Did You Sleep in the Woods Yet?
The first time I stood on the Appalachian Trail was at Perkins observatory on New York’s Bear Mountain, in 1983. My father took my brother and me camping, the three of us sleeping in a little tent. My brother and I were little boys. We camped somewhere in the vicinity of Bear Mountain, just for one night. My father left our food in a pack resting against a tree, and in the morning we discovered some animal had dragged the pack fifty yards away and eaten all of our food– except an orange. So we shared the orange in the morning sun and hiked out. We were city people, like many who first experience the AT at Bear Mountain. Only a hundred miles from New York City, the trail section crossing the Hudson River was the first to be laid down in the 1920s. Who knows how many urban millions have had their first hiking or camping experience in the area? I don’t remember being particularly reflective about the trip afterward, or especially obsessed with the Appalachian Trail, but perhaps a seed was planted.
I know exactly where I was when I decided to try thru hiking the Appalachian Trail. I was car camping with my long time hiking and camping buddy, Schwaltz, at Delaney Park, in Indiana. He was not a city kid. He grew up in rural western Kentucky, the son of a dedicated deer and bird hunter. Schwaltz had been an eagle scout. I had learned many things about the natural and human history of the Ohio valley from him. Late that afternoon in Delaney Park in October 2009, we sat in camp chairs and ate his excellent pan fried pork chops and watched the sun go down. The leaves seemed to change colors before our eyes that very day. We had perfect weather and peak autumn leaves. I was thirty five years old. In another thirty five years I’d be seventy, if I made it. As the marmalade glow of sunset bled into the grapes of dusk, I stared off into the hills and heard a voice in my head say quite clearly: “I want to go live in the woods for a while.”
The following Monday I went back to my office. (I had an office at a community college then. That is supposed to feel satisfying in professional life– an office with a door and a key.) The piles of student essays were there, documents mostly trying to say something their authors hoped an authority (me, the teacher) might approve. An oppressive feeling hung in my heart, the sense that I would forever process insincere statements (things mostly written and said for a grade) through the lower intestines of academia. I still found inspiration in teaching and from reading some of my students’ writing, but this was in spite of that oppressive feeling. The woods were calling my name, and I confess, I sometimes spent time on my office computer looking at hiking videos and hiking gear.
The following spring I had a pack and other equipment and I began taking these out on solo trips to acclimate myself to solitude. Thinking of growth experiences, every adult should try sleeping alone in the woods at least once. Some people grow up in areas where this experience is readily available, but I did not. I had slept in a decent Manhattan hotel, and a not so decent Manhattan hotel, and I had slept alone on the street one night in Louisville when I was a couch surfer one summer. But I had never slept alone in the woods– not once in my life and I was thirty five years old. My first night alone in the woods was spent in Mammoth Cave National Park (which lacks bears). It was nine miles in and nine miles out, it rained a little, and once I got to sleep inside my bivy, the woods were quiet in the March night except for the wind. I didn’t die. It was a pleasant experience.
That summer of 2010, I hiked Indiana’s fifty five mile long Knobstone Trail (the KT, considered by some to be a good training trail for the AT). I spent five nights alone in the woods. It was during the work week, so the trail was mostly devoid of humanity. I didn’t see a soul for two straight days. Ironically, during my 2011 NOBO hike of the Appalachian Trail, there were only two nights on the trail I slept alone at a shelter– once in Tennessee, a day north of Kincora hostel, and then my second to last night in the hundred mile wilderness of Maine. That night alone in a remote corner of Maine, it was cold and I was a little freaked out by myself, so I built a big fire and listened to the Giants play the Rams on Monday Night Football via good old AM radio. I remember that night so clearly– the smell of the woods, my breath in my headlamp, and my fire dancing and casting amoebic monsters of shadow onto the fat tree trunks. I remember thinking about my solo trips to Mammoth Cave and the KT. I had come a long way. Three days later I made the summit of Katahdin.
I don’t know if dropping socially expected activities like employment or higher education to take off on a long hike is easier for people in their late teens and twenties. That twenty somethings usually comprise the majority of any thru hiking class is true. That a twenty one year old is likely to have more future lifespan than a forty year old is statistically probable. Younger folks have fewer attachments and more lifetime to waste, usually. Oh yeah, and they have youth too. Yet in so many ways, the sixty year old retiree is exactly like the twenty one year old– off for months of wilderness fun and adventure. The main difference I see is the feeling of urgency about such a hike when one is getting older. Like a marriage proposal or quitting booze, a “now or never” attitude may be required to make the necessary arrangements for the trip of a lifetime.
There has been a growing demographic among Appalachian Trail thru hikers and long section hikers– people in their thirties and forties. Society does not encourage people in the prime working years of life to quit production and (if I may use the Britishism) fuck off in the woods for six or seven months. Yet, economic trends, including contingent careers, and a general flux (both good and bad) of historic social roles, has led many people in the middle of a career to take off to the mountains. A job that offers no pension and precarious benefits offers little incentive to give a long term shit (pardon the Americanism) about one’s career. To paraphrase the Italian philosopher Franco Berardi, the nature of the future has changed. There is no future. Not like it was for an older generation of workers.
There is an urgent feeling that accompanies the acknowledgment of no future. I don’t just mean no economic future, but also no environmental future. For all the attention surrounding Bill Bryson’s bestselling book A Walk in the Woods, what is often forgotten is one of his major reasons for writing the book: to tell how the Appalachian Trail (as we’ve known it) is disappearing. Realize the American Chestnut is already long gone. Then go up on Clingman’s Dome and observe the mass extinction of alpine plant species. It is becoming harder to find people who can remember when you could camp on a late autumn night in the Smokies and not see the lights of cities. With what is believed about climate change and other ecological issues affecting the AT, if there are still Appalachian Trail hikers in one hundred years, they will be hiking an ecologically different trail. Earl Shaffer himself understood the significance of the disappearing chestnut trees in his lifetime; he had survived the Second World War. Earl Shaffer faced the prospects of no future bravely and in the spirit of identification.
What do I mean by “identification”? I mean personal identity for one. A grown up has a job and a job provides not just money, but dignity and identity, a sense of self worth, right? Maybe if you were still twenty one and fresh out of college you could find time to play in the woods? Maybe when you retire (if you can retire) you might still be young enough physically to go. Socially speaking, young adults and retirees have ready made cover stories for their hikes. I’ve heard them: “I’m going to grad school in the fall…” or “I did twenty years in the Army…” or “thirty years working in .” Even out on the trail, our society’s urban values creep in and one is sometimes expected to explain not just who they are (“Hi, I’m Toilet Paper. Funny trail name, I know…”) but what they are (“I am/was sales manager of…”). Many would be hikers experience a fearful feeling (especially people in their thirties and forties) when thinking of setting aside the identities that were given to them by authorities in society. We may grow tired of these identities, but they may be often all one has to know oneself by age thirty five.
Beyond self identification, there is also what individuals identify with. In so called normal life, I may identify with such and such political party, or sports team, or some brand of consumer good I enjoy and which has been aggressively marketed to me. Yet I can tell you with no shame, there have been times on the Appalachian Trail when I felt like a squirrel or a bear, or an ancient tree with a great hollow space in its heart, or a big rock that outlasted the dinosaurs. Today, on some level I still understand myself this way. My name is squirrel. My name is bear. My name is rock. I am the mountain and the mountain is me. That sounds crazy, but go walk two thousand miles in the woods and look at trees and rocks and squirrels and (yes) bears for months. For the rest of your life, your sense of “I am” will be changed forever. You will identify with the natural world, as you born to do before the doctor slapped your ass and began to civilize you.
One of the challenges of writing a blog every two weeks is imagining a reader out there picking through the giant information garbage pile that is the internet and finding something useful to say to this stranger. Usually when I write these things, I do try to imagine a real person reading. In this particular post, I am thinking of someone maybe thirty five years old, more or less; maybe forty five. (Don’t feel excluded if you’re not. Thanks for reading.) This hypothetical thirty seven year old has quit a job after clearing their insane plan to hike the Appalachian Trail with a partner and is set to take off for Springer Mountain, Georgia at the end of this coming winter. With the start date approaching and people asking annoying questions during the holidays, this hypothetical reader should be feeling alternately excited and terrified.
I want to say this to the hypothetical hiker: All is well. You have put together gear that will prevent you from dying from cold wet weather, right? You’re leaving the cotton clothes at home and bringing quick dry clothes like synthetics or wool? You have a way to treat or filter water? You have boots that feel good on your feet? You have an appropriately rated sleeping bag? You have a dry sack so your sleeping bag will stay dry? You have an emergency shelter– even just a tarp, in case the shelter is full? You have money and maybe mail drops for resupply? You have good socks? You have a plane or bus ticket to Atlanta and a shuttle booked to take you to the trail? You have ride? Even better! Then you’re ready to go! Boots and sleeping bag. And some other shit. Your pack is fine if you can carry it. Your stove is fine if you can eat with it. Your lack of a stove is fine if you can eat too. This hiking shit is really simple. Get to the trail. Follow the white blazes. Stay warm (enough) and keep your sleeping bag dry. More or less, the other bullshit works its way out.
You can change equipment along the way. You’ll lose things and add things. Things will break. Kind people will maybe give you nice things for no reason beside altruism, and much more often than bad fortune or bad people take things from you. By next summer you will be a filthy, duct taped specimen of physical vitality. You can, and you will walk as far as you want on the AT (barring catastrophic injury). If you get nervous or worried about your plans in the coming weeks, you will take a long walk instead. There’s a long way to go still until March. You will continue tweaking your equipment, through the holidays, but also throughout your hike until you lay your pack on the porch of the ranger station at the foot of Katahdin. You can do this. Weaker, fatter, older, dumber, uglier, less coordinated, and even more sight impaired people have done this before you. You’ll make new friends, lose them in the woods, and then make all new friends the next day. Some of these people you may never speak to you again. Some will send you Christmas cards every year. Some you may hear passed away and you will carry their memory every mile you walk thereafter. You’ll change more than equipment along the way.
After every single person reading this is dead; after a few mass extinction cycles; after the works of Shakespeare are lost and forgotten and the English language has devolved into a system of burps, farts and emojis, the Appalachian Mountains will still be there. The sky above the mountain will be there. Maybe before then you will have taken the time to climb them and walk in the clouds and have your own visions and spend time with them. It is good to sleep alone in the woods sometimes. I plan to spend eternity doing just that, if some nice hiker trash would just take my ashes.
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