Introduction by Conan Marshall
The iconic Appalachian Trail (a.k.a the AT) is located on the East-side of the US stretching along 14 states. It has become more than just a trail for the thousands that have set foot on it. Prolonged feats of endurance and adventure change you for the better, allowing you to develop new perspectives on your own life. I suspect hiking the AT is no different from this.
I’ll keep this introduction brief as this post will surely inspire you. In this three part article, we share some words from Tyler Heath, who has hiked the Appalachian Trail. He discusses his preparation before hiking the AT, the hardships and new perspectives he found along the trail and gives advice for those wanting to hike long trails.
Part 1: Before hiking the Appalachian Trail
Hi Tyler, could you elaborate on some of your experiences before you started the Appalachian Trail?
My first hike wasn’t until the age of 18 years old. I was living in Costa Rica at the time and was told by a friend I needed to hike this mountain called “Cerro Chirripo.” I did my research, found a local friend to join me, and developed a bullet-proof plan to hike this mountain.
My philosophy was “hiking is just walking,” and therefore an easy task to complete as a self-proclaimed athlete. I was wrong. My “bullet-proof plan” got my friend and I soaked, ripped, and lost (literally and figuratively haha). Some of the lessons I walked away with from that trip included: basketball shoes are not hiking shoes, 7,000 ft of elevation is not a walk in the park, it rains outside more than you think, maps can be useful if you bring one (we didn’t), and the hiking community is way cooler than whoever I was, none-the-less we accomplished our goal.
At basecamp we witnessed the most epic sunset, and by the time we awoke in the middle of the night to start our traverse towards the peak, the stars were bright enough to guide us.
I was beaten down, hurt, and exhausted, yet totally in love. The landscape was incredible, but I knew there was so much more to this new experience. I believe the pain from the trials faced earlier made me flat out more appreciative of everything else I was playing witness to. All of the moments that seemed to have gone wrong were somehow righted, and not just righted but worth it.
I found out that those reconciled moments you achieve via hiking are moments worth pursuing. Driving to the top of a mountain to see a vista is cool. Climbing that same damn mountain and putting blood, sweat, and tears into it just seems to make it that much better.
And that was how I entered the hiking world.
How did you prepare for your AT adventure?
In respect of the Appalachian Trail, a 2,000+ mile behemoth of a trail stretching from Georgia to Maine I did a ton of prep, kind of. Five months prior, I did a 30-day back country trip in the Chihuahuan Desert as a college course to make sure I would be okay living outside for that long. I then took a wilderness medicine certification class to provide some peace for my worried parents.
I even had surgery on my shins in prep for the hike. They had been bothering me for years so I decided to fix them up to get me ready physically. The downfall with that “physical prep” was that I was stuck on crutches until just two weeks prior to starting the trail. But it all worked out and I hopped on the trail the day after my college graduation.
What were the reasons behind you hiking the AT?
I wanted healing, period. Hiking over the years had become just as much a spiritual experience as a physical one. I knew the trail was the proper setting to delve into some of my wounds.
This was my “why statement,” I wrote it a few months in advance of my journey so that on my toughest days I would remember why I was out there:
I want to be still. This world and culture moves fast. I am a product of this speedy American way and despite the benefits, I carry too much anxiety. I need to somehow let it go.
I hold onto a lot of pain. Shame, hurt, and brokenness are some of the burdens I carry. I need a place where I can take time and heal.
I need to get out of my context. I follow culture and others too much. I want to follow my soul and Jesus more.
I want to actually reflect. Where have I been and where am I going? And what are the driving forces under all of these decisions I’m making?
I need new perspective with how I view the world and myself. One that can help me cast a clearer vision for my future and view myself in a better light.
I’m too comfortable. I need to face fears and push myself to move forward.
I love the trail. Simplicity, trials, peace. The trail is those beautiful words blended together.
Ultimately, my spirit was unsettled and anxious. But I wanted to heal and I wanted more peace. I wanted to be alright when the circumstances were all wrong.
My “why statement” wasn’t about accomplishing or even finishing the trail, it was about learning to become present in this journey we call life.
Part 2: Hiking the Appalachian Trail
Tyler discusses how solitude, hardships, and new perspectives defined his time on the AT…
Before the AT, when I thought of solitude I thought of people who hiked the AT or maybe even Alaskan Bush People. I thought of fellows like Ralph Waldo Emerson, philosopher-esque people who sit in the woods, smoke blunts, write weird poetry, and meditate.
I think originally I just misinterpreted the definitions of silence and solitude.
Silence describes the setting I’m in.
But solitude defines not what surrounds me, but what is within me.
I’ve been in quiet rooms and parks, but my mind, heart, and soul are in a thousand other places. I’ve sat in coffee shops and been a yogi, yet my mind is racing when it should be at peace.
A.K.A. I have a “loud ass soul.”
I walked through twenty years of life consistently putting myself in silent settings expecting change. But I never attempted to deal with the actual problem: the inner noise.
In a world full of noise, silence and time alone are important. But I now believe, in a world full of hurt, solitude is what is necessary. It sucks. It’s hard. But it’s necessary.
For me, hiking the AT was a step of bravery where I finally decided to enter solitude, not just silence, and journey through my brokenness.
I knew the answer to most of my inner battles. With WebMD, self-help articles, and religious books, it’s not that hard to find answers. But because we live in a world where solutions are one click away, we forget healing is a process, not an answer.
Hiking the AT became my process.
There are too many hardships to count. I tell my friends this all of the time, “If for some reason I ever want to hike a long trail again, make sure to tell me to walk 20 miles first and then see if I reconsider.” There is no training you can do physically or mentally to prepare for hiking 100 days, you just can’t.
“Dirty 30’s” or hiking 30 miles in a day with a 38 lbs. pack were definitely hard days. You’re waking up before dawn and hiking into dusk. By mile 25 you’re falling on your face and just worn down (maybe that was just me).
That said, for a reason I can’t comprehend, I thought attempting to do a 50 mile challenge in 24 hours was a good idea. This I remember was definitely the longest and hardest day on the trail. As I would during a “dirty 30”, by mile 25 (only half way of the challenge) I was exhausted. The last five miles I thought my feet were literally going to explode.
Now I don’t purposely go after agonizing events to produce memories, but I do purposely seek uncomfortable situations for the sake of progress. I didn’t want a pulled quad, torn up feet, and to feel defeated mentally. But I pursued the AT, a journey way out of my comfort zone, for the opportunity to grow.
Putting myself in challenging environments always results in personal growth and strengthened faith. Through the trial, I either develop from my success or learn from my missteps; both sides of the spectrum produce growth.
I believe God wants me to become my truest self, a refined version of my current self.
The process of refining occurs in uncomfortable situations and is therefore where growth lies, and God dwells.
Hiking the AT and the hardships that came along with it was worth it because it helped refine me into a truer version of myself.
Hiking the AT gave me a clearer vision of my life. Culture and society couldn’t cloud what I was looking at in my past, or what I was dreaming up for the future.
When working or going to school it’s very easy for me to just go through the motions of life. Events, emotions, and relationships passed by without my notice. Moments that were supposed to draw me towards something divine and good. Moments worth experiencing and completely available for the taking. But these moments were lost. I missed out.
It’s like climbing a mountain and never looking up. Instead of enjoying the journey I just get to the top and say, “damn is this all there is, a nice view.” And then I hike a bigger mountain, thinking that one will have what I’m looking for, but they are all the same.
My life often looks like me hiking these mountains. I busy myself all day in the pursuit of a future successful moment. Only to realize when I get to the top I pursued a moment, not the present and most definitely not the journey. The pursuit of success and busyness had me future oriented. I was looking ahead for something that was available now.
Purpose, healing, and peace are available in the here and now. The divine is available in the here and now. Hiking the AT gave me a new perspective on how to be more mindful and present, all the while experiencing God in a new way.
Part 3: Life after the Appalachian Trail
My process for reflecting has always been journaling. I journaled every day on the Trail and I journaled every day for the first 3 months after the trail. I’ve learned that journaling brings me to a state of mindfulness and it allows me to reflect on the lessons I learned in a deeper way. Those journals are actually a lot of what I wrote above and what became a book called Trail Talk: Embark on a Rugged Journey Towards Mindfulness and Freedom.
The Appalachian Trail and the lessons I learned did not become a memory; The words written in “Trail Talk” became my “self-talk.”
When anxiety comes daily, I’m more aware of it, and I am able to focus my energy on separating myself from it. I isolate anxiety, and I claim my independence from it. This freedom equates to peace. And this process is applicable anywhere, whether hiking the AT, working a job at a bank, or working through a tough relationship.
Hardships and anxious circumstances will never leave. Today it’s getting fired from a job, and tomorrow it will be something else. But participating in this process helps me grow into my truest self regardless of the circumstance.
Future hiking plans?
I tend to be a “go big or go home” type of person so if I were to do another long trail I would do the PCT. Realistically, I would do something a bit more subdued with friends. The John Muir Trail in California would take only about a month and I think would be a pretty epic adventure. I also would love to do some backcountry hiking out in Patagonia and the Alps. So we will see what’s next!!
What advice do you have for people wanting to hike long trails?
I tell people interested in doing a long trail that they should definitely spend at least a few weeks sleeping outside.
Fears of loneliness in the wild are real and could definitely end your trip early if you have not experienced them. It is better to do this before you invest time, money, and energy into preparing for something so long.
I also tell people to build a team around them. You will have hard days no matter what and having a mom, sister, or friend to call is huge. Lastly, “hike your own hike.” Do not let others on the trail define your hike.
Tyler has a book titled: Trail Talk: Embark on a Rugged Journey Towards Mindfulness and Freedom.