“Why are you hiking?”
When I first saw this question on the application to become a Trek blogger, I thought to myself, “What a stupid question!”
Now don’t think I was disparaging the wonderful people at The Trek who came up with that application (please don’t kick me off the blogger team!) but I couldn’t help but wonder if they knew what they were going to get by asking that question. I wonder if they anticipated the scope of the essays, books, and anthologies that thru hikers and potential thru hikers are capable of writing about why they are hiking. The diatribes and rants about personal freedom and the wonder of nature. I wonder if they anticipated making people cry or struggle to come to terms with the huge decision they’re about to make. I’m sure they did. Because the people at The Trek are awesome. (I’m not sucking up, I swear!)
So, when I wrote my answer on the application, I kept it relatively short. Honestly, I was hoping I would be accepted so I could lay it all out for everyone here as an official blogger and only have to type it out once. Laziness prevails! I mean, I’m planning on walking 2,200 miles, I’m allowed to be lazy sometimes! So here it is, in all its scope and glory, my attempt to tell you, the world, and I guess really myself, why I’m hiking the Appalachian Trail:
Why I’m Hiking
Like many of my generation, the past decade found me working a job I had no passion for to make just enough money to stay ahead of my debts, all the while watching the world and country dissolve into madness around me. I wanted out. As Professor Farnsworth best said, “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore.”
I couldn’t agree more, Professor. I wanted out of the day-to-day grind of the nine-to-five. I wanted out of the routine, of the same ol’ same ol’. Each day I found myself losing passion in my interests of writing and music and instead saw myself come home and slump onto the couch in a kind of exhausted dejection that comes with dealing with people all day at a bank. The poet T.S. Eliot once worked in a bank and I like to think he drew on that time as he drafted such poignantly nuanced titles as “The Waste Land” and “The Hollow Men”. So, I decided to do something about it. I knew I didn’t want to end up an unhappy old man who regrets not doing more in his youth, so on a whim I decided I would go back to school to pursue my master’s degree and become a high school English teacher.
Now this transition presented some unique opportunities in my life. One, I moved back into my parents’ house to save money. Ostensibly, this money I’m saving is to go towards paying off my student debt once I graduate and putting a down payment on a house, but future be damned, right? In reality, since I decided to pursue my master’s degree, I have been saving and preparing to hike the Appalachian Trail upon graduation.
But why the AT? If I’m experiencing that classic quarter-life crisis my generation is so famous for, why not something like traveling across Europe or Asia, or diving into some intricate and detailed new hobby, like retooling classic cars? Well, besides the fact that I only know how to drive cars, the AT seems perfectly made for me. I’m an Eagle Scout, I’ve been backpacking for years, and I love the mountains and the forests and the hills that make up the trail. Growing up in Kentucky, the AT passes through geography quite like my home state’s. So, while I’ll be far from home and experiencing totally new places, there’s still that sense of familiarity that keeps me grounded in who I am. And believe it or not, but I swear that I am never more comfortable than when I am in the woods. I don’t care if it’s raining or freezing cold or I’m covered in sweat and my legs are aching from climbing up a mountain, I am content out in the wild.
But I think the biggest reason I want to hike the AT, and this is cliched so sue me, is for the adventure. I’m almost 30 and we’ve just entered a new decade. It feels like the right time for me to get out there and go on a crazy adventure like hiking 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine. I want to experience snowstorms and thunderstorms on high, forested peaks. I want the sound of creeks and streams singing me to sleep every night. I want to meet new and interesting people as I journey up some of the most historic parts of our great country’s vast wilderness.
I’m going to close out with a cliché again, but I think it’s a good one. A lot of people criticize Christopher McCandless and his story in Into the Wild but to me it was one of the first inspirations for me to do something different with my life. And I like to think my reading that in high school led me to this moment, to this decision to upend my life and hike this trail. So, I’ll end with a quote by Alexander Supertramp himself, in a letter to Ron Franz, from April 1992:
“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future.The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.” – Christopher “Alexander Supertramp” McCandless
Please consider a donation to Hike for Mental Health to help fund research and treatment for mental illness: https://www.hikeformentalhealth.org/hikers/wes-laudemans-at-hike-for-mental-health/