The ATC (Appalachian Trail Club) reached out to me not too long ago and asked me to write an article pertaining to thru hiking the AT for their blog. They gave me the option to write about anything I desired; in 1,000 words or less, then submit it back to them. I chose to write about personal growth in regards to a thru hike. I find individual personal growth to be the single most fascinating aspect of long distance hiking. The positive impacts a journey such as “thru hiking” can have on a person is astounding; I love to hear the individual stories of how thru hiking changed people’s lives. The following write up is an expansion of a very short section from my book “Hear the Challenge.” I have yet to hear back from the ATC, but I suppose they can still use this even though I’ve decided to post it to my own blog first (snooze ya lose).
“Who are you? Who am I? What are we doing here? What should we be doing while we are here? Where exactly is here? Why? Why not? How? How much? How far? When? What? Where? Who?” I’m not going to answer these questions for you. It’s not anyone’s responsibility but your own to seek and discover these answers for yourself, about yourself, and about your own life. What I am here to very briefly discuss, is personal growth. Who’s personal growth? Everyone’s. There are many ways in which an individual may experience a spurt of personal growth; whether searching it out on their own, happenstance, or by happy chance. Regardless of “how,” we all strive or at least hope to be better than our “self’s” of yesterday.
So what is Personal Growth? In its most basic definition, personal growth is an improvement of awareness, self-awareness, identity, talents, potential, quality of life, happiness, and self knowledge; it contributes to the realization of dreams and aspirations, as well as the enhancement of all aspects of being human. When you partake in a long distance hike, more specifically a thru hike of the entire Appalachian Trail, you will undergo some form, if not many forms of personal growth. Even the individuals who do not finish the trail (when that was their original plan) still experience a transformation. To what degree and in what areas you grow will always vary from person to person; but I guarantee you will grow in some way or another.
People choose to do a thru hike for many different reasons; thrill of adventure; physical challenge; weight loss, time away to think, to get away from it all, get in touch with nature, test themselves, etc. Sometimes these reasons are brought on due to major life events. The loss of a loved one, divorce, losing a job, dissatisfaction or missed expectations within their own life, or perhaps just plain boredom with the way they’ve been doing things. Disregarding the “why” or “what” drives you to go out there in the first place, almost every single person goes out there expecting one thing at the very least… to be changed in some way, hopefully for the better.
To offer more perspective, I’d like to share a very meaningful exchange between Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the Gray from the movie/story of “The Hobbit.” Bilbo is on the fence about joining an incredibly epic quest with Gandalf and a band of Dwarves, and the two of them are discussing the implications of Bilbo going, or not…
Gandalf: “You’ll have a tale or two to tell when you come back.”
Bilbo Baggins: “You can promise that I will come back?”
Gandalf: “No. And if you do, you will not be the same.”
For better or worse, when you choose to step out to the edge of uncertainty, you grow; and through that growth you change. You cannot grow on a secure path, literally or figuratively. In the literal sense, a path stretching more than 2,000 miles through wilderness and over mountain – does not get much less secure. The only certainty is that you can be uncertain of much that awaits you…
In regards to changes, your interpretations and adherence to modern social norms will be the first to shift out there. Once this happens, we realize how easily we changed the way we did certain things for the better part of most of our lives, subsequently, beginning to notice and question other things, bigger things. Things like “happiness,” and how we define it personally to ourselves. We learn what true freedom feels like, as well as the value of our time; the most precious resource we possess. The expectations of others suddenly become worthless as we begin to question what’s expected of us from society, as well as the order of events our lives are expected to follow; School, study hard, college, career, marriage, children, nice car, nice home, picket fence, bills, debt, toys, success, etc. You learn to put value in things you consider to be personally valuable, not what society has deemed valuable. We have been cradled in custom and soaked in convention; a product of what society has made us, and not what we have made of ourselves. In a sense, you go into the wilderness to learn through unlearning… then you grow.
As a veteran thru hiker of the AT, PCT and most of the CDT; the above is only a small facet of the types of personal growth you could undergo. I mainly used examples from some of my own personal growth experiences during my time spent long distance hiking. In reality, your guess is as good as mine as to what sort of personal growth you will undergo, and to what degree. I will say this however… while you certainly undergo noticeable changes while making multiple revelations about yourself, as well the world we live in and those who inhabit it – while on trail; a great deal of personal growth will take place after you’ve finished your hike and come home. This is what I call “Retrospective Personal Growth.” The adventure is over and you’ve gone home, attempting (perhaps grudgingly) to assimilate back into civilized society. While this re-assimilation process is taking place, you will have a lot of time to look back on your journey as a whole, as well as take a closer look at the society you’ve just rejoined. You begin to reassemble the puzzle pieces that were scattered during your journey; however, they don’t all fit together the same as they did before you left. It’s during this down time of looking back on it all while trying to make sense of it – that your final, sometimes most profound burst of personal growth takes place. Mine did.
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