In 2012, I had been working as a successful cosmetologist in a men’s salon for six years. I was in demand, making good money, but something was missing.
I was 30 and was creating the life I saw in catalogs and fashion magazines, fully embracing and profiting from the “Metrosexual” movement that was in vogue at the time. I would get my hair colored each month. I received manicures and pedicures regularly. My eyebrows were perfectly shaped and tweezed. I was clean shaven. I bought a three-bedroom house, designer furniture to fill it, high-end equipment to outfit the kitchen, even though I rarely cooked. I installed a home theater, complete with a projector and a surround sound system, so I could watch movies by myself, when no one else was free to come over. I purchased dress shirts in every color, suits for every occasion, and copious amounts of expensive clothing to fill my walk-in closet. I had over thirty pairs of socks. I even acquired a robotic vacuum to keep the whole place clean. I was doing hair for a good number of executives at the largest corporation in town, but still wasn’t fulfilled. It didn’t bring me joy. It was starting not to be fun.
I began thinking of escaping. To what? I daydreamed of the time I had spent outdoors in Boy Scouts or at wilderness survival camps as a youth. I started thinking about opportunities to go get wild again, to live in the woods, to be truly alone. At the time, I felt that big trails like the Appalachian or Pacific Crest were out of the question; I wasn’t yet confident in my ability or that I would have the time or proper gear to take on something so utterly consuming. Not long after realizing that a trail would be ideal, and that I just needed to find one a bit closer to home, my brother turned me on to the most epic and underrated trail in my home state of North Carolina, the Mountains to Sea Trail. The MST, at the time, was 961 miles and began and ended in two beauty spots in NC that I was already familiar with. It seemed like an invitation; an obvious signal that this was a pretty good next step in my life, or at least a good way to dive in to the next phase.
Once I was in a position to do so, I quit the Salon and began training for the MST. I tended bar while saving up money for 8 months and did 20+ mile urban hikes with weighted packs on, literally across the city. After all those months of training and yearning to be out there, I started the hike on my 31st birthday. During that, my first solo thru-hike, I enjoyed many moments of bliss. Bliss with more significance – more weight, than what I’d previously experienced. I achieved deeper and more frequent feelings of emotional connectedness and happiness without seeking it; I would just suddenly stop, look up and become aware of being completely swollen with joy and peace. I started realizing that it was possible to feel fulfilled and happy without a lot of stuff, like that in my home, most of which, ironically, was designed to recreate those same feelings of happiness. In fact, how happy and full of bliss I felt, seemed to be directly correlated to how little I had with me! The less I carried, the less I had to account for, the less I had reason to stress, the less cluttered my mind was, the more able my mind was to wander, the easier it was to naturally and automatically become “present in the moment”.
As the trip progressed, like anyone new to thru-hiking, I began to find that even in the less-than-twenty pound pack I was carrying, there were items that really weren’t serving a purpose. I began to give those away or mail back to home or to friends and family. Another stark contrast I realized along the way was that after having worked in front of mirrors for six years in a line of work that worships reflections, all of a sudden I didn’t see one for weeks at a time. At first not being able to check my appearance on demand felt strange, but by the time I began hiking through little towns with shiny shop windows, I no longer felt the need. To save weight, I didn’t bring a razor on the hike, of course and after all of those years following a meticulous grooming regiment, I know it would be liberating not to drag steel across my face day upon day. After the hike, I found that keeping the beard was helpful for me to continue avoiding my reflection; even if I caught a glimpse of myself, it was like I was wearing a mask; my face could really only look one way. Hiding behind the beard was only true in a physical sense, though, concealing my facial features underneath, but in the sense of emotional self, genuineness, and vulnerability, I found my beard did the opposite, allowing more of my true, undiluted self to get through than my false idea of who and what I thought I was, like some kind of magical reverse filter of the soul.
On the trail, the repetition and simplicity of setting up and breaking down my campsite became a Zen meditation, again, without even realizing it at first: lay ground cloth down, unroll sleeping pad on top; exhale nine deep breaths to inflate it, release four buckles on the compression sac, remove sleeping bag, shake to promote lofting, lay bag on sleeping pad, remove cooking set up from backpack, pour water into pot, light stove, boil water, change clothes, add hot water to food, eat, sleep….and repeat. I began moving faster, covering more ground, hiking at night, striking camp in the dark before dawn. I streamlined my routine and therefore, my life. I narrowed my focus on the same goal everyday: moving forward.
Upon returning home, I experienced the dreaded shell shock and longing that so often go hand-in-hand with the decompression phase of coming off of a long trail. My bed didn’t feel right, my voice sounded too loud to my own ears as it bounced off walls, water was too readily available, driving my car was an alien experience, my head wasn’t on right anymore, I felt like I had way too much time on my hands; all of a sudden the 10 hours of my day that had been spent walking were available, and I had no idea how to fill them.
I turned my attention to all of the stuff that surrounded me in my home. I began to wander from room to room, just staring at it all. Not with disdain, but just a sort of detachment, like none of it was mine, like I was in someone else’s home. Someone else’s house, filled with a bunch of silly, impractical things. I don’t know how many laps I made through the house before I began to pick items up off the shelves, take art off the walls, and start to move things that I didn’t feel were absolutely necessary all into one room, but it didn’t take long. I started giving the things with any sentimental value to the people who had been involved in those sentimental situations, making trip after trip to Goodwill, putting good furniture out for my neighbors to pick through, having yard sales, and finally listing on ebay anything I believed had a chance to sell at a profit.
By the end of the purge, the house wasn’t empty but it was much less full. I didn’t miss a thing. Not once did I need one of those objects for anything and regret getting rid of it. At the end of it all, I was sleeping on the same ground pad I had used on the MST, on the floor of my empty two story house!
In the meantime, I got a job as a dishwasher at a local bar and walked to work and back each day in an attempt to reconnect with the feeling of propelling myself forward in the outdoors. Though I enjoyed my new job, my starting pay as a dishwasher wasn’t enough to cover the mortgage on the house I still owned. So I decided to rent out my house and move into the camper shell on the back of my pickup truck. But first I had to insulate the livable space, build a bed frame with storage underneath, install a power inverter, and rig up a way to use the bathroom without exiting the vehicle, which took a few weeks. I got my house rented the same month I started living in the truck, and was even making a profit. I purchased a gym membership so I could shower, and used the Wifi at local gas stations and libraries when I needed to. I had three safe parking spots for nighttime, and I implemented a rotating schedule of where I would sleep. About a week into the new routine, the joy and the bliss returned!
My plan was to work overtime and squirrel money away until I could afford to go on another thru hike. After 5 months saving money and living in the truck, I moved in with my mother’s basement at a ridiculously low rate of rent, so I could work and focus on my job more and spend less time worrying about where I was going to park to sleep each night. I totaled my personal expenses and income and began to streamline my life again, like I had on the trail. I started cutting out unnecessary spending and other “weight” that was holding me down. It took another two years to get to the point where I felt okay walking away from my job, which had taken off with promotions and raises, enabling me to save up more quickly.
With a heavy heart, I thanked the owners of the company for the opportunity they had given me, which allowed me to change my life so significantly. I said goodbye to the town where I was born, the only one I had ever called home, and moved to Florida. I chose Florida for love; I had a relationship with a woman in Tampa, but also the lure of a long trail, one of the National Scenic Trails. What better way to get to know your new home than to walk across it? It had certainly worked for me on the trail across North Carolina.
During the 51 days I called it home, the Florida Trail kept its promise. The promise of solitude. The promise of beauty and knowledge. The promise of better understanding the geography, the people, and myself. What especially struck me about the Florida Trail is the well-organized and available network of Trail Angels, and the enthusiasm of all its hikers and neighbors. There are scores of volunteers, young and old. Fans of the trail have written detailed guides to help hikers. There is much passion for the FT, yet, in contrast, I met many folks who had never heard of it – even though it runs right in front of their houses; or worse, those who know about it, but don’t care to see its value.
Values of the trail most obvious to me after hiking it’s 1101.7 miles are the exposure to natural and rural areas as well as hidden parts of towns and cities, the genuine people and happenings of the world you witness, the transformative beauty of the Florida Landscape , and the adjacent natural areas that are now protected and respected because of their proximity to the trail. For such a long trail, in such good company with the other National Scenic Trails of the same pedigree, I feel the Florida Trail is at best underrated and at worst neglected by locals and government officials alike, when it comes to awareness, protection, and resource allocation, as is true of most of the trails and natural areas in this country However, even during my hike, I was aware of a growing awareness and connection in the communities the trail touches. Overtime, with the growing popularity of hiking, and the continued effort of volunteer and money raising organizations the interest in and funding for the trail will no doubt increase. In the meantime, it is important for fans of the trail to promote it however they can, to help expedite the process.
Thru hiking, in general, changed my life; it helped me transition from being the type of person who obsessively collects things and compulsively grooms and primps, to becoming someone that obsessively combs through his life, looking for opportunities to purge and trim where ever he can, enjoys simple pleasures, and likes the security and comfort of a little fur on his face. I certainly feel more comfortable in my own skin. Confident that I am being true and real to others and myself. I am, for the most part, stress free. I am more accepting of and able to deal with extraordinary situations, whatever they may be. The Florida Trail itself changed my perception of what a thru hike can be. It provides a unique experience for first time hikers and big mile veterans alike, showcasing varied landscapes, terrain, and wildlife, allowing frequent ease of access to the trail and resupply points, and boasting a unique group of devoted Trail Angels and outdoor enthusiasts. The Florida Trail is only one of eleven National Scenic Trails, but it is most certainly Florida’s greatest treasure.