By PAUL V. STUTZMAN
I’ve always wanted to see what lies over the next hill or around the next bend in the road. Traveling is an adventure, anticipating those surprises that wait ahead, those serendipitous meetings or discoveries that you never imagined. I knew hiking the Appalachian Trail would be an adventure. I’d read many accounts by thru-hikers (folks who hike the entire 2,174 miles in one season) of how the hike had changed them. But I never imagined how dramatically it would change my own life. I’ll back up just a bit to tell you that I was running pretty hard in the same rat race that many people run. My wife Mary and I had a plan to eliminate our debt and retire early and do wonderful things together.
Then Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer, and when she died in 2006, all my plans changed. Well, I guess that in reality, after she was gone, I really had no plan. Life as I had known it had been dismantled. I drifted through a year of trying to adjust to life without my wife, but I knew that only something drastic would kick me back into living once again.
I’d been a hiker for many years; the beauty of nature always had a soothing and healing effect on me. One of my dreams had been to hike the Appalachian Trail, and I decided this was the time to follow that dream. I left a good job, strapped on a backpack, and headed for the starting point on Springer Mountain in Georgia. The adventure lured me. I wanted to see what was beyond the next mountain, what waited on the path tomorrow. I admit, before I started I did wonder if I might get bored just walking every day through wilderness and over mountains. Really, what excitement could there possibly be just taking a walk in the woods, all day, every day?
My hike through fourteen states took four and a half months, two pairs of shoes, and forty pounds. I walked through snow and ice and heat and storms; suffered lack of sleep, injury, and loneliness; met bears and kind people and God; and, at the top of Mt. Katahdin in Maine, realized that my hike had not put my life back together as I had hoped. Instead, I had found a new life. In spite of the fact that I had read dozens of books on hiking the AT, I never imagined both the difficulty and the joy of this journey. There were surprises and discoveries almost every day, but the biggest surprise was how this hike changed my life.
If you’ve ever dreamed of hiking the Appalachian Trail – even just a small section of it – then do it! You’ll find your place in a family – the community of hikers and hostel owners and all those who welcome and aid hikers along the AT. You’ll find that there is still much kindness in our country, the close communion with nature will make you more aware of the beauty around us, and you will undoubtedly leave the Trail a different person.
Paul V. Stutzman left a restaurant management career to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail in 2008, after losing his wife to breast cancer. He tells the story of his hike and his changed life in his new book, Hiking Through: Finding Peace and Freedom on the Appalachian Trail. See more photos from his hike on his website, http://www.hikingthrough.com/.