It has now been 11 days since I returned home from finishing the Appalachian Trail. Reaching Springer Mountain was, of course, a joyous occasion, but there was no overwhelming feeling of emotion. It was a special day in that it was my last day (for now) out on the AT, but the experience of being out on the trail for 6 months was a lot more special. Some days I got wrapped up in the miles and our pace, but the people around me were my reminder that the experience out there was more important than finishing the trail. I plan on going back out in the Spring and making up the sections that I skipped, so leaving the AT felt more like a “see ya later” than a “goodbye.”
So how has my experience on the AT changed me?
The first time Jim and I got accidently separated, back in the 100 mile wilderness, I ended up crying because I let all of my fears from being alone in the woods get to my head. Gradually, I became more comfortable being alone and eventually I was able to go out on my own for a few days while Jim and Captain Morgan helped out with the hiker Thanksgiving. Hiking alone in the woods gives you an incredible sense of freedom that you really can’t find anywhere else. I now have the confidence to go out in the future by myself, whether it’s the AT or a trail in a foreign country or really anywhere.
Generally in society, people hang out with their own age group. Most of the older people I have interacted with in my life have been authority figures, family, or family friends. Not my own friends. But on the AT, all differences between thru-hikers seem to disappear. We all need food, water, and shelter, and enjoy the company of others. I have become better at seeing everyone as being human rather than classifying people into categories. Even more than that, I’ve become better at seeing the good in people. On the AT, people showed an overwhelming amount of compassion and generosity, showing me that it is possible for people to be selfless and live in peace together.
Being outside of “normal” American society for 6 months has given me a new perspective on how I want to live my life. For 99% of human history, we have lived as hunter-gatherers. It’s only been recently that humans have come out of the woods and into the civilization we are familiar with today. Evolutionarily speaking, humans were built to survive in the wilderness. Being in the woods every day felt natural, like I was where I was supposed to be. I was hunting and gathering my food at grocery stores, but I was still living a nomadic (aka homeless) lifestyle. It felt amazing to be away from technology, to have all of my social interactions face to face, to sit around a fire at night instead of a television, to just live without having to make or spend money (besides food). I feel more connected now with the peacefulness and beauty of nature, and I can’t imagine myself ever living far away from the mountains.
It almost feels like the AT was a dream because I have already become used to living at home with my parents. My bed is no longer a luxury, but just my bed. I’ve shaved, brushed my hair, and washed the stank out of my gear. But I notice myself not caring as much about what I look like as I did before the trail. I notice myself feeling more confident about who I am. I know the friends I made along the way have influenced me in their own ways (yes, Captain Morgan, your crazy permaculture ideas have rubbed off on me). I’m sure the trail has changed me in other ways too that I’m unaware of now. I know that I want to give back to the trail since it has given me so much. Maybe one day I’ll live close to the AT and be a trail angel. But for now, it’s on to the next adventure.