This year, we became thru-hikers. From June – November 2022, we hiked all 2,194.3 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT). It took us 4 months and 3 weeks. To say that this experience was life-changing is an understatement.
By the numbers:
- 2,194.3 miles
- 14 states
- 146 days
- 15 zeros (days with no hiking)
- 16.75 miles per hiking day on average
- 2 miles: Shortest hiking day
- 28.5 miles: Longest hiking day
- 464,500 of elevation gain and loss “equivalent to hiking Mt. Everest from sea level and back 16 times
- 114 nights sleeping outdoors
- 32 nights sleeping indoors
But, thru-hiking the AT was much more than the numbers. It was one of the most profoundly impactful experiences of our lives. We hiked every step together from Maine to Georgia. Along the way, we felt increasingly more connected to our minds, bodies, nature, and each other than ever before. Between the elevation, rough terrain, and varied weather conditions, thru-hiking the AT was really hard—mentally, physically, and emotionally. But, would the rewards, growth, and joy feel as sweet or even be possible without the difficulty? We don’t think so. For our year in review, we are sharing some of our big reflections from this experience and how we hope our growth and lessons learned on trail will carry into our lives off-trail.
1. Slowing down, cultivating mindfulness, and being more present
The simplicity of trail life allowed us to be more present, notice what was around us, and live from our deepest intentions. Each day on trail, our primary concerns consisted of keeping ourselves fed, hydrated, and rested. Everything felt simpler. We learned how to slow down, be more flexible, and set our egos and pride aside. It felt much less important to “get somewhere” when we had all the time we needed to get there. So, we practiced daily walking and seated meditation. We did not set alarms or rush in the morning. Almost always the last to leave camp each day, we made hot beverages, stretched, and enjoyed precious moments of solitude together. As we hiked, we took note of the small things: ferns, flowers, rocks, bugs. Trail life lent itself to mindfulness, reflection, and introspection. Perhaps it was being in nature all day, often (not fully) away from external expectations. Perhaps it was because we were constantly physically challenged. Perhaps it was because we were mostly alone with our thoughts. Perhaps it was the simplicity of channeling all our efforts towards a singular goal. Perhaps it was the reduction of choices in daily life. It was likely a combination of all these elements that allowed us to be more attuned to our thoughts and feelings.
There was something remarkable about embarking on an intensive experience for which the ultimate goal was so far away. Before the AT, when we went out for shorter hikes or backpacking trips, it was difficult not to focus on what we needed to do when we got home. Most often, those worries and anxieties were about inconsequential things, but they lingered in our minds when we knew they would be upon us soon. But on the AT, those worries became more distant and receded naturally. With the noise turned down, we could more appropriately assess what was important, what was extraneous, and what we could let go of. Thru-hiking the AT helped set the conditions for us to disconnect from distractions and more easefully dwell in the present.
2. Building confidence and realizing our capacity to handle uncertainty and challenge
When we planned this AT thru-hike, we didn’t know what we were capable of. There were a lot of big question marks. Could we actually do this? Would we like sleeping outside each day? Could our bodies hold up for so long? Now, we know what we can do and we know who we are as thru-hikers. It took time to develop this level of confidence and understanding of ourselves and each other. Each day, we faced conditions, terrain, and situations that challenged us and made us change our plans: drastic changes in weather (e.g. hurricanes, wind, rain, storms, snow), COVID, illness, interpersonal relationships on and off trail, and injury. Despite being thorough planners, many things were simply out of our control. Being flexible and responsive instead of stubbornly following a predetermined plan was challenging, but we learned that just because we could do something didn’t mean we should do it. We kept figuring things out and kept listening to our bodies. People would say things like “you have no idea how hard the next climb is” or “you are going to get your ass kicked by the next section.” It could have been easy to let these comments scare us. But we realized with experience that we were more capable than we or others realized. Nobody knew our minds, bodies, and capabilities like we did and with more experience, we knew we could handle whatever was thrown at us.
3. Seeing the impermanence of everything
Throughout the thru-hike, we reminded ourselves of Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh’s words: “Because of impermanence, everything is possible.” When thru-hiking, we experienced incredibly high highs and low lows, all of which could occur within minutes, hours, or days of each other. Sometimes, the climb up to a peak felt never-ending and exhausting, but as soon as we got to the top and felt the cool breeze and accomplishment, we were on top of the world. Experiencing these fluctuations in our emotions reminded us that everything—pain, joy, excitement, beauty, relief—were all fleeting. And, staying present with those feelings, noticing them, and not trying to fight them, were big lessons we learned. Even the thru-hike as a whole was impermanent. We couldn’t hold onto that experience any more than we could to those highs on mountaintops. If the thru-hike went on forever, it could not have been so transformative. We could not have grown in static conditions. After months of pouring every ounce of our bodies and minds into completing this goal, it ended, as all things do. And we were left both to bask in the accomplishment and grieve the finality of such a massive undertaking.
4. Appreciating our physical bodies and all that they can do and endure
Physically, thru-hiking the AT was tough. With the immense amount of elevation gain and loss, rocks, roots, and uneven terrain, our bodies really felt the effects of hiking all day every day. But, our bodies grew stronger, transforming with every step. They bounced back from illness, fatigue, injury, and discomfort. Over time, our bodies became conditioned to moving and it began to feel natural. Our legs became akin to our breath—moving voluntarily and involuntarily, up and down mountains. We trusted and listened to our bodies when we needed to slow down or when we could push our physical limits to a new level. We hiked our longest mileage day (28.5 miles) in the second to last day of our entire thru-hike.
5. Strengthening our minds and bodies and feeling the connection between them
So much of our ability to hike 15-20 miles per day relied on not only our physical strength, but our mental and emotional fortitude. Our tolerance for many forms of discomfort grew exponentially. Most often, it was our mindset that either prevented us from reaching our potential or allowed us to embrace difficult experiences. A big part of long distance hiking involves figuring out how to mentally and emotionally cope with physical discomfort. Over time, the connections between our minds, bodies, and nature strengthened. Meditation and mindfulness practices helped us through physically and emotionally challenging moments and days. Noticing how we felt, but not judging ourselves for those feelings, allowed us to accept where we were and what we needed. We felt in our bodies when we had hiked a certain number of miles. We sensed when a climb was about to end or begin based on the terrain. We knew if our bodies needed salt, sugar, or electrolytes when we felt fatigued. And we lived with the rhythms of the natural world. When we tripped, our bodies knew instinctively how to catch themselves or fall “gracefully” to keep us safe. We were continuously reminded of how much more connected our minds and bodies are as a result of this thru-hike and it’s truly remarkable to experience and feel that.
6. Deepening our partnership
There are some huge benefits to thru-hiking with your partner. We know each other so well and showed each other care and love every day, which was so important on a journey of such immense highs and lows. We were each self-sufficient, but having a known support system on tough days was invaluable. We didn’t feel homesick because, as cliché as it sounds, home (our moving tent) was wherever we were together. Many people asked if we got sick of each other and actually, it was the opposite. Even though we walked within eyesight of each other the entire way, we learned how to give each other space when the other person needed it. We developed tacit understandings of when to talk, when to walk in silence, and when and how to do camp chores. We’ve truly never been closer.
7. Being grateful for what we have
Being able to take 5 months to thru-hike the AT is immense privilege. When we got on trail with just a backpack on our shoulders, we quickly learned how little we needed to live fully. Each day, we felt grateful for what we had and what people were willing to provide us. Specifically, any food, water, words of encouragement, quick hitchhikes, or showers offered to us were incredible gifts. We could not be more appreciative for the hospitality we received from friends and strangers. It is incredible what a nutritious meal and a hot shower can do for your overall physical health and mental well-being. For example, one motel owner let us camp on the lawn for free and brought us Indian food from a retreat center he volunteered at. One person who gave us a ride also gave us hand sanitizer and plastic bags – things that may seem inconsequential, but are actually invaluable to thru-hikers. A pair of trail angels opened their home to us and took us in like family. Other hikers who passed gave us enthusiastic fist bumps when they learned about what we were doing. We didn’t need much more than the necessities, a sense of adventure, and the kindness of others.
8. Building community and contributing to its improvement
The trail created so many opportunities to connect with hikers at unexpected times and places. We met hikers from different places and in different stages of life who we probably would never have engaged with if we didn’t do this hike. We befriended whole families, retirees, recent college graduates, and just other people figuring out life. Sharing this experience with others inherently made us closer to people with vastly different life experiences from our own. People were willing to go deeper and be more authentically themselves knowing that we all share this beautiful, challenging, and complex experience. Simultaneously, however, the hiking community is not always as welcoming and inclusive as we want it to be. Thru-hiking is not an escape from reality––we all bring our experiences and identities with us wherever we go. Lotus dealt with more incidents of stereotyping and unconscious bias while hiking the trail than she has experienced in day-to-day life. She had to figure out how to cope with these interactions while maintaining her joy and love for thru-hiking. Stretch had to figure out how best to be an ally and supporter while of course making some mistakes along the way. By immersing ourselves within this community, we grew in our own identity development and solidified our resolve to make the outdoor community more accessible and inclusive for all.
9. Connecting deeply with nature
By living outside, we connected deeply with the rhythms of nature. Feeling the seasons changing and walking for hours surrounded by the sights and sounds of the woods was truly healing. We began hiking in the heat of the summer, with long hours of daylight and lush greenery, and ended hiking in the late fall, starting and ending in the fading sun and walking on fallen leaves under bare trees. We hiked through snow, drought, changing fall foliage, extreme heat, and extreme cold. We picked blueberries off of bushes in Maine, cleaned ourselves by swimming in ponds, and fell asleep listening to the sounds of calling loons, chirping cicadas, and rummaging red squirrels. Also, our creativity exploded while spending extended time in nature. Each day, it felt like we were overflowing with ideas and urges to tell stories, write, take pictures, draw, and paint.
10. Infusing joy and celebration
Celebrating accomplishments, small and large, is critical when facing a massive undertaking like thru-hiking a long trail. Along the way, we intentionally acknowledged when we reached certain milestones (like the halfway point), when we met smaller goals (like walking a full marathon distance), and when we simply handled difficult situations well. Doing so made the daunting task of hiking 2,200 miles in less than 5 months feel possible on a daily basis. We also took lots of pictures and made silly videos to make us laugh, particularly in moments of difficulty.
Each day on the Appalachian Trail we relished the time we had to deeply consider our priorities and figure out how we could craft a fulfilling life for ourselves. Now that we are off trail, we are not planning to make drastic changes in our jobs, home life, or relationships. But we are making small daily changes including: spending time outside each day; incorporating daily forms of movement including running, hiking, yoga, and walking; prioritizing a space in our home for art and creativity; and expanding our blog. On a larger scale, we are integrating hiking, traveling, and adventuring into our lives while maintaining meaningful careers that keep us grounded. Following this experience, we have become more confident in who we are, who we want to grow to be, and how we want to live our lives, despite our choices seeming unconventional to others. We are looking forward to what 2023 and beyond holds for us.
We signed every trail journal with two phrases that we continue to live by:
The journey continues.
“No mud, no lotus.”