This past spring, I successfully hiked the first 500 km of the Appalachian Trail. Although that still sounds crazy for me to write down, the mountains and the trees are so vivid in my memory that it seems like every step I took was just yesterday.
I knew I wanted to write a travel story for the Altitude Sports’ blog, but after returning home I was lost on what to write. How do you tell a story of an experience that is too surreal to put down in words? Therefore, I decided to focus on one aspect and that is community.
I started to get a sense of the trail community before I left for my hike. Realistically, I would have never found myself on the Appalachian Trail without my hiking partner. It was her dream of hiking the trail that led her to asking me to tag along; and after brief Google search, I was in.
My sense of the trail community started with her enthusiasm and rapidly grew from there. I drowned myself in research. I was reading of people’s experiences and researching gear and slowly started to get a sense of the willingness to help one another online as the common excitement for the outdoors brought people together even through their laptop screens.
It was research that led me to amazing companies, such as Altitude Sports, where the community only continued to grow. I was astonished that people were willing to help me achieve my goal. Companies who didn’t know me were giving me gear to test out while sending me long emails filled with tips and must-sees. I was overwhelmed with the support and generosity I was receiving. Little did I know this was only a taste of the trail life to come.
Here is where the story gets difficult for me to write. There is nothing I can say that will accurately describe the sense of collective love on the trail in a way that someone who has never done a similar experience could understand. I had never felt a sense of belonging more than I did in the mountains. The reasons that led all the long distance trekkers to the mountains were all different.
Many were recently divorced, fired, or retired, while others were walking off addictions or simply looking for adventure. Although our reasons for being there were so vast, all long distance hikers had many commonalities. For the most part were all driven, stubborn, brave, positive, and we all overwhelmingly loved and respected the outdoors. We were there to hike the trail, we weren’t there to quit, complain, or to leave a trace behind us.
I met people of all ages and classes, but on the trail we were all peers. No matter who you were, you had to wake up and climb the same mountains with everything you had on your back. We all had too. And although I didn’t see all the long distance trekkers every day, we all knew who each other were and had tremendous respect for one another. We’d share everything from trail mix to shelter if one of us was in need.
I started hiking with my just my own partner but ended up in a group of five. The five of us would climb together and camp together. Yet every hiker living on the trail became a member of the community I was engulfed in.
This community is what is impossible to explain. I remember distinct peaceful moments that will stick with me forever of sitting around campfires, passing around wine that’s been put in water bottles to save weight, harmonies started by my hiking’s partner’s beautiful singing, or big feasts when we find ourselves entering a town.
However, I also remember true comradery moments of grabbing one another’s arms to pull them up rocks, giving shoulder massages, quickly putting on the rain cover on someone else’s bag when it suddenly starts to downpour, going back for each other when bear sightings get too close, and all sleeping in one tent when unexpected rain got those cowboy camping totally soaked. Strangers become family in a matter of days. And mutual hardships make those families a team before you know it.
To be honest, going back to the real world was far more challenging than I was expecting. It took me a while to get back accustomed to the disconnect we have to someone sitting right beside us on the subway or standing in front of us in line for coffee. At first I thought trekking was an individual sport. Although I carried all my gear alone and climbed mountain after mountain with my own feet, I quickly learned hiking the Appalachian Trail was about way more than just me.
I was a part of a team and it was a team I couldn’t have been prouder to be a part of. Leaving the trail to resupply on food and hitchhiking into towns all muddy and having not showered in days, I could not have been more proud to be a standing on the side of the road with my thumb out and my fellow hikers by my side. Overall, I know that feeling of disconnection in civilization is something I won’t have to get used to, because I know life will lead me back to living in the outdoors time and time again. Hope to see you there!