Failure: Get Bitter or Get Better
This is going to be a tough post for me to write, because there is something I have been very bitter about for a few months…I’ll explain.
I cannot think of anything in the world I despise more than failure. While failing doesn’t feel good for anyone, there is something in me that especially hates it. Even the smallest failures can keep me up at night as I contemplate how in the hell I didn’t succeed.
You’re probably wondering where I am going with this. Does this have anything to do with hiking? Just hold on…you’ll see.
As some of you may know, if you read my first post, I am starting my thru-hike in March 2017 to raise funds and awareness for brain tumor research in honor of my father. (Side note: I will be starting most likely March 1st or within a couple of days of that now. I was asked to be a groomsman in a wedding later next year and I certainly couldn’t say no)
Anyway, I worked all summer at Enterprise Rent-a-Car, which was surprisingly awesome, and saved up a bunch of money. However, I never had any free time and couldn’t hike as much as I had wanted to. I made a plan to do my first shakedown hike and of course, I had to do it big. For some reason I have this incredible talent of doing illogical things because I think they sound sweet and once I set my mind on something. I. Will. Do. It.
After much research, I came to the conclusion that I should get in a car and drive 10.5 hours to South Carolina and hike the Foothills Trail. Everything I had read said it was beautiful, well marked (this is incredibly ironic later), and a great practice hike to prepare for the A.T. Of course, living in Michigan where my hiking possibilities are endless, I wouldn’t have fathomed keeping my travel time under 2-3 hours and saving tons of money. Nope. I saw this. I committed and that’s all she wrote.
Off I went into the sunset, in my rental car (my old ass Honda was dying and I got a good deal), heading for South Carolina with all my gear. I would get down there, camp at Table Rock State Park, then in the morning get shuttled to Oconee, and head off.
Wellllll that didn’t really work. I-75 was a nightmare and the drive ended up taking almost 12 hours. Luckily, on the way down, I talked to a ranger from Table Rock on the phone who informed me that I couldn’t camp at the park due to how late I would be rolling in, but I could drive to the top of Sassafras Mountain and camp on that for the night, then start my hike in the morning. Ever better! Camping on top of the tallest mountain in South Carolina? Awesome. Until…..When I hit North Carolina, I drove into a wall of water. Not rain, but torrential downpours. Okay, but surely it’s not like this a whole state over. It was and it never stopped.
So here I am, driving through the mountains of South Carolina, at night, in the monsoon of the year, with no cell service, and barely no idea where I am going, and above all things in this little Chevy Cruze. Of course, this picture wouldn’t be perfect without telling you that in the middle of absolute nowhere I passed a bar called Bob’s with a big confederate flag. I thought about asking for directions, but I chose otherwise. Somehow. Someway. I found my way to the top of Sassafras Mountain. I sat there for almost an hour hoping the rain would stop and I could pitch my tent. Nope. Rain continued to pound on the car. Plan B: Enjoy the total ecstasy of balling up in the back of a Chevy Cruze.
In the morning, I drove to Table Rock, got a shuttle to Oconee and set off. Finally, I was here.
I have the guidebook. I have a beautiful day. I have everything I need right on my back. I’m chugging along, but start to quickly realize that the trail is not in that great of shape. There are several down trees and the brush seems to be pretty overgrown. No worries. I have done a lot of day hikes, a lot of camping, but this was my first overnight backpacking trip and I wasn’t going to let a little thing like this bother me. Although, I wont lie, the copious amounts of spider webs stretching across the trail gave me a heart attack or two. Gutting a fish? No problem. Spider web? Slight problem.
As I conquer mile after mile I realize a few things:
- My legs are not in as good of shape as they could be.
- It’s really freaking humid in the south.
- The guidebook isn’t as helpful as I had hoped (So, I thought)
- Bringing the Eno was a good life decision. Definitely a nice way to eat lunch.
I realize I have not had cell service all day. No biggie. I realize I haven’t seen anyone all day. Bugs me slightly because I am a total extrovert. It’s later in the day and I see some fly fishermen walking ahead of me. When I catch up we strike up a conversation. They’re locals who come down to the Chattooga River all the time on this trail. I know I am heading for Burrells Ford campground. I’m fairly certain that I know where I am going, but asking for directions to confirm can’t possibly hurt.
Behind me is the way I came from. Straight a head is up hill and the locals claim there’s just an open area/parking lot. To my right is a path marked by a blue blaze and to my left I see a white blaze. The locals tell me to follow that white blaze to Burrels Ford. We depart and off I go. After a few white blazes, I notice the trees ahead have blue blazes. Wtf? I keep walking and see nothing but blue blazes. I check the guidebook and it says nothing of this. I turn back. I must have missed something. For the next hour I walk back and forth. Racing up and down the trails…I’m lost. This has never happened. I’ve hiked all over Michigan and in Red River Gorge and never been lost. I truly am perplexed. I have no cell service, so no way to ask a ranger for directions. It’s starting to get dark and in all my racing around I have almost finished all the water I have and I’m thirsty. The way I see it, I need to go up until I get cell service. I head the way the locals had earlier and after about 20 minutes I reach an opening in the woods that might be mistaken for a parking lot.
Finally. A signal. I call my dad, extremely upset. I have no idea how I have gotten to this. How am I lost? I have the guidebook. I have a good sense of direction. I’m fairly experienced. I’ve spent hundred of dollars that I worked all summer for to get here. I drove half a day through hell. I slept in the back of a car. I sacrificed to hike this trail and now I do not know where I am. After talking to my dad, I made a decision I have been very bitter about for months. I failed. I called 911 and about 45 minutes later the mountain rescue team picked me up. I’m angry and unbelievably embarrassed. I packed my shit in their F-250 and they gave me a long ride to Table Rock where my car was.
The only bright side: They had honey buns and water.
So here I am. I failed. I am attempting 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail in March 2017 and I make it 16 miles on the Foothills Trail and fail. I think about this several times a week. The few friends I have told, they poke fun at me, I smile, but it hurts inside. My confidence is fractured. I am so incredibly excited for the A.T, but you better believe the day I got lost creeps into my mind every time I think of March next year. People ask: Don’t you worry about getting lost? Don’t you worry about not making it?
Failure hurts. For me, it consumes my thoughts. My father has always told me “you can either get bitter or get better”. For the past several months I have been bitter. I have been so salty at my stupidity.
My father gave me great advice when I got home. He asked if I had learned anything from my trip. I went into a 20 minute rant about everything I wish I could do over in hindsight and what I learned. He looked at me and said that all the money, time, and energy spent to learn these lessons are absolutely worth it. He’s right. As I grow as a young man, I realize that failure is a beautiful opportunity to learn. In fact, I believe our most powerful moments of learning are in our deepest failures. Failing is a time to grow and develop. Failing is the natural process of maturing.
Due to this experience, I am now more focused on reaching Katahdin than I ever have been. I will not let this happen again. I will not fail again. If the motivation of hiking every step for my dad wasn’t enough (it is), then I promise you that the ringing sound of people laughing at me for getting picked up by the mountain rescue or the sheer thought of having failed will get me to the finish.
The moral of the story is we are all bound to fail, either big or small. When we do, we can choose to get bitter, which is the easy route or we can choose to get better. We can choose to make it a learning experience. We can choose to use our frustration as positive motivation moving forward.
From this day on I choose to be better. There is nothing that can stop me now. Katahdin, here I come.
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Dude, never go into an unknown without a map and compass. Even the most experienced will get turned around sometimes and in their panic can get hopelessly lost. Don’t believe me, look up the story of Gerry Largay. She was almost done with her thru hike and still got lost. Get a map of the area and study it. Learn to use a compass. It can and will save your life.
Glad you made it out safe and have learned from what happened. I am not sure why you chose to take a path just because the locals said too even though your guide book didnt say anything about it or the blazes changing color. Most areas with blazed trails will have an overall map that identifies which blaze is for which trail. These have kept me out of trouble several times over the years. If you know you need to be going a certain direction and the sun is on the wrong side of you depending on the time of the day you may have gotten a little clue on which way you were headed. Like the gentleman above said a compass could have solved your problem if you knew which direction the campground was and how to use it. I learned how to orient a map and use a compass in scouts but there is a crazy amount of good info for free available online. I hope you dont let this discourage you and go on more shakedown hikes with this new knowledge and rock them.
See you in GA next year.
Just read this out loud to my husband.. We laughed at parts – but I had to stop and choke back the tears towards the end.
I’ve got anxiety and excitement and fear; determination to succeed but expectation to fail (temporarily).
We’re hitting the trail early March – – – hope to see you there ! ! 🙂
That must have been hard to write! Good article and reminder that outdoor skills are critical. Also, that cellphones can be worthless on any trail. As Brian noted above, always carry a map & compass. Also, they are both worthless unless you have learned about orienteering. The Boy Scouts have some great stuff online that can train you. As I do a lot of solo hiking, I also carry a DeLorme inTouch with me, but they are a bit expensive. Definitely don’t let this ruin your thru hike!
There are several great apps that work off your GPS even in airplane mode. Purchase the USA topo with trails map and download the hi resolution map of the local area you are hiking and never get lost. This is the cheapest route by far. The AT, Foothills Trail and all other major trails are on this. I use view Ranger on a Samsung, but there are many that work. I travel the country for my job and I add a day or two when I am near a trail to hike and camp. I hit Glacier, Flatiron, rocky Mtn natural park, CDT, pct, Yellowstone, cirque of the Towers and smokies this year. Got lost three times and found my way back each time within a few minutes of consulting my app. Also recorded all my tracks, sent them to my family. I live near the Foothills, know it well. Join meetup (app) and check out the local hikes, then plan to meet up with a hiking group. This is great way to learn without the worry of getting lost. Also you have help if you need it or can borrow something missed.
Can you get your trail name while writing your blog?
My name is (what?) My location is (where?) Seriously, where am I?
Oh look, HONEY BUNS!!!