Appalachian Trail & Adventure Journaling at Outsideways

I vaguely remember our first discussions about creating a video series to document and help fund our Appalachian Trail thru-hike, an idea no doubt birthed while hiking, as most of our dreams are. I specifically remember our first real discussion about using a Kickstarter campaign to fund and launch that video series. I was so dead-set against it. I wasn't comfortable with the risk at all. I'm fairly risk-adverse.

But, as these things go, the more we discussed it the more plausible it became to produce videos while hiking that people could subscribe to and watch, and those subscriptions could help fund our hike.

06-10-14, Virginia, approx 743 miles

It was as audacious as the idea to thru-hike the trail to begin with.

Video was a good medium to tell the story while it was happening and to create a product we could sell, while hiking. But we learned pretty quickly there was no way that video could tell the whole story, and nor did we want it to. It was important to us to protect our family's dignity and our children's privacy and so we couldn't tell a lot of the deeply personal and intimate aspects of our journey with video.

(You can now watch this video series, for free on YouTube.)

I went through a lot on our thru-hike including a month of trail depression but we decided that wasn't the predominant story we wanted to tell with our video series, the story of Renee's struggles on the Appalachian Trail.

05-19-14, Virginia

The video series was about our family on the trail, and our family is five people, with different perspectives on our shared experience. People can go through the same stuff but because they live and process that experience in a personal space, through their own filters, the reality of that situation is unique to them. It's subjective. My story is not "the" story of our hike.

I admire the open honesty of trail journals and stories I've read, The Barefoot Sisters and Wild are two that come to mind. I feel limited as a writer in my own ability to write our trail story. For one thing, I have my family to think about. My relationship with them makes me carefully consider what and how I write about our journey.

But it's not just the privacy and protection of family that makes the writing difficult. It's the challenge in finding language to adequately express the depth and breadth of the experience, the high-highs and the low-lows and everything in between.

Sometimes I think what I'm looking for, in this thing called living, is for someone to be able to fully inhabit my experience, to know me that deeply. And words simply fail to achieve this end.

Humans cannot fully inhabit the experience of another, no matter how well we write and communicate with each other. We can't do it in our most intimate relationships with partners, parents and children. We certainly can't do this with strangers.

05-07-14, Hump Mountain, TN

The best film maker, writer, story teller cannot impart to someone else the entirety of another person's experience. You cannot inhabit someone else's reality, which is probably a good thing since we can barely manage the difficulties of our own! Empathy is the best we can do.

A short aside about empathy:

Empathy is not something I want to minimize. It truly is the best we can offer, one of the highest expressions of human consciousness, and is perhaps even more meaningful, certainly more real, to the human experience than the "other-worldly" or supernatural ability to fully inhabit the experience of another, for the very fact that we must cultivate it in ourselves. We can't just "download" someone's experience, in the easy fashion we access so much other information in our world.

Empathy is something we can learn to give and receive, out of our very-human limitations and shortcomings, which makes it, to me, one of my most precious gifts we offer. I can't "know", but I will try to know. I will try to inhabit your space, for a time, to understand your point of view. I do this as a choice, not by giftedness, but as a gift. Not by force of nature, but by freewill.

I think the best - by which I mean life-giving and relationship-building - story tellers, artists, film makers, writers help us cultivate our capacity for empathy by drawing us into another person's story, another person's experience. I so desperately want to be that kind of writer.

When I got off the trail I was sure that unless you have taken on an adventure of epic proportions that challenged you to the point of breaking on all levels - physical, mental, emotional, spiritual - you couldn't understand my experience. You wouldn't "get" it.

That might be true, but long-distance hiking is just one kind of "adventure of epic proportions". It's a metaphor for life, a theme which many adventure writers have picked up and used in their writing.

06-03-14, Virginia

In the course of living, everyone's life will provide opportunities that challenge one "to the point of breaking on all levels". And you'll have no choice but to surrender to that experience, and learn from it. We can spend a lot of energy trying to avoid this reality, but it is inevitable and unavoidable.

Although my experience was unique, in the sense that not many people on the planet, or in North America, will go through that particular epic adventure, everyone living for any length of time will have the opportunity to face their individual demons and reach their breaking point. I'm not so unique after all.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and just as I struggle to give language to the pain and difficulty of that experience, I also struggle to communicate the depth of the joy and sheer "amazingness" of it all.

06-06-14, The Homeplace, Catawba, Virginia

It is the both/and nature of our adventure that is probably the most difficult to communicate. To borrow a word from Glennon Doyle Melton, it was the most "brutiful" experience of my life: beautiful and brutal. In one day (in one hour!) I would transition from beautiful to brutal, multiple times.

Not every long-distance hiker experiences this either. Our son would not describe the experience as brutal. You would hear a different story from Tenacious Bling, whose own experience was more aligned with mine. If my husband hadn't had an emotional wreck of a wife to deal with he would not describe it as brutal either. And Padawan who isn't prone to strong language either way, and is one of the most even-keeled people I know, would say, "there were good times and bad times".

Life goes on and we have encountered new challenges since we finished our hike, but nothing has been as physically and mentally difficult for me, before or since. And the post-processing of our hike has been the most emotionally difficult thing I've gone through.

It's just hard to give words to this experience. Even my trail diaries which I wrote in the moment of those experiences don't fully capture it.

Last spring, two years after the start of our thru-hike, Damien asked me to consider sharing my trail diary on Outsideways.

Outsideways is a web application Damien built; an online community and social network for outdoor enthusiasts to journal their adventures.

This is the second iteration of our blog by the same name. Once upon a time, many years ago, we had a blog called AdventureinProgress. And then we changed the name to Outsideways, though we kept posting familiar content: trip reports, some gear reviews, outdoors philosophy. But as Damien's other blog, Toe Salad, became more important and a means of earning income (and also the platform from which we launched our Appalachian Trail video series) we directed our energies into that site and let Outsideways (1.0) languish.

06-06-14, Four Pines Hostel, Catawba, VA

After the deconstruction of Dec 2014, Toe Salad was put to rest for an indefinite period of time, while Damien focused most of his energies on increasing our income. But Damien is not just a highly proficient web developer (how he supports our family), he's a visionary-entrepreneur-adventurer. He simply must be developing his ideas with technical tools as an expression of his vision and values.

So Outsideways was re-imagined and re-built to bring together two of Damien's great interests: technology and the outdoors. Having identified a need in the outdoor community for a well-designed, non-Facebook, social networking tool for adventure journaling, Damien created one, applying all his technical know-how and skills, with the first-hand knowledge of an experienced outdoors adventurer. Damien always amazes me with his innovative ideas and his ability to follow through on these ideas. Damien is not just a dreamer but a doer, and I admire him greatly for this.

05-20-14, Grayson Highlands, VA

While out on the trail, experiencing the unique community that exists around trail life, and spending six months living out of a backpack, I had an idea: What this world needs is a social/journaling site, geared towards the outdoors, without the irrelevant fluff found in "those other" social media sites. I don't want to wade through posts about silly pet tricks and political flame wars to find the good posts about people doing cool and inspirational stuff. I can't be the only one who feels this way.
from Outsideways About page.

Damien is a high hopes and big dreams kind of guy and not surprisingly he has high hopes and big dreams for Outsideways. He envisions a large community of people sharing their outdoor adventures and stories. Outsideways as a gathering place and a source of inspiration and trip ideas, along with practical, on the ground adventuring know-how and experience. But to get anywhere with those dreams the site needs members and journals.

Outsideways is an outdoor adventure journaling community. A place for outdoor enthusiasts and adventure seekers to gather and share their stories. A place for friends, family, and worried mothers to follow the journey. Think of it as a mashup of microblogging and social media, but strictly on the topic of outdoor adventuring.

Last spring Damien asked me if I could support him and help build Outsideways by journaling about our thru-hike.

04-20-14, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN

"Do you really want me to do that?", I asked him. "Because if I'm writing about our hike, I'm writing my story. I'm not writing from the family's perspective. I'm writing from mine. And as you know, it's brutiful."

I won't write embarrassing things about my loved ones, or other people. (At least it is not my intention to do so.) And I can't tell stories that aren't mine to tell. But neither can I be dishonest about my experience.

I warned Damien I'm going to write my experience. Damien is secure in his identity, secure in us and without hesitation he said, "I wouldn't expect otherwise". Or he may have just said "Ok", which in his lexicon would carry the same meaning.

05-25-14, Chatfield Memorial Shelter, VA

While we were hiking I kept a trail journal. I wrote it in almost every day. I recorded our mileage, where we camped and notable points along the trail. I wrote about the people we met. I wrote my thoughts, feelings and frustrations. I wrote the good stuff and the bad stuff. In short form, I wrote about my life on the trail.

I filled two and half Rite in the Rain All Weather Notebooks. Those daily and near daily entries, together with my photography, is what I'm posting on Outsideways.

I'm writing our hike. I'm writing my hike.

05-11-14, Turtle in Pond Mountain Wilderness, TN

Even my trail diaries, written in the moment, didn't capture and can't communicate the experience fully. When I was having a bad day, which was often, I didn't write lines and lines of angst detailing all the physical and emotional difficulties of the day. "I was in a foul mood today", was how I summed up a lot of those experiences.

It wasn't just the difficulties that were hard to express. The startling beauty of a bright red eft emerging from brown leaf litter after the rain, hiking up to a sweeping vista after hours in the trees, the warmth and goodwill of a crackling campfire, the delight of meeting a lumbering turtle on the path - I had to mostly rely on photography to capture these experiences. So many daily beauties, without which I could not have continued. For which, I had agreed to this journey in the first place.

05-11-14, Watauga Lake, TN

Writing my journal at Outsideways is also giving me the push I need to finish editing our trail photos. It's been two and a half years since we finished and I still haven't edited all the photos, a task I usually keep on top of in my normal life, but one that was way too daunting when we finished our hike.

I need to re-live and celebrate the beauty of our hike through my photography. And I need to re-read those painful diary entries from this side of the story. The side where I know how the story ends - in healing, deeper self-awareness, and stronger relationships.

As I go through the photos, as I re-read and then post my daily trail log as a journal at Outsideways what I feel most strongly is gratitude for entire experience (What an amazing adventure!), nostalgia for a time in our family life that we will never be able to re-capture or re-live, appreciation for the beauty of nature and people, and compassion for myself as I remember the dark places I've been.

04-07-14, Deep Gap Shelter, GA

I invite you to follow my journal if outdoor adventures are of interest to you. Or if you're an AT junkie like many of us are who have lived a season of our life on the Appalachian Trail.

I invite you to start your own journals of your outdoor adventures. It doesn't have to be "deep", or about living or working through a life-changing experience. My other journals are lighthearted and happy posts of trails we've hiked, places we've skied, adventures we've had.

« Making things new-ish (and how we built this blog)
Spring Fever »
  • Misti

    Misti on April 11, 2017, 1:50 p.m.

    "In one day (in one hour!) I would transition from beautiful to brutal, multiple times." ----I know exactly what you mean. And I think I can identify with many of your feelings as an AT thru-hiker, too. The inability to express the right words for the feelings and sights you felt and saw. I didn't keep a journal on our hike. I might have written a few things down here and there with some information but I left for the hike not wanting to be the primary documentarian, something I normally am in 'real life'. I didn't really take many photos and I didn't write much down. I blogged, sure, and I wrote things up after the hike, but during? Nope. There weren't words. There still aren't, usually.

    I get it, Renee. I didn't experience your hike, but I see some parallels in my own. I started watching the videos on YouTube when the first few episodes came out but I need to go back and finish. I tend to keep the AT at arm's length these days because I get wistful for the hike.


    • Renee

      Renee on April 11, 2017, 2:34 p.m.

      Misti, I'm so happy you commented here. I know that you know :)

      You said, "There weren't words." Exactly!

      I think this is why communities form around shared experiences. It's a group of people who "get it". The trail community, recovery communities, grief communities. A lot of experiences can't be shared with humanity-as-a-whole. For example, I don't understand what it's like to lose a child. And when that happens, you don't have the words and you want to be part of group who understands that. And can feel your experience without the words.

      A trail community is similar. Thank you for commenting.


  • Blythe

    Blythe on April 14, 2017, 12:35 p.m.

    Hi Renee,

    Thank you for sharing this post. This week I completed my very first overnight backpacking trip with Graham. It was amazing,and I thought of you and your family often. I was amazed at the weight of the pack, and I only had to wear it for 2 days!!!! It is early in the season, and the thru hikers are starting to come my way. I doubt that I will ever do the entire AT, but I do love the feeling of having all my belongings on my back. I look forward to spending more time outside. Graham actually has the goal of hiking for extended periods of time and taking pictures. What a beautiful idea. I look forward to reading more from you.

    Best Wishes, Blythe


    • Renee

      Renee on April 14, 2017, 12:45 p.m.

      I know. I loved that feeling of having everything on my back. For a long distance hike with kids it was a little bit of a false feeling since we had to have some boxes in storage with friends who would send stuff we needed when we asked for it. So technically, everything we needed was not our backs but pretty close. There was a freedom in that.

      Graham might be interested to follow our friend Amelia's trail journal at Outsideways. Amelia is an 18 year old homeschool grad and she is hiking the PCT this year. I met her mom Kyndale online years ago and have watched Amelia grow up in the same way people have watched our children grow up, through blogging, FB and social media. So interesting.

      Anyway, Graham, might be interested in another young person's long distance hiking experience.


  • Amy

    Amy on April 17, 2017, 3:27 a.m.

    Renee, We loved meeting you guys on the trail and think of you often. Just did some trail magic at I -40 (Waterville) this year and remembered crossing the Pigeon River with your family after we hiked down from Davenport Gap. The girls are returning in May to hike in VA near the Grayson Highlands. They are taking two families with them and I am supporting them. Our new baby girl is eight months and I guess one day we'll take her on some section hikes. Before we did our thru hike, I didn't know that some people did it in sections. I don't think I could do another thru hike, but it was amazing and I go there in my mind almost every day. Hope you are well, Amy James


You can subscribe to comments on this article using this form.

If you have already commented on this article, you do not need to do this, as you were automatically subscribed.