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Becoming Brave on the Appalachian Trail

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Father, Can a man change his stars?
Yes William. If he believes enough, a man can do anything!
— A Knight's Tale
Female Appalachian Trail Solo Hiker

Changing My Stars

Where to begin?

I do my best to live my life without expectations.

I try to enter new relationships with an open mind, ready to learn anything a person might teach me. I try to take on new creative endeavors without thinking about the failures of the past; and I try to embark on new adventures with palms up, hands stretched out, ready to receive anything the universe might give me. That said, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t expect to dive deep into my psyche to pull out all the junk and clean house while off on my 100 mile Appalachian Trail adventure.

Instead, I found myself thinking… left foot, right foot, don’t trip, easy with the knees, watch that spider web, what’s that sound, just 2 more miles, don’t forget to hydrate.

Every time I consciously thought, “Alright focus. Time to deal with stuff.” I simply came up empty. All I could figure was that I just have no regrets. Period. Could I have made some better financial, business, lifestyle or relationships choices in the past? Sure. We all could. But I couldn’t think of anything I absolutely regretted or wanted to change about the path I’d chosen. And while unexpected, I guess that’s ok too. Not everyone has to have a mental or emotional breakdown in order gain a better understanding of the world.

Sunrise on Tennessee Appalachian Trail

From then on I tried to focus instead on what and who was in front of me. I allowed myself to take in the crazy stories of the incredible hikers surrounding me. Allowed myself to learn from their mistakes as they spoke of their pasts and really listen to what they each might teach me. Two lady day-hikers on Mount Blood shared of their regrets in waiting so long to really get out in nature (they were in their 50s). How they’d allowed family life bury them in responsibility and forgotten to take care of themselves. Another long-section-hiker shared that he’d gone too long without being in nature and planned to make time once/month to just be out in the elements. 9-5 desk jobs have a way of creating this frequent dilemma. He told me to make sure once every mile or so to make sure I look up, look left and look right just to take it all in. It’s far too easy to do the safe thing of staring at your feet and your footing the entire trail and miss the beauty around you. A perfect life lesson I think. A cancer survivor, proudly displaying her lost hair shared that she finally had to go against her doctor’s orders because she knew within herself that the best medicine to detox from the chemo was not more bed rest inside the hospital, but fresh air from the mountains. She hiked all the way to the top of Rocky Mountain to simply breathe the air. We sat for a long time just enjoying the silence and scenery together.

Instead of plowing down the trail as I had been doing (twice the speed and distance I had set out to do), I lingered longer on mountain tops, made myself get up in the middle of the night, exhausted, simply to marvel at the universe of stars. I took time to notice the hard work spiders put into their webs and tried to duck under them rather than sweep them away with my hand. I didn’t run off the family of chipmunks living the shelter but enjoyed watching them scurry about. I sat down in the middle of the trail to tell a turtle a secret and I simply stood in awe that I was blessed to share the trail for a moment with a momma bear, until she scampered off through the wildflowers.

Georgia Appalachian Trail Wildflowers

Life and people have so much to teach us if we’ll take the time to stop and listen. I know my career is unique in it’s ability to give me as much time as I had to really be on the trail. But everyone can take a day or an hour, turn off the noise, find a setting different than the norm and just be.

One hour alone with the stars was the only inspiration I needed to push on when I was started to feel physically worn down. It was a reminder that we CAN change our stars if we only have the heart and will-power to do so. If you look around your life and don’t see what you want, do something about it; I promise no one else is going to do it for you. That might be as simple as a consistent yoga practice and it might mean the scary step of leaving the secure 9-5 for the lower-paid but far more fulfilling dream job. If you hate 8-10 hours of your day every single day, you are simply torturing yourself with a slow and painful death. How is that any way to live? And sometimes, it’s not the job or the relationships or the location that need to change, but our attitude toward them. Allowing yourself some time on the trail (or in the gym, or on the lake, or with that old friend or driving to that place) does wonders to make you appreciate the good already in your life.

I haven’t looked at the stars in pitch-black night in years and I haven’t been able to see the “lines” that connect the stars maybe ever. But that night, with nothing standing in my way, no light, no moon, no distractions, only the quiet breeze and my destiny, I knew that the way I looked at my stars had changed and I was ready for this new life of constant change and adventure on every corner. When your daydreams mingle with your night dreams, the possibilities are simply endless.

Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars and change the world
— Harriet Tubman
Neel's Gap on Appalachian Trail

My Trail Name

If you’re unfamiliar, hikers get trail names while they’re hiking. These are usually due to a personality trait, or maybe where someone is from, the gear they carry or something they talk about a lot. My friend Corey is “Ridge Runner” because he was spotted literally running with his pack across the ridge to get down to the shelter before dark. My new friend Bill became “Inspector Gadget” this week as he had every possible toy you could imagine…he even brought his own hiker-friendly coffee pour-over set up. And I… I became “Brave Heart.”

I loved it right away, of course, but also didn’t feel worthy. I hadn’t wrestled a mountain lion or thrown myself on a rattlesnake to save someone else, I simply chose to hike a trail for a few days by myself. The more people I met however, the more people used words like “courageous” and “bold,” “fearless” and “full of grit.” It certainly sounds nice, but I’m still not sure I’m worthy. For me it was more about mind over matter. You can’t let yourself get worked up over every snapping twig and you have to understand resolutely that when it gets really tough, and your feet are about to fall off and your knees collapse and all you want to do is quit, you are the only one around to push yourself forward. If you can do that in the woods, you can do it in the “real world.” 

I also discovered quite a bit about peoples’ views of other people through this. So many people had endless questions about what I would do about bears, and what if someone attacked me, and what if I got sick, and what if someone attacked me, and what if I ran out of food, and what if someone attacked me… A lot of people were worried about the hurricane, but most were worried about other people. Then there were also the friends and strangers who cheered me on and wished me luck and told me to go for it and have fun and come back with stories….

In this, I noticed two trends. In the first example I found that many people who haven’t traveled extensively or who get their information about the world through the news tend to view the world and “those people” as a threat. Everyone has the capacity for evil and everyone will hurt you if given the right opportunity, (such as a girl alone in the woods). If however, like the second example, they’ve met enough real live people in their lifetime through their own travels and adventures, they’ve found quite the opposite to be true. That sure, there are a few bad eggs out there, but they will be found whether you’re on the trail or in the middle of the city or safe at home in your bed. The majority of people though, are good. Like really good. If you’ve been blessed with the opportunity to meet new people from different places around with world, with different views and different backgrounds, of different ages and races, you’ve likely found that most people are very kind and willing to help in anyway possible. I believe that to live in fear of others is to prevent yourself a life of joy through learning and a life of depth and wonder at the beauty of the human race.

Georgia Appalachian Trail Overlook Blood Mountain

Enter Britney. The true heroine of my story. I spent countless hours on the trail and the most epic story to come out of it is when I finally actually arrived at my car. It was, in fact, dead. Like dead dead. Couldn’t even get the key to unlock it dead. Britney, a shuttler from Hike Hitchin’ rescued me over and over and over again. Not only tried to jump me (which didn’t work, because dead batteries don’t jump) but drove me into town 45 minutes away THREE times to buy a new battery and together we figured out how to install it in the car. (Not to mention her endless patience when we’d gotten almost back to the car before I realized I’d left the key ON THE COUNTER at the parts store). She is a saint. She asked for nothing in return, was just happy to help a stranded hiker.

I now have a new friend for life because I put myself in a situation where I had to rely on the kindness of a stranger. I also gained a wealth of knowledge as she told me stories of her grandfather, dreams she and her girlfriend have for the future and current challenges she was overcoming literally that day. This. This is what life is all about. If that makes me brave, then so be it.

I can’t think of a better way to have ended this trip. And endings are so important. No matter what you’re doing in life, whether having a conversation, going on a trip, or simply doing your job, if you can find a way to end well, anything that didn’t go so great in the middle will usually be forgotten. All the trudging through the rain and mice chewing through my backpack eating my food, poison oak and bruised knees…forgotten, all because of the kindness of a stranger. I drove away with a huge smile on my face, a feeling of triumph in my heart and of course had to pull over immediately because no less than the perfect rainbow graced me with its beauty.

I’m grateful for a life filled with stories of people from all different backgrounds, and grateful for a future that will only bring more. May we all take a moment every day to see past bad moods, and poor decisions to see the good inside the person standing in front of us. Happy Trails.

Rainbow on the Appalachian Trail
Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage
— Anais Nin