"Thru-hiking." I first learned of this phenomenon in 1990. A biology minor at Mary Baldwin College (Go, Squirrels!), I was on an ecology class field trip to North Carolina's Outer Banks. On that trip, I met Tina Seay, a new student who had recently taken a six-month honeymoon with her husband Greg. No, they hadn't gone to Europe, Nepal, or some other far away place. They had thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail—a trail that Tina fondly referred to as the "AT," as if it were a nickname for an old, treasured friend. Not only was I impressed by Tina, but I was inspired, too—this sounded like the adventure of a lifetime! Thus, in 1990, my own dream of thru-hiking the AT was born.
Somehow, 10 years have managed to go by, and I still haven't thru-hiked. Instead, I pursued a couple of academic degrees, moved five times, held six jobs (not all at once), figured out anagrams for people's names (mine is "Axial Benny"), interpreted some dreams, read some books, wrote some songs, raised some cats, and did a myriad of other important (and not-so-important) things. During that time, my dream of thru-hiking the AT just sort of faded.
Now, here I am: 30 years old, and all packed and ready to hike for six months. Why now? Unlike many thru-hikers, I'm not at any recognizable transition in life. I'm not graduating, I'm not having a midlife crisis (I got that over with early, at age 21), I'm not getting divorced, and I'm not quite ready to retire. In fact, I've worked as a technical writer, which I find both challenging and rewarding, for over two years at a company called IEM. I also have a supportive family, good friends, a nice place to live, and two wonderful cats. Plus, I'm on a kick-ass softball team.
So why am I walking away from it all now to hike 2,167 miles? Because I can! Actually, my reasons for thru-hiking are probably no different from many people's reasons. Like most (if not all) hikers, I feel a connection to the woods and get a sense of peace and rejuvenation there that I can't find elsewhere. Hiking sharpens my focus and clears my mind of the petty, trivial thoughts that tend to take over when I'm living in "civilization." I look forward to experiencing that phenomenon long-term on the AT. Also, I look forward to the company of other AT hikers. I've read that thru-hikers are a special breed, and they generally sound like my kind of people: free spirits who are almost as crazy and stubborn as I am!
My most important reason for thru-hiking is the challenge: the opportunity to grow and change in ways-positive ways that I never imagined. I don't know how I'll change; that's a secret that the trail will pass on to me when I'm ready (or maybe when I'm not ready!). I have my own fears and insecurities, and I want to face those fears, to deal with the insecurities that have controlled so much of my life and actions for so long. I want to stop being scared of life, and I'm ready to step out of my comfy little world and face the physical, mental, and spiritual challenges of an AT thru-hike.
I realize that this hike may include endless days of driving rain (or sweltering heat), days when water is hard to find, days when I'm tired, hurting, or uninspired. There may be times that I'm so homesick it hurts, or I'm bleeding and miserable from blackfly bites, or I feel forced to resort to tears of sheer frustration. But there will also be days of perfect sunrises, stunning rainbows, and flaming fall foliage. I hope to enjoy close friendships with my fellow thru-hikers and benefit from the kindness of those who live and work in the towns along the trail. I hope to climb the mountains and survive the hard times, enjoying the ultimate sense of confidence that comes from overcoming obstacles to reach each small goal.
Even if I don't have the experiences I "expect" to have on the AT, this thru-hike has already changed my life irrevocably. In 1998, the very act of saying, "Yes, I'm going to start planning a thru-hike," worked wonders for my confidence and determination. I even got up the nerve to do a solo "shakedown" hike on Alabama's Pinhoti Trail this past April. On that hike, I learned what a truly stubborn person I can be, and I learned that I can face loneliness, cold, life-threatening danger, and other difficult circumstances, and be strengthened by them. Even if I'm forced to quit my AT hike as early as Maine, I will have the satisfaction of knowing that the AT hike-the preparation phase, at least-has already made me a stronger, more adventurous, less fearful woman. With this thru-hike, I can tell that I'm moving in a good direction in life. And I think the AT will take me even farther in that direction.
And the Oscar goes to: Many thanks to Mags for all his support over the last year and a half. Thanks also to my hiking partner, Elisa, and to my ya-ya sister and favorite wingfriend, Dawn "Belcher" Stringer for their friendship. The folks from the Louisiana Hiking Club, AT-L, and ATML (particularly Wingfoot), have been so supportive and helpful over the last year. Most important are my parents, Hugh and Gwen Baxley. They've done everything they can to help me prepare for this hike—even though neither of them likes the idea of their daughter hiking the AT. They've truly set aside their fears to help me realize my dream. Thanks also to GORP.com for supporting this hike. I really look forward to being a part of this project, and I hope GORP's readers enjoy reading about my hike throughout the next five or six months.
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Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication