Nina Baxley: AT Thru-Hiker

An AT State of Mind
The Appalachian Trail stretches from Maine to Georgia
The Appalachian Trail

November 9, 2000

And it was. The drizzling rain never ceased, and it started to rain even harder the moment I stopped to put on my long-sleeve Capilene shirt and rain pants. The trail seemed to do nothing but lead me uphill, and I was tired. I could feel blisters forming on my feet from wearing the same pair of wet socks for three days. My pack was soaking wet (despite my top-of-the-line garbage-bag pack cover), adding pounds to my load. I was soaking wet, too; my raingear, being waterproof, was dry on the outside, but I was sweating underneath.

One step at a time, though, I knew I would get to the shelter. Eventually. I leaned my head into the wind and walked. One step at a time.

When I was planning to hike the AT, I communicated with many people who had already thru-hiked. So many of them emphasized that a thru-hike is a mental trip more than anything else. In Maine and New Hampshire, I wished that they had better articulated the physical challenges of a thru-hike. Now that I've hiked 1,600 miles, however, I find myself more focused on the mental aspects of thru-hiking.

So much of the experience—both the joys and the struggles—is all in the mind. I first realized this in Maine when climbing Third-and-a-halfth Mountain. That's what we called it, at least. The map profile showed Third Mountain and Fourth Mountain. Somehow it neglected to include a significant uphill that occurred somewhere between Third and Fourth Mountains. That unnamed uphill wasn't any tougher than any others I'd climbed, but it seemed unbearably difficult because my mind wasn't prepared for it.

I learned early not to trust the map profiles. But reading them is like looking at the weather forecast: You know from experience that the weatherman is probably wrong, but you watch anyway. And you're indignant when weather doesn't turn out as forecast. I know—it makes no sense!

But that's the experience I have with profile maps. If the "forecast" for a climb is correct, I'm fine. If it's not, I get irritated and wonder what those profile makers were smoking when they created the profiles. Didn't they realize that I mentally prepare myself for the trail based on their profiles? Even though I know better than to do that?!?

Here's an example: The climb up The Priest, a mountain south of Rockfish Gap, didn't seem bad—even though it was four or five miles of steady uphill. The profile showed a long, tough climb, and I was mentally prepared for it. So I sailed right up the mountain.

The unexpected uphills on the ridges, however, seem unconquerable when the profile map shows a relatively flat ridgewalk. My mind keeps thinking, "No! This can't be! I thought it was going to be flat!" And my body drags itself uphill, stopping every five minutes to take breaks. Who are those profile makers anyway? High school students? White House interns? Children from the electoral kindergarten?

It's so insane that it makes me laugh, because it's human nature. Similar to when we look outside at rain and think, "But it can't POSSIBLY be raining! The Weather Channel just SAID it's not raining!"

So much of the challenge out here is not just in reconciling my expectations with the reality of the trail, but in learning NOT to expect, but just to accept. The rocks in Maryland seemed merciless because I expected them to end in Pennsylvania. The climbs seem harder when I expect them to be easy.

In the same vein, my state of mind can make hiking seem easier. I wrote about meeting the Blister Sisters in Maine and how my pack felt so light after that. I've had the same experience many times on the trail. If the weather is good, if I unexpectedly receive trail magic, or even if I just have a nice conversation with another hiker, my pack will suddenly feel lighter and the climbs will suddenly seem easier.

The challenge is to learn to tap into whatever it is in my brain that makes the struggles seem less of a struggle. I've seen and experienced the power of the mental over the physical. Now if I could just learn to harness it. . .

I'm feeling good this evening. It's cold and rainy, and the wind is howling, but I'm happy and cozy in this four-walled shelter on Chestnut Knob. I feel strong, capable, and confident, even though I know that worse weather awaits me as I head farther south into higher elevations and winter. It feels strange but good not to feel scared of what lies ahead.

When I first started the AT, I was scared of everything—slippery rocks, stream crossings, cold weather, wet weather, and injuries, just to name a few. In fact, I didn't realize at first that I would be so scared of things. But on the AT, you just have to keep going—scared or not—or leave the trail. I wasn't about to quit, so I kept going.

And here I am, 1,600 miles later. I've hiked over hundreds of miles of slippery rocks and crossed numerous streams. I've hiked in all kinds of weather, and I'm still here.

It feels good to know I have some courage, and that I don't wimp out when the going gets tough. I may be the most scared thru-hiker on the AT, but determination always overcomes fear. Every time. It's all in the mind.

I love this life. It's not the "real world," but it's so much more real than the cushy life of conveniences that I've left behind for awhile. I sleep the satisfying sleep of the weary and bone-tired. My huge appetite is earned, and eating is such a completely satisfying experience. It's not like that for me in "real life." It should be.

Yet another thing to think about as I continue southward on the Appalachian Trail. Life is good. Now, time to finish my hot chocolate, then get some rest. It's been a long day!

Check out Nina's gear list and pack weight.
See the trail dispatch archive for previous weeks.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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