My fellow adventure partner in crime, Rock-Hopper, invited me to be a guest on her beautiful and full of fun foot adventures blog. I am so excited to have accepted such an invitation because I have never done anything like this before! I know zip, zero, nada about blogging or anything blog related. So take it easy on me guys! But challenge is accepted within me to do something new. I am not missing any opportunity to spread a good word about MY experience in exploring the great outdoors and what a positive effect it has had on me, my life, and those around me.
I was asked why I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail (AT) a lot before I set out on a thru hike in 2016. Damn, I was asking this question myself a lot too, before the trail, on the trail, and even now…after completion of the trail. The reasons just added on as I have learned more about myself and realized the amazing impact of the trail on my life. I will share my original struggles with you, which have led me on an epic mind and body altering experience of thru hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Here I was, a disciplinary good standard citizen in her 20s. Bachelor’s degree in Political Science in a pocket and working on my graduate degree in Non Profit Management and a full time job for a well known and growing non profit health insurance company in NYC. I was renting an apartment on the outskirts of the city, had a boyfriend, a few friends, and even a car! I was making it in NYC, living that city life in the concrete jungle and making it, you know? I was doing everything I was expected of and I really thought this was how it should be for me. I thought these things would make me happy and so I pretended to be happy because of them. Fuck all that façade! I was unhappy with every one of those listings previously mentioned, which I thought constructed my happiness! More importantly, I was unhappy with myself feeling unhappy. I was tired, unhealthy physically and mentally, stressed out, under pressure to prove something to someone…anyone, confused about what is important to me, self-conscious about my abilities, unsure about my wants and needs, depressed and anxious. I could summarize all that by saying how miserable I was in created by me comforts, which were just created social norms and became my illusionary signs of success and self growth.
I felt guilty about my making more money in the future intentions to pursue a graduate degree and I was miserable at working a job that was just routine robotic motions that made me feel stagnant but comfortable. I was miserable in my apartment where I just spent time sleeping and storing all the useless possessions and paying crazy amount of rent to support all those comforts. I was miserable keeping up relationships I was in and the people I surrounded myself, most of whom, I felt, were not really there for me, to support me, and enhance my life’s experience. But I wasn’t blaming anyone or anything. I started to blame myself because I felt responsible. Then I stopped playing the victim. Shit, it is my life, my movie and I am the director here, I realized, and I wanted to change the genre from drama to adventure.
It all started to shift for me in the fall of 2014. I have had many guides to help me grow. Beautiful people who wrote amazing books were my main teachers. After reading Tolle’s The Power of Now, I felt my mind and perspective on life shift 360 and I felt my soul stir. It just made sense more somehow. I began to look within for all the answers to my questions, and for the first time, I started to pay attention to EVERYTHING around me and inside of me.
I have always been a long distance foot trooper as far as I remember myself as a little kid (I am just an older kid nowadays). Growing up in Russia, right next to the forest, I was exposed to it from the beginning and wondered out often and mostly on my own. After moving to USA at 12 years of age, I discovered upstate NY in my mid 20s and after a few hikes, I really understood how much I love walking in general. Hiking in the mountains was hard, treacherous, challenging, beautiful, fun, and freeing. Hiking was always there and I did it often but I never paid attention to how good it really made me feel until recently, when I started to pay attention to every emotion and feeling I was experiencing. I always marveled at peoples’ passions, whether it was music and playing an instrument, or any other type of art or sport like running (I choose not to run, unless I am chased by a bear which I hope I don’t get to experience ever. But that is the only time serious running would be in my plans). I didn’t feel like I had anything like that. I attended a music school and learned how to play piano but I was not passionate about it and so I felt like I am not passionate about anything really. What a debbie downer! Complexes were peaking! But here it was…hiking…which I have always done…slapping me in the face with amazing wakefulness and the feeling of being alive and I looked passed it until very recently. Holy shit, I am passionate about hiking and nature, duhhhh! ~smacking my self on the face~
I started to force people to go and hike with me. Oh boy was that a task to make people go have fun outdoors. Not for everyone, I agree, but doesn’t hurt to try! It is science! Being outdoors, just by taking a 20 minute walk, has amazing effects on one’s psyche and the physical. I did coerce a few friends, a few times, to venture out with me upstate NY and it was a blast. I was hooked! I needed more. I was restless. I felt like a little kid when on the trail, looking at all the rocks, leaves, and everything interesting and not caring about any troubles in the world that haunted me in the city. I was paying attention to EVERYTHING, yet not thinking about anything much, just observing. I would get ahead of the group I was with or stay a bit behind, sometimes, stopping to look at and take a picture of everything. I liked to catch up with a group and tell them about my findings and discoveries but it didn’t sit well with them that I was doing “my own thing” while being in a group. There was a conflict as I tried to defend my independence and preference when out of someone’s anger and insecurity a comment was made that I should just go hiking by myself. Gosh, I thought it was a brilliant idea!!! And so I did!
I was a one woman team for awhile and I loved it. I couldn’t get out of bed for work at 6A.M. on weekdays but I would be up at 4A.M. on the weekend, without an alarm, to drive upstate NY for a full day of hiking. I’d spend my hiking day in bliss and when I’d get home, I’d post all the photos on Facebook to share with people how awesome it is out there. I realized that the reason I was posting the photos on social media about my adventures was not to show off but because I really wanted to share the awesomeness with others so they could do the same and secretly wanted people to come with so I can share it with them in person. I wanted to call on all those independent explorers who enjoy the company of another independent explorer to swap experiences and ideas about trails. Those were the happiest weekends I had in 2015. I started to feel alive! I would even go to work happier on Monday because I knew the weekend is coming in 5 days and that it will bring more of that high. The whole week I wasn’t living, however, just skipping time, waiting, to make it to the weekend. I didn’t like that. It was exhausting. I felt like living 2 days out of 7 days in a week was ridiculous. I was a hiking addict and I needed to feed my high more frequently.
I discovered Hudson Valley Hikers (HVH) group on meetup.com in the fall of 2015 and was introduced to backpacking. That was it. That was my way in. I could spend more time in the backcountry, like weeks at a time! I didn’t even know this was possible! On my first meeting with HVH, I met CampingJay (check out his website for all things hiking, and many awesome advice I have utilized, at www.campingjay.com) who nerded out with gear suggestions for backpacking. I have also met a former Northbound AT thru hiker, Star Child. We spent maybe an hour talking about his thru hiking experience and somehow it just made perfect sense for me to do it someday. Again, my mind shifted and my soul not only stirred, it nudged me…HARD. Everything was tingling and I had so many questions and I just knew that I must do it. I doubted myself but I imagined hiking through 14 states with just my pack on my back for 6 months. Fuck this corporate bullshit, fuck all these people who I have nothing in common with, fuck this society who cares about what car you drive and what brand purse you are getting for Christmas (it is different when it comes to hiking gear though hehe). These “trail people” became my tribe. Everything they said just resonated loudly somewhere deep within me.
I couldn’t stop thinking about backpacking the Appalachian Trail since that November day in 2015 when I met with HVH. It was on my mind daily (still to this day, after 2 months of the completion, the AT is an every day thought). The AT obsessing thoughts were growing but not heavily weighing me down…the opposite was happening. The possibility of me hiking for 6 months elevated me and made me feel lighter. Letting go of all that consumerism mentality I grew to learn and accept as success and living in the backcountry and hiking all day seemed like a perfect way to rewire my mind to a different life…a lifestyle, if you will. A month later, I still could not get it out of my mind and I started planning a bit. Because of college semester ending in May, I had to start a hike sometime after that. I had bought tickets for a music festival which was happening second week of June in 2016 and so I was working my mind around those dates on a start date. I knew the most popular route on the AT was to hike north from Georgia to Maine starting in the Spring but school and concert commitments asked for a different route. I wrote to CampingJay, “What would you say to someone who was planning to do the AT starting mid June from North to South?”. He answered with “I would say awesome”. The snow would melt in Maine by then and the conditions would just be on point. That was a green light for me. His comment was like an approval, a go ahead and that was it. That day, with CampingJay’s “approval” the hypothetical time frame of my thru hike start was set. I have been thinking about quitting my job at that time already and confessed it to him for the first time. The idea was out of my head and into this reality and there was no putting it back where it originated.
The next 5 months were spent researching, acquiring gear, talking to everyone possible to get their insight on backpacking and thru hiking, but mostly preparing and planning for everything mentally. I went on 4 practice weekend backpacking trips and spent a lot of time visualizing the 6 months trek. It was tough…to let go of things in my life, which no longer served me to allow me freely set out on my journey. I had to figure out what to do with the expensive storage unit aka my apartment, I had to figure out when and how to terminate my graduate program I was in (I’ve realized I wasn’t passionate about my studies) and employment. The hardest thing was to quit school and work because these factors…the society has made me believe was supposed to make feel successful. Having these gave me a prestige almost…but I no longer wanted it. I realized it wasn’t making me happy and it was not helping me grow. It lost meaning for me and I couldn’t find any sense in it. Some family and friends thought I was crazy for quitting everything and hiking for 6 months and tried to talk me out of it. A boyfriend, at the time, who was so supportive the whole way, just weeks before the trek began stressed me out about how selfish I was to leave him and everything behind and tried to convince me that I stay. We are no longer together because I chose the AT over him, as he believes. And my mother had doubts about my intentions of hiking out. I listened…and decided to let go. What about what I want for fuck’s sake? My gut was telling me that I needed to let go and accept what will be. I withdrew from grad study first and I felt more free instantly. I decided that the student loan money left over would be a perfect way to finance my thru hike and more educational, in fact. Just as I made that conscious decision in my mind that I will not be continuing that semester, I felt a huge elephant step off my shoulders (to only be replaced by a 30 pounds backpack for the next 6 months hehe. Which I would have gladly carry with one hand if I had to, rather than that elephant) and I rejoiced. I focused on wrapping up my work duties and resigned in May. The corporate slavery spell of exactly 3 years was broken. For the next 3 weeks before my thru hike date, I began living every single day and I haven’t stopped…not even after the completion of the thru hike in December. Are you living or just existing?
Where did the story about my thru hike really begin? Was it when I learned about the AT? Maybe it was when I decided to hike it? Or did it start on the day I ascended Katahdin and touched the very first northern white blaze of the Appalachian Trail with Rock Hopper by my side? Or did it start when I was just a child getting lost in forests for hours collecting dried leaves walking my way through pine tree tunnels? I’m not sure, but my thru hike definitely consists of many stories and each has a unique beginning but no ending. The stories keep going on infinitely and are retold often. I think I always knew I would wonder off by foot somewhere for some time. I can’t help but to remember how as a child in kindergarten, I got my friends into digging under a fence to escape and go to hang out in the forest for a few days. The recess was over and friends were too tired to help me dig. I dug the next day too solo but was distracted by something else. Strange that I only remembered this 28 years later, and realized that I did just that now. It took me 28 years to dig out a hole solo, big enough to walk out in the hopes of putting an end to a miserable routine I was revolving in. It worked.
If you are still searching for your passions and deep desires or want to cultivate some more of those, I recommend to think back to when you were a tiny munchkin. What did you want to do or where did you want to go as a child? Where and how did you enjoy yourself most then? Do just that! Be a kid again. A grown kid. No shame in our game! Someone amazing said, “Growing old is mandatory; growing up is optional.”
I want to confess. I have cried many tears writing this. Happy, nostalgic, soul soaking tears. It has been an emotional journey writing this piece and I am glad I am able to let it out for you to feel it all with me. Thank you for taking the time to read this. I hope that it makes you aware of your own deep desires…wants and needs and hopes. I love you all.
Peace and love,