I was reared in North Georgia, three hours from Appalachia. My wife, my daughter, and I, when we were all quite young, would often drive into the mountains and spend the day tip-toeing through icy streams, meandering along forest trails, and soaking up the ancient beauty of the Appalachian Mountains. We would stroll through the old gold rush town of Dahlonega, drive to the top of Amicalola Falls, or camp beside Noontootla Creek. A wide and well-worn trail traveled through our backcountry campground, and we would sometimes walk it for a half mile or so, always wondering where it led, what was around the next corner. This was not just any trail, we learned, but the Appalachian Trail, a nearly-2,200 mile footpath meandering along the Appalachian Mountains from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine.
I’ll never forget the day I first saw a backpacker on the A.T. My family was picnicking by the side of the trail when a young man with a tall pack on his back came cruising by, eyes on his feet, his mind, presumably, set on the rocky peaks of Maine’s Katahdin. I watched him go, my imagination running wild with thoughts of setting off down that trail, drawn ever forward by the white blazes that mark the path, walking through fourteen states, in twelve of which I’d never set foot.
Three times I have planned to thru-hike the A.T., to hike the entire trail in one calendar year, over a period of about six months. In 2008, 2010, and 2011, family obligations and, above all, financial difficulties made leaving home for six months impossible. While I never gave up the dream of hiking the trail, after the 2011 failure, I did almost give up hope. It seemed that, by the time I would have the opportunity to hike the Trail, I would be too old to manage it. I was so distraught over my loss that, for years, I could hardly stand to hear mention of the A.T.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail is challenge and an adventure, but it’s also far more than that. Ask anyone who has thru-hiked the Trail what were their reasons for doing it, and the response will usually be some circular argument that essentially amounts to, “I had always wanted to hike the Trail because I had always wanted to hike the Trail.” Some hope to find peace of mind, or work through the grief of losing a loved one, or to connect deeply with the natural world, or to challenge themselves in a way workaday life never has. But, more often than not, my experience has been that these reasons arise in the minds of hikers after the thought of thru-hiking the Trail has already become something of an obsession.
Hiking is, for me, a spiritual experience. In the temple of God’s woods, atop the shrine of His mountains, in the sacred waters of his streams, worship comes as naturally as breathing. Meditating in the early morning, God’s love dawns with the rising sun. The mantra bubbles up in my heart like a spring from a hillside. My boots with every step chant, “Jai Maa. Jai Maa.” I have experienced these moments, sometimes a couple of days. To experience this unending drama of divinity for six months, over five million steps, would be an overwhelming gift of Grace.
Well, there may yet be a chance.
A few months ago, Grace took hold of me and at last gave me the motivation and impetus I needed to start getting my self in shape. Since I was a child, I have been overweight, and while I was active when I was younger, poor fitness habits have taken their toll on me. Less than four months ago, I joined a gym, started counting my calories and improving my diet, and in that time I’ve lost thirty-five pounds and begun to shape this body into a proper instrument. Getting into shape made me think about the Trail again, how much better a chance I would have of completing a thru-hike if I were fit. I hashed out a plan for the next several years. I won’t go into detail about it because there are variables that are still up in the air, but if God is willing — and the events of recent months have left me believing that He is — I will step off from Springer Mountain in the Spring of 2019.
There is a website called Trail Journals which hikers use to blog about the progress of their hikes while they are en route, as well as detailing their pre-hike preparations. I’ll be occasionally posting there over the next few years. During my hike, I’ll carry a camera, and I intend to upload regular videos detailing my progress. I hope, my friends, that you will continue to follow me as I prepare for my hike, and, if Thakur indeed makes it happen, that you will keep up with me along the Trail.
The dream is tenuous, always hanging by a thread, but that thread is Grace. Jai Maa.