I felt like I was born a long way from where I was supposed to be and I was just trying to find my way home.
Bob Dylan, singer-songwriter (also my namesake)
Between April 3 and September 1, 2018, I hiked the entire Appalachian Trail—traversing 2,190.9 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. After I finished, I bicycled 1,046 miles back down, following the East Coast Greenway and ending my journey in Richmond, Virginia, on September 25: 3,236.9 total miles of human-powered adventure.
I’m sure you’re thinking, “Are you completely insane?!”
And, while the jury is still out on that… I can tell you that it was simultaneously the most difficult yet rewarding thing I’ve ever done. There are many questions that I’ve gotten about my journey, but the most difficult and yet perhaps most important to answer is, “Why did you do it?”
In order to fully answer that question, even for myself, I had to hike and bike 3,236 miles before I could really even begin to connect the dots. That’s the funny thing about life: you can rarely connect the dots looking forward, only looking back. In other words, hindsight is 20/20.
Before my journey began, back on January 19, 2018, I wrote in my personal journal, “I just want to experience the immediacy of nature and the necessity of survival within her all-encompassing reach. To celebrate my spirit and vowing never to let my freedom or happiness be stifled by the hand of another person, ever again. I want to go. To celebrate. To heal. My spirit stirs and my fire sparks… never to be put out again.”
I first had the idea to hike the trail back in 2015. It was my first year of graduate school, so naturally I was miserable and wanted any excuse to run away from the world and spend 6 months in the woods, right?
However, due to a fateful series of events, I was unable to give this idea much further thought. While at a doctor’s appointment, my nurse found an irregularity with my heart and insisted on doing further testing and eventually referred me to a cardiologist.
A couple days later, I was diagnosed with Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM), a genetic heart disease that causes the heart muscle to grow abnormally thick and can lead to sudden cardiac arrest and, in many unfortunate cases, death. A couple months and many tests later, I went into surgery to have a Cardioverter Defibrillator implanted in my chest, in hopes of it saving my life in case I suffered a sudden cardiac arrest.
My world as I knew it was altered and my paradigm shattered. I was 23 years old and had a pacemaker/defibrillator. To say the least, I felt betrayed by my body. I didn’t know what I could or could not do anymore. To be young yet not feel in control of one’s own body is a kind of mental hell I never want experience again.
It devastated me and made me feel helpless. But my soul never stopped craving adventure. I still felt compelled to do these things that made my spirit stir when I thought about them. It took a few years, but eventually my soul convinced my mind that my body was ready, and I decided it was time. I finally made that decision only one month before beginning the trail.
I was having a conversation with my therapist while back home in Arkansas. She had listened to me complain about my restlessness for a while, and one day she interrupted me, saying, “Dylan, you are Julia Roberts.” I thought: Well yeah... look at my smile. And, I mean, I too think that I’m America’s Sweetheart. I just haven’t been discovered yet, but it’s only a matter of ti-...
But she went on before I could finish my thoughts: “I mean that you are Julia Roberts in The Runaway Bride... you don’t know who you are. You’ve never figured out how you like your eggs. You need to know how you like your eggs before you can move on with your life. Before you can let go and become the person you are meant to be, you have to find out how you want your eggs.”
What may sound to you like the rumblings of a drunk sorority girl, funneling Taco Bell into her mouth at 2:00 am, actually resonated very powerfully with me. She was absolutely right. I didn’t know how I liked my eggs. In other words, I had no clue who I was. I knew only who I needed to be and that I was able to adapt to any situation, out of necessity.
From an early age, I had to learn how to adapt in order to survive. I had lost both of my parents by the age of 15, and learned pretty quickly how to take care of myself to get through life. But now that I had made my way to early adulthood, I had absolutely no idea who I was or what I wanted to do with that survival—and it was time that I found out.
Or, as an old woman on the train to Raleigh from Richmond after I finished told me: “Just survivin’ ain’t living, child. You gotta live to even want to survive.”
Truer words have never been spoken.
To say I wasn’t ready would be an understatement. I was embarrassingly unprepared. I had no idea what I was getting into. To answer another question I get a lot, the main thing I related to in the book and movie Wild was when the main character throws her boot off a mountain, screaming “F**K YOU B***H!” at the top of her lungs.
Only, that feeling wasn’t a climactic point of my journey—it was my sentiment at least twice a day, every day. It was difficult way more often than it was easy. It was trying more often than it was enjoyable. It was work more often than it was play. But then, aren’t all the truly life-changing things?
I tend to sugar coat my reality when portraying it to others, and some people seem to think I have my s**t together.
Spoiler Alert: I don’t—not at all.
Those who followed my Instagram and Facebook during this journey saw many photos of spectacular views and scenery, and probably tidbits of inspirational bullshit I sometimes spout to accompany them. Some might call this a “highlight reel” of life: I simply call it the Southern way.
However, I know that any real journey lives within the space between those highlights, the spaces where the struggle happens and the challenges test you. It is where the loneliness, the pain, the grief, the doubt, and fear sets in… where it rained for 11 days in row, preventing me from seeing any views except for the mud on the ground filling my shoes. It is where I sat crying in Pennsylvania because my feet hurt worse than ever before, and I kept getting lost on the supposedly best-marked trail in the world.
It was where I was forced to accept the reality of my existence and learn to accept and love myself. That space is where my journey began and where it completely changed my perspective. That space of struggle is where this journey saved my life.
This short series of columns is the story of that journey.
Check back monthly at Out & About Nashville for more from Dylan about his 3,236 mile trek.