As my friend David wisely pointed out, it’s much harder to know when to quit. There are plenty of motivational posters out there encouraging us to keep trying, to hack away at whatever goal we have until our fingers or bodies or brains are bleeding from the effort. Don’t give up because only losers quit.
But it’s just as important to be capable of gracefully letting some things go. Those things that no longer fit into our lives, that are not making us happy, that are not worth pursuing. Those things that are just no longer right.
As much as it breaks my heart to admit it, this thruhike was no longer right.
I had three false starts attempting to get back on trail. The first, a few days after falling, was the nightmarish hike over Pond Mountain. I detailed a plan for my second attempt in the same post. This happened about a month after the first; I hiked a mile and a half north from Daleville, VA, sobbed on the phone to my mother for an ungodly length of time, and then got back into my car and drove four hours back to Knoxville in defeat.
The third, and final, false start came a month after the second. I returned to Wautaga Lake, where I had left off after Pond Mountain, with Wes and a couple of our friends. The intention was for them to hike out with me the first day, spend the night in the woods, and then they would retrace their steps back to the lake on the second day while I continued on northward. That first night, I stayed awake in my tent for hours after everyone had gone to sleep with the somewhat sudden realization that what I was intending on doing was not what I wanted to be doing. I hiked back to the lake with them the next morning.
One of the most important components of a thruhike for me is the community. And doing Virginia in August and then Katahdin to Harpers Ferry starting in September would have meant being completely and absolutely alone (besides section hikers, which don’t count). I don’t like to be alone in the woods, and it would be hard to cope with the difficulties and celebrate the joys of this adventure without anyone else.
I also didn’t want to flip flop, with Katahdin being just another step in the journey instead of the concluding step. Two months sitting around in Knoxville required burning through money, of which I had started with just the right amount for a thruhike. And dealing with the awful cold weather that I was bound to run into would have resulted in a special kind of suffering, and possibly have kept me from finishing anyways.
And, possibly the most important long-term factor, my injuries. Even after two months of convalescence, my ribs and left foot were still not completely healed. If I had continued on from Wautaga Lake, there would have been the ever-present uncertainty of if I would heal while on trail. It seemed quite probable that spending a quarter of year doing intense physical activity and being calorie-deficit every day would result in lingering, lifelong problems, of which am I doing my very best to prevent.
I don’t have to justify to anyone why I’m done with the Appalachian Trail this year. But I want this record of why this is necessary later on. For those dark moments late at night when I’ll worry that I squandered this opportunity and regret not trying to squeak out a thruhike. I also want to explain to everyone who’s been following along what happened and why.
I didn’t want to thruhike the AT just to say that I finished it. This is one of those occasions where a cliche is very apt; it’s about the journey, not the destination. A thruhike is supposed to be vibrant and fun and bizarre, and most moments should be enjoyed. Though it is difficult by its very nature, it should not be a miserable slog to be gotten over with. That’s what my thruhike would have become if I had decided to keep going. And THAT’S NOT THE FUCKING POINT.
Choosing to quit was made even harder in the context of my first month on trail. I was having such a good time. The trail, the weather, the other hikers, the miles, my body, were all way better than I expected. And I knew I could finish. When randos asked if I was “really going to do the whole thing?!”, I was able to respond affirmatively with all my confidence. It was this nearly perfect, beautiful thing that was broken. That I broke in one single, stupid moment.
And then I had to sit around in a fog of rage and pain and hopelessness for the worst two months of my life. Thinking about where I should have been on trail and how great my life would have been. Beating myself up over falling, which was likely a semi-conscious attempt at punishing myself for making a mistake. It was definitely the worst.
Though I will always feel like a failure for being unable to complete an AT thruhike for a second time, quitting was right.
And now I’ve taken that crucial step of moving on. I’m resuming my graduate work a semester earlier than expected and I moved down to Gainesville this week. The newness of everything, the city, the school, my lab space, newly joined labmates, is giving me desperately needed hope and distraction. And I’m very excited to keep working on my PhD, which I loved before I got on trail and didn’t even really need a break from.
This blog will probably continue to limp on in some form or another. My body is getting close enough to being fully healed that I should be able to resume workouts soon. There’s also tons of awesome outdoors shit to do down here and I have a few possible cool plans in the works.
I want to close this on an optimistic note. Around the time I decided I was done with this thruhike attempt, I was thinking about giving up totally on all long-distance hiking endeavors. I obviously wasn’t suited to it, and it was just resulting in a lot of preventable heartbreaking failure. I should try to find something I’m actually good at (haha, as if that is a possibility) instead. Then, when I was talking to my mom about my decision, she almost immediately said that I will do it. Some day, I will successfully finish. And in that moment, I realized that she was absolutely right. This is not the sort of goal, and activity, that you can just give up on. It gets in your blood and holds on tight and doesn’t let go.
So I’m not done. I’m going on a lengthy hiatus while focusing primarily on finishing my PhD. But I’m always preparing for long-distance hikes by working out and being on my feet as often as possible and slowly acquiring and testing new gear. This is a long-term passion that requires plenty of persistence and time, and no way in hell am I done with it. Even my embarrassing setbacks will not keep me from this thing that I love.
ETA: Just to make it clear to everyone who has read or is reading this post, I didn’t WANT to quit my thruhike. Every day I wish I were still on trail and I miss it deeply. The circumstances that resulted from falling forced me to quit, and this was a decision that was really hard for me to make and happened over a long period of time. If I hadn’t fallen, I’m certain I would still be out there enjoying it all.