Trail Magic

I first discovered the Appalachian Trail five years ago on a trip to the Appalachian Mountains with my dad. Ever since that trip I have dreamed of one day setting out on the trail, backpacking along the way, and taking in all the wonderfully beautiful sights. My desire for a trip of this nature (pun definitely intended) ramped up this last year. It initially started as just a pipe dream I kept to myself. “Yeah, it would be cool to do that, but it probably won’t happen,” was a common thought running through my head. And yet the desire persisted.

Over time I started to really debate the feasibility of a backpacking trip. I grew up hiking and camping but I had never combined those two elements into one backpacking experience. So there were certainly valid concerns about whether or not I was cut out for such an intense endeavor. And yet the desire persisted.

I came to a conclusion that, if such a trip were to ever happen, I couldn’t do it alone. For starters, that just wouldn’t be very safe. But more importantly, I wanted to be able to share this experience with other people. Back in the spring I casually mentioned my idea of backpacking along the Appalachian Trail to my friend Jacob. This was the first time I legitimately presented this idea to someone as more than just a hollow dream. He immediately said he would love to do something like that.

A flip switched after that conversation. Somebody else expressing an interest in joining me was all the validation I needed to know this idea wasn’t totally crazy. Despite this confirmation, though, I was still filled with plenty of doubts. Sure, this is something that could happen. But will it? I have had plenty of things come up that I wanted to happen that quickly fizzled. Would this trip follow that same pattern?

I had a realization that if I wanted this trip to actually come to fruition I would have to do things a bit differently: I would have to practically speak it into existence. Keeping it to myself clearly didn’t get me anywhere until I finally presented it to someone else. So I decided I would tell people that I was tentatively planning a backpacking trip. Doing so generated more excitement but also created a sense of accountability. People I shared with would consequently follow up to ask how the planning was coming along. This again confirmed that I wasn’t completely out of my mind.

The planning was gradual. We did our research into equipment and everything we would need, as well as life on the trail. I began working on an itinerary and schedule for our adventure. There are shelters for hikers throughout the trail and our plan was to travel shelter to shelter each day. The Appalachian Trail itself is over 2,100 miles long, stretching from Georgia all the way up through Maine, traversing through fourteen different states. There are hundreds of shelters, which is to say we had lots of options to choose from. I wish I could say I based the decision on where to start and which shelters we’d stay at on real criteria such as access to water sources, amenities, and distance between shelters. Nope, it was the names of the shelters that ultimately drew my attention and helped me make the decision (I mean, how funny is a shelter called Punchbowl?).

We somehow convinced our friend Matt to join us as well, bringing our travelling party to three. In the month leading up to the trip we finalized our itinerary and gathered our supplies and equipment. Thankfully I was able to borrow most of the equipment I needed from my friend Chris, along with a few items from my dad. I piled everything I thought I’d need: clothes, food, cooking supplies, tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, shoes, first aid kit, and so on. As I began meticulously packing things in my backpack I realized I had WAY too much stuff. There were many times I’d start laughing as I looked at my backpack, completely filled to the brim, and then over at the pile of things that I still had yet to pack. I had to start making sacrifices, namely extra clothes and food. Eventually I felt like I had everything I would absolutely need packed in, with absolutely zero extra space.

It was comforting to see that Jacob and Matt both seemed to be in a similar boat. We collectively figured it would be best to be overprepared with this being our first ever backpacking expedition. I wish I could recount the number of times one of us asked if we were in over our heads or if it was too late to back out. Nevertheless, we were excited for what was ahead of us.

Blissfully unaware of what lies ahead

Friday, October 9th – Travel Day

After triple checking our inventory list to make sure there wasn’t anything essential we were leaving behind, we loaded up the car and hit the road. We would be driving to Charleston, West Virginia, where we’d be staying before making it to our starting point the next day in Virginia. The previous couple weeks had been spent planning and packing, so much so that I hadn’t really spent too much time thinking about the week ahead of me. I now had a nine hour drive to fully comprehend the undertaking I was about to face. Nerves began to set in as questions raced through my head. What if we get lost? What if we run out of food or water? What if we actually do come across a bear? What am I doing???

We spent most of the drive listening to music, joking around, and occasionally expressing our worries and concerns about the trip. I tried to give off an air of confidence but in reality I was nervous. Thankfully we would have a night to rest and relax before the fun began.

Way. Too. Much. Stuff.

Saturday, October 10th – First day on the trail

When I woke up my nerves had given way to excitement. After so many months of longing and anticipation, the day had finally arrived. I would be setting foot on the Appalachian Trail, embarking on a journey I had long desired. Not to mention, I was joined by two of my best friends. I knew that no matter what happened this was going to be an unforgettable experience.

We had about a three hour drive to make it to our destination. I had arranged for a shuttle service to come pick us up near where we would ultimately end up at the end of the week. The shuttle would then take us to our first shelter where we’d be staying the first night. We were to meet our shuttle at 3:00pm, so we had plenty of time to get up and get on the road. We changed into the clothes we’d be wearing on the trail and it was that point Jacob realized he had forgotten a belt. I also noticed the pants I had bought were a little too big, meaning I’d need a belt myself. What kind of trip would it have been if we didn’t need to make at least one stop by buy something at the last minute?

We made it to our pickup location with plenty of time to spare. This is where we’d be leaving our car for the week, a couple miles away from our final shelter. I wandered up to the nearby trailhead where there was a post with a sign on it indicating that we had indeed made it to the Appalachian Trail. Years of longing, months of anticipation, and weeks of planning all came to fruition in this moment. I had made it.

We waited for our shuttle to arrive, assuming we’d be transported in a truck or van that had ample space for us and our overly stuffed packs. We were surprised when a tiny car pulled in, with someone already in the passenger seat, and stopped in front of us. The driver got out and asked if we were the ones heading to Cornelius Creek Shelter. We confirmed that was us and he invited us to begin loading up. Needless to say, we were a bit skeptical that we’d be able to fit a collective 135 lbs of equipment into the trunk of this miniscule vehicle. But lo and behold, we were able to make it all fit and the three of us crammed into the backseat.

Our driver introduced himself by his given trail name of Pilgrim. Part of Appalachian Trail lore is that hikers are given trail names by other hikers, often based on something they said or did (for example, we learned of another hiker aptly named “Kitchen Sink” because of how he packed everything but the kitchen sink). We introduced ourselves to the passenger in the front seat, and I recall her trail name was something along the lines of “Teen Mom” (it’s not what you’re thinking – it’s because she was a mom of teens). It was evident right away that she was an experienced hiker and knew her way around the trail.

We had an hour until we reached our drop off location, so we had a lot of time to ask for some last minute advice. Our two new acquaintances offered some valuable insights and helped put us newbies at ease. We also discovered that our driver, Pilgrim, was also from St. Louis. I thought that was a pretty neat coincidence and sign of good things to come.

As we were driving I had my Google Maps route pulled up so I could see how close we were getting. I was I a little uneasy when Pilgrim drove right past where my GPS marked our destination. Not to worry, he clearly knew better than I did and must have know where he was going. But then he kept driving. And driving. And driving. Matt, Jacob, and I exchanged worried glances and anxious smiles. We muttered under our breathes about whether or not we should say something. Thankfully the Teen Mom stepped in and took control of the situation. She already had an app pulled up with information on all the shelters and began re-navigating us toward a good drop off spot. We wouldn’t be getting dropped off right at our shelter and would have to back track a couple miles, but that sounded perfectly okay to us. Another piece of Appalachian Trail mystique is something called Trail Magic. Essentially, it’s when you’re in need of something while on the trail and just the thing you need magically appears. Teen Mom being in that car with us was a bit of Trail Magic.

We pulled off to an overlook to that would get us onto the trail. We unloaded, said our thanks and goodbyes, hoisted our packs onto our backs, and set foot on the trail. The moment had finally come. We were about to become backpackers.

Something I have not yet mentioned is that it had been raining the whole day up to that point. The forecast indicated that the rain was supposed to clear up sometime on Monday, making way for sunny and clear skies by Tuesday. Little did we know that the rain would become the fourth, permanent member of our trip.

We had a little more than two miles to make it to our first shelter, Cornelius Creek. It was evident almost immediately how much of a challenge we were facing. The rain made the terrain slick and occasionally daunting, meaning we had to be careful with every step. It didn’t take long for us to feel the weight of our packs on our shoulders. We weaved our up, down, and around slopes and inclines, making for quite the full body workout.

We also realized that the goal we had in mind as far as miles per hour was probably a bit too ambitious. Instead of the three miles per hour we were shooting for we were covering closer to two miles an hour. But as long as we made it to our destination before the sun went down we would consider it a success. Thankfully the first night was a success, as we made it to our first shelter before nightfall. There was already an older couple set up at the shelter when we arrived and they warmly greeted us. Although we only covered a couple miles I was exhausted and eager to get my pack off for the day. We didn’t have too much time to settle in before the sunset, so we quickly unloaded our packs, refilled water in a nearby creek, and helped Matt set up his hammock.

We were shortly joined by another young couple as the three of us were getting ready for dinner. By this time the sun had gone down and we realized we had one key thing left to do: hang our food in a tree to deter bears. We ventured into the nearby woods in the middle of downpouring rain to find a good spot. It turned out we had so much food between the three of us that the string Jacob brought would be unable to hold all the weight. Thankfully one of the other couples had some spare rope we could borrow. Another piece of Trail Magic. I knew we would have some hiccups along the way but I was hoping we wouldn’t have them on the first night.

Once we had the food bags secured we decided to turn in for the night. The heavy rain kept us from making a fire, and besides, we were beat from our first hike on the trail. We had a long week ahead of us and would need plenty of rest. That first night was spent tossing and turning inside the shelter as the sound of rain outside provided a constant white noise.

Sunday, October 11th – Second day on the trail

One thing I learned after the first night was just how long each night would feel. The sun went down at about 7:00pm and rose at about 7:00am. Without being able to make a fire there really wasn’t much else for us to do, especially if there were other people in the shelter. So that meant we pretty much had 12 hours to sleep. Well, I don’t typically sleep more than 8 or 9 hours, so I spent a good amount of time trying to will the sun to come up. So when it finally did I was ready to get going.

I had a breakfast of oatmeal and instant coffee and set aside some snacks for the day. We had six miles between us and our next shelter (Thunder Hill), meaning we’d be arriving right around lunchtime. It was comforting knowing we’d have plenty of wiggle room should our pace drastically slow down.

We bid farewell to our newest acquaintances, got another refill of water, and set back out on the trail, going back the way we had come the day before. I tried to play some mind tricks on myself by saying my pack felt a bit lighter after having gone through some of the food (if anything, it actually felt heavier). I was very curious to see if I’d feel any stronger by week’s end or if I’d ever get used to the weight.

One thing I wish I didn’t have to get used to was the rain. There were a few brief moments when it would let up just enough for us to have some reprieve. But before long the downpour would return, soaking us and our packs. Thankfully we each had a protective rain cover that went over our packs, but by the end of our journey they didn’t prove to be completely waterproof.

Although it was overcast and rainy I was still astounded by the nature I was walking through. I thought of all the people that had walked this very same trail and were equally amazed by the beautiful sights surrounding them. How blessed I was to be in this place, rain and all.

I did have to save my sightseeing for when we stopped to take breaks. As I mentioned earlier, we had to be intentional with every step. We had joked about who would be the first one to fall, and I was determined to not be the winner in that category (for the record, it was Matt). Due to the physical exertion and our general lack of preparedness our breaks were frequent. This is generally when we’d catch our breath and take in all that was around us. Every so often we would come to an overlook. Although the fog, clouds, and rain prevented us from seeing too far into the distance we still got to appreciate what was in front of us.

As we made our way we naturally developed a hiking order: Matt was leading the charge, I was in the middle, and Jacob brought up the rear. We talked after the trip about how this order motivated each of us – Matt felt us behind him and wanted to keep a good pace, and Jacob and I worked to keep up. I found it funny that even in the middle of the mountains we find ways to establish routine.

It seemed like the further we went the harder the rain came down. As much as I wish I could say we maintained positive attitudes despite the rain, that just wasn’t true. The rain dampened not only our clothes, but our spirits. Fortunately we were approaching our shelter – or so we thought. Matt had been tracking our mileage on his watch and his GPS had indicated that we should have reached our destination. However, we didn’t have a strong indication that a shelter was nearby. Not only that, but Matt and Jacob had both gone through all their water and I myself was going through my reserve. I had one of those moments where time seemingly freezes. There we were, stopped on the trail in the middle of a pouring rain, almost without water, and unsure of how much further we had to go to get to our next shelter. We were obviously still on the Appalachian Trail but I began to doubt my planning. Had I misread the distance between these shelters? Was it 16 miles instead of 6? We still have plenty of time until sunset but what if, God-forbid, we don’t make it to our shelter?

It turns out all of that worry and doubt was for nothing, as we literally found the shelter within ten minutes of that moment-frozen-in-time. I was beyond relieved to have a place to get out of the rain and get my pack off my back for more than five minutes. After taking a few minutes to just lie down and rest I changed out of my soaking wet clothes into dryer (yet still somehow wet) clothes. After a hot lunch of Ramen noodles I felt like a whole new person.

With it still being pretty early in the day we were the only ones at the shelter, meaning we could spread out a bit and relax. Shortly after we arrived, however, we were joined by the younger couple we had met the previous night. They were only making a temporary pitstop to change clothes and have lunch before venturing back into the rain. I have to admit, seeing them have to bundle back up and brave the cold rain made me incredibly thankful to be curled up in my sleeping bag.

As it got later into the afternoon we were increasingly hopeful that we would be the only ones in the shelter. Right as I was about to begin dozing off I saw somebody emerge around the corner and prepare to come in the shelter. We all sat up and greeted our newest acquaintance. It was obvious that he was a seasoned hiker. He introduced himself as Wanderer as he sat down to begin making a hot meal. It didn’t take long for him to begin sharing his story with us. He had been hiking south from Maine to Georgia before leaving the trail for about a week to go home to spend time with family. This was his first day back on the trail upon his return. Over the course of our conversation we had asked him what brought him to the Appalachian Trail. He went on to tell us of how he used to be a terrible husband, namely due to his addiction to cocaine. He first sought out the trail several years back as a solace and place to get his life back on track. The trail for him was a source of healing and renewal. I sat there amazed by his story. Just like I had a reason for stepping foot on the Appalachian, as did every other traveller.

We were also curious about what goes into a thru-hike. He explained to us that he typically only carries four days’ worth of food before replenishing in a nearby town. When he told us his pack only weighed about 25 lbs I felt a rush of embarrassment. This guy was hiking for months on end and had a good 20 lbs less than a group of guys roughing it for just a week. You live and you learn.

Wanderer was initially planning on just making a quick lunch to warm up before setting back out but he determined the coziness of the shelter was simply too enticing. It looked like we would have another occupant with us. Not that it would have mattered because we were shortly joined by another thru-hiker whose name I can’t recall. It seemed as though he and Wanderer had already met somewhere along the way. They provided some entertainment for us as we listened to them swap backpacking stories.

As afternoon gave way to evening we made ourselves dinner along with a bit of a fun surprise, courtesy of Matt: a bottle of Gentleman Jack whiskey. I poured some in with my evening cup of coffee and the three of us sat in our half of the shelter enjoying each other’s company and anticipating the next day’s adventure.

I went to bed that night to the sound of rain pounding on the tin roof above, yet another reminder of the element that had been so present. From the weather reports I had read the rain was supposed to subside sometime the next day. I was hopeful.

Monday, October 12th – Third (and final) day on the trail

Much like the previous night I spent a good amount of time tossing and turning and wishing the sun would just come up already. We had twelve miles on today’s agenda, so it was important that we get a relatively early start to the day. Wanderer and the other thru-hiker were up before the three of us and bid us farewell. Although I didn’t necessarily sleep well I felt rested and recharged. I chose not to think about how sore I was going to be after literally doubling our mileage from the previous day (okay, maybe I thought about it a little bit).

After reluctantly putting our not-quite-dry clothes on we set foot back on the trail, with today’s destination being Matt’s Creek Shelter. Wanderer, having already covered the ground we were about to traverse, told us we should expect about a 1,200 foot elevation gain. We had eclipsed a similar elevation the day prior, so we at least had some idea of what to expect.

The rain persisted, contrary to the weather reports (where have you heard that before?). Despite this, I was feeling pretty good several miles in. Maybe it was just continued attempts at mind tricks on myself but I was feeling stronger. I felt better adjusted to the weight of my pack and my legs didn’t feel quite as taxed. That’s not to say I didn’t still relish any opportunity to lean up against a boulder and get the weight off my shoulders.

We were again in our normal order of Matt, me, and Jacob. I was walking closely behind Matt when all of a sudden the weight of his packed shifted and almost fell off his shoulder. Upon further inspection one of the straps had completely snapped. We stood there for a bit, dumbfounded. We began tossing ideas around about how to jerry-rig this thing. Jacob mentioned that his father-in-law recommended bringing some extra straps along for such an occasion. Thankfully Jacob listened and grabbed one out of his pack. Sure enough, it worked. You might call that being over prepared. I call it Trail Magic. We trekked on.

The day before Jacob had mentioned his quad was giving him some trouble. He had torn his quad years ago and every so often it flared up. He said the it was manageable and shouldn’t be too much of an issue going forward. It became clear as we were hiking on Monday that he was in quite a bit of pain. The seemingly never ending incline didn’t help. Every time we turned a corner there was more uphill for us to climb. We joked that the local Virginians didn’t have a good sense of distance. At one point we passed a woman who was descending and asked her how much further until it flattened out. She assured it was only a hundred more feet. A few hundred feet later we were still climbing with no end in sight.

Somewhere along the way Jacob slipped on a rock, making the pain in his quad even worse. At about the halfway point he asked if I had Pilgrim’s number. He wouldn’t be able to keep going. I volunteered to go scout ahead to see how much more we had before we’d start going downhill but I knew in that moment our trip would be coming to a premature end. Matt had the same inclination and he and I brainstormed our next course of action. We had crossed over a road about 2 miles back and we figured this would be our best bet to get good service and serve as an accessible pickup location. Whoever came to pick us up would drop us off at our car and we would begin the drive back to St. Louis.

We ran the plan by Jacob and he immediately resisted, insisting on sleeping in the car or getting a hotel while Matt and I continued on. We assured him that we were all in this together and that wouldn’t go on without him. We had gotten the experience we set out for. We could affirmatively say we were backpackers.

We backtracked a couple miles until we reached the aforementioned location. We called the shuttle service, and sure enough, Pilgrim was en route to come pick us up. When he arrived we packed our soaking wet belongings into the same tiny car. We recounted our experience to Pilgrim and he said that, although our trip was shorter than anticipated, any time spent on the trail was time well spent. Meanwhile, we were debating whether or not to start driving back to St. Louis that day or stay in town another night before hitting the road the next day. We ultimately decided to make our way back home and stop to stay with Matt’s brother-in-law in Cincinnati. We got back to our car, changed into dry clothes, and got back on the road. Within 10-15 minutes sunshine began to peak through. Of course.

In the first day or so upon returning home on Tuesday I moped around and felt sorry for myself. This trip I had been planning and anticipating for months didn’t go quite according to plan. All I wanted was just a sliver of sunshine. Why couldn’t it have gone differently? After a while I realized this type of thinking was pointless. Moping around wasn’t going to change anything or put me back on the trail. I had decided to still take the rest of the week off of work, so it was up to me to make the most of it, Appalachian Trail or not. I began reflecting on the experience I just had and on what exactly I was hoping to gain from such an endeavor. What were the things I was truly pursuing by seeking out the Appalachian Trail? I determined it was a combination of the following:

Escape from technology

Get in better shape

Experience the beauty of nature

Time for reflection

Did I accomplish these things as a result of my trip? At first glance, I would say, I did. Upon further reflection and introspection, I was surprised by exactly how much I gained in these areas after the trip.

Escape from technology

This honestly might have been my primary motivation. Leading up to the trip I was just feeling very bogged down by everything going on around me. I was coming off a very busy and strenuous summer at work and was still trying to figure out how to navigate this COVID-centric world. With election campaigns ramping up social media became even more of a combative, negative, and depressing cesspool than usual. The toll of the last several months seemed to be weighing on everyone, myself included. I found myself desiring to “get off the grid” for a bit and the Appalachian Trail seemed like a natural solution. It would be the perfect way to disconnect – no emails, no texts, no social media, no news stories. I felt the only way to achieve this was to go into the mountains where I would have no service whatsoever.

It was mission accomplished through the first few days on the trail. I kept my phone turned off and only turned it on whenever we took a break so I could take pictures. It was incredibly freeing to not feel like I was completely attached to this device.

When it came time to head back home I was nervous I would fall right back to my usual pattern of obsessively checking my phone. And sure enough, within the first couple days I found myself instinctively reaching into my pocket every five minutes. Needless to say, I was frustrated with myself. How was it I had already forgotten the freedom I felt from disconnecting?

Later in the week I was reflecting on that very question. I thought about just how much time and energy I wasted mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And for what? What did I truly gain from this? And why was it that I felt my only option to disconnect was to literally flea to the mountains? It then dawned on me that I’m the one in control and in order to regain that control I may need to do something drastic. It was then that I decided to get rid of these social media apps on my phone. I had already tried setting time restrictions on these apps but those were too easy to override. I needed to quit cold turkey.

And so I deleted the apps off my phone. Grabbing my phone out of my pocket to check social media had become a reflex that I needed to unlearn. It admittedly took me a few days to fully comprehend that I couldn’t check Twitter on a whim or scroll through Facebook whenever I pleased. After a few days, though, I started to notice a shift. I wasn’t reaching for my phone every few minutes, and in fact, I found myself not feeling the need to bring it everywhere I went. I began reading more and finding other alternatives to keep me occupied. I also felt like I was becoming more present in the moment and engaged in my interactions with other people.

Backpacking through the Appalachian Trail provided me the excuse to not have my phone on hand at all times and was proof I could survive without it. It gave me a taste of what life is like without the pressure and presence of social media. I can’t claim to have been 100% disconnected from social media but the difference has been night and day in the month after I returned home.

Get in better shape

A big part of the lethargy I’ve been feeling over the last several months is that I haven’t been pushing myself physically. I’m by no means unhealthy but I could certainly afford to exercise a bit more often. Planning this trip would not only give me a reason to start working out more but the hiking in and of itself would be a workout like none other. I spent the ensuing months going on preparatory hikes, running, and playing LOTS of disc golf (there’s a lot of walking in that, alright?). In my mind I felt like I was pretty well prepared for a week long trek up and down the mountains. Boy, how wrong I was.

One thing I failed to account for was the sheer weight of my backpack. Mine weighed in at about 47 lbs before we left, while Matt and Jacob’s both hovered around 45 lbs. We went on to find out that’s about 15-20 lbs more than recommended for this particular kind of trip. You live and you learn. Besides the weight of our packs, we were also unprepared for the drastic incline changes. On both Sunday and Monday’s hikes we gained 1,200 feet. It’s safe to say I never reached that level of elevation on my leisurely hikes back home. It didn’t take long at all for my legs to burn, my back to ache, and my shoulders to scream from the unaccustomed amount of weight they had on them. If I wasn’t already soaked from the rain I absolutely would have been from sweat.

I had to keep reminding myself that this is exactly what I was hoping for – a physical test like nothing else I had experienced. The immense relief I felt each time we stopped to rest and take our packs off is beyond words. We joked about how much of a difference we might feel in the weight of our packs at the end of the week when we ate all of our food. As if I needed any more motivation to stuff my face.

Over the course of just a few days I did feel myself starting to feel stronger. I might not have looked stronger as I slowly made my way up the mountain, but I felt it. Fighting through the pain I felt in my legs was oddly satisfying. I assumed I had lost a good five pounds or so just through the first couple days (I was sorely mistaken). Lack of weight loss aside, I was feeling great. When it came time to leave the trail I was motivated to keep pushing myself. I wasn’t going to allow myself to fall into my old pattern of laziness. It was time I begin truly running again.

Since I took the rest of the week off of work I had nothing but open time on my hands. I had nowhere I needed to be and didn’t have to race the clock to make it to work or any meetings. With this open schedule I decided to go visit some of my favorite running trails from over the years, some of which I hadn’t been to in quite a long time. I wasn’t anticipating the nostalgia factor from running some of my old routes, including Forest Park, Tower Grove Park, Creve Coeur Lake, Katy Trail, Lakeside 370. I was instantly taken back to the places I was in life when I last ran these trails. I was reminded of the joy I’ve experienced from running and the peace it’s provided.

A month after a few grueling days on the trail I’m happy to say my running has increased and improved. I’m pushing myself more than I have in years. If not for the Appalachian Trail I may not have rediscovered my *passion* for running.

*Okay, passion might be too strong of a word, but you get the idea.

Experience the beauty of nature

When I first visited the Appalachians I was in awe. They’re not quite as majestic as the Rockies but they were so full of life. Never in my life had I ever seen so much green. I was so eager to return and explore more of this vast, beautiful piece of nature. And then it rained. And rained. And rained some more. The outlooks we came across didn’t offer much in the way of scenic views due to the dense fog hanging over the trees. My nature experience wasn’t quite what I expected.

But that didn’t make it any less beautiful or breathtaking. There was something mystifying about the layer of fog sitting over the trees. The downpouring of rain highlighted the lushness of the trees surrounding us. I reminded myself that this rain is what gave so much life to these mountains. What a gift it was to be able to witness this firsthand.

Sure, I wish we had even a second of sunshine on our trip but that didn’t diminish the beauty we got to see. I figured my objective to experience the beauty of nature would end upon our departure. However, I would quickly discover that beauty within nature isn’t just limited to scenic mountain views. As I mentioned earlier, I spent a good amount of time in the following weeks revisiting some of my old running routes. On many of these runs I found myself smiling as I took in the sights around me, particularly the changing colors of the leaves. I came across lakes, ponds, streams, creeks, and brooks. Not quite as immense and expansive as the Appalachian Mountains, no, but still filled with beauty, albeit in more subtle ways.

Take a break

It’s always so easy to get caught up in the chaos of life. Between work, extracurriculars, social life, chores, running errands, and everything else you begin to feel overwhelmed. After the stress of the last few months all I wanted was a break. Having this trip on the calendar gave me something to look forward to, but until then it was business and chaos as usual. Like I mentioned earlier, it was very liberating to not have constant distractions from my phone. No emails from work, no calendar reminders about meetings, no influx of GroupMe messages. Being on the trail provided a natural barrier to these things.

When we began our drive back home I had already decided to take the rest of the week off of work. I was initially unsure, however, of how I wanted to fill my time. Did I want to try and schedule things and fill up an agenda or did I just want to take a step back and relax? I ultimately chose the latter, and I’m so glad I did.

I spent the remainder of the week doing things on my time and found myself forming a nice little routine. Wake up, watch a bit of TV, make breakfast, read until about lunchtime, go on a run, read some more, and overall just decompress and rest. While being on the trail provided me a sense of reprieve and peace, it wasn’t until the second half of the week that I felt like I was truly taking the break I desired.

I’m continuously amazed with how God knows what we truly need so much more than we do. He knew that what I needed was some time for myself. I assumed that time for myself would come on the Appalachian Trail. Sure, that experience provided me with some much needed time away and was a unique experience I’ll always cherish. But God knew what I really needed was time to “shut down” for a few days so I could really recharge.

Matt, Jacob, and I have already talked about a second round on the Appalachian Trail (although definitely not for a while). We’ve vowed to take the lessons we learned to heart, namely, get in better shape before hand, do more research, and for all that is holy, don’t pack so much. But the most valuable (and least expected) lesson I learned is that there is beauty in things that don’t go according to plan. It’s in those moments we must give up control of what we think we need and listen to what exactly God is trying to tell us.

There are countless stories of hikers along the Appalachian Trail encountering obstacles, challenges, and setbacks. Just when they are ready to give up, something unexpected happens. Just the thing they need, whether it be food, clothing, gear, shelter, or companionship, shows up just in the nick of time. This is the mystic and lore of Trail Magic. I got to experience my own bit of Trail Magic, only it came after I was off the trail. When I was at my lowest point, God provided me just what I needed.

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