The Downside of Goals

The most difficult aspect of a goal is not in its achievement, but in the aftermath of a successful completion. After spending a great deal of time and energy in the planning and execution of such an endeavor, there is that inevitable letdown that follows once the task is accomplished. With over 1,100 miles of wilderness ahead of me, I am nowhere near the finish of the Appalachian Trail; but I have experienced a bit of that letdown this past week.

The Shenandoah River near Harpers Ferry, West Virignia.

Since the beginning of my journey, I have eagerly looked forward to reaching Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Rich in history, from John Brown’s raid to changing hands eight times during the Civil War, Harpers Ferry is also rich in natural beauty. But the biggest draw for me was the promise of seeing nearby family, and having the opportunity to spend time with them off the trail. I was highly motivated the week prior to reaching the town, and was able to cover over 160 miles in that time despite less than ideal weather conditions. My feet were in rough shape after days of walking in sodden socks and boots, but it was worth it, as I was able to spend five relaxing days with family.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy located in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

As wonderful as that downtime was, I was eager to get back out on the trail. After all the overstimulation that civilization has to offer, I looked forward to the serenity of the forest and the simple daily routine that I had grown to find so comforting. Yet the first miles of hiking were extremely tough and slow going. A combination of factors likely contributed to this sluggishness: I was off my normal sleeping schedule, adjusting to new shoes, and trying to overcome the inertia that set in after so many days of inactivity. But I believe a large component was psychological in nature – that “now what?” feeling that sinks in after accomplishing a big goal. The saving grace was that a good friend of mine had joined me for the Maryland stretch, and her company helped me push through the lulls in my energy while I readapted to trail life. After four laggard days, my energy finally picked back up, and I felt ready to conquer the next half of the trail.

Crossing the Mason-Dixon Line is a big milestone for AT hikers.

But the short stretch of dreariness did turn my attention to what lies ahead. What will happen when I finish the trail? It took years of dreaming, months of planning and execution, and it will all be over one day. Then what? This is a common concern among thru-hikers, and a frequent topic of our conversations. Life is a series of these “now what” moments. We set a goal, achieve or fall short of it, and then must think of our next move. So what’s my next move after Mount Katahdin? Well, there’s still plenty more miles and time left to ponder until I reach that crossroad. For now, my goal is to enjoy the length of trail before me as I begin to walk through my seventh state: Pennsylvania.

Sometimes it’s difficult to avoid tunnel vision on the trail.


Until our paths cross again,

     Ashley Sylvan

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