The Amazing People I Met While Hiking the Appalachian Trail Changed My Life

Finding peace in nature helped me to heal. (Photo: Julie Fast)

The Appalachian trail became my therapist. As a way to recover from a friend’s suicide, I set out on the trail that extends more than 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine. I needed time to follow my thoughts to completion and find peace in nature. What I found instead was a motley crew of diverse people who entertained, challenged, and accepted me with no questions asked, merely because I was walking in the same direction.

Carrying a tightly packed 50-liter backpack and the immeasurable weight of grief, I took my first determined steps on Springer Mountain in Georgia on the brisk morning of April 2, 2014. As I sweated through three layers of wicking material and fell into the rhythm of pushing my body up and over quiet hills, my mind meandered slowly and painfully through the memories of Andrew.

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Everyone deserves an Andrew. By that, I mean a person who can turn any situation into a creative endeavor and whose thoughts spin wildly and recklessly, knocking the doldrums off their axes and taking the world by storm. He was equal parts Kerouac, Nietzsche, and Robin Williams, and I felt honored just to be in the same room with him. To give some insight into his idea of life, he once left an industrial-size trash can filled with discount meats, each tagged with clever captions, such as “It’s so nice to meat you again” and “You make my loins tender” on a friend’s porch to welcome him home. He was an unforgettable prankster and friend, and I had approximately 5 million steps to reconcile these facts.

Talking and walking made the burden of loss more bearable. (Photo: Julie Fast)

“Why are you thru-hiking?” was a common enough question along the Appalachian Trail, but no matter how many times I responded, I couldn’t bring myself to tell the full answer. I couldn’t share that I was walking away from something violent and unexplainable as much as I was walking toward Mount Katahdin in Maine. When I met Tigger, however, I felt as if I could expose my darker reasons. Named for the way she bounced up hills, Tigger became my unofficial walking partner in the South, as we always seemed to synchronize schedules and distances.

Me and Tigger (Photo: Julie Fast)

One soggy morning, as I bent over on the side of the trail to inspect a tender hot spot on my heel, Tigger cheerfully skipped down to me. She had been walking since 6:30 a.m. and had run out of food but was still talkative and exuberant, ready to pound out the next 12 miles into a small town in Tennessee. She was positively inhuman. Tigger let me walk in front to set the pace, and I found myself suddenly talking about Andrew, my tears betraying the calm I had worked so hard to portray on the trail. The calm I was beginning to believe in. Tigger, a woman of diminutive stature, wrapped strong arms around me before a steadfast audience of bare-limbed trees, consoling me as my heart unclenched.

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While I didn’t share my friend’s legend with every hiker I met, they each unknowingly helped me recover and move forward. The cast of my thru-hike journey could have doubled as a traveling circus, so unique and entertaining were the stories that led people to eschew a traditional life in favor of a six-month hardship akin to pioneering. There was the three-time college dropout who was determined to finish something she started, the food-truck tycoon from Martha’s Vineyard who toted handmade signs through uppity New England towns (he explained that people were so nice they probably though he was homeless), and the sponsored Triple Crowner (which refers to the three official long-distance hikes in the U.S.) whose adoring fans often surprised her with food at road intersections. There was the Bostonian who started the trail at the behest of his girlfriend and then kept hiking long after she dropped out just to spite her, and the trucker whose entire backpack weighed as much as my sleeping bag, and who subsisted solely on potato chips and Pop-Tarts.

My hiking pal who attached handmade signs to his gear. (Photo: Julie Fast)

More than a distraction from my problems, more than a sociological study of modern self-exiled sojourners, the trail and its characters reminded me how delightfully odd life and our place in it can be. As my fellow travelers and I found our way together over slippery rockslides and through overgrown meadows bursting with wildflowers, they reaffirmed for me how valuable shared adventure is. Talking and walking made the burden of loss more bearable, thus allowing the journey to be all-encompassing and, as a result, more powerful. The people walking north changed the personality of the trail, and this changed me for good. In the words of Robert Frost, “I shall be telling this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence,” as I let myself be influenced by strangers, and that has made all the difference.

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