I became a hiker on June 9, 2011. Maybe you remember that day—it was overcast, and a strong wind was pushing the clouds over the mountains of New York. The air had a different kind of feel, like it was alive and had something it needed to say. It was the fifth day of my first backpacking trip and I was wearing that new pair of socks you bought me in Columbus. I remember being embarrassed because I almost lost one and you found it outside of my tent that morning. Chase had that look on his face like he was disappointed in me, like he might’ve wished you hadn’t invited me to tag along for a week on the Appalachian Trail with you guys. He was thru-hiking, after all.
Then of course that funny thing happened where I got lost in the middle of you two. You left early and Chase left late, leaving me to take a wrong turn in the middle. Chase passed me when I was lost and caught up to you, concerned that my inexperience had gotten the best of me…and that I was bear food. I knew something was off when Chase didn’t catch up to me, but I really didn’t care. The clouds were skating low and fast over the ridge line and the leaves were dancing, steady and methodical like an ocean wave. I was caught up in the movement of it all, of the dancing and the skating and life that I had not noticed before. I was fifteen, alone for the first time, and free by myself in the woods.
I became an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker on July 31, 2014. The wood on the Katahdin sign felt worn against my unshaved legs, a reminder of those who had passed before me. Standing on the sign, I was reminded of you, of your goofy hats and blunt slogans, of your inexhaustible generosity, and of my first backpacking trip. You didn’t have to do that, you know. I was just a geeky kid who was a friend of your family—it would have made more sense to ask my brother to accompany you. I want to thank you for recognizing my potential and allowing me the opportunity to recognize it myself. You have taught me the most important things about backpacking and through backpacking I have learned the most important things about myself.
When I was fifteen I didn’t imagine myself walking up the eastern seaboard, or becoming an engineer. I feel that age is the one where opportunities present themselves to us most ambiguously. Most likely you didn’t imagine that inviting me to hike with you and your son would eventually dictate my career path and perspective on life. So thank you, Todd Gordon, for believing in me when I did not believe in myself. Thank you for teaching what is not usually taught. And thank you for so actively encouraging me when it was not required of you. You are such an inspiration.
Alexis Eliot is a freshman studying Mechanical Engineering at Virginia Tech. She is a former AT thru-hiker, a Head Trip Leader for the Virginia Tech Outdoor Club, and one of our four 2016-2017 Blue Ridge Outdoors college ambassadors. Be on the lookout for more online from Alexis and the rest of our college ambassadors!