Just Taking a Vacation

Thru-hikes—and thru-hike attempts—are life-changing. Who I was before and who I am after my 675-mile LASH (long-ass section hike) in 2016 share some fundamental baseline similarities but are otherwise drastically different.

Before, I was a nine-to-fiver who checked off a lot of the life-satisfaction boxes (good relationship, nice apartment, professional job in a field I felt good about) but was, at 43, finding myself spiritually adrift. Things were fine, but also they weren’t fine at all. I knew I had sold out by choosing a safe path instead of throwing myself into what mattered most to me—writing—because I was afraid of becoming a starving artist. Now, three years after my LASH, I am a full-time freelancer. I’m in a smaller apartment, the same good relationship, and spiritually satisfied and thriving.

Writing for this blog during my LASH was part of how I re-entered the realm of being an artist. It reminded me in a powerful way of one of the most compelling reasons to write, which is connecting with others. People’s comments and responses on my posts kept me going out there far longer than I would have done on my own. One reader started sending me resupply packages (thanks, Ronnie!) despite our never having met. Other readers encouraged me and helped me gain perspective on the adventure I was having.

One man contacted me after a stress fracture in my foot had ended my hike. Stephen Fopeano was a reader and became a client in my new writing coaching business. For years, he has been documenting, in engaging, witty email newsletters, how he has transformed some property in Ohio into a homestead he calls Dog Wood Hollow. He had anthologized the epistles into printed, spiral-bound books complete with color photos, and enlisted my services to edit them. Once our business was concluded, he kept me on the mailing list, and I enjoyed keeping up with his progress.

Then suddenly, the subject lines of some of his emails changed. Suddenly they contained the words “AT” and “Pre-Hike.” What!? You can imagine I anticipated these more greedily than his DWH missives, which were entertaining but not as much in my wheelhouse. I read his pre-hike notes with the same eagerness I once applied to reading Trek bloggers’ posts as I was preparing for my 2016 journey. It was a welcome re-immersion in excitement and anticipation, as well as being an enjoyable way to experience that phase from the other side of a long-distance backpacking trip: Now I was an expert reading about a novice’s journey toward knowledge and understanding of what a thru-hike takes.

Steve planned a flip-flop, starting in Harpers Ferry headed north in May, and he did a weeklong shakedown from Boiling Springs north in April. His plans for more have flexed since then, and in an email a few weeks ago he announced he would be doing Shenandoah National Park in September: 100 miles, ten-ish days. Did anyone want to join him?

Reader, I did! I do! I will!

Now we are scheming logistics together, and I’m roping in Inti to join for a few nights and help us with transportation. Since the end of my LASH, the most backpacking I’ve done is three accompanied one-nighters (two with friends plus Inti, one with just Inti) and one solo two-nighter, so it gives me SO MUCH EXCITEMENT (and trepidation) to be mapping out 100 miles.

Our plan is to meet in Front Royal Sunday morning the 8th and shuttle down to Waynesboro, hop on the AT at mile 864, shelter hop north, and land at Compton Gap (mile 966) somewhere in the neighborhood of the 17th.

The reasons for my excitement should be obvious—time in nature again, separation from digital distractions, and the opportunity to face down any demons that might have eluded my last exorcism attempt. The reasons for my trepidation, well … I have mostly whitewashed my memories of despair and desolation on my 2016 LASH, but it doesn’t take me much time flipping through those journals to remember how outrageously unpleasant backpacking is. Ten days is nothing compared with 72, and this time out, I’m not leaving behind everything safe and familiar to me; I’m just taking a vacation. But ten days may be long enough to start getting trail legs again, to start becoming a creature of the woods again, and to start sanding away whatever psychic defenses time back in civilization have required I rebuild.

That’s both a scary and an exhilarating thought. To get back close to the bone, to get back down to basics, will feed me in a vital way and shore up the values I forged on my LASH. It will re-center me on the new perspective that time gave me, the knowledge that connecting with people through the work I do is more important than any amount of money or comfort.

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