WHAT’S LOST AND FOUND ALONG THE WAY: AN APPALACHIAN TRAIL ODYSSEY
Words and Photos by Liz Kidder @lizkidder
I had never backpacked before. I hadn't even day-hiked all that much when I first learned of the Appalachian Trail. And yet, I was completely drawn to the idea of a thru hike. What a romantic adventure! I had spent the better part of my teens and twenties getting wasted and spiraling out of control. In my recovery, I discovered more time than I knew what to do with. New and exciting hobbies like snowboarding and skydiving, and the ability to do anything I put my mind to–or so I thought. Life was good. Thru hike? It's basically just walking—it doesn't require all that much talent, right? I mean, people have done it, so to me, it meant I could too.
So how do you begin?
Hiker spells out 2,000 with sticks
So how do you begin?
I figured I needed to nail down WHEN I was going to hike and then work backward from there. I penciled it in for 2018. I had no gear and no clue, so I soon found myself at the nearest REI taking a "class" about how to hike the Appalachian Trail. Then came trying on packs. Freakin pink packs, purple packs, green packs. Not my style. Did the packs I tried on feel comfortable? No clue; I didn't really care at the time. Why did nothing come in black?
After going home empty-handed and then doing a little more online research, I eventually discovered Hyperlite Mountain Gear. I immediately loved the simple designs, high quality, general attitude, and the fact that the shit came in my favorite [lack of] color, black. And a bonus, their offices are in Biddeford, Maine, which is only an hour from my house. What are the chances? I called 'em up. Asked if I could be annoying and come in. They said, "Hell yeah" I could! I was smitten. The pack was an easy buy. Loved it–sold. Shelter? Ehh, I had no idea— I'd never slept in or set up a tent before. I asked if they could show me the setup. I didn't really understand at the time what I was asking—the shelters are not free-standing, and well, their offices are in like a mill building with wood floors. No joke, this girl got out a drill and started putting screws right into the floor to stand in for the tent stakes. It took her a while. Did I like it? Honestly, I don't know, but after she just drilled a bunch of holes in the floor on my behalf, there was no way I wasn't going to buy it. So yeah, I left that day with the Southwest 3400–in black, of course–and the Echo II shelter/insert. Two out of my "big three" major backpacking items. And after droppin' that kinda dough, there would be no turning back. I was doing this.
By the time I got down to Georgia to start my hike, I had put in roughly 462,839 hours watching gear videos on YouTube, and exactly zero hours actually backpacking. I did, however, practice setting up my tent once in my backyard, so you know, same same. I guess you could say it started off as I expected. Well, I didn't know exactly what to expect, but the optimism was high, and the trail didn't disappoint. I was on an adventure. There was definitely a learning curve for things like reading the guidebook and hanging bear bags. Still, I soon settled into my routine of planning out the days ahead, setting up camp, filtering water, digging cat holes, and sleeping in my restricted mummy bag on my loud/crinkley sleeping pad.
A few weeks in, as I was approaching The Smokies, my boyfriend, Luke, wanted to come out for a visit. He had never backpacked before either and hadn't yet fallen down the YouTube black hole of thru hiking and gear videos. It was up to me to educate him on what to buy and bring with him. My short, spotty-service phone calls to him had put a bit of a strain on our relationship. He just couldn't possibly understand what I was going through. A plane ride later, he made his way to Fontana Dam with his brand new, stuffed to the brim, Hyperlite pack in a blinding white that screamed to everyone who caught a glimpse that it had never even seen a trail before. I was glad to see him but also anxious. Logistical interference aside, would he even enjoy this? Would he be put off by my lack of daily showering? Would he slow me down? Would other thru hikers judge him for being–gasp–a section hiker?
Luke got an interesting introduction to the trail. Day after day in The Smokies with pouring rain, whiteout views, packed shelters, and mostly just cold, wet misery. But I honestly don't know what I was worried about—Luke generally has a super positive attitude, wants to impress, and is down for anything. He's naturally athletic and had no problem keeping up. He's fun and outgoing and made friends easily. Eventually, the weather took a turn, and we got a picture-perfect night on Max Patch, followed by an unforgettable sunset & sunrise, trail magic, spring blossoms beginning to peek out, and a day floating down a river with some new friends. By the time he headed back home, he had a much better understanding of what I was actually going through out there, and that made the distance between us easier. Now when I called him, he could relate.
I kept going. I was becoming more efficient, my daily miles were naturally getting bigger, and my confidence grew. Completed states were behind me. I had perfected every detail about my gear system and how to pack it up precisely. I knew to keep my rain jacket and my lunch snacks on the outside pockets of my pack for easy access during the day, and my tent as the top thing inside my pack in case I needed to set it up quick in the rain. My resupplies were on point, and I'd walk into town with little-to-no food leftover. I met my trail-bestie, Evan, and we went to Trail Days in Virginia. I did a long, 26.7-mile day. I saw my first black bear. I clogged a toilet when I got into town. I had lots of trail stories already. I may not have finished the trail yet, but I was a thru hiker.
Luke continued to visit off and on as I made my way up the trail. What I first thought of as an inconvenience turned out to be the greatest thing ever. By the time things were starting to feel boring and monotonous, Luke would randomly appear and really liven things up. After a couple of weeks, by the time we were getting on each other's nerves, he'd be heading out any way to go home and work. When he wasn't around, I got to experience the trail by myself, to problem-solve on my own, and to feel empowered. But then, when he'd visit, I also got to experience the trail with him, working as a team (but letting him hang the f*cking bear bags) and then bonding over the shared experiences. It was a perfect balance.
Although I was cruising along, the trail was never easy. Constant rain, logistical challenges, blisters, forest fires, difficult terrain, heat waves, bee stings, muddy sections you couldn't get around, and even a serious bout with Lyme disease–it was always something. They say, "the trail provides." I think it works both ways. The trail provides obstacles, yet it also provides opportunities to overcome them. It provides frustrating challenges and, then, random miracles. Constant ups and downs, literally/physically and mentally/emotionally. There's no way to truly plan or prepare for completing a thru hike. Although you can't help but think about Katahdin, the only way to actually get there is to focus on what's right in front of you. Get through this next mile, the next day, the next obstacle, to the next resupply, the next state. The whole journey is just a series of "the next thing" to get through, and then eventually, if you're lucky, you reach the destination. And after that long and crazy of a journey, how could the destination ever measure up anyway?
On September 10th, after five-plus months of blood, sweat, and tears, I found myself on the summit of Katahdin, exchanging vows with Luke. We hadn't showered in days and just wore our dirty hiking clothes. My trail-bestie, Evan, got ordained and performed the ceremony, and I set up my GoPro on a rock to film it. Some other random hikers were up there at the time and cheered us on. I wouldn't have had it any other way. Getting married up there felt like the perfect way to mark the end of this chapter for me and the beginning of the rest of our lives together.
I live with fewer material things because I know I don't need much to survive.
When I set out to hike the Appalachian Trail, I expected a fun adventure and figured I would feel accomplished if I completed it. Now, after doing it and after having a couple of years to reflect, it's honestly hard to quantify how something like this changes you—it's just not tangible. I grew as a human, and it shifted my perspective on life. I live with fewer material things because I know I don't need much to survive. I have less tolerance for working away my days, and I know I don't have to live a "conventional" lifestyle by society's standards. I know that I can accomplish anything I put my mind to. But something else that was less obvious at first. I originally thought my hike was just about me and discovering something big within myself. What I didn't foresee was how much it would strengthen my relationship with Luke. Going through this monumental experience together (even when we were apart) created such a solid foundation for our marriage, and I'm truly grateful for that above all else.
Liz Kidder (trail name: Handstand) completed her Appalachian Trail thru hike in 2018. She lives in New Hampshire and likes to spend her time in the White Mountains hiking and snowboarding. She documented her entire thru hike, which can be seen on her YouTube channel "Liz Kidder."