“It’s like a new lens through which to view life,” Rachel says of her Appalachian Trail experience. “The superficial things don’t matter. You realize we don’t need all the things we think we need, and we can live much more simply.”
This time last year, Rachel Boice, along with her sheltie Arrow, was getting ready to take on one of the ultimate adventures, thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT). On March 17, 2019, she started her trek from Amicalola Falls State Park near Dahlonega, Georgia, headed for an over 2200-mile journey to Maine. Five months later, on the summit of Mount Katahdin, Rachel ended this life-changing experience.
Now, almost a year later, she is watching others prepare for their hikes and reflecting on her experience.
“Seeing all the people who are about to start, I miss it so much,” says Rachel. “Before I started, all I thought about was the trail--preparing, obsessing over the details, but I had no idea what to expect. Now I’d love to go back and start over again!”
When asked what she misses about the trail, Rachel says, “Everything.”
“I think the simplicity of the trail life was something I truly miss. My biggest worries were if I would make it to camp by 5:00 or how many days I had until I got to the next town. Though I almost always had cell service, I missed out on so much that was going on in our culture, and it was great!!!”
Though it seems counterintuitive when considering a solitary trek through the wilderness, another thing Rachel misses is the people with whom she journeyed. “I miss the people and the community; every interaction feels so authentic. On the trail, you feel that people genuinely care about you because you’re all in this together. It’s taking some time to readjust to the types of relationships that we have away from the trail.”
Below are some of the people Rachel did life with on the AT.
Rachel readily admits, however, that she doesn’t miss all the hard work that went into day-to-day trail life. “I don’t miss having to filter water--I never skipped that step and didn’t get sick the entire time. I also don’t miss packing and unpacking my entire life twice a day.”
Having to work so hard for just the basics of life does have some advantages because, as she says, “You get more out of life when you have to work for it.”
A somewhat unique element of Rachel’s hike was that she had a constant companion in her dog Arrow. “Hiking with Arrow was incredible--she’s like a super dog! You have to have the right kind of dog for making this kind of trip, and she is definitely the right kind of dog. She’s so ambitious and was living her best life. She brought so much joy to people. In the morning, she’d go around and greet people; sometimes I’d even find her snuggled up in other people’s tents. Our relationship has gone to the next level. We have such a strong bond and such a trust with each other. I feel like we got to where we could look at each other and know what the other is thinking. It’s weird, but it’s like we have an unspoken bond.”
An experience like thru-hiking the AT brings about a great deal of change in a person’s life. She lost 25 pounds and is the strongest she’s ever been though she admits her knees sometimes feel like she’s 80 years old now.
The physical changes, however, were just a part of her transformation. “The experience boosted my self confidence. The superficial things don’t matter; I wore no make-up and didn’t fix my hair for five months. My self image has gone up because I now look at my body and think, ‘This body hiked 2200 miles!’ My body did exactly what I needed it to do. I respect myself more, and, for the first time in my life, I don’t feel self conscious about my body.”
Spiritually, Rachel also grew. “I loved being in Creation every single day and had amazing views all the time. I worshipped God as the Creator realizing that He has everything under control, and He can take care of my situations. Just spending my life in Creation brought me closer and closer to Him.”
Just a few of Rachel's amazing daily views.
Relationally, the trail brought some challenges. She was away from her husband, Parker, for five months. Even though Parker and Rachel saw each other four times during the trail, and he was able to hike with her for a week in Virginia, that's still a long separation. And, while Rachel was experiencing an adventure and preoccupied with trail challenges, he was going through normal day-to-day life.
“Our communication skills improved and grew throughout the time. I had cell service every day until Maine, and we talked or texted every day,” Rachel says.
Even with that regular communication between the couple, there were some adjustments to make when she returned. “It took awhile to mesh after I got back. We’ve both grown while we’ve been apart--it wasn’t easy, but we worked through it.”
Looking back on the months from Georgia to Maine, Rachel has some advice to someone whose getting ready to hit the trail. “Everything that you’re stressing about, most of that will work out once you get out there. Take it day-by-day. Your plans change so often, and, as hikers say, ‘The trail provides its own magical thing,’ so have fun.”
Her advice specifically for women who are thru-hiking the AT, “Don’t listen to people who tell you that you can’t do this because you’re a woman. People are afraid of what they don’t know. If you’ve put in the time and work to educate yourself, you know things can happen, but people seem to want to put fear in you. Use your best judgement. If someone feels a little creepy, hike away from them. I never felt unsafe, and, if something would have happened, I felt like I could have gone to anyone, and they would have watched out for me.”
Since returning from the trail about 6 months ago, Rachel is applying the lessons from the trail to day-to-day life at home. “One of my biggest things I’ve put into practice since I got back is that every day you have to have a purpose. On the trail, you always have a goal--’I have to make it to this mile marker, this shelter, or this town.’ In life, we get really relaxed and go through the motions. The trail taught me to take every day intentionally and pushes me forward.”
Something that Rachel, as well as many other hikers, experienced was post-trail depression. “You’ve been in a completely different world, and, when you return, everyone expects you to just pick right back up where you left off, but you don’t fit in the way you did before you left. People ask how it was, but they don’t truly want to hear about it. It’s even harder because you’ve been surrounded by people who understand exactly what you’re going through, and now you’re not with those people anymore.”
Fortunately, it was something that Rachel learned on the trail that helped her move through this depression. “An important lesson that still helps me is to always remember that everything ends. If it’s a rainy day, it will pass. If you’re having a hard time, that will end. With this in mind, I knew that the post-trail depression was extremely normal and knew that it would end.”
Since coming back, it has been one transition after another for Rachel and Parker. They moved from Georgia to Pennsylvania where Parker took on a position as a campus coordinator for a new church start. An even bigger transition for the couple will take place in May when they welcome a baby girl! Rachel is going from one life-changing adventure to another--from thru-hiking to motherhood.
Hiking isn’t totally out of Rachel’s system. She plans to post new material on her YouTube channel, Hiking With Arrow (www.youtube.com/c/HikingWithArrow) and is looking at developing information particularly about hiking with a dog. She’s also been researching shorter, long trails of about 50 to 300 miles in hopes of trying some of those.
Regardless, she’ll continue to benefit from all she gained from the AT. “It’s like a new lens. The superficial things don’t matter. We don’t need all the things people think we need. I’m embracing living more simply.”
The end of the trail complete with the sign for Mt. Katahdin and an official Certificate of Congratulations.