Going out for a long walk: My dream of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail

The guy in the picture has sun-drenched hair and a scraggly beard, but looks fit. His excitement and elation jump off the computer screen. He holds up his arms in celebration, a hiking pole dangles down from his arms. The woman in the picture has her arms in the air too and an even bigger smile.


The two took the photo after they completed the Appalachian Trail, a 2,200-mile National Scenic Trail that extends from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine. The two started their hike in late March and ended six months later in early September. Like most thru-hikers, they walked during the day — averaging about 8-10 miles in the early going and then 15-20 once they got stronger — and slept in a tent or one of the 250 shelter sites spaced about a day’s hike apart along the trail. They kept a regular schedule and every seven days or so, spent a night in a hotel or hostel in one of the communities near the trail, where they rested and loaded up on provisions.

Since the trail was completed in the 1930s, more than 12,000 people have hiked the full-length of the trail, known simply as the A.T. Historically, only about 10% to 15% of those who make the attempt report to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy that they completed it. The husband and wife were two of the most recent hikers to accomplish the task this past fall.


Finding my stride

I’ve been looking online at pictures of hikers like the two mentioned above. Every picture seems to tell a story. A hiker in one shot hugging the Mount Katahdin sign, three hikers in another shot dressed in shabby 1980’s era tuxedos (they must have changed into them on top of the mountain) toasting their accomplishment with glasses of champagne.

the-bucket-list-734593_640I’ve been looking closely at the pictures because I came across an old list that I had created a few years ago. I made a bucket list of things I want to do before I die. It was a fun exercise. I included everything from skydiving to publishing a novel. I have one goal on the list that makes no sense at all. The goal: to hike the Appalachian trail.

I write the words now and it still makes no sense to me. I hate the sun and heat. I love long hot showers and would die without a warm shower every morning. I would love the physical challenge, but I also like good food and just chilling in front of the TV.

The majority of the trail passes through forest or woodlands, with smaller portions traversing through towns, roads and farms. The trail passes through 14 states, Georgia, Virginia, New York and Vermont to name a few. And while I can think of a ton of things I would love to do in each state, everything from visiting national parks and museums, hiking isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind.

In fact, when I think of a vacation, I usually think of a lying on a relaxing beach, not walking 10 to 15 miles a day, forget about 18 to 20 miles. When I think of staying at a hotel, I think of large plush suite. I don’t think of a tent in the woods. And on relaxing days, I certainly don’t think of a budget motel along the side of the road.


Working on my wife

My wife likes to get out in nature. Of the two of us, she’s the nature freak. She’s the one who loves to camp and hike. I’m working on her to try to convince her, but I think for any number of reasons, I’m probably on my own on this one. I mention the mere idea of hiking the Appalachian when our kids are all out of the house and on their own and she gives me the same look that she gives me when I tell her I’m making progress of my novel. The look is a skeptical one that says, “I’ll believe it, when I see it.”

We’ve camped out over the years in the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia and state parks in Pennsylvania. She’s loved that and has had a blast. I try to build on top of that past experience. I mention that hiking the trail would be just like our past get-aways, but with a few more days added onto the trip and she shoots me a disgusted look that questions, “Do you even know me?”

I guess I need to keep working on that one.


No challenge too big

Thru-hikers of all ages have successfully hiked the length of the trail. A parks and recreation administrator from Tennessee became the oldest person to hike the entire Appalachian Trail this past October at the age 82.

I remind myself that I still have decades until I’m in my 80s. But, I should probably still cross the idea off my bucket list. Everything tells me it’s a fool’s errand. We’re both generally healthy, but certainly not ready right now to tackle the Appalachian and its many challenges. Most important, I don’t have the time, money, or the inclination to free up my schedule to take five to seven months off from my family.


Everything tells me that the challenge is too big. I take out my bucket list and start to cross off the goal, but I stop.

Instead, I draw big continuous circles around its spot on the list and the item below it: to walk the El Camino de Santiago, the 500-mile trail that traverses the French Pyrenees to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in Northwestern Spain. The spiritual journey, also called the Way of St. James, takes hikers over the Pyrenees Mountains, past vineyards, small villages, and through lush eucalyptus forests.

Despite what my mind and common sense says, my heart tells me to keep both goals on my bucket list. I follow my heart and keep both as is. I remind myself that the last time I felt this way about something, I ended up running two marathons.

You just never know.


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