The half-mile hike up to Max Patch Mountain in Madison County takes a lot longer to walk when you’re holding the hand of a 2-year-old. My daughter is more of an explorer than a hiker. She points out the purple color of chicory and looks for bugs on top of Queen Anne’s lace. Most of the wildflowers and tall grass lining the trail are taller than my toddler, but when we finally arrive at the exposed summit of the southern Appalachian bald, she points her finger out to the horizon and exclaims, “Mountains!”
I grew up in Hendersonville, surrounded by mountains, streams, wildflowers, wildlife. And trails. Lots of trails.
As a child, though, I dedicated my time to academics, sports, and civic clubs, and I didn’t spend much time getting to know my own incredible backyard. My exposure to nature was limited to infrequent day hikes with my family and the occasional outing at summer camp. Somewhere around middle school, I became so focused on getting into college that I forgot to embrace my childhood.
It wasn’t until I graduated from college that I realized something was missing from my education. I knew so much about inside worlds — classrooms and hallways and gymnasiums — but I didn’t know anything about the outdoors. I felt an inexplicable link between becoming familiar with the outside world and getting to know my inner self.
So I decided to go for a walk in the woods.
I started hiking the Appalachian Trail 10 years ago, when I was 21 years old. It sounded like an adventure, it seemed pretty affordable, and I figured that hiking was technically just walking, so how hard could it be?
And then I found out.
It took me five months to hike from Georgia to Maine.
I should’ve spent more time preparing for the journey. I should’ve taken shorter hikes to find out if I even enjoyed backpacking. Before I started hiking the Appalachian Trail, I thought I would go out into the woods and feel bored and lonely. Instead, I discovered a deep peace, and learned that there is a big difference between loneliness and being alone.
I embraced the solitude on the hike, but I also enjoyed the community on the footpath. The Appalachian Trail was the first environment I’d been a part of where the people who were closest to me were extremely different from me. That made the miles interesting.
Traveling more than 2,000 miles on foot taught me the value of simplicity. I was comfortable and content with just the items I carried in a pack on my back.
When my hike was over, I missed how beautiful I felt on the trail. For five months, my body had been covered in dirt, bug bites, scrapes, and bruises. But during that time, I didn’t carry a mirror, and I didn’t have billboards or commercials telling me how I should look. Growing up, I always thought that nature was beautiful, but I had never seen myself as a part of nature — as a part of all that beauty — until I hiked the trail.
I kept on.
I started to set aside time and money to hike other trails. I completed the Pacific Crest Trail, Colorado Trail, and Long Trail in Vermont. I hiked internationally at Kilimanjaro and Machu Picchu. But no matter where I traveled or trekked, the one path that meant the most to me remained the Appalachian Trail.
The Appalachians are some of the oldest mountains in the world. Wisdom seeps through this range like mist filling the valleys. The dense forest holds you close; it is an intimate environment where details matter more than dramatic vistas. The countless trickles, streams, and river veins give life and a pulse to the peaks and forests.
It pulls me in again and again. In 2008, I completed the trail in 57 days, establishing a women’s record. And in 2011, I completed the entire 2,185-mile journey in 46 days, setting the overall record by averaging 47 miles per day.
I don’t believe that a fast or efficient long-distance hike is any better than a leisurely day hike, but I believe the trail has a way of bringing out the best in people.
Now, sitting on top of Max Patch, eating Goldfish crackers and apple slices with my daughter, I’m content to go slow. I’m finding joy in teaching my daughter about plants, handing her a sassafras stem to chew, or picking a handful of huckleberries to share. We stop at almost every stream to search for salamanders, and spend as many nights as possible sleeping under the stars.
There is a grace found in motion and a peace discovered in stillness. The trail provides both.
Hiking is a hobby that meets you at every phase of life. If you’re searching for answers, look to the woods. If you want a challenge, then Mother Nature can — and will — provide one. If you desire community, the trail can foster deep bonds and uninterrupted conversation. And if you simply need a beautiful place to sit and be still, the wilderness is there for you.