Going the distance: A student reflects on his 143-day trek along the Appalachian Trail

Late-night Los Angeles rushed by in a flash of streetlights and the occasional still-lit office window. There were only a few cars making their way southbound alongside us, and the rest of the city lights made streaks and smears across the passenger window like a modern-day Starry Night.

I was on my way home from the screening of a film—one that had been three years in the making. The film is called “The Dropbox,” a documentary about a pastor in South Korea who since 2009 has been rescuing children that were abandoned because of their mental and physical disabilities.

I’ve had various connections with the film stretching from being part of the original production crew to help raise money for the pastor whose story the film chronicles; I’ve watched this film develop from its inception, and the filmmakers are among some of my oldest friends. Yet in this moment only one thing was running through my head.

Wait, how fast am I going right now?

At that moment it had been only 77 days since I had been back.

That’s only two-and-a-half months since showers had not been a daily fixture in my life; since I owned nothing more than what I could carry on my back, since my life had been measured in miles walked and the number of days since my last brush with civilization—It had been two-and-a-half months since I had finished a through-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

Of course, I didn’t hike the trail alone. This journey had been a dream I shared with two other people: my best friend, AJ Wolf, and his dad, Eric Wolf. To each of us the hike had been a personal challenge, but it was more than that. It was also a cause. We were hiking to raise money for Pastor Lee Jong Rak, the subject of The “Dropbox.”

But even with a cause, the trail was long.

When we began at the northern terminus in Maine, we knew the trail was so we couldn’t think about making it to the end—the distance was just too far.

So we started setting shorter goals.

Our first goal was Monson, a town just over 100 miles from where we started on Mount Katahdin. That section, the 100-mile wilderness, was our first big challenge. Ten days later, we arrived in Monson ragged and tired, but hopeful and ready to keep moving.

Next, we set our sights on making it out of Maine. Then it was getting through the White Mountains in New Hampshire. After that it was New York City, then Pennsylvania, then Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. At times even those goals felt lofty and all we focused on was making it to that night’s camp—or maybe even just taking one more step.

But then something happened.

On a particularly rainy day in southern Virginia, AJ and I decided it was time to pull out the rest of the maps to Georgia and we started looking forward—through Northern Tennessee, into the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina, over the border into Georgia and finally to the end on Mount Springer.

At that point we were fewer than 500 miles from the end. There was still some distance to go, but when we thought of the more-than-1700 miles we had already walked, that last stretch didn’t seem quite so far.

All of the sudden the concept that the hike would end, that we would soon find ourselves back home sleeping in beds and travelling by car became real. Before that moment, our futures were tentative notes scratched into the margins of our maps, and our lives existed on the line that cut its way across those same pages.

And here I was in Southern California, driving 60 something mph. On the hike we struggled to keep our average speed above two mph, but over the next two hours, I was being transported effortlessly from Los Angeles to San Diego, a distance that would have taken almost a week to travel on foot.

It is strange to me how quickly I got used to being back in civilization. By the end of the first week, it felt like it had been months since I slept out under the stars. By the end of the month, recalling my own experiences felt more like listening to someone else’s stories. But that night, for some reason, I couldn’t help but to lose track of everything going on around me and only have one thought:

How fast am I going right now?