Without fail, as I reach a town and immediately seek out the nearest all-you-can-eat buffet (today's was Chinese), I have a local approach me to ask, "What's the Trail really like?" Honestly, it's a pretty difficult concept to describe: boiled down its walking through the woods but it's also a lot more.
Because of these encounters, and the fact that I literally have hours each day alone with my thoughts, I've done my best to come up with similes for my experience. In a way, backpacking is what I imagine pregnancy might be like: you gain extra pounds you have to lug around (your pack), you crave all sorts of food combinations, sometimes the idea of taking even 10 more steps seems unbearable, yet other times you're struck with how beautiful and inspiring this experience is. I recognize that there are a whole lot of differences between the two as well, and I'm incredibly thankful that I'm done after about 6 months, not 9!
The other day, though, I realized that hiking the AT is almost like a game of Pacman. I follow the white blazes that mark the trail just like Pacman eats the white dots in the game. Occasionally, I snag a meal and get some extra points (though instead of cherries I'm usually eating a protein bar). I'm constantly haunted by the ghosts of potentially trip-ending issues: major injuries, financial insecurity, loneliness, mental fatigue, and simply time. Pacman is also chased by these ghosts but is able to conquer them when he powers up by eating the larger dots. I, too, have been able to overcome these worries, usually with the help of emotional support from off the trail or poignant moments of reflection while on it.
I had one such of these moments just last night. I pulled another big day (over 29 miles!) and surprisingly was still feeling strong. I made it to this radio tower that had stunning views that opened both east and west. I felt torn--I could continue another 5 miles to a shelter, or I could stop when I was feeling good and enjoy the scenery. I chose the latter and was rewarded with a cold but spectacular sunrise. As I ate my morning pop tart and watched the purple of night bleed into the red of dawn, I couldn't help but think of how lucky I am to be out here. The main difference between my journey and Pacman's is that I get to enjoy these special moments.
This may or may not have helped you gain a sense of what it's "really like," out here, but it's the best I can do at this point. Perhaps you'll have to get out on the Trail someday to experience these moments yourself.