By Mary Marshall
I tip-toed on the rocky concrete to avoid the jagged pebbles, out of habit. Those rocks couldn’t hurt me, after nearly 300 miles my feet had turned into appendages that were nearly unrecognizable, the once soft underbelly of my arch, now cracked and crumbled from the constant pounding. I giggled, sticking a cherry-red ring pop into my mouth, I scuttled along soaking wet to join our ragtag clan of hiker trash, dragging a half-deflated raft behind me. “Don’t make eye contact with the locals!” Our friend from the trail yelled back at us as we paraded half-naked by an outdoor ice cream shop in the quaint little town of Duncannon, Pennsylvania. Who am I? I thought. Like a giddy little kid unaware of harsh realities of the real world, in all of my exposed stomach and soggy running shorts glory, who I was felt as fleeting as the runny melted mint ice cream on the sidewalk I was dodging. I was now a person who giggled, even laughed. I kept laughing, a sort of foreign sensation at this point in my life. I felt absolutely elated as I floated along in a story that far-exceeded even my best day dreams. That’s it, I was finally writing my own story and the path had never been clearer, in fact, it was marked with big white blazes.
A Secret Plan
In the Spring of 2016 I was in the second semester of my senior year in college. I was also on a fast-track to a life in television news. I was the editor-in-chief of my school’s newspaper, I had a perfect GPA, I had six internships under my belt, many from big-name news shows, and if you asked anyone at my 6,000-student liberal arts school just outside of New York City, I was the one person who would have their life figured out after graduation.
Little did they know, as we sat with our bedazzled graduation caps glinting under the jumbotron at the Prudential Center, the only thing I knew for sure about after graduation was that in five days I would be boarding a Virginia-bound train alone with nothing but a backpack.
I remember that spring we sat for hours on end in the library pouring over every job listing imaginable. We were desperate. We were practically begging for the dismal salaries and the even worse hours and the uncomfortable living situations waiting for us somewhere in Harlem, it’s the next Williamsburg, you know. The daunting date of May 12 crept nearer and nearer and most everyone switched their scour for employment into high gear.
Well everyone except me. I actually did nothing. I didn’t apply to any jobs, I bit my lip through the constant questioning and the informational interviews that I was so lucky to have that the guilt certainly weighed heavily on my shoulders. I didn’t crack from the pressure because for some reason I found solace behind a computer screen on a website I once stumbled upon called whiteblaze.net.
It was a blog about the Appalachian Trail, a 2,200-mile backcountry trail that stretches from Georgia to Maine. Had I camped before? No. Did I come from a particularly outdoorsy background? Nope. Did I hike in my free time? Unless you consider the tourist-packed blocks from 34th to 49th a hike, definitely not. I honestly have no idea how it happened, but one day as I was consumed in a Wikipedia-search vortex, I found myself looking at a thread started by Weasel27. “Where to begin a solo section hike in May?” He asked. “Start in the Shenandoah and head north,” a contributor suggested. “You’ll certainly hit the Whites by July.”
So I sat still in spring with my own secret plan. I blended in perfectly among my peers, seemingly consumed behind a computer plotting my professional future, but instead I was googling pictures, maps, stories, backcountry survival skills and more. Soon enough, it was May and I was in the Shenandoah. Then it was July and I was in the Whites. Then it was August and I was in Colorado.
Hunter S. Thompson once warned about the limiting nature of relentlessly seeking to satisfy a single desire or goal. He explained in a letter of advice, “The answer — and, in a sense, the tragedy of life — is that we seek to understand the goal and not the man. We set up a goal which demands of us certain things: and we do these things. We adjust to the demands of a concept which CANNOT be valid. When you were young, let us say that you wanted to be a fireman. I feel reasonably safe in saying that you no longer want to be a fireman. Why? Because your perspective has changed. It’s not the fireman who has changed, but you.” He then concluded, “To put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.”
This quote embodies the journey I didn’t realize I was embarking on as I chose the direction for the next chapter of my life. In college I was constantly working toward one goal, not just for me, but for the approval of my parents, my professors, my mentors, and especially so I could remain the person everyone expected me to be. It wasn’t until I became extremely dissatisfied with being a train on a track to a single career path that I realized what I had been working for all this time may not have been a tangible “goal” all along, but an idea. This realization wasn’t easy, it came as a result of a period of extreme mental and emotional turmoil in my life, but as I channeled my efforts into the AT, I hoped that travelling would somehow reveal the core of my determination.
“There’s no way that I’m qualified for this,” I thought to myself as my foot struck a loose rock that tumbled down a nearly vertical 800-foot rock scramble. At this point I wasn’t sure what was more life-threatening, the fact that there would be no water for 20 miles on the other side of this mountain, or the climb to get to that point. “Why am I doing this…” my brain reeled on as my eyes darted in search of a white blaze in the daunting pile of tan boulders.
As I ditched my trekking poles and resorted to climbing like a ladder, I answered my own question. “I’m doing this because I said I would, so I am,” the thought process began, “I can, so I WILL!” I continued on as the blazes teased me up the side of the mountain, seemingly haphazardly, but I had to trust they were in the best path possible. Eventually I made it over the mountain, and to my goal in New Jersey, but experiences like these stuck with me as I contemplated who I really was and where I needed to go.
Wandering but not lost
It didn’t occur to me then, but it certainly has become obvious after reflecting on my journey, I thrive on goal-centered motivation. After I came back to the real world and embarked on my job search, it was clear what felt wrong and what felt right. What motivated me was serving the community. I felt like I was doing this through my former career path, but not as directly as I wanted. I felt excited by opportunities that offered a direct path to community outreach and service, which is why I decided to apply to AmeriCorps and work in a renewable energy nonprofit.
It’s certainly difficult getting used to not having an overarching “tangible goal” as a guiding light every single day, but not being on a single track also forces you to get to know yourself and the core of your beliefs. For example, I never knew how alive being immersed in nature would make me feel. Now nature is no longer a compartment in my life, I live in nature, I fight for the environment daily at my job in solar, and I’m constantly working with the community searching for economic solutions through renewable energy.
So I’m not on a direct path anymore. I have goals: to learn as much as I can, to serve the environment and others, and to be a leader, but these can take me to many different places. Sometimes I feel like I’m wandering, but I’m not lost. It’s almost like the blazes on the AT, sure we were immersed in the backcountry fending for ourselves, inching our way from the South up the East Coast, but we had a trail, little white guiding lights. On the same path we had different journeys to varying goals as well. I suggest derailing at some point in life, you never know where it will take you.