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The chorus of croaking intensifies as I round a gorgeous grove of verdant elm trees. Across the trail is a jade-green pond -- its water shimmering as it rushes over fallen branches and tumbles under a rustic bridge around the next turn. It’s a perfect hiking day, and I’m headed closer to the water to get a photo of algae-covered frogs when my dog, Pepper, nearly jumps straight into the air. He turns and hightails it back up the trail as my teen son grabs my arm and motions me to be still. And then I spot it: a kielbasa-thick, ink-black snake long enough to be a garden hose. I quickly step backward, catch my breath, and laugh.

Not long ago, I wouldn’t have been hiking here -- or anywhere for that matter -- and I certainly would not have laughed if my dog went vertical from spotting a snake. But a funny thing has happened as I’ve slowly explored the Appalachian Trail near my home in New Jersey; I’ve come to appreciate all the quirky, unexpected, and uncontrollable parts of nature encompassed in this protected hiking path.

The entrance to a portion of the Appalachian Trail.

Starting (Really) Slow

To say I wasn’t a hiker is to put it lightly. For a decade I drove past an A.T. sign for the famed, 2,000-mile-long trail that runs from Georgia to Maine and had no idea what it was. I actually pondered if it was some version of AT and T in the woods -- possibly a tree farm for telephone poles? (That’s a thing, right?)

Eventually, curiosity got the better of me, and research revealed that the sign leads the way to a popular Appalachian Trail hike. I was picturing a wooded picnic glen, so I purchased a sandwich and headed out. No map, no water, no hiking boots. I scrambled for about 20 minutes, wheezing for breath up what felt like a 90-degree all-rock trail that I now know is Stairway to Heaven, the steepest trail in the area. Winded and discouraged, I gave up and firmly swore never to hike again.

A newt on the Appalachian Trial.

Appalachian Trail, Take Two

Although I had decided to stay stalwartly urban, when my son was small, the whole family started to crave fresh air. We’d go to Upstate New York to pick apples and pumpkins, which slowly led to exploring the less-crowded natural areas nearby. Despite my belief that the Appalachian Trail was all rocks, my husband discovered that there were many flat, and very accessible, areas of the A.T. to explore near New York City.

Dubiously, I agreed to try one. Our first explorations took us to a lovely, well-maintained boardwalk over marshland, where tall golden grasses gave way to a wooden bridge over a stream. It was beautiful and easy, and just a mile of walking gave us great views and a quick immersion into nature.

As time progressed, we walked more. Being with a young child trained me to keep an eye out for the tiny wonders of the wilderness like tangerine-hued newts, hawks in the sky, and twitching tails of deer in the woods (and to always keep an eagle eye out for bears, which we’ve never encountered).

With my dog along, we started to hike more often, but not really further. A mile or two at a time is perfect for me -- just enough time to get out into the woods and enjoy the fresh air.

Colorful spring flowers along the Appalachian Trail.

It’s More Than Going From Point A To Point B

With nearly 160 miles of trails in New York and New Jersey, there are plenty of new paths to explore near where I live. I’m always surprised at how an old trail can feel like a new experience depending on factors like the weather, the season, and even the time of day, which is another reason I’m happy to explore just a mile at a time. Every season is a new view on the trail, with rich foliage or stark ice and snow, colorful spring flowers, or bright summer greenery. I can hike the same section and have it be completely different in new seasons. Or I can head somewhere new, like a protected bird sanctuary I recently discovered near another section of the trail, and meet entirely different wildlife and greenery, and still just hike single-digit miles.

The writer's dog on an Appalachian Trail hike.

The Right Tools For The Trail

One thing I’ve learned from hiking is to be prepared. Even with just short hikes, it’s more fun and comfortable to have the right footwear, so I’m all about lightweight hiking boots and all-terrain sneakers. I always bring water even if I’m only out for an hour because it can get really hot outdoors. While I love turning off my ringer and unplugging from social media and email while I’m hiking, having a phone is an important safety tool, so that’s always in my pack. Plus, there are some super cool apps that can be used offline. MapMyWalk keeps track of where I’m walking by mapping my trail so I can find my way back in case I get turned around. And PictureThis instantly identifies plants with just a phone camera snap, which I’ve found helpful with everything from identifying poison ivy to figuring out the names of flowers.

Lessons From The A.T.

I’ll admit it: Even after years of heading into the woods, I am not a great hiker, although I enjoy it more with every foray. A surgery years back left me with little core strength, and I discovered on a gorilla trekking trip to Rwanda just how bad my balance was as porters both pushed me from the back and pulled me from the front to crest a rough piece of trail. I returned to New Jersey determined to get my strength, balance, and stamina back. As I hike now, I’ve discovered it’s okay to try things I’m bad at and then rejoice in the tiny victories, like keeping my balance downhill or finding a hidden spring.

Recently, I hiked up a rocky, uphill trail in Upstate New York. As I reached the scenic overlook at the top, I heard another hiker exclaim: “Wow, this is as hard as Stairway to Heaven!” Turns out I’ve come a long way just going a few steps at a time.

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