It wasn’t a “fall-in-love-at-first-sight” kinda love. Instead, my relationship with the Appalachian Trail (AT) took time. Love bloomed over the years until I eventually discovered our bond went root deep.
Stepping onto the Appalachian Trail in the summer of 2014 was my stepping off the cliff moment. I began a southbound thru-hike with little backpacking experience and many questions that I planned on figuring out along the way. I had prepared to the best of my ability by saving money, putting things in storage, researching gear, putting my career on hold, and I was ready to let go of modern comforts.
Or as Thoreau so transcendently puts it, I was ready “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life . . . and suck out all the marrow of life.” But how does one prepare their heart for a fall? I would argue that they don’t. Only fools fall in love.
It didn’t take long to feel like I truly belonged on the Appalachian Trail. Being stripped of modern distractions felt like a much-needed reunion with mother nature. Everything felt natural, from the simplicity of carrying few possessions to the slower pace, bathing in rivers, cooking over a fire, and the way the people felt like family. I was falling in love with the AT, but I had no idea how long it would end up lasting. All I knew was that my willingness to be vulnerable in the wilderness required a lot of energy.
The initial butterflies were not enough to carry me through muddy Vermont or over the rocks of Pennsylvania. I had to dig deep for inner strength. A long walk on the AT is physically demanding and also emotionally taxing. However, these are the types of challenges that provide growth opportunities. There is a saying that echos on Trail: “embrace the suck.” That’s what hikers do. It’s what we sign up for, and it’s ultimately how our connection becomes so intense and intimate. So for better and for worse, I trek, climb, and wade through waters because I love the AT.
Even now, when I go back and wake up to frozen boots and hobble down the Trail with swollen ankles saying, “teach me more about you and I will learn more about me,” I embrace the suck and, in the process, re-commit to loving the long dirt path.
My love for the Appalachian Trail is not confined to the dirt path. It extends to the greater circle as it seeps past the corridors and drips into the surrounding landscape.
Entering into a new relationship usually means that your circle widens. I found this also to be true of the AT. The community surrounding the Appalachian Trail is big, wide, and full of an abundance of love (and magic). This human and nonhuman circle seems to amplify my affinity for the Trail, and each year, I celebrate with them at Trail Days in Damascus, VA. Trail Angels, past hikers, future hikers, volunteers, and others who create this web of love come together to re-ignite dying embers. As the love for the Trail flows, the circle grows.
My affection for the Appalachian Trail is a bond that remains unbroken, a flame that will never go out. You see, this wasn’t an opposites-attract situation. My relationship with the AT doesn’t complete me. It isn’t a puzzle piece that I was missing in my life. The AT is a mirror into my soul. I am made of these mountains and rivers. The dirt path I fell in love with during 2014 has led me to many beautiful places, including my trailblazing husband, an old cabin we call home, and myself.
Whether it was the ghosts of the past calling me or the mountains themselves drawing me in for a grand adventure, I found the Appalachian Trail, and we have yet to separate.
In 2015, I met Joshua Niven, who would later become my husband, at Trail Days while we were selling our art in booths directly across from one another. We quickly bonded over our shared passion for the AT, art, and Asheville, North Carolina, where we were both living at the time. Three years later, we moved into a 100-year-old cabin with a view of the Appalachian Trail in the distance and had our first son.
That first year of parenthood while living in the woods was worse than hiking the 100-mile wilderness with black flies and an empty food bag in the summer. It was ROUGH. However, as hikers, we know that navigating through dark valleys is part of the journey. We trekked through the sleepless nights, separation anxiety, and postpartum depression together. We took cold showers in the creek and did our business outdoors.
There was far less backpacking and way more mental-mountain-climbing. We did our best to catch our breath along the way and spent time evaluating our route as a family of three. Finally, we made it to the mountain top, but it was hard work.
Like in the wilderness, the winds of life can shift suddenly and rapidly, leaving a person vulnerable if ill-prepared. Becoming a mother was a bit like that for me. I was not prepared for the many sacrifices I would need to make to find rhythm in my new role. Letting go of my small candle company was one of them. It was clear that I could not manage a business while caring for my baby full time. Saying goodbye to the business I built from the ground up was closing the door on a significant chapter of my life. As I walked across the threshold, the only thing waiting for me was a life I didn’t recognize.
The AT is a mirror into my soul. I am made of these mountains and rivers.
I lost myself in the sea of motherhood. After floating through the baby-bliss period and crawling through the baby-blues, I spent some time in denial, subconsciously fighting for my freedom and my old self back. Somewhere along the way, I took about a month of “zero-days,” which we call the days when you hike zero miles while thru-hiking. I let the dishes pile up, the laundry, too. I did the bare minimum outside of my motherly duties, and eventually, I arrived at a place of peace after finally prioritizing rest and self-care. I accepted that my life was radically different and would never be the same. Then I allowed myself to dream again, new dreams.
New life emerged after a long winter. In the Spring of 2019, Joshua and I were presented with a fantastic opportunity to write a book about our favorite trail. Oh, and I also found out that I was pregnant with my second baby shortly after. This abundant season led us back to our love of nature and creating. The entire process of compiling a comprehensive book that spans the length of the trail was one big homecoming our souls needed.
We spent two years putting pen to paper and taking trips back to the AT to re-photograph sections. Joshua photographed his entire thru-hike, so we used many of his photographs from 2013, and I had journaled every day during my hike, which proved to be a great resource while writing. Still, there was much research and data gathering to do.
It has been extremely special to create a book about a subject that not only inspires us but also stands for everything we believe in as a family. The Appalachian Trail is more than a footpath to us. It is a way of life, a community, and somewhere people can go to reconnect with nature and themselves. It’s a sanctuary and a place of love.
We dedicated our book to our children because there is no denying their impact on our creative process. People say that having kids changes you. Now, we know that is true. Backpacking will never be the same. (I can still hear our toddler’s tantrum echoing in Grayson Highlands) Life will never be the same. Our kids will touch everything we create from now on in some form or fashion.
Becoming a parent gave us a new life filter. We see everything through new eyes, and right now, they are much closer to the ground, watching the flowers near the forest floor unfold. The sense of wonder and awe that our kids inspire in us is the same feeling that hiking the Appalachian Trail gifted me.
Their generation and the ones to come after them inspire us to keep advocating and sharing our love for the Appalachian Trail.
This long dirt path that I have a particular affinity for means a lot to many people, and I hope that reading Discovering the Appalachian Trail will bring them great joy. May everyone have a chance to take a long walk, discover something special, and fall in love even if it’s with themselves . . . (especially if it’s with themselves).
Find more of Amber’s writing and other offerings from her website, amberadamsniven.com.
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