Life Lessons from the Appalachian Trail


This post is part of a series documenting the path that led me to become a digital nomad.

Harper’s Ferry marks the approximate halfway point on the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail. It is home to an adorable Industrial-era village that played a key role in the American Civil War. It is conveniently located a short train ride outside of Washington DC, and it is the place where a hike with a complete stranger changed my life forever.

I had lived in DC for four years, but had never really ventured outside the beltway bubble. I’d just settled into my first “real job,” but something hadn’t really clicked for me. Yes, it was nice to finally have a salary and not have to worry about money but it felt like something was missing. I grew up in a pretty typical American middle class family, and I had the privilege of not having to worry about much when I was growing up. My path was pretty much predetermined – I worked my ass off in high school to get perfect grades while having the perfect balance of clubs, activities, and service hours so that I’d be able to get into a good college. Once I was in college, I did all the “right” things. I worked hard, had good grades, had great internships, made some strategic connections, and set myself up to get a job in DC – the city that I loved.

This was the path – it was how you become successful and happy, or so I had been told my entire life. But once I got there, settled in, and looked around, it wasn’t quite what I expected. Yes, I had a great job in a great city, but two months in I was already starting to feel trapped.

I felt that if I didn’t get out of DC, I was going to lose my mind to the monotony of it all so I booked a last-minute trip to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Most places in the U.S. don’t cater well to solo travelers, so I booked myself a bed at the Hostelling International Harper’s Ferry hostel. Although they are increasing in popularity, hostels are fairly uncommon in the U.S. to begin with, so I was surprised to find one near West Virginia, of all places.

As I found out when I arrived, this hostel caters primarily to the Appalachian Trail thru-hikers that pass through the town each summer on the trek from Georgia to Maine. The whole trail takes approximately five to seven months to complete – a huge mental, physical, and financial undertaking. I sat around the campfire outside the hostel listening to these hikers telling stories from the trail like it was the most normal thing in the world to give up everything in your life for a few months and just be connected with nature as you endlessly walked through the mountains.

At first, I couldn’t understand how these people were able to do what they did. They give up their jobs, their source of stability to do this. How did they do it? How were they able to balance everything? I grew up with this mentality that you have to have a job because that is the source of stability in your life, and that you can never leave a job without another lined up, or at least a plan. But these people did it for months at a time like it was nothing.

The next day, I hiked up the mountain with a stranger that I met in the hostel the night before. He was escaping DC for the weekend, like I was, so we had enough in common to make the 8 hours of hiking bearable. I continued to ponder who these thru-hikers were and how they were able to put their lives on hold for so long to accomplish this dream when he said something that really stuck with me:

It’s all about your priorities and what you value the most in your life. Their values are different than those of most people.

Do you value your career? Money? Stability? Predictability? Or like these thru-hikers, do you value adventure, independence, your connection with nature and the world around you, and the strength within yourself to accomplish something as incredible as walking the longest footpath in the world?

I made it through twenty two trips around the sun without fully understanding what I valued. I jumped through the hoops that society says you need to jump through – I worked hard, went to a good college, got a job with powerful, well-connected people that could be an asset to me in the future, as everyone in Washington assured me that I would need – but I wasn’t happy. I was “successful” by someone else’s standards, but not by my own.

The one thing that I truly love, more than anything else in the world, is traveling. But life in a corporate office – the path I had been steered onto for my entire life – allows me a meager few weeks of vacation time to pursue my passions. I value the freedom, flexibility, and strength that comes from being on the road, experiencing the world while I am young and physically capable of doing so. However, I had quickly discovered that very little in the 9-to-5 lifestyle brings me the same joy as picking up my backpack and heading off on a new adventure.

My path and my values didn’t line up, so I felt trapped knowing that I’d rarely have time to do what I really loved with the job I had chosen. But after a few days out in the woods and some deep conversation along the way, I had a plan. It was far from a fully developed idea, and at that point I had never even heard the term digital nomad before, but that long weekend sparked a flame inside my soul.

I was determined figure out a way to travel more, and pursue the things that make me truly happy. I can’t wait to share that journey with you.


Bubu Backpacks

P.S.If this sounds like you, please share your experiences below and follow me on Instagram and Twitter @bubu_backpacks for real-time updates!

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