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'What does the trail want to teach me?'
Discovering yourself on the Appalachian Trail
A couple of weeks ago, I asked if you had any stories you’d like to share with our amazing community of runners here at The Half Marathoner, as I’d love to incorporate more of what you’re thinking and experiencing into the newsletter., who writes the wonderful newsletter , emailed me right away to tell me about the epiphany she experienced on the Appalachian Trail, which I’m excited to share with you. (And if you’d be interested in sharing yours, let me know!) — Terrell
By Melissa Gopp-Warner
The summer of my 40th birthday, I started hiking the Appalachian Trail. I planned to go 26 miles, to refute the notion that our bodies break down and can do less with age. Setting off from Springer Mountain with my partner, I expected to reach Woody Gap by the close of the second day.
Warm, moist air filled my lungs as I gave myself over to the descent. Light filtered through the canopy, green and heavy with growth. I could already see the pictures I’d post. Chest puffed in my Bob Marley t-shirt, like Cheryl Strayed at the end of her book Wild, I’d declare myself fit and in control.
Instead of proving me exempt from aging, the trail triggered a familiar pain. A sharp jab in the side of one knee reminded me why I gave up running in my early twenties. My body wasn’t built to run, the physical therapist had said. Two years of therapy couldn’t fix chondromalacia from ill-tracking patellas.
To preserve the cartilage I had left, I settled for yoga, surfing, swimming, and mountain biking. But now, closing in on my fourth decade of life and my ninth mile of the AT, I couldn’t even walk.
Giving up is not an ending I’m used to living. I gave birth to a nearly ten-pound baby after doing lunges on the stairs in my tenth hour of labor. In my late thirties, I found love again as a single parent. For six years, I’ve been writing a memoir, one whose surprise ending emerged between drafts four and five.
The twist: while planning a wedding with my cisgender male partner, I came out as questioning my sexuality. Easy outs aren’t my thing. They don’t make good stories, at least not ones people are used to reading.
That summer on the trail, I sank into questioning my ability to keep up with my own and my partner’s hiking ambitions. How had I so grossly overestimated my physical condition?
The ending I’d forecast was gone. Instead of completing our goal of 26 miles, my partner and I set up camp at mile nine. The next morning, I limped a mile out of the woods and into a shuttle to go home.
“I’m not done with this trail,” I wrote on social media. “PT is in my immediate future.” At 39 years, 362 days old, I resolved to fix myself. I would conquer the trail. I would publish my memoir. I would metaphorically outrun my age.
Three months later, the trail revealed its wisdom — a magical plot point I couldn’t have predicted. Not only were my knees well enough for a test hike through the Daniel Boone National Forest with ten pounds of rocks in my pack, I could run again.
Getting help for the injury the trail re-triggered, led me back to a love I thought I’d lost forever. All I needed was a correct diagnosis: leg-length discrepancy and mild scoliosis. A heel lift plus a few months of PT balanced me out and set me back in motion.
Whatever drove me to start the AT landed my partner and me back at High Tower Gap a little over a year later. I had just run a 15K race and felt more than prepared to walk another section. Sixteen miles at 13 degrees Fahrenheit on the first day would be a stretch, but I was ready. I had seven layers between me and the elements, and my knee issues were nonexistent.
“Where are you headed?” Each hiker we passed wanted to know. One sat on a rock bandaging blisters by a stream. Another packed up camp as we pressed on through the snow. Their questions echoed my internal quandary: What does the trail want to teach me this time?
I started the hike with firm answers. We were going to Hostel Around the Bend, 60 miles from where we began. The trail was going to teach me how satisfying success feels after working so hard.
The miles would show me I can handle discomfort, that I don’t need alcohol, medication, or screens to do life. I would emerge a purer version of myself, free of identities I’d outgrown, like depressed, straight, and injured.
Even with 30 pounds on my back, my uphill performance was strong. The declines were where the trouble set in. When it comes to trauma, the body is the last to forget. With every downhill foot strike, my joints expected pain on impact. My knees lasted. The rest of me did not. As the sun slipped below the horizon, I inched into camp at mile 16, my muscles shot from bracing against forward motion.
The next morning, everything hurt. Our Day Two itinerary was 8.5 miles up and over Blood Mountain, from Lance Creek to Bull Gap. We set out at 10:30 a.m., proclaiming it our rest day. We’d keep a relaxed pace, finish by 4 p.m., and enjoy a dehydrated dinner of diluted green curry.
My uphill performance was solid. At the Blood Mountain shelter, a ranger asked how many miles we’d come and how many we had left. His eyes bulged at my answers. I was right to be exhausted. I was doing a hard thing. We paused at the summit to take in the view, swaths of blue-gray mountaintops painted with streaks of fog.
Downhill threw my ego in my face. A one-mile, 1000-foot descent took me two hours. Too tired to cry, I gave myself over to laughter, or maybe hysteria, an outlet for the tension I didn’t know where to put. Once again, I’d underestimated my readiness for a trail known for its unforgiving ups and downs.
Most beginners are advised to start with eight miles at a time on the Appalachian Trail. For people like me who live in Florida, where the world is flat, six miles is better.
At 5 p.m., I shuffled into Neels Gap, situated at the bottom of Blood Mountain. It’s the only portion of the 2,100-plus-mile trail that passes through a covered walkway. My eyes grew wide with relief at the sight. There was a store. Water. A bathroom. Dozens of worn boots dangled like Spanish moss from the naked limbs of a gnarly tree.
For southbound hikers, this checkpoint is cause for celebration. They’re so close to the end, some throw their boots in the air. For northbound folks, rumor says the boots belong to hikers who’ve given up by this point. I didn’t know these stories when I posed beneath the boots to document my presence. Something about the tree gave me pause.
“Look at that smile.” A man resembling an aged version of my partner stopped to take us in. “Usually I ask people why they’re walking like that, but why are you smiling like that?”
I shrugged. I knew I was stiff. I hadn’t noticed I was grinning ear-to-ear.
He winked. “It’s not about the miles. It’s about the smiles,” he said.
We reached camp more convinced than ever of the truth of his statement. Even so, slowing down wasn’t an option. We had kids and work to get back to. To make 12 miles to our day three destination, we set an alarm for 6 a.m. In the morning, we skipped coffee, downed granola bars and set off again before the sun came up. The book I had hoped to read remained untouched.
Around mile four, dizziness set in. Shoulders aching and bruised from my pack, I folded in half and propped my body onto my hiking poles. A wind gust forced me to stabilize myself and the weight of all I was carrying. When my calf cramped into a solid mass, the tears broke loose.
“I think it’s time to consider coming off trail,” my partner said, fishing through his pockets for his map.
I collapsed onto a rock. He was right. At our current pace, we wouldn’t reach our final destination in time to get home as planned. Rain was coming. We’d already dealt with below-freezing cold. If we didn’t find an exit strategy soon, there’d be no feasible out through the upcoming section.
This wasn’t the ending I wanted. How could I tell people back home I’d quit again? Would they view my hike as another failure? What scared me even more was the possibility I wouldn’t want to come back. What if my dreams were delusional? What if I still was all those things I thought I could box up and bury? Straight, depressed, and weak.
Pulling back from my spiraling thoughts, I dared to take a good look at what was. What is. What does the trail want to teach me this time?
“Where are you headed?” A sprightly group came up behind us as we set off for our revised destination. Their footsteps crunched with grit and confidence.
The day before, I would’ve cringed as they overtook me and my obvious fatigue. But that day, I stepped to the side of the path and smiled. “We’re going to whatever is at the bottom of this mountain,” I said.
They laughed. “And the next one, and the next one after that,” said a hiker.
My response came off as vague and witty, but it was true. I couldn’t remember how to pronounce the gap at the bottom of the mountain, nor did I know the name of the mountain. All I knew was I had resolved to come off trail, free of my manufactured narratives and drive to force false endings.
We exited at Tetnassee Gap to real-life trail magic, the term used for unexpected treats that happen to hikers on their journeys. A man dubbed King Tut welcomed us with hot drinks, snacks, medical supplies, and beanie hats featuring white blazes — symbols that mark the trees of the AT to let hikers know they’re on the right track.
Most of the hikers we’d passed filed out of the woods to continue to the next section of the trail.
The person with blisters had acquired new shoes.
A hiker who fell down Blood Mountain came out in one piece.
A man in his fifties walking off a divorce had found new friends.
While my partner called a shuttle, I swapped stories with a twenty-something through-hiker who was nursing a knee injury and deciding whether to quit. Instant coffee sweetened with hot chocolate mix never tasted so good.
Back home, I planted myself on the beach with the book I had intended to read on my hike: Alden Jones’ The Wanting Was a Wilderness: Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and the Art of Memoir. In it, Jones says, “I advise aspiring travel writers to avoid, if possible, declaring a ‘story’ before they embark….Your ‘story’ may emerge much later.”
The trail reveals its wisdom in its own time. I’m still waiting for this section hike’s true end. Maybe it’s unfolding here as I write, sharing my story with you. My gut says it must have been hanging with those boots in that tree. Who knows which boots were which: boots of those who celebrated or boots of those who tried?
If my hiking path tracks anything similar to my writing and running, I know I’ll be back. I had to write five drafts of a yet-to-be published memoir to discover my queer identity.
After a twenty-year hiatus from running, I’m training for my first half marathon. Who knows what awaits me at Mount Katahdin, the literal end of the AT? I’m beginning to see that the beauty is in the trying. The journey was the point all along.