Back in Tennessee, a man named "Time Out" told me that he made it to Harper's Ferry years ago and then quit. He said that the halfway point comes with joy, but also a mental battle of remembering why you're hiking. Having scarcely hit 300 miles, I couldn't fathom how someone would hike more than 1000 miles and then just quit. No physical injury, no life event that calls you from the trail--just deciding that you're done.
Now, having crossed over into Pennsylvania, I think I understand his decision a bit more. Don't worry, the idea of quitting early is still far from my mind. And yet, as I left Virginia, I realized that I had gotten what I expected from the Trail so far.
I have toiled in nature: facing snow, wind, rain, and even a burn zone. I've walked with Spring, watching trees and flowers emerge from Winter's slumber and slowly bud. Along my path, I have met bears and a bobcat, slept among mice and spiders, and marveled at the stoic patience of a heron.
I have found my strength. What once required physical rest every few steps now passes by unnoticed. I relish the moments when my glasses fog over, for I know I am being truly challenged. My days of eight miles have grown to twelve, then twenty, and now often thirty. For the first time, I feel physically at my peak.
I have deepened relationships, both old and new. In hiking with my father, my friends, and now my cousin, I have learned more about their lives. When you lose your breath, either from exertion or natural wonder, you share more freely. I have grown comfortable with strangers--sleeping beside people I've met mere minutes before, accepting rides into town, and offering what little food I have to share. I am no longer afraid of who might hurt me and finally open to changing with those I meet.
With that in mind, I could easily walk away from this journey and still call it a success. Despite not reaching Katahdin, I've managed to experience what I had hoped for and then some.
So why keep hiking? Wouldn't it be easier to spend these next few months with family and friends, able to sleep in a bed, shower when I want, and have a flushing toilet?
It would be, that's obvious. But, despite not being at rest, hiking has helped me be at peace. As I've journeyed, I've walked through memories, both joyful and painful. I've reflected on fears and hopes and gained a more grounded understanding of myself. I've also gotten the unexpected from the Trail.
I understand my body more deeply. I spend each morning with a ritual of massaging my feet, preparing them for the day ahead and taking note of pain points. I get to experience how my hungry body takes in food and immediately sets about transforming it into nourishment and energy. I know the limits of my resilience and have come to appreciate my ability to recover.
I am also more comfortable living among nature, not just in it. I woke up one morning to three spiders curled up in my sleeping bag near my head for warmth. Usually I would have been terrified, but instead I simply brushed them away and set about packing up my things. I no longer mind the scurrying footsteps of mice at night nor the cracking of branches signaling a large animal nearby. I don't mind the dirt or smell and wear them as a badge of honor.
I've learned to appreciate accomplishments for myself. I've climbed to the top of fire towers alone, crippled by my fear of heights, but exhilarated all the same. I wasn't pressured out of my comfort zone, I pushed myself there of my own accord. I've taken in sunrises and vistas, no camera or phone, just allowing the moment to sink in.
Each of these moments hold unexpected lessons. And with each memory, what I learn gets carved just a little deeper into my being. Because I know that it's true that some lessons we need to learn more than once. So, I keep hiking, despite knowing that I've gained what I expected, hoping that there's more to come. I can't imagine that the Trail is finished with me yet, so I intend to finish it as well.