That time when I both lost my mind and found myself, on the Appalachian Trail

Before my hike, I had no idea what it felt like to feel so small in the vast wilderness. The bigness of the mountains filled up my searching heart so wonder-fully, and reminded me something very special to me:  I was the one I was looking for.

This is the long story about why I’m facilitating transformative hikes in the wilderness.

In a few weeks I will be merging my affection for the wilderness with my infatuation with personal growth through the first of many of Rewild Soul’s transformative hikes in the wilderness. ELATION is a 4-day, 3-night journey of honoring ourselves in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which I will excitingly co-lead with my beloved friend and seasoned wilderness guide Amber Larkin.

This marriage of nature and transformation is a vision I’ve watered and nurtured for many years now, the seed of which was sown in the summer of 2013 when I hiked approximately 600 miles of the Appalachian Trail. That summer was a sweet, delicious, and beautifully traumatic experience full of sweat, joy, laughter, and tears that taught me some of my most powerful and painful life lessons that I still live by today. Maybe more importantly, that hike was the budding of my being - the beginning of my flowering into the truth of who I really am - which is the essence of why I now provide this opportunity to others.

 

In the search of the unknown, the mountains are pure. And in their purity I have discovered a new belongingness of peace, of aesthetics. Today, my world is different. In the proximity of the mighty hills, I’ve forgotten things material. And in a new way the essence ... of being human, I’ve rediscovered.
— Wasfia Nazreen

The setting.

Four years of my studying at the University of Florida culminated on what other day than my birthday, yet I cared very little of my birthday or of graduation. My heart and mind were already entangled in a 3-month love affair with my upcoming Appalachian Trail “thru-hike” dream of hiking the entire ~2000 mile trail. At that time I had a strong, unconscious aversion for anything related to “normal” societal life; Everything except being in the wilderness seemed simply stupid to me. I was perfectly happy that my bedroom was completely empty by the end of my birthday- my belongings sold or packed way - except for my hiking poles and backpack which was filled with just what I needed to survive in the wilderness for many weeks.

The very next day, I kissed my mom goodbye and caught a generous ride from a friend to Springer Mountain in Georgia, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, and began my solo hike in a light, cold rain the next day. What ensued was a collection of experiences that left timeless meaningful impressions in my heart that to this day enrich my overall life experience.

I divide my Appalachian Trail experience into two sections in my mind: the ~100 miles when I lost my mind, and the ~500 miles when I really got to know myself.

 

The ~100 miles when I lost my mind.

When I began my hike, I was very disillusioned by the overly romanticized vision I had painted in my mind. First of all, I began my supposed “thru-hike” about a month late in the season, meaning I would need to finish one month less than most people, meaning I needed to move swiftly (aka haul ass! - excuse my language, but no other words really explain the circumstances). Secondly, I had never hiked more than a day up till that point, and I had no conception of what walking one mile actually felt like. Despite all this, I somehow thought that I would have zero problems on this lengthy journey.

Through my vast unpreparedness, I really set myself up to experience a lot of pain the first few days of my hike – physically, mentally, and emotionally, but mostly mentally and emotionally.

I didn’t realize how scared I was to actually hike (mostly) alone. I experienced a lot of fear the first few days– a combination of rational fears and irrational fears- which severely clouded my experience: Fear of accidentally passing the shelter, fear of getting struck by lightning, fear of slipping on wet face-splitting rocks, fear of a serial killer coming on the trail to kill me, fear of never seeing my hiking poles again, and a simple fear of just being alone in the woods. Thankfully, lo’ and behold! – there were other people in these woods! Crazy young people like me who were also dumb enough to think they could finish the entire trail so late in the season, like me. I really loved hiking with those people – it added a fun, lively, and delicious flavor to the experience and helped me temporarily catch a break from my monkey mind. We talked joyfully amongst one another while snaking swiftly in a line along the trail and celebrated in our first 20-miler together. Around the 4th day my new friends blew past me and I was sadly alone again. By the 5th day, the undesirable solitude plus a lightning storm and almost (but not really) missing the shelter drove me to tears the next morning.

Luckily for me my best friend who was hiking the same trail about 500 miles ahead of me was having an awful time, too.

(I know I’m a great friend). Even though we were hiking the same trail at the same time, we had chosen not to hike together because we wanted me to have a solo experience plus I didn’t want to slow her down with my unseasoned trail legs. Luckily for us, our separate sufferings - for her, a trail heartbreak and for me, losing my mind - changed our minds. I kissed North Carolina goodbye and within a week I caught another generous ride to where her and her crew were hiking in southwest Virginia. Enter the second phase of my hiking experience.

 

The ~500 miles when I really got to know myself.

Ironically the section I got to know myself the most was when I was hiking with other people. I attribute this to feeling too overcome by fears to hike alone. When I was scared I had little space and few emotional tools inside me at the time to truly connect with myself.

I was in a state of pure resistance to what was – I later would learn that this resistance was the true source of my suffering. Once I was with others (though often still hiking alone within a few miles apart from them), I allowed myself to feel safe enough to (mostly) surrender to my experience, and with this surrender came very beautiful, heart-opening experiences.

The most expansive experience I consistently had was the combination of feeling so deeply absorbed in “Brielle-land” while hiking in the tree-line, and then finally working my way up to some monumental view where everything in Brielle-land settled down in it’s rightful place of unimportance. From a panoramic view that I sweat and ached to get to, what truly mattered in life clearly stood out to me:

I was a tiny, wholly unimportant yet very special being in the vastness of the big wilderness.

From the top of McAfee’s Knob, one of the most photographed spots along the A.T., my problems didn’t feel like problems anymore, and the usual happenings of society stood out as clearly and entirely unimportant. I felt deep gratitude and praise to the big vast wilderness for the powerful smallness this orchestra of beings gifted me.

This sense of feeling little somehow was deeply liberating and loving, and it filled up my heart with the wholeness of spirit.

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.
— Albert Einstein

The one day me and my new “trail family” hiked to McAfee’s knob, a few of my friends decided to be heroes and hike the ~3 miles down and then the ~3 miles back up the mountain to bring us some beer to enjoy the sunset with. Somehow by the grace of their trail legs and the generosity of the hostel owner who we connected with the night prior, they made it back up to the mountain just before sunset with not only beer but pizza for all of us! I was amazed that I was somehow able to enjoy pizza and beer at the top of the forest with a bunch of fellow dirty awesome hikers and the company of a breath-taking view. I am not much for beer today, let alone alcohol of any kind, yet even from my more modest perspective today, that once in a lifetime experience was totally fucking awesome. It was rare moments like this one that helped define my unique A.T. experience. (Note: we packed out our beer and pizza box trash! Thru-hikers are some of the most avid leave-no-trace following people I know).

Hiker trash on Mcafee's Knob, pre-pizza sunset.

Other notable moments included getting a ride in the back of that hostel owner’s pickup truck with ~7 other hikers fresh off the trail for a free ride to a local family-style Appalachian restaurant (corn + beans galore!); frequently walking a few dozen strides away from bears in the Shannies; being part of a ~10 person train of hikers winding through Virigina plains and forests; ziplining across a river to a hostel (actually just a generous person’s backyard); making love by a waterfall; arriving after a long-days hike to a wonderful swimming hole along the trail; and being freely gifted dozens of “trail magic” along the way – free food by the love and grace of people who just love thru-hikers (note: read as dirty smelly strangers) for no reason.

 

I learned many powerful lessons during my hiking experience.

One is that the depth of fear I experienced in both sections of my hike taught me to take my life very seriously and at the same time, to live life from a more light-hearted spirit.

When camping on a bald on the tallest mountain in the middle of a lightning storm (stupid idea – don’t ever do that), I literally wasn’t sure if I would wake up in the morning. I had more than one experience similar to this where I swore lightning would be the last kiss I had. Other terrifying experiences involved bears in the daytime and some unknown animals that were watching me the one time I night-hiked alone - a wolf I swore (but probably really dear).  These few close to death experiences I had later gave me a phenomenal perspective on human life.

First of all, human life is so precious – it is the rare combination of desire, ability to meet our desires, free will, and consciousness. No other beings on the planet have this unique combination.

My best friend on McAfee's Knob

I believe that the reason I felt so terrified in these near death experiences was because some part of me knew that even though I was hiking this incredibly beautiful and challenging trail – an amazing feat no doubt - I wasn’t yet living my life purpose.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.
— Robert Frost

There is a vedic reference that says to the person living a life on purpose, the jaws of death are just like the jaws of a cat to her kitten; and that to a person not living on purpose, the jaws of death are like the jaws of a cat to a rat. The rat lives in terror of the fearsome cat mouth, but the kitten purrs contently as its mother carries it in the very same jaw.

I understand how I would feel deep terror of loosing my life before I was living the meaningful life of service some part of me knew I was supposed to live. This realization moves me today to continuously live an impactful life of integrity – ELATION is a by-product of this.

I mentioned that I also learned to live life with a lighter heart, one of trust and acceptance.

One thing I discovered while hiking is that my interpersonal habits would follow me deep into the wilderness – there is no escaping them.

I found myself frequently in philosophical right/wrong arguments with some of the men in my new trail family, who I judged to be misogynist idiots. They were definitely a bit unconsciously misogynist, but they were not idiots, and besides, who was I to judge them for belittling women when I was belittling them? Much later I realized that it was my lack of acceptance for who they were, or what they said, that caused so much of my suffering while hiking with them. I was powerful enough at the time to choose a peaceful experience of security and acceptance, but instead I chose the unease of irritation and resentment. This was a very important lesson for me –

I realized later that the best way to possibly help someone transcend misogyny, or in other words, to help them love more deeply, is to love them more deeply. A battle worth losing over.

A lesson that I already briefly mentioned is that I could not escape my unhelpful relationship habits – with others or with myself. They followed me deep into the woods because I was the source of them. One of those issues for me was a persistent feeling of being unsatisfied - the grass was always greener on the other side for me. When I was hiking in the woods, I was hungry to escape the woods and interact with society for a day of rest and hot food. When I was having that day of rest and hot food, all I wanted to do was go back into the woods. When I was hiking with others I wanted to be alone. When I was alone I wanted to be with others.

Similarly, I discovered a pattern of making myself miserable by focusing so narrowly on arriving at my destinations. You may have heard the cliché phrase “It’s about the journey – not the destination.” We’ll it’s true, and in A.T. language it goes “Smiles over miles.” I wish I realized that then. I created so much misery praying for the shelter to show up any minute.

Another pattern and perhaps my most painful yet perfect lesson was the reason I ended my “thru-hike” – co-dependency which manifested in two ways. One was my fear of being alone and attachment to others, which drove me to hike way more miles than I should have to keep up with my new trail family. The second was a deep infatuation-disguised love I developed for someone who was living off trail. It took me over-hiking my body, abandoning my thru-hike goal, being dumped while living in this boy’s river town, and ultimately losing myself to form a beautifully clean foundation from which I would later build myself up from again while in the mountains of Costa Rica (another story for another time).

In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.
— Albert Camus

Most importantly through this A.T. journey, I had perhaps one of my first experiences of learning who I really am – a caring, intrinsically spiritual, innately loving being - someone who cares a lot, someone who palpably feels the Holy in nature, someone who is sincere in heart, and who could also use some occasional support from nature to remember my true smallness.

So there you have it – a sum of my quarter section hiking experience of the Appalachian Trail.

 

Here are a couple more notable lessons for ya:

1.     When you think you are about to summit the mountain, you’re totally wrong. False summits were frequently the biggest damper to my elated, hopeful spirit. A similar notable lesson was “When in doubt, go up!” - Sometimes there would be an unmarked fork in the trail and whichever path went upwards was always the right way without fail. (Note: this is a subjective lesson that we should not apply to all trails, but it worked for me!).

2.     The mountains are sacred and they breathe life into you. The mountains and billions of celestial beings living through them acted as the perfect silent participants in my personal growth. Nature is the perfect mirror, and most perfect healer who balanced tough love quite beautifully.

Come to the woods, for here is rest. There is no repose like that of the green deep woods. Here grow the wallflower and the violet. The squirrel will come and sit upon your knee, the logcock will wake you in the morning. Sleep in forgetfulness of all ill. Of all the upness accessible to mortals, there is no upness comparable to the mountains.
— John Muir

3.     Always take candy and rides from strangers, or in other words, “The trail provides.” The Appalachian trail entirely restored my faith in humanity. The amount of people who generously offered free food, soda, and rides to me and my dirty hiker friends was astounding. My trust is forever deepened. (Note: also a subjective lesson that we need not apply to all situations!)

4.     Smiles over miles. Smiles come with surrender, pain comes with resistance.

5.     Security and independence is worth suffering through co-dependency for. I truly value the painful co-dependency I suffered myself through during and after my hike. It took losing a great part of myself and giving away a lot of my power to others to realize that I was doing this, and realize there is another way. I am seeing over and over again how pain is usually my friend in disguise. This leads me to my next realization.

6.     Pain is knowledge waiting to transform into embodied wisdom. Pain in the form of insecurity, fear, depression, anxiety, or illness was simply an invitation to discover what was imbalanced and connect with who I really am. 

When you go in search of honey you must expect to be stung by bees.
— Joseph Joubert

7. Experiencing my experience is the gateway to personal freedom. Resisting my fear, insecurity, and pain is what was the source of my suffering. Surrender to my pain and to what was opened me up to transcendence and joy.

The best thing one can do when it’s raining is to let it rain.
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Me breathing in the life of the mountains, some time after my hike.

The Appalachian Trail ruined my life.

What I mean by this is that the A.T. ruined my life as I once knew it, and in it’s beautiful destruction, it formed the foundation of the life I now thrive on.

I now have a greater perspective on what truly matters in my life. Believe it or not, I don’t think the purpose of life is to enjoy the woods! But it’s close. I think the purpose of my life is to know myself more deeply so I can help others know themselves more deeply. The wilderness provides a beautiful mirror to help me do this, and nature’s sweet company I will praise forever.

Because of my own mixed experience of honoring and denying myself in different ways on the A.T.,, I now deeply value honoring all parts of myself– honoring my thoughts as spotlights for areas of weakness and strength; honoring my fears as indications of imbalance or lack of safety; honoring my wants and needs as gifts to deepen my connection with myself; honoring my intuition as opportunity for deepening trust and security; honoring my body as the deliverer of wise messages. This is what ELATION is about.

Almost everything will work again if you unplug for a few minutes... Including you.
— Anne Lamott

I believe with my whole being that almost everyone would greatly benefit through an unplug into the wilderness.

 

You are the one you've been waiting for.

My wilderness experience combined with my time studying transformative coaching and communication all point to the same overarching realizations for me:

the freedom we are all looking for is in giving ourselves permission to simply experience our experience – to experience and embrace what we are feeling or thinking as truly perfect for our growth.

Intentionally honoring all parts of ourselves - our wants, our needs, our thoughts, beliefs, and desires - is one way to simply acknowledge and experience our experience.  This is what Rewild Soul’s first of many transformative hiking trips is about - ELATION (5/4/17-5/7/17) is a 3.5 day hike of self-celebration through Panthertown Valley, aka"Yosemite of the East", which covers 5 waterfalls and a gorgeous view of the valley. I crafted this experience to support you in celebrating yourself based on the notion that you are the one you've been waiting for, and that you deserve to give yourself the space to feel this praise.

My primary relationship is with myself- all others are mirrors of it. As I learn to love myself, I automatically receive the love and appreciation that I desire from others. If I am committed to myself and to living my truth, I will attract others with equal commitment. My willingness to be intimate with my own deep feelings creates the space for intimacy with another.
— Shakti Gawain

There are still some spaces left on the adventure, and I invite you to consider giving yourself the gift of this journey within and out in the wilderness.