It was several decades ago now that a friend said to me, “Let’s go hike the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine together.” Who would have thought that this statement would change the course of my entire life, teaching me valuable lessons in the process?
I am a product of the city, having grown up in downtown Charleston. Although I had graduated college several years before the idea of hiking the trail came up, I knew very little about nature and the outdoors. I had never heard of the Appalachian Trail at that time and had, in fact, never done a day of backpacking in my life or, for that matter, ever even set foot on a hiking trail.
I did not know what to expect when I set forth from Georgia (alone, as the instigator backed out). Experiencing both good times and bad, I was frustrated that I accomplished only 900 miles that year. I was determined to finish, and when I returned the following year, I found the miles to go much easier.
It was my attitude that had changed. I had learned that if I wanted to hike the trail, I had to accept it and not get annoyed by it, such as when it went over a mountain instead of going around.
The life lesson? The Serenity Prayer puts it succinctly: “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
I also found I no longer looked at the trip as a long journey, but rather as a series of day hikes. That life lesson is probably best summed up by the AA slogan “One Day at a Time.”
I went on to finish the Appalachian Trail, not just once but five times. Possibly most life changing of all was meeting my wife, Laurie, during one of those treks.
I have also completed numerous other long distance trails in a variety of places throughout the world. All of this hiking introduced me to people and ideas I would have never have known. I learned of the kindness of strangers who took me into their homes on these extended journeys.
I discovered the innumerable beautiful places of my home state when writing a hiking guide to West Virginia. Some are well known — Blackwater Falls, Canaan Valley, Cranberry Glades — others, such as Beartown State Park or Panther State Forest, less so.
I came to appreciate the selfless acts of volunteers who put forth backbreaking efforts keeping the state’s pathways in good shape so you and I can simply take a walk. Unsung heroes like Doug Wood, Bob Tabor, and Shirley Schweizer, who founded the West Virginia Scenic Trails Association that helped establish the state’s premier pathway, the Allegheny Trail. In my opinion, this 330-mile trail has more varied terrain and scenic wonders than any comparable amount of miles on the Appalachian Trail. (Laurie and I were the first people to walk the Allegheny’s full length.)
I also found a love of nature that I never knew I had. That eventually led to a career in writing, including a naturalist’s guide to the Appalachian Trail and two guidebooks about wildflowers. I was transformed from someone who attended loud rock-and-roll concerts to someone who wrote the line that pretty much sums up my life now: “Amidst the greens and the blues of the forest is where I belong and am at the height of my contentment with life.”
So ... be careful what you say to someone during the course of a casual conversation. You never know. You may be saying something that could be life-altering. Knowing that, I say to you, “Go take a hike.”