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How a Thru-Hike on the Appalachian Trail Changed My Perspective and Shaped My Goals

A tale of frustration, inspiration and the transformative power of long distance backpacking.

By: Chris Bianchi + Save to a List

Thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail have a lot of time to think. They amble ever northward (or southward) mile after mile, day after day contemplating everything from the gourmet lunch they can craft from crushed tortillas, raisins and a packet of mayonnaise, to the metaphysical curiosities within every element of existence. They consider the world around them and their place in it. Many reflect on their lives before the trail, life on the trail and where life will take them after the trail. The latter is where I would begin to focus as I navigated northward on the AT in 2014.

Sunrise over Max Patch, NC/TN border

I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of northwestern New Jersey where I developed a love of the outdoors, a passion for design and the lust for adventure. For years my goal was to build a business based on those passions, but procrastination and the distractions of everyday life constantly obscured that vision. Struggling to focus on a direction, I graduated from college with a degree in graphic design and spent several years working for a marketing agency, all the while dreaming of the future I wanted to create. I knew I had this goal, but trying to envision what direction to take it in was like diving underwater and looking up at the surface. You can see things are there, but it’s constantly rippling and shifting so you never can make out exactly what you’re looking at. It was incredibly frustrating.

This is the case for many of us. We dream of our ideal future while scrolling through the social media highlight reels of people living inspired lives - never realizing each of us has the potential to create a similar life. Many of us might start working toward a goal only to fizzle out as everyday distractions interrupt our focus, or worse, we never even take the first step. Fortunately, all of this would start to change when I decided to set out on the Appalachian Trail. 

Sunrise from McAfee Knob

As soon as I set foot on the trail, the fog of everyday life began to lift. I was transported from a life of nine-to-fives, bills and mundane routines to something much simpler yet more fulfilling. The simplicity of life on the trail cleared my mind allowing me to focus attention from the cadence of routine distractions to the goals I had largely been neglecting. With my goals for the future coming into focus, inspiration began to flow from the mountains, the forests, the people and the places. The rainy days and sunny vistas, the ups and the downs, conversations from the light to the profound - with every mile it all began to take shape and suddenly the goal became clear. I simply wanted to create artwork inspired by the spirit of adventure. I always loved the classic look of vintage t-shirts and screen printed posters so that’s what I would do. I would create apparel, posters, stickers and more for the people who are equally inspired by a life of adventure - “Art for the Adventurous.” And with the philosophy that “adventure begins where comfort ends,” this brand would be inspired by more than the highlights of adventure. It would draw from the struggles of taking on the unknown as well. The wrong turns and close calls, the challenges and setbacks would all weave their way into the story just as they wove their way into my journey on the Appalachian Trail.

Fighting through wind and rain over the summit of Baldpate Mountain, Maine.

This restorative nature of the trail on one’s mind is among the unexpected beauties of long distance backpacking. Not only does the trail focus and inspire, it teaches us the value of dedication and maintaining forward motion. On the trail procrastinating means not moving, and if you’re not moving you’re never going to finish. With every step closer to Mt. Katahdin I learned about staying committing to a goal, and standing on top of that mountain I realized if I was able to walk over 2,000 miles to get here, I can do pretty much anything.  

The summit of Mt. Katahdin, Maine. From left to right - Trail Lobster, Grizzzelle, Bangarang, Dancing Feather, Baguette (me) and Viking - only half of "Team LOBO" and an even smaller portion of all the amazing people we met on the trail.

With this newfound inspiration and finally a clear direction, I went back to work at the marketing agency to rebuild my finances where I landed on a brand name: Ugly Bison Design Co. The story behind that is for another time. When I had enough money saved, I left the agency behind and moved out west (which had been another goal of mine for some time) where I’ve started chipping away at my goal. Procrastination still presents itself as an obstacle, but with a clear goal in mind and the drive to maintain forward motion I’m able to push through it. There’s no shortage of challenges and uncertainty, but just like thru-hiking I take it day by day, keeping the end goal in sight while remembering I’m not going to get there all at once.

One of the biggest challenges has been funding which is why I decided to launch Ugly Bison Design Co. on Kickstarter this month. This type of brand is nothing new to Kickstarter. In fact, brands like this are a dime a dozen, but it’s where my passion lies and when a person pursues their passion, they’re able to take the ordinary and make it extraordinary. This campaign is a modest start, but like the first step on a 2,000-mile journey it sets the pace for a monumental accomplishment. The campaign will run from February 8th to March 7th. If I reach my goal, I'll finally be able to launch an online shop and share my passion with others who are equally inspired by adventure. Like the Appalachian Trail, it's an intimidating undertaking, but I'm excited to see where it leads and I'm committed to seeing it through. 

A sticker based off the Ugly Bison Design Co. logo

The past couple years have been quite a journey and I’m blessed to have experienced some of the best that life has to offer. A lot of hard work and dedication resulted in experiences that have reshaped my perspective and direction in life. It saddens me when people say they wish they could be lucky enough to experience something like the Appalachian Trail, as if by some great fortune they’ll never know. I was able to partake in that adventure and the truth is you can do it. We all have the potential in us to pursue an extraordinary life. As a friend and fellow hiker put it, “luck has nothing to do with it.” Like a game of poker, we’re all dealt a different hand in life, but it’s not the luck of the draw that matters. It’s how you play your hand. I encourage anyone who has ever dreamed of embarking on an adventure, whether it’s road tripping across America, backpacking the AT or starting a business, to start taking the steps that will make that dream a reality. That first step has the potential to change your perspective and from there, your life.

In that spirit, please consider checking out the Ugly Bison Design Co. Kickstarter campaign. If you like what you see consider supporting the campaign. Who knows, it could change your life.

Members of "Team LOBO" with some fellow 2014 northbounders at Dismal Falls, Virginia. LOBO, or Lost Boys was the group of hikers made up of the two friends I started with and the hikers we joined up with on our journey north.

It can be hard to move forward with all the memories of the past. Trail Lobster and I debate forward motion at the "unofficial halfway point in Pennsylvania.

Left to right - myself, Bangarang, Grizzzelle and Dancing Feather on the boardwalk in New Jersey, just north of my hometown.

Trail Lobster and I eating breakfast on Race Mountain in Connecticut as the sun rises over clouds in the valley.

Hiker television.

Bangarang, Grizzzelle and Dancing Feather watching the sunset from Mt Liberty, New Hampshire. One of many memorable moments on the trail.

Bangarang and I watching the sunset above the clouds after our traverse of the Presidential Range, New Hampshire.

Crossing the New Hampshire/Maine border. Crossing into the final state and seeing Springer Mountain on the sign was a powerful reminder of the time, distance and experiences that led to this point.

As we left the 100 Mile Wilderness, the home stretch before Mt. Katahdin, we were bombarded by a freak October thunderstorm. It was as if Maine was giving us everything it had to stop us. We emerged as the clouds broke to this view of our destination as seen from from Abol Bridge. After 6 months and 2000 miles, there it was.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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