The Life-Changing Power of Hiking the Appalachian Trail

After thru-hiking the AT, Farmington native Briana DeSanctis is preparing to go coast-to-coast on the American Discovery Trail.

Briana DeSanctis first discovered her passion for hiking in 2014 while tackling the Maine portion of the Appalachian Trail. She was completing Maine in 30-mile sections and had just finished the leg that ends at the Height of Land near Rangeley. “I remember coming out of the trail, and I looked across the road and saw that next white blaze.” In that moment, DeSanctis realized she didn’t want the trail to end. Six months later, she quit her job and flew to Georgia to become one of the 3,000-plus yearly thru-hikers who attempt the 2,190-mile journey from Springer Mountain to the top of Mount Katahdin. But for DeSanctis, who grew up in Farmington, it was never about the numbers. “I feel like this is the way we were intended to live. It’s not about going to work, punching the clock every day, checking social media, doing all the things we get caught up in doing. To me, it’s about being out there,” she says. “You have really high highs, and sometimes you have really low lows, but you feel everything, and I think that’s really important. You’re living your life deliberately.”

Imagine this: Every morning for six months, you wake up in a sleeping bag. Maybe you’ve camped in a tent, or maybe you were too tired to set it up last night, and so you’re sandwiched in a lean-to between other hikers who, like you, call each other by strange names and smell of some combination of Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap, body odor, and instant mashed potatoes. You boil water for oatmeal or scarf down some granola bars, and then you stuff everything you own into a big backpack, heft it onto your shoulders, and start walking. Your only job is to follow the stripes of white paint through the woods. You measure time in blisters and bottles of purified water, wildlife sightings, sore leg muscles, mountains climbed. Every day holds fierce struggle and deep joy. Just when you think you might not make it, you feel something within you start to shift. Then, when you finally get off the trail, all you can think about is how to come back.

Soon, DeSanctis—whose trail name is Rocky Mountain High due to her fondness for Colorado—is about to return to the trail life. This December, she will set out to walk 5,057 miles across the country on the American Discovery Trail—a coast-to-coast non-motorized route that connects existing trails through major cities, small towns, forests, mountains, deserts, and remote wilderness, from Delaware’s Cape Henlopen State Park to Point Reyes National Seashore in California. “The AT really wasn’t long enough for me,” she says. “I wasn’t ready to be finished.”

To soak up all she can from this thru-hike, she’s chosen the southern route of the American Discovery Trail, because it’s longer. “I can’t wait to be free. To put my feet in the Atlantic Ocean in the middle of winter, and turn around and start walking west,” DeSanctis says. Her trek will take over a year. DeSanctis plans to write about her journey and to send updates from the road. “I want to share it with other people. There’s so much more life out there than the boundaries of your county or state. I want people to know they can do it.”

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