Life Lessons Learned on the Trail

Life Lessons Learned on the Trail

Through early retirement, Darrell Brimberry got to do something he had always dreamed about, recharged his battery, and learned new life lessons.  Our adventures may look different, but the lessons are always the same:

Take a grand adventure.

Plans change.

Keep going.

Dream big.

Darrell Brimberry, a retired Colonel in the U.S. Army, “through” hiked the entire Appalachian Trail (A.T.): 2,092 miles, traversing 14 states, and scaling over a million feet in elevation changes in just 6 months.

A Grand Adventure

Darrell learned that “life tends to trap us” into busy routines leading to dreams being unfulfilled.  The A.T. flame that burned since the Mountain Phase of Army Ranger School (1989) would be satisfied.

He says that everyone comes to the Trail for a different reason, whether it be to raise awareness for a cause, overcoming an addiction, have an adventure, or make a transition in life.  “The Trail is the great equalizer,” he says. “And, for the 6000 people who hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2018, there were 6000 different reasons for doing so.”

Darrell’s wife, Alicia, trained and set out right alongside her husband.  Her fire, while more recently lit, burned just as brightly.

Retirement from a first career provides an excellent opportunity to go after your big dream.”   He retired on a Tuesday, packed up all their earthly possessions in Washington D.C., and hit the Appalachian Trail on the following Saturday at Springer Mountain, GA.

“One day I’m a soldier, the next day I’m a hiker.  The Appalachian Trail just becomes who you are,” he remarked.

They created trail nicknames for each other that uniquely fit them. “Everyone gets a trail name.  You either name yourself, or someone gives you one.” They came up with Next Step (Darrell) and Which Way (Alicia).

Next Step suited this planner; the hike was his “next step” after retirement.  What really happened, however, was that he learned to live more in the moment, rather than over-planning the rest of his life.

Darrell ran trail simulation programs before taking their first steps on the AT.

“It took some planning and preparation. Then, the day comes when you find yourself standing atop Springer Mountain, GA with 14 states and 2,192 miles between you and your ultimate goal of standing victorious atop Mount Katahdin, ME. [Once you start hiking] an entirely different set of motivations, a little luck and a lot of willpower are required to get you to the end.”

Together, they learned that even the best-laid plans can change on a dime.

Plans Change.  Keep Going.

At just over the 1000 mile mark, Which Way succumbed to a mounting back injury that took her off the trail, leaving Next Step facing the unexpected challenge of hiking solo.

As he recalls the last 1000 miles, Darrell says, “The trail gives you a reason to quit every day.  [It] rewards those who persevere.  A lot of people show up with a dream of hiking the AT, but only 1 out of 5 people actually see it through.  [The Trail] gave me a grand adventure that will forever be a part of me,” he says.

Small things, namely showers, pizza, clean clothes, and even a ride to town in the back of a pick-up truck helped him to persevere and to appreciate the little moments that life has to offer.

Dream Big

Darrell’s advice to others facing retirement is not surprising:  “Dream big about something you want to experience and/or accomplish in life, make a plan and go for it. With a little planning and a lot of determination, you can accomplish anything you set your mind to.  You just need to be a little selfish with your time and have faith that you will be able to step right back into the routine when you are ready.”

Good life balance was the most important factor as he sought his second career.  Darrell was passionate about finding a company whose mission and values he could “get behind.”  Income was important, but not the main thing.

He is now the Director of Financial Operations at Ramsey Solutions (A Dave Ramsey Company). The job fits him like a well-worn hiking boot.  After 14 interviews and his only application for employment, Darrell feels like he is doing “work that matters.”

He urges new retirees to plan, but not too much.  He learned that “sometimes you can over-plan. One can die by the paralysis of analysis.”

Darrell and Alicia are dreaming of hiking the second half of the A.T. together, in short hikes, over the next 7 years, hiking the 500 mile Camino Trail in Spain, and possibly exploring all of the National Parks by R.V. in one year.  Ultimately, they look forward to a lake home where their kids and grandkids can visit.

With a motto of ‘Anywhere Together,’ Alicia recommends that all couples go on an adventure together.

Life Lessons

“For me, the life lesson was that it is okay to carve out several weeks, months or even a year to take a break away from the busy routine that life tends to trap us in. Dream big about something you want to experience and/or accomplish in life, make a plan, and go for it.”

What’s your big dream, your grand adventure?  What are you waiting to experience?

 Read Darrell and Alicia’s Blog Journal:  Which Way and Next Step’s 2018 Appalachian Trail Journal

Marilyn Floyd has been a corporate trainer, a retail store designer, and a music teacher before shifting her focus to storytelling.  She has worked on mission trips in the mountains of Guatemala and the San Blas Islands of Panama, survived a stroke after childbirth, and grew up raising pigs in rural Kansas. She and her husband share their home in Michigan and have raised three extraordinarily creative boys and a beautiful daughter born in Guatemala.

Marilyn holds a B.S. in Journalism at the University of Kansas. She also studied music at Julliard and the Richards Institute (Education Through Music).   Her personal blog can be found at

Also see:

Re-writing the story of ‘retirement’: COVID-19 reveals how much we need activist elders
Life Lessons from a Master
Life in Limbo by Richard Leider