Befriending the questions:
“Do you think you should do this, at your advanced age?” my 66-year-old dad said to me last night half-jokingly at dinner.
I am 42, just left my job of 12 years, and am off to live in the woods. Six months ago the phrase “NOBO AT thru-hiker” meant nothing to me; in just a few short days it will be my work, my daily existence, my identity.
At My Advanced Age
I turn over the word advanced in my head. I look it up and see that when not referring to my age, it means “far on or ahead in development or progress; new and not yet generally accepted.” Also “to move forward in a purposeful way.” So thanks, Dad. I guess I’ll own this word.
I’ve been trying to convince myself lately that “This is the perfect time to thru-hike the AT: I’m young enough and old enough.” After all, my inspiration came from meeting a 60-year-old thru-hiker woman at Bear Mountain last year. I know that for me, at 22, I would not have had the mental fortitude or emotional stamina to take on what’s ahead.
“Why This? Why Now?”
I get why people ask. It’s like when I see a woman lugging her suitcase through the airport in high stiletto heels, my first thought is “Wow!” and my second thought is “Why?” This pretty much sums up people’s reaction to my news. I’m leaving a dear community of friends and colleagues, a rewarding job of over a decade, and a neighborhood I love. And I’m not coming back. Not to the same situation, anyway. This thru-hike is the bridge between what came before and what comes next, and I don’t yet know what that will be.
So how do I answer the “why” question? I start with the usual things—needing a change, longing for the outdoors, curiosity about new towns and people, time to sort things out, etc.
But it really boils down to what I recently heard magician Nate Staniforth say about his choice of profession: “Sometimes you know something about yourself that you can’t prove by any other way other than just doing it.”
Here’s What I Don’t Say
People keep telling me I’m brave. And I wonder: what’s the line between brave and reckless? Brave and impulsive? Brave and foolish?
Last summer after I guest-preached at a church, a six-year-old girl came up and asked if I would pray for her to be brave. Her face beamed up at me with urgency and beauty and a whole lifetime of hard things, and I recall thinking, “Girl, you’re brave already.”
Bravery and courage can be tricky words. Author and activist Glennon Doyle said, “Courage—it’s always got rage in it.” I can’t get that out of my mind, the rage part.
I love my life overall, but there have been some doors that have slammed shut for me in recent years: personally, vocationally, relationally.
“The grief-armies assemble, but I’m not going with them,” writes the Sufi poet Rumi. And I won’t. I won’t let my life be defined by the blows that invariably come to us all.
Still. There are hurts I have yet to hike out. Losses I can only lament into a hailstorm. Questions that need to be hurled from across a ravine, waiting for an echo reply.
So It Begins
Though “new and not yet generally accepted,” I trust the next six months on the Appalachian Trail will move me forward in a purposeful way. I believe that thru-hiking, however it all shakes out, will change me into a grittier, funnier, kinder version of myself: a woman more wide open and unafraid in the face of storms, blisters, hunger, and humanity.