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.