With thru-hiking season starting in a few months, (and planning in full swing), thought I'd republish this article. It is something I wrote for 1999 Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers. The thoughts can apply to any long journey, however.
My emotions were running high when I wrote this letter. Had only come off the trail a few months before and was missing it terribly. In fall of 1998, was very active in helping prospective new hikers with questions about their own thru-hike in the Spring of ’99. Wrote this letter, posted it on the AT-L mailing list and in turn someone forwarded it to the editor of the Appalachian Trailway News. This letter was published in the March/April 1999 issue.
“The wildest dream is the beginning of reality” –Norman Cousins
Anyone who is a “Class of ‘99” thru-hiker has a dream, a dream to complete a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. By daring to have this dream, you will be creating a reality that involves happiness, frustration, sadness, excitement, anger and joy. It is an experience you will not forget, and one that will have an effect on you long after Springer or Katahdin is reached.
The key to a successful thru-hike is not what boots you wear, how many ounces you shave off your pack, what stove you use, or what brand of socks worn. No, they key to a successful thru-hike the making use of the most important piece of equipment: the gray matter, the ole noggin’, the brain.
A thru-hike is more of a mental challenge than a physical one. After 13 days of rain, do you still have the urge to hike? Can you stomach the umpteenth dinner of Ramen noodles? Are you ready to have your body go through something that will leave it aching for rest, wanting to stop? If you can say yes to that, then you can also see a moose wading in a pond around sunset, hear the shriek of an owl at night, smell pine needles on a sunny day. Enjoy the trip, revel in everything that happens. All these experiences that make an Appalachian Trail thru-hike memorable. If you are feeling low, ask yourself “What is the alternative?” You could be working in the office again, filing out yet another memo. Instead, you are on the Trail, experiencing nature, in all its raw beauty. Again, it’s an experience that will have an effect on you long after the journey is completed.
If you feel that your journey is complete, and Katahdin or Springer have not been reached, don’t feel that you have failed. There are no real failures on the trail. Daring to dream is a rarity in itself. Daring to live out your dream is something that many people are afraid to do. If you do not reach Katahdin or Springer, you will still have an experience that most people would not even bother to dream about. It does not take a thru-hike to learn the lessons of the trail. The lessons come from trying, and your Katahdin might come at Harpers Ferry, Damascus, or earlier. If you know in your heart that you have pushed yourself to your physical, mental and emotional limit, then you have done more than most people have even attempted.
The Appalachian Trail is a special experience. Hard to describe unless you have attempted it. No matter how little or how much time you take to hike the trail, it will be over before you know it. It will never be far from your thoughts. In between Springer and Katahdin are some wonderful memories; savor every one of them.