Out of sight of ubiquitous cameras, a flock of hikers of all ages have been preparing for perhaps the biggest challenge of their lives. They have been waiting in high expectation to set out for Amicalola Falls State Park, the traditional gateway to Springer Mountain and the start of the 2180-mile-long Appalachian Trail.
Many have spent months preparing for this adventure. They have read books, bought gear, packed food and dreamed dreams of what it will really be like walking from Georgia to Maine. They have studied just about every aspect of this journey to come, but now the vicarious will be cast aside for the real thing. So, now they hover for a moment under the stone portal that will lead to the nine mile climb that will ascend to the official plaque indicating that they have arrived at the summit of their first mountain and the true start of the journey ahead. They are at mile one.
Actually, no amount of study can prepare for what awaits them on the winding trails ahead. Nature is alluring when considered from the comfort of a living room. The truth is the natural world is hard as well as beautiful. It is not hard to become disoriented and lost in the woods and it is important to be constantly alert. Very quickly the trail begins to become a stern teacher; it does not take long for these newly minted hikers to experience the rigors of hiking and living in the mountains.
Most hikers can expect sore knees, turned ankles, persistent thirst, lonely nights and lingering doubts. The trail is not really all that friendly or forgiving, especially at the start. In the early days there may be blizzards in the Smokies, lightning strikes in the south, searing summer heat as the hikers navigate through the rocky ground in Pennsylvania. And further on in New England, they will often walk through cold, drenching rainstorms in the White Mountains of New Hampshire before entering the wet and challenging terrain of Maine.
But after hikers have settled into the rhythms of hiking day in and day out, a toughness develops into a determination to prevail. With time and miles, those who have survived the difficulties of the earlier miles take on a tougher demeanor; they have turned into veterans and so they will set their sights on Katahdin, the great mountain standing like a slumbering giant in north central Maine.
The postcard landscape of the armchair hiker has given way to a more profound understanding of what it means to walk the land. A kind of joy that often flows out of adversity grows within the whole being of the hiker. A new understanding of self and purpose blossoms, establishing a connection with generation upon generation of other sojourners of the wilder regions of the earth.
As the hiker ascends the steep and rocky slope of Katahdin, he or she reflects on the days, weeks and months behind them as they move toward the end. In many ways, what they have achieved is the best preparation for the realities of living life to the full. Living life on the trail has reset their compasses to allow for the unfamiliar to be embraced rather than shunned. Perhaps the best way to avoid what Thoreau called a life of “quiet desperation” is to put the daily needs of living aside and get out on the trails to walk toward a different way.