My Book

1 Year Later: Trying to Figure Out Why I Hiked the Appalachian Trail

This has been an exciting week so far! My first article in The Advocate should be running in the paper tomorrow; I successfully pitched two additional stories to them that I’m working on; and they sought me out for a third. That, plus another article for Mid-City Messenger and my steady writing gig for 504ward, and I’m starting to put together the pieces to make a living doing this.

Writing these articles is teaching me new skills, but it’s all at least adjacent to my comfort zone.

The scariest bit of good news, though, is that I was asked to present some of my work at the end of this month for a local event called, The Artists Entrance. Basically, each month, a local writer, a local visual artist, and a local musician each present to the audience. There’s also an open mic component for anyone interested, and I’ve heard the whole night is a lot of fun.

My first thought when I was asked was, “No way, don’t put yourself through this. You’re a nervous public speaker, and you’ll come off as a sham. You’re nowhere near having a book done, so you’re in no way an expert on…well anything, really.”

My internal voice is a real dick to me.

Thankfully, I know that about my internal voice, so I decided to say yes in spite of it. But now I need to decide what I’m going to speak about and focus on. The format of my segment sounds like it will be something like 20 minutes of me and 10 minutes of questions. Of that 20 minutes of me, I figure I’ll read for about 10, and maybe speak about my adventures on the trail for the other half.

So what do I focus on for those 20 minutes? Well, I just started to reorder the beginning of my book, which means I’m back to being knee deep in WHY I originally left to hike the Appalachian Trail.

Anyone who talked to me before I left, or read any of the Mid-City Messenger series, knows that a big part of the “Why I left,” is because I got dumped and I felt terrible about it.

So then I have the choice: do I get into something that personal with an audience I’ll be speaking to for 20 minutes? It sounds like an easy “no,” except that the most common feedback I’ve received when I share bits of what I’ve written is, “I need to understand why you left.” Fair enough. But if I take that advice, it means I need to get personal.

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The big challenge for me if I decide to focus on the “Why I left” in this presentation — but, even if I don’t focus on it, it’s also the big challenge for me in the opening of the book, and probably of the entire book — was actually the topic of this week’s episode of This American Life.

The episode is about breakups (it’s a really good one), and one of its main narrators said something along the lines of a breakup sitting exactly halfway between being universal and being cliche.

It’s universal, because we’ve all had every relationships we’ve ever been in — except MAYBE one — end. We all know the feeling, and we all know it many times over.

But no matter how universal they are, breakups feel really personal. I understand everyone has gone through this, but when that person is essentially telling me my best self is not good enough for them, it’s hard not to internalize it as a very specific failure by a very specific me.

And it crosses into the realm of cliche and cheesiness, because when you get dumped, pretty much the other seven billion people in the world understand you’ll get over it at some point.

But one person — you, Mr. or Ms. Dumped — isn’t quite so sure. You suspect it might be true. After all, you’ve given the “you’ll get over it” advice to every friend and family member who’s ever come to you while heartbroken, but, somehow, this one time feels like the single instance in which that advice isn’t applicable.

“I’ll get over it?” Yeah, right. You don’t know.

So here’s my predicament for my presentation at the end of the month, and my book as a whole. I need the reason I left for the trail to feel universal. I think it is. But I also need it to NOT play like a Phil Collins love song. Because, even though I love Phil Collins’ love songs, they are cheesy and they are most definitely cliche.

I think I’m getting there. The more I’ve thought about — and written about — why I left for the trail, the closer to the truth I think I get. Like I’ve said in past entries, the process of thinking about something, writing my thoughts down, reading what I wrote, realizing what I wrote isn’t 100% accurate, and then revising it and taking another lap around that loop — that process is my favorite part of writing. It helps me get closer to the truth.

At first I thought I was leaving because I really liked a woman, and she didn’t reciprocate those feelings. Is that why I left? Seems simple enough. I really liked her.

But why respond to that by hiking the Appalachian Trail? Before I left, a friend suggested I was leaving because — like a really solid love song — I was hoping she’d notice. I rejected that idea at the time, but maybe it played some part.

On the trail, I had the time (so much time) to recall that — while this was probably the worst I’ve taken a breakup — it’s not the first time I’ve taken them badly. Maybe the real problem is I just can’t handle rejection? That seems possible. When we’re rejected, someone is telling us we’re not what they want. And we really have no control over what happens next. If one person wants the relationship to end, it ends. Maybe it just drove me crazy that I had no control over my situation?

But why was this one worse? I can think of two other times I’ve been dumped that I took badly. In each of those cases, I could point to something I did to justify the ending of that relationship. But this time? This time I felt like I was bringing my best self to her. And it still wasn’t enough. Maybe that was the problem? In the past, I could say, “Oh, yeah, this happened because I did that, but if I just did this, she wouldn’t have dumped me.” And, if that was true, I still had some control. I could just change a thing.

But, in this case I didn’t know how I could have been a better version of myself. And it still wasn’t good enough.

It’s a pretty good reason to be sad. But, after a bunch of months on the trail — after a bunch of months in my own thoughts, as well as in conversations with other hikers — it seemed like there was more to the story.

In my mid-to-late 20s, I was pretty awesome. I was traveling the world, I was really good at my job, I was learning a ton in grad school, and I was hell-bent on making the world a better place. Like so many people in my generation, I was used to being told how good I was. I remember two really nice examples of this. The first was, when I was leaving my first job in New Orleans, a manager, Andrea, told me, “Matt, I can’t wait to see what you’re doing in five years! It’s going to be amazing.” That was eight years ago.

The second was when my Dad was driving me to the airport, which I’m pretty certain was the last time I saw him. He was telling me it was his turn to give a presentation to his coworkers about who his hero and inspiration was.

“Who is it?” I asked, wondering how I didn’t already know who inspired him.

“It’s you,” he said.

That felt really good.

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My dad, teaching me how to ride the bus before my first day of Kindergarten.  He did a good job — I remain excellent at riding buses to this day.

My Dad with me before Kindergarten.

But a lifetime of hearing stuff like that also may have screwed me up a little bit.

Here I was, years after he told me that. Dumped. Out of a good job I spent seven years being pretty “meh” at. Not really pursuing my hobbies in any meaningful way. I hope Andrea wasn’t checking up to see how I was doing. And what a shitty hero my Dad picked for himself.

For better or for worse, I’ve always been able to do kind-of-crazy things without much preparation. I can run a marathon without training. I can work stupid hours and raise a lot of money for causes I care about. I can eat 80 king cakes in a single Carnival.

And if I could just walk from Georgia to Maine, raise some money for a good cause in my Dad’s name, and write about my failures and successes along the way, then maybe I’d be less of the dumped, jobless “meh,” and more of the guy who is making something out of the pretty good lot life gave him.

Is that a stupid reason to walk 2,200 miles? Heck yes, it is.

But I think rejection is universal. I think worrying you’re not good enough is universal. I think the desire to reach your potential is universal. And I think the burning need to not disappoint those who care about you is universal.

People deal with the feeling of failure in all sorts of different ways. Some people travel. some people learn a new language. Some people take a dance class.

I hiked the Appalachian Trail. The act is specific, but the feeling that led to it isn’t, and I don’t think I would have learned this (and a lot more) about myself had I not gone through with it.

Okay — I need need NEED your honest thoughts. Does any of this resonate with you? Do you read this and say, “Yeah, I understand why he went on that hike,” even if you, yourself, might have dealt with it in a different way? What resonates with you and what doesn’t? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section, or send me a message. I appreciate it!

4 thoughts on “1 Year Later: Trying to Figure Out Why I Hiked the Appalachian Trail”

  1. What really resonates with me is the need to step outside your comfort zone. Too few people dare to take that giant leap of faith and I believe never really discover their true sense of self in this world. At age 26, I thought I had all the answers in South Africa and was living in a comfortable cocoon. And yet, some niggle that there was something more out there in the world, inspired me to get on a plane for Europe and then America. I arrived with 2 Snickers bars to my name and was terrified I had made a grave mistake. But the experience of travel, of discovery fundamentally changed not only my perspective, but the person I became. A caterpillar is comfortable in his cocoon, but he chooses to come out for that fleeting chance to fly, to be something more, to see mote of the planet and find his greater place in the world. That is the challenge of taking the first transforming steps on our journey, whether physiological, physical or just emotional and physiological. Do you dare?

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  2. This was your your hero’s journey and is one of the most universal stories in history.
    The journey itself and the reasons for taking it are both universal, though most people do something a bit easier than hiking the AT.

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