Thru-Hiking Ruined My Life for the Better

Our story today comes from Sam, a regular contributor here. Sam thru-hiked the
Appalachian Trail when he was 17 and it shook up his perspective on life up a bit. In this
piece he shares what spending months in the unknown and uncomfortable will teach you, and also
how difficult it can be to return to 'normal life' after such a life-changing experience. I really
enjoyed reading about his outlook toward the ups and downs of life now and how
these experiences have helped his anxiety. Read on to see what he has to say.

@sam_j_conley

Find and follow Sam's photography and his next adventure on his
website Mountain Man Photos.


Ever since I reached that archway on November 14, 2016 at the end of my 2,200 mile long thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, home hasn't felt like home; something has been missing. Home is where the heart is, and my heart is no longer here in the Greater Boston area where I grew up. The past few days I've read about a lot of people who feel the same and have written about their experiences with "post-trail depression" or just not feeling at home or happy living a "normal life" anymore. I thought I should write about my experience as well. So here it is.


 
 

At the age of 17 I decided I wanted to thru-hike on a whim one night after reading an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit of a NOBO thru-hiker. School wasn't going well and I never liked the idea of college. Fast forward to June 15, 2016 and my friend and I leave for Mt. Katahdin in Baxter State Park, Maine. Fast forward once more to November 2016 when I finished the Appalachian Trail and saw my mom for the first time in months. We drove home to Massachusetts from Georgia. The first few days were great. I got to see all my friends and my (now ex) girlfriend for the first time in what felt like forever. After maybe a week or so I started to realize I wasn't truly happy there anymore. Climbing at the rock gym was nice as I got to exercise and get that "high" once again, but my days were really just wake up, go to work, come home to change go to the gym, come home, sleep and repeat. I don't think I can ever live a life where I do the same thing every day like so many people around me, where a 9-5 job is the norm. Where's the adventure? Where's the thrill? My girlfriend definitely noticed it in me before I did. A week or so after Christmas we brok up. No more reason to stay here, right? That night I stayed up all night and applied to maybe 25 or 30 jobs all over the country from Maine to Hawaii.

About a week later I got a few calls but nothing sounded very great, until I got one more call for a photography job in Aspen, Colorado (although i lived in Carbondale). I told the person I would take it and I could be there in two weeks. A free season pass to snowboard and surrounded by beautiful glacier mountains? Yes, please! The drive out there alone captured that feeling of adventure that's been festering in the back of my head since November.


 
 

Sadly I was only there from late January to mid April, but in mid April my friend Jack, who has been living and working farther up north at another ski resort in Big Sky, Montana being a ski bum, drove down to go on a rock climbing road trip going all over Colorado, Utah, Idaho, and eventually Kentucky. During that month and a half living out of his 2006 Toyota Matrix I was more comfortable waking up and going to sleep every day than I am in my bed here.


 
 

Now I know the title says how it changed me for the better, but the past two paragraphs don't really show that. So let me tell you how it's made my life better. It allowed me to see the good in what seemed bad. I can confidently say I haven't had a bad day since moving to Colorado; sure some days aren't as good as others, some are much better than others. But the days where something most people would call bad, I learned to find the good in those.  For example, walking four days straight through a hurricane on the trail with shin splints may sound miserable and may feel miserable, but if you know where to look and if you know how to laugh you may learn a thing or two about yourself. Another example: on our drive back from Kentucky Jacks alternator broke on his car on the middle of nowhere. Sucks right? No! We both got to laugh about two idiots who know nothing about cars (us) watching YouTube videos about how to change an alternator. Not only that, but we both know how to now, and that came in handy when mine shit the bed about four months later.

The trail also taught me its good, actually it's really good to leave your comfort zone. All throughout my school career I was extremely anxious and quiet in class. I dreaded every morning because I had to wake up and go to school. I was that kid that would miss day after day, or when I did come in I would be late and usually miss my first class. I had awful anxiety and I may still have some, but being in the woods for five months surrounded by strangers I learned that nothing is as bad as it seems. It helped me handle my anxiety and just relax all together. Climbing has also taught me that, to take deep breaths and grab that hold. Fifteen feet above your last piece of protection? What if I fall? I may fall, and a lot of times I did fall, but there was always a rope to catch me. It may take 30, maybe 40 feet to catch me, but it'll be there. Go for that hold.


 
 

I had a lot people tell me I am a lot nicer and a lot more patient than I was before I hiked. Sitting there for an hour waiting for a hitch hike to get food because you were an idiot and resupplied wrong will most certainly teach you more patience as you sit there hungry, tired, and very smelly. The countless strangers who invite you into their cars for rides to town or even into their house to sleep and eat even though you smell like you've walked 100 miles with out showering in the middle of a New England summer (because that's exactly what you've done) will show you the good in humanity and that the world is nothing like Fox News, CNN, or any news station show. You'll come off the trail wanting to do the exact same. I've had so many strangers do the nicest things for me for no reason that I will spend the rest of my life paying forward, and when I die I will still owe more than I gave. But god damn will I try.

The biggest reason I'm writing this right now is because the past few nights I have been having trouble sleeping. I spend hours pacing back and forth upstairs occasionally hanging on my hangboard. That feeling is back, gnawing at the back of my head but times ten. I got my permit to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail. That's really all I can look forward to now, just counting the days. T-minus two months until I fly out to California with nothing but hiking gear and my camera. Until than my days consist of the life that people would consider the norm: wake up, go to work, go to the gym, sleep and repeat. I wouldn't say I'm not happy, but something big is missing. The sense of adventure, the thrill, the feeling of leaving my comfort zone and going to the unknown.


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