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Walking Forwards, Looking Back

New York  Appalachian Trail
New York Appalachian Trail

When you hike the Appalachian Trail, you get in the habit of looking behind yourself periodically to make sure you are still on the trail. If you get into “the zone,” it’s all too easy to miss a turn in the trail corridor and amble off along some other road, trail or intersecting carriageway without realizing it for a while. By turning around, you can see if there is a trail of blazes running behind you, affirming that you are still on the trail, since the path is blazed bidirectionally, north-to-south and south-to-north.

There’s also a deeper reason to look back on my long walks, not just at the blazes, but at the path that my life has taken, and I often find myself stirring up old memories on these longer trips. Old songs pop into my mind: Carole King’s You’ve Got a Friend, Dr John’s Right Place Wrong Time, or Cat Steven lyrics, can occupy my thoughts for days on end. I think about my parents and the personality traits I’ve inherited from them, books that I must read again, episodes, both funny and painful, from the different phases of my life. It’s like dreaming when I’m awake and all the more reason to make sure I’m still on the trail periodically.

I’ve just returned from a long walk, actually the longest hike I’ve ever taken in the United States, starting in southern New Jersey, and walking north for 173 miles through New York State and Connecticut. It was still early spring and I didn’t see many other backpackers, the leaves were still not out, and the cold wind swept through the forest unabated. There are no views to speak of on this section of the AT, so I spent much of my time lost in my thoughts, looking forward to the new hiking season and sifting through my past.

I often tell people that backpacking is 90% mental, especially when referring to the struggles of going up and down hills all day, facing one’s fears of bears, snakes, and the loneliness of the night. But this trip surprised me. Unlike Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, the walking in the mid-Atlantic states is comparatively easy, leaving room for the mind to wander on its own byways.

If not the views, why this walk, in the silvered woods, so early in the hiking season? I pondered this question for the first few days of my journey, examining many different hypotheses to determine the motivation for this itinerary. It eventually dawned on me that this was a walk of independence: a chance to walk forward, but also to regard my past without being tied down by it. In other words to look back while moving ahead.

I’m home again now, my mind and body relaxed and content. I’ve traveled through time, a curious sensation, when I thought I was just taking a long walk.


  1. Welcome back.

    "It eventually dawned on me that this was a walk of independence: a chance to walk forward, but also to regard my past without being tied down by it. In other words to look back while moving ahead.

    A good realization and one I make with every hike. Everything up to this point is what got you here. Moving to the future, on your feet…well, that is another tale, as yet unwritten but not undreamed of.

  2. Welcome back! Cant wait for some more details of your trip.Did you see any bears/wildlife to speak of. Ken

  3. Lots of animals but no bears. Chipmunks, squirrels, turkeys, garter snakes, deer, turkey vultures, hawks, eagles (I think), porcupines, a gazillion song birds, beavers, cows, horses, and flying monkeys.

  4. Thanks marco, Leanna. Good to be home. Miss the hiking already.

  5. Right on man.

    There is certainly something healing about walking forward. Mother culture drowns us with noise and distraction while the solitude of the trail allows us to find solace.

  6. Good to see you back (although this means I'll now have less spare time, as I'll be looking forward to every one of your posts). I really enjoy the NY section of the AT, despite the fewer big views than in New England. NJ is also kind of surprisingly pretty. Maybe hiking those sections while the leaves are on the trees is more ideal, but still… I can't complain about the trail in any season.

  7. NY was hard for me – I had to overcome some nutritional and emotional issues to get through it. But I gutted-it-out and really enjoyed the second half after taking a Nero at Graymoor. Once I figured out the food issues and started eating a lot more, everything got better. My favorite state though was CT.

  8. Reading your words is kindof like playing back conversations I've had with myself. Great that you can retain it well enough to write it down when you get back. I transition too easily back to the rat race and forget most of the insights gained.

    Thanks for writing.


  9. Thx – My digital tape recorder has proved to be an invaluable tool for reconstructing my feelings and thoughts on these long hikes.

  10. Sounds like an interesting trip, however I always considered the flying monkeys a nuisance.

  11. LOL, thinking of the times I should have been looking forward and walking back. I've got a psychological affliction where I know I'm off the trail but won't go back to find it and instead bushwack off to regain it later. Never a good idea.

  12. Welcome back and nice reflection on the hike. This post really gets to what goes on in the mind during a hike and proves that there is more to it than just walking up and down hills.

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