The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Three Weeks and Three Changes

I knew, before I set out, that my Appalachian Trail thru-hike would change me in some way or another.  I did not have specific intentions of re-forging my identity or “finding myself” as some do, but I assumed five months in the woods would have an effect on me.  Still, I underestimated how soon some changes would take place.

The Good: Redefining “Difficult”

Mollies Ridge after the first snow

Last Tuesday, I hiked the seventeen miles from Mollies Ridge to Silers Bald (a section of the Smoky Mountains around 6,000 feet in elevation), despite snowfall, heavy winds, and temperatures dropping into the teens.  The last six miles, concern about hypothermia dominated my mind, such that my only thought was my sheer will to keep walking, my sheer will to stay alive.  During better weather a few days later, I recalled how, only a month ago, the mile between my house and my workplace seemed too far to walk, regardless of the weather, but especially in the cold and most definitely in the snow.  In contrast, I now find it hard to even understand my own mindset from a month ago.  How could a mile be too far?  How could 32 degrees with no snow be too cold?  How could fifteen minutes be too long?  I’m still overwhelmed by how quickly I’ve redefined “cold,” “far,” and “difficult,” but I’m determined to take these definitions back to “civilization” with me.

The Bad: Going Savage

Sleeping in the crawl space like the critters

Sleeping in the crawl space like the critters

On Saturday, I reached Max Patch, a bald known for the incredible views, during heavy rain and biting wind.  Some friends from home, three young girls and their parents, had met me there in hopes of hiking.  When they handed me a wonderful gift of grilled chicken, chocolate cupcakes, and oranges, I just picked up the piece of chicken with my hands and started eating it whole.  It did not even occur to me until hours later that I should have eaten it with a fork.   They didn’t mind at all (and even took a picture), but before my thru-hike I would have at least noticed my poor manners, especially when setting an example for children.

Immediately after our brief visit, I crossed the bald, battling wind so severe it almost knocked me sideways.  At this point, it seemed as if all thoughts and emotions ceased, except for the drive to keep walking.  Keep going.  Walk on.  Stripped of all higher emotions, focused purely on the instinctive will to survive, I felt like an animal.

Only an hour and a half later, when I arrived at the shelter, my civility degraded even more.  My clothes were too soaking wet for me to change in my sleeping bag, and the privy was too wet and windy for me to change there.  So, as others in the shelter had previously done, I asked everyone to turn their heads, then I stripped down on the spot.

The shelter was full and I knew it would be almost impossible to set up my hammock without it getting soaked in the downpour.  Instead, three other hikers and I slept in the angled “crawl space” underneath the shelter.  We ended up covered in snow and shivering, but that’s a story for another day.  The story here is that I’ve lost some civility out of necessity during my hike–a change that was inevitable and worthwhile, for the time being.  Unlike my definition of “difficult,” however, I don’t hope to bring these animalistic changes back with me.

The Ugly: My Feet

The award-winning blister-within-a-blister

The award-winning blister-within-a-blister

It is clear now that I greatly overestimated the muscle soreness I would experience on the Trail, but I greatly underestimated the toll my feet would take.  They are perpetually swollen and at this point, each part is covered with a blister, a callous, or agitated red skin.  Still, ugly feet for a beautiful view is a trade I’d make any day.

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