The Thruhiking Papers

Personal Change

This subject came up because someone on the at-l email list expressed concern about the degree of personal change that some of us had talked about. And since no one else was answering him - it was my turn. So --

Let's start with the fact that we all change - constantly - whether we want to or not, whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not. Any experience that takes 4 to 6 months, where you spend time alone with yourself, where you overcome obstacles and situations that you've never encountered before, where your physical, mental and emotional resources are tested, where you live with the intense joy and pain that you'll find on the Trail, where you're stripped of most of the artificial trappings of civilization, where you learn your own strengths and weaknesses, where the level of your commitment to a goal is tested - WILL accelerate the change process - and may change the direction of the process.

So - if you don't hike the AT, you'll change, and if you do hike the AT, you'll change, but it'll be accelerated. The real questions then become - If you hike, how much will you change? and - How will you change?

How much will you change?

That's not predictable on an individual basis. On a generalized basis, it probably fits a bell curve with some people being affected very little (the near end of the bell curve), some people (like me) becoming totally addicted to the Trail and to hiking (the far end of the bell curve) and most people falling somewhere in the middle. Where would you end up on that curve? Nobody can answer that - not even you.

So how will you change? Nobody can tell you that, either. But there might be some clues in this excerpt from Larry Luxenberg's book "Walking the Appalachian Trail."

"After more than two thousand miles on the trail, you can expect to undergo some personality changes. A heightened affinity for nature infiltrates your life. Greater inner peace. Enhanced self-esteem. A quiet confidence that if I could do that, I can do and should do whatever I really want to do. More appreciation for what you have and less desire to acquire what you don't. A childlike zest for living life to the fullest. A refusal to be embarrassed about having fun. A renewed faith in the essential goodness of humankind. And a determination to repay others for the many kindnesses you have received."

What's the best that can happen to you? You could become a better person. You could fit Larry's projection of the changes the Trail produces. You could learn the lessons the Trail has to teach - about happiness, about beauty and peace and love, about strength and persistence and God and friendship and .....more, much more. When I got off the Trail I wrote down some of the lessons I learned. Sometimes when life doesn't make sense, I go back to those lessons - they help.

Another excerpt from "Hiking the Appalachian Trail":

The thing that shines through the most this time is the peace I learned. I found a peace within myself that I always knew or felt was there but did not know or understand how to get it out. The AT has really changed my life forever. I am a more loving person because of it. No matter where my life takes me I'll always be waiting to hike the AT again.
----John Hess, 1984 report to ATC after his second thruhike.

So what's the worst that could happen to you? Well, you could become like me - and my partner and my friends. I think the following verse says it well:

There's a race of men that don't fit in
A race that can't sit still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain's crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don't know how to rest.

----Robert Service, Poet of the Yukon from "The Men that Don't Fit In"

There's a risk in walking the Trail - you might become something more or maybe just different, than you would if you don't walk it. Some people can't tolerate that - or maybe they're not ready for it. Personal opinion is that this is one of the reasons people get off the Trail.

Is it worth the risk for you? Only you can answer that. If it really concerns you get a copy of "Hiking the Appalachian Trail" and read the chapter on "Life After the Trail".

The bottom line is that when you finish you'll be different. Your family and friends probably won't understand you. They won't have the shared experience or knowledge or emotional context of the Trail to allow them to understand. For some of us that can be really tough, but it's not impossible to live with. And it will require some more adjustment (more change) on your part.

The job is another world - a thruhiker's life tends to be pretty basic, and the BS associated with a job can be really tough to tolerate when you get off the Trail. Again, it's a matter of adjustment - on your part. You really can't expect the rest of the world to change to fit the Trail world. Can you handle it? Of course you can. If you can handle the Trail - you can handle the world.

Another excerpt that fits with my personal philosophy -

"If you haven't had an intense experience on the trail, you missed something"
-------- Mike "Hago" Harrington.

How did I change?

The next question was a lot more personal:

How did your hike change you emotionally/mentally? What have others said?

This answer wasn't easy because it required a long look inside myself. So -- what changes did I experience? Let me count the ways -

  • First, all of what I previously quoted from Larry Luxenberg's book applies to me. I think it applies to all thruhikers to a greater or lesser degree.
  • I think most thruhikers re-order their priorities - the way we use our time and energy, what we want out of life and what we're willing to do to get it.
  • The Trail gave me the time, inclination and ability to look inside myself and I found someone I liked - me. When I got back, I wasn't willing to bury that person in the life that I'd lived before the Trail.
  • I learned that the level of anger and paranoia that I'd lived with before the AT wasn't necessary, desireable or even normal.
  • I learned to trust God. One of my Trail lessons was that God knows what He's doing. There were too many really improbable "coincidences" for me to believe otherwise.
  • I learned that there are times to seek change - and times to rest and assimilate past changes.
  • I became restless and curious - there's more of the world than I can see in what's left of my life. I want to see as much of it as I can.
  • My reactions/habits changed. My reaction to emotional pain, disappointment, etc. changed from anger or brooding to - "Let's go hike it out".
  • I learned (again) that fear is never a good reason to do something -- or to not do something. And that, at least for me, fear is a totally ineffective motivator.
  • I learned a lot more tolerance. I learned (again) that it wasn't my place or my job to judge what others were doing or thinking - or even saying. I learned (again) that their ideas and perceptions and beliefs were as valid for them as mine are for me. And that their viewpoint deserved respect even if I don't agree with it.
  • I also learned more about the infinite diversity of this race called "humans" - about the variety of motivations that drive people - about the myriad ways that people perceive any given event or concept - and about how surprisingly good and generous people can be if they're given a chance to show it.
  • I learned that happiness is here and now. Not yesterday or tomorrow or something material or a future event, but what I am and what I have right NOW. I don't have any other time. There isn't any other time.
  • I became softer - more people oriented, more tolerant, more loving and much more open. Before the Trail he'd never have asked me those questions, because I wouldn't have given him the opening to ask them. I occasionally revert.
  • I became harder/tougher. Physically yes, but also mentally and emotionally. I learned (again) that physical and/or emotional pain is sometimes the price for what you have to do. Emotional pain is far worse than physical pain, but I learned (again) that it won't kill you - even when you wish it would.
  • I learned (again) to listen to that small, still voice inside that tells me when I'm headed in the right direction - or the wrong direction or when a situation isn't right, or when someone's lying to me, or when it's time to change plans, or stop for the day, or ...
  • I learned that my sense of timing is better than I ever imagined - as long as I'm listening to that voice. Part of it is what some people call "sixth sense". But it's more than that and I'm not going to try to explain it in this context.
  • For those familiar with Meyers-Briggs Personality Type testing, I was an INTP before the Trail. I was tested 3 times in the 5 years before the Trail. After I came back I was tested again - and I was an ENFP. There was a distinct and definite personality type change. That's not supposed to happen.
  • There were physical changes as well - my sense of smell, for example, became much sharper and my tolerance for perfumes of any sort was diminished. I can't use scented soaps or laundry detergent, I can't be in the same area as anyone who uses heavy perfume and I can smell things that other (civilized) people aren't even aware of. I became a lot less civilized, a lot closer to being 'wild'. I like it that way.

For better or worse, I changed - and I think it was for the better. All of the above have had profound effects on my life. And I'm happier now than I've ever been before, although that doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement. The lessons I learned on the Trail were necessary, the changes were good for me - and worth whatever price I paid. I've been asked if I'd do it all over again - and the answer is that "I have". We hiked the CDT in 1999 and the PCT in 2000. And the planning process has started for walking the CDT again in 2006.

It takes time to integrate the Trail changes and lessons into your life. It's probably different for different people, but personal opinion is that it takes a couple years to become aware of all the changes in the way you think and feel and react to different situations in your life. It's been over 5 yrs since I finished the my last long trail thruhike - and I'm still learning.

I've talked - and listened - to a lot of thruhikers, and a lot of them have experienced the same general kind of changes. But everyone is different, everyone experiences different changes and different degrees of change. And we all deal with the changes in our own ways. Just remember that I'm on the far end of the bell curve - there aren't many of us who were affected to the same degree that I was.

Created: 30 June 1997
Revised: 30 Sept 2016
Copyright © 1997-2017 Spirit Eagle