When my husband, Jose, and I decided to sell our home and leave our jobs to hike the Appalachian Trail our family urged us to reconsider. “You have a beautiful home, you have good jobs. Why would you give it all up to live in the woods?” they earnestly questioned us as if we had lost our minds. It was not a decision we came to over night. It had been a dream of mine for over two decades; I was a teenager when I read a National Geographic article about thru-hiking the 2,189-mile trail through 14 states. I yearned to be a fierce and brave thru-hiker. I romanticized the idea of living in the woods for an extended period of time - dirty, stinky and wild, confident, strong, peaceful and purposeful. It was never a question of if I would hike the trail, but when. My reasons for wanting to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail were as varied as a meadow of wildflowers. But, I knew for certain that if I didn’t pursue this dream I would regret it and that regret would eat at me my entire life.
Jose and I both had rewarding, but demanding jobs that required us to work frequent evenings and weekends. Our minimal leisure time was spent on domestic chores, tending to our gardens and walking our dog. Jose, a Plant Pathologist, managed potato crops in 14 states and was flying half of the month. During a typical busy week of work we had the wake-up call we needed to spark change. Jose wasn’t feeling well so we reluctantly went to the ER at midnight. We were told he had a pulmonary embolism; the nurses were surprised he was still alive as 75% of his lungs were covered in blood clots. He wrote goodbye letters to me and to his parents that night in case he didn’t survive. After one week in the hospital the doctors couldn’t find a reason for the blood clots other than his excessive time flying for work. We had only been married for three years and had talked about all of the adventures we wanted to have. There had to be more to life than working our butts off to pay towards a 30-year mortgage loan.
This near-death scare was the motivational kick in the butt that we needed. Owning a cute home adorned with eclectic furniture, having secure employment, a successful career, an extensive alphabetically organized spice collection and a beautiful garden were no longer satisfying and it never would have been. Time was gnawing away at us. We didn’t want to wait until retirement to pursue this goal. It was painfully clear that retirement is never a guarantee. Without a doubt in our minds we knew it was time to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. The only thing holding us back was our demanding jobs, our mortgage payments and car payments.
Over the course of 1½ years we delved into fixer-upper projects preparing our home to sell, sold our home and one car, left our jobs, saved money to fund our trip and secured the funds to pay for our bills for up to a year. We donated most of our furniture, appliances and clothing to thrift stores. My brother-in law graciously offered to watch our dog for us. This was no longer a dream. We were homeless, jobless, liberated, scared and excited. We hopped on a Greyhound Bus with only the essential items we would need for the next six months in our backpacks.
We began in April at the southernmost terminus, Amicaloa Falls State Park in Georgia, when the last of the snow was melting & worked our way north to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. My backpack weighed 37 lbs. and Jose’s was 42 lbs. Neither Jose nor myself had backpacking experience; we were embarrassingly out of shape so we took things slow and easy the first month. Our first night on the trail was a true test of determination and grit as we got caught in a freezing downpour and had to set our tent up and make dinner in the rain. In the morning we slipped on our cold wet wool socks, forced our pruned feet into our soaking wet hiking boots and soldiered on. Jose’s journal entry that night simply read “Today Sucked”.
My aspirations of becoming a thru-hiker on the Appalachian Trail was now a painful reality as blisters formed, my backpack straps chafed my shoulders and hypothermic conditions made life miserable during our first few weeks as temperatures were freezing and wet. It wasn’t a fairytale. We hurt and struggled as each day posed new challenges. By mid-July we were suffering from heat exhaustion during a solid week of hiking in 114-degree heat index. Fervently seeking water sources to avoid dehydration, creeks were drying up and water was harder to find. Due to the humidity our clothes never dried out. We were even sweating in our sleeping bag at night as temperatures were in the 90’s.
The Appalachian Trail has small shelters with three walls and a roof that are located roughly every 15 miles. Many nights the shelters were our only sleeping option. Oftentimes there was no suitable land to set our tent up & frequently it was raining too hard. On average the shelters fit around five to seven people sleeping shoulder to shoulder. I looked forward to meeting our new trail family (tramily) each evening at the shelters. We relished in the camaraderie of the trail and made many life-long friends along the way.
Being a light sleeper I received 2-3 hours of sleep a night in shelters due to the heavy symphony of snoring and the festivities of the mice. Lying next to snoring strangers I could feel mice playing in my hair & crawling over my sleeping bag. They tiptoed up to my face to stare at me. One hot, sticky night amongst the deafening hum of the cicada’s I heard wild hogs being shot by rangers in the distance. A gigantic grasshopper continuously jumped on me. I flicked it away growing more irritated by the minute & it ping-ponged right back. I thought I was going to lose my sleep-deprived mind! When I awoke I had mouse poop IN my sleeping bag, on my sleeping pad and had a hole chewed through my backpack by a mouse! We were frequently reminded by fellow hikers that our worst days on the trail would be better than a regular day off of the trail sitting behind a desk staring at a computer screen. We repeated this reminder to each other daily.
During many sleepless nights in black bear territory I sat up with my flashlight until sunrise due to the heavy noise outside our tent. Rangers instructed hikers to throw rocks at the bears to teach them to fear humans. Many times the bears would surprise us as they casually approached us on the trail or at the shelter. We slept with rocks next to our heads in case a hungry bear came looking for food.
More aggravating than bears were the flying squirrels. Each night we “bear-bagged” our food - hanging it high in a tree to minimize odors that might attract bears and other critters. At 1:00 am I had to pee, but was terrified to leave our tent as I heard loud noises. It sounded like material tearing, but I couldn’t quite make out the noise as it was coming from every direction. Armed with rocks and flashlights Jose agreed to go outside with me. We looked up to find our food, high in the trees, being attacked by swarms of flying squirrels. Like bandits they were tearing open our food bags; it looked like a broken piñata as my trail mix was raining from the treetops.
As we were robbed of our food supply we couldn’t continue on the trail. Hitchhiking to the nearest town was our only option. Neither Jose nor myself had experience hitchhiking. But, by the end of the trail we were both pro’s. It is a humbling experience to be in a vulnerable position relying on the generosity of strangers. We were amazed when passersby stopped to invite us, filthy and stinky hikers, in to their clean cars for a lift. They wanted nothing in return other than to hear our stories and to help us succeed in our goal of completing the trail.
After having lived six months on the trail, summiting the northernmost terminus of Mt. Katahdin in October, we can’t imagine our lives without the trail. Living simply, with only the bare essentials, we were never happier. This experience clarified what we knew to be our truth all along. We seek happiness and austerity over a fanciful home filled with ornate possessions. It has been difficult returning to civilization. The speed of traffic makes me nauseous, strong smells of perfumes and colognes are overwhelming to me, the complexities of assembling a daily wardrobe is now strange and distressing. Oftentimes I forget that I’m expected to comb my hair and apply deodorant daily. Once one goes feral it is hard to go back. If Jose and I were independently wealthy we would continue thru-hiking other trails. But, for the time being we are slowly rebuilding our bank accounts. Someday I will be a fierce thru-hiker once again but for the time being I am enjoying the comforts of sleeping grasshopper & mice free in a climate-controlled building.
Rachel Mertz-Rodriguez, formerly of Moorhead, MN, lives with her husband Jose in North Carolina.