Sarah Jane Hatfield, a former graphic designer at The Mountaineer, has embarked on a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. During her journey, she’ll be sending dispatches from the forest, which we’ll publish each Wednesday.
This week, we join Hatfield in Florida, as she learns the value of reflection while awaiting the arrival of her first grandchild.
“Sometimes you have to look back in order to understand the things that lie ahead.” — Yvonne Woon
As I enjoy the company of my very pregnant daughter here in Florida, eagerly awaiting the arrival of my first grandchild, I can’t help but daydream about the trail life I’ve been living for the past five months. My time out there has flown by, when I think about it. Yet when I’m in the thick of it, the days seem to last forever.
Watching my daughter in the final trimester of her pregnancy has put a lot of things into perspective. She’s about to be a mother. That blows my mind. Spending time with her, and her boyfriend, Chase, has been pleasant. I even had a chance to take some maternity photos along the Indian River.
There were times during my hike that I became anxious thinking about my travel plans to see her. What’s the best town to exit the trail? Where’s the closest airport? How do I get there? Will I make it to her in time? Yes, I would. Yes, I did. I’m right here, by her side, fetching anything she needs, from fluffy slippers to freshly cut fruit from the refrigerator. Her strength is beautiful, and I can’t wait to see her, in all of her motherly glory.
My baby girl, so beautiful. I can’t imagine being anywhere else right now.
Being off-trail this week has been a little odd for me, to say the least. My routine is extremely different, but I’ve learned to adapt for the time being. I even have access to as many clothes as I want, pulled from my daughter’s pre-pregnancy closet. I actually found a Dropkick Murphys concert T-shirt that I thought I’d lost. I’ve been wearing it a lot this week. I asked her to keep it safe for me until I return from the trail.
As I take a week-long hiatus from the A.T., I want to share a few things I’ve been reflecting on regarding my journey thus far.
The trail has brought some special people into my life. First Grader, Needles, Gatorade, Patterns and Disco — all of whom have since left the trail. Then there’s Broccoli Rob, who’s still pushing north, awaiting my return. These people, I believe, will be in my life for years to come. The bonds I’ve formed with fellow hikers are indescribable. When you’re living in the wilderness, counting on your feet to carry you to the next food resupply or water source, with these people by your side, you get to know them on an intimate level. I believe it’s much different than the “real world.” Being vulnerable allows the best side of the human spirit to shine through.
There are no distractions out there. Do these shoes match my outfit? How does my hair look? Bills. Car payments. What’s for dinner tonight? None of those things really matter on the trail ( besides the “what’s for dinner?” part. That’s become my favorite mid-afternoon daydream). The trail strips away worldly pressures, allowing the true self to reveal itself.
Has this phenomenon happened to me? Absolutely. When I began this journey, I felt like I knew myself. And I still do. The trail, for me, has removed the stresses of everyday life, and unveiled a much simpler mode of existence. What mattered before I started this journey doesn’t bother me as much these days. I’ve enjoyed shedding my outer layers and drilling down to the root of what I want out of life.
So what do I want out of life? Well, to finish this journey, and to feel a true sense of accomplishment as I stand atop Mt. Katahdin, with arms stretched skyward and tears of joy in my eyes. Whatever comes afterward, I trust wholeheartedly.
Have you ever been told “don’t look back?” This is a phrase that I’ve taken seriously my whole life. Why would I ever look back? What’s the point? The past is just that: the past. What could I ever gain by turning around?
The trail has taught me the importance of looking back. As I hiked away from Blood Mountain in Georgia, somewhere during my first week on the trail, I can remember marveling at that mountain as it shrunk, smaller and smaller, into the horizon behind me. I felt so accomplished, and it made my confidence grow stronger. I hiked up and over that beast, and it didn’t beat me, not once. I remember standing on the trail, multiple times, looking back at that mountain — that accomplishment, that challenge I’d conquered.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the trail was trying to teach me something. It was too early in the journey to have learned anything from this new way of looking back, but from that point forward, it seemed ok to gaze into the past at something I’d conquered and feel a certain pride about it.
Weeks after Blood Mountain, I hiked into Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I trekked through her high frozen ridge line, with ease and confidence. It was when I reached the Appalachian Trail’s highest point — Clingman’s Dome — that it started to sink in. I had done this. I had done this by looking back at my previous accomplishments. I’d learned to trust myself, my confidence, and above all else, my physical abilities. I felt unstoppable.
Was the trail really trying to teach me something about myself? At that point, I believed that I could do literally anything. So I pushed on, taking my new views along with me. Along the way, I wondered: “How far could I really go if I truly challenged myself?” I watched ridge lines, mountains and boulders fade into my past. I was really doing it.
What to do, and what not to do, began solidifying in my psyche. I began thinking deeper than I’ve ever thought before. The trail was providing me with this peaceful time to be with my own thoughts, day-in and day-out. The trail was instructing me on how to look back on my life in a broader sense. I relished this newfound freedom. It all felt right. I was able to reflect on my past, understanding how it grew and shaped me into the woman I am today.
I’ve learned to appreciate every obstacle, every ex-boyfriend, every heartache I’ve endured. Were those life lessons fueling my passion to push forward, physically and mentally? Definitely. I can smile now, knowing that the trail has shaped the way I look at myself — past, present and future.
Follow along on YouTube at Katahdin or Bust.
Weekly mileage: None this week. I’ll be skipping ahead to reunite with Broccoli Rob.
Total miles Broccoli Rob hiked this week: 133.6.
Appalachian Trail mile marker: 1,429.
Editor’s note: Hatfield’s grandchild, Maverick Ross Vollenweider, was born on Aug. 7 at 9:49 a.m.