6 Fears to Take on the Appalachian Trail

When family, friends, and acquaintances learn of my plan to thru hike the Appalachian Trail, the top questions I receive are almost always 1) am I going alone and 2) am I bringing a gun. Generally people are curious about what gear I take, what I eat, and how far I will hike per day, but first and foremost their initial questions reflect what they would fear if they themselves were hiking: isolation and physical harm. To some extent these are concerns of mine as well, but I also know that while hiking I hardly have time to get bored or feel alone, particularly with others on the trail. Likewise I know that statistically I am safer surrounded by trees, wild animals, and dirt bags, than in any major city in the United States. However, along with my pack, I do carry fears on the AT—fears to suffer, to swallow, to accept, to overcome, and just maybe to leave behind.

1) That I won’t have enough money to complete the trail or survive afterwards

This past December was the first time I ever intentionally missed a credit card payment. I had $213 in my bank account. If I had paid my credit card bill off in full, like I normally do, I would have overdrawn on my account. I felt unnerved, weak, nearly defeated in the ways of the world. I know I am lucky: to have never overdrawn, taken out a loan, or default on a payment. Mostly I am lucky to have had parents who knew how to work hard and be frugal nearly to the point of monasticism. In the months since December, I have worked on average 6 days a week, grown my bank account by about $2000, and saved over $1500 in tips (what I intend to live off of on the AT). Still I worry that it won’t be enough. I have reoccurring bills to pay. Health and cars do not come cheap in this country. For five months my collective income will be virtually nonexistent. Will it be enough?

2) That for 5 months, I’m effectively taking myself “out of the game”

I have been single 11 months and two days. Not even a year, I know, but 5 more months will put me over that marker. While some people find romance on trail, the prospect doesn’t seem likely, and I’m not anticipating or hoping for it. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, five more months alone or possibly even more frightening: meeting someone and letting another person close again.p7260328

3) That I won’t be able to sleep

The only two times I slept in a hammock, I didn’t. I laid strung up in the middle of a loblolly pine stand in Tennessee that has since been harvested. My back was cold. My legs hurt. Granted I didn’t know how to properly set it up or ways to make it warmer. Even if I bring a tent, or change to it halfway through, sleep will still be precious. There are days when I lie on the most comfortable beds imaginable and I stare awake sweating, playing videos in my mind, racing, pacing, frustrated with my inability to sleep, which continues the cycle. Worry about money, worry about health, worry about love, the future, the noises in the trees.

4) That at the end, people will comment how skinny I look

In ninth grade I weighed 195 pounds. I was 5’5” and had a 36” waist, a veritable ball of a boy. Now, thirteen years later, I weigh 135 pounds, am one inch taller, and have a 28” waist in most cases. In the winters, I teach skiing and yoga. I go to the gym after work because the number on the scale scares me. In the truest sense, it has the ability to swiftly determine my worth and desirability, how close I am to an enlightened life, contentment, love, and happiness. I don’t know what number marks satisfaction—147, 135, 123—all I know is that it is lower, always lower.

5) That my family might think the outlandish things I do are more resultant signs of mental illness than acceptable deviations of personality, values, and definitions of success and happiness

I was born into a home that was already plagued with bipolar disorder and manic depression. My mother, brother, and I watched as the diseases tore my dad apart and quite literally killed him. Ever prudent, my mom worries about my brother and me—sons of our father—genetically predispositioned to his fate. Straying too far from the path, rattling the cages too much, choosing seemingly bizarre lifestyles and living arrangements could all be signs, could they not?p7140082

6) That I won’t remember the hike

The adventure of a lifetime, an achievement of epic proportions, something to be known and remembered by—people tell me hiking the Appalachian Trail is these things. But at the end, will I remember the trail? The water sources and outcrops in the sun. Thick trees and undergrowth so dense light only comes through in filtered drops. Will the AT be placed into the category of something I did, once and done. Will what used to be a near photographic memory in my younger years remember the footfalls, the land, the people, the pain, the joys? I wonder if my brain is actually slipping or just nodding nostalgically to the past. Time I fear takes more than body.

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