What It Feels Like to Finish a Thru-Hike

Published May 24, 2017 on TheTrek.co

Two weeks before finishing my flip-flop through-hike of the Appalachian Trail, a day hiker I didn’t know stopped me on the trail.

“I know you! Ninja Hoops! I’ve been following your YouTube channel and Instagram since you started the hike. Congrats on being so close to the end! To be honest with you, though…I didn’t think you would make it.”

I laughed, not sure if I should feel flattered or offended. “May I ask why?”

He replied, “You were just struggling so much at first. Mostly mentally.”

He was right.

Over the course of five and a half months, the Appalachian Trail tested every ounce of resolve I had.

For the first four months of my flip-flop, the pain and tedium of through-hiking constantly overtook me, and I myself doubted that I could complete the whole trail.

However, in the final six weeks of the trek, my body and mind had finally, totally acclimated to hiking 10-12 hours a day. And as I got closer to my ending point at Rockfish Gap, Virginia, the thought of NOT hiking 10-12 hours a day every day began to freak me out.

Returning to Civilization

As the end drew closer and closer, I kept thinking to myself,

“Just as I am starting to feel completely at home with through-hiking, it’s ending?! How can human beings NOT move through nature all day, every day?”

For many of us, the final days leading up to finishing a through-hike and returning to civilization are a confusing mix of relief and terror.

Civilization was, for much of the year, something novel and entertaining that I just popped into for a hot shower, a resupply and maybe some fried chicken. It was a strange world filled with overbearing rules and checked-out, sedentary people that I observed from the perspective of a cultural anthropologist or an alien from another world.

But as the end of my hike drew near, I began to realize that my former life at a computer and behind the wheel of a car and inside enclosed structures was about to become my life once more.

I couldn’t quite fathom it. How could boxy buildings and perfectly level pavement and hours sitting in cars or behind a computer feel like “real life” ever again?

Remembering to Accept the Struggle

But, somehow, I knew that I would be OK when I returned to the “real world.” Because if almost six months of hiking across the continent taught me anything, it taught me how to struggle.

Thru-hiking taught me that when you commit to something, what you are actually committing to is learning to accept and adapt to the particular struggles that come along with the path you have chosen.

The AT also taught me that when things change or don’t go according to plan, life creates an opportunity for something else to happen. So, in the face of my ending through-hike, I asked myself:

“Are you going to be open and curious in the face of change? Or are you going to stay grouchily attached to the way things were or ‘should be’?”

Remembering to Accept my Body

In the final days of my hike, I also began to realize that the Appalachian Trail had prepared me for returning to the default world in another way I had not anticipated:

Hiking the AT inspired me to love my body in ways I never knew I could.

In those final days on the trail, I looked down at my legs and laughed with surprise and amazement. My ankles, my Achilles tendons, my knees, my calves, my quads…they could have given out on me, ending my hike. And several times, they almost did.

But instead, my legs slowly adapted to the stress I was putting them through until they became quietly powerful enough to kick down the door to a bank safe.

And, here’s the thing: I had exactly the same cellulite on them I have always had.

I used to hate it, thinking, “If I just exercised more, my cellulite would go away.” Well, after walking 2,200 miles and still having cellulite, I realized there was only one way forward: to choose to love my body exactly as it is.

Because my body is a fierce machine that climbed a trail with the elevation gain and loss equivalent to hiking Mt. Everest 16 times.

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Coming to an End

After days of reflecting on the amazing journey I had just experienced and what I had learned along the way, it was finally over. I finished my 2,187-mile, five-and-a-half-month through-hike of the mountain pathway from Georgia to Maine on October 25, 2016.

I ended up right back where I started the hike at Rockfish Gap, the southern entrance to Shenandoah National Park in central Virginia. (From May 7th to August 24th, I hiked north from Virginia to Maine, then I flew to Georgia; from September 1st to October 25th, I hiked north from Springer Mountain back to Rockfish Gap).

Eighteen people from my former home the Twin Oaks Community in Virginia (including fellow hiker Packman, who learned about the commune from me on the trail and subsequently moved there) were waiting for me at Rockfish Gap to celebrate. I wept as they all embraced me in a giant hug.

Part of me was relieved for my feet to heal and feel normal again, and to take hot showers and eat fresh food every day again. Part of me was devastated for it to be over.

But there was one predominant emotion I felt upon finishing my through-hike:

I felt like the luckiest person alive.

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