Twenty years ago this week I finished hiking the Appalachian Trail. It’s been my proudest accomplishment, and I think about it all the time.

People who read this column on a regular basis have likely picked up on a few of my recurring themes – perseverance and hard work. The lessons I learned on the Trail (which deserves a capital T) have helped me through life ever since, and I can’t help but write about them from time to time. They are universal themes and good guidance for a life that can be difficult, painful and uncomfortable.

It’s hard to convey how difficult the Trail really was. Most people have hiked but they’ve never hiked every day for six months straight. They’ve never slept on the ground or on the floor of a three-sided shelter for six months straight.

They’ve never hiked 15 or 20 miles and then not been able to take a shower to clean the grime and sweat off before going to bed. They’ve never been out in the forest alone with rattlers, bears and boars possibly lying in the bushes ahead. They’ve never stood at the start of the trail in Georgia and thought it an impossible task to walk to Maine 2,200 miles away.

The Trail was physically, spiritually and mentally daunting, and that’s why only 10 percent finish it. It took me three attempts (1997, ’98 and, finally, ’99) in fact, before I completed the goal.

The Trail was all about discomfort. The hiking alone was painful, thanks to the 50-pound pack on my back, the blisters, the falls, the rain and the heat of summer soaking everything straight through.

The camping consisted of sleeping on a 1-inch foam pad with mice crawling over me in shelters. One even bit me. Not fun. I hate mice more than anything, except snakes, which were also abundant.

Yes, the Trail is all about facing difficulties and overcoming them with patience and perseverance. As the saying among us northbound thru-hikers went, “No rain, no pain, no Maine.” You had to hike through rain and pain to make it to Maine before winter set in.

All of us, however, have difficulties to bear in daily life. I told my brother as we were hiking up Katahdin recently to celebrate my 20th anniversary that I consider my 15 years as a newspaper editor and reporter more difficult than hiking the Trail ever was. Holding a challenging job takes perseverance through many difficulties. Everyone who’s had a difficult job can attest to this fact. Life, in general, is hard – illness, marriage, all of it. Life would be meaningless if it weren’t difficult.

In addition to overcoming adversity, the other thing I tell inquiring minds is that the Trail was not just about experiencing God’s creation, it was about the people I met along the way. When I think of the Trail now, I mostly think about the interesting people I met.

My good friend Double Barrel (we used trail names, not real names) helped me along the way with good advice, good cheer and plenty of good times. I met three people from Portland on my first day on the Trail and hiked with them for eight days. I credit them for helping me not quit the whole escapade in that trying first week.

Indeed, my fellow hikers made my Appalachian Trail journey bearable. Isn’t the same in real life? Family and friends help us through the difficult journey making life bearable, as well.

John Balentine, a former managing editor for the Lakes Region Weekly, lives in Windham.

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