A Goal Realized. Completing the Appalachian Trail.

In my third season of hiking, and after two years, I've finally completed the ~2,220 mile Appalachian Trail.

(May 28, 2016) Day 1 at Amicalola Falls, Georgia
(Near Springer Mountain).
My fiancée, pup, and best friend sent me off.

  I wasn't sure how I would feel at the moment I completed the AT. My finish-line was not going to be a glorious, capstone summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine, nor was it going to be a simple and quiet end at the southern terminus on Springer Mountain in Georgia. 

  Instead, I was going to walk into Hanover, New Hampshire, and finish my hike on the college green at Dartmouth College.

  I imagined crumpling to my knees, dropping my pack, and laying on the grass. I fantasized that some friend or family member would be there in the square waiting for me, having kept track of where I was and knowing that I would be finishing soon.

  I thought, maybe, that I might cry. In 2016, when I summited Katahdin after years of looking at people's victory-posed, AT completion pictures I broke down within seconds of touching the sign marking the summit. I had seen that sign a thousand times, and I'm not sure that I'd ever really believed I would see it in person.

I was surprised how much being able to actually stand at the summit affected me. The views and the climb to the summit were incredible.
July 4th, 2016. "Flip-flop" to hike Southbound. View of The Knife's Edge.

July 4th, 2016. View of the Cathedral/Chimney Pond side of Katahdin.
Crossing a bridge in Pennsylvania. The kilt, backpack,
and trekking poles mark me as a hiker.
  The reality of the end to my hike was that it was just over. But for my hiking kilt and trekking poles, I would say that it even might have gone unnoticed. I came out of the woods at a trail-head in a neighborhood near Norwich, Vermont and walked the two and a half miles on streets and sidewalks into Hanover, New Hampshire. After two and a half months of hiking almost every day my legs were sore, and the concrete sidewalks were hard and unyielding in a way that made every joint in my body ache.

  Finally reaching the college green at Dartmouth, I got caught at an intersection and had to wait for the pedestrian crossing signal. I couldn't help but laugh as I realized I was waiting for a crosswalk sign to give me permission to finish a 2,220 mile walk.

  No one was waiting for me there. I was so far from my home and family in Georgia.

  I called my fiancée, speaking to her on my headset for the final minutes of my hike. I told her that I "wanted her to be there for the finish", but more than anything I just didn't want to be alone. I counted down out loud to her, "5, 4, 3, 2, 1" as I took the final steps of my journey. After somewhere around nine months of effort, over three 'hiking seasons', I had spent an inordinate amount of time by myself.

My first trail family. (L2R - Me(SongBird), "Bear-Bane", and "Sexy Jesus (SJ)"
  People tend to band together and form 'trail families' on long distance hikes, but you can't always find someone that can hike at your pace or according to your timetable. Worse still, many people you befriend and hike with on a long distance trail might end their hike due to injury, finances, or other need to get off trail.

  Walking on, alone, after losing your trail family is one of the hardest things I've had to do on trail. It can happen several times on longer hikes.

  When I first started the hike in 2016, I was incredibly lonely and exhausted in the days after my send-off crew headed home and I almost quit on the third day. Meeting my first trail family at the hiker hostel in Neil's Gap saved me. My new friends had loads of experience with being outdoors and were excellent company. There is no doubt in my mind that if I had not met the guys at mile 30 I would have never seen Katahdin or, subsequently, finished the entire trail.

  But my friends weren't there at the end of it all. I was alone, and somewhere along the way I learned to be okay with that. On March 4th or 5th, 2017 I started off northbound again alone from Hot Springs, North Carolina. A couple of "fast Nobos", hikers that hit the trail at speed during the earliest part of the season and make rapid progress on the hike northbound, streamed past me on the first day out of town.

  Then, with snow on the ground and constant freezing temperatures I started to go days at a time without seeing a single other person on trail.

The loneliness and the cold that would have been crippling to me when I started the trail in 2016 had a different flavor.

The cold and quiet of the tail end of winter in the mountains were oddly harmonic with my feelings and perspective. Everything was simple, ideas were crisp, and my focus on every task was as sharp as the ice that clawed at everything.

  But as I finished the trail in Hanover, I felt some terrible pangs of loneliness. My stamina waned, my thoughts raced, and my feet grew heavy. I wanted company. I needed a witness. Nothing about these final steps resonated with me except the terrible wish that someone else was there to share the end with me.

  When I finished, I thought that maybe finishing alone had ruined it for me somehow. I had what felt like dull, or muted feelings about what was supposed to the point at which the pride of having reached the end would hit me. I thought that I should be overjoyed, shouting to the town of Hanover that I had finished the whole thing. Maybe I should have even let out a bellow: a loud, defiant roar of victory over the Appalachian Trail. But as I crossed into the large open space of the college green the bellow didn't tear its way from my mouth. It felt inappropriate, almost like I would have been celebrating the fact that I was able to cross the street at the direction of the cross-walk signal.

 It strikes me that I'm not necessarily proud of having completed the entire trail. More so, I'm proud of everything in the middle. For example:

Walking the ridge-lines through Roan, TN on the NC line. 2017.

  • I'm proud that I've walked for days in the rain or with injuries without letting it break me. 
  • I'm proud that I walked high, windswept ridges alone on icy trails without being afraid or actually putting myself in danger. 
  • I'm proud that I learned to enjoy little moments like the momentary company of others I'll never see again and a shaft of warm sunlight in the cold.
  • I'm proud that I've learned to be honest with myself about my feelings and be brave about pursuing what I want.
That's the bare bones of my finishing the trail. I've written below, though the remainder of this text is more dedicated to the more personal side of the "trail thoughts" or musings that I've pieced together as I've walked these last few months.

Thoughts from the end of my trip

  This is the first "Big G" Goal that I had ever completed that was totally and completely mine. Every other Goal I'd met in my life felt like the next rung in a ladder that everything (and everyone) in my life was forcing me to climb at sharp spear-point. Whenever I deviated from the climb I suffered the painful consequence, a painful jab of the spear to force me back up onto the ladder. When I took a year off from school after college graduation instead of going straight to law school, for example, I ended up breaking up with a girlfriend that I cared very strongly for, and suffered months of criticism living at home and working instead of staying on my professional career path.

Law School Graduation.
We looked so ridiculous (hats).
After graduating from law school, no one wanted me to take so much time off to walk in the woods. Everyone wanted me home, working, and 'doing what I was supposed to be doing'. I broke away and did something big, epic even, and hard, consequences be damned. I did this purely for myself. So why doesn't finishing the whole thing stand out to me as a huge accomplishment with fireworks, dramatic music, and a crowd of cheer-leaders making a racket in my head?

It always seemed so silly to me whenever I heard people say things like "it's about the journey, not the destination". I think the problem that I always had with this saying was that I hadn't ever experienced or undertaken a real journey. Couple that with the fact that, for some reason, we seem to all have a sick obsession with completing things. As a result, the destination is the only thing that's ever mattered.

  If you look at a good education, for example, school was always all about the graduation destination: you won't land a job requiring a 4-year degree by pointing out that you got through a fraction of the curriculum, or by stating that you learned a lot about yourself while you were on campus.
  • If you don't complete all 4 years and get a degree, you failed.
  • If you don't get your degree within the normal 4 years, you'll finish late.
  If you look at what it means to be successful, generally you're going to want to reach the destinations of having a lot of money, a well established career, a house, a car, and a family. 

  The bottom line is that no one gives half a damn about the journey. What matters is getting there to a point of completion. Someone could hike 1,600 miles of the 2,200 mile long Appalachian Trail, decide that they are ready to move on to the next thing, and the first question they will always be asked will be some variation of "so why didn't you finish the whole thing?" In much the same way, whenever anyone hears that I've taken so much time off to hike and relax, the question is always some variation of "do you still want to practice Law?" or "why are you throwing away your legal education?"

The message is clear, "the journey means nothing without getting to the destination" and the "stuff in the middle doesn't matter".

  It is in the quiet clash between the realization that completing a really long hike wasn't at all the important part of the experience and the fact that completion is all that seems to matter in everything else where I have adopted my most profound takeaway from the Appalachian Trail. 

Normative culture is constraining, unyielding, and toxic to happiness in that it focuses on reaching Goals instead of (aka: "in order to be happy later") being happy now. 

Bear with me for a just few more moments. I'm not saying that goals are bad.

  At some point the journey, or "the stuff in the middle", was right now. All I really mean by the above is that I've learned that it's more important to me to focus on what I have now (the stuff in the middle) rather than the final goal of being "successful" and that I shouldn't worry about whether I'm where I'm supposed to be in life.

Normative culture is the 'set of rules' that everyone (the majority) agrees upon together as a society. Normative culture shapes the majority's expectations about everything: what you should look like, how you should dress, what you should do for fun, and even who you should love. The norms, these rules that "everyone agrees upon", not only change over time but often appear to be arbitrary upon closer inspection. 

I'm not going to walk through my life, focusing on the distant finish-line of being "successful" or holding myself to arbitrary standards as determined by the majority. There's far too much good stuff in the middle to enjoy in the meantime. I'm not going to worry about if I am where I "should be" at the expense of enjoying where I am right now.

Franconia Ridge. One of my favorite places on the AT. Photo by (IG @harveyjh) "Foggy"

The sad thing is that I haven't been able to take anyone that I care about along with me on this journey, and it has seemed to have opened up a kind of rift between us. I now feel that some of my loved ones are stuck looking to the future for when they are supposed to be comfortable with where they are in life, and when they will be allowed to do the things that make them happy. On the flip-side, some of my loved ones feel that I am directionless, lost, or unmotivated to 'pursue a meaningful future' [phrasing mine] because of the time that I have taken for myself.

My Dad is actually the person that I have been most concerned about since I've been on trail. I've tried many times to have him join me for a week or two, after listening to a constant stream of explanations about how he's never able to take time to himself, enjoy himself, or do what he wants to do. My dad constantly makes plans to do things that he enjoys and constantly cancels those plans for the benefit of his clients and last-minute dealings. He is very much unable to draw a line around a handful of dates on a calendar and say "I don't care what happens, these days are going to be for me to do what I want to do". Sometimes the work stress he experiences gets unloaded elsewhere in the family, and it's pretty hard to watch how it affects him. 

What's next?

  Going forward I want to maintain a focus on happiness, to be able to spend time with my fiancée, and to avoid unnecessary stress. The way I see myself accomplishing these things is to keep things simple, find work that I can enjoy, continue to save and invest money, and get outside regularly. 

For so long now I've simply tried to relax, apply myself to my creative work, and let an idea of what's next come to me.

  Well, now the next thing is here. Since finishing the trail I've started looking at job postings around Chattanooga. As this adventure has wound down over the last few months I've been thinking about what kind of work it is that appeals to me and where I will feel motivated and confident.

I have started to settle on looking for a position as a staff attorney, and working as a clerk for a judge as I did while I was in still in school. Though I found the organizational tasks associated with the position a little repetitive, the research and writing aspects of clerking were very appealing to me.

There was always a question that needed to be answered, and the Judge always had to make a decision for one party or another. Getting a strong grasp of the question, digging for and finding the answer(s), and applying the law clearly and faithfully in the decision-announcing 'Order' is a satisfying process. Obviously there's a certain special quality to work where the measures of success for your completed product are the principles of justice and fairness

There are a great number of courthouse positions, and (being flexible) other legal jobs, in any given county or district, but I'm realizing that I may end up having to move to find the job I want. I'm going to keep looking locally for something that feels like it would fit, but I may have to start the conversation with my fiancée about where she would be willing to live.

The Bar Exam

The complicated thing with the prospect of moving, maybe to another state, for a law job is that I'd probably first have to take the bar exam in that state to fill the position. Usually either students find work before graduating and obtain employment with the caveat that if they fail to pass the bar they will lose their job, or they take the bar in their state of choice and then find a job there. It seems that many new attorneys end up taking "what they can find" where they live, and after gaining some experience are able to find a job they like. 

It may be the case that I will have to take and pass the bar somewhere in February before I can find employment, so it would be a choice between taking the Georgia and Tennessee Bar exams. Tennessee just switched to administering the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE), which allows attorneys to take their bar examination scores with them to other states that also administer the Uniform Bar Exam. The Georgia Bar would only facilitate law practice in Georgia. It seems to me that the Tennessee Bar, in light of its UBE administration beginning in February 2019, would be the best choice as it would allow me to work in Chattanooga, move to Nashville (another preferred city), or move to another state altogether.

So that's where I am right now. My fiancée is going to take some vacation time and we are going to hang out at a beach somewhere and talk about all this soon.

Off I go. Thank you for reading my posts and thank you for following along as I've finished the AT. I hope that you were able to follow along on Youtube (Channel Name: "Songbird Ultralight") and/or Instagram (IG Name: "Songbird_Ultralight). I wasn't able to continue posting links to my youtube content through my blog due to the fact that I had such a small phone screen to work with and was already putting a serious amount of time and effort into getting my youtube postings up. I hope that you enjoyed the youtube content in particular. It was fun to have a project always going on in the background.