By Sam Holcombe
In 2012, I had been working as a successful cosmetologist in a men's salon for six years. I was in demand, making good money, but something was missing.
I was 30 and was creating the life I saw in catalogs and fashion magazines, fully embracing and profiting from the “Metrosexual” movement that was in vogue at the time. I would get my hair colored each month. I received manicures and pedicures regularly. My eyebrows were perfectly shaped and tweezed. I was clean shaven. I bought a three-bedroom house, designer furniture to fill it, high-end equipment to outfit the kitchen, even though I rarely cooked. I purchased dress shirts in every color, suits for every occasion, and copious amounts of expensive clothing to fill my walk-in closet. I was doing hair for a good number of executives at the largest corporation in town, but still wasn't fulfilled. It didn't bring me joy. It was starting not to be fun.
I began thinking of escaping. To what? I daydreamed of the time I had spent outdoors in Boy Scouts or at wilderness survival camps as a youth. I started thinking about opportunities to go get wild again, to live in the woods, to be truly alone. Not long after realizing that a trail would be ideal, my brother turned me on to the most epic and underrated trail in my home state of North Carolina, the Mountains to Sea Trail. It seemed like an invitation; an obvious signal that this was a pretty good next step in my life.
Once I was in a position to do so, I quit the Salon and began training for my first solo thru-hike on the Mountains to Sea Trail. I did 20+ mile urban hikes with weighted packs on. After all those months of training and yearning to be out there, I started the hike on my 31st birthday. During that, my first solo thru-hike, I enjoyed many moments of bliss. I achieved deeper and more frequent feelings of emotional connectedness and happiness without seeking it. I started realizing that it was possible to feel fulfilled and happy without a lot of stuff, like that in my home, most of which, ironically, was designed to recreate those same feelings of happiness. The less I carried, the less I had to account for, the less I had reason to stress, the less cluttered my mind was, the more able my mind was to wander, the easier it was to naturally and automatically become “present in the moment”.
Two and half years later, I said goodbye to the town where I was born, the only one I had ever called home, and moved to Florida. I chose Florida for love; I had a relationship with a woman in Tampa, but also the lure of a long trail, one of the National Scenic Trails. What better way to get to know your new home than to walk across it?
During the 51 days of my thru-hike, the Florida Trail kept its promise. The promise of solitude. The promise of beauty and knowledge. The promise of better understanding the geography, the people, and myself. What especially struck me about the Florida Trail is the well-organized and available network of Trail Angels, and the enthusiasm of its hikers and neighbors. There are scores of volunteers, young and old. Fans of the trail have written detailed guides to help hikers. There is much passion for the FT, yet, in contrast, I met many folks who had never heard of it - even though it runs right in front of their houses; or worse, those who know about it, but don't care to see its value.
Values of the trail most obvious to me after hiking its 1101.7 miles are the exposure to natural and rural areas as well as hidden parts of towns and cities, the genuine people and happenings of the world you witness, the transformative beauty of the Florida Landscape and the adjacent natural areas that are now protected and respected because of their proximity to the trail.
Thru hiking, in general, changed my life; it helped me transition from being the type of person who obsessively collects things and compulsively grooms and primps, to becoming someone that obsessively combs through his life, looking for opportunities to purge and trim where ever he can and enjoy simple pleasures.
On the trail, the repetition and simplicity of setting up and breaking down my campsite became a Zen meditation: lay ground cloth down, unroll sleeping pad on top; exhale nine deep breaths to inflate it, release four buckles on the compression sac, remove sleeping bag, shake to promote lofting, lay bag on sleeping pad, remove cooking set up from backpack, pour water into pot, light stove, boil water, change clothes, add hot water to food, eat, sleep....and repeat. I streamlined my routine and therefore, my life. I narrowed my focus on the same goal everyday: moving forward.
I certainly feel more comfortable in my own skin. Confident that I am being true and real to others and myself. I am, for the most part, stress free. I am more accepting of and able to deal with extraordinary situations, whatever they may be.
The Florida Trail itself changed my perception of what a thru hike can be. It provides a unique experience for first time hikers and big mile veterans alike, showcasing varied landscapes, terrain, and wildlife, allowing frequent ease of access to the trail and resupply points, and boasting a unique group of devoted Trail Angels and outdoor enthusiasts. The Florida Trail is only one of eleven National Scenic Trails, but it is most certainly Florida's greatest treasure.
You can follow Sam's adventures on his Facebook page, Sammertime Saunters.