I set out on the AT with a mission to engage with the community along the way. While some might think it's funny or strange that I went to the woods to find connection, that is one of the most special parts of the Appalachian Trail. The AT will change your perspective and open your world not only to spectacular natural beauty but also the raw vulnerability of people walking through their struggles.
As I have traversed the mountains in the south, my journey has been impacted by hundreds of other hikers. I began my journey with my Dad, gaining insight into his life as we strengthened our trail legs. Shortly after he left, I found my first "Trail Family" in Farasi and Freud, who helped me trust in the path and reframed what a successful hike would look like for me. After some time, I listened to my body and began pushing my limits, ultimately becoming something of a "Trail Orphan." As I hiked alone, I have gained a renewed sense of confidence and appreciation for my own strengths. Still, even as I hiked solo during the day, I often would engage with other hikers in the evenings. Both hiking alone and with a Family have benefits, but they also limit your experience in a way.
In the days before leaving the AT for to reenergize in Charlottesville, I discovered what I call the Short Term Hiking Buddy. This has tended to be someone I had met before in the trail--perhaps I passed them on day or we were at a shelter one evening, but didn't really get to know on a deep level. When we've reconnected, we bypass the "nice to meet you" with the joy of seeing a familiar face out on the Trail. Energized by that elation, I've found myself adjusting my hiking plan for that day to match their stride. Driven by good conversation, but also free to do our own thing, hiking with a STHB strikes a nice balance between the internal and external reflection I do along the trail.
What's unique about a STHB versus with a Trail Family is that you still retain your self-driven adventure. There's an unspoken agreement that you'll hike together for as long as it makes sense and you're both enjoying it, but there's no hard feelings when you split up. We're at a point in the trail where there are more options to resupply in towns, so people get off at different points depending on how much food they carry. There's no pressure to plan with another person, but simply enjoy the company of another hiker for as long as it lasts. This leads to a cyclical nature of relationships: introductions fall quickly into a deeper connection, trust develops and our truest selves are exposed, inside jokes and adventure keeps you laughing, and this leads to a sense of sadness yet understanding when its time to depart.
That sorrow of goodbyes is one thing I have worked hard to come to terms with along the trail. It is difficult, because when hiking you never know if or when you'll see someone again, so the goodbye feels both permanent yet with the potential for a surprise reunion. It is in those moments when I've gained a sense for how other hikers have impacted my trip and raised questions that I hope to answer for myself. One STHB is my age and yet three years sober, out on the Trail to push himself and find his strength and be an inspiration to others struggling with alcoholism; leading me to question for myself how I can inspire others. Another STHB is questioning her pathway for her career, deciding whether to start over or move forward with graduate school; helping me reflect and gain reassurance that my own path to graduate school is the right one for me. The stories we have shared challenge me to go deeper than reflection on my own would have taken me.
These goodbyes have also challenged me to grapple with the fact that good things will come and go along the Trail (and in life), and its best to just try to enjoy them while you can. I have been told more than once in my life that I am a planner--an interesting comment because I see myself as spontaneous and always in the moment. Still, the Trail has a way of forcing you to see a more true version of yourself, and I have come to accept that I think through the future more often than I am able to live in the present. In regularly having to part ways with STHB's, I have started to accept change and savor the memories I have with them. I am working on seeing these goodbyes as the start of a new journey and not the end of a good friendship. Besides, you never know when you might turn a corner and reconnect, and that's reason enough to keep going.
I bounced along the trail with two STHB's for the last week before getting to Charlottesville, Seam and Puzzles. Seam is from Texas and we had actually met way back in Neel's Gap (where my Dad and I were hit with a snowstorm). Puzzles is from Michigan and we had met briefly in a coffee shop in Damascus, VA. Both of these hikers started off with a partner who subsequently has quit the trail, and so they were just getting used to what it meant to hike alone but were happy to engage with a new friend too. It just happened to work out that once Seam hiked ahead (he enjoys night hiking), I'd run into Puzzles, and once Puzzles and I split up, I'd run into Seam again. As a result, I was never really alone but could still enjoy the freedom of the outdoor
Despite the trail community, you don't instantly become best friends when you first meet someone new out here (of course there are exceptions). More often, I'll meet someone in passing on the trail or at a shelter and be able to feel them out briefly. I've found that it's usually the second time I see someone that I feel more of that deep connection. I think it's the combination of a familiar face in the woods and the ease of slipping into deeper conversation after the first meeting. With a STHB, there's no real planning
I struck a balance between searching internally and externally for those powerful moments that seem to come so frequently along the Trail.