The phrase “Hike your own hike” has become something of a motto on the Appalachian Trail. It’s often used in defensive reply to someone who is offering unsolicited advice on how you should hike the trail: what food you should eat, how many miles to cover in a day, what’s wrong with your choice of footwear—but it can also point to the highly personal nature of what draws people into the woods. What motivates people to commit months of their life to following a wilderness path through the mountains of eastern America?
One of the most common reasons is for the challenge of it. They want to test themselves on a difficult adventure. They are drawn by the romance and allure of roughing it for weeks on end as they explore the original American frontier. Others go to the A.T. for therapy. They need to escape the grind of the modern world and refill their tanks in the quiet woods.
For me, I was most strongly drawn to the A.T. by the story of it. For several years, the stories I heard most about the A.T. were those of my girlfriend, Sunshine. She’d thru-hiked the trail back-to-back in 2004 and 2005. She told me of the friends she made on the trail and the adventures they had together: cowboy camping in the White Mountains or fording swollen rivers in the Maine wilderness. She talked about how difficult it was but also how inspiring. On the trail she’d found herself and grown stronger and more self-confident as a woman. I was captivated by her stories, and the year I turned 30, I decided to go out and make my own journey on the trail. With Sunshine’s support, I went down to Springer Mountain in early February and started walking north.
Throughout my hike I always felt I was walking back to Sunshine. This was geographically true in the early days as I made my way north through the dripping, gray Georgia woods towards our home in North Carolina. I spent large parts of those days thinking about Sunshine and the possibilities of our future together. I carried in my pack a wooden ring set with a rough cut diamond that I planned to give to her once I reached the north end of the Smokies where she would join me for a few days on the trail. I can’t count the number of times I opened my pack to check and make sure the ring was still there or the number of hours I spent imagining how I would propose to her.But the trail, like life, has a way of changing your plans. The words “trail” and “trial” can be exchanged by a mere shuffling of letters.
When I reached the southern end of the Smoky Mountains a week before my planned rendezvous with Sunshine, I was hiking with four companions I’d met on the trail. We began the climb up the tallest mountains on the A.T. as a heavy winter storm descended on the range. Day after day, the snow deepened and the temperature dropped. Every morning I awoke to boots that were two frozen blocks of ice. The simple act of stuffing my sleeping bag into its sack was a painful ordeal that rubbed my frozen fingers raw. The romantic vision of the A.T. quickly gave way to a painful slog through exhausting conditions. If we weren’t post-holing through 3-foot snowdrifts, then we’d be walking through a cold rain, soaked to the bone. Through it all the good humor of my hiking companions and the stark beauty of the winter landscape lifted my spirits and kept me putting one foot in front of the other. When I finally reached Davenport Gap at the north end of the Smokies, Sunshine was there waiting for me with a hug and a warm pizza.
We hiked together for two days through snow-laden woods under trees sheathed in ice. On the night that we camped on the shoulder of Max Patch Bald, I prepared for my proposal. In the pre-dawn dark, I stole out of the tent, leaving a note card with instructions for Sunshine that told her to sleep in (she loves to take leisurely mornings) and where to find me when she was ready to get up. I walked up to the snowy bald where I reflected and prayed while I watched the dawn break.
Then my plan began to falter. Sitting down on the snowy hill, I realized that I’d forgotten some needed implements in the tent, most importantly my down jacket and coffee fixings. Not wanting to risk waking Sunshine and disturbing the plan, I decided to settle in and tough it out. An hour passed, then two. The dawn came and went, and the sun rose higher and higher in the sky. For some time I had been thinking, “What on earth can be keeping her?!”The truth was she had been awake for some time, luxuriating in her warm sleeping bag and wondering where I’d gone. It wasn’t until she sat up and bumped her head against the note card (which I had romantically hung from the tent rafters) that she read it. She hurried from the tent and found me up on the mountain, a shivering hermit who was completely failing to have the patience that he’d envisioned for himself.
She sat with me on the hill, and all the words I’d imagined to say left me. I spoke to her sincerely and falteringly of my love for her and my desire to join my life to hers. When I had finished, she rewarded me with a “Yes.”
Long distance hiking does not measure well by the standards of the civilized world. It won’t make you rich or famous. By the end of the journey, you won’t have much to show for your efforts besides some extremely well-toned calves, and those fade quickly once you descend the mountain and return to “normal” life. But the day I descended Mount Katahdin I felt I’d gained a treasure of immeasurable value. I’d lived one of the most important stories of my life, and I was ready to go forward into my future with Sunshine.