Why are some hikers successful and others don’t complete the journey? There are lots of answers to this simple question but two basic reasons: one is a series of situations beyond the hiker’s control and two is the psychological/emotional reason within the inner-man (woman) of the individual.
For example, an injury due to a fail that make continuing impossible demands either a walk away from the trail or a commitment to healing before going on. A badly sprain ankle, for some, will send them home. For others, a week of R and R, an ace bandage, and a pizza will put them back on the trail. Sickness can literally take the wind out the hiker’s sails. The reality of spending multiple days in the sick bed and in the bathroom of regurgitation without friends and family to provide comfort and encouragement can crush the resolve of the thru-hiker wanna-be
Running out of funds can end a hike. Sometimes expenses are beyond a hiker’s control with equipment failure or an extended hotel/hospital stay during an injury/sickness. Sometime poor planning and spending too many nights in town can deplete the bankroll prematurely.
Weather is often a factor. Ten days of pouring rain verses ten days of clear skies can mean the difference between going home and reaching the summit. Cold snowy trails can challenge the resilience of the hiker while a dry, sun-warmed path can calm the anxieties of the long trail.
Even bugs can be a reason to walk off the trail. The mosquitoes in July, the black flies of New England in early summer, and the ticks carrying Lyme’s disease can bring a hiker to his knees and cry uncle. In time of discouragement or physical challenge, these tiny pests can be the proverbial straw…the fingers on the blackboard…and the weight that tips the scale.
But the invisible, emotional, maybe even the spiritual aspects of the trail, are often the determining factor. I don’t know the actual percentages, although I think a scientific study would be absolutely fascinating in this area, but my hypothesis is that more hikers go home, not because of physical injuries or lack of funds but because of injuries to the heart: discouragement, homesickness, the need for comfort and normalcy, hunger and the call of civilization.
Some hikers hit the trail with the idealism of the wilderness without counting the cost of its reality. Some dream of the sign on Katahdin but fail to understand the five million steps to get there. Some see the beautiful wildflowers and gorgeous sunsets without feeling the sore muscles, the cold rain in the face, and the solitude of the wilderness. The trail will test your courage, your determination and your commitment.
One of my greatest strengths on the AT was just my love for hiking. If I only wanted a check mark on my bucket list I would have come home after the Smokies. If I wanted to prove to myself that I was capable, I would have caved before New Hampshire. If I wanted just to see the path and experience the fresh air, I would have baled in Pennsylvania. For me, I just love to hike. There is something about following a path through the meadows, under the canopy, and over the mountains that energizes me and makes me feel alive. I was so pumped to begin the trail realizing that I would never hike the same path two days in a row for over four months. Instead of going around in circles and doing loop trails, I was going on an adventure that was one continuous journey for 2,000 miles.
I remember waking up on the second day on the trail laughing at the reality that I was actually hiking the Appalachian Trail. Except of an extended stay in PA, I cannot remember a morning that I did not awake with the thrill of continuing the adventure. I was sore. I was wet. I was cold. But I was so alive. When I got close to the end, I was ready for the hike to be over. I was so excited about being reunited with my wife, about sharing my adventure with others, about re-entering my life of education, and about spending time of fellowship with my church. But my love for taking a hike in the woods never dampened.
I enjoyed the overlooks. I was thrilled with the summits. I longed for the flat sections (yes, there were a few). I was energized by fording the streams. I embraced the beauty and solitude of the wilderness. I loved the trail towns and the incredible menus they presented. I feared the White and the Presidentials in New Hampshire. But I remember seeing a fellow thru-hiker in Gorham, NH, that I had not seen for several hundred miles and giving him a big high five saying, “I am hiking in the Whites! How great is this!”
An injury in Pennsylvania was my dark hour (five days actually). I was frustrated with my inability to walk. My frustration lead to discouragement and my discouragement lead to doubt and my doubt lead me to considering calling it quits. I finally decided to stuff my backpack and attempt to climb the hill outside of Port Clinton, PA. If I could not make the summit, I would turn around and rent a car for home. With God’s grace, I made it to the top and beyond.
I love to hike! The gift that God has given me to enjoy a walk in the woods is the primary reason I stood on top of the Great Mountain in Maine.