HE DAY I SUMMITED KATAHDIN was perfect. Almost. It was the middle of July, yet I could see my breath in the crisp Maine morning air. My wife, Alison, was able to fly in and join me for the final climb alongside hikers I had shared over 2,000 miles of bumps, bruises, sweat, tears, and laughter with. Partly cloudy skies allowed for 100-mile views without the heat and glare of the sun beating us down as we traversed Katahdin’s barren mountainside. As I approached the Baxter Peak sign marking the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, I was cheered on by Trail friends old and new, including two fellow thru-hikers I met all the way back in Georgia.
I touched my cheek to the Baxter Peak sign, worn smooth by harsh Maine winters and hundreds of hands preceding mine. And then, I experienced two powerful emotions familiar to so many thru-hikers: an overwhelming joy of having accomplished a months-long journey through some of America’s most beautiful (and challenging) countryside; and a sense of loss now that it was all over.
Those conflicting emotions lasted for weeks after leaving the A.T. behind and returning to the “real world.” Every question I received about the Trail brought back a flood of wonderful memories from my journey but was also like tearing off a bandage before the wound beneath had time to heal. What I could not see then through the haze caused by these emotions was that, by experiencing such a full picture of the Trail’s beauty — not just its gorgeous landscapes and ever-growing family of hikers, but also the support of trailside communities and, of course, the unstoppable corps of volunteers and nature lovers that keep the Trail’s one-of-a-kind experience intact — I had not taken my last step as a thru-hiker. Instead, all these experiences had prepared me for the next step on my journey: becoming an advocate for the Trail and everything it stands for.
By being a voice for the Trail, I was able to quiet the voice reminding me daily that I was not living on the A.T. and, instead, replace it with a passion to ensure the Trail experience would be protected — or even improved — for those who followed in my footsteps through the Appalachians. Even more importantly, I understood that after experiencing a journey that so many yearn for year after year, one of the most selfish things I could do would be to move on from the Trail without giving back. I owed every volunteer who happily sacrificed a piece of their life to ensure the Trail is ready for others to enjoy, whether for a thru-hike or that first, hours-long adventure that sparks a lifelong passion.
I have had the great fortune of being able to make conserving the A.T. my career, but being an advocate for the Trail doesn’t require you to make a career commitment. Here are just a few ways that thru-hikers —and anyone who loves the Trail — can channel their passion from their experience into its protection.