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What You Learn Hiking The Whole Appalachian Trail

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Sara Leibold (left) at the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail in 2011. Rhys Hora is thru-hiking the trail this year.

When you're facing a major life change, it helps to talk to someone who's already been through it. All Things Considered is connecting people on either side of a shared experience, and they're letting us eavesdrop on their conversations in our series Been There.

Each year, hundreds of people hike the roughly 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine.

This year, Rhys Hora is one of them.

He's 32 years old and had been working the same job in Philadelphia since he graduated from college. He felt like he was stuck in a rut.

"I wasn't unhappy, but I wasn't actually happy," he says.

One night out with friends, the idea of thru-hiking the trail popped into his head, and it grew from there.

"It was like a little snowball that sort of rolled down the hill and got bigger and bigger," he says, "until I found myself pretty much planning my life around it."

Rhys finally hit the trail this March, but first he got some advice from Sara Leibold, who hiked the trail in 2011 and last summer served as an ambassador for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

Sara warned Rhys not to get caught up in romantic notions of life on the trail.

"All I knew is, I was going to hike every day, and it was going to hurt," she says, and if you have huge expectations, "you'll either get disappointed or you'll get bored, which is a major reason why people quit. It becomes like a job."

Lessons From Sara Leibold

On adjusting to the solitude

You're just by yourself. You don't have anybody you know to help support you, and so all you can do is just start walking. And I remember camping one night at a shelter, and I wasn't really comfortable talking with anybody else at that point yet. And so I just stayed by myself in my tent. And I was like, I can't wait to just get up and start hiking tomorrow, because I know I can hike. I know I can just start walking and everything will be OK.

On not expecting to figure your life out on the trail

I don't really think people finish [the trail] being resolved. If anything you've got more questions. I was just thinking, nonstop. And I'd create these scenarios of how I want my future to be. And, "Oh, I wanna do this next and this next." But in a way I don't think that that's good, because I wasn't always present. Which I would advise, you know? Really observing what's around you instead of just being in your head.

On the difficulties of returning to normal life

I remember it being very difficult to leave the sign [at the end of the trail]. I have a picture of my hand on the sign, because that's what I had been working toward for four months, and now it's done. What do I do now? And then, you have to just go back the way you came, and so adjusting to life afterward is difficult. I think a lot of people look toward the next trail, because you want to feel that way again. So, be ready for that.

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