Amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday life, we often yearn for something more—those experiences that tap into our deepest desires, challenge our status quo, and lead us toward self-discovery. In our pursuit of these unique stories, NJspots brings the riveting tale of Ryan Benz, a native New Jerseyan whose path took him far from the skyscrapers and traffic into the vast and challenging landscape of the Appalachian Trail.
Here is an individual who abandoned the conventions of life to find his true self in the embrace of nature. From the small town of Vernon, NJ, to the serene trails of the Appalachian, join us as we journey through Ryan’s transformational experiences, delving into his discoveries, his challenges, and the insights he’s gleaned from his intimate bond with nature.
Before you jump into the questions and life-changing answers that Ryan provides, I just wanted to take a moment to thank Ryan. Not only for taking the time to answer these questions, but also for his book “Wander”. I have been reading it myself and I am not a big reader but I have not been able to put this book down. I really love the story and how he welcomes you into his journey. I hope you have a chance to read it yourself!– Virginia, Founder of NJspots
Can you briefly introduce yourself and tell us how your connection to New Jersey began?
My name is Ryan Benz. I am an author, inspirational speaker, and mindfulness mentor. The story goes a little something like this…
While successful by most external measures, by my early thirties, I felt empty and exhausted, dissatisfied with my life, and eager to strengthen my connection to myself and the natural world. In the prime of my life, I chose a nontraditional path, diving headfirst into the world of mindfulness and letting go of everything contributing to my unhappiness—including the career I had spent over ten years building. Turning to the healing power of nature, my trek took me over two thousand miles through the woods from Georgia to Maine (the Appalachian Trail), and with each step traveled, I returned a little closer to my true self.
I now speak to audiences of all ages around the country about my journey, inspiring them to not only appreciate their surroundings more but also to realize that they have the power to choose their own path. Since starting public speaking in 2017, I have spoken for Fortune 500 companies, some of the nation’s largest Non-profit Organizations, top Universities, and have inspired youth across the entire US with my school assembly program and as a guest for youth leadership retreats.
I have a passion for sharing my story with youth. In many ways, the story I share in Wander is a story I wish I heard when I was younger, one of options and possibilities.
As for my connection to NJ, I grew up in Vernon, NJ, a town that the AT travels through, living there my entire life until I went off to college, also in NJ, obtaining my BA in communications from Ramapo College of New Jersey. While my travels have brought me many places, I still, and always will consider NJ home.
Beyond my college degree I consider myself a student of life, now holding certifications as a Nature & Forest Therapy Guide (better known as Forest Bathing), Mindfulness Meditation Teacher, Yoga Instructor, and Life Coach.
About the Appalachian Trail and “Wander”:
What inspired you to hike the Appalachian Trail?
At that critical moment in my life, going through a divorce and embarking on an inner journey to rediscover myself and what matters most in my life, ultimately deciding to leave my career that misaligned with my values, “I knew I would need time to figure out what the next part of my journey was going to be. What better way than an actual journey?”
I was honestly trying to create a bridge between the two completely different lives that I feel I’ve lived, one that would provide the clarity and lessons needed to move forward.
Many people ask me why the AT, why not any of the other long distance trails like the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). There was something about having grown up in Vernon, a town that the AT passes through, the idea that just a bit beyond the halfway point in Pennsylvania I would have that moment of walking home all the way from Georgia, there was something special about that.
How did your journey along the trail lead to the creation of your book “Wander”?
I had a particular moment on the trail (which I share in the book), when I decided that writing a book could be just one way to share how powerful the experience had been for me. While I had no idea what life would look like beyond the trail, a true embracing of the unknown, what was building up with each and every step was this desire to share it all to have a positive impact on other people’s lives.
As for the title, the word wander felt right from the moment it came to me. In so many ways, that’s exactly what I was doing, wandering, and I felt it was an opportunity to shed some light on the positive side of wandering, especially in a world that is so entrenched in what is practical.
There’s a certain sense of freedom and liberation of wandering. It gives great meaning to that famous saying, “Not all those who wander are lost,” because even though I had no idea where my life would go after the AT, I knew one thing, that I was following my heart and what felt right. To wander is to allow yourself to explore and have some fun while doing it. Life doesn’t always have to be so rigid.
What are some of the most meaningful lessons you learned on the trail that you’ve included in your book?
There were many lessons and themes that were pulled through. Here are a few that I felt transcend the trail and life.
- Hike your own hike.
- Can’t turn off the rain. One of the most courageous things we can do is accept the things we can’t control, so we can focus our attention on what we can.
- When we slow down, we notice all the beauty that surrounds us. A slower pace allows us to not only notice, but appreciate all the little things going on around us.
- It’s all about the journey. Breaking the trail down into mini milestones, and taking the time to celebrate each, was something that kept me going.
- Being of service to others is medicine for the soul. One simple act of kindness can change someone’s day in a positive way.
- The rewards of leaving your comfort zone are far greater than the comfort itself.
- Nature heals, we just need to choose to be there.
- You don’t have to hike the Appalachian Trail to find happiness. The true secret is being present! The most important step we’ll ever take is the very next. Life is best lived in the here and now, with the people you are with.
Can you share a moment from the trail that was a turning point for you, emotionally or philosophically?
My very first encounter with Trail Angels was a pivotal one for me. There’s a theme around these random acts of kindness throughout the entire book. It showed me that while I set out to hike that trail alone, I was hardly ever by myself, and most importantly for me, it was a moment of vulnerability. Opening up and accepting the help of others, something I had struggled with so much in my pre-trail life.
Here is the moment from the book…
“My first experience with trail angels happened on the morning of my fifth day on the Appalachian Trail, and it could not have come at a better time. There was fresh hot coffee, sausage-and-egg sandwiches, and water for resupply. Lawn chairs were unfolded to give us a moment of comfort off our feet. Each volunteer approached me, asking how my hike had gone so far and offering encouragement along with information about the next stretch of miles.
When my stomach was full, I stood with effort and walked toward my bag. I looked down at it for a moment, daunted at how heavy I knew it was. Before I reached down to start the process of hoisting it up, one of the trail angels approached, an older man of about sixty or so years, and stepped in front of me to grab my pack before I could. He picked up my 35-pound pack, slowly walked around behind me, and placed it over my shoulders. I felt a strong urge to tell him that he didn’t need to help me, that I could do it myself. This was a man more than twice my age, and I was the one hiking the trail, after all. But I didn’t. I was silent while he slowly handed me my trekking poles, like family caring for a soldier returned from war.
For the first time on the trail, I felt some level of validation for just how much I was struggling. Through this man, it’s as if I was being told it was ok to struggle, and it was ok to be seen struggling. After all, the AT is difficult, so difficult that trail angels exist, and their only purpose is to help you. Because you need it. I needed it.”
How does “Wander” serve as both a memoir and a roadmap for those interested in embarking on their own transformative journeys?
Wander is a hybrid personal transformation/travel and adventure memoir. I wrote it in a way that anyone could pick it up, read its pages, and feel like they just embarked on a fun (and hopefully inspiring) adventure. I wanted to make sure it was an adventure-forward story, because I didn’t want the lessons to feel preachy in any way, like many self-help books do. By focusing on sharing the journey exactly as it unfolded for me, I was better able to help the reader see everything I saw, and feel everything I felt, a process of showing, not telling.
Some words from the book…
At its core, “Wander is a story about hope–the hope I had that change is possible in a world so entrenched in what is practical. It is a look at the internal transformation that occurs when you allow yourself to hope and then wander toward that hope. For me, that meant walking along a path in the woods.”
It’s a story about how change is possible. At the time I hiked the trail, I was 32, in the prime “earning years” of my life, that time when I was supposed to be building my career, raising children, buying a larger home to fit all those kids into, and putting as much money back into a 401K as I could manage.
“In hiking the Appalachian Trail, I learned the most valuable lesson of my life, that in order to be happy, I never needed to hike the Appalachian Trail. I didn’t need to swim the English Channel or climb Mt. Everest. Dreams don’t have to be big; they just have to be my own.
I could have done any or all of those things and not been happy doing them. Many have and aren’t. To be happy, happy in the way that doesn’t come one moment and leave the next, I simply had to choose it. To be present, connected, and true to myself, those would be the white blazes marking the trail. I only needed to move in the direction of my heart. If I did that, come rain or sun, I’d be able to smile with them both.”
Connection to New Jersey:
Given your love for the outdoors, can you recommend some must-visit hiking and outdoor spots in New Jersey?
Take a few days to
Engaging with nature doesn’t have to be extraordinary for it to be valuable and meaningful.
Taste the freshness of the air as you take deep breaths.
Listen to the breeze rustling in the leaves of the trees, and the birds singing around you.
Look at the different shades of green and the patterns in nearly everything.
Smell the fragrance of the forest and plants that surround you.
Touch the ground beneath you.
Feel the softness as you press your feet onto a patch of moss.
Place your hands on the trunk of a tree.
Dip your fingers or toes in a stream.
These things seem ordinary and simple for a reason, because they are—maybe that’s what matters most in the end.
Simply pay attention, notice, and enjoy the journey.
How does the New Jersey landscape compare to what you’ve experienced on the Appalachian Trail?
In terms of trail difficulty, I would say the NJ section ranks on the lower end, however, it should be noted that the beauty of the NJ stretch is right up there with many other sections of the trail. It surprises most, especially those who come into the trail with preconceived ideas of what NJ is, whether that’s the image of the Jersey shore or the place most would fly into, Newark.
How do you feel your New Jersey roots influenced your journey and the way you approached writing “Wander”?
I would say that growing up in NJ played a prominent role in my life journey even prior to the trail. The proximity to NYC was probably the main reason why I saw taking my career into the Big Apple was what success looked like. Then it gave me that moment of walking home, of leaving that life behind one step after another. To reflect on it in this way, it makes me appreciate how much I have learned and gained simply by spending most of my life in the state.
Life and Personal Goals:
What were the challenges you faced in leaving your conventional life behind, and what advice do you have for others thinking of doing the same?
First and foremost, fear. The fear of the unknown, the fear of leaving what I had spent so much of my life building. The advice I can share is that the only thing that matters, the path that will feel the most rewarding and worthwhile in the end is the one that is guided by your own heart. In order to access it, we need to give ourselves the time, space, and pace. It may not seem practical, it may not align with what others might expect of you, and it will always feel scary. We never truly become fearless, if we wait for that, we’ll be waiting forever, we just have to befriend our fears and invite them along for the journey.
What are your future goals, both in terms of outdoor adventures and other life aspirations?
The most important thing in the world to me is to be as present as I possibly can be for myself and my family. Professionally speaking, I want to continue to inspire as many people with my story, especially the younger audiences, to help combat in some small way the mental health crisis of the world. I believe my story can instill a sense of hope in a world stricken with feelings of hopelessness, and provide practical solutions for improving mental health.
“Wander” and its impact:
How has “Wander” been received so far? Are there any reader stories that stand out to you?
Wander has been received extremely well. Below I’ve included a few stories/notes that readers have shared…
“I’m on chapter 7. Can I just tell you I am blown away? Wow, this is just masterful and beautiful and heartwarming. I’ve smiled and cried and laughed and cried some more. I feel like I’m in the presence of greatness with this story, and I’m so grateful to be reading it. I’m a writer but maybe surprisingly don’t read a lot — because it’s hard to find books that are real, and authors that can put genuine warmth and transparency into their words. It’s eloquent and touching and so gorgeously human. And so engaging! I am definitely NOT a hiker but I couldn’t put this down until my eyes were falling asleep.
I’m in awe! Ryan, you are so talented and I’m so freaking happy that you recognized your immense gift for being able to share your experience so vividly, in such moving words. It is TRULY a gift! I hope everybody reads this book. I hope EVERY kid hears you speak. I feel like this book is a thin place, where you can peek through the veil of this world and see what’s beyond it.
It’s like Eckhart Tolle meets Ultramarathon Man.”
“Only on page 7 and already in tears. Joyful and sadness but so so happy. As I’m reading I can’t stop thinking about how I’m getting anyone I care about in life this book for Christmas.”
“I’m going to try and not text you after each chapter and it will take me a little longer to finish because I’m literally hanging on every word but Chapter 2…it’s one of the realest (don’t think that’s a real word) and most raw things I’ve ever read. We’ve all been o truly believe in situations like that but most people never allow themselves to actually feel the feelings. I literally felt yours with how you wrote that chapter. This book is amazing. After I’m done reading this I’m actually giving it to my 11yr old son. He reminds me a lot of you.”
“So I went from chapter 2 while sitting by the pool today and I’m only 80 pages until the end but now I don’t want to finish it cause it’s what I have to look forward to. It’s one of the best if not the best books I’ve ever read and not just because I know the person who wrote it. It’s just so authentic and relatable. You can’t not read it without really thinking about life.”
“Just read the intro of wander to my friends. Your words in the first 15 pages are profound! You transported me to a space where I’m right beside you on the trail, and feeling all the emotions you wrote about! My friends can’t wait to get their copy!”
“Just finished! I cried over 30 times! This needs to be required reading for every high school student.”
Where can our NJspots audience find your book?
Also In: Barnes & Noble
Signed copies can be purchased directly through my website
Details for ordering from IngramSpark can be found on my website at ryanbenz.com/wander.
Are you planning any book-related events or hikes in New Jersey soon?
A lot of my speaking engagements, like school assembly programs, are private events, however, with the launch of my book, I would love to arrange book signing events at as many places as I possibly can. One thing that is important to note is that I took an extra step with publishing to ensure the book is available and accessible to smaller, independent bookstores, which creates nice partnership opportunities for me.
I have future plans to create multi-day wilderness retreat experiences, and will continue to run nature therapy (forest bathing) experiences for people when I can.
For someone who’s never hiked before but is inspired by your story and wants to start, what tips and resources can you offer?
Try not to overthink it.
Lastly, what message do you hope readers take away from “Wander”?
That a new path is always possible, we just need to choose it for ourselves.
The journey of life is as unpredictable as the winding trails of the Appalachian. Through Ryan Benz’s captivating narrative, we’ve traversed the highs and lows of self-discovery, experienced the transformative power of nature, and gained insights into the beauty of embarking on our own unique paths. “Wander” is not just a chronicle of a challenging trek, but a testament to the spirit of exploration, the joy of wandering, and the profound realizations that come with every step taken in earnest pursuit of oneself. We’re inspired, and we hope you are too. So, next time you find yourself in the vastness of New Jersey’s landscapes, remember Ryan’s words, “a new path is always possible, we just need to choose it for ourselves.” Whether you choose to take on the Appalachian Trail or a local hiking spot, may your journey be as enriching and transformative as Ryan’s. Safe travels!