Life List: The Never-End­ing Jour­ney

Hike a long trail, even if it takes a life­time.


For sec­tion-hik­ers, there’s only one con­stant through all of the ups, downs, and switch­backs of life: the trail.


a cruel mistress. Un­car­ing, unlov­ing, and un­moved by the hu­man dramas that play out on her 2,189 miles from Ge­or­gia to Maine. That may be true, but to me, her cru­elty is all ab­sence and long­ing. I’m a sec­tion hiker. I’ve hiked 1,500 miles of open balds, grassy mead­ows, and more point­less up-and-downs than I can re­call. My hike, if it were a per­son, would be old enough to drive by now.

Yes, it has taken (OK, is tak­ing) me for­ever, but it fol­lows the guid­ing prin­ci­ple of long-dis­tance hik­ing: Hike your own hike. And mine won’t be hur­ried.

I was just a 20-year- old kid at the out­set, with more en­thu­si­asm than ex­pe­ri­ence, and yet drawn to the Ap­palachian Trail by some no­tion of in­de­pen­dence or sel­f­re­liance. And so there I stood, at the plaque on Springer Moun­tain, ex­hausted from the 8-mile ap­proach and al­ready hob­bled by heel blis­ters. Ready for what­ever.

Ev­ery day brought some new ex­pe­ri­ence: shel­ters, priv­ies, trail folk with weird names. Ev­ery­thing was op­ti­mism and ev­ery­one was welcome. I fell in with a group mov­ing at the same speed be­neath the leaf canopies and out to the over­looks of the South’s re­peat­ing ridges. In the Smok­ies, we flushed tur­keys from the un­der­brush and inched out onto the end of Char­lies Bu­nion to feel the world fall away. Nights went to fire and talk­ing, of­ten go­ing late. The sum­mer marched on.

Mid­way through Vir­ginia, at a high­way stop called Troutville, I bought my bus ticket home. I’d hoped to make it to the half­way point, but couldn’t once my heels sheared off my feet (a re­sult of weeks of wet, ill-fit­ting boots).

But that was pos­tur­ing. The grind had got­ten to me. And any­way, I knew I’d be back. Sec­tion hik­ing is about the long­est haul. The miles may be the same, but the time can stretch on for years then decades. It be­comes a sin­gle, uni­fy­ing pur­pose that sticks around for me like re­li­gion does for other peo­ple— and prob­a­bly serves the same pur­pose.

It took seven years for me to get back to Troutville, where I could prac­ti­cally see a younger ver­sion of my­self limp­ing down the high­way. Time had scrubbed out all the hard­ship, re­duc­ing my idea of the trail to its essence: op­ti­mism. I road-hopped the Blue Ridge Park­way in Shenan­doah un­der cool-then­cold Septem­ber skies all the way to Front Royal, where life and my par­ents were wait­ing for me.

It wasn’t un­til my third sec­tion (the next spring) that I fi­nally be­came what felt like a real long- dis­tance hiker. I slept un­der a tarp, switched boots for Cha­cos and socks, ate meals I re­hy­drated on a stove I made from a cat food can and a hole puncher, and drew strength from the miles, no mat­ter how rooted or rocky the trail be­came. I ar­rived at the Ap­palachian Moun­tain Cen­ter in West Vir­ginia, sheep­ish to have my pic­ture taken as a sec­tion hiker since it’d taken so long to get half­way. But it’s the com­mit­ment, not the dis­tance, that counts when hik­ing a trail in bits and pieces. I knew I’d make the end some day.

That sec­tion ended at an ice cream stand in Great Bar­ring­ton, Mas­sachusetts, 600 miles from Katahdin. And now an­other six years have gone by. Sure, I’ve moved on, first to the West and then to the deserts, canyons, and moun­tain ranges of the world. But I can’t quit the Ap­palachian Trail. There is un­fin­ished busi­ness there, a prom­ise I made to my­self that I in­tend to keep. I know if I per­se­vere through miles, weather, and dark­ness—and all the ob­sta­cles that keep me from the trail in the first place—I will find some bet­ter ver­sion of my­self.

He might be wait­ing for me

in New Hamp­shire’s White Moun­tains, or Ver­mont’s Greens, or some non­de­script place north of Mt. Grey­lock in Mas­sachusetts, where the only thing you ex­pect to en­counter is more of the same hard­wood forests and rolling hills.

No mat­ter when I fin­ish, I’ll have a lot to look back upon from the sum­mit of Katahdin. My life, from Ge­or­gia to Maine, will have changed be­yond the point of recog­ni­tion. But there will be one com­mon thread con­nect­ing the decades, or­ga­niz­ing the years I sought the same dream, how­ever dis­tant it some­times seemed: the trail.

I can’t imag­ine what it will be like to reach the end, and I don’t want to. I’d rather stand there and feel it. And I will.

Sooner or later, all AT hik­ers pass through Vir­ginia’s Grayson Highands.

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