Things I’ve Learned From The AT
Semi-Profound/Insignificant Thoughts from “Dos Equis”
I’ve been home for a couple of weeks now, getting ready for the Christmas holidays and slowly re-entering society. My trail name was Dos Equis, because someone thought I looked like the guy in the Dos Equis commercials – “The Most Interesting Man in the World”. As my beard grew on the trial, I think I became less “Dos Equis”-like and more “Duck Dynasty”. So I got trimmed up, and the picture at the top of this post is my attempt to look as “Interesting” as possible.
Now having finished our thru-hike, I’ve had some time to reflect on what character traits and/or skills enabled us to successfully walk from Katahdin to Springer. I’ve also thought about what abilities were strengthened during the past six months and about what I’ve learned. Friedrich Nietzsche said, “That with does not kill us makes us stronger.” Its probably a bad idea to take that phrase too literally, but in a looser sense its true. We learn and grow from our experiences and we become more capable – stronger – by testing and challenging ourselves. Here are the traits that helped me and the things I think I’ve learned over the last six months (in no particular order)……
This is a trait that the AT tested on a physical level almost immediately. Later, I had to deal with it on an emotional level, and that was much, much harder.
The big physical challenge occurred in the 100-Mile Wilderness. Barely 40 miles into our trip, I slipped on a log bridge over a muddy area and sprained my right ankle. It was a bad sprain, and my right ankle was almost double the size of my left ankle.
I first went with denial. “It’s not that bad.” “It will be better tomorrow.” But it was that bad and it wasn’t better for weeks. The immediate question that needed an answer was what to do. It was 40 miles back and 60 miles forward. Ian and I decided on forward progress. I did not want this to be the end of my trip.
So, instead of 7 days to complete the 100-Mile Wilderness, it took 12. We had 10 days of food, so we needed to ration. It was not easy. I was suffering and the ankle hurt — a lot. (I was calling it “the” ankle instead of “my” ankle because it betrayed me and I didn’t want to admit to ownership….). We were both hungry.
But we made it, and the satisfaction of completing that section was huge. The sound of traffic on Route 15 outside of Monson, ME was an immense relief. My ankle took another 4-6 weeks to feel normal. (Or, after 4-6 weeks, my definition of “normal” was completely skewed).
Later, we learned that there are ways to get out of the 100-Mile Wilderness besides walking out. There are people you can call who will come and get you from the middle. I’m glad we didn’t know this, cause I would have called and that may have been the end of the trip.
The big emotional challenge happened in Virginia. One day I woke up and realized I was homesick. Really, really homesick. It was awful, and it went on for days. I was ready to quit. I missed Linda terribly. I texted her about how much I missed her and then immediately felt guilty – making her feel bad because I felt bad. Afterwards, she told me that the text made her happy because she was wondering if I missed her and it felt good to have me confirm it.
I felt embarrassed about it too. After all, I’m 61 years old. Homesickness is something that happens to 11-year-olds at summer camp – not mature, wise, experienced old men. After a day or two, I confided in Ian and he told me he went through a similar bout much earlier. He pointed out how far we had come and encouraged me to stick it out.
Perseverance is important. Perhaps a better name would be stubbornness – wicked stubbornness. I’d say this trait more than any other is what you need to stay on the trail. Everything else, physical ability, gear, can be worked out. But you need to be stubborn to work through both the physical and emotional suffering.
Before we started, I made a plan. I planned our whole trip – daily mileage, resupply, the works. I printed it out and put it in a looseleaf notebook. I reviewed it many times and walked through it with Ian. Eventually, when he saw me with that binder, he would run.
We tossed that plan out the window in less than two days.
The AT throws constant setbacks at you. The weather is bad. The trail conditions (blowdown, rocks, roots, mud, water) slow your pace to a crawl. Supplies are not there when you need them.
Back in the “real” world, we have the illusion that we are in complete control of our destiny. We make plans and schedules and set them in stone. We become aggravated when those plans need to change or when circumstances throw that schedule off.
On the trail, this happens every day – several times a day. Every day. You either learn flexibility, or you will explode with frustration.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t plan. Dwight Eisenhower said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is priceless.” Ian and I still planned, but only for a day or two at a time. We also had a “plan B” and even a “plan C”. Then we had to adjust those plans as circumstances dictated.
Being flexible helped us relax and enjoy what was happening around us – rather than what wasn’t happening according to plan.
Resilience is the ability to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions. It is just like other physical capabilities in that it improves through use. To become physically stronger, we lift weights. To develop our cardiovascular capabilities, we run. To become resilient, we need to encounter difficult conditions. If you are not resilient enough at the start of the AT, you may not be able to finish (see “wicked stubbornness”, above). If you are “resilient enough”, you will find yourself even more resilient by the time you are done.
Resilience is also important in multiple facets of our being: physical, emotional, and spiritual. The AT tests and develops resilience all of these.
This is a real challenge to us in our present-day society. We have made great strides in protecting ourselves from difficult conditions. Our focus has been on reducing the risk of discomfort or suffering. As a result, we seem to be getting less resilient and more fearful. On the trail, there is no way to avoid the physical suffering – or the emotional suffering for that matter. At different times you are going to be too wet, too cold, too hot. You are going to be thirsty, hungry, tired, and sore, lonely, homesick, scared. Over time, you become better and better at dealing with it. For the first 500 miles, I went through a lot of ibuprofen. For the last 1,000 miles I did not use a single ibuprofen. This wasn’t a conscious decision. And it wasn’t because I was no longer sore. My joints and my feet hurt from walking on them for 18 miles per day, but I was able to cope with that without needing the assistance of “vitamin I”.
It would probably be a good thing for us to start to realize that building our resilience is just as important as risk reduction. It might make us stronger as a society and better able to cope when bad things eventually happen. There is a book titled “Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder” where the underlying premise is that risk reduction is a fool’s errand and that we should learn how to not only survive, but thrive when bad things inevitably happen. The author, Nicholas Taleb, actually differentiates between “resilience” (the ability to recover from difficult conditions and “anti-fragility” (the ability to benefit and thrive from difficult conditions).
I think I have definitely become more resilient as a result of our AT adventure, and definitely want to remain that way. While not wanting to be foolhardy, I will try to be more open to difficult or risky things in the future.
The trail taught this lesson everyday. And being a goal-oriented adult with type-A tendencies, this is a lesson that I needed to learn. Almost every day.
In one of my early blog posts, I wrote about that little voice in my head saying, “Are we there yet?” over and over. Over time I learned to quell that voice and appreciate the “here”. I started to worry less about the destination and to realize that I had everything I needed – food, clothing, shelter – on my back. I did not need to be in a hurry to get to the next shelter or the next campsite and could enjoy where I actually was. I would periodically slip back – particularly at the end of the day when I was tired and hungry, but then would remind myself to stop that voice from asking that incessant question.
There are not many times in modern life where you don’t have to worry about a schedule and don’t need to be in a particular place at a particular time. After about a month, we realized we often didn’t know what day it was. It led to some pretty interesting conversations. We would pass some day hikers or section hikers going the other way on the trail (we could tell they were day hikers because they smelled like soap).
We’d ask, “What day is it?”
They’d reply, “How long have you been out here?”
Our answer, “…..We’re not sure…..”
Toward the end of the trip, the goal orientation started to creep back into our thinking. When we got to Tennessee, we realized that the end was in sight. We also realized that we could get so focused on completion that we could rush through and miss the opportunity to enjoy some pretty interesting places – like Max Patch, Clingman’s Dome, Fontana Dam, Neel’s Gap, the list was long. We made a conscious effort to relax and take it a day at a time.
This worked until the very end, when Linda made plane reservations for us and arranged to meet us on Springer Mountain. Now we had a hard date and time, and had to keep that in the back of our heads, while still enjoying where we were and appreciating North Carolina and Georgia.
Moving back into “the real world” of schedules and commitments, we don’t want to slip back into old habits. While we are now more governed by a schedule, we don’t want to lose the ability to be completely “present” wherever we are – or miss out on things because we are obsessing on some future activity or goal.
Finding Joy Every Day
Bryson wrote: “If there is one thing the AT teaches, it’s low-level ecstasy – something we could all do with more of in our lives.” This is profoundly true.
The most vivid example of this happened to us at Upper Goose Pond in Massachusetts. We zeroed there and some of Ian’s friends from home drove out to spend the day with us. One of them, Drew, handed Ian a bag with three pints of Ben & Jerry’s in it. We were beyond ourselves with happiness. I took one, Ian took the second and offered the third to another thru-hiker, Zucchini, who was also zeroing. Only after digging in did we realize that we had given Drew’s pint, the third pint, away. Ian apologized, and Drew said: “That’s OK. I think that ice cream made the three of you happier than I’ll ever be in my life.”
Another example occurred in Little Gap, Pennsylvania. We were short on water and had over six miles – over some pretty rough terrain – until we got to the next reliable water source. Then, on the side of the trail, we found a cooler full of ice and bottle water. We must have gotten there shortly after the Trail Angel (named Mamma Bear) had left the cooler because the ice had just started to melt. We were overjoyed. I immediately downed a bottle of ice cold water. “Brain Freeze” never felt so good.
I think it’s through hardship that the trail teaches us to appreciate things we tend to take for granted in the “real” world. Every day there was something to be happy about: a nice log to sit on for lunch; a new person we met; a beautiful view; or even just the fact that it stopped raining for 20 minutes…. We need to look for those things every day. They happen, but we often overlook them and therefore do not appreciate them.
The Father/Son Relationship – Traveling with and Adult Child/Traveling with a Parent
Ian and I really enjoyed this trip, and stuck together until the end. We each brought perspective and abilities to the trip. But the perspectives and the abilities were totally different. As a result, we were not always on the same page as to expectations and desires. We had some epic fights along the way. But we still managed to finish together and to enjoy each others company. Furthermore, I know I would not have finished without Ian’s company. Ian’s perspective is slightly different. He feels he would have finished without me, but would not have enjoyed the journey nearly as much. We are both thankful that the other one was there.
How did we manage that? What did we do that enabled us to support each other – or at least not kill each other – for 6 months and 2,189 miles? I don’t know everything, but a couple of keys points are as follows:
- We recognized and respected that we each had different resources for the trip. Everyone brings different levels of the key resources: money, time, and health. Ian and I both had the time with no “finish date” looming over our heads. However we differed greatly on the other two. Ian was just graduated from college and had a very limited bank account, while I was just retired and was not worried about financial constraints. Conversely, Ian was 23 and in prime health, while I was dragging along a 60-year-old, overweight body with worn knees and hips. Money was Ian’s limiting resource while mine was health. This was a potentially huge source of conflict, but one we were aware of and talked about openly.
- Ian could walk faster than me. At the beginning of our trip, I was always in the lead because I was so slow. If Ian was in front, he would leave me in the dust. After I sprained my ankle I was much less comfortable being out there completely on my own. Over time I became more comfortable, and faster. We switched and came up with the pattern the Ian was lead in the morning and I was lead in the afternoon. We would switch after lunch. I needed to be aware that he could get pretty far ahead of me in the morning – and relax about that. In the end it worked. It was also something we were aware of and spoke about openly.
- As mentioned above, I was the planner. In fact, I over-planned. Ian tended to be at the other extreme. His level of planning was packing up his backpack the night before we left for the trail. No maps, no routes, no resupply points – just follow the white blazes. This was probably the biggest source of tension between us and the one that led to our bigger fights. I would want to check our plans and nail down our destination, while Ian wanted just to proceed and explore. Neither approach was “wrong” or “right”, just different. In the morning, when we were both fresh and fed, it was not an issue. At the end of the day, when we were both tired and hungry, this could lead to problems. Again, acknowledging this, talking about it openly, and respecting the difference enabled us to work it through. Ian will never be the planner I am and I will never be as spontaneous and daring as he is. But that’s OK.
- When we fought, we would apologize to each other. Maybe not right away, but usually as soon as we calmed down. This was incredibly important.
- We talked a lot. We had great philosophical discussions about life, spirituality, politics, society. sports, and even the ridiculous. We learned to listen, discuss, and be open to each other. This is something that I hope to carry forward with others as well. Its something that is missing in a lot of today’s social discourse. Ian and I learned a lot from each other. I suspect there is a lot the Democrats can learn from Republicans, Christians can learn from Muslims, and vice verse, if we could stop just arguing and also listen.
- Finally, we both recognized that on this trip we were equals. It was not a “father/son” type of relationship but a collegial one. We both brought things to the trip and we both learned things form each other. This was probably the most important.
That’s about all I can think of. The key was that we talked and didn’t let anything fester. Sometimes something was bothering Ian that I was completely unaware of. Likewise, sometimes something was bothering me that he did not know. If we didn’t bring these things up, it would have been easy to let them grow out of proportion – and to assume that the other person was aware of the problem and “just didn’t care”. When we talked about things we either resolved them or at least understood better what the other thought about the issue.
Just as it was important for Ian and I as traveling companions to be open to each other, we learned to be open to others on the trail. Its a natural human tendency to seek out others like ourselves and avoid others who are different. On the trail, this is a tendency that you cannot act on even if you want to. You end up meeting and sharing shelters and campsites with people who are like you in the sense that they also are hiking the trail, but who are completely different from you in every other way. You find that you become dependent upon and accept help (food, shelter, rides) from total strangers that are very, very different from you. You find yourself having deep philosophical discussions with people who you would avoid back in the “real world”.
The takeaway lesson from this is that no matter how different someone appears on the outside, you will have something in common with them if you take the time to look. You also have the choice of focusing on what you have in common or focusing on what makes you different. Life becomes much more interesting when you focus on what you have in common.
This is probably going to be the hardest thing for me to continue to do now that I’m off the trail – to be open to meeting new people and to find what we share, rather than avoiding people when I initially think they are too “different”.
The Size and Power of the Natural World.
When you choose to spend 6 months or so out in the woods traveling by foot, the world becomes absolutely enormous and you begin to realize how insignificant you are – how insignificant humankind is in the face of nature. The United States consists of 3.8 million square miles. We spent 6 months walking for 2,189 miles. If you think of the Appalachian Trial as a long skinny National Park – 2,189 miles long and 2 miles wide – we “visited” roughly 4,400 square miles. That’s less than 1 one hundredth of 1 percent of our entire country – and it took us six months! At that rate it would almost 500 years to “visit” the entire country.
Our technology and our use of energy has totally skewed our view of this. For example, I live in central Massachusetts and my kids went to school in Boston. Linda and I would periodically drive into Boston to have dinner with them, and then drive home. We didn’t do it too often, because, after all, that required 2 whole hours of driving. Yet, if we lived in colonial times and had to walk to Boston, that would have taken 2 days.
Or put it another way. When we finished the trail, we met Linda on Springer Mountain. The next day we drove to Atlanta and then flew to Florida to visit my parents. That day, we ate breakfast at Amicolola Lodge, and had dinner at my parents house. A journey of over 600 miles took less the 7 hours. Contrast that with the fact that it took us over 40 days to walk the 550 miles through Virginia. The world “sped up” for us pretty quickly.
Seeing the world at “foot-scale” definitely changes your perspective. Dealing with nature when everything you own is on your back and the best (i.e. only) place to stay in a thunderstorm is in a tent, a hammock, or a shelter that only has three walls gives you a much greater appreciation of the power of nature. You realize that without all our technology, we are pretty puny and insignificant.
We are hearing a lot about climate change today. This is often presented as the concern that if we do not change our ways, we will destroy the natural world. What we really mean is that is we are not careful, we will destroy our ability to survive in nature. The natural world is much more powerful and adaptable than we are willing to acknowledge. Furthermore – and this is what hits home after spending 6 months walking in the woods – “nature” is pretty agnostic about humankind. Nature just “is” and whether humankind survives as a species is not of any concern. The world existed long before we showed up and will be there long after we are gone. Geologic time is almost beyond our comprehension.
Don’t get me wrong. I think climate change is one of the most important issues facing us today. But we need to remind ourselves of our proper place. To think we are in complete control is absolute hubris. We need to think about the issue of climate change as being about our survivability as a species, not as protecting “nature” from humans.
We also need to realize that it is impossible to conserve things “the way they are”. That always implies that there is or was a point in time where things were “perfect”. When was that? Was it last year? Was it 100 years ago, 500 years ago, or longer? Was it before the human species had even evolved? This concept really hit home when I started reading about and understanding the history of the Appalachian Mountains – how they were formed and how they came to be the way we experience them today. When you consider that the biggest mountains of the Appalachians at 6,000-plus feet were over 14,000 feat high when they were first formed, you realized that the forces and the time scales we talk about are insignificant on the scale of considering the earth and it’s history. Change is inevitable and conservation – as in conserving the status quo – is a pipe dream.
The human population is still growing, and things I have read seem to indicate that it will stabilize within the next century at about 12 billion people on the planet. We need to think about how we live on that planet in a sustainable way, supporting the rights of every member of the human race to live and grow. No easy task! I know that will require some significant changes in how we live and how we consume energy. Yet at the same time, I am grateful that we were able to drive to Atlanta and fly to Florida to see my parents at the end of our trip.
Things I’ll Do Differently
So what am I going to try and do differently now that I’ve been living out in the woods for six months? Here is a partial list
- I’ll try to be more patient and flexible
- I’ll continue to periodically make myself uncomfortable to develop my resilience
- I’ll sincerely look for those moments of low level ecstasy and revel in them
- I’ll try to continue to be present in the moment and quell that little voice that asks, “Are we there yet?” Goals are important, but I’ll try to avoid losing sight of the here and now.
- I’ll look for/expect the best from every one – focusing on what we have in common rather than what makes us different.
- I’ll try to listen more and talk less
That’s all I can think of a the moment. So to paraphrase The Most Interesting Man in the World: “Stay hiking, my friends.”
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