By Amber Adams Niven

How I Fell in Love with a Long Dirt Path (and more)

It wasn’t a “fall-in-love-at-first-sight” kinda love. Instead, my relationship with the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) took time. Love bloomed over the years until I eventually discovered our relationship went root deep.

The Falling

Stepping onto the A.T. 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, and putting my career on hold. I was ready to let go of modern comforts in exchange for the wild unknown. 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 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 and the way the people felt like family to the showering in rivers and cooking over a fire. I was falling in love with the A.T., 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.

For Better or For Worse

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 A.T. is physically demanding and 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 A.T.

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.

The Greater Circle

My love for the A.T. 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 A.T. The community surrounding the Trail is big, wide, and full of an abundance of love (and magic). This human and nonhuman circle amplifies my affinity for the Trail, and each year, I celebrate with them at Trail Days in Damascus, Virginia. 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 and admiration for the A.T. 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 A.T. doesn’t complete me. It isn’t a puzzle piece that I was missing in my life. The A.T. 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.