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Love and the Trail: 20 Years of Thru-Hiking

I fell in love when I was 21.

Twenty years later I’m still head over heels…for the trail.

As is often the case in life, you find what matters most when you’re not even looking. My first summer in college I got a job cleaning hotel rooms at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. In my spare time I went hiking for the first time because a roommate invited me along. I was instantly smitten. Two years later, I headed north from Springer Mountain the day after I graduated.

I was not at all experienced in backpacking, but I was madly in love with the rhythm of hiking—with waking up exactly where I needed to beach day with one clear goal. So much so, that about 200 miles into the hike I declared to myself that I wouldn’t care if I ever had anything resembling atraditional life as long as I could hike.

The 20 years that followed proved that the seemingly naïve beliefs of a nascent adult were actually correct. I’ve tried several times to have a traditional life, and yet I have always found my way back to the trail. When I began hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2003, I had no idea that other long trails even existed. But somewhere in Virginia I found out about the existence PCT and CDT, and I knew immediately that I wanted to hike them too.

I completed my first Triple Crown in 2006, my second in2017, and my third in 2018.

While much of my hiking has been solo, I am always aware that I’m still a part of a bigger community of people who share the same love of being out in nature. No matter our differences or experiences we share this one commonality. Nature is powerful in so many ways, including this oft overlooked one—as a uniter.

Before I set off on my very first thru-hike, my mom tried pretty much everything to stop me from going. She was so worried about her21-year-old “baby girl” being out in the woods alone. Yet, as she got my letters and phone calls home as I progressed northward from Georgia to Mainealong the Appalachian Trail, she realized that I spoke often of the people I had met.

People who were complete strangers, yet willing to sharefood, even extra clothing when I was hypothermic. People who always made roomin the shelters on rainy nights for one more. People who asked if I was ok,offered to hitchhike into town with me for safety, etc. It wasn’t just the hikers. People in towns paid for my meals, invited me home to stay, shower,eat, do laundry. Some people would spend their weekends at trail crossings, grilling burgers for us dirty nomads. Trail Magic abounded and gave me a new outlook on the goodness of humanity.

This May, I went back to Damascus, VA for the annual TrailDays event, which I hadn’t been to in 19 years. While the event itself was fun,what was more meaningful to me was the act of returning. Each time I’ve goneback to the trail it’s been a watershed event for me. Whether I needed the comfort of walking, or just craved the simplicity of being in the right place every morning with a clearly defined goal—the trail has been there. Returning to the trail community at one of its biggest gatherings was yet another way of connecting with these significant experiences and the people integral to them.

Amongst hikers, it’s almost too pat to say that the trail is a parallel to life with its ups and downs. Yet, it is so completely true. More than that, the trail strips us down to our very basic selves. In that place, human connection is simplified. It becomes easy to share the path with someone different because the barriers we build societally don’t really matter in that moment. This lesson has been crucial off trail as well.

Just as I didn’t know the path ahead of me when I took my first hike into the Grand Canyon, I had no idea where following my passion for hiking would lead me. But just as you trust that things will unfold as they should by walking along the trail, life too has a way of developing in the right way when you trust your instincts and let nature take its course.

Two decades of living close to nature has taught me a fewkey lessons which guide me both on trail and off. Perhaps you’ll find them helpful as well:

Follow your dreams.

Trust your instincts.

Be kind to others.

Follow the path, even when you don’t know where it goes.

Heather Anderson is a National Geographic Adventurerof the Year, three-time Triple Crown thru-hiker, and professional speaker whosemission is to inspire others to “Dream Big, Be Courageous.” She is also the author of two hiking memoirs Thirst: 2600 Miles to Home and Mud,Rocks, Blazes: Letting Go on the Appalachian Trail and a preparatory guideto long-distance hiking Adventure Ready. Find her on Instagram@_WordsFromTheWild_ or her website wordsfromthewild.net

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October 3, 2023

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Heather Anderson

National Geographic Adventurer of the Year

Heather Anderson is a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, three-time Triple Crown thru-hiker, and professional speaker whose mission is to inspire others to “Dream Big, Be Courageous.” She is also the author of two hiking memoirs Thirst: 2600 Miles to Home and Mud, Rocks, Blazes: Letting Go on the Appalachian Trail and a preparatory guide to long-distance hiking Adventure Ready. Find her on Instagram @_wordsfromthewild_ or her website wordsfromthewild.net

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