Same Hike, Different Life: 10 Years Apart

petergierlach Member Posts: 17

October 2013 on the left, October 2023 on the right. My wife says I look much better now.

It was probably the only time I ever smiled with immense joy while pumping gas.

I was on the side of a country highway, somewhere in Vermont, putting the minimum amount of fuel in the tank to get me where I was headed. Running on three hours of sleep with my keys and a couple bucks in my pocket I was completely free, the whole world (or at least what was in range of my Subaru) at my disposal. No ties. No work. Just the open road and the desire to get lost in the wilderness. The sun rising on the horizon guided me where I needed to go. Not just east. But away.

At 20 years old I was in a complicated place in life. Growing up I had always loved adventure and exploration, even if my exploits always took place within the safe bubble of my home area. My friends and I would backpack without calling it “backpacking”; we’d get some bungee cords to tie a bunch of gear to our dads’ old hiking packs from the 80s and lug them back into the woods to camp out. We’d hike without calling it “hiking”, wandering for hours up and over the rolling hills and valleys that made up the topography of our town. One afternoon, without any plans, food, or water, my best friend and I walked over four hours, mostly uphill, until we crossed the state border. In an era of flip phones and privacy we never referred to it as a hike or saw it as a grand adventure that needed to be shared. We did it spontaneously for its own sake.

As I got older I wanted my definition of adventure and exploration to expand. I felt like I had explored my entire childhood map and was ready to move on to new and unexplored (at least by me) territory. I vowed that I would hike the Appalachian Trail someday. I planned multiple large road trips with detailed custom maps; the biggest one being a cross-country camping trip. I circled National Parks in magazines that I wanted to go visit and experience.

By the time I was 20 exactly zero of those adventures had happened.

Moving away for college through me for a loop. Homesickness struck way harder than I ever imagined it would. My topophilia was leaving my body physically aching with the thought of home. Here I had thought the whole map was explored and there was nothing left to appreciate back home. And yet, when forced to be away from the beautiful land I had developed such a connection with over the course of those millions of steps I took on it, an incompleteness ached inside.

While away, exploration once again took place in my immediate locale. Luckily, living on the shores of a Great Lake for four years was nothing short of spectacular with endless opportunities to get lost and be awestruck by its beauty throughout the year. Hours were spent aimlessly driving around the region looking for hidden gems around the shore, some of which included rugged bluffs that were being eaten away by the brutal lake effect storms and serene dead-ends that found themselves almost in the lake, with perfect views of majestic sunsets. I was an adventurer, for sure, but undoubtedly a local one. Just like home.

As time went on my circle started spiraling into a disturbingly smaller radius. I was spending more time at home. My levels of social anxiety were steadily rising. Those grand adventures I had planned as a kid in my kitchen remained untapped due to my increasing sense of worry and complete lack of self-confidence. Hell, I could barely even speak to a girl or go to a party let alone pack a bag and head out into the unknown on the open road. My fear was that I would never be able to break out of my bubble. That, pleasant as it was, I would never see the world beyond my local map due to my own emotional frailty. Or I would never experience the highest joys in life due to the fear of what could go wrong.

Local exploration is exceptionally important. We all need to develop deeper ties to where we live, and to appreciate the beauty that’s around us every day. And, at the same time, busting far out of our bubble to explore unknown areas is necessary for growth, confidence, and an even deeper appreciation for what we already have. Because how can we truly know what we’re capable of if we are always playing it safe? What lies beyond our bubble to be experienced and explored?

This is why I found myself giddy on the side of Route 7 at the crack of dawn. Finally, after years of wavering, I was busting out of my bubble. When my fears, frustrations, and anxiety-levels had reached a fever-pitch and left me staring at the ceiling at 4am, I made the impromptu decision to get out those old bungee cords, lash them to my dads pack that I loved so dearly, toss it in the car, and drive east.

I was going to Vermont.

Sure, as a young man who dreamed of globetrotting on epic expeditions, Vermont may not seem like the most fabulous or enticing destination. But, at that time, it was exactly what I needed. It was far, it was unknown, it had rugged terrain, it had a deep sense of history in the world of adventure, I had never been, and most importantly, it scared me. We don’t need to burst through our comfort zone at the speed of sound in order to grow; any expansion at all is worthwhile.

This was the tail-end of my world existing through flip phones and no social media (a time I miss dearly), so no one knew about my plan or where I was headed. Hell, I didn’t even have a plan or know where I was headed. I just knew I wanted to go east at sunrise and figure it out as I went. As the sun rose on the horizon it was in perfect alignment with the road. For forty-five minutes I was driving with my hand pressed against the window, blocking the sun from my view. I was the only car on the road. The freedom I craved as a teenager began to seep into my bones. 

So this is what it’s all about.

A sense of excitement and urgency hit me as I filled up the tank in a town I never knew existed.

At this rate, the sun would be setting not long after my arrival. I’d need enough time to buy food, set up camp, and relax before being shrouded in darkness. Reminding myself that the whole point of this trip was to relax and get away, I breathed meditatively as I watched the numbers rise like a slot machine on the gas pump.

I was 30 years old, just a few weeks before my birthday.

Life had hit pretty hard in the previous few months. My fiancée had developed a rare but serious health condition that required emergency surgery. Mercifully she survived, the surgery was a success, and she was going to be just fine moving forward. But six weeks of intense pain, discomfort, and brutal rehab followed the operation. I loved every second of being there for her, bandaging her wounds, setting her up for comfort before I needed to leave for work. Yet, understandably, that took its toll on my psyche. She could see it in my face. She knew I would never say anything; that I was completely dedicated to the cause. Which is why she had to make the first move:

“I think I should travel home to my parents for a week,” she proclaimed one morning. “You’re doing an amazing job and deserve a break. Plus I could use a change of scenery from the couch. Trust me, I think we’ll both feel a bit rejuvenated after this. Maybe you can go camping! That always seems to cheer you up.”

I didn’t protest, knowing she was right, and instead waved goodbye later that week as I dropped her off at her parents house in Long Island.

After a heavy sigh in the driveway, I pulled out my (now smart)phone and plugged directions into the GPS. It had been almost exactly ten years to the week. I knew deep down what needed to be done; what would help me heal, gain perspective, and appreciate how far I had come in life.

I was going back to Vermont.

The initial adventure, ten years ago, was haphazard in the best sense of the word.

Route 7 winding through the Green Mountains

Arriving in Bennington early in the morning, I parked the car and wandered around town in search of breakfast. I was a young man with no plans, no destination; just a desire to take my pack into the wilderness like I had done my entire childhood.

Sitting down to breakfast in a diner I found a map of the Green Mountains by the door. I grabbed it quickly, laid it out on the table, and began exploring the possibilities for my adventure. My finger traced trails all up and down the state, looking for an accessible route that would satisfy the thirst for adventure. Eventually I found what seemed perfect. A hike up Baker Peak via led to a side trail that followed a stream to what appeared to be a pristine mountain lake. At the lake were campsites. From those sites a second trail looped around the backside of the peak and met up with the Appalachian Trail, which finally broke off onto a summit spur for the mountain. It was the perfect loop. Accessible, hidden, and included a bit of the fabled AT that I still dreamed about completing.

“Hiking today?” asked the waitress as she arrived with my french toast.

“Yeah, I was thinking of hiking up Baker Peak and camping out in the National Forest” I responded with excitement.

“Oh, I wouldn’t do that,” she explained. “With the government shutdown there are no rangers on duty. So if anything happens out there it’d be tough to get help. If you’re experienced you’d be fine.”

My heart sank. Was I experienced enough?, I thought. Can I actually backpack to that lake on my own? This isn’t the land in my neighborhood anymore.

Spooked, I recalibrated and found a state park on the map just a few miles up the road. Maybe I could camp there then drive to Baker Peak in the morning. I could easily head back home from there, and it’d still be a pretty great adventure. With a bit of disappointment in myself, letting my fear (or maybe it was sound judgment) shift my plans, I bit into my french toast and savored the luxury of making sweeping changes to my schedule on a whim. It felt like freedom.

The state park was on top of a mountain, accessible by a steep, winding highway that tested the limits of my old Subaru’s engine. When I reached the top I had the realization that there might not be any campsites available. If that was the case, then what would I do? It was a pleasant weekend in early October, so there was no guarantee. Worst case, I’d swallow my fear and hike back to that lake without the rangers on duty. I’d be fine…right?

Luckily there were still sites available, although the unexpected $20 camping fee took away all the cash I had. The site was nestled up against a beautiful mountaintop pond; not quite the lake I had anticipated, but certainly nice enough to justify the drive out. I set up camp and hiked around the pond, returning to the realization that I didn’t have any firewood. Walking back down to the entrance, where I had seen a pile before, the sign hanging over the pile thwarted my plans:


All of my cash had gone to the unexpected entrance fee, so I resolved to gather as much driftwood lying around the camp as I could to get a little fire going before bed. A small fire, aided by the generous donation of a few logs from the dad camping with his young son nearby, was all that was needed.

The sky grew dark quicker than expected and by 7pm I was out cold. Maybe, away from the stress and feelings of inadequacy back at school, my brain was finally able to rest peacefully. I awoke in the middle of the night, shivering, and found snow flurries dancing above the tent in the brisk night air. Unaware it would be this chilly on the mountaintop, I curled deeper into my sleeping bag until morning. At 4am I awoke, packed in silence enveloped by darkness, left a thank-you note for the generous stranger, and was off.

I had a mountain to climb.

While thoughts of sleeping on the shores of the mountaintop lake definitely sounded enticing, they simply weren’t feasible.

I’d be arriving to the area way too close to sunset for that to be rational. In my younger years, sure, I would’ve hiked back in the darkness no problem. But with a wedding just five weeks away, I couldn’t just think about myself anymore. I had a future to consider.

Pulling into the campground was a vastly different experience this time around. I was practically the only one on the entire premises. The forest road to my site took me up a bumpy, winding path that even my SUV could barely make it up. There was a point where the forest road became a trail and I began looking for blazes instead of signs and worrying I’d be running over some unsuspecting hiker. After a bumpy few minutes I reached my spot and began taking it all in. Like my hideaway ten years prior, it was quiet. The only sounds were the rustling of the remaining leaves in the breeze and the trickling of a brook making its way down the hill. Quietly, I set up my tent and began cooking the dinner I bought at a country store off the highway (fresh biscuits, canned soup, and apple cider; hard to beat). Once the fire was roaring and I placed my food on the grate to heat up, I sat down and let out a cathartic sigh. This, the peace, the isolation, the simplicity, was what I absolutely needed.

I slept better than I had in months.

After a few missed turns I arrived at the trailhead early the following morning. It seemed familiar, but just different enough to make me question if I was at the right place. Checking the photo from ten years prior I could see that I was parked in the same spot, but a decade of tree growth had blocked the view of the mountain peak behind me. I snapped a quick selfie, put my phone away, and began my way down the trail.

The trail began as a wide forest road with a few isolated houses on the other side of the creek bed. Flat and easy to traverse, it cut straight into the forest and gave a distinct sense of separation between the modern world and the backcountry. After about half a mile the trail performed a switchback and began its gradual rise upwards. There was a spring in my step this morning as I felt lighter, physically and mentally, than I had in a while. Drastic concerns about health were put aside just long enough for me to enjoy my presence in the forest.

After ten minutes of steady incline I reached the first checkpoint: the large sign that read Now Entering Big Branch Wilderness. When my younger self hit this sign he was so excited. It made it feel like I was somewhere rugged and, most importantly, away. Standing there for a minute, I could sense the ghost steps making its way past the sign, so naive of life and what was to come.

At 20 years old I desperately needed something new. As a person I was too worried, too anxious, too set in my ways to fully live the life I had wanted. Those adventures I dreamed of, in that state of mind, would never have happened. The life I dreamed of, simple as it was, would remain out of reach if I wasn’t confident enough to put myself out there, to meet people, to be vulnerable.

Further up the the sound of trickling water caught my attention; there was a waterfall up ahead! I remember being so excited to see this on that first hike. When I reached it then I balanced on some of the rocks and cooled off in the crisp flow. It was so perfect, so clean, pristine. And it just was. When everything in the world was crazy and complicated and uncertain, this picture-perfect little waterfall just continued doing its thing. Shaping the rocks beneath its flow and quenching the thirst of a narrow strip of forest.

Today, though, the falls were just a trickle. We had an unusually dry summer, and its impacts were apparent on the moist rocks and stagnant little pools disturbed only by a disappointing stream that my eyes were seeing.

In that moment the concept of change latched onto my mind. So much had changed from the first time seeing this little waterfall to now. I had originally come to this mountain to break free from a prison of my own makings. My comfort zone needed to be expanded, and I needed heaps of time alone to really sort out who I wanted to be as a person. In the crisp fall air on that day ten years ago, feelings of freedom and peace began stirring inside me in ways they hadn’t for quite some time. Alone, in a location unknown, it’s easier to think deeply and freely without being concerned with the views or opinions of others.

So much had passed in life since then, and yet there was still so much ahead of me that was unknown. What fantastic adventures would I find myself on down the line? What experiences would shape me and my experience of life? There were limitless opportunities ahead. And, of course, plenty of trail left, too.

Past the waterfall the trail grew steep; way steeper than I remembered. Maybe I wasn’t in as good of shape now as I was then. Or, more likely, my brain had decided to latch onto the fond memories of the hike and conveniently forget the breathless, sweaty panting that I’m sure accompanied me on the journey. 

Finally I reached the trail junction that led to the mysterious lake. Memories flooded back as I stood in the stream staring at the sign. A decade prior I was too nervous to stay straight and instead bore left. Today, I was more confident. I remained straight and began the trek off the main trail back to the lake. The trail continued to ascend, although not as rapidly, and the peaks of mid-morning sun began shining through the clouds and into the forest. Still rising, the sun shifted in the sky to guide me on this part of the trek. As long as we continue to grow, our sun will continue to rise, too.

The spur trail that headed towards the lake eventually merged with the famed Appalachian Trail. Over the years I’ve hiked on many parts of the AT in multiple states. However, the realization that I will never thru-hike the entire trail like my younger self wanted to is clear, ingrained, and accepted. When I came up with that dream I was a 16-year old boy hellbent on adventure with no ties to anyone or anything in particular. Now I had a fiancée, a home, soon-to-be a family of my own; the desire to leave all that for six months is near zero.

I used to believe that all internal problems could be solved by jetting out into the wilderness for an extended period and coming out as some wise sage who has figured everything out. Now I understand that none of that is necessary. Time alone in the forest helps, for sure, but it’s no guarantee of healing. Regardless of where we are, we need to do the difficult inner-work to improve, to grow, to become the most realized versions of ourselves. A trail isn’t a requirement for that type of effort.

An autumn breeze conducted the choreography of the golden leaves above, painted against the backdrop of a deep blue sky. The forest was full of life, steeped in connection, each plant and animal ensuring the survival (or at least the continuation of energy) of the others. When it came to humans, though, I was the only one experiencing this environment. The solace was certainly appreciated.

Upon reaching the lake I felt a sense of joy well up inside of me. This little speck of blue on a forgotten, crumpled map held so much weight in my psyche. What had I missed? How would things be different if I had slept there that night? The answer to both questions: not that much. But the fact that I was here, that I came back for unfinished business, was a full circle moment. 

A low-hanging bout of clouds began rolling in over the lake as the wind picked up and turned the placid water into a rippling force. I sheltered underneath a tree and found a decent rock to sit on just off the trail with my feet flirting with the water. The perfect place for a snack. While munching, I thought about my younger self, and wished I could go back to him and let him know that I made it. And also what a critical decision it was to come on this trip in the first place.

That hike was a launching point in my life. The following year I would do a similar spontaneous adventure; this time to Montreal. I booked a $40 AirBnb (remember those days?) on a whim and spent 36 hours wandering the city aimlessly as a young man trying to figure myself out. A year after that I flew out to New Zealand to fulfill my student-teaching requirements, to date the biggest adventure I’ve ever been on. After months of exploration, facing my fears, and backpacking around the country I plopped into Hawaii to visit family and experience even more adventure. I was hooked. And it all started on an inconspicuous morning in October when the urge to break free became too much.

After my snack by the lake I met back up with the AT and completed the short, final march to the summit.

Upon reaching it, though, I was a bit confused. Ten years of growth had obscured some of the view and I actually had to look back at old pictures to make sure I was in the same spot! Thankfully the images confirmed my location and I settled into an angled rock that would be my cozy recliner for the foreseeable future. Opening my pack, I pulled out lunch and began to refuel as I stared into the distance, entranced by the infinite rolling mountains that led off into parts unknown.

There, in that moment, I was far more self-assured than I was the first time on the summit. I chuckled realizing how much better prepared I was. I knew the route inside and out. I had packed plenty of food and water, but not too much. I traveled only with the essentials, knowing I wasn’t about to go on some insane, life-threatening wilderness expedition. I was wearing a custom pack, a futuristic sun-hoodie, an overpriced fleece to combat the increasing winds, and the most up-to-date trail runners that kept my movements accurate and nimble. On my first ascent my confidence was much lower.  I was clad in an ancient, tearing, thin base layer that did nothing to keep me warm, oversized snow pants, heavy boots, and my dad’s 1980s Columbia full-framed backpack, which drew a little bit of a crowd. I wasn’t the only one enjoying the view that day, a group of older hikers exclaimed about my pack and reminisced on how they hadn’t seen one of those in decades. It did the job, albeit uncomfortably.

Today, though, I was alone. No one else came to enjoy the view with me. The space was much needed, as visions of the past flitted in my vision as I scanned the horizon.

The summit on that bluebird day in 2013

A bit more obscured, and green, ten years later

We never know how an adventure will change us. And to me, that’s the whole point.

In my view, the purpose of any adventure is to inspire a change within ourselves. It’s to improve, see the world a bit differently, increase our confidence and competence, and generate a deeper appreciation of life. In the years since that initial adventure, I’ve experienced all of those changes on epic mountain peaks in faraway places with rugged terrain. I’ve also experienced those on lovely hills in my hometown. The location doesn’t matter as much as the mindset. If we go out with an intent to explore, to see what’s around the corner, to appreciate each step of the journey, then we set ourselves up for a transformative experience. This simple two-day adventure ten years ago did far more for me as a person than if I had mindlessly set out on a longer thru-hike “just because”, without thought or intention. Then again, maybe if I had gone with similar intentions, I could have come out as a completely different person. At this point, I’m perfectly content never to know.

In the end, we never truly know how an adventure will change us. But it can, and will, if we let it.