When I tell folks my plans to quit my job, give up my affordable apartment, and hike the Appalachian Trail by myself, I usually receive one of two reactions: either they blink at me in bewilderment or their eyes light up in that way that shows they understand the value of a big trip.
It seems to make people nervous that I discarded the commitments that represent adulthood and stability. However, I’m not running away from anything; I simply need a change. My life as an ER nurse in Seattle was good – but not great – and I worried if I didn’t yank myself out of the rut I might get stuck there forever, living a life I didn’t love.
Rather than waste my days trapped in traffic jams, working too much, feeling cooped up, and eating meals alone, I hope to spend the next four months feeling more excited about tomorrows. So I detached myself from the grind of time clocks and Wi-Fi and neverending to-dos. Without these ties dragging me down I already feel lighter and more carefree, more open to new experiences, and closer to that previous version of myself that wasn’t so grouchy all the time.
On the trail I want to live a little slower; to get plenty of exercise; to let my feet and my mind wander until I run out of thoughts; to lie on my back and watch the afternoon clouds pass overhead; to munch on sweet trailside huckleberries until my lips and fingers are stained pink; and to hopefully to find a more fulfilling place to land when I’m finished.
People often fret about my safety on the trail, perhaps because I am abandoning a familiar lifestyle they can relate to. This fear of the unknown brings out a lot of advice from friends and strangers. While I appreciate their concerns about bear maulings, lightning strikes, and freak tiger attacks (yes, seriously), there is a point when worry becomes fearmongering and prevents you from trying anything new. I’ve prepared as best I can for the medical conditions most likely to end my hike – Lyme disease, waterborne diarrhea, or a busted ankle. Without minimizing these possibilities, I remain convinced that the riskiest part of any day outdoors is driving to the trailhead.
Concerned adults also frequently warn me about the danger of strangers on the trail. Like when, last July, I unknowingly hitched a ride with the county sheriff to the top of Sonora Pass. I was planning to camp solo and meet a friend the next day on the Pacific Crest Trail. The entire drive up, Sheriff Spencer lectured me on the hazards of traveling alone in general and of hitchhiking in specific. He assured me serial killers, drug traffickers, and psychopaths lurked in the hills of Alpine County. You never know who you might meet, he reminded me. Turns out he was right.
Before he could even pull his car away from the trailhead, I spotted a grungy looking passerby and shouted ‘Hey Hiker Trash!’ to get his attention. Within minutes Suds and I became acquainted and set up camp together, sharing trail stories and a bottle of whisky under the Sierra stars.
Suds was 23 and thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the same age as when I hiked it six years ago. He told stories with the same wild enthusiasm for life that I used to feel, and that I miss in myself since moving from the mountains to the city. Suds told me of his love for the Maine woods, west coast pot, and peanut butter mixed with oatmeal. I reminisced about the thrill of fording chest-deep rivers and glissading over summer snowfields in the High Sierra, a time when I have never felt more alive.
The next morning Suds and I parted ways and I never saw him again. He didn’t know it, but that night I decided to go for another long hike.
My dirtbag friends get it. They understand that getting to know strangers like Suds is one of the best parts of long distance hiking. I can’t wait to meet all those dirty, smelly, unshaven vagabonds out there. The ones who choose underemployed lifestyles that allow them the freedom to take long stretches of time off. These once-strangers are now some of my favorite adventure buddies.
They are friends like Drop-n-Roll who I can call on a whim and ask to climb Rainier next week. She will throw a rope in the car, meet me at the trailhead, and then ask me to streak the summit under the full moon.
Like Gang$ta Rap, who will check my butt for ticks and ask me to pull a thorn out of hers.
Like Stagg, who will stop with me to snack on those ephemeral thimbleberries and then remind me that we do need to continue walking if we want to reach Canada before winter.
Like Daybreaker, who still hosts hiker get-togethers so we can stay in touch.
Like Seahorse and Chili Dog, who invited us all to their wedding and gave us hiker gals a reason to finally shave our legs.
Like Bubbles, who at that wedding greeted me with a huge hug and nodded enthusiastically in agreement that I shouldn’t settle for a life I’m not excited about living. Then she gave me her extra pair of hiking shoes so they can live out their full potential on the Appalachian Trail.
And like Suds, who I knew for less than a day but who may have altered the direction of my life.
To all those who expressed doubt about my trip: Yes, I’m sure there will be moments of fear, loneliness, boredom, and homesickness. I’ll wonder why I am trudging through mud, batting away swarms of mosquitoes, or shivering in the rain. At times I will certainly question why I decided to start this thing alone. What I don’t doubt is that common experiences, good or bad, lead to the strongest human connections, fondest memories, and most personal growth. There’s nothing quite like sleeping in the dirt to bring people together.
I’m not sure exactly what I’ll find when I climb Mt. Katahdin on July 20 and start walking south, but I hope it looks a lot like this photo: strangers who become friends, sharing a meal together in a beautiful place. Dirty, bug bitten, sunburned, and with huge smiles on our faces. For me, relationships like these are the true meaning of trail magic.