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One day at a time

How through-hiking the Appalachian Trail taught me to navigate the unpredictable

Hannah Dixon atop KatahdinApril 20, 2020 - Hannah Dixon

During my senior fall semester at Ouachita, I took a backpacking class with Shane Seaton, director of Ouachita RecLife. I also liked to hike quite a bit at Iron Mountain out by Lake DeGray, which is not far from Ouachita’s campus. What was once something I loved to do in my free time as a Ouachita student grew into an ambition. After graduating in May of 2018, I left Arkadelphia and set out to hike the entire Appalachian Trail.

The Appalachian Trail runs 2,190.9 miles along the east coast from Maine to Georgia. Through-hiking is the act of hiking from one terminus to the other in a continuous trip. On June 10, 2018, I set out to complete the entire trail.

The traditional route is to start at Springer Mountain in Georgia and hike north to Mount Katahdin in Maine. However, I was occupied with school until the beginning of June. In order to finish before winter started, I decided to start in Maine and hike south to Georgia.

From the beginning, I knew that hiking southbound was going to be much more of a challenge than hiking northbound. The terrain in Maine and New Hampshire is the most challenging of the whole trail. There are also fewer towns and resupply points through Maine.

As expected, the beginning was difficult. After 8 miles of hiking, I would be exhausted. In my preparation for the hike, I read numerous articles and books about people’s hiking experiences. Many would boast 20+ mile days. Comparison became my downfall. I wondered if I was cut out to carry my 25-pound backpack for nearly 2,200 miles.

Hannah Dixon finishes hike

Hannah completes her 2,190 mile through-hike after reaching Springer Mountain in Georgia.

However, I realized – as many endurance athletes do – that the mind gives up way before the body does. I could either be my worst critic or my biggest fan. Instead of worrying about pace and mileage, I started looking for the good in each day. When I would become discouraged about a slow day, I would stop and list good things about that day. Changing my perspective and looking for the positive in each bad day had a significant impact on my attitude towards the tough times. While I did not enjoy the difficult days, they did teach me more about perseverance than the easy days did.

I enjoyed the simplicity of life while hiking. Each day would consist of eating, hiking and sleeping. The predictability of life was comforting to me. My goal was to hike 2,190.9 miles, and each day brought me closer to that goal. There were plenty of unpredictable elements in each day. Dry water sources, animal sightings, meeting other through-hikers, sudden changes in weather or difficulties traveling into a town all caused me to reevaluate and change my plans.

I enjoyed the social aspect of the trail. Because hiking southbound is a less common option, I knew there was a high possibility I would end up hiking alone. However, I easily met other southbound through-hikers. I enjoyed meeting other hikers and hearing their experiences.

One of the biggest lessons I learned was to take each day for what it was. Yes, there are going to be rough days in life. However, wishing them away does not make the good days better. The struggle of the bad days makes the good days seem that much better. I also learned that while I cannot control the circumstances that surround me, I can control how I respond to them. Choosing not just to be happy but to be joyful in everything makes life that much sweeter.

 

Hannah DixonBy Hannah Dixon, a 2018 graduate, who lives in Winter Park, Colo., and enjoys hiking in the summers and skiing in the winters. In featured image, Hannah begins her through-hike atop Mount Katahdin in Maine.

 

 

 

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