belonging in the liminality of life on the trail.
The endless ridges and switchbacks gave me the space I needed and challenged me to see beyond my frantic search for Walden Pond. I created a safe space in the consistency and rhythm of life on the trail. I never slept in the same place twice, but each day began early, and in the same way: listening to the hiss of my sleeping pad as it deflated, stuffing my sleeping bag into its sack, socks on, gaiters up, shoes tied, Poptart ready, ready to walk. Like clockwork, my body would demand more calories at mile four; I'd take a second breakfast rest-stop, find a sunny place for lunch or a shelter on rainy days, snack on Snickers at four p.m., make camp before dusk, sleep under stars, repeat. I learned to find peace and rest anywhere, and to make it where I could not find it. To make home while I walked home. In the final weeks of my hike, I passed through my beloved Smokies—the mountains I grew up in.
In “Walking,” his discourse on freedom, Thoreau stated:
“I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature rather than a member of Society.”
I started the Appalachian Trail in hopes of claiming this same wild, absolute freedom. I would finally be untethered from the expectations, schedules, and reminders of hardship that had previously governed my life. However, the months I spent on the AT exposed the complexity of such freedom.
As does membership in society, freedom on the Appalachian Trail demands responsibility. In the hiking community, this is called "Leave No Trace." On the trail, practicing freedom doesn't mean acting recklessly, but adhering to a common code of ethics that permits us to enjoy nature sustainably. It involves taking extra time to properly dispose of waste. It involves moving judiciously, to prevent the need for a rescue operation. It involves respect for common spaces, fellow species, and natural resources. After months of observing the traces left by those who failed to hike accountably, I recognized that my return to society would demand a new assumption of responsibility. The maintenance of freedom demands action.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail awakened parts of my heart long beat into submission by the cacophony of life. Minta—lonely, ashamed, and exhausted—gave way to Blueberry: a spunky and honest creature who laughed her pants wet and spoke up for what she needed. Blueberry listened for hours to the Lord in the forest and the longings of folks she hiked beside.
I am in medical school now. I still rise before the sun, although now it is to study pathology and to build the knowledge my future patients will depend on. While these moments are less remarkable and these emotions less intense, I still experience mountaintops and gaps with joy and pain. At the expense of my academics, I carve out time to exist in nature and commune with the Lord.
My thru hike as a chaplain on the Appalachian Trail has granted me dual citizenship in Nature and Society. Now, as our society grapples with a pandemic, a contentious election season, and ongoing racial injustice, I draw on lessons I have carried from the woods. When the rain won’t stop, hope must be manufactured. To create it, we can start by finding inspiration in the ordinary rhythms of everyday existence. To be free is a wild and beautiful privilege, and it is our responsibility to work toward a more equitable distribution of that privilege. Leave No Trace.