Another Brick in the Wall: Why Hike the AT?
Old stone walls fill the forest up and down the Appalachian Trail. They’re especially numerous throughout the lovely state of New York where you see them around practically every bend, proudly defying gravity so resolutely as to leave little doubt they’ll still be standing for centuries to come. They aren’t particularly tall or symmetrical like Aztec ruins, Egyptian pyramids, or Greek coliseums, and after hiking alongside them for a short while they begin to blend into the landscape so seamlessly it’s startling when you notice them again.
Due to the curvy contours of mountainous terrain, the walls themselves have an elastic and sinewy quality belying the hundreds of thousands of rocks, balanced long ago by forgotten craftsmen, holding themselves in place by a combination of shape and gravity alone. The gaps between stones are irregular and unpolished and it’s not too hard to imagine them tumbling down if any single one could be plucked out of place “Jenga” style. Controlled chaos is how I’d describe them from up close, which is perhaps the key ingredient allowing them to so easily coexist visually with the gnarled roots, leaning trees, and sporadic vegetation they’re surrounded by.
But if you stand back and take the longer view, they are beautiful… elegant even, historic, and most especially, mysterious.
Proudly silent, the walls somehow manage to harmonize in both the past and present.
You can see them plainly but are left to wonder… why are they there?
It’s the number one question I get from the many people I meet every day. And the farther north I go the more I hear it. Just yesterday I was asked WHY four times over the course of an afternoon by two older friends out day hiking, a young woman named Ashley selling me some insoles, the owner of the Laundromat where I was washing my clothes, and the proprietor of the motel while I was checking in.
It gets to you. Not in an annoying way, but you do begin to question yourself unless you have an answer you truly understand and believe in. I can’t say that’s the case with me. And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. I usually just trot out my go-to story, shared in an early blog from before the hike had begun about how this was a dream I’ve had for years, and I was hooked when I learned of the difficulty and distance and wanted to take the challenge. But lately, that story is ringing hollow as the words come out of my mouth. My why is something else more substantial and I can’t quite put my finger on it.
Everyone has their own reasons
I’ve met some thru-hikers that can answer the question convincingly, though. Even in shelters and camp it’s a pretty common thing for us to ask while getting to know one another. One incredible recently retired fella had been training hard for a full summer of ultra-marathon events (100-mile foot races) when he began to have serious health issues. He feels his doctor misdiagnosed his problem as a seizure as opposed to something stemming from the rigorous and exhausting training regime he was on. Following standard protocol, the doctor reported his finding to the DMV and consequently, my friend lost his driver’s license for six months. So what can you do when you’re in the shape of your life and you can’t drive? Why, hike the AT of course! It’s been the perfect solution for his goal-oriented personality and he’s in a great groove.
Another hiker I spend time with is out here to save a long and serious relationship with his girlfriend and the mother of his daughter. You read that right. As a couple, they had hit a rough patch and made the mutual decision to take some time away from one another to see if absence might make the heart grow fonder. In an incredible bit of wisdom, he decided to show he possesses the mental, emotional, and physical strength to stick with a tough yet meaningful journey like the Appalachian Trail. Instead of moping or dating around, he’s working out his thoughts and gaining clarity about their future. They speak by phone often and are both excited for him to finish this hike so he can go home to her next month and start over.
I know several guys in their 40s and 50s who hit the trail as a remedy to burnt-out careers demanding too much of their time and bringing them more than their fair share of negative energy. One had been doing the responsible thing by shouldering the load of several coworkers who quit work during Covid and was putting in huge hours every week to keep pace. But the supervisors were oblivious to his sacrifice and still demanded more. The stress was taking a toll on his health and personal life, so he made the decision to quit and come out here to get a much-needed reset.
It seems when your why is a solution to a negative situation, then it can be more easily justified and accepted by those asking the question. But when you leave a happy home life for six months to wander up the east coast through the woods, it raises eyebrows. So lately I’ve been reconsidering what’s driving me to hike on through pain and homesickness to make it to the end. It’s a real pull that is coming from deep down within me and I think I’m getting closer to an answer.
Back in Pennsylvania, my foot hurt so bad that each step was a painful undertaking. But I made a promise to myself that first I’d limp to the New Jersey state line, then hike the 75 miles to New York before I’d let myself decide if I could go any further. That’s crazy- I mean, nuts! But I did it and lived to fight on. Throw in the Norovirus, the torn leg muscle, the foot problems, and being lonely most of this trip, and I know there is a why behind every step.
Why or Whys?
More than likely there’s a lot of Whys. Just like there are a lot of rocks holding up those walls. Every one of them is important, the sum of their total being greater than the individual parts. I do love a challenge when I’m unsure if I’ll succeed. I do love the total physicality of hiking for ten hours a day for six months in all kinds of weather. I do wonder what my life will be like back home in retirement, and this is a chance to think on it. I do love meeting new people as I come into towns I’ve never heard of. I do enjoy getting to know other thru-hikers and sharing time with them. I do love learning about new equipment and problem-solving. I do love walking up the United States. I do love feeling special when I can answer “yes” to the question, “Are you a thru-hiker?” I do want to finish what Sapling and I started and know that my success is important to her too. I do love a beautiful sunrise from a cliff’s edge. I do love a warm hotel bed on a zero-day when it’s raining outside. I do love my family and friends being proud of me. I do love… I do… I…
Perhaps the best answer I’ve heard to the question came unsolicited from one of the oldest people I’ve met on trail. In NY’s Harriman State Park there’s an iconic feature known as the Lemon Squeezer. It’s a fifteen-yard or so section of path that passes through the crack of a massive boulder and is just shy width-wise of the average man’s shoulders. Without a pack you can simply angle the body and squeeze by without much problem. But with one on it requires a bit more thought and effort.
The Lemon Squeezer is at the top of a long climb, and I arrived there five minutes behind my young friend Avery who I’d been hiking with all day. He had already gone through and was standing on top looking down into it. When I stepped up to the entrance, I recognized a 72-year-old thru-hiker named Jim who, while attempting to drag his entire body and pack out the other side, had become wedged in the middle quite tightly. As he pulled and tried to tug himself free, the fabric of his pack scraped loudly against the rocks, and on second inspection I noticed his arms were abraded and beginning to bleed.
From above Avery began offering Jim advice on how to get out of his predicament. He had him back up some and wriggle out of the pack so that Avery was able to grab it from above and Jim could walk out. Then I looked next to my feet at the entrance and saw Jim had planned on making more than one trip as the camp shoes, sleeping pad, and some other equipment that are usually lashed to the outside of his pack were lying there. Avery’s acrobatic self scurried through and grabbed it all so Jim wouldn’t have to.
I managed to make my way to the other side by removing my pack first and pushing it along in front of me while I inched forward sideways. It wasn’t all that easy, and once I finished and was resting from the effort, I talked with the other two. Jim was somewhat flustered from his ordeal, the damage to his pack, and the abrasions on his arm. He was becoming emotional as he spoke and with tears in his eyes said to Avery, “You know, anywhere else in the world people would have laughed at an old man stuck between two rocks. But out here….” His voice trailed off as he found himself unable to speak any further, though what he wanted to say was obvious. As he regained composure, he croaked out a quiet “Thank you” to Avery and softly clapped his shoulder.
I knew in that moment his Why and mine and that of many others too. It was felt more than said. While I could see the emotions in front of me, they hinted at painful experiences in Jim’s past. It was as mysterious, substantial, and unyielding as a stone wall in the gut of a thick forest.
The trail can heal and abuse, entice and challenge, discover and shed. It’ll put some fixin’ on what’s broke or reveal the wear and tear behind the paint.
Even when you aren’t sure what you’re looking for you’ll end up finding what you need.
“But out here…”
In case you’re wondering about my current condition and whereabouts, I’m battling the mud of Vermont with about 580 miles to go as of early August. I’m still having foot problems, but they aren’t as dire as they were at the end of the last blog. I’ll soldier on!
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