About the Author, Leah LaRocco: “Hi there, I’m a Long Islander who lives in Franklin, Tennessee. My first love was the ocean, but growing up camping and hiking around Vermont also contributed to a deep appreciation for the mountains. Public lands are some of my favorite places to hike and Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a regular weekend getaway. I work full time, but believe dreams and passions can and should be pursued outside of the everyday 9-5. As a naturalist, I hope to convey how incredibly healing the woods, water, and wildlife can be when we make the choice to step outside.” Find her via her Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Website.

Following my last section hike, I wanted to get real about some of the things I was feeling out on the trail. Sometimes, people begin hiking the Appalachian Trail because they have something they need to conquer emotionally or mentally, inner demons, grief, loss, life changes, PTSD…there are so many reasons. Personally, I’ve had a really hard time coming up with a concise answer when people ask me why I want to hike the AT because there are a number of things that keep leading me back to this footpath.

The trail is a beautiful place.

My love for the natural world and all the mysteries it holds is fulfilled when I’m in the forest. This ties in with a longing to be surrounded by beauty. Even off the trail, there is a constant effort to create beauty by gardening like a busy bee, planting, replanting, moving things around, painting color into a landscape that draws birds, butterflies, pollinators, and every lovely, flitting thing that brings a dash of wonder into an otherwise ordinary existence. On the AT, those who hurry and rush miss the beauty revealed with every step. The sweeping mountain vistas are enough to make the heart stop, but the tiniest of snails clinging to dewy morning leaves also bring so much joy. This is a place where one can wake to the sound of the wood thrush and fall asleep to the owl’s night cry.

The trail helps me tap into an inner strength I had no idea I possessed.

When faced with mountains, the only thing to do is climb. In the pouring rain with the sound of thunder in the distance, the only thing to do is keep walking. I can’t even describe how hard this trail can be, how brutal it can feel when you are exhausted. In the words of Yoda, “Do or do not. There is no try.” The options narrow sharply in the wilderness. You simply have to keep going until you reach your destination. When gear fails, terrain changes, and the unexpected happens, the solution lies in the ability to adapt. Aside from the physical aspect of hiking the AT, the mental game is strong. There were several days on this last section where I headed out in the morning and had no idea how I would make it 16+ miles to the next stopping place. Yet somewhere along the way, a second wind gave me strength. We’re all capable of more than we think we are. So often we stop ourselves by saying, “I can’t” when the reality is that we very much can.

The trail allows me to be myself.

For years I’ve fought off feelings of inadequacy, of not being “good enough,” because existing from a place of lack is not how I want to live my life. The trail is one of the only places where I feel strong, whole, and complete. I am more myself in that space than in any other area of my life. Never have I felt so free to simply be who I am. I don’t completely understand why, but it definitely has something to do with getting away from the expectations of the world about who I should be as a woman, friend, coworker, wife, daughter, person of faith, on and on. There are so many trappings that go along with all the labels, and when those are peeled away, the only thing that remains is the true self. A friend sent the first lines of this quote to me, but there’s a part in the middle that really stuck with me. “Your playing small does not serve the world.”

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?” Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”   – Marianne Williamson

The trail asks all who travel it to let go of fear.

Many times when I head out on a solo hike, people ask if I’m scared. The honest answer is yes. Rarely do I leave on a trip without feeling some trepidation about what I’m getting myself into. However, I’ve learned to do an assessment of whether or not my fear is based in reality. There are a lot of unknowns in the outdoors, the weather, wildlife, trail conditions, gear reliability, the actions of others on the trail. I know what I can control and what I can’t. As soon as I step foot in the woods the fear falls away with each step. It took a while for me to be comfortable alone, to not whip my head around at the sound of a tree branch dropping, or have a panic attack when a squirrel crashes through the leaves and scrambles up a tree. Eventually, I learned the sounds and began to hear the language of the forest over the beating of my fearful heart. Now, as much as I enjoy hiking with friends, I also love the solitude I find alone.

The trail does not allow for vanity or pride.

I can’t even begin to explain how humbled I was by something that happened the first day I was out there. I fell. Around mile 8 of the first day, I stumbled and fell on my face, hitting the ground so hard that I figured I had finally broken my nose. I say finally because I’ve looked into getting my nose fixed, but eventually gave up on it and have had a few close calls where I’ve slammed into things and thought, “Well, insurance’ll have to cover the surgery now!” Miraculously, the darned thing remained stubbornly in place, some gross scabs formed, and eventually a black eye came into play around the third day.

Being out in the woods forces you to embrace humanity. You can’t wash your hair, you sweat, your body stinks, and everyone around you stinks. I just so happened to be hiking with a group of guys, so not only was I trying to be comfortable with no makeup, my own stench, and dealing with women’s issues in the woods, my face freaking looked like I’d been in a bar fight. Awesome. I did buy some makeup in one of the towns in an attempt to make things look less garish, but every single day I had to remind myself that my reasons for being out there had nothing to do with how I looked. Get over the black eye!!! Get over it! It doesn’t matter! No bruises, scrapes, scary puffy eyes, or gross scabs mattered in the scheme of things. The people I met were still amazing and kind, I was able to do the miles I had to do and make it up and down all the mountains. Having a messed up face was just another lesson in getting over myself. I work in an industry that is image driven, and it is still so easy to not feel pretty/skinny/attractive enough. Out on the AT, I am forced to find comfort in my own skin, even if it is a little banged up.

The trail provides space for thoughts often drowned out by the traffic of everyday life.

I had thoughts, soooooo many thoughts, while hiking. There was time to process as my feet moved. Some things in my heart that have been dormant for a long time were unlocked. I’m not even sure I understand some of what I started to internally deal with out there, but I’m so thankful for the time to unearth what I’ve been burying with busyness. How often do we allow ourselves to sit in quiet places and rummage around in the depths of our hearts, sorting, unpacking, tossing old crap out the window? What we encounter isn’t always easy to face, but sometimes if we Marie Kondo that garbage out of ourselves, a transformation takes place.

“The mountains are calling and I must go.” That old, overused John Muir quote that makes me roll my eyes and warms my heart all at the same time. Yes, the draw of the trail is strong, the ache caused when you leave it is real, the mountains are calling…and hell yes, I must go.