Tourists and Citizens on the AT
Shenandoah National Park, September 8–16, 2019
Dispatch 1: Backpacking Is Not Thru-hiking
The two-and-a-half months I spent on my LASH three years ago were the most emotionally volatile two and a half months of my life. I was wretched and desperate or I was jubilant and ecstatic and there was nothing in between. The eight days I spent in Shenandoah National Park last month, by contrast, were almost uniformly easy and happy. On my LASH, which was supposed to be a thru, I was voluntarily homeless, unemployed, terrified, and ignorant of any future. I had quit my job, broken my lease, moved out of my apartment, and put my possessions in my parents’ basement.
The leap was a reaction to complacency. Fed by the trappings of middle-class comfort, I knew I needed a dramatic gesture to find my compass again and follow it. It worked; although my foot broke after 675 miles and I was forced home without finishing the trail, the mission was complete. Transformed by 72 days and nights of living a thru-hiker’s life, back in civilization I readily embraced a more-meaningful but less-lucrative career. Midlife crisis resolved. Yay.
Last month I hiked from Rockfish Gap (the southern entrance to the park) to Elkwallow Wayside (12 miles short of the northern entrance). Since my 2016 journey had been my first backpacking trip, I did not know what to expect on this short trip (88 miles). Now that I’m home I can say that the journeys have about as much in common as visiting a temple and being a monk. I can also say that although I have no plans or strong desire to rejoin the monastery (so to speak), as a guest in their realm I gazed long and with nostalgia at the monks.
It’s About Identity
So how do the journeys compare? The most obvious difference is in who I was as I traveled them. In 2016, I became a thru-hiker. I felt this as an identity in a way I don’t feel backpacker or section hiker. I joined a tribe, I adopted its customs—many of which, despite the hike-your-own-hike mantra, are almost universally practiced. I was a resident, a documented citizen of the woods, fluent in its language and comfortable with aspects of it that were alien to visitors. I bonded with the other members of the tribe. I even began to view outsiders with a measure of caution and distrust. That shift in identity was intensified because of the purpose with which I had freighted my trek: Figure out what to do with my life. Oh, that’s all?
Last month, I was merely a tourist. My visit was finite—not to mention cut-short-able at any time since the trail never strays too far from Skyline Drive and a hitch. Although I put my phone on airplane mode 23 out of 24 hours as I had in 2016, when I did take it off and have signal, I had work emails to answer. The long arms of home—whether it was a client with a question or my boyfriend with a love note—were long enough to reach me. I was in the woods but not of them, and I felt no more disconnected from my “real” life than I might on a work trip or a writing retreat.
How did this difference in identity affect the trip? Mainly, it made it easier, lighter. Yes, it rained (well, misted). Yes, there was one really cold night and a few super-hot nights. Sure, some of the climbs were tough, water sources were scarce, and the humidity was brutal. I was a little homesick from time to time. But I never felt despair.
Mixing with the Locals
On my fourth night out, I shared camping space with six two eight thru-hikers, many of whom knew or had at least met each other before. Watching them eat ravenously; hearing them talk of crushing 25-mile days; smelling their stench; and listening to their descriptions of weight loss, yellow-blazing (hitchhiking), resupplying, receiving trail magic, and abandoning all hope of keeping their fingernails clean, I was pierced with longing. That transformation, that life, is enchanted. It’s unlike anything available in modern society but it shares so much with how life was for everyone all the time just centuries ago, so while to a modern person it feels completely alien, it also, peculiarly, feels elemental deep in one’s bones.
What enchantment I felt on this SNP trip was at the daily level, not integral, not alchemical. I did feel the woods’ magic, though. I woke up every single day with zest for the miles ahead. I get to walk again today! I strapped into my pack and took my first steps and felt endorphins flood me and was stunned at how natural and right it all felt, as if humans had been made for carrying heavy things across long distances on uneven paths up and down hills. I gasped at the sight of a bear’s hindquarters as it scrambled up the hill away from me. I stopped often to close my eyes, inhale deeply, open my eyes, and absorb the “soft fascinations” of the forest vistas: that gentle chaos of disorderly trunks, leaves, branches, ferns, rocks, roots, and sunlight.
It fed me. And because the stakes of this trip were lower than the stakes of my last journey, I could partake and know that it was good. I could let in the gifts of the wilderness without the burden of hoping it would teach or transform me. I could just be. I could be a backpacker.
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