“So, statistically speaking, only 1 of the 5 of you will make it all the way to Katahdin. The rest of you may as well get out of the car now,” the hostel driver declared, mocking the probability of any one of us completing this peculiar life dream of walking from Georgia to Maine.
We all chuckled half-heartedly as we cruised up to Amicalola Falls, the old southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Embittered by the audacity of the statement, we each ruminated on the impossibility of failure. We had all quit our jobs, minimized our lives down to what could fit in a backpack, and set off alone on a long and tiresome odyssey. We already saw ourselves on top of the Katahdin sign, looking back at the thousands of miles that lay behind us, thousands of miles we walked every step of as we followed the white blazes mindlessly north.
The difference between me and those other 4 men, who sat giddily smushed in the car with protruding packs in their laps, was that I had already failed at this very dream. This was far from the beginning of my Appalachian Trail journey.
Two years prior I had attempted this very trek. I had walked over 1,200 miles only to wake up in my home state of Pennsylvania with the inability to walk without excruciating pain. My heart told me I could keep slowly trodding to Maine, but the MRI proved the statistic: that I would be part of that 80 percent that would fail.
So when I went back to square 1 to start the beast over in 2017 I did not need the math lesson in improbability. It was improbable enough that a 22 year old Latina woman from Center City Philadelphia would find herself along the oldest mountain range in the world. Even more improbable that I’d be sitting next to the stranger I would fall in love with in a few weeks time when a late season storm would transform the Great Smoky Mountains into a snowy narnia.
Yet, despite the probabilities, I walked every damn mile of the trail that year. I wore the coveted title of “Thru-Hiker” proudly as I stood at the precipice of Katahdin on a cloudy September morning. In the event that anyone forgot I was an odds-defying superhero, I had my mom mail me my old Halloween costume, a Wonder Woman outfit. The ensemble was complete with a metallic gold Velcro belt and a cape that swayed valiantly up above 5,000 ft.
Officially a Thru-Hiker after hiking the entirety of the Appalachian Trail over 6 months and 10 days in 2017.
You see, thru-hiking isn’t just something you do. Rather, it is an identity we cling to in a society that fails to create meaning and purpose for many of us. It’s a badge of honor, medal of endurance, and a magical subculture that has crafted its own values — values that often stand in stark opposition to those of capitalistic society.
Our faith in humanity is restored on trail. “Trail Angels” replenish our soul with kindness and sustenance that is expected to be paid forward rather than reciprocated. We learn to live simply in a world ravaged by consumerism because more equates to heavier, not better.
And, lastly, we experience a taste of freedom. We have, albeit briefly, broken from our destiny of ending up one of those crane necked hominids stuck in a cubicle with a glowing screensaver of a distant spring forest bursting with budding wildflowers.
Over time we become a Hiker with a capital H. It is no longer a hobby or an eccentric vacation, but a part of our identity that is deeply rooted in our gnarled toes.
Left: My 1,800-mile journey on the PCT painted inside my own hiker silhouette. Right: The photo of me on Bishop Pass in the High Sierra that inspired the painting.
There is nothing wrong with this designation, but I must ask one question. Who are you beyond a Hiker? How do you find meaning off-trail? Because for most of us, at some point, the cycle of work, adventure, repeat will come to a halt.
Maybe we simply get older and settle down to have a family, sustain an injury that renders walking with a heavy pack for months a bad idea, or perhaps a global pandemic will plague the land.
For the majority of my 20s I have worked a myriad of odd jobs to fund adventures. I’ve hiked the AT one and a half times, 1,800 miles of the PCT, and the desert section of the Israel Nation Trail. To enable these multi-month trips, I’ve worked minimum wage retail jobs, corporate sales positions, canvassing gigs and occasionally sold an abstract painting or two.
During my time in “Babylon” I told my friends that I didn’t eat out, go to bars or buy frivolous things. All funds and energy went towards the next adventure. If I wasn’t hiking, I was planning the next hike while commemorating the last voyage with scrapbooks and stories of the time I was truly “living.”
Then COVID-19 hit.
With nothing but two small 20L daypacks, my partner and I had set out for a vacation in Costa Rica before COVID was a household name. Little did we know that within two weeks of our arrival all returning flights would be canceled, all National Parks would shut down, and we would only be allowed to drive twice a week as dictated by the last number on our rental car license plate.
While being stuck in a foreign country during a global pandemic is definitely a unique experience, I know that I am not alone in having my whole life plan disrupted right now.
My modus operandi for as long as I could remember has been work, hike, repeat. Then suddenly, I wasn’t working OR hiking.
I had to face the frustrating truth that the cumulative years I spent walking north didn’t make a dent in my existential woes. I learned a lot about myself over 5,000 miles of sauntering in the woods, but I never imagined that I actually needed to sit still for a minute to have my “AHA moment.” In my romantic vision of life I always figured that clarity would reside at the end of the next thru-hike, not during quarantine.
“Mountain Meditation” Painting. A self-portrait of me meditating during quarantine.
When I returned home after each hike, I embraced the ethos of Cindy Ross’ quote, “Returning home is the most difficult part of long-distance hiking; You have grown outside the puzzle and your piece no longer fits.”
While the quote legitimized my post-trail blues, it also reinforced the notion that I didn’t have a way to happily exist off-trail since my “piece no longer fits” in the puzzle of society; a sentiment echoed by social media where many of my trail friends seemed to be living in the past of their thru-hikes or preparing for the next one.
The well-intentioned quote forgot that us hikers are capable of improbable and tough things. It failed to mention that If you can walk in rain, snow and hail for thousands of miles with the weight of a small child on your back, you can most certainly carve your own puzzle piece to fit in a life off-trail. You have endured and overcome too much not to use your hike as a motivating force.
So I started to paint.
Left: Me starting to paint trail art while stuck in Costa Rica. Right: My “Hiker Diet” Design.
Still stuck in Costa Rica a month later, with nothing but a small set of watercolors and a tiny pad of paper, I began to create. My nostalgia for thru-hiking and the quirky community of hikers flowed out of me in fantastical forms, vibrant drawings and surreal landscapes.
I started to craft my own portal to the trail through art, and in the process found an unlikely way to align my passions. I realized I’m not just a Hiker, but a Hiker Artist.
Inspired by photos of “The Blackalachian”
I had heard time and time again throughout my life that “making it” as an Artist was an impossible venture. The word Artist, more often than not, was preceded by the word struggling, as if to drive the point home. Yet I could not stop painting. Much like when I set off to hike the AT, despite the potential frivolity of walking north for 6 months and my family’s hesitation, I knew I needed to paint.
I painted forests, deserts and jungles. I time traveled through my paintbrush to McAfee's Knob, the High Sierra, Max Patch, and the trails of Fiji. I painted the hiking community not just how it is today, but with the diversity and inclusivity that I want to see consume trail culture.
Inspired by a photo of “Baskets.”
If I could, I would paint every hiker a portal back to the trail. Not so they could live in the past glory of their trip, but so they can have a constant visual reminder of what a badass they are — a resilient badass that is capable of improbable feats, perhaps even in the midst of a global pandemic.
Alina “Abstract” Drufovka is a Colombian-American painter and illustrator based out of Philadelphia, PA. She has hiked the Appalachian Trail (2015 & 2017), Pacific Crest Trail (2019) and Israel National Trail (2018). She is also an outdoor professional and hopes to inspire more women and people of color to get outside and explore the trails!