28 Days Out: Why I’m Spending Six Months Living Out of my Backpack

Miles Hiked: 0.0
Miles Remaining: 2189.2

Yes, it’s one of these posts again.

There’s going to be a couple of obligatory posts that I will be putting in here in the weeks preceding my departure. If you are familiar with the hiking and/or Appalachian Trail community, I won’t be offended if you skim through these sections. For those that are new to all of this, however, I recommend you read on to get a better sense of what all of this is all about. In the next week or two I’m going to try and get out posts on:

  • My reasons for hiking
  • A longer “about me”
  • A full gear list (with glorious pictures and explanations)
  • The inevitable pre-trail jitters that will come in the final week or two before this all starts
  • And so on, and so forth…

If you’re interested in these, great! If not, that’s alright too! The bulk of this blog, along with my hike, will be starting before long. Almost too soon.

The all-important question: Why on earth would I want to do such a thing?

Fall 2005: First ever backpacking trip on the Nipmuck Trail in Mansfield, Connecticut.

Fall 2005: First ever backpacking trip on the Nipmuck Trail in Mansfield, Connecticut (I’m third in on the right, sporting a Led Zeppelin Sweatshirt).

I have always found amusement in these sort of reactions. Not in a mocking way, but more because that common response speaks volumes about the distance between the spheres of the long-distance hiking community and those that hold little or no interest in the outdoors. To explain why I want to hike over 2,000 miles to someone unfamiliar with long distance hiking can be a daunting task. I’ve found many similarities in these responses. A few of my favorites have been:

  • “How will you charge your phone every night?”
  • “You’re going to go HOW LONG without showering?”
  • “You’re going to sleep on the ground?”
  • “You’re going to carry a gun, right?” (I will immediately dispel this here – I have no intention of carrying any sort of weapon, nor do I encourage others to do so)
  • “How spread out are the hotels along the trail?”

Fall 2005. Backpacking for the first time at 14 years old.

This is one of those times where I am thankful that I have had two years of “real-world” experience between when I graduated college and the start of Law School this Fall. If I had tried to respond to these types of questions a few years ago I would have taken a much different (and less mature) approach. To many members of the Appalachian Trail community, these questions would seem borderline ludicrous. Of course I’m going to sleep on the ground! Why would I need to shower every night? What the hell would I need my phone for. A freaking gun??? If I had tried to respond to these a few years ago, I probably would have responded like that. What I did not understand then, and what I am still working to better understand now, is that while the answers to these questions are very simple to someone already familiar with the subject, those same answers might be difficult to comprehend to someone lacking familiarity. Everybody enjoys different things, and we as long-distance hiking enthusiasts cannot expect someone to come into our corner of the world and suddenly understand what we have only come to understand through years of trial and error, mentoring, exploration, and experience.

That’s why I am writing this entry today. I want to those that are not connected, or have not even heard of the Appalachian Trail to really understand why this has been a dream of mine for so long. Trying to do so in a few short sentences would be like trying to describe a color that has yet to be discovered. It seems simple… at least until you try it. Regardless, there are at least several compact and easy to explain reasons or why I’m hiking. Here are a few of them.

1: This isn’t just a hike; it’s an adventure.

“We are plain quiet folk, and I have no use for adventures. Nasty, disturbing, and uncomfortable things. Make you late for dinner!” – Bilbo Baggins

I have always loved The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I will make reference to them often. In the opening paragraphs of The Hobbit, Bilbo is quite content spending his days in Bag End, where life was comfortable, predictable, and safe. This outlook quickly withers as the Thorin Oakenshield & Company quickly plant the spark of adventure in Bilbo, and before he realizes, he’s off (albeit without his handkerchief).

Fall 2007: Mt. Monadnock summit, probably.

Fall 2007: Mt. Monadnock summit, probably.

I find myself relating to Bilbo quite a bit in those opening chapters.

Of course, this is not to say that I relish the idea of sitting in a chair all day. I love backpacking, snowboarding, climbing, traveling, and other activities that have been afforded to me through various outing clubs, scouting organizations, and friendships. You might be able to argue that some of these things are adventurous, but there’s nothing bold about spending a day snowboarding and subsequently driving back home down I91 with a brief stop for pizza and a milkshake or two. The fact of the matter is, life most often does not provide opportunity for real adventure, at least the way that I see it. Oh it’s out there, but you have to pick and choose between that adventure, a career, personal relationships, financial goals, future family plans, trips to the dentist, and so on and so forth. More often than not, I will go the way of Bilbo Baggins, enjoying the familiarity of home and the stability (well, I want to be an environmental lawyer, so maybe not…) of my future career goals over the unpredictability of a true adventure. Thankfully, “More often than not” does mean never.

Summer 2008: Somewhere in the vicinity of Zealand Hut in New Hampshire.

Summer 2008: Somewhere in the vicinity of Zealand Hut in New Hampshire.

Like Bilbo, I am leaving the comfort of what I have always known in favor of a lifestyle completely foreign. The last 23 years of my life have gone pretty much according to plan, and without much fanfare. High School, reaching Eagle Scout, College, Post-Graduate employment in Boston, and Applying to Law School may not have fallen exactly as I have wanted them to, but they have all worked out for the most part as I intended. This is not a bad thing – I wouldn’t trade a second of any of it, as I have been blessed with a wonderful life thus far. But it would definitely be truthful for me to say that there was nothing in there that was too far into the realm of crazy, unexpected, or unique. The bookend on the other side of this Thru-Hike is somewhat similar: After finishing law school I hope to work for the simple (and important) things like family, financial stability, and overall happiness. Sentimental yada-yada-yada.

It’s true though. Most of the time, I see myself as an early Bilbo in wanting and enjoying the relative quiet and tranquility of my own comfort zone. Most of the time. That’s what makes this Thru-Hike a true adventure for me. For six months, I am going to be living as I have never lived before, and likely as I will never live again. I will carry everything that I need on my back. I will owe no responsibilities to anyone except my own good conscience and the environment around me (okay okay, maybe to family and friends and student loans and health insurance but let me have this one over-the-top moment!). Certainties will be few and far between – I know that I will need to go north, but how far north each day is up to me. I might stop at a shelter 8 miles in, or I might book it another 10 miles up the trail to get to a hostel where showers, laundry, and delicious barbeque await. It is a lifestyle that does not last forever (nor would I particularly want it to, I think), but while I am out there I plant to embrace this hike for the adventure that it is. Uncertainty has never been so alluring.

2: It’s going to be downright beautiful. Sometimes.

“Take a course in good water and air; and in the eternal youth of Nature you may renew your own. Go quietly, alone; no harm will befall you.” – John Muir

Spring 2009: Headed into Shenandoah National Park.

Anyone who has backpacked long enough knows that some of the world’s most beautiful places are easily accessible to anyone with a pack on their back and good boots of their feet. Additionally, these same people likely realize that for every breathtaking view, there’s some 15 mile railroad converted rail with 3 inches of wood chip filled mud to be trodden, probably in the middle of some rainstorm where it’s not raining enough to make you soaked to the core, but enough to make you annoyed. I’ve been warned many times already, so I can thankfully say that I’m prepared for the inevitability of both. In a way, each type of experience is a part of the trail that I’m going to be looking forward to. This reason is pretty simple, but a big part of why I am hiking the trail is because never again will I have the opportunity to traverse so many

Spring 2009: Examining our map in the Shenandoah National Park.

Spring 2009: Examining our map in the Shenandoah National Park.

National Parks, State Forests, and other wildlife and semi-wilderness areas as I will over the next six months. It’s a cathartic “get it out while you can” that I need to experience before I can really progress forward with my life. Some of it I’ve seen before – I’ve scattered pictures of past trips to the Shenandoah National Park, the Great Smokey National Park, Baxter State Park, and the White Mountain National Forest throughout this post – but that’s only a small sample of all there is to see out there. Most of the time I will be more than content with taking weekend and week vacation trips to backpack here or there, but this experience needs to be different. Maybe it’s the long “removal” (I put that in quotations because I’ll constantly be on the phone and making arrangements to make sure I am all set to go for law school when I finish) from society. Maybe it’s the back to back to back feeling of hopping from park to park without any planning. I can’t really pinpoint what it is, at least not now while I’m writing at a warm table, eating a buffalo chicken sandwich that I bought down the road. I’m sure that will become clear when I get out there though.

3: I want need to prove to myself that I can do this.

“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.”- Randy Pausch

I’ve already mentioned that the sense of adventure is a major determining factor in my decision to hike the Appalachian Trail. With this great adventure comes a great challenge, and I have decided to hike out and meet that challenge.

Spring 2013: The greatest spring break ever, or, that time 16 college seniors got a cabin for a week right outside The Great Smokey Mountains National Park.

Spring 2013: The greatest spring break ever, or, that time 16 college seniors got a cabin for a week right outside The Great Smokey Mountains National Park.

It’s not really something I’m doing to prove myself to anyone. It’s for myself – I want to be able to look back and say “wow, I hiked that entire distance, and I only cried three times!” Life is full of challenges, and I’m well aware that it’s only going to get more difficult from here on out. As I’ve mentioned before, I will be starting law school immediately following the conclusion of my Thru-Hike, which is likely going to be way, way, way harder than anything I’ve ever done before. Hiking the Appalachian Trail is going to help me prepare for this, in a strange way. It’s not easy to accomplish a difficult and long term goal when it’s the first one you’ve really chased after. Sure, I got through college just fine, but I’ve always been a bookworm –  I actually miss the classwork more than I miss the 50 cent pitcher night.

Law school scares me at times, because I know that much of it will be filled with nightmarish reading sessions, high stress, and constant competition over class rank (although not openly, as you might think). It won’t always be like that, but it’s going to be tough at times – a long term challenge, just like the Appalachian Trail. I’m hiking the trail so that I can get some real life experience in meeting challenges under my belt. I have no idea how it will turn out, but something tells me it will be a little easier to settle down and focus when I can pull the “I’ve done X, so I can get through this” card.

4: A Culture of Our Own, For a Short While

“It is such a strange contrast. When you’re on the AT, the forest is your universe, infinite and entire. It is all you experience day after day. Eventually it is about all you can imagine. You are aware, of course, that somewhere over the horizon there are mighty cities, busy factories, crowded freeways, but here in this part of the country, where woods drape the landscape for as far as the eye can see, the forest rules. Even the little towns like Franklin and Hiawassee and even Gatlinburg are just way stations scattered helpfully through the great cosmos of woods.

But come off the trail, properly off, and drive somewhere, as we did now, and you realize how magnificently deluded you have been. Here, the mountains and woods were just backdrop-familiar, known, nearby, but no more consequential or noticed than the clouds that scudded across their ridgelines. Here the real business was up close and on top of you: gas stations, Wal-Marts, Kmarts, Dunkin Donuts, Blockbuster Videos, a ceaseless unfolding pageant of commercial hideousness.”- Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods

Say what you will about Bryson’s incredibly divisive “A Walk In The Woods” – it has certainly garnered more attention for the Appalachian Trail.

Spring 2013: More College Memories in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park

Spring 2013: More College Memories in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park

I have my own opinions on it, mostly positive, some negative, but what I most have to praise about it is the way in which it created a middle ground between the long-distance hiking community and the general population. This was not a middle ground in a conflict, but rather a middle ground of understanding: The layman can read his book and get a general (though sometimes unrepresentative at times) sense of what the trail is, and the Thru-Hiker can read the book and come to understand how the trail might be perceived by someone unfamiliar with it (by all accounts, Bryson was a true outsider when he started his attempted Thru-Hike). This encompasses two main reasons that I am hiking the Appachian Trail: To experience join the vibrant and famed “hiker trash” culture, and to observe and understand how that culture blends and clashes with the greater American culture that surrounds it. Bryson touched on it briefly when he described the contrast between the apparent seclusion of the trail and the crowded commercialized state of affairs that surrounds it. I’m not interested in commenting in support of one side or the other; for now, I simply want to experience it.

It will be an experience afforded only to those who are willing to endure the myriad of highs and lows that the trail provides. To be honest, this contrast between how life is perceived on the trail and how I will see it upon my return is something that scares me a little. More than one person has told me to be careful transitioning back into “the real world”, as the post-trail blues are a real phenomena.

More Great Smokey Mountains National Park

More Great Smokey Mountains National Park

Every reward must come with risk, and this is a gamble that must be taken. I have a slight idea of what I am getting myself into, although there will certainly be a lot to learn when I get there. That’s where the social aspect of the trail comes into play – the aforementioned “hiker trash” culture. This term is far from derogatory, at least from those who identify with this description. It is an honor that is earned through time out on the trail, through an integration with a lifestyle centered around the great northward migration on the Appalachian Trail. Thru-Hikers who might pen themselves as “hiker trash” will come from all walks of life, but they will share certain qualities, such as: an unquenchable appetite, fondness for free wi-fi and inexpensive hostels, love of the beautiful scenery of the outdoors, and a grand sense of adventure.

While the first half of this section – the observation of the conflicting perspectives of trail life and of commercial life surrounding the trail – really interests me from an academic perspective, my excitement for the social aspect is entirely self-centered. Simply put, there’s nothing better than constantly making new friends and greeting a stranger in your community, knowing that the two of you share a background that unites you without ever needing to say a word to each other.

Spring 2013: Waterfall, somewhere...

Spring 2013: Waterfall, somewhere…

You have to understand, I’m a New Englander. We’re about as familiar with the concept of welcoming and polite strangers as Kanye West is to humility. I mean I guess you could say we’re polite and friendly at times – we hold doors for others, avoid eye contact in the elevator, and dedicate as much effort as humanly possible to keeping conversations brief – but it’s a New England style politeness that has its own reservation. Nothing wrong with it – it’s just how New England is. Appalachian Trail culture is… somehow different. There’s a great deal more trust and selflessness about the trail. Strangers will commonly give hikers rides into town, and maybe even shuttle them around so they can do laundry and pick up a mail drop. Many homes around the trail are happy to take in a couple of weary hikers and provide food and bed in exchange for nothing more than stories and gratitude. There is a preponderance of “Trail Magic” – a sort of Random Act of Kindness focused on the trail that I will be sure to describe in greater detail later on. The list goes on and on, and the more I think about it the more I can’t help but stare at the calendar, waiting for the February to pass by. The Appalachian Trail community (including current, past, and future hikers, trail towns, and various conservation groups to name a few) is an entire culture of it’s own, and I’ve spent years daydreaming about being part of it. It’s strange to be saying this now, and a bit cliche, but it’s about to become real.

5: These six months will provide the context I’ll need.

“My job is to save the fucking wilderness. I don’t know anything else worth saving. That’s simple, right?” – Edward Abbey, The Monkey Wrench Gang

If I’ve met you for more than just a passing glimpse, there’s a good chance that you know two things about me: I’ll be hiking the Appalachian Trail this Spring, and that I want to be an environmental lawyer one day.

I’m a broken record.

August 2015: With my  sister Erin before a Tough Mudder

August 2015: With my sister Erin before a Tough Mudder

I’ve written a lot about the first goal, but not much about the second. There isn’t a whole lot to write about as of yet, as law school will not even start until late August. The basis of it is pretty simple though. I’ve always wanted to do something involving environmental protection, be it conservation, environmental policy, environmental advocacy, etc. Of course the careers that fall into these categories can be as different as a pop star and a president, but the context remains the same: I wanted to do something positive for the environment.

The downside with this is that it’s a very vague and naive statement, echoed often by my younger self in the early years of college, probably while holding a sign or something. I don’t necessarily believe that everyone has their own particular career niche – that would be bordering on career predestination – but there are certain types of careers that appeal to certain types of individuals, regardless of the “context” of that career. This is where the environmental law track came into being. I oscillated in and out of interest with a legal career during college, even leaving the idea behind for a period while I pursued a career as a hazardous waste field chemist for an environmental services firm in Boston. My thought process at the time was that there are lots of different routes one could take to getting involved in the environmental regulatory field, and that was one of them. After a little over a year, however, it became clear that this was not exactly what I wanted to be doing, and my legal ambitions (which had never truly wilted – I was studying off and on for years for the LSAT during this time) resurfaced.

August 2014: Atop Mt. Katahdin

August 2014: Atop Mt. Katahdin

The legal careers that focus on the environment are just as varied as any other field. There’s enforcement, governmental work, in-house corporate work, consulting, and a million other things that I’ll keep simplified here. I don’t know everything yet – hell, that’s why I’m going to school after all, but I’ve learned enough to know that this is what I want to do. I’m extremely pragmatic, I thrive best when researching, and I’m a very analytical person. Though I’ve had stints of interest in environmental advocacy and activism, but the legal side of things is where I want to be. Consequentially, the work I will be doing won’t be the “save the Earth!” work that environmental lawyers are sometimes stereotyped as doing. It might not be glamorous, but it’s the way that I believe I can best make an impact. That’s where this whole “Appalachian Trail as a context” matter comes into play.

I’ll be spending a great deal of time separated from the environment when I’m working as a lawyer. Though there will be opportunity to generate impacts that positively affect the environment, it’s not going to be in a way that visually translates to progress to someone not involved in the legal community, at least not right away. I’m alright with that – I believe in this future and although I don’t really adhere to the Monkey Wrench Gang viewpoint that Edward Abbey once advocated for, I do adhere to his enthusiasm. That’s what this career will be – taking that enthusiasm and channeling it in a way that works for me. I’m going to be hiking the trail so that I can see how incredible our natural spaces are, and therefor how important it is that we continue to protect them. Feel free to translate that to whichever sector of environmental policy you choose – sustainable energy, chemical regulation, wildlife protection, etc. The point is – I’m going on this journey partly so that I have something to carry with me that will keep me going when I lose sight of what’s important. Call it overly sentimental, but hey – that’s me.

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