Celebrating a Vision

Colleen “Teala” Peterson

My love affair with the Appalachian Trail began almost twenty years ago on a flight to Germany to visit my son and eventual thru-hiking partner. Bill Bryson’s book, A Walk in the Woods, was my flight companion, a gift from a friend who recommended it as the perfect balance of humor and excellent storytelling. By the time my flight landed, I had finished the book and convinced myself that hiking the A.T. was the ultimate bucket-list adventure. I imagined the romance of hiking what is arguably the world’s most iconic footpath — traversing fourteen states on foot, cataloging 2,200 miles, simplifying my life by carrying everything that I would need on my back. It was doable, I was sure, with the kind of commitment I was willing to make.

Fast forward to April 1, 2012, as mother and son arrived in Amicalola Falls State Park to begin a northbound thru-hike. By the time we made it out of Georgia, the adventure that I had imagined evaporated and was replaced by the reality of the daily grind of life as a long-distance hiker. I settled into the rhythm simply because there was no alternative. Up at 5:00 a.m., on the Trail by 6:30, logging more miles every day. The footpath I had once imagined was a mirage replaced by rocks, roots, boulder scrambles, steep climbs, and steeper descents (or so my knees told me). I saw virtually nothing but my feet and the trail beneath them. Somewhere along the way in this hiking blur I crossed paths with a deer tick who generously shared the bacterium Borrellia burgdorferi with me. The dreaded Lyme disease had found its next victim, and I finally succumbed to it just shy of Lee, Massachusetts — 1,550 miles done and so was I.

Since exiting the A.T. in 2012, I have regrouped several times and logged 500 more miles. Initially, the thought of not completing my mission of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail was devastating. I was angry, despondent, and full of “it’s not fair” self-loathing. Over time — the great antidote for foolish thinking — I began to realize the gift that had been given to me. Slow the pace (on the Trail and in life), observe the surroundings (on the A.T. and in life), appreciate the small things, which are often the big things — on the Trail and in life.

I still envision summiting Katahdin and experiencing the euphoria of touching that sign that represents a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. But, I also know that leaving the Trail in 2012 gave me a new lens to view the greater journey that, for me, has culminated in my work as a volunteer (on the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s board) helping to protect, manage, and advocate for the Appalachian Trail. Perhaps I have reached my Katahdin moment after all.

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