About the Author: Laurie Freeman is a naturalist, environmentalist and soon-to-be retiree. She earned a BE in mechanical engineering and a MA in biology (ecology, evolution and behavior). Laurie spent the majority of her career as a professor of biology and environmental science at a small upstate NY community college.  She and her husband Jim built their home (and homestead) using local material and human powered tools, and she continues to practice self-reliance by gardening and beekeeping. Laurie teaches yoga and runs a small herbal medicinal practice in her community. How she finds time to hike is a mystery. You can follow her AT thru hike on trailjournals, instagram @lauriefreeman and twitter @LaurieJFreeman. 

Body, Mind and Spirit

I was recently listening to the podcast Mighty Blue on the Appalachian Trail, in which Steve (aka Mighty Blue) interviewed a thru hiker (and I can’t for the life of me remember which interview it was) who stated that the first third of the trail was about the body, the second third was about the mind and the last third was about the spirit. I’ve been contemplating those three components of a thru hike a lot lately and, upon sitting down to write out why I’m attempting a thru hike, I find this framework an interesting way to organize my thoughts about why I’m hiking.

Adirondack High Peaks are a physical challenge

The Physical Challenge

A little over a year ago I went for my not-so-annual physical. After this 2nd round of the over-50 panel of tests, I was told I was losing bone mass. This came as a complete and utter shocker to me. I considered myself to be in pretty good physical condition. For as long as I can remember I’ve had to be mindful of my body. I was diagnosed with a slight spina bifida as a young teen, the pain of which has been kept under control by maintaining my core strength. In addition I had spent years building our homestead with my husband. This included moving my portion of 200 tons of stone, sand and gravel that comprise the foundation. It included digging my half of the foundation by hand and moving all that earth to other places via wheelbarrow. It included riding the bike for 2200 batches of bicycle-powered cement mixing. It included hauling wood and timbers out of the woods using human-power. It included hours in the garden carrying buckets of dirt, water, produce, etc. It included beekeeping and lifting heavy supers full of honey. How could my weight-bearing life style have come to this? Well, actually, it came to more than bone loss, like many other aging bodies, I also have degeneration in my sacroiliac (SI) joint and lumbar spine and a weak disc. In short, I’ve come face to face with mortality. As a result, I started taking calcium and vitamin D and I started thinking about what I wanted the remainder of my life to look like.

My husband Jim, my stepfather Matt and I haul a timber out of the woods

A good portion of the reason I am hiking the AT is to tackle the physical challenge while I still can. I’m confident I have the physical stamina and I love to hike. I want to experience the joy of walking outside everyday for 5-6 months. The length of this walk will undoubtedly reshape some of my body allowing me to enter into the next phase of life with a solid frame; maybe even build back some bone that I’ve lost.

The Mental Challenge

I am so type A. There’s no getting around it. I’m also achievement oriented. The AT is a mental challenge I can sink my teeth into. That said, I want to tackle this mental challenge at the same time that I let go of my proclivity for planning everything. I want the trail to unfold in an organic way that I can respond to on a day to day basis. I want to use the AT as an extended meditative practice that has the possibility to restructure how I approach the world. A sustained meditation practice decreases reactivity to stress and rewires the brain. I’m hoping I can clear up the “have to” mentality that clutters up my mind now and reset my stress-o-meter.

Me on a hike to Alpine Peak in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho

I plan on using the time on the trail to contemplate what direction I want my life to take post-retirement. How much homesteading do I want to do? How much yoga teaching? How much community herbalism? How much volunteer work? What other possibilities are out there that haven’t come into view yet? I want some distance from my ‘real’ life in order to look at it from a fresh perspective. After retirement, I don’t want to rush headlong into being the kind of over-busy that describes my life now. I want to be mindful as I transition to whatever is next. In other words, I want a sustained period of discipline and reflection as a way to find my compass for the next phase of life.

Contemplating what’s out there in the Adirondack High Peaks

The Spiritual Challenge

I want to uncover who I am on the trail. I love being immersed in nature but I have not had the opportunity to do that for the kind of extended time it will take to walk nearly 2200 miles. Precisely because I’ll be walking, I’ll have to strip my life down to bare essentials; to simplify. Though I will be materially thin, the AT will allow me to be socially fat. I will be surrounded by others who also thrive on living simply in the wild. I’ll become part of that culture and make friends with people who share similar interests.

Being away from home for an extended period of time is likely to shake my habits up a bit. It will give me the opportunity to break the cycle of my current life and give me time to figure out how to move into the next phase of my life with grace and ease. I feel like the next 20 years should be about giving back. What is the best way for me to do that? What can I get excited about?

To structure this spiritual journey, I plan to use time on the trail to contemplate the yamas and niyamas; the yogic ethical principles that guide a practitioner to right relationship with the self and with others. I want to internalize these principles and apply them to my life.

In short, I am hiking the AT to transition from retirement to something else in a thoughtful manner. I’m hiking to achieve something I always thought was unattainable. My friend Juice uses the phrase ‘adventure before dementia!’ I want an adventure of body, mind and spirit… and I want bragging rights to say ‘I did it’! Perhaps my hike will inspire others to follow their dream.

If any of this resonates with you or you have other reasons to thru hike leave me a comment below.