We thru hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine finishing yesterday on top of Mt. Katahdin and throughout the past week, I’ve spent a good amount of time thinking about why again it is that we do this sort of thing. I think this type of reflection is somewhat common as I heard many good interpretations answering this question that fit well with my views of why we do this sort of thing and what it means.
In the end, there isn’t one meaning, one point, or one purpose for doing these things. For one of the answers I have to look at the fact that every few years, I’ve taken to the woods to walk. I have hiked at different times in my life, age 19, 26, and 30 in varying circumstances and with different people. There is something therapeutic about being out in the woods. There is time to think and reflect. More importantly for me, I’ve found that long distance hiking is a builder of personal strength for me. It reminds me of what I can do, it helps me redefine who I want to be, and it simply builds my confidence in myself. Among the many emotions at the end of a thru hike, one is a new vigor and excitement to start fresh in the world and take on new endeavors. I have that feeling once again and am so thankful for the trail experience for helping give me this perspective.
I’ve heard some other good reasoning for why people are out here. Rumble Strip, our 18 year old Mennonite hiking friend said that most kids his age are sitting around watching movies and drinking alcohol. He said something along the lines of, “I want to be able to look back on these times and see that I did something memorable. I don’t want to regret or waste time in my life. I want to hike the Appalachian Trail and experience all that I can in life”. Another interesting perspective came in the past few days from a Southbound thru hiker, Freebird, that has hiked the AT and PCT numerous times. He is a retired professional windsurfer and quite the opposite of Stopwatch, very much living up to his name. He said he takes to the woods to remind himself about reality. He talked about what most see as the “real world” being anything but real and more arbitrary oftentimes than purposeful. He talked about the costumes business people wear, though they serve no apparent functional purpose. He made the connection between a neck tie and a noose. He managed to express this opinion with a lighthearted smile and no arrogance or hatred but with a simple kind of language that seemed very real to me. He said that after hiking for a few months, it’s amazing what you see when you go to an airport and people watch. He’s also not interested in paying a bunch of money for a little square room when living outside in a tent provides him with all he needs to be happy and for much less money. Much of what Freebird says rings true for me. There is no malice towards other ways of living but it is clear to me that the real world is no more real than other ways of doing it and sometimes, there is more reality in a simple life in the woods.
So I don’t have a clear and direct answer as to why I like to hike long distances but the core of it has something to do with how I see the world and how I see myself fitting into it. I tend to get the most value out of switching perspectives every couple years and seeing the world in new ways, living many lives rather than totaling committing to one world view and lifestyle for the totality of my life. It may not always be this way, but while I often think at the end of each hike that I’m finished with hiking, I always seem to be drawn back for another trip of reality adjustment.