Romancing the Trail
A Dreamer Learns the Reality of Hiking the Appalachian Trail
I’m a sucker for a good view. This, among many other reasons, is why I’ve loved hiking my entire life. So, when I stood on top of Wind Rock, on mile 664 of 2,192 of the Appalachian Trail, and looked out over the gorgeous mountains, I knew I had a problem. I didn’t care about the view. Not one bit.
All I wanted was cell signal so I could call my boyfriend and tell him I was done. “I know you’ve given this a lot of thought,” he said.
I had. For sure.
A week earlier, I laid awake inside a shelter–restless. As the men on either side of me
rustled in their sleeping bags and snored in the darkness, I was accepting the reality that I wasn’t going to finish my AT thru hike, and I was actually okay with it. Thank goodness.
I arose a few hours later, relieved to mentally throw away my schedule that would take me to Maine in three more months. I’d hike less miles at a slower pace, and if my feet didn’t feel better within a week, I’d stop altogether. It was time to make this difficult decision.
Months prior, as my excitement grew leading up to this adventure, so did my fears. These included things like “thunderstorms” and “creepy men,” but topping my list was an intangible worry, rooted in pride: What if I get out there and can’t hack it? What if I have to quit? At that point, nothing worried me more.
I’ve dreamed about hiking the AT ever since I was little and have romanticized the idea over the past two decades. On April 20, 2019, I finally began this dream journey of walking from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mt. Katahdin, Maine, full of hope, so much joy, and a nervous pressure not to fail.
Three days in. Steep climbs with my pack brought me to tears several times, while gnats flew into my eyelashes or died in my face sweat. Most days, I’d hike 10 plus hours just to complete the minimum number of miles needed to stay on schedule. I’d met wonderful, but swift, people, so I often hiked alone. Despite exhaustion, I had trouble sleeping because of wilderness sounds or hikers’ snores. Of course these things were extremely challenging, but nothing compared to the excruciating pain in my calves, ankles and feet. My doctor and I had great hope for healing with shoe inserts and physical therapy. No such luck.
So on Day 62, as I laid awake in that shelter, I gave myself the freedom to slow down and a deadline of one week. If my feet didn’t improve, I’d leave the trail.
Within just a few days, the pain grew exponentially. I wanted to stay, but I knew it was time to stop.
Why was it so hard to quit, even with all the hardships?
For one, it wasn’t easy giving up on such a huge dream. Even when it didn’t turn out like anything I had expected, it was confusing to realize maybe this wasn’t for me after all. But even once I worked through all of those emotions as best I could, I knew that, despite all of the challenges, the benefits were unparalleled, and I wanted more.
My ego was being smothered, which is the same as a burden lifted. Without the distractions of everyday life, my dreams were vivid and clear. I saw a vision for my life, especially as an artist. I faced so many fears and gained a tremendous amount of confidence. The AT lavished me with these gifts, and on top of all that, provided some of the most beautiful places for me to walk on foot. These things, as you can imagine, are hard to give up.
No, this isn’t the story I had hoped to tell, the one that ended with my victory photo taken on Mt. Katahdin, but I think it might be a better one. I followed a dream, stuck with it for 70 days, and gave myself the freedom and grace to let go of my pride and the ending I felt pressured to have. In light of all that I gained, my failure as an Appalachian Trail thru hiker wasn’t such a terrible thing after all, and I know I’m not done dreaming about it. This time, though, I’ll be dreaming about the real deal.
To learn more about Beth “Slowburn” Meadows, visit www.bethmeadows.com or contact
her at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read more about her adventure on the Appalachian
Trail, visit @slowburnat on Instagram.