The day was a year in the making, the crown jewel of a summer that had promised to change their young lives, and they had prepared for it as such: pushing their bodies, plotting the journey, ticking off weeks then days then hours, an excitement that only grew as they sat beside their packs on the three-hour drive to the border of Massachusetts, where they would embark on the first of the 273-mile trek known as the Long Trail.

For the four best friends – Emma Brott, 18, August Spagnuolo Chawla, 17, Abigail Monahan, 18, and Olivia Doty, 18 – the trip across the main ridge of the Green Mountains would build off a previous hike through a section of the trail. That trip had confirmed they could tackle the entire expedition, and so a week after graduating, they waved goodbye and set off, certain they were ready for whatever the trail threw their way.

Or so they thought.

“At zero, we have to get up to 1,000 [feet elevation] to do the rest of the trail,” Brott said during an interview last week alongside two of her companions (Doty was out of town). “The first six miles are really kind of the worst.”

“We hit the trail and we just fell apart,” she said.

Indeed, arriving at camp that first afternoon, the hikers realized that no matter how much they had prepared, the journey would still be hard – not just physically, but in ways they hadn’t imagined.

“The first thing I started thinking about was how I’d never been away from home for 25 days before,” Spagnuolo Chawla said. “When we were planning this trip, we were all so excited … it never even crossed my mind that that would be hard.”

“You’re like, ‘If we can’t do this, how can I do three months at college?’” Monahan said.

Their doubts peaked early, when the miles ahead dwarfed the distance traveled, and it didn’t help that life in the wilderness lacks the many distractions that can typically keep such thoughts at bay.

“You walk and you think, you walk and you think,” Brott said. “It’s just 10 hours a day of thinking about all these things.”

They slowly settled in, waking up just after sunrise and drifting to sleep at the first sign of darkness, each assuming an unspoken duty to move things along: retrieving the food bags, prepping for dinner. In the routine they found comfort, a monotony grounding them to the trail, and it was rare to find a time when all four hikers were having a bad day.

“There was always one person to bring you back,” Brott said.

“Being out there by myself,” she continued, “I would have quit day one. It was just so hard. But then you have three other people to tell you that literally all you can do is just keep walking; think about something different.”

So they adopted their own ways to busy the mind, like the “Who’s-that-boy-in-that-movie?” game. They also took advantage of the trail’s greatest resources: the people, especially those along the Appalachian Trail, which aligns with the Long Trail for about 100 miles. The young hikers favorite pastime became asking fellow hikers about their story, a question usually followed by an interrogation of what they ate for lunch, desperate for something other than peanut butter filled tortillas.

As the days wore on and they weaved their way north, the local hikers became more and more connected to their surroundings, a feeling that lasted until they met their parents for a supply drop every four days and the cycle started over.

“[When] you have nothing around you but woods and woods people, you get used to that,” Brott said. “Then you come down to a road and you see your mom, and she feeds you pasta and you get to see your dogs and your family, and you’re like, wow: It would be so easy to just get back in my mom’s Honda and go home. But you have to know that you’ve got to keep hiking.”

The challenge of transitioning between these two realities came to a head on day 16 when the group made a planned stay at a hotel. The get-away granted them time with their families and a recharge for the last leg – along with their first shower in more than two weeks. But it also forced them to reconnect with lives they had briefly left behind.

“The next day you get back on the trail, and it’s so hard to go back and forth,” Monahan said. “That whole day I wasn’t in the woods anymore. I was thinking about the real world: I need to go back to work. I need to text this person and figure this out. Suddenly it was hard to be there.”

Still, the brief hotel stay meant the end was within reach, and the hikers rode the momentum toward the finish line, reaching the trail’s northern tip a week later.

On average, hikers take between 20 and 30 days to complete the Long Trail. Those looking to earn the official End-to-End certification and patch must keep a journal and submit an application to the Green Mountain Club, which says more than 5,000 people have earned the designation. The four hikers plan to join those ranks.

Weeks after the trip, they’ve mostly returned to life as they knew it. But the experience has changed the way they approached some things.

Monahan said she left the trail feeling empowered. “Like, I can do that. I can do hard things now,” she said. She’s also noted a shift in her mental state. “I feel more at peace. There’s a lot of just going with the flow on trail, and I feel a lot more of that in my life now.”

Brott echoed that feeling. Life on the trail, much like off it, is a series of unchangeable obstacles, she said. “Your stuff is wet but there’s no solution to that. There’s a mountain you don’t want to climb? Too bad – you have to get to your bed tonight,” she said.

“There’s literally zero solution for any of the problems other than doing it,” she continued. “You really have to learn to be OK with going with the flow.”

And for Spagnuolo Chawla, the trip opened her eyes to the ways in which we miss people when we’re disconnected. “It’s like a different kind of, ‘I miss you,’” she said. “You can focus on the good parts.”

All three hinted that longer hike may be in their future. But don’t tell their parents. For now, the best friends will make the most of their last few weeks at home, reacclimating to the faint buzz of life on the grid before they pack up for different colleges and embark on their next chapter, where they will make new friends and confront new challenges, dropped once again into the wilderness.