As of last Sunday, I’ve hiked 32.4 miles of the Appalachian Trail. I’ve hiked those miles over the course of two weekends, two consecutive years in a row, with three other incredible women. And I couldn’t be prouder of us.
Katie, Yasirah, Sarah, and I all played on the same high school soccer team in Georgia. Although the four of us were in three different grades, we became close — drawn together by a similar determination to root for our underdog team, and motivation to keep spirits high when tensions soared higher. We were dubbed “the Sunshines” for our ability to maintain (relatively) cheery outlooks when times got tough.
It’s been 15 years since the last of us graduated high school, and we’ve happily kept in touch since then. Naturally, a lot has happened in that time. Yasirah is a mom to two amazing kids. Katie and Sarah both earned their doctorates. I’ve traveled to lots of exciting places. We’ve all been married, bought houses, and landed jobs.
There have been plenty of hardships, too — death, heartache, and disappointment, to name a few. We’ve vented and mourned together. We’ve trusted each other as we opened up about the things that weigh heaviest on our hearts and minds. Although we don’t keep in touch nearly as much as we’d have liked to throughout the years — a result of living in three different states, with our own lifestyles, professions, and personal struggles — our hikes have given us the space and time we need to do just that.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy suggests that mental fortitude is just as crucial, if not more, than physical stamina when it comes to completing a thru-hike. “Ultimately, completing the A.T. is more of a mental challenge,” the Conservancy states. “A fierce commitment to the goal of completing the A.T. is one of the most important ingredients of success.”
How fitting is it, then, that the Sunshines are such good hiking companions? While on the trail, we’ve faced torrential downpours, incredibly steep ascents, and one frighteningly large creature that might have been a bear. Last year, thanks to some A+ packing by yours truly, two of us had to sleep in a tent without poles to prop it up. Yet through it all, we’ve managed to maintain a positive outlook and solid sense of humor. Like any good teammates, we each know how to step up when someone else needs an extra boost.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t struggle with our own self-doubts, fears, and challenges. This year in particular, several of us questioned whether we’d be able to take time off from our ever-complicated lives to spend a long weekend in the woods. Rekindling that team mentality, however, helps us not only to harness the physical stamina required to hike an arduous trail, but the mental fortitude to get out there in the first place. Once we start walking, it’s amazing to watch our worries slip away. Eventually, the rhythm of our collective steps drowns out the noise of our individual anxieties.
Last year — the year of the MacGyvered tent — was much more mentally (and physically) challenging for me than this year was. My grief was bigger and my wounds were fresh; I felt somewhat distant from my friends with their alive spouses and intact families, keenly aware of the loneliness in my situation.
This year, I was able to recognize the growth I’ve made, how much less lonely and more grounded I felt. And because I wasn’t as caught up in my own troubles, I was able to better listen to the issues my friends were facing. I was able to be a better teammate.
We all carry sadness and pain, but we don’t always see it in, or share it with others. I still carry plenty of sadness about losing Jamie and I always will, just like I shoulder the burden of other painful events in my life. But our time in the woods reminded me that I’m not alone in facing tough feelings. I’m grateful to my fellow Sunshines for opening up about what’s been weighing on them lately. Just like we divvied up campsite supplies in our individual backpacks, sharing our unique struggles allows us to each carry a bit of the collective load.
Katie, Yasirah, Sarah, and I had our own reasons to feel reluctant about last weekend’s hike. There were plenty of excuses to keep us off the trail: we weren’t in good enough shape, we had too much work to complete, we needed to devote time to our relationships at home. But ultimately we got back out there for the team, and we all felt stronger, physically and mentally, for doing so.
The 32 miles we’ve hiked so far isn’t much to brag about when it comes to the Appalachian Trail, which spans 2,190 miles total. The trail starts in Georgia and ends in Maine; so far, we’ve barely scratched the surface of the path through North Carolina. We’ve averaged about eight miles of hiking a day, a pace that’s right on track for beginning hikers planning to complete the entire trail in around six months. We, on the other hand, are currently tackling the A.T. just two days at a time — a task that, at this pace, would take us 134 years to complete.
Still, I couldn’t be prouder of us.
We’re now two years into what we hope will be a longstanding tradition of hiking the Appalachian Trail together. We already have next year’s hike scoped out: a 19.4-mile stretch that will connect our previous two treks.
Once you’re on the trail, it’s hard to turn back; you’ve made a commitment, and you stick with it. And so we keep pushing forward, with the support of our ever-sunny teammates. We keep going amid fears, alongside those who have faced their own worries. We keep hiking, knowing we’re not the only ones on this path.
p.s. I have an article in Glamour! I wrote about dating after Jamie died, and learning how to love again. The response has been *incredibly* encouraging and heartwarming.
p.p.s. Dad’s Garage Theatre Company announced the second improv group to receive the Jamie Hawkins-Gaar Memorial Scholarship. It’s so beautiful to watch Jamie’s legacy continue on in such a unique and positive way.
Good job, brain
I'm reading: “A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life,” by Ayelet Waldman. This account is fascinating, especially Waldman’s research into the War on Drugs.
I’m inspired by: Reflecting on the hike we just completed, and daydreaming about the next hike ahead.
I'm aiming to: Get some long-term planning done this week. I’ve been in a short-term project mentality for a while, and would like to switch gears to set myself up for a successful remainder of 2019.
Day hiking is a wonderful way to get started on the Appalachian Trail.
Cheryl Strayed is maybe best known for writing about her experience of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Although she hiked solo, a mammoth feat compared to the treks we’ve done so far, her words resonate with our collective experience. “I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me.”
Sharing feelings with friends = awesome. Unfortunately, men don’t do it nearly as much, leaving women to bear the burden. Male readers, share those feels!
We talked a lot during our hike about the World Cup-winning U.S. women’s national team. We also speculated whether Megan Rapinoe is headed off the field for political office.
For your sweet dumb brain
Reconnect with an old friend this week. Give them a phone call, make a FaceTime date, or actually follow through on those murky plans to take a trip together someday. Our oldest friends may not always be our closest friends, but they offer us a shared history and deep connection that no one else can. As Nora McInerny put it, “There is something about having a witness to all your former selves, and witnessing the evolution of their own sense of self, that is a bond beyond words.”
This newsletter is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by the lovely Rebecca Coates, one of my favorite walking buddies.