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Be flexible.
Things don’t always go the way you plan, on the trail or in life. Maybe your gear doesn’t work for you, so you get something different. Maybe the trail isn’t what you expected, so you change your attitude about the way you hike it. Maybe you don’t like the job you thought you wanted so bad. Maybe you can’t find a job at all. The key is knowing when to cling to the plan and when to try another approach.

Be open to magic.
I always say the Appalachian Trail is a magic place. It goes beyond “trail magic” in the form of snacks or sodas left at a road crossing. The trail has a way of providing what you need when you need it. The cords that ran under the arches of my boots to hold my gaiters in place were always wearing through. But each time one broke, I soon came across a piece of cord or shoestring on the trail to replace it. Then there was the time my partner and I needed a popsicle stick for a silly project we had in mind. At a rest break later in the day, I looked down to find a popsicle stick on the ground near my foot — in the middle of the woods, miles from a road.
The magic I’m most grateful for was the phone number I almost didn’t write down. The son of a friend back home, a past Appalachian Trail hiker, lived not far from the trail in New Jersey. During the middle of my hike he emailed me his phone number in case I needed anything when I got to his area. By then I was feeling pretty confident on the trail and knew I’d just hike right on by, but something made me scribble the number in my guidebook anyway. It was in New Jersey that my foot slipped out from under me and I slid face-first into a tree, giving me two black eyes. It was just a mile to a phone, where I used that number I wasn’t going to need, and in 45 minutes he was there, whisking me off to the hospital.

You’re the only one who can make you do anything.
When I’d get to the middle of a really hard hiking day, and I wasn’t having any fun, and I just wanted to quit and go home, I’d realize that in order to go home, I had to hike out to a road anyway. I’d hiked myself in, and no one was going to carry me or my pack out. It was up to me. Toward the end of the hike, when the difficulty was more psychological than physical, we’d say the hardest part was that we didn’t have to continue. We could go home any time. No one was making us hike but us. We were our own toughest task masters.

Fear never really goes away.
You can conquer the fear of something with experience, but there will always be something new to invoke fear. The trick is to not let the fear stop you. I’d hiked more than 2100 miles, slammed my face into a tree, stood 20 feet from a mama bear, cringed from a moose, and overcome all kinds of trials…but on the last day of the hike, halfway up the last mountain, so close to the end, I still encountered fear. I was alone, climbing in a tricky jumble of boulders, and I was so afraid of falling that I almost quit without finishing the hike. I managed to push on and put that fear behind me, but I know every new experience brings new fears. I know now to just go ahead in spite of it.

Believe in yourself.
Several years before I started planning my Appalachian Trail hike in earnest, I confided my thru-hike dream to someone I thought was my friend. He expressed doubt that I could do it, claiming I was “too much of a weenie.” I have never forgotten that comment. If I’d taken it to heart, I probably would never have even attempted my dream. All through life there will be people who tell you all the reasons why you can’t do something. But no one knows you better than you know yourself. Pay no attention to those who belittle you; they are only voicing their fear of their own inadequacies. You can do great things if you believe in yourself.

Nancy Shepherd is the author of My Own Hike: A Woman’s Journey on the Appalachian Trail. As an accomplished thru-hiker she also maintains her own site at www.appalachian-trail-thru-hike.com/

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