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Georgia native finds life lessons, love on the Appalachian Trail

Even as a teenager, Macon York knew she wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail.

Though she grew up in coastal Georgia, playing with friends in the woods surrounding her childhood home in Savannah, the hills and mountains of the trail were calling her.

During summers in North Carolina, York loved taking hiking trips. She particularly couldn't wait to turn 15 and take the two-week backpacking trip at Camp Kanuga -- a 15 mile hike through the Blue Ridge Mountains on the Appalachian Trail.

It was her first long hike and it wasn't easy. It rained a lot, she was dirty and she was in the company of eight other 15-year-olds which came with its own drama. "I was like, 'This is so hard what am I doing?'," said York. "But I felt so accomplished and proud of that experience. I knew I gained so much from that short trip, I could only imagine what I could gain by hiking the entire trail."

So then and there, she set a goal. She vowed to hike the entire 2,000 plus miles of the AT before she turned 30.

"I knew that if I said one day, I would keep putting it off. Setting an arbitrary deadline made it feel more concrete," said York, 31.

In Sept. 2012 at age 27, she accomplished her goal. Next month, her journey comes full circle when she marries the man she met just 100 miles into the six-month hike.

"I feel really satisfied with my life. It really made me feel inspired in myself. If you go out for something fully, you can achieve it. It is possible," said York, now an entrepreneur who lives in North Carolina.

For years, her dream of hiking the AT was something she kept tucked in the back of her mind. She figured somewhere between college and full-on adulthood, she would have time to make her dream come true.

But after college, like many young people, she dreamed of life in the big city. She was New York bound, pursuing a career in graphic design and working at some of the top magazines. When she turned 25, she had a quarter-life crisis. She began to reflect on her life and decided she was ready to move back to the South.

York was making a life transition and it seemed like a good time to get back to what was important to her. Hiking had remained part of her life, but now she was ready to focus on her ultimate goal.

A workshop in Tennessee that she dubbed "AT101" was her starting point. Of all the people that attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail, only about 25 percent successfully complete it. The success rate of those who come out of this particular workshop is 90 percent. It offered York the confidence boost she needed.

"A fear was that I had always gone on organized hiking trips with someone in charge. This time, I was in charge of everything. It was frightening, but liberating and exciting," she said.

She learned practical survival tips, had classroom training and spent a week acquiring the mental attitude that one needs to survive a cross-country walk. There were moments -- such as when the instructor described the challenge of hiking in New Hampshire and Maine -- that York thought to herself, "I could just stop this now." But by the end of the workshop, she had internalized an important message, "You can't change the trail, but you can change your approach to it," she said.

A month later, York quit her job. She spent the summer freelancing and took a three-month journey to the south of France where she volunteered at organic farms.

When she returned to New York, she began researching hiking gear that would fit her limited budget. She also started training, hiking 17 miles a day from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Upper Westside wearing running shoes and a backpack to experience how 17 miles really felt.

At the time, she didn't know it, but all of her preparation would make her journey easier.

"I had prepared for torture, but there was sunshine and I was laughing. I sort of forgot that I could have fun," York said.

In March, York left New York for good and moved her belongings back to Georgia. A friend had offered to start the hike with her and on March 20 after celebrating St. Patrick's Day in Savannah, the duo headed to Amicalola State Park where they would hike to Springer Mountain and the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.

Wearing gear from Target and carrying 30 to 40 pounds of equipment, York set off at 3 p.m. It was the first day of spring, but in the mountains of North Georgia, it felt like winter. It wasn't what she had expected, but York was full of joy.  "It was amazing that this dream I had since the age of 15 was happening," she said.

By day three, the team had dropped to one. York's friend had an old injury that began acting up on the trail and forced her to leave. "It was good for me. It was a good test. I had about a week of being totally solo," York said. "I met people but no one I clicked with."

She was surprised that some of her fellow hikers were grumpy. She had no interest in hanging around people who would bring her down. Then about 100 miles in, she met a group of kindred spirits. They were Eagle Scouts and she found herself instantly connecting with one of them.

Luke Costlow was Indiana born and had his own reasons for tackling the AT. He and York had nothing but time to get to know one another.

"You have all day everyday to tell every story -- here’s who I am, let me tell you all the people in my life who are important and here are my values and beliefs," York said. In Costlow, she had found a partner in both the serious and the silly.

"We formed a really strong partnership and team out there. We looked after each other  and made decisions together. It was nice to have a teammate and you need a buddy for buy-one-get-one free things," she said.

There's nothing like tough terrain to challenge a relationship or test your own mettle, but for much of the hardest parts of the trail, such as in Virginia, York was walking in the clouds.

"I loved it," said York. "Everything was blossoming and there were flowers everywhere. I was falling in love."

But by the time she reached Vermont, the cumulative exhaustion began setting in. Daylight was starting to change as the seasons shifted to fall, and the rugged trails in New Hampshire and Maine left her feeling mentally exhausted. Instead of hiking 25 miles a day, she was down to 10 miles a day.

In New Hampshire, she came down with Norovirus, and had to stop for a couple of days. Back on the trail, her body was strong, but her joints were aching. It was the kind of exhaustion that no amount of sleep, food or water could cure.

"Every morning I would wake up and say I'm going to hike 20 miles and I’m going to do it again tomorrow," said York.

It took discipline, but York remembered the importance of fun and spontaneity. Some days she would want to walk another five miles, but would force herself to stop and just soak up the experience.

On Sept. 25, 2012, York reached the northern terminus at Mount Katahdin in Maine.

"It is still a bit hard to wrap my mind around the fact that I walked more than 2000 miles," said York.  (It was 2184.4 in 2012 to be exact -- the length of the trail changes slightly each year.)

One of the biggest lessons she gained, in addition to how to conquer a lifelong dream, was to become more in tune with the seasons. "I was outside every minute of the day. I lived outside and I really noticed the buds on trees and I became more sensitive to it. Now I am back and working and live in real life but that has stayed with me," she said.

And of course, there was her six-month courtship with Costlow.

After the hike ended, they wondered if their romance would translate into real life. Six months after their return, they moved to the Asheville area together. In April, they will marry at Camp Kanuga, the place where 15 years ago, York first hatched her dream of hiking the AT.

It was strange, at first, to no longer have that dream, said York. It had been with her for nearly half of her lifetime. While not as tangible as a hike across the country, she has found herself walking another path.

Having taken a letterpress class during her time in New York, she fell in love with the process. In Asheville, she launched Macon York Letterpress & Design offering custom invitations, business cards and more, working toward her dream of becoming a successful entrepreneur.

She has hiker friends who are out pursuing their next epic adventure, but these days, York stays close to her garden in North Carolina. She takes regular hikes on the same trail, where each year during the spring equinox, she and Costlow go on a short camping trip together.

"I have created a more intimate relationship with the land," said York. "I don’t need to go far and accomplish some big feat."

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About the Author

Nedra Rhone has been a features reporter with the AJC for 10 years. She’s written about everything from fashion to food to news.