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Hike Your Own Hike: Lessons Learned from not Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail

Appalachian Trail

I absolutely adore the Appalachian Trail.

I remember driving by it as a kid on family road trips; my heart stirring and my mind racing as I imagined that one day I would set foot on that famous trail. Years later, I would drive 2-3 hours to nearby National Parks to explore the Appalachian Trail (AT) whenever my schedule allowed. Eventually, I would give programs about the AT as a Seasonal Park Ranger at Shenandoah NP, where 101 miles of the AT cuts through the park. My fascination with this nearly 100-year-old trail has only grown every time I talk with visitors, friends, and thru-hikers.

So it should come as no surprise that I dream of one day thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.

However, I certainly have my reservations. Can I really take 6 months off of “life” to complete this? Can I financially afford this adventure? Can I mentally handle being separated from my loved ones for that long? And, with a recent leg injury, am I physically capable of completing this seemingly arduous task?

Can I actually achieve this ambitious goal?

At this time in my life, the answer to all of those questions is “maybe not now. But someday.”

And I’m ok with that.

Because I don’t need to traverse 2,190 miles or to have lots of time and money to enjoy a good hike.

That’s why I love the phrase “hike your own hike.” I get to decide what hiking means to me. I get to enjoy hiking regardless of where I am, how far I go, and how much time I spend outside.

So in honor of “Take a Hike Day,” here are some lessons I have learned from choosing not to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail at this time and, instead, hike my own hike:

Time isn’t necessary to get “lost” in nature. There is definitely something to be said about spending long periods of time outside. However, I don’t always have the time to go on long adventures. That’s why I love short, 10-minute hikes. Just being outside can quickly alter my mood and provide my soul the right amount of calm I was looking for.

Nature already surrounds us. Nature doesn’t always have to be a destination. Sure, wild places like the National Parks are mesmerizing. However, we are surrounded by nature wherever we go. Take a moment to recognize the different plants, insects, and wildlife next time you walk outside. What is there that you didn’t notice before? What has changed in the last week? Our Earth is resilient and creative and beautiful. Luckily, hiking can help us to experience the familiar in new ways every time we go outside.

Hiking isn’t reserved for those who are “fit.” I love that one of my favorite trails is as flat as can be. With no huffing and puffing involved, my mind is free to wander, my eyes are free to discover which trees are in the forest, and my ears are free to dance along with the bird songs. I don’t need to climb mountains to still enjoy a good hike. In fact, I prefer not to.

Grandma Gatewood hikes Appalachian Trail
"Grandma Gatewood” had 23 grandchildren when she first thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail.

Take what you already have! You don’t always need the latest and greatest gear to enjoy hiking. Certainly, you should always wear appropriate footwear, take enough water, and know where you’re going. However, if you’re taking a simple, short stroll, then you probably already have everything you need. Fun fact: the first solo female thru-hiker on the Appalachian Trail completed the entire trail in 1955 when she was 67 years old, wearing only Keds and carrying a large knapsack. Now that’s what I call determination.

These lessons don’t diminish my dream of someday thru-hiking the AT. In fact, deciding not to pursue this dream right now only encourages me to explore new ways of hiking.

So I dare you. What challenge or dream are you facing that seems insurmountable? What hike have you always said you weren’t capable of experiencing? Instead of tackling the entire challenge at once, try just taking one step at a time, starting with a simple stroll outside. Who knows…perhaps if you hike your own hike you may tackle that dream sooner than expected.

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