The Tougas Family of five are thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail this year. This article, written by Renne Tougas, is the first of three stories about their journey.
Our family of five is thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail this year. As of writing this, we have completed over 600 miles. There are so many things about this experience that are hard to give words to, hard to describe to the uninitiated.
The beauty of the terrain, the unexpected treasures, hiker friendships, the kindness of strangers, and the physical pain and stress of hiking every day are just a few things I find difficult to convey.
Over the past few years I’ve read quite a few adventure and backpacking stories, trying to prepare myself for hiking the AT. I tried to imagine the physical nature of long-distance backpacking, but imagination only takes you so far. Everything is experienced physically on the trail.
Getting in touch with nature while hiking the Appalachian Trail
Since being out here, my body is in a constant state of heightened physical engagement and awareness. I am rarely simply “comfortable” while hiking. I feel pain almost constantly somewhere in my body. Not injury pain or illness pain, but the pain of a tight muscle, a twinge-y knee, rocks and roots through my thin-soled, lightweight hiking boots. And, except during the most pleasant of weather (65°F, slightly overcast with a touch of wind), I am almost always sweating. And I smell.
I experience the weather, intimately. The rain soaks and the sun bakes. I deal with all my bodily functions in the open elements (except when I am lucky enough to be near a privy, but even that is not a pleasant experience). My body is chilly, hot, cold, wet, sunbaked, or mist enveloped, sometimes all within the course of a few hours.
Discovering physical beauty by Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail
The beauty is also physical. It’s the relief of soft ground beneath my feet, the view from the mountaintops, the cooling breeze across my arms, the fragrance of tiny wildflowers carpeting the forest floor, and the birdsong in the air. This physical beauty is as constant as the tiredness in my feet.
Physical comfort comes at the end of the day, while lying in bed, which is why I love that time of the day so much. I have always loved going to sleep, but stretching out in my warm, dry sleeping bag after a day of backpacking takes resting to a new level of ecstasy.
Feeling the Physical Stress of Hiking the AT
Hiking the Appalachian Trailis the most physical my life has ever been, and I can’t say I’ve wholeheartedly welcomed the intensity of the experience. I am happy to feel myself getting stronger, but the physical intensity of this hike has been a point of struggle for me.
The trail is full of people with varying degrees of “physical fitness.” There are young strong bodies out here. There are old and graying ones. There are people with knee braces and those popping Ibuprofen like vitamins. There is a blind man. And there is the man we met last month who is dying from lung cancer.
I am prone to complain about the physical intensity of this experience (writing this is one way for me to process my thoughts more constructively than complaining). I resist pushing myself physically. I’m not athletically competitive.
But here’s the truth of it.
I have life. I have breath. I have body. I have moving muscle, beating heart and breathing lungs. Not only am I living but I *feel* incredibly alive every day on the trail. I experience the aches and pains in my body, yes, but also its potential.
I believe this is part of the appeal of the trail, why people in various states of health and athleticism do this. We want to live, very physically, in an increasingly un-physical world. We want to “sweat in the summer and shiver in the winter.” We want to fall exhausted into bed at night and be truly thankful for that bodily rest.
I can’t speak for other hikers on the AT, but while I still have a beating heart, breathing lungs, and moving muscle I want to use them. I want to *live* up to my physical potential (or at least in the vicinity of that potential), surrounded by the beauty of nature and in the fellowship of family and friends. And I guess if that means sweating in summer, I’ll learn to live with it.