About the Author: Hi, my name is Leah. I am a professional dog trainer, scuba diver, outdoorswoman, pet owner, and a water person. I live on beautiful Lake Guntersville in north AL with my husband, border collie, African grey parrot, and cat. I grew up camping, hunting, paddle boating, exploring the woods, and learning the names of all the trees and stars. I recently completed my BS in Biology and hope to thru hike the Appalachian Trail before starting my career. 

A letter for my family friends to read before I leave on my 2020 AT thru-hike attempt.

Dear family and friends, 

As my departure date for my long walk on the Appalachian Trail grows nearer, I can’t help but feel nervous and excited. Many of you are excited and/or nervous for me. That’s one of the reasons I would like to share some of my thoughts concerning the trail.

Six months in the woods with no bathrooms and infrequent showers may not sound like a good time to most. I completely understand if you have no idea why someone would ever want to do such a thing. Long distance hiking is dirty, difficult, painful, tedious, and treacherous. And yet in recent years, more than 2,000 people have attempted a thru hike of the Appalachian Trail each spring. Something draws people into the mountains in such numbers that local economies are built around the arrival of thru hikers. Outfitters, hostels, and restaurants depend on these smelly and nomadic customers. Locals of the towns near the trail are very accustomed to helping backpack-burdened hitchhikers looking for a ride into town. There’s even an annual festival called Trail Days to celebrate the community around the trail. What brings all these people together I cannot say. Though if I were to guess, I think it has something to do with a longing for adventure and connection to the natural world. Something wild stirs in every hopeful thru hiker. Those of us that hear the call of the wild have an abiding love and respect for our nation’s wildernesses and natural features. The Smoky Mountains are among the earth’s oldest mountains. The old growth forests of Appalachia tower over the landscape. Black bear, whitetail deer, eagles, and mosquitoes rule here. Humans are but passing visitors. I feel that it is a great privilege to experience one of our nation’s vast wildernesses from a footpath. Each day you trek across public land that is cared for by Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the National Parks Service and the U.S. Forest Service. With all your belongings on your back, the world is suddenly very simple. It’s 75 and sunny, you hike. You’re hungry and cold, you hike. You’re with cheerful companions, you hike. You’re alone and emotionally depleted, you hike. You hike until one of two things happens: you leave the trail or you summit Mt. Katahdin in Maine victorious. 

When it’s over, what have you accomplished? In addition to a herculean test of endurance and will-power, successful thru hikers often speak of their transformative experience on the trail. Somewhere along those 2,000 plus miles of struggling up peak after peak, they forged new qualities. Self-analysis became a boredom buster after so many miles. There was plenty of time to work through inner feelings, pick apart unquestioned beliefs, and resolve moral quandaries. There was also plenty of time to talk with the many people they encountered. When you ask hikers about the trail, the first thing they mention is the people. They are eager to tell you about the open and kind souls of fellow hikers or the generosity of trail angels that leave food and drinks on the trail for passing hikers. Many gain a trail-family, or “tramily,” which are new friends that feel as close as actual family.

By now you may be thinking well, that sounds great but what about all the risks? Lyme disease, foot/ankle/knee injuries, getting lost, trench foot, bears, bad people, thieves, lightning, dehydration, hypothermia, venomous snakes, norovirus, and a plethora of other mosquito and tick-borne illnesses, just to hit the highlights. Yes, these are serious risks and it’s ok to be concerned. I’ve heard “Are you carrying a gun?” more than a few times. However, with common sense and basic backcountry knowledge, these risks are manageable. I’ve had 8 months to research how to cover my bases and stay safe. Little rules like don’t hitchhike alone, use hand sanitizer often, take care of your feet, use water filtration equipment correctly, always have dry clothes, wool instead of cotton, use trekking poles, and listen to your body are all pieces of the personal safety puzzle. I got this. I know what I’m doing – at least well enough to not do something stupid. I promise to be mindful and aware. The last thing I want is an avoidable injury or reckless decision to pull me away from my dream of Mt. Katahdin in Maine. 

The risks and discomforts are all worth it to me. There is a common saying, “No pain, no rain, no Maine.” So, what is Maine to me? Why would I want to endure 6 months away from my husband, family, friends, pets, and home to be in the woods with the spiders and sharp rocks? Regrettably, I don’t think I have a satisfying answer for you. I have all the typical drives like wanting to connect to nature, challenge myself, learn to be comfortable with being unconformable, build inner fortitude, have an adventure, but all of those reasons seem to fall short of explaining my true goal. What I can tell you is this – I’m thankful that I’m going into this life changing event not needing anything from it. The AT is not a plan to fix or find myself. It’s an opportunity, an adventure, that I can take wisdom from with discretion and mindfulness.

Thank you for reading this and being a part of my life. You wouldn’t have gotten this letter if you didn’t mean a great deal to me. I have one last thing to say. We only get so many chances to consciously do something life changing. Opportunity is calling and I feel that letting the moment pass is the wrong choice. I choose this trail as a way to challenge and better myself. I ask for your support, thoughts and prayers, and blessing. Please keep in contact with me as I attempt this gargantuan endeavor. I will need your Facebook comments, private messages, words of encouragement, inspirational quotes, and positive vibes. So will my dear Wes. I’m only half the equation. I leave the most precious person in the world to me in your hands while I’m hundreds of miles away frequently days from cell phone service. He gets weird when he spends too much time alone! Give him a call and come to the lake often! Take lots selfies and send them my way. I would actually love to see your face! 

With love,

Leah Pike Kirkpatrick

P.S. As I go into the wilderness to seek the intangible, I will carry you with me.