Ten years ago, Joy N. Hensley hiked 600 miles of the Appalachian Trail, leaving behind the news of world events and endless traffic hassles in favor of the simple sounds of birds chirping and leaves crunching underfoot. Now that she is married and a mother of two, she still values the life lessons she learned on the Trail.
I wake up, the sun warming my face each morning, slowly open my eyes, stretch my muscles, and allow my body to slip into the day as it would slip into an evening bubble bath. The sounds of crickets, birds, and the morning wind ease my mind into quiet alertness.
Today is going to be another great day on the Appalachian Trail.
I pick up my forty-pound pack and heave everything I need to survive onto my back. I carry my bed, my food, my clothes, my library. I do not worry about bills, what is going on in the world, or how I am going to get to work tomorrow. Hiking is my work, my feet the transportation. Dinner is simple and quick: boil water, insert tuna and instant potatoes. I rise with the sun each morning and crawl, exhausted, into my sleeping bag with the moon each night. Nothing is hard. Nothing is complicated. The silence of the woods embraces me, and I, it. The amazing thing about life on the trail is how much you learn about yourself–about what it really takes to survive.
After my life on the trail, when the simplicity of living for the simple purpose of putting one foot in front of another disappeared, I found myself once again caught up in the world. Television shows, movies, the endless feed of news—I had to know anything and everything. No longer could I spend quiet afternoons with my feet in a stream or evenings around a crackling fire, talking about the miles behind and the miles that still lay ahead. Everyday life rushed back into me like a waterfall and I felt myself drowning. I needed coffee to survive. I needed addictions.
What I really needed was the Trail again.
You cannot make it a day, better yet, a mile, on the trail without friendship and family. Even more important than food and shelter, which can be found along the trail, you must have support.
Without my family and my hiking companions I could not have survived. The trail became my home to which I still cling ten years later. When the clutter of my life becomes too much, I throw on my pack and head home, to the woods. Where the crush of leaves underfoot is more welcome than honking horns. Where trail mix and ramen noodles give me more pleasure than a steak. Where my sleeping bag and the cool ground under my head soothe me more than a bed in any five-star hotel.
The trail is honest. It is not easy. It does not treat you well. But if you work, if you put in good, honest, back-breaking, brow-sweating, leg-tiring work, you will reap the rewards. The vistas are prettier, the water always cooler, when you earn it instead of buy it.
Everything I need in life I can carry in my memories, my heart, and on my back. The rest is just clutter.
This I believe.
Joy "Xena" Hensley may have complained about the cold, but never about the weight of her pack, which earned her the trail name Xena, Warrior Princess. After finishing 600 miles of the Appalachian Trail, she married fellow thru-hike attempter, Bloody Cactus. Now, they live in Virginia with their two young thru-hikers-in-training, two crazy dogs, and a gaggle of chickens, dreaming of the day when they can hit the trail as a family. She is a former teacher and full-time writer. Her first book, Rites of Passage, is available now from Harper Teen.
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