About the Author, Mary Patterson: I’m a rock formation loving dog mom, military spouse, college professor and roller derby referee. When I was a child, I hiked the Approach Trail with my family from Amicalola Falls to Springer Mountain and always wondered what it would be like to just keep going. So, 25 years later, I’m feeling called to embrace the suck, bloom where I’m planted, and take on the challenge of a thru-hike. My favorite author, Flannery O’Connor, wrote, “Be properly scared and go on doing what you have to do.” This is my mantra for the AT.” You can also find her on Trailjournals

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Two Mays ago, I had just finished graduate school and had a full-time college teaching job in South Carolina where my family was stationed. My husband had the big idea to “get away” for a weekend before his upcoming deployment and we headed for Asheville, North Carolina over Memorial Day to stay at a bed and breakfast and check out some local trails. “Let’s go for a hike on the Appalachian Trail!” my husband suggested.
Having been laid up for the previous four months with a broken foot thanks to finding the only patch of ice in South Carolina that winter, I was a little unsure of my abilities as we walked out of Hot Springs headed for Lover’s Leap. As we climbed, so did the temperature. The sun beat down as I huffed and puffed my way up the switchbacks. My pack was laden with heavy snacks, rain gear, and way too much water. I had no trekking poles to lean into and in no time, I was sweating to death in long pants and heavy-duty boots.
As my husband bounded up the trail, I thought about how bad I sucked at this. I wasn’t prepared, even for a day hike. Several hikers in full packs bounded up the trail past us as I dragged myself up the last of the switchbacks and flopped down to check out the view over the French Broad River. It was breathtaking (which was convenient, because I was pretty sure one of my lungs had collapsed by that point). Thus, we only made it two miles on the AT that day before I threw in the towel, but it still felt like the beginning of an obsession. When we got home, I began researching the trail and what it would take to become a thru-hiker.
By December of 2018, my thru-hike prep was coming together. After several section hikes in Maine and North Carolina, completing the Foothills Trail and a section of the Continental Divide Trail in Colorado, my gear was dialed down. I had mail drops ready and had prepared as best as I could financially. Finally, it was time to go public. I told my boss at the college, family, friends, my roller derby league, and random people at the gas station that I was leaving in May to hike the AT.

Ten-Four on the CDT near Willis Gulch

So, a little backstory here on my job. We moved from South Carolina to New York the previous August and my new college wasn’t hiring full time. Instead of being bummed by the pay cut, I took a second job and then a third to help save for my hike. My husband was supportive, but I didn’t want to be a financial burden on him. And anyhow, this was my adventure start to finish, so I wanted to be responsible for funding and logistics. Thus, I discovered the lucrative Facebook buy/sell/trade side hustle and I started selling anything that wasn’t nailed down for some extra cash to add to my hiking fund.
The grim reality of being an adjunct professor is that you don’t get paid much, but the beauty is that a teaching contract only extends to the end of the semester. This was the first time in my career where I could opt out of teaching for 6 months and it was a freeing prospect. Seeing part time work as an opportunity really helped throw me into full time trail prep. Also, it allowed me the time to save more money with condensed soup recipes at home and scouting out deals on maildrop items online.

The Gear Room

Hearing about my trail prep, my best friend from home was excited by the prospect of this adventure. Kit decided she would come along for however long she could step away from her farm business. Thus, Ten-Four and Kit were on a mission and our husbands realized if we didn’t go this year, we would never stop talking about it. They were on board, but how would the rest of our families take this news?
With the brilliant idea to post our big announcement on social media, Kit and I both received distraught phone calls from our moms. Hers was convinced we would be murdered, possibly by Bigfoot while falling off a cliff covered in rattlesnakes. A valid concern for a non-hiker to have, right?
“You want to do WHAT?!” my own mother screeched into the phone. “It’s not like I decided this today,” I told her. This hike had been in preparation for two years by this point. I had talked about the trail incessantly for at least the past 6 months. It was only now that it was really happening that she finally voiced her main concern, “Have you lost your mind? You’re in the middle of your career and you’re just up and quit your job to go live like a homeless person in the woods?” What could I say? “Yes?” “Well, everyone is going to think you’re insane and they’ll never hire you.” Ouch.
We’ve since made amends, as I know that my parents have put a tremendous amount of time, love, and money into raising successful children. My mom was afraid that if I elected to stop working temporarily, it would be the end of opportunities for me. She voiced a valid concern that I’ve since heard from others.
Academia is a highly competitive world. We’ve been taught to put our non-career dreams on the back burner and to say yes to every job opportunity. When I told coworkers at a previous college that I would be leaving when the military moved us, I actually had to explain why. “But, your career!” But, at what expense? I explained to my mom that I’m not “quitting teaching,” rather, seeing an opportunity for experiential learning. So many people save their big adventures for retirement and never get there. That’s not for me.

Ten-Four in Teacher Mode

Stepping away from academia for a bit and taking on a long-distance backpacking trip will provide challenges for me to grow both as a leader and a student. Backpackers show that they can practice resilience, persistence, and critical thinking skills, especially when they’re at the mercy of the weather and their own body’s limitations. Every day on trail is the opportunity to learn something new about ourselves. Some days it’s a slog. It’s a mental game that we’re still winning as long as we keep moving forward to meet the goals we set out to achieve.
As a teacher and lifelong learner, I never want to quit discovering more about the beauty of the natural world and that’s something I can only achieve if I step away from my desk and set foot on trail. I hope you share in my journey on All Women All Trails. Come on, y’all, let’s do this!

Training on the Foothills Trail