Letters and life lessons along the Appalachian Trail

The following post has little — at least directly — to do with journalism or storytelling.

Just life.


I found myself with a rare opportunity this past week. Having filled in for a coworker on the Saturday morning shift, I was given as compensation a day off the following Monday.

That meant a day off … during the week … with no responsibilities or errands to run.

I instantly headed for the mountains.


I arrived in Atlanta five years ago and quickly became enamored with hiking in north Georgia. Having grown up in the far less scenic state of New Jersey, and spent my early adult years in the relative flatlands of Chicago, Sioux City, Ia., and Buffalo, N.Y., I reveled in the majesty of the mountains, filling my early Atlanta weekends with whatever hikes I could find. By my third summer down South, I had hiked nearly every major trail in Georgia — and some, to boot, in South Carolina and Tennessee.

But in recent years, I had begun to slack off, facing more pressing commitments on the weekends and simply losing some of my early hiking momentum. Aside from that, my knees had become a nagging concern, which made me more hesitant to take on the mountains with the same cavalier spirit of years prior.

Earlier this month I downloaded Bill Bryson’s classic travel book, A Walk in the Woods, in which Bryson and an old friend attempt to hike the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail from start (in Georgia) to finish (in Maine). This is a classic “holy grail” trip among hikers; every year hundreds of hikers take half a year off and make the trek. Bryson, I soon discovered, is every bit as masterful a writer as I had heard, and he presents the famous trail as a truly fascinating, fulfilling experience.

Turning the pages of his book, I quickly regained my desire to scale the north Georgia mountains.

And I suddenly found myself with just the day to do it.


So I woke up early on my day off, hit the road, and made my way north. I had already picked out my trail of choice, and it was a new one for me: an eight-mile hike to the Georgia terminus of the Appalachian trail. I was not going to hike the entire 2,100-mile trail, but I would happily walk the final few miles and reach its Southern endpoint: the summit of Springer Mountain.

I completed the hike and arrived atop Springer Mountain. And then I saw something funny. A giant rock sat at the summit, with a drawer carved into its side.

I opened the drawer and found a spiral notebook.

I opened the notebook and found a series of entries that touched my heart.


You see, the Appalachian Trail requires hikers to check in wherever they stop at night. This enables its rangers to best keep track of the many folks attempting to walk the entirety of the trail; it helps them locate lost hikers and keep better data of how many people actually finish what they start at Springer Mountain.

And at Springer Mountain, everyone checks in.


Take a look at these entries. They ooze with optimism and excitement. They beam with anticipation. Some, including Bryson, I’m sure, would say they wreak of naiveté; after all, 20% of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers give up after one week. A journey like this takes months to complete.

But the entries moved me, mainly because of the moments they captured: the moments that are 100% expectation, 0% reality.

And those moments, even in their naiveté, are beautiful.

Think of any big day in your life that required a large amount of build-up: your wedding day, perhaps, or your high school graduation. In the moments just beforehand, you had no idea of how the event would actually go; you simply had your imagination and whatever it had concocted in your mind. And nothing could take those images away from you — only time, and the eventual start of what you had so dearly anticipated.


That enthusiasm is often so elusive in life, and it can be such a necessity when facing far longer commitments, like a marriage or a new job. Reality is so much more complex than one’s idealistic dreams, and when those dreams are tested, passion becomes critical.

I think we all reach points in our lives where we forget how it feels to be so excited about something, to only see the possibilities without being weighed down by the inevitable complications.

At those times, we can definitely use a reminder.

I was by no means in dire straits when I took to the trail this past Monday, but I still found myself moved and buoyed by what I read.


I am not preaching a lifestyle of blind optimism, and I am not favoring fantasy over reality; I have always found real life to be far more enriching and fulfilling than anything my imagination could conjure.

But I do appreciate the occasional need for a little unbridled enthusiasm … and I am so glad to have found it on the Appalachian Trail.

Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Leave a comment below or e-mail Matt at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.


Enter your email and keep up to date ...