Normal couples eat breakfast together then head off to work. Normal couples have a certain ‘nine to five’ grace period away from their spouse. Normal couples eat dinner, watch television, and then head off to bed to start the daily grind once again.
This was me and A-O’s schedule before we headed off to the Appalachian Trail in 2013. I thought I knew the kind of girlfriend I was toward A-O. I thought I truly knew my man before he turned into hiker trash. Our life on the trail changed our relationship for the better. Unfortunately, not all relationships survive the trail. It is hard to describe to someone how trail life is, let along how trail life is with your spouse. Imagine doing absolutely EVERYTHING together. You are with your partner every second of the day, every second of the night, for months and months.
We fought. We laughed. We hiked. We starved. Together.
I learned how to hold down a relationship when we both were starving, drenched in rain, and still had to hike four more miles. We experienced droughts, hail storms, deadly wind gusts, hunger, and aches. I knew his stinky hiker smell from his head to his toes. We shared numerous nights in our two person tent. We split our meals even when our bellies begged for more. I carried him when he sprained his ankle. He hiked a mile back when I left my socks drying in the sun. We experienced everything together. We were a team.
A-O taught me how to be a quick hiker. I taught A-O how to be a slow one. In the beginning of our hike, we came across a lot of haters. Folks just don’t seem to have much faith in a young couple completing such a feat. Well, we did. We completed our 2,185.9-mile hike of the Appalachian Trail in October 2013. The things I learned about my relationship while hiking the trail have rippled back to our normal life now. I am forever grateful for the lessons the trail threw at us. Here are the seven things I learned from hiking the Appalachian Trail with my love, my man, my best friend.
1. I am not the perfect girlfriend.
At first, this was shocking to admit. But, I’m not perfect. Figuratively speaking, I learned that I could hurt him just as much as he can hurt me. Before the trail, I sought blame. I never wanted to admit I was wrong. I always had an excuse or a reason why I did something. The trail brings out the raw, true self. Wearing the same clothes every day, living with bugs and dirt, rarely seeing your physical appearance, draws a sense of realization out in the mind. I realized I wanted to always play the victim, the blame game. I stopped turning arguments around on him and focused on what was wrong with me. Acceptance of self-imperfection is the first step to being a key player in your relationship.
2. Words should be chosen wisely.
The first month or two on the trail we were reconnecting again. Before we left for the mountains, we were both working two jobs and rarely saw each other to save for the adventure of a lifetime. When we finally reconnected, we both noticed things about each other’s actions and words that triggered negative reactions within us. Certain words would set him off. I learned what truly mad him made. This is a blessing and a curse. Since I know exactly how to push his buttons, I can choose to either use this to hurt or to help. Even now, there are words we do not use with each other.
3. Don’t assume. Ever.
Assuming your partner did something is never good. That means there is a lack of communication and your mind is running wild. This causes unwanted anger and aggression. I learned quickly to never assume the thoughts or actions of A-O. Communicating with him will save me from worried and angry thoughts.
4. We are in this [hell/paradise] together.
We are a team. We did everything together. When I got sick in the woods in Tennessee, A-O was there to call for rescue. When A-O sprained his ankle for the millionth time in New York, I was willing to admit he needed a week of rest from hiking. When my shoes grew too tight from the constant hiking and flattening of my foot, A-O was there to carry my gear, to lighten my load. The thing about a team is that you are only as strong as your weakest link. We struggled together. But, we also celebrated together. We always had someone there to share in the good times too.
5. Compromise is crucial.
Compromise in a life in the woods might seem easier than real world decisions but I beg to differ. Add two hungry, dirty, and tired hikers and compromise might not be as easy as you think. Should we hike six more miles to make it to a town at 11 p.m. just so we can eat twelve cheeseburgers at the Wendy’s that lies ahead? Should we hike three miles off trail to camp on a secluded peak so we can watch the perfect sunrise at 5 a.m.? These were all proposed by A-O and doubted by me. Sure I went along to do a 26-mile day to make it to that Wendy’s. I learned to bow down to some ideas and was pleased by the result. Before the trail, A-O was never the one to get his way. Compromise was tough for me to learn but it is the only way both people can successfully thrive.
6. Always question the reason behind a fight.
A-O and I found a hitch into a town in Maine from a middle-aged couple. They fought the entire way to the town, leaving A-O and I stunned in the back seat. They fought about his driving. He was defensive yet quiet. She was persistent and defiant. I could not understand why they could just fight about the smallest thing. From that eye-opening and awkward experience, I learned to evaluate my arguments and the reasons why I might be totally overreacting.
7. Self-improvement is key.
The trail taught me everything I know. Forget about my bachelor’s degree, those five and a half months on the trail transformed me into the person I am. I learned about life. I met America one step at a time. I take every issue in life slow and steady now. Do you know how long it takes to drive from Georgia to Maine? Not as a long as the months it takes to hike there, I presume. The trail taught me to take one step in front of the other. Think in the present and you will be rewarded and surprised at how far you can get. With A-O, I learned to value the present moments I have with him. There are times I want to admit my annoyance with him but I need to have patience. Being in a relationship is just as much about self-improvement as it is learning to live with another. When you are happy, healthy, and helpful, your relationship will thrive.
For those couples seeking trail life, it isn’t a paradise. You must love your partner. You must understand your partner. Your partner must understand you. For both of you to accomplish this massive feat, value each other’s opinions. Then, rest and repeat. If you have any questions regarding the Appalachian Trail, please feel free to leave a comment or drop me an email. It truly is an adventure of a lifetime and I couldn’t be more happy that I completed it with my best friend by my side.