Shortly after my college graduation, I trekked the entire Appalachian Trail with my roommate of four years by my side. Over the course of six months, we backpacked through 14 states—and learned a lot about ourselves along the way.

By Heather Morris as told to Megan Falk
February 28, 2020
Heather Morris/Instagram

Growing up in Great Meadows, New Jersey, the Appalachian Trail was the town's next-door neighbor that always had visitors dropping by. It was the wanderlust-inducing backyard of my high school. And it was the place me, my pop pop, and my dad would gather on the weekends to build our trail legs and dream of trekking from start to finish.

The Appalachian Trail—all 2,190 miles of it—began to seriously call to me during my junior year of college in 2018. With my family’s encouragement, especially from my dad, I decided I would hike the entire trail following graduation, and my roommate and best friend since freshman year, Kara Kryszczuk, would join me on the adventure.

While I wasn’t entirely new to backpacking (I had spent a few months doing it for eight days at a time while working on a trail crew in Idaho and Montana), my prior experience could never have prepared me for this. “What if bears come into camp? How am I going to get through the cold and pouring rain without being able to hide away indoors?” I thought to myself the night before we left for the trail. The fact that 1 in 4 people don’t finish the thru-hike (hiking the entire trail in 12 months or less) with more than 3,000 hikers attempting it every year, didn’t ease my mind either. But I reminded myself of the advice my friends gave me: Start with a mindset that you’re not going to quit, no matter what. If it’s raining, if it’s freezing cold, if you’re struggling to find water, you have to figure out a way around it. (Before you hit the trail, make sure you have these survival skills.)

The Start of Our Six-Month Journey

On June 3, 2019, strapped with our 55-pound backpacks, Kara and I stepped onto the Appalachian Trail and into the New Jersey wilderness. Instead of a traditional north-to-south or south-to-north thru-hike, we opted for a flip-flop hike, starting our 14-state journey in the middle of the trail and snaking our way up to Maine, then driving back down to New Jersey to start our south-bound hike to Georgia. That first day, we walked half a mile in the wrong direction, suffered a few blisters, and finished just 11 miles in eight hours.

It’s recommended that you stick to your usual diet as closely as possible while you’re on the trail, but I quickly realized that healthy hiking food is expensive—and heavy. Soon enough, a bag of Fritos became a quick and easy lunch, and Knorr’s fettuccine alfredo with broccoli pasta packets served as dinner. Filling up on junk food feels pretty awful when you’re off the trail, but when you’re walking up to 25 miles a day, you just need the calories to keep moving.

Fueled by Cosmic Brownies, gummy worms, and for Kara, instant mashed potatoes and cinnamon swirl raisin bread, we trekked across New Hampshire’s Franconia Ridge, its mountain tops looking like they belonged in a Lord of the Rings movie. We scrambled over and under slick boulders inside a crazy crevice called the Mahoosuc Notch thought to be the hardest mile on the trail for obvious reasons. We hiked East Baldpate, stepping in and out of craters that made you feel like you were trekking across the moon, not Maine. We reached the 6,288-foot summit of Mount Washington early one sunny morning before it became crowded with some of the other 250,000 hikers that visit the peak each summer and reveled in its 360-degree views of the White Mountains. (Related: These Benefits of Hiking Will Make You Want to Hit the Trails)

But the people we shared those picturesque peaks—and even the mundane walks—with are what made our journey on the Appalachian Trail so memorable. By weaving through different “tramilies,” (groups of hikers that tend to stick together) we turned dozens of strangers into friends. We played board games with fellow hikers in the White Mountains while waiting out the rain. We convinced someone to jump off a bridge with us into Vermont's White River. We met a 65-year-old “trail grandma” hiking 18-mile days by herself, who offered us gear advice and bought us rain skirts and Crocs to wear around camp. Looking back, she’s a big part of why we stuck with the hike for the first month.

Creating space and breaking up the time Kara and I spent together helped too. To allow for some privacy at night, Kara slept in her own hammock, and I stayed in my tent. Instead of walking side-by-side at every moment, sometimes we’d hike separately and text one another to check-in. Yes, we had our little spats over when to get water and where to set up tents, but spending six months together actually wasn’t that difficult.

Hiking Through Loss

One day, while hiking somewhere in Maine, I got word that my mom had passed away in an accident. My mom was one of the biggest supporters of my dream to do this Appalachian thru-hike even though she wasn’t one for backpacking, camping, or really anything to do with dirt or bugs. She was actually planning to meet me when Kara and I reached Springer Mountain in Georgia. This was the southern terminus of the trail and the official end of our thru-hike, and she was going to do it with us. Yes, despite the bugs and the dirt—she was just so excited for me to accomplish this after months of hard work.

Getting this news while totally removed from my family was harder than any trail pass I had conquered up until this point. I paused my hike to be with my family in Georgia, but after a week, I drove back up to Kara, strapped a pack on my back, and got moving again. I knew my mom would want me to keep going, and the longer I waited the more we'd have to deal with the changing weather and temperature. I had my mom with me this time around though—I was carrying a pendant I made in my mom's honor. Her passing gave me a purpose to hike, and not thinking about her death every day helped me get through it.

When I rejoined Kara, I walked straight into the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine—the wildest stretch of the Appalachian Trail, as it has no places to get supplies or help if something were to go wrong. On that first nine-hour hike after my drive back north, I carried a heavy pack stuffed with six days’ worth of food for 22 miles, which ended up giving me a stress fracture in my back that would affect me the rest of the hike.

Despite everything, though, I knew I had to finish, and I needed to be carrying that pendant when I did. I needed to keep our promise to end this crazy journey together. And on November 30, 2019, that's exactly what I did. After six months of lots of pouring rain, injuries, droughts, tears, and one immense loss, I became an official Appalachian Trail thru-hiker. (Related: This Cycling Instructor Pedaled Through Tragedy After Losing Her Mom to ALS)

Becoming the Strongest Version of Myself

The trail gave me an opportunity to push myself further than I thought I could go, both mentally and physically. Don’t get me wrong, I cried a lot on the trail, but I cried and kept walking. Even when I was upset or mad, or couldn’t deal with my heavy pack any longer, or wished the cold would just end, I kept walking. What got me through a lot of it, though, was laughing things off with Kara. When we were soaking wet from the rain, we'd sit together in our ponchos and listen to Hawaiian music, pretending we were on a warm and sunny island. When one of us fell down, we'd give the tumble a rating like we were judging an Olympic diving contest. When the only options you have are to laugh or cry, most of the time, it just seems better to choose laughter.

Now that I’m officially an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker and, to be honest, not all too active at the moment, my body feels at odds with itself. Mentally, I know I can hike 25 miles in a single day, but I’d be incredibly sore if I were to actually do it. You lose your trail legs relatively fast when you don’t use them, but I won’t miss them for long. Proving to myself that I can push myself to these kinds of extremes has motivated me to keep trekking and tackling new trails (with warmer temperatures—I do not miss the snowy and desolate parts of the Appalachian Trail). Next up on my backpacking bucket list: the Florida Trail with a friend we met on this thru-hike and, hopefully, the Pacific Crest Trail with my dad and step-mom. No matter what kind of adventure I take on, I'll keep my mom (and that pendant) close to my heart to remind me just how strong and capable I really am.

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Comments (1)

Anonymous
March 1, 2020
Great story -- not sure I would have been able to pull through; after my mom's passing, I was pretty much a wreck. Oh -- and also, there's an editorial goof: the story clearly meant to say one in four finish, but got it backward.