I grew up in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, on a small ridge in an old hunting cabin that my parents had built into a home just big enough for the four of us. My childhood was spent running around all around the woods and at old time music parties and festivals. I loved every single part of it, and was filled with indescribable joy by every moment I got to spend out in the mountains that surrounded us.
As soon as I learned about the Appalachian trail, I decided that one day I would hike the whole thing. I couldn’t think of anything better than getting to immerse myself in those mountains for months on end.
Now I’m finally in a place where I’ve saved enough to manage quitting my job and living in the woods for six months, although it may mean a rough patch afterwards. I’ve been planning on leaving New York for years, but something has always gotten in the way. When I realized I could actually make moving somewhere else a reality, I decided that there would be no better way to transition than to hike the trail before seeing where I end up next.
I’m very conscious of the fact that the beautiful mountains I grew up in are under attack. Mountaintop removal has already bulldozed countless peaks and endangered, sickened, and killed the people living near them. Fracking pollutes our water, and pipelines threaten both people and the natural ecosystems they run through. Global warming still seems set to destroy just about everything, including the mountains. People in the rest of the country tend to write off Appalachia as a “sacrifice zone” that’s acceptable to decimate in order for them to get the quick and easy resources they want, so issues there often get very little attention.
Selfishly, I want to take the chance to experience the mountains in this way before they’re further destroyed. That’s part of why it’s so important to me to hike the trail now – I don’t want any more of it to be gone when I get there. Less selfishly, I want to share their beauty and the struggles they face with people who might not understand the complexity of the region. I want to help people in the rest of the country see why Appalachia is important.
I’m also leaving because my life in New York feels like it’s hit a bit of a road block. I’m out of school, and I’ve had a job that feels meaningful (I’ve been supervising an elementary afterschool program, a teen program, and communications for a YMCA in Queens) but can be really stressful and isn’t what I want to do long term. I have a solid group of friends that I love dearly, but I rarely feel like I have a real community. I never have the time, energy, or money to do the things that are supposed to make New York “special”, and I’ve realized the things I love most about the city are really just the things that remind me of home. Nothing in my life is really that bad, and I have a lot to be thankful for, but it feels like the best way for me to continue growing is to move on.
One of the biggest reasons that I’ve wanted to leave New York is because I feel like I’m ready to return home. To me, that doesn’t necessarily mean heading straight back to Rockingham County, and in fact I would rather not go back there for long. Home feels like the South and like Appalachia, so I want to return to somewhere as close to there as I can. I love the mountains and the trees and the rivers in a way I’ve never quite been able to describe, and I’ve missed them in my years in the big city. To me, hiking the trail will be a sort of homecoming where I can make up for some of those years spent surrounded by concrete by spending as much time as I can in the mountains that I love.
Coming from a rural area has actually been very isolating in New York, and many parts of my experience are met with laughter much more often than understanding. While I face plenty of prejudice back home for being queer, I’ve also met more judgement than I ever expected in the city for being country. On top of that, so many of the things that are culturally important to me like old time music can be difficult to find in New York. Those are tensions I’ve been trying to work out for years, and eventually I figured out that New York was never going to be the place I could bring all the parts of myself together.
On the other hand, my queerness has actually made me feel very isolated from the woods where I grew up. When I left, I felt like I needed to be in a big city to be safe and happy, although I’m not so sure that’s the case any more. It’s true there have been many queers hurt and killed in rural places, including on the Appalachian Trail, but honestly that’s happened everywhere. Since I moved here practically as soon as I came out of the closet, I’ve been having a hard time figuring out what’s real and what’s a myth when it comes to prejudice in rural areas. But regardless, after a point I decided that I no longer wanted my queerness to keep me from the things that I love.
I’m 23 now, and I’m in a place where I’m ready to embrace many of the things that I was running from when I moved to New York at 17. I’ve been working on bringing the disparate parts of me together for a long time, and I hope that hiking the trail will help me figure some of that out. I want to live a life that is big and meaningful, and I’ve felt the pull for a while to do something new. So on April 7th I’ll throw on my hiking boots, put on my pack, and see where the trail takes me.