A lot of people would never choose to spend four or five of the hottest months of the year "vacation" hiking across the backbone of the Appalachian Mountains.
A lot of people, though, also don't have the balls to test and push themselves to their absolute physical and mental limits day-in and day-out, from sun up to sundown.
I guess I do.
The length of the Appalachian Trail changes slightly from year to year due to reroutes, erosion and property disputes. This year, it measured exactly 2,185.3 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin, Maine.
The trail crosses through 14 states and presents a number of challenges, including physical exhaustion, mental fatigue, Lyme disease, black bears and, of course, running out of money.
Only 25 percent of people who attempt a "thru-hike" — completing the trail from end to end in less than a year — actually succeed in doing so. The trail is a serious undertaking and quite easily the most difficult thing I have ever done.
It was more difficult than running a marathon and more difficult than eating a completely raw diet. And, for that reason, it also offers many intensely introspective, life-altering moments that can completely change one's outlook, approach and perspective on life.
Here are a few of the lessons I picked up on while I was hiking:
1. Life Is Work
It doesn't matter what you're doing; whether you're on vacation, going to work, working out or just going to the grocery store, 99 percent of this experience involves trying. That is, putting forth some expenditure of energy that is not exactly what you want to be doing at that moment.
Even going on a vacation to the Bahamas requires the effort of packing, going to the airport, sitting on an airplane, telling your kids to be quiet, renting a car, checking in at the hotel, unpacking and, finally, for a day or two, sitting in a chair, drinking Hurricanes or learning to surf for a few hours.
There were many times I hated hiking, didn't want to be hiking, wanted to just hitch into town and take a bus home. But, what would I have done when I got there?
Perhaps I could have survived for a month or two on the funds I had saved, but I would eventually have to return to another form of work. And, trust me, hiking is f*cking work. Which leads me to my next point...
2. Focusing On The Present Moment Is Pretty Much All You Can Do
Our minds evolved to learn from dangers presented to us in the past and to worry about them in order to prevent harm in the future. This is the only reason we have memories and imaginations.
Luckily, our brains are big enough to turn both of those into pretty amazing tools.
But, when you have four miles left in your 22-mile day, a 3,000-foot climb over three upcoming miles, and you should have gotten water at the last stream two miles back, your mind can't help but wander to the future or think about how stupid you were to not stop to hydrate. This is where presence becomes key.
Focusing on the pain in your feet, the strength in your badass quads, the sweat pouring down your face, your heaving chest, and being absolutely, completely here and now, will always get you through.
3. But Also, Keep Long-Term Goals In Mind
When you get to camp and you're so tired you'd rather sleep in the dirt than build your tent, and your feet hurt so badly you'd rather saw them off than deal with them, and you just want a helicopter to come take you to the nearest Holiday Inn, just like the rest of life, you have to remember why you are where you are.
You're here to work. You're here to succeed. You're here to encourage others to do the same.
You're not a quitter; you're a fighter, and if you can make it out here, if you can complete this godforsaken trail, you can do anything in the "real world."
4. Appreciate A Shower
Only in the first world do we have to go on self-imposed journeys of deprivation to learn to appreciate things. The Appalachian Trail could not make this clearer.
Often, we would hike three or four days at a time, between 15-20 miles a day, from dawn til dusk. In the 80- to 90-degree East Coast summer heat, we sweat constantly. (I usually drank between six and eight liters of water per day.)
All that sweat stinks, and sure, you can throw some water on your face and private parts at the end of the day, but never in my life did I think I would learn to appreciate the comforts of the first world so.damn.much.
After accumulating three or four days of hiker stink, getting to a hostel, showering, eating an entire large pizza and pint of ice cream to yourself without having to worry about weight gain (you're usually burning between 6,000 and 8,000 calories a day), you begin to realize all the sh*t we have in the first world is pretty f*cking amazing.
5. The Most Difficult Undertakings Bring The Most Emotional and Physical Rewards
Never have I felt more like a badass than when I finally got my hiking legs and could carry a 30-pound backpack 30 miles through the woods. But, getting there took 2.5 months of pain and struggle, sweat and tears, adversity and suffering.
Never have I felt more at peace than when I watched the sunset atop a mountain in Vermont with friends, who were sharing the same emotion and bottle of whiskey. Never.
Never have I felt more accomplished than when I sat atop Mount Katahdin, popping bottles of champagne, cheering and taking pictures with 15 other people, who had also walked 2,185 miles. Not when I graduated college, not when the non-profit I founded got its 501(c)(3) approval, not when I completed my first marathon.
This was the most physical, emotional undertaking I had ever completed, and the payoff was great.
6. Hiking Is Exactly Like Life — Because It Is Life
I began to think about how every day, the trail was almost exactly like everyday life: Wake up, drink coffee, eat breakfast, go to work (hike), encounter some bullsh*t (a big mountain), realize your only option is to deal with it (climb it), overcome it (get to the top) and enjoy the feeling of having dealt with something appropriately (hike down the other side).
Some days were stupidly easy, with miles and miles of flat walking (days where everything goes right); whereas, some were ridiculously challenging, and the mountains seemed to only go up and up and up (days where sh*t hits the fan).
You enjoy the coffee breaks at work (water or coffee breaks at streams while hiking). You enjoy surprise days off ("Well, the weather is terrible and we're already at this hostel... how about we take the day off from hiking?").
You see a sad friend or coworker, and you do your best to console him or her (just like someone who's tired of hiking or has been hurt by a townie or fellow hiker). You meet weirdos and do your best to avoid them.
You finish each day tired and ready for sleep, but tomorrow, you'll wake up refreshed and ready to kick some ass again.
I came to the conclusion that hiking seems so similar to life in so many ways because it is life — just another perspective of it. No matter what we do or where we are, it will never be complete bliss or without some sort of drama or hardship.
Life just doesn't work that way and neither does a five-month "vacation" in the woods.
At the end of my hike, I didn't know what to do with myself or how to put the experience into words. It's been almost four months since I finished the trail, and I think I'm finally beginning to make sense of all the emotion I felt out there.
Now, all I can do is continue to use the experience to inspire, encourage and motivate myself to love fully and mindfully in everything I do.