Aging with Adventure with Eric Weld: Seek adventure, find yourself

  • Liz Forkel, who recently finished her northbound AT thru-hike, seated here on the edge of Clingmans Dome in Tennessee. Courtesy of Liz Forkel

  • Michelle Hummel, who has hiked more than half of the AT, shown here at the trail border of New York and New Jersey.​​ Courtesy of Michelle Hummel

  • Mark Henderson, aka Katz, and Mary Kay McAnally, aka Twister, taking a trail break on the AT somewhere in Pennsylvania. PHOTO BY ERIC WELD

  • Mark Henderson has become such an AT devotee that he got a forearm-length tattoo homage to his favorite aspects of the trail. PHOTO BY ERIC WELD

  • A challenging section of the AT referred to as the Lemon Squeezer, in New York. PHOTO BY ERIC WELD

  • The AT frequently meanders through farm pastures, such as this hayfield in southern Pennsylvania. PHOTO BY ERIC WELD

For the Gazette
Published: 10/14/2022 2:17:56 PM

Aching feet. Sore back, neck and shoulders. Constant logistical headaches. Days-long isolation and mental fatigue. Hunger and dehydration. The heat, the cold, high winds and rain.

Why would anyone subject themselves to these will-testing conditions?

Yet that’s exactly what thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail sign up for. The above is just a sample of the long litany of challenges faced by AT thru-hikers. To traverse a difficult trail from the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine, 2,194 miles south to the top of Springer Mountain, Georgia, is to invite a series of physical, mental and emotional struggles to overcome. It’s one reason why only one in four people (one in five for southbounders) who set out to thru-hike the AT complete the goal.

I began my thru-hike on June 30 with a Mount Katahdin summit, heading south ever since. I write this dispatch from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, nearly 1,200 miles later.


The question of why is a common one on the AT, especially at the beginning when fellow thru-hikers are comparing reasons for taking on the adventure.

It’s also a question frequently asked of thru-hikers by people off the trail, some of whom could never imagine doing such a thing. Why in the heck would anyone want to do that?

It’s a legitimate question, certainly. But of course, the above list of travails focuses only on the difficulties of an AT thru-hike. This adventure, like nearly all adventures, while it throws a succession of obstacles in the hiker’s path, also offers an opposing host of upsides and indescribable moments of bliss, triumph and joy only obtained by working through struggle.

Still, there are those daily discomforts that can wear one down with every step and make a hiker question why they ever considered embarking on such a journey.

I have my own reasons. For one, I believe a daily challenge is a healthy way to keep growing, learning and discovering. “Do something hard every day” is a mantra I try to live by, as a way to create daily reward and fulfillment. Thru-hiking the AT covers that quest and then some. I also feel more alive when I’m experiencing life’s extreme highs and lows: difficult climbs rewarded by spectacular views; a long, arduous day of hiking with a heavy pack followed by the serenity of a campfire and fresh air slumber.

But I’m curious, too, about other hikers’ reasons for putting themselves through the protracted punishment of an AT thru-hike. So I asked a few fellow AT hikers.

Why do you hike the AT?

Liz Forkel, of Greenfield, whose trail name is Fireball, finished her AT thru-hike, going northbound, in September.

“I have had this idea of hiking on my bucket list for over 35 years,” said Forkel, whose uncle published a book about the AT and worked for the Appalachian Mountain Club for more than 70 years. “I was in need of an adventure and thought hiking the AT when I turned 60 was the best present I could give myself.”

I met Michelle Hummel (Hot Lava on the trail) at a hiker hostel in Port Jervis, N.Y. She said hiking the AT was a portal for continuing her penchant for helping people.

“I wanted my thru-hike to have more purpose than just for me,” explained Hummel, 53, a retired captain with the Charlotte Mecklenburg (North Carolina) Police Department. “I think this goes back to my career in law enforcement and that my very reason for choosing that career was to help people. That goes to the core of who I am.”

Before hitting the trail, Hummel created a Youtube channel and launched a fundraiser under the title shehikes2help, which raised nearly $11,000 that she distributed among five charities.

Mark Henderson, who goes by Katz, nicknamed after a comical character in the Bill Bryson book about the AT, “A Walk in the Woods,” hikes the trail in long sections as an aid for self-reflection.

“I want to see what’s inside of me,” said Henderson, 70, who is from Waynesboro, Pa., as we took a trailside break north of Duncannon, Pa. “Walking the trail is not necessarily a social event. It’s an inner event. Come out here and learn a little bit about yourself.”

What have you learned?

Learning about oneself is impossible to avoid via an AT thru-hike. The exercise of pushing your body day after day for hours up steep climbs and across rock-strewn pathways, or to maintain patience and positive attitude during unending stretches of green require inner exploration in order to muster the strength and wherewithal. The long spells of isolation leave a hiker with little choice other than self-dialogue about every topic imaginable.

Mary Kay McAnally of Milton, Forida, has gleaned a lifetime’s worth of knowledge from her AT hikes, she said. “Personally, I think I’ve grown more through the trail than in all of my 55 years on earth,” she said. She has learned practical tips, for one thing, she says, about camping, backpacking and hiking strategies. “But I’ve also learned a lot about myself,” she said. “Hiking has taught me to continue, to not give up.” And her favorite hiking quote, read on an AT hiker shelter wall: “Don’t quit on a bad day.”

Hummel, the retired police captain, has also learned important self-lessons. “I find this experience to have solidified a few things for me,” she said. “One, I am a pretty tough gal. Two, you can do anything you put your mind to. Three, I really do love people and engagement with people. And four, my true purpose is service to others.”

For my part, as I ponder my own “why” at least dozens of times a day, I marvel at the bottomless potential to continue learning about oneself through the adversity, effort and daily small successes that define an AT thru-hike or similar adventure. There are corners in our psyches, I have learned, that can only be accessed by coursing through a succession of significant challenge, self-doubt, determination and ultimate triumph.

We learn, through such an exercise, that we are capable of more than we realize, and that the way to obtain any goal is by moving toward it persistently, consistently and committedly. These are valuable lessons, even in their relearning, that can be applied off the trail, to all of life.

“Part of the value of the trail is you reflect a lot on your life back home,” observed Henderson. “And you think, ‘When I go back, I’m going to improve this or that about my life.’”

A journey within

Why do we hike the AT? Why do we pursue any adventure?

The reasons for hiking and adventure are diverse and many. For most of us, it’s not fame or fortune that draws us to push through challenges in order to achieve something extraordinary. At the heart of our responses to the question of why is a desire to know ourselves deeper, to see who we are when confronted with difficult circumstances, to discover how far and hard we can go, and to test our limits.

There’s a sustained power in obtaining answers to those curiosities. It carries over to our lives back home in countless ways. Ideally, it makes us better people.

Seek adventure, find yourself. Happy trails.

Eric Weld, a former Gazette reporter, is the founder of


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