In April 2017, I got a wild hair up my ass and felt called to hike the Appalachian Trail. In regular Danielle spirit, I decided I wanted to do the whole entire thing in one fell swoop.
The entire goddamn 2,000 + miles of it.
I had never done such a thing before. But this is how my crazy ideas start sometimes. I remember reading Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wildand thinking to myself, “I’d like to go on an adventure like that someday…”
I also blame my boyfriend, Jonathan. It’s been his dream to hike the AT, too. One day, I asked a question of my community:
If you could go on any adventure, what would it be?
Jonathan told me he’d hike the AT. Although I had heard something like this from him before, for some reason it struck a different cord this time. It felt like it was the time for me to embark on this. So I bought my first backpacking backpack, a tent, and a shit ton of dried food and set my sights on a six-month journey.
Jonathan dropped me off at the southern terminus of the trail: Amicoloa Falls State Park on Springer Mountain, GA. It was raining. Profusely.
We went inside to register. I wasn’t sure what my trail name would be, so I put a placeholder in it’s stead – Weasel, a nickname my family calls me. Before stepping outside to say our goodbye, the bumper stickers in the gift shop caught my attention.
I laughed out loud at one.
“Don’t follow me. You won’t make it.”
I am not even sure why I found it so funny, but the laugh was real.
A few minutes later, I was wiggling my way in to my rain gear – a pair of black “waterproof” pants and a $200 Gortex rain jacket. We kissed goodbye and I felt that familiar stab when you part from the physical presence of someone you deeply love. But I knew it would be OK. We’ve made it through even tougher circumstances.
With a big inhale, I started to walk. I did turn once or twice to see Jonathan taking a ton of photos of me. Eventually though, the trail turned and I could no longer see him.
The light rain made the woods seem even more enchanted.
I’m not exactly certain when that enchantment wore off for me. I knew it would. I knew from reading other’s stories about similar journeys, as well as my own past, that when it’s new, the adventure can feel super exciting.
Then the reality of it all hits.
I am alone. In the woods. Just walking.
Well, not completely alone, because I do have this 40-lb pack on my back. I named her Maven.
I soon discovered that although I had done my very best to limit the weight I was carrying, Maven was heavy as hell. I also discovered a slew of other things, such as…
- You can get blisters in the oddest places
- When it rains in the forest, it stays wet for a good long while thereafter
- Chipmunks moving around at night sound a whole lot like bears
- Mice enjoy climbing over the top of your tent when it’s cold out
- Rain gear is NOT waterproof
- One can get tired of tuna fish very quickly
I found myself cursing the trail – sometimes even yelling at it. Why was this so hard?!
It just stared back at me.
The trail taught me a lot. It was tough love. But I realized ultimately that the trail was just a reflection of myself. The harder I was on myself, the harder the trail was on me.
I needed to stop trying so damn hard.
So I cut down my mileage. I made friends. I lightened my load. I stopped in little mountain towns every three days to restock.
I learned to ask for help… and then actually let others help me.
I turned the tunes on (Florida Georgia Line for all my country music fans out there!) I was still huffing and puffing – these were mountainsafter all. I still vented, cried, screamed, got mad, stomped, and contemplated in my head and aloud with companions why the hell I was doing this.
I don’t think I ever knew fully why I was doing it, and maybe I still don’t. But that adventure called to me strongly, so I had to give it a shot.
I had to combat thoughts that I was a failure for not hiking as fast as others. For eventually deciding that I would get off the trail in Damascus, VA after 525 miles, instead of reaching Mt. Katadhin. I had to love myself enough to realize that the goal and destination don’t make me any more worthy than I already am.
My hiking buddy I met on the trail had a favorite phrase she always said.
“Get it together.”
That’s what answering our callings does to us. It pulls us into the middle of the woods, blows us apart, and then… with some grace and some grit… it gets us back together again.
I lost some stuff along the way – articles of clothing, sanity, ear buds... but I also found another piece of myself. One that realized she was strong enough to go for it...and strong enough to let go of it.
Because we never can really “quit.” As long as we are alive, we are always engaged in this adventure.
I think about that bumper sticker, “Don’t follow me you won’t make it”that’s plastered to my car among a dozen others. It’s true. We cannot follow one another. We can’t expect to walk down someone else’s path and it feel “right” and “true.” We can only walk our own. We can learn from others, but the last say is always our own – from our True Nature.
“True Nature” became my trail name. Because that’s what I was seeking and am still seeking, in my heart and soul.
I left the AT on June 25, 2017. But I’m always on my path.