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How I Decided to Take a “Life Sabbatical” to Become a Thru-Hiker

[Gasp] “That is so cool!”
“I wish I could come with you!”
“Why would someone want to do that?”

Those are just a few of the responses that I have gotten over the last several months as I have told people in my life that I am planning on attempting a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2019. Most people, particularly my family and friends closest to me, reacted positively and excitedly (with some hesitancy at times). But many have been on the other end of the spectrum and expressed utter befuddlement at my desire to spend time in the wilderness, walking a distance that takes most people anywhere between four and six months to complete.

Take a look at those different responses listed above and you will see just how astounding the breadth of human difference is. Keep in mind that I do work at REI, so the sample size for seeing the psychological spread of thoughts and opinions concerning a four to six-month backpacking trip up the east coast of the US is actually fairly sizable, because the topic comes up a little more frequently than it might in other people’s lives. I have talked about my goals to family, friends, friends of friends, and countless customers that have come into REI store #73. Some people I spoke with voiced their desire to come with me, and a few of those are actually planning on meeting me to join at various points for a brief (but not exactly thru-hike-length) walk in the woods. Some people have been endlessly supportive, yet insistent that we do not share the same idea of “fun.” One guy, I kid you not, simply responded, “Oh, The A.T.? Do something cooler, like the C.D.T.” Others have expressed excitement over the thought, and a handful of them had concerns that they immediately voiced as they tried to fully conceptualize the trip in their minds. Some people simply failed to conceptualize it all.

People are different. No two ways about it. Each of those people should be allowed to be who they are.

So, who am I?

I am someone who wants to answer that last question of “Why would someone want to do that?”

Why Would Someone Want to Thru-Hike the Appalachian Trail?

The motto of the A.T. is “HYOH,” or rather, “Hike Your Own Hike”. Naturally, hundreds of prospective thru-hikers come to the trail with that exact intent, and they come for their own reasons because to truly hike your own hike, one needs a resolve originating deep in his or her own emotions and motivations. Some hike for the glory of doing something difficult. While others hike so they can prove to themselves (or to others) that they can! To a number of people, a thru-hike is seen as a getaway; a means through which one can escape the rigors of their daily life. A few of these people hope to use this getaway as a means of changing the natural order of their existence. Whatever their reasons are, every year a couple thousand people put their lives on hold, leave their families, and set foot onto the trail with dreams of achieving something extraordinary. Reasons are just that, though…reasons. There still must be an impetus that provokes them into action. So why would someone really want to thru-hike?

My view from Old Rag in Shenandoah National Park

To answer the question succinctly, some people are just wired that way. I was raised with the outdoors being a priority. Many times, my life brings me back to where I grew up in Virginia, I make it a point to head down to Shenandoah National Park and take in a hike up Old Rag (pictured above), a mountain I remember climbing with members of my family at least once a year from when I was six until I was 16 years old. Around then the chaos and overload that is American high school these days truly set in, and I found that the need to be outside began slipping down on my list of priorities. I then went off to college in Charlottesville, VA and frankly still did not have a ton of free time. After graduation, I stayed in Charlottesville for a few years and finally was given time to appreciate the wealth of nature in the surrounding area. I spent more time out in the Shenandoahs. The next phase brought me to St. Louis and to working at REI. This allowed me to get closer with the gear, the outdoor community, and its people, while sharing in the genuine excitement of folks who were absolutely thrilled for their new pair of hiking boots, their new backpack, or the last piece of clothing for their lightweight layering system. This instilled in me something that some might refer to as an illusion of grandeur that I really could thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. I would also argue that it helped me to refocus, reorganize, and reprioritize what is truly important to me in my life. I was outside much more often as I made my way through graduate school. Even though I was perhaps busier than I ever have been, managing a life between two and three jobs as well as part-time (sometimes full-time) school, I always made sure to get what I needed to stay afloat. As my schooling neared its end, I naturally began to think a lot about what was next for me.

AT trail-post off Skyline Drive in Virginia

It started as a joke

Thinking purely hypothetically about the notion of a thru-hike, something that had at least been in the back of my mind at a few points in my life, I made light of the concept of walking some 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine rather than doing “real life things,” and looking for full-time employment. At first, the idea very slowly developed into a more intriguing concept. As time went on, and as my stress levels in grad school continued to rise, the “illusion” materialized itself faster and faster. Then, it was February 2018 and suddenly I had a folder in my browser full of at least 20 bookmarked websites including a pre-made spreadsheet on which I was listing the gear I had, the gear I wanted, and the respective weight totals of said gear.

It was getting real

I did a lot of soul searching and a lot of talking with my girlfriend, Taylor. She was unendingly supportive of the idea and constantly encouraged me even though we had only been dating for a short time. A little out of order here but she also bought me an A.T. book, map, and journal for my birthday a few weeks after I officially decided I was hiking. Pretty great gal! In any case, Taylor’s support built me up quite a bit, and I told her I was 75% sure I was doing it. I called my sister, Abby, who asked me: “Did you call me because you knew I would be all about this idea?” Honestly…yes. I wanted it. I wanted someone else to tell me I wasn’t crazy.

85%

I called my father to express my thoughts to him because he was very helpful in getting me through graduate school and I wanted to make sure he was on board before I committed to anything. He did what you would expect a father to do, and even though he has been section hiking the A.T. for years, brought up several things to think about that could be potential negatives about hiking and living in the wilderness for so long…but nothing phased or deterred me.

90%

I told Taylor that I was so close! I had found a book that I wanted to buy and read before making the official call. It is an excellent read called “Appalachian Trials” by Zach Davis with the subheading “A psychological and emotional guide to successfully thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail”. I was in good shape at the time, so I was not overthinking the physical demands of a thru-hike; however, I knew that throughout my life I have started many “trials” and I have not always had the mental fortitude to finish them. This book seemed like a good match for someone like me, although I would whole-heartedly recommend it to anyone. In the introduction, he states the following:

“In no uncertain terms, the psychological and emotional struggle is what drives people off the Appalachian Trail.


It’s the unpredictable and daunting psychological impact of your Appalachian Trials. It’s the homesickness, redundancy, and loneliness. It’s the thick, sweltering heat while scaling a shadeless, rock-face mountain. It’s trying to sleep through sub-freezing temperatures, hoping that wearing every damn article of clothing in your pack and wrapping your sleeping bag over your head will provide enough warmth to grant a few hours of sleep. It’s the constant swarm of mosquitos, flies, and gnats. It’s the boredom that comes from another day of walking through lackluster terrain. It’s the pain that strangleholds every muscle of your body upon waking. It’s putting on sweat soaked clothes for the fifth morning in a row. It’s trying to sleep next to that snoring asshole six inches from your face. It’s waking up in a shelter to the sound of a mouse eating his way through your backpack. It’s pooping in the rain; have fun trying to wipe. It’s drinking discolored stream water. It’s wandering a mile off trail before realizing you have no idea where you are. It’s checking your nether regions for parasitic and disease carrying ticks at the end of an exhausting day. It’s living in a constant coat of filth. It’s walking consecutive days with a set of throbbing blisters between your toes and on the sides of your heels. It’s veering off trail to go to the bathroom only to notice that you’re standing in poison ivy. It’s rocks eating through your boots and insoles, making it feel as though you’re hiking barefoot. It’s running through a storm while hearing lightning crash down on every side of you. It’s the rustling of an animal prowling outside of your tent just moments before you were going to fall asleep. These are the reasons people throw in the towel, not because a climb is too daunting.”
– Zach Davis

After reading, I reflected on this passage and realized that none of it scared me. It excited me!

I knew then that I was going to do it

In his book, Zach “The Good Badger” Davis suggests making three lists before attempting a thru-hike:

  1. I am thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail because…
  2. When I successfully thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, I will…
  3. If I give up on the Appalachian Trail, I will…

In February of 2018, I took his advice and spent a good bit of time reflecting before making my own lists. I still have them today and they fuel me constantly. Considering the deeply personal nature of what happened to me when I took the time to consider something so monumental and tried to look at it through these different lenses, I will not share my lists, but I would recommend this exercise to anyone who is considering (or has decided on) an attempt at a thru-hike.

So, What is Really Going On Inside the Head of a Thru-Hiker?

Everyone is different, so each and every person will come to making this commitment in different ways. For me, it took years of taking the outdoors for granted, a subsequent realignment of my priorities, an arduous road through graduate school, an almost masochistic excitement while reading about all of the things that could go wrong, countless hours of reflection, and the unwavering support from my family and friends.

So, what is going on inside my head? You should have a pretty good idea now. But the others? They are hiking their own hike, just like me!

Coming next is Part II of this story: “The Logistics of Hitting Life’s Pause Button to Thru-Hike the AT”


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5 thoughts on “How I Decided to Take a “Life Sabbatical” to Become a Thru-Hiker”

  1. Many people believe that life’s big adventures start with an arrival, a passport stamp, (or in this case) your boots hitting the trail in Georgia. I love that you chose to show us where the journey really begins: with the decision. I think it makes it all the more exciting to follow your hike knowing a bit more about you and what led you to choose this (literal) path. Thank you so much for sharing and I can’t wait to read the next installment.

  2. Great read Clay. You make a lot of sense about really determining why you are doing the AT. If you don’t fully understand the reason you are doing it I would think it makes is much easier to quit. I got to talk with you for a short time at REI today and you were very helpful at offering information about your preparation for your trip. It got me that much more excited for when I start my journey in 2020.

  3. Susan Stevenson

    Thanks for sharing Clay, very insightful. Some say preparation is half the fun; my guess is you’ve been prepping for this one way or another most of your life. I’d be curious to know your thoughts on that at the end of your adventure. I’m also looking forward to hearing about pooping in the rain! I’ve no doubt that no matter what comes your way during this adventure, your cool head, calm demeanor and resilience will see you through.

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Clay Pulsipher

The Logistics of Hitting Life’s Pause Button to Thru-Hike the A.T.

Logistically speaking, it is not exactly easy to hit the pause button on your regular life to spend four to six months living off the grid, out of a backpack, and in limited contact with the outside world. Frankly, the very concept of taking “four to six months” may prove most difficult for some because it is an open-ended amount of time. That’s just it; it is impossible to predict what will really happen when you set foot on the trail. All you can do is have a sound plan in place and be ready to roll with the punches… and rocks… and weather… and whatever else the trail throws at you.

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