Gunnar Lundberg Gives It His All
After losing a friend on a camping trip, the writer thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail to process his grief. Out there he learned that making the most of life requires fully committing to every moment.
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Gunnar Lundberg told his story to producer Stepfanie Aguilar for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.
He actually passed away on our camping trip. Which was a really tough thing, especially because the river we were all at was one of my favorite places. My family had spent so many summers camping there. So it really felt like the universe was being very, very cruel.
When I was hiking the Appalachian Trail, my trail name was Mr. Darcy.
Right now I’m working as a substitute teacher in St. Paul, and then I’ll be starting an English PhD program at the University of Minnesota. I really love sitting by the campfire, preferably with a little lake breeze, reading a book of poetry.
One of the biggest challenges I had to overcome was losing my best friend Alec at a really young age. We were on a camping trip, a bunch of 18-year-olds just graduated high school. And he drowned in a river we were swimming in.
It was a really life-shattering moment where I was just so young and we were all so excited to move on with our lives. We were all gonna be starting college in different cities. So it was already an area of my life where I expected to have to navigate a lot. But I think just with that loss on top of it, it really became an overwhelming grief and overwhelming sense of directionlessness.
I had actually decided to go to school abroad for all four years. So I went to a school in Switzerland, and I think it was really a great distraction. I could travel on the weekends to different destinations. I feel like I was almost always in a kind of transitory state, never staying long enough to think too long about where I’d been. And so it was really after I graduated in 2020 and COVID set in, and we all had that year where we were stuck inside staying at home, that I was forced to take a good, hard look at my grief, and really evaluate how much it did impact me. I kind of felt like I needed a way that I could rest and process it without sitting inside and sitting at home.
My plan was to hike the Appalachian Trail. It really fit for a lot of reasons. The nature of how Alec passed away was one of the factors where I thought it was high time for me to get back on the trail and try to find that joy that I got from camping and hiking in the outdoors. Then also when you’re 22, you don’t have a lot of money, but you have a lot of time. So I tried to figure out the most affordable, cost-effective ways that I could do some crazy adventure, and thru hiking just happened to be one of the things that came up. I dove in and figured out the plan.
So it was kind of a really lightning speed preparation for that. The thru hike was everything and nothing like I expected. It was definitely physically a lot harder than I imagined.
The first few days, the blisters were rough. I thought I had a pair of boots that fit really well. And then you wear them for a week and you’re like, Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I ever thought these boots fit my feet. The entire backs of my heels had peeled off in sheets of skin that were the size of my palms. There’s just nothing you can do but keep walking, and every step is just so painful.
I had always told myself, Just hike until you don’t want to hike anymore. Just see how far you can get. You’re not out here to prove anything to anybody. You’re just out here to have some peace and quiet and some alone time. But the moment I got up to the southern terminus on Springer Mountain in Georgia, I think I had maybe half a breath to myself to kind of take it in before I heard someone speak up behind me. There were just so many people out there that it really was not the sort of solo solitude that I was expecting.
There were days where it was miserable and awful and I was hiking 10 miles in the pouring rain. The spot that I remember most specifically, it was hiking out of Hot Springs, which is a little town on the trail. I had just met a hiker who told me about how she was grieving the loss of her mom, and we kind of bonded over our journeys a little bit. And so it was just thinking about not only my own journey, but kind of recognizing that a lot of the people around me were even maybe working through a very, very similar journey.
I remember when I got to the top of the climb out of Hot Springs, I just sat on this bluff and I looked out and it was sunny, it was warm, the breeze was going a little bit, and I just realized how beautiful the surroundings were and how much fun I had had on trail. It was sitting there that I realized, I want to finish this hike. And not only do I want to finish it, but I want to enjoy it. I want to have fun. I want to talk to people, I want to share memories I had about Alec. I want to really make this experience not something that I felt like I had to do to get over my grief, but just something that could change my life in so many different ways that I hadn’t even expected.
I think that when I took the chance to open myself up to growing in different ways, in different directions other than just overcoming my grief, it really changed my mindset, and really gave me the energy to keep hiking all the way to Maine.
One of my mottos came from an Emily Dickinson poem, and this was a poem that I actually read in her collection, Final Harvest, which I stole from a hostel. I mean, it was kind of a take a book, leave a book deal, but I did not have a book to leave, so I did take it from their shelf. There was a poem where it talked about climbing a literal and I guess metaphorical hill, and then the final line was just, “all is the price of all.” Which really resonated with me. I just felt like it had really encompassed my journey and the experience thus far, where if you want to take everything that the trail has to offer, you have to give all of yourself to it.
And if that means sleeping in a tent for five months, and eating nothing but instant mashed potatoes and ramen, and running out of toilet paper and having to use leaves, and getting blisters and all of that sort of stuff, it just made me realize, if you want to get the most out of life and out of the trail, you really have to be willing to sacrifice and experience everything.
When I finished the trail, I was able to finally let go of all of the guilt that I had been carrying for so many years, and really try to take that first step in a new process of grieving, which was celebrating the years that I did have with Alec, and just even being able to say Alec’s name out loud, and to share any sort of happy memories I had with him.
At the end of the day, I didn’t think that too many of my priorities or my goals in life had changed. I think I was, if anything, more certain than ever of the direction I wanted to go. What changed was my mindset and my approach to things, and really just being absurdly grateful for anything and everything.
Gunnar Lundberg is a published writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He enjoys reading by a campfire and hiking. He tweets on @gunnarupnorth.