In some respects, hiking the Appalachian Trail is easily quantified: Six months. 14 states. 2,200 miles. Five million steps. There is something precise and mathematical, too, about the daily routines. You wake up with the sun, walk all day, and fall asleep soon after dark. Setting up a tent, filtering and boiling water, organizing a pack—these tasks assume a mechanical quality after the first few weeks.
Numbers and routines, though, tell only part of the story. I do not know how to quantify the moment that the steady drizzle of rain yields to the muffled silence of snowfall, which—as a Southwest Florida native—I had never imagined could be so beautiful. And there was nothing routine about the afternoon spent bundled in my sleeping bag next to new friends, playing “20 Questions” because it was too cold to hike and too early to sleep. They laughed at me, the Florida boy, when I asked if we were in a blizzard—though I still contend that it was quite the storm.
The data cannot measure the wonder of walking north with spring, feeling new life slowly fight its way through the cold. Nor are there numbers to describe the satisfaction of carrying everything you need on your back, or gathering your resolve for one more climb, or crossing a state line on foot.
Even with its precise mileage and altitude markers, its detailed descriptions of shelters and water sources, my handy Appalachian Trail guidebook did not include the part about stumbling upon a deer, a recent victim to coyotes, and enjoying a communal venison feast a few hours later around a campfire. It did not mention, either, the moments when I would be moved to tears by the kindness of strangers, the trail angels who would offer a cold soda or a warm bed or an encouraging word.
My guidebook certainly did not prepare me for a twisted knee in Maryland, halfway up the trail, nor the sinking realization that those familiar numbers would have to be cut in half: Three months. Seven states. 1,100 miles. I scoured the pages, looking for a section called “How to make an early exit,” or “Here’s what to do when it all falls apart.”
This summer marks two years since I left the trail, and I have yet to make it through a day without dreaming about completing my hike. The journey that started on a mountain in Georgia has since led me to graduate school in Seattle, where we have the staggering Cascades and the mythical Olympics. Some days, when the sky is clear enough to see the mountains, my awe gives way to nostalgia for the Smokies and Shenandoah, the gentle rise and fall of the Blue Ridge, and the hills and hollows of Appalachia. I close my eyes and picture the white blazes painted along the trail, hear the murmur of a creek, smell the spruce firs after a cold rain, and, on some level, I know: I have to go back. 1,100 miles left.
A former editorial assistant for Sarasota Magazine, Beau Denton is pursuing a master’s degree in Counseling Psychology at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology.