Welcome!

During my Appalachian thru hike of this last summer I heard from many friends and family about their desire to hear stories and see pictures of my experience. I was excited for the interest but felt somewhat at a loss. My summer was, in a way, 5 months of separating myself from my phone, the internet, and the bustle of daily life that is so attached to those things. I enjoyed my time apart, but felt frustrated at the separation it caused between me and those who wanted to share in my adventure.

Now, I am home, full of good memories and in possession of something I didn’t have during my time in the woods: a computer. Its exciting, I know. And to top it all off, I still remember how to use this famed device!

I am thoroughly excited to share my story, both for my own reflection as well as for the enjoyment of anyone who will listen. So what follows is a glimpse of what I saw, felt, and learned during my summer on the Appalachian trail.

If you are just interested in seeing some photos of my trip here is a link for such a thing:
I hope you enjoy, and as always, thank you to my friends and family who are always so encouraging.

-Sam

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Facts and Other Beginnings

Before I get into the stories I want to share just a few facts.

The Appalachian trail (the A.T.) is a hiking trail running from Springer mountain, GA to Mt Katahdin, ME. The distance changes from time to time, but in 2014 it was roughly 2185 miles.

A thru hiker is a person who hikes the length of a trail from end to end in one year.

I began my thru hike on April 26th hiked north for 5 months and 1 day to finish on September 27th.

That’s all. There is so much more to it, but that isn’t why I am here. If you want to hear more about the numbers of the Appalachian trail or just want to do more general trail reading I strongly recommend you check out the ATC website:

http://www.appalachiantrail.org/

If at any point you feel crazy enough to think of hiking any part or all of the AT, that site will be a great resource to start. You can also email me any of your questions or thoughts anytime at samwisetruby@gmail.com.

To start you can check out the categories to your left. I put together a few longer stories if you want to get into some of the longer details, the photos and stories section will just give you bits and pieces about each of the photos. 

Leaving home, finding a new one.

As a teenager, my father took our family into the White Mountains of New Hampshire. As his father had done before him, my dad took us on hikes into the mountains and instilled a love for hiking and being outside. It was in these mountains that I first heard of the AT.

During the start of 2014 I was a student at Grand Rapids Community College finishing my associates degree and working at Staples. I had thought of the AT many times since first hearing of it, I had put its completion on my to do list and went as far as talking about hiking this summer, or maybe the next. After years of talking about it I had had enough. I was unhappy with the pace and lack of direction in my life and seeing that I was nearly finished at community college and had a job that I did not intend to keep the timing seemed perfect. I told my parents of my thoughts, and with much encouragement, I decided that this year was the year.

I spent my winter saving money, buying gear, and mostly thinking of the romantic adventure that lay before me. April came finally and reality slowly came with it as I quit my job, took exams, and got in my parents car to go to Georgia.

My parents and I went to my sisters house in Georgia to spend the night before I would get dropped off. The ride south and the final few hours in my families company was very uneasy for me. My father and brother in law hiked the first 8 miles of my hike with me before meeting my mom and sister for one final goodbye. I wont lie, I cried in preschool when I got dropped off by my mom. I cried like a preschooler when I stood in that parking lot in Georgia, and this time felt oddly similar. I was entering a new world, alone, and very unsure. I quickly hugged my family and turned my back to walk north. I did not look back once during the first few miles of my hike. The feelings I felt during my first solitary steps are still very hard to explain. I was scared and alone, but I knew at once after I left that I had just done something that required bravery and strength. I realized this and felt flutters of joy in my chest. It had begun, I was on my own. These feelings came back from time to time during my first few miles, but mostly, they were replaced with a panicked and uncomfortably alone feeling. I was starting to realize that the romantic journey I had begun would involve much more trial than I had thought.

My first night on the trail was an emotional point for my hike. I spent the night in my tent, with only a distant conversation with two section hikers. My thoughts ranged the times and places my parents could pick me up as they drove home to the bear that was undoubtedly watching me sleep in my burrito of a sleeping bag. I was more unsure than ever that I could or even wanted to walk all the way to Maine, I wanted other thru hikers to talk to, I wanted to quit, I was afraid. I paced around the shelter I was camped by for an hour or two before anyone else arrived, on the walls were written things like “Just keep hiking” or “Give it a week”. As I thought very seriously about my decision to be on the trail I I thought again about the reasons I had chosen to hike, I wanted to get away, to challenge myself, and experience what I could experience. I did not feel very excited about any of these things. I skipped dinner, feeling all too soon like I was a failure, and went to bed.

The next morning I felt better, and I can say that every morning for the next week got easier. The task ahead of me became more of a reality as the week went on. Feelings of loneliness and fear would come back many times during the next 5 months, but they were often replaced with much more preferred things like peace, friendship, and adventure. A surprising number of people quit their thru hike within the first week, I can see why, but I do not think the reasons for quitting that early are often valid. The first week is challenging, but it is not a reflection of what the entire experience will be. I thought of quitting often, especially during the first month of my hike. My determination grew as the miles passed, and I soon realized that I had too few reasons to quit, and too many reasons to keep walking.

Home

I’ve been home for over a week now. It’s nice. And also frustrating, scary, and yet again (in spite of frustrating and scary) it is nice.

I can go to the kitchen (a magical place full of food I didn’t carry all day long).

I can sit on sit on soft couches or chairs while watching TV and/or eating the magical kitchen food^^.

I can sleep in a bed with warm blankets and a roof over my head (I’ve been assured by the internet and my family that beds in your own home do not charge hostel fees)

All of those things are nice. I thought that when I was home I would have such a better word for things like my bed, the tv, and the kitchen.  But somehow nice is much more fitting than great! Or superb!

There are things that I can start doing now that I dreamed of doing while I was hiking all summer. I have almost caught up on Game of thrones, I rode my bike today, and I have seen friends and family that I missed dearly. I realized that in the past I have a lot of unhealthy things in my life. Coming home gave me access to some of the things that kept me from being healthy on the trail, and it gave me an appreciation them in a way that I had not used in the past. At home I can eat all of the fruits and veggies I want, I can cook better foods, I can make my diet better than the foray of snickers and pop tarts that my body lived on for the last 5 months. I can exercise the correct amount, this means more than sitting on the couch for hundreds of hours a month, like I used to, but it also means less than walking hundreds of miles a month with weight on my shoulders, like, I also used to.

So, those things are great (I would even argue that they are superb). But in general I cannot yet move from nice to superb because being home has made me miss the life I worked hard for on the trail. I haven’t slept well since being home, I’ve felt restless and like I am accomplishing nothing each day while my knees and feet still ache and make me feel that I should be resting, and the thought of driving my black metal hunk of a Honda on a busy street makes me sweat. Stressed people, busy people, and surprisingly enough, angry people, all make me surprisingly angry (I have never been much of an angry person).Although my diet has probably tripled in wellness I am far from being able to exercise as much as I want, my knees yell at me when I sit too long, and they yell even more when I use them because they are so beat up from hiking yet so stiff from stopping hiking.  I know, it’s a little confusing, if it stays for another week or two I might give my Dr. a call.

I know the problem for the most part, I spent five months in a quiet environment where I could pick my pace and the people I was around, I had a body that had grown used to walking all day every day, falling asleep at dark, and waking up at light.  I had one goal. I had simplicity at its finest. That is different from now by a few miles, or maybe a few thousand. Now I have electricity to keep me up as late as I can stay up, and I cant seem to go to bed until I am exhausted. Now I have dozens of things around me that I can do, or watch, or read, or work on. I have a bank account that needs refilling, job applications to find and then fill out before I can go talk to a person who may become my boss. But mostly, I have no massive dream in front of me that can wake me up each morning with the excitement and passion that only a big dream can.

It has only been a week, I keep reminding myself of this. I am home. I like home. However, just like it was on the AT, the first week is the hardest. The first week is full of uncertainty, frustration, fear, and whether there are thoughts of getting lost in the woods or getting lost in a car they are thoughts that will fade with added time. The second week on the trail was full of fun, growing certainty about life, and so much progress towards becoming the person I am now. My second week at home will likely be similar, at least, I hope. But if it isn’t my second week, it will be my third! I have opportunities to live the life I dreamed of, and I have far too few reasons not to pursue the life that will be the happiest and most rewarding. I can always strive for a life of simplicity and freedom whether I am hiking in the woods or working in the city. If I am able to strive for such a life I will!

Being home is nice. I like it here. Someday being home is going to be great, maybe even superb. Life, much like walking, will take some time and some work to get where you need to be, and at this point, I think I know a thing or two about walking, I can handle a little dose of life.

Finding Friends, Finding Freedom.

The AT can be as social or as independent as the hiker wants it to be. Crowds can form and to an extent everyone has to come in contact with a certain number of people. But like it is often said on the trail, you can hike your own hike. You can camp alone every night, stay out of town as much as possible, you can make one friend, you can make hundreds of friends.

The AT provided the freest environment I have ever experienced.

I met a lot of very great hikers during my summer, I feel fortunate to have spent time with some amazing people, and I made friends that I hope to keep for many years. A few of my friends and I stayed together from around the 500 mile mark until our final day on Katahdin. There were 5 of us together on our final day who had spent miles and miles in each other’s company. Again, I feel very fortunate for that. Many people left the trail for their own reasons and our group was lucky in largely staying together. In some ways the group of friends I was with helped me be stronger and tougher than I could have been on my own. When a massive “I’m halfway done, and I need to do that all over again” feeling hit us around West Virginia, we turned to each other’s humor and company and found new things to look forward to, when we had a mountain in front of us and we were tired of walking uphill we told stories to pass the time, when it got down to a daytime high of 35 degrees (before the wind and rain with one night hitting 20 degrees) we encouraged each other, built fires, and as always when things got hard we put our heads down and kept walking.

I was told very early on in my hike by a former thru hiker that this would be potentially the freest time I would ever have. He told me to take advantage of that, I could hike slow, hike fast, if I didn’t like who I was around: refer to options 1 and 2. I could sleep in shelters, sleep in my tent, sleep in a hammock, or cowboy camp in the open. I could eat what I wanted because I was burning so many calories that my body would just take it in (A half-gallon of ice cream and a cheeseburger for example).  There were many hard things about being on the trail, but it was a fair price to pay for the opportunities it provided.

My final night on the trail was spent in the best way I could have chosen. My friends and I cowboy camped on the rocky edge of a river, with waterfalls and slides to play in, a campfire to share stories around, and a view of Katahdin complete with stars, a sunset, and a sunrise. It was beautiful. I will take what I learned on the trail and make my life as free and as well lived as I am able. I refuse to live a life in which I do not find peace and freedom. I may not always be able to be as free as I was last summer, but if I miss it (more than I already do) the AT and many other trails are always around for me and anyone else who desires. And that is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

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Our final camp and view of Katahdin.

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The friends I finished with. From left to right: Sunshine, Turtle The Brave, The Fat Kids (Check out their blog too at: http://bootstobirks.com/ ), and Fern Gully.

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We had to have some fun now and again! When our friend sunshine walked off to use the privy we gave his pack a new owner and hid it up the trail.

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Our group at it’s largest. We adopted the name “The Golden Girls” (that’s a story for another time).

The two in there you don’t know are Chubby Bunny and Bullfrog two other great friends I made in the woods.

Turtle the Brave

On the AT most thru hikers adopt trail names, nicknames that tell a story or share a characteristic. Some people choose a name, some people are given names, either way a trail name is a tradition of the trail and can be as serious (or otherwise) as the owner desires.

My trail name was (and I guess still is )Turtle the Brave.

In my first few days I began to ponder about what I would be named. I wanted to let the trail community name me, but to pass the time I started thinking of cool names. I thought of several that had no reasoning behind them, including turtle. As I thought more on the name turtle however, it made more and more sense to me. I am taking my second year off of school since high school, as many of you know my first year was spent with YWAM in Denver, CO and Thailand. I have been taking my time, moving slowly with decisions during this period of my life and ultimately going nowhere too fast, like a turtle. So I laughed and kept turtle as a backup name in case someone tried to name me privy man or something far worse. A day or two later I was asked by a day hiker if I had thought of a trail name I liked, I told her turtle, thinking I would never see her again. It turns out that I would see her again. It also appears that when multiple other thru hikers hear a day hiker refer to you as turtle, the name sticks.

So my name remained turtle. At one point I mentioned to a buddy of mine that I was thinking of a name change, I learned my lesson when he suggested I switch my name to “the hiker formerly known as turtle”and I quote: “but we can all still call you turtle for short”. My name was Turtle to stay.

My first day in the smoky mountains I hiked up to an old fire tower, there are many of these along the trail that can be climbed. I tried to climb this particular tower and turned around. I have always had a bit of an irrational fear of heights, I have the healthy fear of dangerous ladders, but had no reason to turn around on that tower. I thought of other times in my life when fear had held me back, and I thought of the hike I was on and how fear could end my hike during dark nights or lonely days. This did not sit right in my chest. A few days later I made it official in a shelter register (often used as a sort of journal as well as a means of communication), my name from there on would be Turtle the Brave. I used my name as a reminder to be brave and found many times during my hike that choosing to be brave during hard times was a freeing action. Being brave isn’t the absence of fear, it is doing what you know you should in the face of fear.

Trail Magic

There are so many wonderful people on and around the trail. Hikers are often offered support in the way of food or other gifts in what is called “trail magic”. Support through trail magic often provided much needed encouragement on a down day through things like extra snacks, rides to town, drinks, and much more. Trail magic did not happen every day, or even every week, it always seemed to happen when it was unexpected but nonetheless needed. Above all else, the people who supported me and many other thru hikers along the trail helped to restore my faith in good, kindhearted people.

Here are just a few examples of the kindness I was shown on my hike:

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Within the first week, outside of Franklin, NC a friend and I were hitching along the road. A couple pulled over and not only offered us a ride to town, but pancakes, eggs, drinks, cookies and prayers. Their daughter was thru hiking and was weeks ahead, I ended up meeting her and her husband in New Hampshire and spending a few days around them. This was the first true trail magic I received.

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This is by far the largest of all of these stories. My friends and I were eating dinner in Daleville, VA when we were offered a house to stay in for the night. The lovely couple above not only welcomed us into their homes for two nights but also fed us, gave us a place for showers and laundry, drove us to a grocery store, and took us to a party at their friends house (Their friends were excellent cooks and we were all very hungry). These things grow in value so much after spending weeks at a time in the woods without showers or laundry.

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While sitting at a shelter in Virginia this kind man brought us a backpack full of pancake mix, eggs, sausage, and juice. We were 15 minutes from a road and he just showed up. Compared to the pop-tarts and knorr pasta sides in my backpack this meal was heavenly.

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In Vermont myself and a few other hikers were offered a night stay in a maple syrup production house (crazy, yes it is). We were given mattresses to sleep on and an unlimited supply of pancake mix and maple syrup (I took a picture of the kitchen we cooked in to make sure I wasn’t dreaming).  To top it off, the owner let us drive his truck and he gave us a ride back to the trail the next morning.

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This one is hard to classify, but it is important in understanding the mind of a thru hiker. Someone had dropped about 5 pounds of some of the best trail mix ive ever seen right next to the trail in mid Maine. As a thru hiker, you often burn thousands more calories than you can carry every day, we got whatever we could. Don’t get me wrong, even without the calorie deficit, I would have stopped and eaten a few handfuls of this trail mix, we all just got a little more excited about it than normal. No, someone probably didnt drop this thinking “Hey ill give some trail magic today!”. Yes, they honestly should have packed it out. Whatever the story, I was glad for the trail mix.

 

I cant express enough thanks to the people who were so supportive during my hike. Life is different when you’re living out of a backpack in the woods, the little things like showers and food become much, much larger. People can be amazingly kind and caring, even if not everyone is, some people are.