Finding adventure and purpose along the Appalachian Trail
Hungry for adventure
Hannah Cornwell ‘19 was antsy.
Like many recent college graduates, the pandemic had upended her life, leaving her stuck at home and hungry for adventure. She recalled having seen videos of the Appalachian Trail on YouTube as a student and was especially drawn to the life-changing impacts it was rumored to have on its hikers.
“In all of the videos, you hear that it’s a magical place,” she said. “A place to go find yourself, what you want to do, what next steps in life you want to take.”
And so, bolstered by the promise of adventure, the Duluth native set out to take those steps, 2,193.1 miles of them to be exact, in a journey along the longest hiking-only footpath in the world.
Having never backpacked before, Cornwell spent three months researching, reading and even hiking sections of the Superior Hiking Trail to prepare for her trek. Once she began, her pack weighed in at 30 pounds and was equipped with the essentials: tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, phone, credit cards, stove, food and water. Since her hike would span several months and seasons, she also needed seasonal clothes and multiple pairs of shoes.
Luckily, the research paid off and most of her gear lasted the duration of her journey.
Friendship on the trail
When it came to the mental toll of the Appalachian Trail, however, Cornwell acknowledged nothing could have prepared her for the grueling experience.
“Five straight months of hiking, not getting enough rest, being away from home; mentally, I wasn’t fully prepared for that,” she said. “It was way harder than I thought it would be.”
Through it all, Cornwell adopted a new mantra: don’t quit on a bad day. These words, coupled with her family’s on-ground support and a tight-knit group of hikers she met along the way, helped her persevere and discover her “trail legs.”
“You really bond out there in a way that you don’t necessarily experience off the trails. Everyone was going through the same hardship at the same time, so I relied on people to pull me out of bad places when I didn’t feel like hiking.”
One of those hikers remained with Cornwell for over 2,100 miles and together, they finished their journey from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Katahdin, Maine on July 12, 2021.
In total, her hike across the Appalachian Trail lasted 145 days. Cornwell considered it the perfect antidote to her pandemic-induced restlessness.
A transformative experience
“I wanted to go out and complete a challenge and the trail did exactly that,” she said. “It challenged me and let me see the country in a way that a lot of people don’t get to see it.”
The experience was also transformative. For Cornwell, each mile was a powerful reminder of her strength and capability to tackle adversity, even in the face of steep elevation changes, uncertain weather and unavoidable blisters. Challenges aside, her advice to those who are considering tackling the Appalachian Trail is unwavering.
“Go do it!” she shared. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve never done it before. People in the hiking community are so willing to give advice and share information. You’re not going to regret doing it and you’re going to learn something about yourself along the way.”
As for her next adventure, Cornwell, a psychology major, will head cross-country once again, this time for graduate studies in clinical psychology at the University of Texas-Tyler. But she’s not ruling out another long hike in the future.
“I need to wait a few years,” she laughed. “I’m pretty tired.”
You can see pictures from Cornwell’s adventure across the Appalachian Trail on her Instagram page.