Originally this project was titled, The Ones Who Escape. I was pitching the project to a publication, and the title catered to their adventure-fueled, headline-grabbing publication.
The word Escape never sat well with me though. It felt like an easy, and somewhat cliche way of categorizing thousands of people that attempt an AT thru-hike. The purpose of recording conversations was to uncover the myriad of reasons and nuanced forces that operate in people’s lives. These reasons, events and forces work up to a decision. The decision to step away, cut ties, put things on hold and leave a life behind for awhile.
Leaving life to walk. Every day, all day.
Nothing about my inquiry is conclusive. Like the thoughts running through a hiker’s mind during the day, these are questions, memories and stories that hope to illuminate an aspect of life that is widely experienced but rarely indulged: the desire to step out of the daily grind of life. Vacations, meditation or finding a quiet lunch spot location are all forms of this inclination. I was captivated by a thru-hike because it is a full-blown version of those breaks we create for ourselves.
A sabbatical is the closest comparison I can find to a thru-hike. I was surprised to find that a dictionary entry put forth a formulaic description for sabbatical: “typically awarded one year for every seven worked”. The amount of work and time we require before deserving a break is disheartening.
A sabbatical typically is awarded by an institution such as a university or clerical organization such as a church. A thru-hike is a self-awarded sabbatical. This hiking journey strays farther from the comparison when you consider that the sabbatical may be prematurely abandoned whether for reasons of physical injury, emotional stress, or an eventual lack of desire, possibly even a lack of enjoyment.
At this point on the trail, hikers seems to adopt a resoluteness that feels utilitarian. “I’ve just got to finish”. With only 700+ miles to go of a 2000+ mile journey, the desire to finish often morphs into a necessity on principle.
I seek to find the moments that bring value to my hike. A motivation based on necessity is much less enjoyable than a drive to finish based in desire and continued enjoyment of the hike.
I struggle to remain within this experience. I find my thoughts turning towards home. I am grateful that I have a community, family, friends, projects and jobs to return to in September. Not all hikers have such a network, or a plan for that matter. They only know what inspired them to begin and are not sure what waits for them after summiting Katahdin.
Back in Georgia, hundreds of miles ago, I spoke to Bob Gnarly about what brought him to his thru-hiking decision.
Bob Gnarly came to a fairly definite conclusion that his life in Kansas City was not what he wanted. That discovery was enough to push him to leave. Why not? If you do not want to be where you are, leaving can be the easiest decision.
More recently I spoke to Girl Scout. We sat on the baseball field of a local Spiritual Center that had been hosting hikers since the 1970’s. The friars provided a covered pavilion, shower, and outlets for charging. The day was beautiful, cool, breezy enough to keep the bugs away and we werren’t in a hurry to get hiking.
Girl Scout, similar to Bob Gnarly, did not want to continue her job. Though she was and is passionate about Planned Parenthood and their mission, it was “a lot” to handle.
The work that seems to really matter, whether that’s on a personal level or a societal scale, the work that really seems to matter can often be the hardest and least rewarding. Rather than carry that burden, Girl Scout chose to walk. A few of her co-workers were also planning to leave for various reasons and she felt the opportunity was right.
I don’t criticize her decision whatsoever. She is still committed to her line of work and very much supports PP’s mission. The amount of fortitude and determination it takes to complete a thru-hike, I feel, will only support her in whatever career path comes to her in the next season.
Rather than an escape, these stories are beginning to feel more and more like a reset button. To make a change, start fresh and begin anew requires the curtain to fall before the next show begins.
In my own professional iterations I’ve struggled to reinvent my place in my community. I have remainded in the same city for over 20 years and despite changing jobs numerous times. The reinvention of myself is always underscored by the proximity that remains between me and my former employer, co-workers — the old ‘me’ that I’m trying to fold into a new direction.
Hitting the resent button only brings you to a new space. To reset does not suddenly provide answers and insights. Often the response to a thru-hike from friends is a hearty send-off with wishes of enlightenment and a conclusive new direction for life of the hiker.
My own grandfather told me before I left, “I hope you figure out what to do with your life when you get back.”
We have decided what to do with our lives, for a few months. This thru-hike is one of the most confident decisions I have ever made. The decision is the most difficult part, and everything else that follows is just as hard, but it’s also equally joyful.
I’ve yet to find a hiker that feels he or she has any found answers out here. What we all seem to agree on though, is that we are learning so much about ourselves. We’re outside all day, but we’ve only got our heads, memories, and each other to consider.
This reset button seems to be introspective. I cannot wrap up these lessons, experiences and personal insights into a broad statement about the trail. The truth is in each story. Every conversation I have brings something to the table. The impact of the trail, and the choice to hike is a unique reset button that sends each person to their own place of perspective.