It has been a little over three months since I completed my through-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Wow. Over three months. Seriously? Is that even possible? Because I swear, it feels like I just trudged to the top of Mt. Katahdin yesterday. Okay, maybe not yesterday…but last week, at the very most.
When I finished the trail and returned home, my mind was very much in a “thank goodness I don’t have to hike anymore” mindset. The last month of the trail had been very cold, very rugged, and very challenging. I was just so happy to be in climate controlled rooms and cars, take showers whenever I want and eat until I couldn’t eat anymore that I wasn’t ready to focus on the positive aspects of the trail. When friends asked me what the trail was like, I either responded with “hard” or “cold.” When Trailblazer’s very own Derek Humphrey suggested we walk from TBNH to an event on York Street, I said “Are you nuts? That’s like, 2 blocks away. You really think I’m walking that?! (I ultimately did…but only because Derek is very persuasive!) I was at dinner with some friends in medical school who said “You are our hero for completing that. I mean, Alex, it is just incredible! Please, tell us about hiking the trail!” I stared at them, rolled my eyes and said “I don’t know…I just walked a lot…tell me about becoming a DOCTOR.” They replied with “I don’t know…it’s just school.” Isn’t perception an incredible thing?
It was my grandfather, Irving Rosner, who shook me out of my mindset. My entire family was gathered at his house, and I was fielding questions from aunts and uncles such as “wasn’t it cold?” and “weren’t you miserable? “ Very well thought out inquiries. “No, Aunt Ethel, Maine in October is actually quite warm.” NOT true.
My grandfather stood up and asked me to follow him into another room for a private talk. An adventurer to the highest degree, my grandfather has had adventures others can only dream about. If you name a country, he has probably been there. He owned his own successful business, hitchhiked across communist China and Russia, and was a professional baseball umpire. In other words…he’s awe inspiring…and even a little scary. While he was pouring himself a brandy, I told him how I on the trail I would sometimes put a little whiskey in my nighttime hot chocolate to loosen the muscles and stay warm. Since I’m well known in the family for not drinking, he really got a kick out of that and offered me some brandy from his personal supply. He then looked me in the eye and asked “What did you learn from this trip?” Without hesitation, I replied “I now know that even when I think I can’t go any further, that something is too difficult and I’m too tired, I can keep going. No matter what happens in my life now, I know that I can get through it.” He smiled a satisfied smile, nodded his head and said “you’re tough. You can do anything you put your mind to.” He then said goodnight and went to bed.
Three weeks after I returned from the trail, my grandfather passed away. It was very sudden, unexpected, and devastating for me. He was very supportive of me my whole life, and this through-hike was no exception. I would call him to let him know my progress whenever I was able: I even called him mid-ascent of Mt. Moosilauke to wish him a good Rosh Hashana. I remember saying to him “I can’t think of a better way to start the New Year than to begin hiking in the White Mountains!” If you have been a follower of our AT blog, you may remember that Mt. Moosilauke is the mountain where I screamed at Aaron “I’m going to die up here! I’m going to die up here and it’s all your fault!” So yes…an excellent way to start off the New Year.
One of the hardest things about my grandfather passing is how it made me realize that he was the inspiration for my hiking the trail and for the other interesting things I have accomplished in my life. I ran for Student Body President in college because I thought he would be proud of my ambition; I travelled alone to Israel because I knew he would think it was an adventure. When Aaron suggested I join the team and hike the whole trail, I ultimately agreed because I could imagine in my mind telling my grandfather about it and him thinking that it was a worthwhile thing to do. With him gone, I had to learn how to start doing things because I wanted to do them, not because it would impress my grandfather. However, I am so thankful that he made such an impression on me, because I am not sure I would have hiked the trail without having him in mind…and I am so, so happy that I did.
It has only been in the last month or so that I have been able to think of the trail as a true personal accomplishment and not just a conversation piece. My friends notice that I tell many more positive trail stories and anecdotes than when I first got home. I look forward to talking about my experience, and have given talks to local groups and even a boy scout troop (imagine their surprise when they hear that a rugged, tough through-hiker named Alex will be speaking to them and I come bounding out, all 5’2, 110 pounds of me!).
Two months after I got off the trail, I was listening to an Amos Lee record my friend had lent me and one of his lyrics was “I go out walking, in any season, it could be raining, it could be freezing…I don’t need no reason it’s just so pleasing I can’t stop.” Had I heard this while on the trail, I probably would have huffed and puffed and thought something like “what does HE know. Real pleasing, walking twenty miserable miles in the FREEZING RAIN. How about that, Amos Lee! Let’s see you out here! Jeez!” However, off the trail, that line made me laugh and smile. I could look back on the trail and remember the good times I had walking! And believe me, there were many.
I did a lot of complaining while on the trail. It was an extremely difficult experience, both physically and mentally. However, I now fully realize what a positive experience it was…and I also know that my complaining was a definite source of amusement for many people! I learned so much about myself. Sure, I probably finished the trail mostly because I’m incredibly stubborn and not because I wanted to experience the joy of such an accomplishment but hey! See! That’s something I learned! I seem to have somehow become a huge gearhead and love talking about the pros and cons of different brands and products. It turns out I enjoy the outdoors a lot more than I ever thought I did…and I actually really enjoy exercise too! Who knew! It has been strange to feel all my body fat come back…although with the snow we’ve been getting, I’m thrilled to have it! Keeps me warm! Although I didn’t think I’d miss hiking, I find myself going for long walks in all types of weather…it’s a good thing I learned how to layer on the trail! I’ve started the Couch to 5k program for exercise. I’ve always been a vocal anti-runner, but that’s probably because I didn’t think I could ever become a runner. But come on! If I can hike 2,179 miles, I think I can learn to run 3 lousy miles! I think…
I met wonderful people on the trail who I expect to remain friends with for life, and I had fantastic friends at home keeping me motivated….including my incredible Trailblazer family! While on the trail, my mantra was the lyric “There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be” by The Beatles. Well most of the time. Sometimes it was “we’ve got to get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do” from The Animals. But I digress. I think Lennon’s lyric sums up my experience perfectly. Everything happens for a reason, and this experience was an incredible example of that phenomenon. I know that my family and friends are proud of me, but most importantly, I know that I am proud of myself.
Maine-Georgia 2011?!? Just kidding. Everyone knows south-bounders are going the wrong way!!!
Thank you so much for following my experiences on the Trailblazer website. I hope at the very least you got a kick out of some of my stories! Many, many thanks to the wonderful Trailblazer employees, who’s endless support and positivity kept me charged up and motivated! I’m forever grateful!
I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are planning a long distance hike (or any hike) and would like advice or just want to learn more about my adventure! Thanks!