The pack creaked as I hoisted it onto my back. Or was it my back that moaned under the load? I wasn’t really sure which had protested more. The pack weighed more than 50 pounds, way too heavy to carry for the next 137 miles. Yet that was my goal: 137 meandering miles along the mountains and valleys of northern Georgia and western North Carolina. If all went as planned, I’d spend the next twelve days hiking a section of the famed Appalachian Trail (AT).
I bid my loving family a prolonged goodbye in the gravel parking lot just a mile from the summit of Springer Mountain, Georgia. My wife was nervous yet supportive. My kids were excited for me but equally ready to go to their grandmother’s house for their own two-week adventure. I was awash with emotions: the excitement of starting a journey on the trail that had been calling me for years, the trepidation of the setting out on this trek by myself, and the impending loneliness that was sure to seize me in the days to come. All of these emotions swirled around me as I watched my kids wave from the backseat of the minivan as it started down the Forest Services road, leaving behind a wake of red clay dust.
Once they were out of sight, I turned to look for the white blaze that has come to symbolize the AT. Thousands of thru-hiker wannabes answer the call of the trail each year. Less than a quarter of them make it the entire 2,189 miles to Mount Katahdin. Some run out of money during the hike that typically takes five months to complete. Some have a family emergency or other event that calls them back home. Others fall to injury or illness. Still others quit when their trek transforms from a soulful search for meaning to an arduous and aching task of endurance. A few find what they are looking for from the trail before reaching the northern terminus and return home content with their journey. The determined, or perhaps slightly crazy, walk every step along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from Georgia to Maine. They are the thru-hikers.
I would love to be counted as a thru-hiker one day. But I am not in a season of my life where undertaking that dream is possible. I have six wonderful kids to raise with my lovely bride, I have bills to pay, and I have a business to run. One day I will embark on that journey, but today is not that day.
What I can do is hike a section of the trail each year, slowly making progress through each of the 14 states that the trail crosses. In June of 2016, I started that journey. I had arranged to take a couple of weeks off from work. It took a lot of planning to get to that point, both professionally and personally. I’ll share more about the planning and its importance later.
My goal for this hike was to complete all 78 miles of the trail in Georgia and continue on to Nantahala, NC, at AT mile 137. That would be roughly 6.3% of the AT.
I had great expectations for the trip. First there was to be no work during the two weeks, just hiking. Second, I would be flexible and not uptight about my schedule. I would not be bound by the clock. I would start each day when I awoke, I would eat when I was hungry, and I would rest when tired. Third, I would embrace the time alone. I would reflect on my life and how I was living it. I would consider the things I was doing and their impact on me, on my family, and on others. And finally, I would seek to grow spiritually. I wanted a mountain top experience, both literally and figuratively.
I didn’t get what I expected. I got so much more.
Each day the trail seemed to teach me lessons that could be applied not only to hiking but in other areas of life as well, both at home and at work. Despite not wanting to “work” during the journey, I soon felt I should write these lessons down so I could reflect on them later. Sometimes, I wouldn’t walk more than a few hundred feet before I had to get the waterproof notepad out again to record a thought.
By the time I reached Nantahala, I’d recorded more than 70 points to reflect on. Some of them were personal and intimate. Many of them were about my role as a leader in my home, in my job, or in my volunteer activities.
Over the coming weeks, I plan to share some of these lessons from the trail in series blog posts. Although I had a lot of fun and met some wonderful people during my section hike, the posts will not just be random camping stories. Each post will incorporate a lesson that became very apparent to me on the trail, yet can be directly applied to life off the trail. My hope is that you’ll find these lessons entertaining, inspiring, and applicable whether or not you have ever donned a backpack or set foot on a trail.