I Plan to not Plan: The Greatest Shakedown Lesson
When I first decided to attempt to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, I was doing it in order to prove to myself that I could accomplish something difficult. To push myself to the limits. I romanticized the challenge and let the Appalachian Trail itself fall to the back of my thoughts. My shakedown hikes this past summer caused me to reevaluate my mind-set and I am grateful for all that I learned from them.
Not everything that came out of the shakedown hikes was an existential lesson; some of it was just gear selection. For instance, I learned that I will wake up in a panic if my ear is completely numb after having the zipper of a pullover-turned-pillow dig into it all night. After a full day later with a numb ear, I decided an inflatable pillow would become one of my luxury items.
Long hair is a no-go for me as well. Mine currently goes past my elbow but will be cut short before I start. Even in a braid, it always ends up a tangled mess that takes a lot of time and handfuls of conditioner to tame. After one trip, I also spent 15 minutes picking dead mosquitoes out of my hair. That trip was through swamps in northern Wisconsin, where there were multiple stretches of hiking through knee-deep water. The mosquitoes loved the swamp but loved me even more. I now understand how people can be driven insane by an onslaught of bugs, and I don’t ever want to run out of bug spray again.
I won’t ever forget to zip up my toothbrush bag. One night, instead of tossing the ziplock bag in my bear bag, I forgot it unopened on the ground. In the morning I found four slugs sliding along my toothbrush. Luckily that was near the end of my hike because I didn’t use that brush again.
I also came out with all the typical takeaways. Drop pack weight, drop pack weight, and drop pack weight. Just kidding. There was more than that, but dropping weight was the most important. Had chafing, now have Body Glide. Had perpetually wet shoes, now have sandals to let my feet dry out at camp. Had perpetually wet socks, now have safety pins to clip the second pair to my bag to dry.
Yet, even with all those things, the most important was my change in mind-set. One of my shakedowns was a solo 100-mile, seven-day hike. It was my farthest backpacking trip and included the longest mileage days I have ever done, with two days over 17 miles (which isn’t very far for a lot of hikers on the AT but for me to go from a cubical to 17 in three days was an accomplishment). In order to make that mileage, I hiked past spur trails I wanted to explore, glanced at views I wanted to gaze at, and cursed my feet when they wanted to sit – but I needed to walk. While it is cool that I walked 100 miles in a week, the distance isn’t what I think back to. I regret not going on the side trails and not soaking in the views for a bit longer.
It is straight out of one of those motivational posters; I was too focused on the destination to enjoy the trail itself.
I had read blogs from past thru-hikers wishing they would have taken more time along the trail and I thought, “Ah yes, of course.” But my mind-set never changed. It wasn’t until I looked back on my own hike that their words rang true.
I’m still super stoked about hiking over 2,000 miles on the AT and am looking forward to all the challenges the trail will bring. That doesn’t have to taper with the realization of wanting to fully appreciate the Appalachian Trail.
I know that if I set interim goals for myself to reach a certain place, such as a state border, by a specific date I will focus on making it happen. So I will resist from long-term planning. I’ll only look two or three resupplies ahead and try my hardest to keep those fluid.
I will be present on the trail, appreciating all her beauty, while Katahdin will be an elusive goal pulling me gracefully, not obsessively, onward.
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