Perhaps the biggest question I’m asked about the trail besides ‘Where do you go to the bathroom’ is: Why?
It’s a fair question. I usually just shrug my shoulders and say, ‘I don’t know’.
Loads of hikers have a reason to thru-hike the AT and some do not. For me, right now, it’s ok not to have a formal reason. Sometimes the reason comes at the trail head, in the middle of that boulder field, the end of those 5 million footsteps or not at all.
Escaping past trauma, pain or injuries are a common thread among hikers. Some cite enrichment, personal growth or searching for something as a popular goal.
I suppose if I had to attach my hike to something, it would be a combination of all of these.
My first camping trip was when I was 6 weeks old and from that very young age, I was taught by my parents to respect the outdoors for its beauty, ruggedness, tranquility and its ‘teachable moments’. Both national and state parks were always on our summer vacation list and we could often be found camping, hiking, fishing and attending nature programs as well as shooing away an endless amount of mosquitos. Even though we’d abandoned a trip or two due to blood loss from these suckers, it never spoiled the love of the outdoors for me.
Even if the purpose for my thru hike is unclear at this point, I know whatever happens, this will be the trek of a lifetime. Even with the physical and emotional aches and pains, remaining open to all that the trail has to offer is what it’s about.
To me, the trail represents a life encapsulated into 6 months. Ups, downs, sprained ankles, big muscles, happy days, hard days, new friends and foes. Knowing when to push your body and mind and when to take that ‘zero’ day.
It’s ok to cry, it’s ok to laugh and enjoying the views are their own reward even though you know there will be other rough times ahead. Think of your family, think of your friends, contemplate how you got to this moment in time. Question where you are, question where you’re going or clear your mind altogether. There is no wrong way to ‘hike your own hike’.
A friend of mine in Mexico mentioned the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) in Spain. It’s a large network of ancient pilgrim routes that stretch across Europe and merge together at the tomb of St. James Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain. He said ‘I would hike that as a christian pilgrimage, but I don’t know why you’re hiking’. I laughed and said, ‘José Louis, neither do I’.
One thing is crystal to me, though. I’d be a fool not to try and find out.