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Life Lessons Learned on the Trail

(Editor's note: Here is a sampling of some of the Life Lessons added as a new epilogue to the newest editoin of Jeff Alt's book, A Walk in the Sunshine.)


Life Lesson No. 1


Hanging on my wall at home is a framed quotation by Henry David Thoreau: “I went to the woods to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not when it came time to die, discover that I had not lived.” I identify with that. I knew that stepping away from my modern routine for half of a year and walking more than 2,000 miles would change my life. But I didn’t know exactly how things would change or what lessons I would take from the trail. Now, almost ten years since my hike, it’s clear to me how walking the Appalachian Trail has changed me, and it has happened in profound, unique, and positive ways.


My readers and those who know me probably would say that I’m never at a loss for words when it comes to describing my adventure. But walking the trail was as much an internal experience as an external one, and it has taken me a while to pinpoint exactly what the trail had to teach and what my 147 days of walking has come to mean. Would the lessons stick with me ten years later? I have been able to apply some valuable lessons to my own life, and I hope that if I share them, you can glean a trail lesson or two -- without the blisters, bugs, sweat, and pain of a 2,160-mile journey.


Humor Can Spread a Smile Over the Difficult Times


I wouldn’t have lasted even a week on the trail without the ability to laugh. When I discovered that I had put my arch supports into the wrong boots and caused myself horrible blistering, I found the humor in the situation. One blister is painful, but my feet looked like bubble wrap after my first day of carrying a 55-pound pack on a 2,000-mile journey. I took the self-deprecating trail name Wrongfoot, which served as a lasting reminder to laugh and laugh often. I laughed at myself along the entire trail, at situations I encountered, and with other hikers. Sometimes laughing was all I had, and sometimes it was all I needed. A good laugh can remind me that I’m taking things too seriously, and sometimes things are so overwhelming that laughing helps me. I’m happy to report that since completing my hike, I’ve kept my boots and insoles on the right feet, I haven’t slept with any skunks, no one has commented on my awful smell (not to my knowledge, anyway), and I eat normal portions of food in public places. My two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Madison, is always putting her shoes on the wrong feet. It makes me laugh when I wonder if this is some sort of genetic trait that I’ve passed along.


The Simplest Things Can Serve as the Biggest Rewards


On the trail, it rained more than the sun shined. At one point, I walked through almost two weeks of continuous rain. I walked and lived in the woods in sub-zero temperatures. I faced sleet, snow, and frigid weather for nearly a month. It’s easy to walk in the woods on a sunny day with views in every direction. But if you had a choice, you probably would head indoors if the weather were bad. Going inside when it rains isn’t an option for someone who’s walking from Georgia to Maine. I found that, by celebrating something each day, I was able to move beyond the horrible weather. On the trail, I would celebrate a hot cup of coffee or a meal that I’d anticipated as I walked all day in the rain. I fell down a lot, and I would celebrate the chance to take a snack break before even getting up. I learned to appreciate the simple fact that I was able to take time out of my life to go after a goal. By celebrating, I’m still able to navigate difficult situations. Back in the real world, I find something to celebrate each day, and often it’s the simplest of things. They’re easy to spot when I’m in the right mindset. I celebrate my great wife. I celebrate my daughter’s beautiful smile. I still celebrate a hot cup of coffee in the morning. I celebrate at least one accomplishment before leaving work each day. If nothing else, I celebrate the fact that I’m alive and healthy. Life is much more enjoyable when you’re celebrating, instead of worrying and stressing.


Go After Your Dreams Now!


 I’m so glad that I went to the woods and pursued my Appalachian Trail goal while I was still a healthy young man. I talked recently with a friend and colleague who is struggling with some painful health issues and is taking care of his sick father at the same time. My friend has worked for 30 years as an educator, and he’s eligible for a full pension if he chooses to retire. But he said something to me that really brought things into perspective: “Without your health,” he said, “nothing else really matters.” For decades, he’s worked diligently toward that dangling carrot of a full pension, and now that the carrot is within reach, he might not be healthy enough to enjoy the money for which he’s worked so long and hard. So many people have told me that they want to hike the Appalachian Trail when they retire, and that’s a wonderful end-of-career goal. Based on statistics, though, it’s really a crapshoot to see if your health will cooperate with your plans. Money is important, and life sure is easier with money than without it. But when you put off a life goal such as sailing around the world, getting your Ph.D., or walking the Appalachian Trail, you’re banking on your health being intact for your endeavor. Many times, that isn’t the case. Depending on the situation, I’ve learned to be flexible with goals based on family issues, work, or finances. Putting one foot in front of the other in pursuit of my goals has opened my mind to the notion that you don’t need to wait for retirement to pursue even the loftiest of dreams. You just need to be flexible and creative in how you go about it. Also, make sure that you never take your health for granted.


Self-Motivation Drives Success


I’ve given hundreds of lectures about my Appalachian Trail journey over the years. I truly enjoy sharing my story. I especially like the discussions that crop up at the end of each presentation. I have a list of answers for some of the common questions that come up over and over. You can guess the questions that elicited these responses: “Two pairs of boots.” “I lost 30 pounds.” “I averaged 17 miles a day.” But one question that keeps coming up has led to some soul-searching on my part: Is walking the Appalachian Trail more of a physical challenge than a mental one?


In 1955, at the age of 67 and as a grandmother of 23, Grandma Gatewood walked the entire Appalachian Trail by herself. That’s amazing enough, but to top it off, she wore a pair of tennis shoes. In 1998, 79-year-old Earl Shaffer completed his third thru-hike of the entire Appalachian Trail. On two different expeditions, two different men walked the entire trail using prosthetic limbs. Bill Erwin, a blind man, completed the entire Appalachian Trail in 1991 with the help of a seeing eye dog. Whenever someone says, “I’m too old to walk the trail,” or, “I can’t hike because of bad knees,” I can’t help but think of Grandma Gatewood, Earl Shaffer, and Bill Erwin. To me, walking the Appalachian Trail blind is accomplishing the impossible. I trip over things on my way to the bathroom at night; I can’t even imagine walking along one of the most difficult footpaths in the world without the ability to see where I’m going. So, is walking the trail more mental than physical? I’ve met hikers who’ve had all the right equipment and who were in top physical condition but decided to quit walking the Appalachian Trail. I believe that going after any goal as challenging and demanding as walking the AT requires a determined mental commitment. With that positive drive, you can push yourself physically beyond what you ever thought possible. I never thought about quitting my journey. There was one point during my journey where I thought that I had broken my ankle, but I never gave up. I’ve learned that if I want something bad enough, I will find a way to achieve it. I’ve become so focused on how to succeed that I never even consider the reasons why I might not. You have to be internally driven to reach challenging goals. Having all the right gear, time, money, and physical ability is useless without the drive to succeed. Above all, determination is what got me from Georgia to Maine.


Taking My Children Out Onto the Trail of Life


In 2004, we were blessed with our first baby hiker, and we are expecting our second little one sometime in July 2007. Some thought that my days of trekking would end with the birth of my first child. Not so. I experienced the triumph of completing the Appalachian Trail and John Muir Trail, and I wasn’t about to shelve future adventures for fatherhood. In summer 2006, my family and I trekked across a 50-mile swath of Ireland. My then 21-month-old daughter and my four-year old nephew came along. Our journey was no trip up Everest, but I realized that it’s worth it to tone down my pursuits a bit if it means that my child can come along. My trail vocabulary changed: “Do you want your sippy cup?” “Where’s your pacifier?” “Here, have a goldfish cracker.” But taking my family on a safe outdoor adventure was worth the small sacrifices.


Our daughter enjoyed the entire journey. She loved the horses, mules, and cows that would stick their heads over the fences, Mr. Ed�style. Walking as a family was a priceless bonding experience. The trip included nine other family members. Madison traveled with her aunts, uncles, and grandparents, creating some precious memories. We were able to share our hiking passion with our child, and her smile told us that it was worth every step. We hope that letting our child experience our dreams will help guide her to her own.


When I was a young boy, we kids played outside in the forest, in nearby creeks, and on my grandparents’ farm. The forest where I once played is now a sprawling housing development. My grandfather’s hundred-acre farm is covered with homes, too. The entire country has experienced this trend of housing and shopping centers replacing undeveloped forest and farmland. This has not only ruined wildlife habitat but also has diminished natural outdoor play areas for our children. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has faced an increasing burden of development that encroaches on the trail corridor. Childhood obesity is at an all-time high. Many children prefer video games to playing outside. Most parents are hesitant to let children run free outside as we did growing up. I’ve come to realize that it’s my role as a parent to help my child appreciate the simple things that only nature can provide. Our national and local parks have become the only resource for our children to discover the wonders of nature. Our parks play a critical role in nurturing in our children an appreciation for the outdoors.


On a recent hike in the Shenandoah National Park with my wife and daughter, we found ourselves splashing in a waterfall instead of following our plan to hike out to a vista. My daughter had a ball, and she couldn’t have cared less about the view that we never reached. On my thru-hike, I thought of nothing besides myself and the miles ahead of me, but hiking with children requires an attitude adjustment. Cutting back the distance has actually increased the mileage of happiness. The summit will be there for a future hike. Madison is a potential future Appalachian Trail Conservancy member and steward of our Earth. I want her to have many positive and fun hikes in the woods so that she has a warm foundation to build upon when she thinks back to her outdoor adventures. 


By Jeff Alt




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