Advice to a Future Hiker

Yesterday marked one month since I summited Katahdin and concluded my journey along the Appalachian Trail. I celebrated it by returning to the woods; though, this time under very different circumstances. My business school planned an outdoors trip to help incoming students get to know each other; the revelry around a bonfire and lazy river day was a dramatic departure from my quiet evenings of reflection on Trail.  It was a blast, and it offered an outlet to talk about my trip in a different way--to actually show my gear and share insights. The weekend getaway reminded me that I had learned a lot on the AT, not just about myself, but about how to prepare and succeed for this epic adventure. Below are some crucial pieces of advice that helped me start and finish the Trail.

Find your luxury item. The backpacking community is, broadly speaking, gear-obsessed. Check out any online forum and you'll find countless opinions about what exactly you should carry in order to minimize your weight. When I first began planning for this journey, most of my gear was oriented for car camping--weight didn't matter and comfort was the focus. It was stressful wading through all of the options and frustrating that the "must have" ultralight gear was simply out of my budget. In the end, I had to trust my gut and compromise, getting as light as I could without going bankrupt. What I found, though, was top of the line gear didn't actually correlate with finishing the Trail. What did was the forethought to know what was a necessity for you. I started with a book, thinking that I would go crazy in the woods without the ability to escape into a world of fiction, but ditched that idea almost immediately--it was a luxury I didn't need. My two-person tent, however, despite being bulky and heavy, was essential. It offered me privacy when I wanted, a space to call home despite my nomadic lifestyle. Different people have a wide array of luxury items: a couple that carried more than a pound of Tang! because they regularly craved it on hot summer days and couldn't find it in most stores, an older gentleman with a knife nearly as big as a machete that used to be his grandfather's who inspired him to love the outdoors, and even a guy with a Japanese tea set because it helped him relax and feel more connected to nature. For the most part, I believe that happiness cannot be derived solely from material things, but when you're cutting your toothbrush in half to save on weight, one luxury item can go a long way.

Listen to your body.  This tip is probably pretty obvious but is honestly the best piece of advice I can give to any aspiring thru hiker, and its also the hardest to listen to. Long-distance hiking pushes your body in ways that it likely is unprepared for, no matter how much training you've done ahead of time. There will be a point on any long hike when your body says, "I'm done," and you've got to figure out how to keep going. Normally, I'm of the temperament that I could just push through the pain and stick to the plan, but that leads to disaster on a thru hike. You see, its not just about getting to your destination for that day, its being able to do it each day, despite the exhaustion and hunger. If you push too hard on one day, you could wind up spending another holed up in a hostel trying to recover. As a planner, I like to tackle problems with a clear schedule; it allows me to mentally prepare for anything that I might face. Having a game plan is often a good idea, but flexibility is just as essential if you are going to be successful. It was hard for me to learn to deviate from the plan--to admit that I found some moments too hard, or that I wasn't going to reach where I had set out to go that day. It was much more difficult, though, to bounce back after a day where I pushed too hard. One of the best parts about the Trail is that you are removed from schedules and obligations; take advantage of that freedom and live fully in the moment.

Thank the Trail Gods. One thing that has proven true time and again (at least on this trip) was that gratitude goes an incredibly long way. I was grateful to have the opportunity to journey and face the challenge of the mountains. I am in debt to the countless strangers who popped up along the Trail to nourish me with food and conversation. I am humbled by the support that I received in raising money for Next Steps. That gratitude is important to express however and whenever you can, but this piece of advice goes beyond expressing how thankful you are to those around you. Early on in my hike, my friend Freud pointed out that the AT doesn't go over every mountain. She always tried to notice when the trail turns away from a huge climb and offers an easier route; it doesn't happen often (particularly in the North), but it can lift your spirits when you're exhausted. It's easy to miss, after all it feels like I've climbed every peak from Georgia to Maine, but if you take the time to notice the little things, you'll be a lot happier. I thanked the Trail Gods when a water source was particularly clear, when a good sitting rock was shaded at lunch time, when a campsite had a view of the sunrise, and when the fog lifted momentarily to showcase a vista. Thanking the Trail Gods is as much about reminding yourself you are lucky to have this beautiful, difficult experience as it is about expressing gratitude to others. When its hard, remember why you're out there to begin with.

Define your success. People told me before I started to write down the Why for my hike. I couldn't boil it down to a single reason, a single moment, or single idea that would keep me going. Initially, I worried that without a good Why, I wouldn't have the fortitude to last on the Trail. Then, another good friend, Farasi, challenged me early on to define what a successful thru hike looked like for me. At first, my answer seemed obvious--reach Katahdin. But over time, the journey no longer was just about the end. What I carried with me instead of a clear Why was the belief that I would gain a wealth of experiences no matter how my journey turned out. Success on Trail isn't just about having a strong will to reach the end, its the understanding that setbacks and side trips are part of the journey. As you push your limits, you'll learn about yourself. Be confident in the person that you thought you were as well as who you might become. For me, what makes a successful thru hike is not finishing the miles, but in growing from them. Know for yourself what this trip means to you.

Go, Go, Go! I saved this for last, because in many ways it is the hardest one.  I often would ask fellow thru hikers what they thought the hardest point along the Trail was, and I usually got two answers: starting the trip or returning to the Trail after a break. Undertaking this journey is a logistical, physical, and emotional feat. Simply carving out the time can be a challenge for many. Then packing up your life, limiting yourself to what you can physically carry, and preparing to be out of regular communication with loved ones for months only makes it harder. Each day, you're greeted with one decision: to continue or not. At first, the idea of continuing feels impossible as your muscles strain to support you and memories of home tempt you. If you stay on the AT long enough, those struggles give way to the joy of the journey and momentum pushes you forward. You will still face hard days, but those moments are mixed in with so many experiences you cannot find elsewhere--the pain becomes worth it. This journey changed my life, I promise it will change yours. 

These tips are obviously more philosophical than concrete bits of advice. Should you be planning a thru-hike of the AT and have questions, I would be happy to share more about my experiences and offer any answers I might have via email. Remember that every journey along the AT is unique, so what worked best for me might not be best for you. Regardless, I wish you luck and Happy Trails. 

Reliving the Journey

Over the course of 2,189 miles, I managed to snap over 3,500 photos. As you can imagine, it's taken some time to go through all of them and select my favorites. The gallery below is a collection of my favorites. I hope that you enjoy exploring my journey visually as much as I did reliving it. I'm still planning to do at least one more post about hiking tips, but life off-trail has been busier than expected! I'll try to find the time to write soon.

Note: I'd suggest clicking the "two arrow" button at the bottom left to view the pictures larger. Scroll with your mouse or arrows to move through the album. If you click on a picture, I've titled them so that you'll either see where they are located or another comment I've made about it (in the bottom left-hand corner).


If you're experiencing any trouble with the above slideshow, try using this link to view them.

It's Time, Devin

There is a sign as you enter the Hundred Mile Wilderness that cautions, "Do not attempt this section unless you have a minimum of 10 days supplies and are fully equipped." For food, I wanted to be as light as possible so carried barely enough for five and a half days. My gear was worn down: the straps on my backpack began to fray, the tread on my boots had long since rubbed off, even my stove had started to become temperamental. I had the equipment, but was I really equipped for the final stretch--The End?

The Wilderness itself seemed to be the epitome of Maine's extremes, challenging yet beautiful. Almost immediately I noticed a change: the roots were somehow thicker, the rocks slicker, bugs seemed bigger, the outside world seemed further away, but the lakes reflected the light more dramatically and the views seemed somehow more expansive. Initially, the technical difficulty of the hiking prevented me from really turning inward, despite the fact that I was hiking it alone. I spent my days focused with one thought--I had come too close to let an accident end my trip now. So I did my best not to fall off any sheer cliffs or trip over any devilish roots, and was (moderately) successful. There were frustrating days, where my body had decided it was done with the challenge, but each time I got too close to getting down, Maine would offer a vista unlike any other.  Still, in some ways, I was thankful for the challenge because it kept me in the moment; I didn't have to think about the fact that in a few days, this would all go away.

My birthday was perhaps my last "difficult" day of hiking--22 miles of up and over mountain after mountain with a couple rivers to ford for some extra flavor.  Each year, my parents ask on my birthday, "What are your goals for the next year?" Since I couldn't, wouldn't think about The End, I found myself drifting back to last year's birthday and the goals I had set for myself. As I turned 26, I was acutely aware of how my fears were shaping my outlook and opportunities and I set about overcoming them. I resolved, then, to change my world: I applied to graduate programs to stimulate me intellectually, I worked out regularly to strengthen my body physically, and I planned a journey that I hoped would inspire reflection and recovery emotionally.  It was a year of toiling, and fittingly ended with a series of four peaks, each more difficult than the one before. I was rewarded, on my final climb of the day, with my first view of Katahdin--my first view of The End. I have tried but cannot put to words what that moment meant for me. How do you capture the rush of a year's worth of struggles culminating? How do you express emotion when exhaustion and elevation have taken your breath away? Words are not sufficient. I had once hoped to summit Katahdin on my birthday, but this was more appropriate. 26 was steeped in the work required to broaden my horizons, and it concluded just how it began--with a vision of the beauty ahead if I am willing to reach for it.

That moment was a turning point in the Hundred Mile Wilderness. I no longer could block out the reflection on The End; it was coming closer with each step and I had to mentally equip myself for what that meant. Fitting with my family's birthday tradition, I began checking off the goals I had set out for this trip. 

I shared treasured moments with those I already knew. Before I began, more than a few people were confused by my hope to reestablish connection with others by removing myself and going into the woods. And yet, by stepping outside of my "normal" life, I cracked open the shell that had closed me off from sharing my whole self. In planning, I deepened my relationship with my uncle who had hiked the AT in 2009. I started the Trail with my Dad, our first trip alone together since I was twelve, and navigated the dynamic of considering him both a great father and cherished friend. I enjoyed the company of those who committed to joining me for a short section: my first-year roommate and his brother joined me for his bachelor party and my cousin shared in the Shenandoahs. Perhaps what has been most magical was the surprise connections--family who drove hours out of their way to see me for less than a day, friends who met me on trail to hike a bit or share a meal and sunrise, long-lost connections dating back to middle school and high school who opened their doors to shelter me for a night, and even friends-of-friends-of-friends who stopped to give me Trail Magic. They call my journey "unsupported" because I did not have a team of people supplying me along the way, but that is clearly a misnomer. I feel more connected than ever before to the people who I am lucky enough to have in my life.

I opened myself to the possibilities that come with meeting someone new. They call the Appalachian Trail the "community trail" because so many people attempt it each year. These individuals come from all walks of life--high school students who graduated early, retirees looking for one last adventure, twenty-somethings at a loss for what comes next, and parents staving off a mid-life crisis. I've met people with a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds, political ideals, religious beliefs, and outlooks on life. Before the Trail, I often diminished my personality when meeting someone, offering half-answers and never fully committing to a single opinion so as not to rock the boat of the conversation. I feared standing out. It was a slow process, but the absence of my core support system and the necessity of sharing on the Trail helped open me up to new connections. I soon found camaraderie among fellow thru-hikers, able to meet someone for the first time and minutes later offer to split a hotel room or share a meal. As I grew more comfortable, more grounded, I grew more open about my own experiences--engaging in passionate discussions about the education system, coming out as gay to friends who are clearly religious, and even sharing why I am raising money for long-term mental health care. It wasn't just thru-hikers that I shared this bond with, however. Perhaps the most meaningful interaction I had in these past few months was with a gentleman who had never before picked up a thru-hiker, but went out of his way to become a Trail Angel. He gave me transportation, paid for my meal, offered me a room and shower, and took me to a brewery; we shared an entire day despite having no prior connection. In that single day, he reminded me that when you are willing to trust, you open yourself to more than the potential for pain, you open yourself to the beauty of connection. He reminded me that good can come from the unexpected and revived my interest in broadening my horizons.

I shed comfort and sought adventure. I know the weight of my needs; I carried them for 2,189 miles. Every necessity was accounted for on my back, but that left little room for things I wanted. I gave up carrying a book early on, considering it too much of a luxury; I wore the same shirt and shorts each day despite the smell. I found joy in moments we often take for granted: finding toilet paper in a privy so that I didn't have to use my own, a faucet that has treated water so that I didn't need to filter it, or a well-graded path that freed me from watching my feet. I have hungered, oh how I have hungered! I've consistently fluctuated between 15 and 20 lbs. lighter than I was when I began the AT, and my body has changed in shape, too. My upper body looks emaciated as I carry all my weight in the muscles in my legs; my feet have widened, my ankles strengthened to support me. In the past 5 months, my definition of pain has evolved. Every morning greeted me with aches and pains that pre-Trail would have meant taking a day or two off from any physical activity, but out here became the norm. I am covered in scrapes, cuts, bruises, and callouses; each a memory of a tough moment or the reminder of how normal the wear on my body has become. My reaction to fear has transformed as well. The nervous pit in my stomach when I light a fire or climb a tower has not fully gone away, but no longer holds me back from acting. I understand that true courage is feeling that fear, acknowledging it, but pushing through it. Both my body and mind have adapted to the challenges of the Trail; I have found my strength.

I found peace in solitude. For much of my life, although I enjoyed reflection, I found it difficult to be alone. If there was anything that was going to keep me from finishing my journey, it would have been loneliness--physical injuries heal and I would have returned, but the solitude of the wilderness is eternal. Having spent so many years with emotional pain, being alone often meant working through difficult emotions and, ultimately, feeling sad. I worried that undertaking this journey alone would be depressing instead of restorative. Instead, I regained confidence in my own existence. There is power in sharing experiences, but there is a different, quiet wonder that comes with witnessing the beauty of the world alone. I was able to develop my own rhythm as I hiked, listening to my body and my own needs instead of balancing my desires against the wants of others. As strange as it sounds, I discovered that I enjoy who I am and who I strive to become. For the first time, I felt whole on my own instead of seeking someone else to complete me. This, above all else, is what the Trail gave me that I hadn't found before; this is what kept me going and allowed me to finish. I went to the woods to find connection, and while I cherish the impact others have had on my journey, I have never felt more grounded in my own experiences. More than ever, I am focused on growing into my best self.

I wandered and wondered in Nature. I walked from Georgia to Maine; I walked from Winter to Summer. I've faced snow, hail, winds (so much wind), fog, rain, and sun. I've traversed mountains, valleys, forests, plains, and bogs. I've walked along ridge lines above the clouds and along highways between towns. I've met bears and a bobcat, slept with mice and mosquitos, and sliced through silk worms and spider webs. I've enjoyed sunrises and sunsets that cannot be captured on film, while also having some views completely socked in by clouds. I have lived and marveled in nature.

As I took stock of every experience I had throughout this journey, there was only one left that I hoped would happen before I summited Katahdin--I wanted to meet a moose. It seemed that every thru-hiker I had met before beginning the Trail had a moose story, and my trip didn't feel complete without having one. For much of Maine, I imagined what it would be like when it finally happened; most people said they simply run away and disappear before you really even register that it was there. After a tough climb, I'd picture him at the top waiting for me; when I'd fallen in mud, I imagined him looking down on me, slightly chuckling. It could happen at any moment and I was ready. I had seen plenty of moose tracks and moose droppings since entering New Hampshire, but the actual animal seemed impossibly elusive.  I became more aware of how I hiked--watching my poles against rocks to be more quiet, avoiding squishing too loudly in the mud, even occasionally holding my breath so as to sneak through the woods. Still, after over 200 miles through Maine (where everyone says you're SURE to see one), I had reached my final day before Katahdin without any sighting. I spent my penultimate morning resigning myself to the fact that it wasn't going to happen. I tried to find a lesson in the moment: you cannot become disappointed by what you can't control, and no one can simply choose to see a moose--it's luck. I was lost half in thought and half in frustration when I crested a hill and there it was: My Moose! He was in the middle of the trail, about 50 feet away, and clearly as surprised as I was about our meet cute. We both froze, and it occurred to me that I had imagined this moment so many times but in every situation the moose ran off--what did I do if he didn't move? For a minute or so, I just marveled, until I realized I should try to capture a picture if I could. I scrambled for my camera, snapped a blurry shot, and as I did the moose hopped a humungous log and sauntered slowly away, disappearing into the pines. 

I'll be honest, I cried in that moment. I looked up to the morning sky, criss-crossed by silhouetted tree branches, and said a Thank You to the Trail Gods. And then, in my mind, I heard my mother's voice saying, "It's time, Devin." Instantly, I was transported back by memory to the moment we had to put down my pet rabbit. I knew that I needed to let her go, but it wasn't until my mother said it aloud that I was ready to do it. The same was true for meeting my Moose. It wasn't so much about seeing the actual moose, majestic as they are; the Moose took on the weight of being my last bucket-list item for my trip. My Moose was closure, the message I needed from the Trail that this experience, incredible as it was, needed to end. It was the final piece, what I needed to become fully equipped to reach Katahdin.

My last day on Trail, my facing of The End, was perfect. My parents drove up and my Dad hiked (climbed, really) Katahdin with me. At the top, I was able to reconnect with friends I had met on Trail that I hadn't seen since Virginia. Even after all of these miles, they saw me from a couple hundred yards away and shouted in joy, "Mantis!!" That's the magic of this place, the fleeting relationships you make run deep. We had a beautiful day with views that seemed endless, and of course, a hefty bit of wind as well. Reaching the summit was emotional, and I honestly am not sure that I've fully grasped the weight of that accomplishment. Though this journey is over, I will return one day, and I know that there will be many climbs until then.

Although my journey along the Appalachian Trail has ended, I still have a few more posts to do. I am putting together a gallery/slideshow of some of my favorite pictures and I'd also like to do a post about tips for any potential future thru-hikers out there. I'll also get a finalized number for what I was able to raise for Next Steps and announce that here; if you haven't donated but still want to, there's still time! Thank you again for all of your support and I hope you have enjoyed reading this blog as much as I have writing it.


The Unmarked Trail

Since Vermont, I've been lucky to have pretty steady companionship. I've gotten to hike with people attempting the Long Trail in Vermont, my Dad, and of course other northbound AT hikers. Most recently, I was with a group of six who love to hike fast while taking time to enjoy themselves. They're a fun crew that has made Maine go by a lot more easily.

Occasionally as we're hiking, though, the topic that every NOBO (northbound) hiker dreads but secretly is always on our minds comes up--The End. Someone might say, "This time next week we'll be within 20 miles," or "Is Katahdin as steep as this?" And the innocent comment sets off a chain reaction of emotions. I mentioned in my last post the complexity of wanting to be done yet not wanting it to end. With each mile, the extremities of that spectrum seemingly get further apart.

Maine has been tough, and to be honest, the rest of the Trail has been tough too. I get to camp most days physically exhausted and ready to collapse. How nice it would be to relax; how lucky would I feel to be comfortable. And yet, while tired, I have never been more fulfilled. My days are packed with challenges, beauty, and connection. I know my body, know myself, better than ever before. How will The End affect that? Is comfort worth the trade off?

Having hiking buddies to share these doubts with has been nice. I think we're all a little on edge about what comes next and have taken different approaches to cope. Some have slowed down dramatically, extending this trip and prolonging the freedom that comes with being out here. Others are planning to take the long way home, opting for a road trip that might offer both modern luxuries and a sense of adventure. I've started to plan for what comes next: moving into my new apartment, going to a family vacation, and preparing for school this fall. No one coping mechanism is best, but I all think they serve to distract from our main fear: the unknown of tomorrow.

See, for the past 5 months, I've been pretty much able to tell you what my day would be like as soon as I woke up. I knew the weather, I could see the elevation profile, and knew about when I'd come upon any views. Sure, I made a thousand little decisions throughout the day and often was surprised, but in general I had a pretty good idea of what was to come. The Trail was laid out for me, I just needed the grit and persistence to follow it.

In "real life," there often is no trail; we're on our own to figure out what our next step should be. It's funny that my adventure feels in some ways safer than the norm of everyday life. On Trail, I've been freed from having to decide where to go by following the blazes, so my mind has been opened to deeper reflection. The mountains have become a mirror in which I've gained a deeper understanding of myself. Off Trail, what if I'm so bogged down by the complexities of life that I don't make the time to get grounded? What if I'm paralyzed by options and don't know where to go?

I think that's what is scariest about The End. In leaving the Trail, in having that transition be so sudden and final, will I lose all I've gained out here? Of course I'll miss the mountains, but I know that I'll return to them. When I do, what will that mirror show? A man who enjoyed a journey or a man who was defined by it?

I'll be entering the Hundred Mile Wilderness tomorrow and the next time you'll here from me, I'll have reached The End. I might not find the answers to these questions before I summit; I've learned that you can't rush these lessons. What I hope, though, is that in asking these types of questions, in exploring these fears, I'll get a little closer to clarity. That while my next trail may be unmarked, I will still walk forward with equal confidence and awe.

Final plug: I still have not reached my fundraising goal of $6,600. While I've had more than $2,000 donated in the past few days (yay!) I still have about $1,000 to go. If you've enjoyed following me on this journey, please consider donating. I hope my words have intrigued you, my struggles inspired you. Now I'm asking you to pay it forward and help someone else work through their pain to find beauty.

Listening to Limits

For most of the Trail, I've said that I'm "hiking to Maine!" Well, I've made it to Maine and hiked a good bit of the southern portion already. There's a line from a book (I can't remember which) that says, "Pain demands to be felt." That's true, but it's also clear that Maine demands to be felt as well. It's been kicking my butt and has made sure that I'll remember this final state!

I had planned to try to summit on July 19th, but the terrain has made me reconsider. After slipping on rocks, trudging through mud that threatened to take my boot clear off, tripping on roots, and climbing rock faces, I'm worn out. I've fallen more times in the past few days than on most of the rest of the trip. The weather has oscillated between brutal heat and frigid downpours. They say it'll be easier in a couple days, but I don't want to over do it.

On Trail, I've said that I need to listen to my body's limits. That's been easier when my body mostly said, "Go, go, go!" It's a different mental battle when instead it's telling me to slow down. I've also been told by many a past thru hiker to slow down and enjoy Maine. So, when all signs are pointing that way, it makes sense to try and listen. And to tell the truth, Maine is beautiful. The tough climbs are paired with stellar views and the occasional pond to jump in. It's a state I'll certainly remember.

It's worthwhile to slow a bit, but I do feel torn between extending this trip and getting excited for what is to come after I finish. It's a delicate balance, and one I will try to strike over these next few days.

I do have to say though, tired as I am, seeing that you all have donated more than $500 in the past 3 days has really lifted my spirits! I still have a long way to go to reach my fundraising goal, so if you've been considering supporting Next Steps, now is the time to donate! Thank you to everyone who has supported me so far; I can't believe I'm this close to finishing!

Memories in the Mountains

Everyone who loves Nature has that first special place where they connected with the beauty and peace of the outdoors. My first foray into backpacking, and therefore to true beginning of this journey, happened in the White Mountains close to two decades ago. When my Dad was growing up, he and his family would journey to and through the White Mountains of New Hampshire. They did it so often that the trails were worn into memory, like lines in their palms. My family did not spend quite as much time among these mountains but every couple of years made it a point to gather here.

So you can imagine how much of a treat it was to have my Dad (Two Beers) join me for a section of the Whites. Even better, he managed to get us bunks in the Huts. This is true luxury for a through hiker: a bed & pillow, all you can eat dinner and breakfast, and four walls and a roof! The Huts are a great way to try out backpacking because they are spaced relatively evenly across the park and allow you to dip a toe into the experience. They're staffed by a crew (or Croo) of 20-somethings who do their best to make you feel right at home with skits and a family-style meal. Traveling from Hut to Hut was a great way for me to have some shorter days and a lighter pack, exactly what I needed after my minor ankle sprain.

But make no mistake, the Whites are tough! My Dad was a trooper as we faced steep climbs, rocky terrain, and two straight days of high winds that threatened to blow us off the mountain. Gusts got so high that they actually closed the train that takes you up and down Mount Washington, and as they did we went back into the storm to continue the trail. It would have been easy to get down, to want to call it quits, and yet we both were in great spirits the whole time.

I think one of the reasons we had such a great time was the legacy of our family along the Whites. My Dad would stop occasionally, having an out of body experience, saying, "This is where Uncle Timmy made soup!" Or "Here's where your Mom's pack fell." While he was reliving old memories, I was astonished by how much I felt I had changed along the AT. My Dad started with me, and hiking with him again brought back memories of struggling to hang a bear bag or fearing the day I'd hike 15 miles. We both experienced the past merging with the present, and we were able to share that with each other. I've loved many moments along this hike, but I will cherish the Whites.

The Final Push

Friends and Family! The countdown has begun! In approximately two short weeks from this morning, I will summit Katahdin and finish my 2,200 miles journey along the Appalachian Trail. If you have enjoyed following along my journey, the time is now: please consider donating to Next Steps ( I am hoping to finish this trip having raised $3 for every mile I have traversed over these past few months--but need about $3,000 more to reach my goal. YOU can help by donating (every little bit helps) and by sharing this link/my blog with people who might be interested in my journey as well. Thank you all for your support, I couldn't have made it here without you! I look forward to seeing you on the other side of the Trail!

A Painful End to June

June has closed out in a humbling way. The mountains of New Hampshire are steep and technical in a way that I haven't really seen elsewhere on Trail, but they reward you with the best views as well. I've scrambled up rock walls and hiked down waterfalls; been lost in the clouds and exposed to ridge lines that resemble Machu Picchu and Irish cliffs. The terrain has made me sweat, curse, and groan and yet I am accompanied by a constant grin.

I've also been able to reconnect with old hiking friends while meeting new ones. These buddies came to my rescue when I slipped on a slick rock yesterday and likely sprained my ankle. Immediately, despite my stubbornness, they pulled items out of my pack, insisting that I should lighten my load. I had met some of these guys only hours before.

I should be in low spirits, but I can't help but feel so thankful. I'm grateful that I've made it this far without an injury, happy that I'm able to rest and hopefully recover quickly, and excited to spend my final days on the AT with my Dad and then that hiking crew (if I can catch them). Most of all, though, I'm acutely aware of how much I rely on my feet, and so happy that they continue to support me on this journey.

So let's take a look at what I've done in June!

Total days on the trail: 121

Total zero days: 21

Total near-o days (less than 8 miles): 9

Total miles covered: 1843.7

Miles in June: 434.7

Total average mileage: 15.24 miles/day

Average mileage for June: 14.49 miles/day

TRAIL MAGIC: 65 times!

Wildlife this month: Tons of frogs, snakes, & chipmunks. Saw my first rattlesnake in Vermont, too!

Total wipeouts: 13 (the sprain happened on unlucky #13)

Total Trail Cries: 2, this month's was after my family sent me a sweet video from my cousin's wedding.

Total dollars raised for Next Steps: $3,553, still hoping to get to $6,600 and have less than 350 miles left. Please consider donating if you haven't already!

The Power of a Day

June 26, 2012 The start of 2012 was tough for me. Living in southwestern Virginia, I had chosen to go back into the closet and felt isolated, and then in January, my college boyfriend and I broke up. I felt trapped; my world felt small so I fled to San Francisco for the summer. I had hoped to find something or someone there to reinvigorate me and the Pride festival was where I had pictured it happening. I've said elsewhere on this site what I can say about that day: it shattered my worldview and my confidence.

June 26, 2013 In college, I did a study abroad program in Ireland that focused on the importance of place within art, and therefore to our lives. I felt called to revisit and reclaim the place that felt so full of pain, but didn't yet feel ready to return to San Francisco. I spent most of the year feeling small and fragile, weak and weary. I was tired of feeling beaten down by what had happened, and instead was determined to beat it. I set off hiking the John Muir Trail in California with my cousin Shannon, hoping that somewhere between the exhaustion of climbing mountains and the awe of nature, I'd find a way to feel whole again. The hike itself was amazing and my relationship with Shannon transformed into an even deeper bond. And while I felt stronger than ever before, while I learned to trust myself again, while I now had incredibly positive memories in California, I wasn't able to wipe away the pain from a year ago. As I triumphed over the trail, I began to realize that I would need help to truly heal.

June 26, 2014 Starting therapy was clearly necessary after the JMT, but I didn't have a clue about how to actually do that. Claire, one of my best friends, was my biggest advocate for finding help and connected me with a service through U.Va. that was affordable and flexible. It was a short term provider--similar to CAPS for U.Va. students, and I started seeing my therapist, Logan, in November. Before starting, I had imagined therapy like glue--together we would slowly reassemble the broken pieces of my life to get me back to where I was before. Instead, I learned to sit with the hard emotions I had spent so long pushing away and burying. I allowed myself to feel pain: to realize that being strong did not mean being numb, but instead having the courage to exist in this flawed and beautiful world. Logan and I worked together (and I mean truly worked--I'd often leave her office feeling completely drained) for a few months. This particular day was one of our final sessions, helping me to see how far I had come but still felt I had so much more to do to feel complete again.

June 26, 2015 It took me some time to find a new therapist that was affordable, worked with my schedule, fit my personality and needs, and was taking on new clients (hence why I've created Next Steps--please donate if you can!). Still, I continued the work of balancing my urge to "conquer" what happened with the need to understand how I feel and how those emotions affect my life going forward. One of the hardest parts of healing were the times when my emotions didn't match the present experience. Something would set me off, often unexpectedly, and I'd feel rage or sadness or confusion that I couldn't explain to those around me. This day was the highlight of that issue: the Supreme Court announced marriage equality and yet I wanted to crawl into a ball and weep. As friends across the country reached out in glee about this validation of my identity, I was brought back to that day--my first Pride, the day I had hoped would bring me a new-found confidence and instead broke me. I called a friend, Kimmy, who I knew would be able to listen and help me express for myself the complexity of my own experience. I've grown more comfortable letting an emotion wash over me, and then letting it go.

June 26, 2016 Today was in many ways unremarkable on the Trail, but because it was this day--the four year anniversary of my trauma, it was different. I've spent the day hiking with a new friend; it's the first time in weeks that I've had an entire day of company and we spent it entirely in conversation. How nice it was, to be able to silently reflect on the past few years, but not feel like today was defined by sadness or pain. He pushed me, both intellectually and physically, and I'm concluding my night on top of a beautiful mountain, watching the sun set and the stars creep out. It's the most stunning spot I've found on Trail.

I find it remarkable, the power of a day. Since that terrible incident, I've hid my pain behind strength, learned to ask for help and receive it, become comfortable with all of my emotions, and finally, started to let it all go. The path toward healing has not been straight. There is no cure for trauma, no magic pill to take me back to before the pain. Instead, I've followed the trail, rocky as it may be, and give thanks that it's led me here.

The final mail stops!

I've made it to New Hampshire! 2 states left!

I was able to look ahead to figure out these dates. Fourth of July is messing a bit with any mail in the next few days, but these towns are places I'll be stopping in on my way to Katahdin. As always, mark General Delivery in the address so that they'll hold it for me.

Arrive by 7/5: Andover, ME 04216 Arrive by 7/8: Stratton, ME 04982 Arrive by 7/12: Monson, ME 04464

Monson will be my LAST mail drop, after it I'll head into the Hundred Mile Wilderness and summit Katahdin. Because of that, I'd prefer if you'd send food to either Andover or Stratton and send letters of support to Monson.

Thank you for all of your support and I look forward to hearing from you!

Wrecking the Wall

I made a mistake back in Massachusetts. At the time, I didn't realize it was an issue but it's haunted me for much of the last 200 miles. You see, right as I crossed into MA, I let myself picture finishing the Trail. You're probably thinking,"That's not a big deal at all." And you're right. I've pictured summiting Katahdin a number of times. What was different about this time is how real it felt.

You see, even as far as I have come, I've never really let myself fully believe that I was going to finish. With the estimate that 1 in 5 people who begin the AT actually finish it that year, who was I to think that I was going to be that one? Sure, I had hoped to complete it, and my confidence has only grown as I've tested my legs and found my strength, but when imagining the end, it always felt far off. This time, I felt the rush of excitement of completing the journey and the emotional roller coaster of reaching the end. Then, for the first time, I pictured what comes next: the celebration with family, the taste of a well-earned beer, the comfort of waking in my own bed. And there it was, the big mistake.

People have often asked me, "What do you miss most?" to which I scramble to come up with an answer. Sure, a bed is nice, showers are refreshing, flushing toilets feel like a luxury, and the invention of the refrigerator is proof that there is a God, but I never let myself actually miss those things. Part of the reason I've been successful out here is that I built up a mental wall (how Trump-like) that separated life off Trail from on it. Even when I took time in towns and saw friends, I metaphorically kept one foot in the woods. The luxuries of modern living were simply something I refused to allow myself to get used to, to want. Each time I left the Trail, though, that wall weakened. And then, even though I was hiking in the woods, just picturing life after the AT and having it feel so close, so attainable, the wall came crashing down.

It didn't help that I also was weighing a difficult choice: my cousin was getting married in Virginia and I needed to decide whether to go. I am ahead of schedule so I had the time, and my parents were willing to splurge so I had the means to get there. But in the midst of this mental crisis, leaving the headspace of the Trail could have meant not coming back. A good number of fellow hikers have given up in the past few days; I didn't want to be one of them. So I opted to stay and hike, a decision I debated back and forth at every road crossing, mapping out just how far I'd have to hitch to catch a last minute flight. It's not that quitting is something that I even see as an option, but since that moment in MA, I was ready to be done. The 700 miles leading to Katahdin had become a burden. I wanted to fast forward to there; to still finish, just somehow sooner.

Writing this post has been hard because it means admitting the mental struggle. It's also so difficult to convey how certain I am that I'll continue while highlighting the anguish of not yet being done. It wasn't a post I could share until the battle had subsided.

And that very thing happened just the other morning. It was officially too late to get to the wedding (Congrats Megan and Terry!), that ship had sailed and I couldn't change my mind. I woke up to my usual cramping feet, screaming in protest at enduring another long day. As I massaged them, I realized how normal this ritual had become. And, how soon after the Trail, I would wake up and take for granted that my feet were pain free. That small moment of realization refreshed my entire outlook on the time I have left out here. A bed may wait for me after Katahdin, but in a short while after that, I'll take it for granted too.

I've come to recognize that the wall wasn't working. Yes, it forced me stay present on Trail, but it also separated this life from pre-Trail life. It meant that I looked at this journey as a vacation, as stepping outside of the "real world" to explore for a bit. The danger in that mindset is that when I summit Katahdin, when my hunger is sated and my days are measured in hours instead of miles, I'll go back to my old self. I'll loose not only my trail legs but my Trail lessons. The wall needed to come down so that I could learn how to straddle both worlds. The mental battle of continuing isn't over--these days are still challenging, but I know that the time I have left is meaningful. With that in mind, I've been able to walk just a little lighter as I head north.

The Backpackers' Guide to Hitchhiking

These last few days have been incredible. I've been taking it relatively easy through CT and MA, listening to my body and just enjoying the days. The added benefit of taking shorter days has been the abundance of Trail Magic that I've enjoyed. Strangers and friends both have taken care of me and made sure I've been eating well.

Yesterday, I climbed Mount Greylock (the highest mountain in MA), witnessed stunning views, and even watched paragliders jump off the cliffs! As I made it down to the road, there were two towns--North Adams to the East and Williamstown to the West. I hitched to North Adams after about 20 minutes only to realize that I had listed the Williamstown post office on my blog. So, I set out to find a hitch in the other direction. Luckily, I have learned a little about hitching on this trip; here are some tips.

First off, be safe. This goes without saying but when you are hitchhiking you are literally putting yourself at the mercy of a stranger. It's important to trust your instincts and walk away if something feels off. Hitchhiking isn't a requirement to do the Trail, but it makes things a lot easier.

Look the part. People are willing to go out of their way to help hikers, not strange people on the side of the road. So, keep your pack on (even though you're tired) and make it visible. Stick out your thumb (yes, you'll need to make it clear that you want the ride) and smile! You're more likely to get picked up if you seem friendly. Be ready to go; keep your boots on (your feet will smell) and your belongings in your pack.

Make it easy for the driver. Stand near a place that is easy to pull over--near a parking lot or a wide shoulder. Know where you are trying to go and how far you are from there. They're likely going a little out of their way, so don't make them work any harder than they need to. Stick to smaller groups--one or two people max. And while I hate gender stereotypes, if there's a girl in the group you're more likely to get a ride.

Make conversation. When someone pulls over, before you hop in, chat with them for a minute. It's a great way to help you both feel more safe and you can decide whether this is the right ride for you. Then, in the car, try to get to know them while you can. They were brave enough to trust you (as my new friend Ryan reminded me, we are mutually wary of each other's intentions and both want to be sure the other isn't a murderer) so they probably have some good stories. I've met pastors, photographers, mothers with children, and even a couple on their first date!

Hitchhiking isn't something I will endorse or say is for everyone, but it's been a cool way to connect with strangers I wouldn't have met otherwise. It requires two people who are willing to trust each other; it happens at the junction of one's need and another's willingness to help. The fact that it helps me get where I need to go is in some ways just an added benefit.

Next Mail Stop

I mentioned before that Pennsylvania did a number on my poles. The nub on the right is what I've been using these past few weeks to pull myself up the mountains. The tip on the left is a new one that my parents gave me. What a difference this will make!

Also, here's my next mail drop. Please remember to write "General Delivery" when addressing it to me.

Arrive by 6/22: Hanover, NH 03755

Longing for Belonging

The conference in St. Louis was overwhelming. Although an extrovert, I've never particularly enjoyed the process of networking. Coming from the woods, spending long days in a suit, passing out my resume, and boasting about my accomplishments was outright exhausting. I hadn't really expected (though secretly and naively hoped) that employers would be excited by my non-traditional business background. Still, I know that I bring loads of transferable skills and that ever-elusive Passion (with a capital P) that is so rare these days. I figured that I'd simply be myself and my natural charisma would take care of the rest.

I didn't expect to be asked, "Wait, so, why are you even here?" by a recruiter. Most companies reacted with polite indifference as I described my background in education, some were downright condescending, and the rare individual was interested in what I could bring to their organization. It was disheartening and frustrating to see peoples' eyes glaze over as soon as I mentioned working in a high school. For all my talk about feeling grounded on the Trail, I could feel my anxiety bubble up and overpower every other emotion. It made me question myself--why was I there?

The conference wasn't all bad. My classmates are an inspiring bunch, all with widespread backgrounds and goals. We operated like a well-conditioned team despite meeting each other at the conference; people were quick to share insights, offer support, and cheer each other's successes. I know I'll learn a lot from classes, but have a feeling that I'll learn even more from them. The conference may have challenged my interest in pursuing business, but this group validated my decision to return the U.Va.

So, back to that foundation-crumbling question of my purpose, why was I there? I knew, before the conference, that I was interested in learning more about how organizations are effectively run. What I didn't know was how much I didn't know. In some ways, I felt like I had traveled abroad. We all seemed to be speaking the same language on the surface, but very different dialects, and it was clear that the meaning was being lost on both sides. My tired brain all but gave up trying to justify my experience and I longed to return to the AT where I knew I belonged.

In the few days since I've returned, I've been welcomed back with open arms by nature. Wild flowers dance gently in the wind, leaves above shimmer in the afternoon light; I have re-entered the cathedral of the pines and once again feel at peace. Sure, my feet hurt a bit from breaking in new boots, but even the pain is welcomed like an old friend. I know my place out here, I thrive. After hiking 1500 miles (!!!) I should feel that way.

And yet, I can remember a time when I asked myself the same question about being out in the woods. My first night I spent sitting on the side of a shelter wordlessly as people sized each other up. I felt completely out of place and honestly wasn't sure how far I'd make it on this trip. In order to grow, we need to step outside of the world we know--and eventually that expands our comfort zone. I didn't always belong in this space, but now feel at home.

I'm hopeful that the same transformation will happen in business school. I have a lot to learn, true, but that's why I am going back to school. Returning to the Trail has reminded me how important it is to never stop pushing myself. I'm excited for what will come this fall and beyond in the business world!

Trail Break, Mail, and May Review!

I know, I know. I've been horrible with the Post Office updates. The good news is that I have been completely spoiled these past few days with Trail Magic, both from friends I know and unexpected strangers. Now, I am taking my third and final break from the AT to participate in a pre-graduate school conference. It won't be as relaxing as my past two vacations from the Trail, but it'll offer me some good insight as I prepare for my next adventure! It's made planning out my next town stop a little tricky, but I expect to be in Massachusetts before long.

Arrive by: 6/15, Williamstown, MA 01267

And now, onto May's Recap!

Total days on the trail: 92

Total zero days: 13

Total near-o days (less than 8 miles): 9

Total miles covered: 1409.0

Total average mileage: 15.32 miles/day

Average mileage for May: 17.66 miles/day

Starting body weight: 161 lbs.

Current body weight: 142 lbs.


Wildlife seen this month: 2 bears! What feels like a million snakes (but is probably closer to 100). Plenty of silk worms and mosquitoes, and even a few ticks.

Total number of wipe outs: 7 (These rocks are slick!)

Times I've wanted to quit: 1, I had a really tough day towards the end of PA and it was the first time I reconsidered being out here.

Times I've cried: 1, in contrast to the above, I had a pretty magical moment in NY where I was overwhelmed with how far I had come (both physically and emotionally) on this trip and cried tears of joy.

Total dollars raised for Next Steps: $2,816! I'd love to reach $6,600 by the end--$3 for each mile I will have walked. Close to halfway!

Revisiting Hiker Hunger

I wrote back when I was in Tennessee that the Trail is "really all about the food." At the time, my Hiker Hunger was in full force and occupied the majority of my thoughts (as well as space & weight in my pack). Having walked 1400 miles (!!!) feeling that hunger, I've come to look at it in a new light.

Hunger can be painful. As many of my friends know, even before I started hiking the AT I was prone to getting "hangry." As my stomach rumbled, my mood would tank and I wasn't fun to be around. On trail, the lack of energy from not eating enough is debilitating; I've learned to stave it off before it becomes too bad or slows me down. There's a point where the ache in your stomach can feel like it'll never go away, but I'm simply unable to carry the amount of calories my body demands. Hunger has become my most regular companion along the trail.

Still, while hunger can hurt, it also can make you feel more alive. I've born witness to the rapid transformation of a meal into energy and have a deeper appreciation for my own biology. Hunger has helped me organize my day, breaking the otherwise overwhelming mileage into mini-hikes between snacks or meals. It's spurred me on, pushing me to quicken my pace to reach the next destination where I can enjoy a good view or occasional picnic table.

Most of all, hunger inspires you to crave. As I reach a summit, I know that I want to reward myself with a double bacon cheeseburger or cookies & cream ice cream. I am able to pinpoint exactly what I want, even if I'm hopelessly unable to have it. Take yesterday, when out of nowhere I wanted yellow Skittles. I haven't had Skittles in years and all of the sudden I wanted nothing else: just yellow ones, though. So strange.

A few days ago, I was picked up by my friend Madison, who is back from having some adventures of her own. She has had time to step out of her comfort zone and reflect, as I have, but it's clear that she has found a rare clarity in her perspective. She mentioned, among the many pearls of wisdom that she shared, that she wishes to surround herself with people alive with hunger. People who want more out of life than just a 9-to-5 and the security that comes with it.

As she spoke, I realized that before coming on the Trail, I had lost my hunger for life. I was satisfied with the life I had and in many ways content, but I didn't ache for my aspirations. It's hard to explain, but after experiencing a trauma so profound and unexpected, I was wary of exploring my desires. As if, knowing that we cannot plan out our lives, I was content to sit in the backseat. I was unwilling to pin my happiness onto any future experience--getting into grad school, finding love, or becoming a father, because there was no way to know if those things would ever happen. I thought I was being smart, but I was cowering behind contentment.

This trip has reawakened my hunger to achieve. I've spent many hours imagining what is to come and mentally exploring what I hope will be my "side hustles" in the coming years. These endeavors may or may not happen, but I come alive when imagining them. The pain of dissatisfaction no longer annoys me, it inspires me.

I have a more robust update in the works, but today was just too interesting not to share. I've made it into New York after accomplishing all of New Jersey in these past few days.

Both NJ and NY are still rocky, but usually the kind of rocky that one would expect when traversing a mountain, not the mine field that PA was. I loved NJ, for its sunny days, kind people, good views, surprise pick ups from my friend Madison, the beach I happened upon, and of course the delis! It was not the flat state I had imagined, but I was in good spirits all the same and made it through relatively easily.

Last night, my Mom warned me of the impending rain so I stayed in a shelter and mentally prepared to shorten my 26-mile day that I had planned. It didn't help that the guidebook warned "Despite the unimposing profile, rocks, abrupt ups & downs make this section challenging." Considering that the elevation profile resembled a heart monitor, I was already geared up for a tough day, and the warning about the terrain made me nervous.

In the morning, as promised, it was pouring down rain but I trudged through it and came upon a section of significant bouldering. Unlike the rocks in PA, these were smooth and slick--not hard on my feet but I definitely wiped out. As I continued on throughout the day, the flat boulders grew into tough scrambles and then into sheer cliffs I needed to climb up and down. There were no switchbacks, the Trail simply would go straight up a rock face. Without a pack and trekking poles, it would have been tough; with one it was the hardest and most technically challenging hiking I've done so far.

And yet, I loved every minute of it!

Unlike PA where the rocks wore me down, these challenges energized me. There's a few reasons for it, I'm sure. One, they were short but exhilarating--at the top or bottom of each feat I was able to pause and say, "look what I did!" Endorphins are powerful things. Two, I had already conquered PA and felt I could handle anything after that. These rocks weren't hurting my feet, they just made me think about how to best get up and over them. And three, NY has killed it with Trail Magic! I had 5 separate moments of Trail Magic today after crossing into the state, that's impressive and would keep anyone in the best of spirits!

Tomorrow I'll climb Bear Mountain, known for being a tough but beautiful section of the trail. If the rest of NY is anything like today, I'm in for a wild but awesome ride!

I wouldn't be able to write this post if I wasn't sitting on the edge of PA and NJ. The rest of Pennsylvania went about how I expected it to--playing Tetris with my feet and cursing the state all the while. But, I made it to Delaware Water Gap a day early and feel rested enough to push on. If it was so hard, why do big days? To be honest, like my foot pad, my mental fortitude was wearing thin. The picture above is me at camp, going to town on a Reese's wrapper since it melted--after a tough day I have no shame.

Now, looking back, Pennsylvania was some hard medicine to swallow, but good came from it.

For one, it helped deflate my ego. A week in the real world being treated like a super hero by friends and family was surreal. Friends would brag to others about what I am doing, my parents kept saying how amazed they were. I felt invincible. The rocks of PA helped me remember that I am far from finished in this journey. At a little past halfway, I still have a lot of tough, but good miles ahead.

People from Pennsylvania seem to have a twisted sense of satisfaction from the rocky terrain. It's clear that they want you to make it all the way, but they also definitely enjoy hearing thru hikers struggle. Each person I passed would say, "You look great, but there's a big rocky section coming up..." It feels good now to know I made it through, but I am humbled.

After venting in that last post (thanks for letting me get that out) I tried to embrace a new style of hiking. I could never really get the hang of controlled falling, but I did begin to trust my feet a little more. Hiking these rocks has taught me a lot about momentum; it's essential to be successful on the trail and on life. I've been shocked at what I've been to balance on for just a second before hopping to the next do rock. Mental momentum has been essential too, as I get further from vacation off the trail, I am more able to keep up good spirits.

Finally, as much as I feel connected to the trail, I've learned that nature is indifferent to my struggles. For a while, I felt like the trail would push me to my limits, and just as I was about to break, it'd lessen up. I was able to struggle but never really toil. The endless rocks of Pennsylvania paired with the brutal heat led to a scary moment when I almost had a trip-ending fall. I was fine, but my foot was inches away from landing in a deep crevice between some boulders. As I recovered from the shock and fear, I looked into the abyss--the stone was unmoved by my terror and worries. Nature isn't here to teach me, I am fortunate enough to simply learn what I can from it. And while Nature might be indifferent, other hikers are not. Strangers have come together in a positive way to support each other through this state. Whether sharing a snack, offering to fetch water, or just saying positive words, the hiker community has only been strengthened by these stones.

These were hard lessons but good ones. I've heard the NJ isn't much better in terms of the rocks, but at least I've had a mental reset. And, there are supposed to be delis along the way! Yum!