Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail Was My Dream. Here’s Why I Gave It Up. (2024)

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When I was a sophom*ore in college, I wrote down three overarching life goals: I would stick to my Catholic faith, complete my chemistry degree, and hike the Appalachian Trail before I turned 30. These were the biggest promises I’d ever make to myself.

One by one, I broke them all.

The first two goals don’t mean as much to me now. My belief system shifted in college. So did my academic interests. But that third goal—that delicious pipe dream of thru-hiking America’s first and greatest long trail—still hurts to think about.

I grew up playing in the woods of North Georgia. Springer Mountain, the starting line of the Appalachian Trail, was basically in my backyard. My first job was as an editor at Backpacker. At some point, I decided that to be a real hiker, I needed to complete a thru-hike. Or, at the very least, I needed to want to.

In the decade since I made that promise to myself, my life changed in ways I swore it never would. I devoted more time to my career than I ever did to hiking. I bought a home in the suburbs. I have a commute. I have volunteer obligations, hobbies, and standing weekly coffee meetings that eat up most of my time. In the moment, it’s all good; I like my life. But when I step back to take stock of it all, I can’t help but feel disappointed.

Is this it? Is this all? I think, and I wonder who I’ve become.

It’s just like the grown-ups always said: Time flies. Not like a sleek bird you can watch with wistful appreciation, but like a raging, burning comet that’s too bright to look at and too hot to clutch. You wonder: how much of your life has spun right past you, in a blur you can’t remember, in a great colorful flash of memory you must have just missed?

I blinked, and I grew up. I’m 30 now. I haven’t thru-hiked anything. And, if I’m being honest with myself, I probably never will.

I know that I chose other things. I understand, at least intellectually, that there are many valid ways of hiking and being outside, and that being a weekend warrior is a perfectly enjoyable way to exist. But that’s just intellectually. In my heart, I still feel like I’ve let myself down. I feel ashamed.

I know other adults who feel the same way. They wanted to trek across Patagonia or make a pilgrimage across the Camino de Santiago. They wanted to backpack across Europe, ride their bike to Tierra Del Fuego, or maybe buy a little boat and sail around the world. Like me, they never did.

“Why beat yourself up?” a friend asked me recently. “It’s OK to change your mind. It’s OK not to want the things you once wanted.”

“Because I feel like I gave up,” I said. “I quit.”

“But it’s OK to quit,” she told me.

So when did we learn otherwise? Some of us got the “don’t be a quitter” speech in the back of the classroom, or in the outfield of the tee-ball diamond. I’m pretty sure I got it from books: As a kid, I was a voracious reader. I devoured fantasy and young-adult fiction, and many of these stories taught themes like courage, determination, and stick-to-it-iveness. They counseled the reader to never give up on their dreams.

There was Into the Wild, in which careers were “20th-century inventions” and no modern adult had the courage to live authentically. There was Peter Pan, in which growing up robbed you of your ability to fly. There was Harry Potter, in which those who don’t believe in magic are bitter and awful people. And there were worlds, like A Toy Story, which were populated by all the characters we invented when we used to play pretend—and then left behind when we grew up.

In all these stories, the loss of belief and imagination is a great evil. It’s not a bad message. Thanks to those stories, I grew up with a great respect for my imagination. I became a writer, a somewhat whimsical aspiration that I’m sure my favorite authors would have encouraged. I did some big hikes. I lived in a van for a while.

But that same well-meaning message has a dark side; it also taught me that giving up on a dream—on any dream—was a form of self-abandonment. For me, that included my dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail.

“I know it’s OK to quit,” I told my friend. “But this is different.”

“Why?” she asked.

I thought about it for a long time. And the truth I came up with was that, this time, quitting made me boring.

Sometimes we use our dreams as covers for our insecurities. “I work a nine-to-five—but I’ve always dreamed of traveling,” we might say, either out loud or in our own heads. “I’m a copywriter for a toothpaste company—but I’ve always dreamed of writing a novel.” In my case, it was, “I write gear reviews—but I’m really just saving up for a thru-hike.”

In this way, our dreams become proxies for the things we feel we should be doing but aren’t. They’re a way of pretending that, deep down, we’re someone else. That beneath the surface, we’re actually windswept and interesting, and this life we’re living is just an interlude—our real life is waiting somewhere else.

The trouble is that thinking this way keeps us from living the life we already have. It keeps us from embracing the lovable, wonderful, complex people we really are. You don’t need a long adventure resume to be an awe-inspiring human being. A mileage log is not a substitute for a personality.

Plus, the hard, honest truth is that if I really wanted to thru-hike, I would have done it already. I would have found a way to make it happen. If I’m being honest with myself, that desire faded a long time ago.

And you know what? It’s OK to not want something. It’s also OK to want it a little bit, but not enough to upend your life. For a long time, I was unwilling to admit this: I felt that my plan to thru-hike defined me. If I gave it up, who would be left?

A multi-faceted human being, that’s who. A person who has a rich array of hobbies, of which hiking is only one. A person with a tight-knit community and beloved friends she doesn’t want to be away from for six months at a time. A person who hasn’t given up on a dream, but has grown beyond it.

From 2024

Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail Was My Dream. Here’s Why I Gave It Up. (2024)
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