It was the most unexpected of gifts, a certificate to a backpacking outfitting store. My wife, Mary Lou, had heard me talk for years about my dream of one day hiking the Appalachian Trail. Each time we crossed the “AT” as it is known, I would recount the story to my own kids about how my Dad had always told me that one day we would walk the AT together. We never did.
The gift certificate was tucked inside a birthday card with ML’s handwritten note. Either go hike the trail or shut up, it said. She had called my bluff, and in doing so gave me permission to follow a dream. Little did I know just how big that dream really was.
I trained for months, watching video tapes, reading guidebooks, and studying maps. I visited hiking stores and talked with any hiker I could find. The truth is, I was afraid to fail and even more afraid not to try.
I was 36 years old, with a full-time job, a wife, and two daughters. What was to be a week in the woods became two weeks and finally, the dream stretched into six weeks. I would leave the first week in March and return home before the school term ended.
Despite my best efforts and planning, I suspected my pack was overweight the night before I left. The Lodge at Amicalola Falls had a scale for hikers. It was there I realized my backpack was 63 pounds. I reluctantly parted with things I thought I could not do without. Extra weight is a killer on the trail and serious hikers become obsessed with any extra pounds, or even ounces. By the time I left for Springer Mountain the next morning, the weight on my back was a more respectable 55 pounds.
Ten percent of all people attempting to hike the Appalachian Trail do not make it to Springer Mountain, which is eight miles up the approach trail. In other words, they quit before they really get started. My biggest fear was failure. I was not going to let that happen.
Three days into the hike, I made my way down to the little town of Suches, Georgia, population of roughly one thousand. It is not quite three miles off the AT, but it is the first little bit of civilization to those on the trail. This is where I received my first care package from home, sent before I even departed.
More importantly, there was a box in the small lobby. It was where hikers left some of their gear after realizing what was important and what was not. Usually that had to do with how much the item weighed. Hikers were welcome to leave or take anything in the box, but mostly stuff was left.
I left quite a bit of my gear in that box. I never carried a pack over 45 pounds again, even when carrying food for a week. In just a few days, I had learned what was crucial to my success. I was leaving my baggage behind because if I did not do so, I would surely fail.
Over thirty years later, I find myself still emptying boxes after departing from my longtime home and office. Stuff gathered over a lifetime is hard to part with but can become just as heavy as an overweight pack on your back while walking in the mountains.
Leaving some of the items from my pack in that box in Suches was a game changer for me. Not only was my backpack lighter, but my mind was more focused, and my goal was clearer. I was shedding my baggage on the trail, just as I am shedding part of it now in my retirement.
I have returned to that part of north Georgia a half dozen times since my two hikes that took me a thousand miles through the woods. It was a transformational journey to me, a gift from my wife and a gift to myself. Always, whenever near Suches, I return to that small, isolated post office. I walk in and see the box in the corner. A box where I shed my excess baggage and embraced my dream.
It is ironic that the older I get, and the less time I have to live, the more I want to focus on the future. You cannot do that by carrying weight from the past. Reduce your burden and embrace your dreams. You can find the box to lighten your load in the most unlikely of places, like a little post office in a tiny town like Suches, Georgia. Leave your excess baggage behind. It can change your life, just as it did mine.
Dan Ponder at firstname.lastname@example.org