AdventureHiking

Why My Friends and I Will Never Finish the AT

Completing the entire trail isn't the point

Hiking gives us the opportunity to trade our fast-paced lives for the quiet and calmness of nature, if only for a precious weekend. (Photo: Joel Carillet/iStock)
Appalachian Trail

My friends and I had backpacked ten miles to our campsite in North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest when I discovered that I had my tent—but no poles to prop it up. We were deep in the woods, far from civilization, and keeping a close eye on the dark clouds gathering overhead.

It was the summer of 2018, and I was in the midst of an overnight hike on the Appalachian Trail with three other women and a dog named Cora. Katie, Yasirah, Sarah, and I had known each other for nearly two decades, ever since we played on the same high school soccer team. 

We decided to pitch the other tent first, before dealing with mine. It was a good call; soon after we set up camp, the skies opened. We all crammed into the tiny tent with Cora to wait out the storm. We laughed about how bad we all smelled, brainstormed ways to construct a makeshift shelter, and traded stories from our high school days to keep morale up.

Our soccer team wasn’t exactly a winning one. What we lacked in talent, though, we made up for in spirit. I still have a 2002 season preview from our hometown newspaper in which Sarah is named as a key midfielder, Katie and I are identified as defenders to watch, and Yasirah is singled out as our formidable goalkeeper—all very encouraging descriptors. Our coach, Rick Corwin, however, gave a more measured assessment of our team’s chances: “We’ll probably be in the middle of the pack.”

His words didn’t exactly spark the greatest enthusiasm, but they were fair. We were members of a team that wasn’t guaranteed to win but was determined to try.

Although we were in three different grades, Katie, Yasirah, Sarah, and I were drawn together by our shared determination to keep our teammates’ morale high when frustrations soared higher. We were dubbed the Sunshines for our ability to find the bright side of things whenever our team was down on its luck. 

As it turns out, that ability proved valuable far beyond the soccer field.

Friends hiking
From left to right: the author, Sarah, Yasirah, Katie—and Cora the dog. (Photo: Katie Hawkins-Gaar)

My packing mistake led to the four of us hoisting my tent between two trees with rope and clips—a stopgap that lasted through the stormy night. While I wasn’t proud of the mishap, I was proud of how we responded to it. I couldn’t help but notice how our collective problem-solving brought us even closer together. We had committed to spending a night on the Appalachian Trail and were hell-bent on making it work no matter what.

Over the years, the four of us moved to different states. Yasirah, a school counselor and married mom of two, lives in Georgia, where we all met. Katie and Sarah, doctors who are also both married, moved to different cities in North Carolina. I’m widowed but dating, work as a journalism consultant, and live in Florida. Finding time to get together has become increasingly difficult. 

Sarah came up with the idea for us to do an overnight hike on the AT in 2018, with the hope that we’d make it a yearly tradition. Her parents live in Franklin, North Carolina, not far from the trail, which gave us an easy meeting point and transportation to and from our hike. 

Our first backpacking trip, in July of that year, was an overnight 18.2-mile trek from North Carolina’s Wayah Bald Trailhead to the Nantahala Outdoor Nature Center. It took a lot of coordination to make it happen, but once we were on the trail, we were hooked. This summer we reunited again, making our way from Deep Gap to Albert Mountain, North Carolina, adding another 15.1 miles to our collective distance.

We already have next year’s hike mapped out: we’ll complete a 19.4-mile stretch of trail that will connect our previous two treks. By the time that hike is over, we’ll have walked an unbroken 51.8 miles of the Appalachian Trail. 

Given that the AT spans a total of 2,190 miles, that distance isn’t much to brag about. In comparison, we’ve barely scratched the surface of North Carolina over the course of two years.

We were just a few steps into our hike last July when Yasirah shouted, “I’m so glad we’re doing this!” Being in nature and away from life’s daily stressors feels incredibly freeing. Hiking gives us the opportunity to trade our fast-paced lives for the quiet and calmness of nature, if only for a precious weekend. It allows us to break away from the anxiety of work, social media, and news and focus instead on the present moment. It helps us feel more grounded and better connected to ourselves, each other, and the environment.

More than anything, though, being together on the AT gives us a chance to talk about the things that matter most, topics we don’t always have time to discuss in our everyday lives. We share our various dreams and fears, hopes and uncertainties, setbacks and wins. At the end of a long day of hiking, our first step is to take off our heavy backpacks. From there, we set up our campsite. And before too long, we settle into deep conversation, unburdening ourselves of the myriad things we’re carrying in life. We’ve talked through job dilemmas, relationship scenarios, and other areas where we’re feeling stuck. We work through our personal challenges as a team, making collective progress on the trail and in our own lives.

So far we’ve ended both of our hikes feeling lighter. We’ve returned to the real world with a sense of pride and accomplishment and a renewed enthusiasm to do it all over again the next year. It’s fitting, I suppose, that some much needed time in the sunlight and nature winds up recharging all of us Sunshines.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy suggests that mental fortitude is just as crucial, if not more so, as physical stamina when it comes to completing a thru-hike. “Ultimately, completing the AT is more of a mental challenge,” the website reads. “A fierce commitment to the goal of completing the AT is one of the most important ingredients of success.”

We Sunshines have many skills that help form a good hiking team, and mental fortitude is at the top of that list. While on the trail, we’ve faced torrential downpours, steep ascents, and one disturbingly large creature that may have been a bear (the mystery animal kept its distance, and so did we). Through it all, we’ve managed to maintain a positive outlook and solid sense of humor. Together we’re able to keep problems in perspective and respond to them calmly. And like any good teammates, we’ve each learned when and how to step up if someone else needs an extra boost.

At our current pace—two days and less than 20 miles every year— it would take us 134 years to complete the Appalachian Trail. Call me cynical, but I’m not entirely sure we’ll make it. But that’s not the goal of our hikes. We’re outside to get away from our busy lives, reconnect with nature and each other, and return to the real world rejuvenated. Oh, and next time I’ll remember the tent poles.

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