What You Learn Hiking The Whole Appalachian Trail

Apr 25, 2017
Originally published on April 26, 2017 2:43 am

When you're facing a major life change, it helps to talk to someone who's already been through it. All Things Considered is connecting people on either side of a shared experience, and they're letting us eavesdrop on their conversations in our series Been There.

Each year, hundreds of people hike the roughly 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine.

This year, Rhys Hora is one of them.

He's 32 years old and had been working the same job in Philadelphia since he graduated from college. He felt like he was stuck in a rut.

"I wasn't unhappy, but I wasn't actually happy," he says.

One night out with friends, the idea of thru-hiking the trail popped into his head, and it grew from there.

"It was like a little snowball that sort of rolled down the hill and got bigger and bigger," he says, "until I found myself pretty much planning my life around it."

Rhys finally hit the trail this March, but first he got some advice from Sara Leibold, who hiked the trail in 2011 and last summer served as an ambassador for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

Sara warned Rhys not to get caught up in romantic notions of life on the trail.

"All I knew is, I was going to hike every day, and it was going to hurt," she says, and if you have huge expectations, "you'll either get disappointed or you'll get bored, which is a major reason why people quit. It becomes like a job."


Lessons From Sara Leibold

On adjusting to the solitude

You're just by yourself. You don't have anybody you know to help support you, and so all you can do is just start walking. And I remember camping one night at a shelter, and I wasn't really comfortable talking with anybody else at that point yet. And so I just stayed by myself in my tent. And I was like, I can't wait to just get up and start hiking tomorrow, because I know I can hike. I know I can just start walking and everything will be OK.

On not expecting to figure your life out on the trail

I don't really think people finish [the trail] being resolved. If anything you've got more questions. I was just thinking, nonstop. And I'd create these scenarios of how I want my future to be. And, "Oh, I wanna do this next and this next." But in a way I don't think that that's good, because I wasn't always present. Which I would advise, you know? Really observing what's around you instead of just being in your head.

On the difficulties of returning to normal life

I remember it being very difficult to leave the sign [at the end of the trail]. I have a picture of my hand on the sign, because that's what I had been working toward for four months, and now it's done. What do I do now? And then, you have to just go back the way you came, and so adjusting to life afterward is difficult. I think a lot of people look toward the next trail, because you want to feel that way again. So, be ready for that.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Each year, hundreds of people hike the 21,000-odd miles of the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. This year, Rhys Hora is one of them. He's 32 years old and had been working the same job in Philadelphia since he graduated from college.

RHYS HORA: I wasn't unhappy, but I wasn't actually happy, I suppose. In a rut, I guess, I just decided I kind of wanted an adventure. And I'd heard about the Appalachian Trail, and it was like a little snowball that sort of rolled down the hill and got bigger and bigger and bigger, until I found myself pretty much planning my life around it.

CORNISH: And this spring, Rhys decided to do it. But he and his family still had some questions.

HORA: My mom is, like, I'm pretty sure worried I'm going to die or get eaten by a bear or something.

SARA LEIBOLD: That's pretty much...

HORA: Yeah.

LEIBOLD: ...What everybody thinks.

CORNISH: That other voice belongs to Sara Leibold. She through-hiked the trail back in 2011, and she and Rhys got together for our series Been There, connecting people on either end of a shared experience.

HORA: What was your first, like, holy-crap moment when you were alone?

LEIBOLD: I mean, immediately (laughter).

HORA: (Laughter).

LEIBOLD: You're just by yourself. You don't have anybody you know to help support you. And so all you can do is just start walking. And I remember camping one night at a shelter, and I wasn't really comfortable talking with anybody else at that point yet. And so I just stayed by myself in my tent, and I was like, I can't wait to just get up and start hiking tomorrow because I know I can hike. I know I can just start walking and everything will be OK.

HORA: So how did what you thought the trail would be contrast against the actual nitty-gritty of the experience?

LEIBOLD: I think I didn't really have an expectation. All I knew was I was going to hike every day, and it was going to hurt because I don't think you want much more of an expectation than that because you'll either get disappointed or you'll get bored, which is a major reason why people quit. It becomes like a job.

HORA: So you're saying you're more likely to slowly go insane than you are to have some poignant revelation or, like, catharsis.

LEIBOLD: What do you mean?

HORA: Well, like, I go back and forth - I would love to have some, like, you know, revelation about life and what I'm going to do with myself from here on out. And that would be really neat. I'd totally embrace that happening. But it could also just simply be a six-month vacation that sort of sucks but is also fun.

LEIBOLD: I think you have the right attitude. I don't really think people finish being resolved. If anything, you've got more questions.

HORA: (Laughter).

LEIBOLD: I was just thinking nonstop, and I create these scenarios of how I want my future to be. And, you know, oh, I want to do this next and this next. But in a way, I don't think that that's good because I wasn't always present, which I would advise, you know, really observing what's around you instead of just being in your head.

HORA: All right, so you're near the end. You've been seeing, like, Big K in the distance forever. Now you're climbing up the summit. Like, what's going through your head? You know you're about to hit the sign. Tell me the whole emotional thought process, how that felt and then having to descend afterwards.

LEIBOLD: I think Katahdin is the most difficult climb of the whole hike, and it was completely fogged-in. I had no views, and it was raining. It was pretty miserable. And so as soon as I see the sign, I basically start sobbing (laughter). And I reach the sign, and I'm just hugging it and just crying. And I can hear some day-hikers in the distance, and they're like, oh, she must have gone the whole way. (Laughter).

HORA: (Laughter).

LEIBOLD: You know, and it's like, oh, my God. (Laughter).

HORA: And then afterwards, was there, like, an adrenaline or an emotional, like, dump? Or were you just, like, I'm ready to go home?

LEIBOLD: Yeah. I mean, I was ready to be done. But once you're up there, I remember it being very difficult to leave the sign. I have a picture of my hand on the sign because that's what I had been working toward for four months. And now it's done. What do I do now? And then you have to just go back the way you came, and so adjusting to life afterward is difficult. I think a lot of people look toward the next trail because you want to feel that way again. So be ready for that.

CORNISH: That was Sara Leibold. She hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2011. Last summer, she served as an ambassador helping other hikers. She was speaking with Rhys Hora last month right before he left to hike the trail. He's out there now, at last check, making his way through the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee.

And if you're about to go through a big life change and want to talk to someone who's already been through it, write to us. Email nprcrowdsource@npr.org with Been There in the subject line.

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