Another New Year
“My name is Cole and I’m new to the world of thru-hiking.” I wrote that a little over a year ago before I began my NoBo AT thru-hike on January 1st, 366 days ago. I spent four and half months in the back country, making it to Katahdin on May 20th, a week before the mountain officially opened. Seven days later, I returned to finish my thru-hike on May 27th. Since that time, I’ve dedicated my hiking energy to a lot of physical therapy and, what may come as a surprise to many yet certainly not to anyone who’s had to learn a completely new way of living and thinking to meet your basic needs, mental recovery. On the eve of my one-year anniversary of such a significant time in my life, I decided to take a snapshot of where I am at now and to close the loop that I’ve kept open since late April.
Each day has 24 hours. On January 1st in Northern Georgia, a third of those hours are hikeable for a new thru-hiker. The sun goes down in the late afternoon and, by that time if sleeping in a shelter, you need to have set out your sleep system (10 minutes), retrieve and purify water for rehydrating, cooking and for breakfast (20-60 minutes, depending on if you need to melt it), change (5 minutes), cook and clean (15 minutes), eat (5 minutes), stretch (10 minutes), use the privy (5 minutes), pack up, mouse-proof and hang gear (20 minutes), zip yourself and anything that shouldn’t freeze overnight into your bag (5 minutes). The sun doesn’t come up for another 12 hours so you have to continually apply chapstick and sip water to keep your face and mouth from cracking. At 6:00AM when you need to get up, you use precious seconds to change into your hiking gear while your body heat floats into the cold darkness. With weeks of practice, you can bring your wake to trail time to an hour if you like to cook breakfast (I did). And then you have 10-ish hours to hike through snow and ice, sometimes post-holing, always counting the tenths of a mile of progress you’ve made, continually calculating your pace to judge your progress to the goal shelter, running through plan A, B and C as they change with new challenges you walk towards daily. You always need to have a plan. You always walk each day with one goal out of many in mind: if you’re not moving, you’re preparing your sleep system to shelter you from the cold. Two-thirds of each day when you begin in January are in the dark.
Each full pack was around 28lbs. The heaviest ticket item in my pack was my food bag. I often couldn’t carry enough food for the stretches in the coldest months because my metabolism was so high not from my 12-15 miles a day, but from always burning to provide warmth. Once it’s on, your metabolism doesn’t ramp down. Yet, there were nights that I ate a stick of butter or gulps of olive oil mixed with hot sauce to avoid the mistake of not eating enough before zipping up. It takes energy to eat frozen food just as it does using your body heat to warm if up. Waking up at 4:30am and shivering, knowing that I had another couple hours until sunlight, were among the inflection points of my hike: this isn’t about self-actualization, it’s about knowing what my body needs to live this way. And so my way of thinking had to change dramatically, attention being re-directed to calories, hydration, pack weight, body heat, moisture, keeping particular body areas as clean as possible, the feedback of physical pain, the information I could glean from the weather and hot sauce.
Each week during the first months, I saw at most five people and mostly on the weekends. Simply, a winter thru-hike is a decision to be alone. In one way, it’s easy: you control your days; you’re usually the only one in the shelter; the only one in any given town who’s hiking the AT; the only one to hear your own singing when eating and looking out into the woods before zipping in; the only one to hear your own voice. It’s absolute freedom. Just you and whatever moves in nature. I never saw being alone on my thru-hike as a deficit.
It was only when I returned home that the skills I learned out of necessity were no longer necessary. It took me a few weeks to start sleeping somewhat comfortably in a bed again. Someone pointed out to me that my hands shook when I’d be in the passenger seat of a car, probably because I’d been living a life at 2mph and anything that moved me faster than my own legs could was completely foreign to my senses. I cried when I first visited a city and saw the kaleidoscope of artificial colors and images all around me. I’d dart my head to anything that moved suddenly in my peripheral vision. When I opened this computer on May 20th, I had to re-learn how to type. I had to identify the times when I talked to myself or someone I imaged while in the real company of others. I had a brief period of separation anxiety from the items that made it through my hike or, truly and literally, saved my life. I spent one minute looking at one ziplock bag that I used to waterproof the items in my front pouch before realizing that it was just an object. I’ve never felt so connected to an object as I had that plastic bag.
And thus began my new journey of saying goodbye to simplicity and the necessary next step of inviting complexity and excess back into my life. Living in the backcountry is an experience where you manage scarcity, and scarcity is heightened in the winter months as you follow the season north and do so alone. By the time I visited grocery stores in Virgina, where everything is just there and you swipe a card to begin eating the next Ben and Jerry’s flavor you haven’t tried, I realized that living in a life I came from and would go back to is one where I manage abundance. Realizing you don’t need something and using it anyways feels like guilt; it’s a true outsider feeling knowing you don’t want it yet will likely end up taking it because it’s there. There’s a lot in this statement that’s wrapped up in privilege and acknowledge that. I work through this every day.
I left New York City the summer before hiking the AT and swore I wasn’t going to return. After the hike, being in what seems like the antithesis of urban living, I made the conscious decision to return and now live a few blocks down from my last apartment. When hiking, I developed the skill of parting with anything that I didn’t need and only carrying items that served multiple uses. When I began working again, I consciously went out and bought not only more new clothes than I could carry in a 60 liter pack, but more than I could fit into a closet along with my other clothes. And that’s just clothes. On the surface, you’d be right to question what happened to my mind to have this all be the case.
Upon a lot of reflection, I realized that not all of my transition has been loss and that I’m applying my experiences to my new life stage. I now find that I am able to adapt to a variety of contexts and fit in, regardless of how comfortable I am, because while hiking you often don’t have choices. Nature doesn’t care if snow got in your boot, if the stream is frozen, if the hostel you walked 4 miles off trail is closed in the off-season, if your shin splint doesn’t migrate to the other leg to allow you to keep moving, or if all of this happens in one day. You manage; you don’t think, you just act; you adapt and always, always, always keep moving.
Returning to the city was an indication that I had come to peace with a lot that I processed along the trail. As the weeks went by and I developed confidence in the fact that my fears on the trail were normal and I trusted myself enough to survive without the company of others, a larger goal emerged: by the time the hike was done, I understood the person I wanted to be the moment after I touched the sign at Katahdin. In many ways, I was walking towards my future, keeping the end point in mind as a the close to another chapter and the beginning of another. I was excited about what lay ahead. I was eager to face future challenges knowing I had solved the real challenges of food rationing, hypothermic shock, dehydration, building trust quickly with strangers, and probably most importantly, knowing when to stay still and not hike, be it out of physical necessity or simply being present in the moment.
To the degree that I have challenges, they are certainly there. I’m constantly in physical therapy to realign my body to a life where I’m not moving 20 miles a day; the first two weeks after the trail I ached worse than after a 30 miler. It was as if my body felt my mind betrayed it. As mentioned, sometimes my mind feels like I’m betraying it by again adapting to a new environment where I carry little around, use the subway and spend more time sitting. I’m a little closer to what Tom Hanks’s character in Castaway felt.
To address it all, I practice mindfulness and emotional agility constantly. This whole piece is an exercise in naming the issues I have, being vulnerable about what’s going on, and creating a distance between the thoughts and the thinker to allow myself the opportunity to decide what happens next. Yet, while there have been many bouts of confusion, I’ve never felt so alive because of my decision to thru-hike in the winter. There’s certainly a lot to work on, particularly by identifying when I do need other people involved in my life, and I’m empowered to show up.
It goes without saying that in no way could I have ever completed this hike without the support of people I’ve met along the way and places that changed my perspective. Them all, I owe so much gratitude. Here’s a short list as I look at a map of the AT.
- To Alem, my best high school friend, who drove me to Springer the morning of my hike and sent me off with well wishes.
- To the hiker who, after losing his rain shell during his last week hiking SoBo in Georgia, gave me food to help me make it through the rain. I’m also grateful for his trust in me to find his gear miles later and send it to him in MD, to which I sent back trail magic.
- To Shelley “Tennasee” Husky and family, who took me in after days scraping through feet of snow in the Smokies.
- To Whitney and John, two NC workers at Newfound Gap, who warmed me up in their truck, fed me and notified the Rangers that I could use a ride to Gatlinburg during the snow storm. To those same Rangers for the coffee they brought up and dropping me off in Gatlinburg, no questions asked.
- To a shop owner in Rangely, ME, who gave me the plastic bag to use as a flotation device on my swim across the Kennebec. Note: I don’t recommend doing this. But if you do, kick for your life.
- For all gas stations, towns and Dunkin’ Donuts that were located a few tenths of a mile from any given trail crossing.
- To Adam who treated me to a bison burger at the Nantahala Outdoor Center and shared some good company.
- Those who hitched me to towns across the trail and took a chance on a complete stranger.
- Those who put me up after shuttling me to the grocery store. You totally picked up on my “yoda-ing.”
- To Richard and Sonia, who after hearing me speak so much about eating ice cream gave me $20 each for my Ben and Jerry’s fund as I entered West Virginia.
- To whoever stocked the legendary medical box and stocked cooler trail magic with lawn chairs some 500 miles before the end.
- For the store employees and owners who laid on the discounts, free coffee, sitting time, outlets, snuck me gift cards and advice along the way.
- To Steve, who allowed me to stay in his house for a couple days to do my taxes and drive me to and from the Chinese buffet before entering the Shenandoahs.
- To Emily, a high school friend, who hiked with me and brought food for a trail-gate.
- To Maddie, who came from New Zealand against the wishes of her family, to flip flop thru-hike for her own reasons.
- To the woman in a coffee shop in Front Royale, VA, who wanted my phone charging as I did my town chores.
- To Moosejaw for being my go-to source for on-the-trail gear. Your return policy is wonderful.
- To Ben at Goosefeet Gear for customizing my down sleeping gear.
- To Dora the Explorer who drove from Southern to Northern CT to hang out before heading on her own CDT success.
- To the hostel supervisor who allowed me to stay for free and brought me to a Super Bowl party hosted by “the Sarge,” where, as tradition has it, I was obligated to take a shot of whiskey upon entering.
- To Kaitlyn, who allowed me to stay in her house and watch her son play Minecraft all day as I recovered.
- To those who allowed me to use their cars to drive to resupply.
- To Corbett, who I met on the trail in MA and then again in VT for two great day hikes.
- To Greg in Norwich, VT, for opening his house to me and convincing me to hike as hard through NH and ME, the two toughest states on the trail.
- To the “Ice Cream Man,” who pretty much left me in his house alone and said “eat anything” while he went out for errands. He passed away a couple months after.
- To Lorne, who brought me in from rough weather in the Whites for a zero, playing cribbage and feeding me.
- To Yvonne, the woman who I met serendipitously on my first hike ever and now a friend, as well as Ryan “Guthook” Linn for gifting his AT trail app to me, the most important tool that allowed me to properly plan my hike.
Again, a short list and for the events that were out of the ordinary. I’m grateful most for the times of absolute silence and the ability to listen into them. Each day has 24 hours and I feel like I’m more in touch with the opportunities in every moment of them. Overall, these moments allow me to appreciate who I am, what I’ve been given and how wonderful this world can be.
So, it’s another New Year. My best to all those setting off on their thrus of whatever length on whichever trail you’ve selected, in the backcountry or otherwise. My thoughts heading out to hikers departing in January and February, especially on New Year’s Day. You’ll all be alone for a while and you are likely to be the first hikers of the season. Not everyone on the trail behind you is going to be respectful and humble for what you’ll receive first. Make sure that everyone you meet leaves the right impression; this is how you can give to those taking up your tail. It’s not the easiest hike to prepare for, to actually do, and to move on afterwards. Yet, nothing that’s worth doing is. Enjoy it thru and through.
Lastly, I’m happy to share the following video. One picture for every mile. Many of these times were smiles forced through physical discomfort, yet smiling every mile is a good reminder that we’re ok. I hope you enjoy.
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