The Call of the Long Distance Trail
How long distance trails can become embedded in our psyche
I don't know when I first heard about the Appalachian Trail. It seems like I've always known about it, like it was some seed of knowledge that was embedded deep in my psyche before I was even born, but I must have learned about it at some point. Most likely I was just exposed to bits and pieces of information about the trail and so I learned about it piecemeal.
Even the first time I set foot on the trail - on a day hike in Virginia with one of my best friends from college - I hadn't quite grasped the true meaning of the trail. I understood it existed and I understood you could hike it. I even understood that you could thru-hike it if you were crazy enough to love mountains and pain and you disliked showers and soft beds, but I certainly didn't grasp that there was an entire culture of people who lived and breathed the trail.
Even once I started to get absorbed into an outdoors lifestyle I never really had an "aha" moment. All of my understanding of the outdoors and the people who moved through wild spaces has been accrued in bits and pieces, discovered and intuited rather than learned. I never grew up in an outdoorsy lifestyle other than the sort that comes hand-in-hand with growing up in the rural South: bulky Carhartt camo coats and deer stands and trucks caked in mud. I was never exposed to people who geeked out over ultralight gear or put on packs and headed out into the wilderness sans bow or rifle for days, weeks, or months, but somehow I still knew that they existed, and with this inkling I set off to find them.
In many ways I suppose I'm still searching - for those people who share my love and reverence for wild lands, for all the unique experiences and wisdom that wilderness can offer, for that sense of awe and rush of adrenaline that comes with exploring some remote and breath-taking space. Even as I meet more people, connect more widely and deeply with the trails near me, and discover more intimately those truths to be found in the land and in myself, I know that the wilderness is an infinite well of experiences, and so I will always search for more, for something deeper, and when I discover those vague unknowable mysteries - brushing up against them and knowing they are significant without realizing why - I want to share that knowledge and beauty with the world in the hopes that others can find that deep connection, that unsettling-yet-simultaneously-at-peace sort of sensation among the trees or exposed in the plains or looming in the mountains or stretching across a vast and darkening body of water.
The difference now is that I know where to look and how to look. I know the tools I need (and the luxuries I want) and I know how to move in the lands softly, gratefully, and openly - so that I can listen to the vastness of the world, listen to myself, and listen to others.
Restless, wild, and listening.
But as much as the restless wild has permeated me, I realize not everyone else is as familiar with that persistent siren song of the outdoors. How do you teach yourself to listen to it? I don't know, but I suspect at some point you might hear its refrain carried in the throat of some ruby-chested songbird or whispered in your ear as the wind tickles your scalp and tugs teasingly at your hair. Maybe it's the sound of water trickling in a fountain or roaring in the surf. Maybe it's the smell of spring, of a bouquet at the farmer's market that stings your nostrils with floral sweetness and that scent of something else - crisp, untamed, and seductive.
In particular there's something about a long distance hiking trail that has an allure. Each year thousands of hikers embark on a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and so many others. The true definition of a long distance trail is subjective - there's no minimum distance required to be considered a long-distance trail although most people seem to agree 30 miles is a reasonable minimum distance; rather, it's thought of in terms of time in that it's a trail that requires multiple days to complete. By this definition a long distance trail might be an epic traverse like the Appalachian Trail that winds through 14 states and takes months to complete, or it might be as short as the Art Loeb Trail in North Carolina that scampers along 30 miles of the Black Balsam mountains.
Either way, tackling a long distance trail is a journey: it is a migration of people, a modern-day quest, and makes each hiker the protagonist of their own "hero's journey" story. We're always seeking that clarity, that sense of self-discovery and self-knowledge, and long distance trails promise some understanding of those secrets as an intimate susurration in the trail's long waving grass and green scattering leaves.
If you hear the call of the wild, chase it. Wild spaces are not just for bearded men with glinting eyes or for teens to steal away to on a weekend unchaperoned. Wild spaces are for you and me, and anyone else who wants to step outside and chase "that flighty temptress, adventure" (J. K. Rowling).