In January of 2015, I dreamed up a crazy idea of how cool it would be to hike the entire Appalachian Trail, split into sections, over a few years. And then the next day, I decided I would do just that. I had become interested in long distance hiking over the past few years, and felt I was ready for something big. But the hiking itself wasn’t my only reason for beginning this adventure.
For a number of years, I have toyed with the idea of starting my own mental health initiative, one that could somehow benefit youth struggling with their mental health. I began to struggle with my own mental health at a young age, and, through my recovery process, noticed how few resources there are for young people with mental illness.
In my own journey towards mental wellness, I found that spending a greater amount of time outdoors played a large role in my recovery. So I decided to combine my two dreams, hiking the AT and starting a charity to help youth with mental illness, into one dream: Megan’s Hike 4 Mental Health. Megan’s Hike 4 Mental Health is an organization that benefits youth struggling with their mental health by allowing them to experience the magic of the outdoors through summer camp.
I began my hike on April 23rd, 2016, at Springer Mountain, Georgia, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. I set off to hike 300 miles in just over a month, with a flight waiting for me in Knoxville on May 26th. I hiked with one friend and met many new friends along the way. 300 miles seemed incredibly daunting, and, to be honest, I did doubt myself a few times on the first few days. Georgia especially was tough to hike through, as the state is full of big climbs and I was far from having my trail legs. But everyday got easily, and, before I knew it, I was summiting mountains at a rate I could not have dreamed of when I first set off.
One day I remember perfectly was the day I reached 100 miles. The 100-mile mark is at Albert Mountain, which was easily my favourite climb of my entire hike. The mountain was so steep and rocky that I often found myself using my hands to pull myself up the side of the mountain, no longer being able to use my trekking poles during this ascent. Once I reached the top, there was a fire tower that I climbed up. From the top of the tower, I could see all of the mountains I had already climbed up and down, all of the trail I had already tackled, all of the progress I had made. At that moment, I knew that although I have set this wild goal of hiking the entirety of a trail over 2100 miles long, this dream was something I was truly capable of accomplishing.
The most hectic part of my entire trip was the week spent in Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Within my first three hours in this part, I gained 2,189 feet of elevation within only four miles, encountered a three-foot long rattlesnake, climbed a rickety fire tower, saw six deer, and spotted one black bear! That same night a man was bit by a bear at a shelter not six miles from where I was sleeping.
I had got into a groove in the two weeks before I entered the Smokies; getting to camp, setting up my tent, eating dinner, getting to bed early, and waking up early to get started the next morning. But the Smokies were a whole other ball game. Because of the high bear activity in the park, hikers are required to stay in the shelters. This means sharing a shelter with different hikers every night — many who snore quite loudly — as well as the constant threat of rodents getting into your pack if not hung up correctly. Although I saw the most wildlife and differing plant species while in the Smokies, as well as meeting a number of great people, I was definitely happy when I reached Davenport Gap, the northern boundary of the National Park.
Once reaching Davenport Gap, my friends and I found a hostel to stay at, where I found a guitar. Music is a huge part of my life back home, and I had really missed playing and singing while on the trail. That night at the hostel, full of guitar picking, harmonies, and plenty of snacks, was just what I had needed. I was fortunate to enough to encounter a guitar a few more times further down the trail, and enjoyed many great jam sessions with other hikers.
The Appalachian Trail, for me, was a near spiritual experience. It’s incredibly humbling to stand, completely alone, or with a few good friends, at the top of a mountain that you have climbed while carrying everything you need to survice on your back. It’s truly magical to look out for miles and miles without seeing a single piece of evidence of civilization. The trail taught me so much about the world and about myself, lessons I won’t soon forget. The moment I left the trail, after hiking 300 miles on my own two feet, I immediately longed to go back. I can’t wait to continue my adventure in the coming years.