You’ve probably seen them. You have definitely smelled them. You have watched with a mingling of horror and fascination as they consume impossible amounts of food. They are not homeless. They are not vagabonds. They are hikers.
Ever year, between March 15 and May 1, two to three thousand hikers begin a 2,184 mile long journey on the Appalachian Trail. They will hike from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Their trek will take five to six months and cross fourteen states. Only about ten percent of all who begin will finish the entire length of the trail. But everyone who attempts this journey will leave the trail a changed person.
They will hike up and down mountains, carrying 30 to 40 pounds of gear, from sunrise to sunset for roughly 180 days. They will sleep on the ground, in a tent, in a hammock or on the hard, wooden floors in one of the hundreds of rough, three-sided shelters built by volunteers along the trail. They will go without showers, without adequate food, without enough water. They will hike regardless of injury or sickness. There will be bears, snakes, mice, insects and other pests. Even in April, hikers starting at Springer Mountain may encounter freezing rain and snow as well as swelteringly hot days.
Appalachian Trail hikers are not called Bob, Bill, Sarah, or Jenny. They bear names like Alaska, Snot Rocket, Toenail, Talks-A-Lot, Hard Core, Tree Hugger, or Peak Bagger. These are “trail names” and are not chosen, but earned along the journey. Each name, therefore, has a story behind it, some funny, some sad, some just plain ridiculous, but all of these stories are worth hearing.
Hikers come from all walks of life: doctors, lawyers, mechanics, waitresses, college students, military personnel, computer programmers or fast food workers. They hail from the city, the country, or foreign nations. They come in every color, size, shape, and age range, some as young as six, some as old as 83. Every hiker has the same odds of failure or success, regardless of age or physical fitness levels. Couch potatoes have just as much chance of success as professional athletes. The Appalachian Trail does not care about one’s physical qualities, it is truly a test of mental fortitude. Can you push yourself beyond the limits of your exhaustion? Can you make yourself hike in the rain, sleet, snow, heat, and humidity? Can you starve yourself? Can you climb mountains with a broken foot or walk twenty miles in heavy hiking boots with huge blisters on your feet? Can you put that heavy pack on your back and walk every day for months on end?
If you can, you will be rewarded with spectacular vistas, amazing wildlife encounters, and deep, genuine friendships with people you would never have met in your normal life. You will find waterfalls, caves, and rock formations that most people never get to see. You will get a glimpse of the vastness of creation and the tiny miracles that keep it all running. You will develop the soul of a poet, the eye of an artist, and the determination of… well, of a hiker. You will develop a quiet confidence that comes from knowing that you have already done the most difficult thing you will ever have to do in your life. It’s all down hill from there.