Sarah Jane Hatfield, a former graphic designer at The Mountaineer, embarked on a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. During her journey, she sent dispatches from the forest, which we published each Wednesday.

This is her final dispatch.

This week, we join Hatfield as she says farewell to the A.T., and reflects on the many lessons she’s learned during her epic six-month journey.

“It’s better to look back on life and say: ‘I can’t believe I did that’ than to look back and say: ‘I wish I’d done that.’” — Anonymous

“You must be willing to change. You must believe that you are worthy of change, improvement and being your best. You must be willing to set aside your negative notions about life, hardships, people, things and yourself. You must be willing to stop feeling sorry for yourself...get up and make something of yourself.” — Jack Barakat

In my introductory article six months ago, I quoted an old Chinese proverb: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” At the time, I didn’t know how true that quote would become for me, how its lessons would root themselves into my everyday push to complete a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

Not only did this mindset apply to the physical steps I’d take, but also to the emotional and mental journey I faced, day-in and day-out. This adventure has provided me with epic views that never grew old, while simultaneously opening my heart to different ways of feeling, and my mind to different ways of thinking. It was as much a spiritual journey as a physical one.

For my final article, I’d like to reflect on how this adventure has changed my life.

Tolerance

What does tolerance mean to you? The dictionary defines the word as the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behaviors that one doesn’t necessarily agree with.

Those who know me well would tell you that I’m rather set in my ways. Perhaps they’d even say I’m stubborn (something I won’t deny). On this “journey of a thousand miles,” I was truly humbled. My mind opened up, and I was able to relax into new ways of thinking. No longer was it only about how I viewed the world: with an open mind, I was able to pause my internal monologue and truly listen to the points of view of my fellow hikers.

The spectrum of topics ranged from the minute (whether you should hang your food bag, or sleep with it in your tent) to the transcendent (religion). While there are still many things that I firmly believe in, I’m grateful for my newfound capacity for tolerance: the way I’m now more accepting of how other people feel about serious matters. The trail, I believe, has made me a better listener.

Patience

How much rain and mud can you endure in a single day? Have you ever waited for a mama bear and her cub to vacate an area so you could safely pass by? Patience is a serious component to a successful thru-hike. And I realized this from the outset.

As my friend, Hawk, and I hiked the 8.1 miles on the Approach Trail, to the top of Springer Mountain back in March, I noticed him displaying immense patience with me. He was forbearing as I struggled through what I thought would be the hardest day of my journey. In turn, I became more patient with myself. As the days rolled on, I grew stronger and stronger.

In the real world, I hate waiting for anything. On the trail, I encountered many instances where I was able to apply my newfound patience. No longer did I grow anxious while waiting for a ride into town. No longer did it matter that dozens of cars would drive past as I nervously attempted to hitchhike on a strange country road. I found myself more grateful than bothered.

Overall, my A.T. experience has made me a more peaceful person.

Respect

I’ve always been a respectful individual. However, the trail has taught me a deeper definition of the word. I learned to respect the journey, as well as the trail that was leading me along. I never took anything for granted, even as I stumbled over rocks and roots.

Most importantly, I uncovered a greater sense of respect for the countless individuals who struggle with mental health issues everyday. This, by far, has been my most important takeaway.

Before I stepped foot on the A.T., I never truly understood the struggles that some loved ones were dealing with. When I connected with Hike for Mental Health in mid-May, I gained a better understanding of what individuals with mental illnesses deal with on a daily basis. I was able to eliminate a personal bias — that sense of stigma — that I harbored about depression, anxiety and the like. People who truly suffer from mental illness can’t just wake up feeling refreshed, and let the sorrows of yesterday disappear. For them, it’s a ongoing struggle to find balance and peace in a world that views depression as a weakness — when, in reality, it’s anything but.

I can count at least 10 loved ones who suffer from depression and suicidal thoughts. Most of them keep it buried inside for fear of being treated differently. The stigma is real, and I resolved to eliminate it.

I’ve always thought of myself as a fixer. In the past, I felt that those who suffer from depression, et cetera, just needed to cheer up or get over it. I couldn’t have been more wrong. A more accurate understanding of depression came to me, oddly enough, via children’s book characters: Pooh Bear and Eeyore.

On Eeyore’s darkest days, Pooh would check in on him. Eeyore would hang his head and say that he was no fun to be around that day. All Pooh Bear did was sit there with his friend, and in those quiet moments, Eeyore would start to feel better. Perhaps it’s as simple as that: not trying to fix anything, per se, but simply being present to show that you care.

Maybe that’s just what an individual who struggles with depression needs: someone to be their Pooh Bear. With that in mind: be someone’s Pooh Bear. Help break the stigma.

Another mental health collective — #beheretomorrow — was recently brought to my attention. It’s a simple-yet-powerful hashtag that reminds those with suicidal thoughts to take it one day at a time, to just be here tomorrow. That’s a powerful message.

Gratitude

I feel like a fortunate woman. The world opened up, and I dove right in. I allowed the trail to mold me, to strip away the manner in which society has taught me to think and feel. I’m finally my own person: someone with a higher tolerance for others, who displays patience and respects the struggles of other individuals. Am I a better person, overall, because of that? Perhaps. I’ve been moved by this “journey of a thousand miles,” and I’m humbled by the countless lessons it’s taught me.

With that in mind, I’d like to take this moment to express gratitude.

To the Mountaineer Publishing Company and its staff: thank you for printing my thoughts as I undertook an adventure that was unprecedented for me.

To the readers: thank you for following along every week.

To family and friends: thank you for truly believing in me.

To my editor, Mike Schoeffel: thank you for making sense of my run-on sentences, and eliminating redundancies. You helped make these articles epic and amazing (which, coincidentally, are two words that I regularly overuse).

After I wrote my article each week, I’d have to find reception to send the email. Most of the time, I’d discover a sliver of cell service on a mountain peak. I’d hoist my cell phone high into the air, and pray that the email would go through. Then I’d carry on with my day.

Upon my return from the trail, I saw the beauty in those efforts. I’ll forever be grateful. I’ll forever be in awe. I’ll forever be changed for the better. Thank you all, from the bottom of my heart.

What’s next?

What’s next for Pringles, you may ask. My plans seem to be guiding me back to Haywood County. After spending this past weekend visiting friends in Waynesville, I realized that this cute little town feels more like home to me then anywhere I’ve ever lived. If you see me out and about, don’t hesitate to stop and say hello!

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