I Love(d) Not Camping
We arrive at our decisions to thru-hike in all sorts of ways. Some of us get there in a more roundabout manner than others.
When I decided in 2015 to try an Appalachian Trail thru-hike, I owned cocktail napkins on which a ’50s housewife declared, “I love not camping.”
Then in August 2014 I tried glamping. With promises of grilled meats, board games, and craft beer, my boyfriend, Inti, talked me into it. One night. I was skeptical but game; we weren’t going far, and worst case, he promised, if I hated it, we could pack up and drive home. Although it wound up being the hottest night of the summer, and although we drank too much beer and had to pee 30 times apiece, and although we left the rain fly off the tent but it started raining at 5 a.m., and although our air mattress had a leak that lowered us to the ground every several hours, overall it was alright. Spending the night outside, inhaling the smoke and grilled chicken scent from your own campfire, playing Ticket to Ride by candlelight on a picnic table, staring from comfy camp chairs into fluttering flames in a hazy state of inebriation … yeah, it was pretty rad.
The following May, on a day hike along the AT’s Roller Coaster in Northern Virginia, I met some thru-hikers. I expressed the usual awe and admiration day hikers do for thru-hikers, and they said, “It’s never too late.” I managed not to laugh out loud.
A few more months on, Inti and I took a road trip. I built 11 glamping nights into a 17-day tour of the Northeast. I mapped a route through western Pennsylvania, upstate New York, the Green Mountains in Vermont, and the Whites in New Hampshire, and reaching Maine’s Acadia National Park before returning via Brooklyn to our home outside Washington, D.C.
AWOL Edges In
On this trip, by campfires, in a camp chair, with a Kindle and a plastic Solo cup of red wine, I read David Miller’s “AWOL on the Appalachian Trail,” a thru-hiker’s thru-hiker memoir I downloaded because, ever since meeting my heralds in May, I couldn’t get long-distance backpacking off the brain.
I had spent the summer obsessed, mostly from an armchair perspective. I read a memoir about the mental challenge of thru-hiking (you might be familiar with it). I signed up for daily emails from a blog that published multiple thru-hiker diaries (you might be familiar with that, too). I joined a Facebook women’s group of AT hikers. I played hooky as often as I could, driving out for more day hikes, meeting more thru-hikers, and never dimming my admiration and envy for what they were doing and who they were. They were otherworldly to me, stopping serenely on the path to answer my questions (How do you charge your devices? What about bears? Where do you get your food?), engaging with me entirely and displaying no urgency to move along.
“No normal human would read this,” I said now about the book. Inti, squatting by the fire, looked up from his ceaseless fussing.
“Way too much detail.”
And yet I ate it up. I loved knowing how AWOL (Miller’s trail name) spent every minute of every day. I loved knowing precisely what he carried in his pack. I loved learning that he sawed off half the handle on his toothbrush to lighten his load.
On this road trip, we toured Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, where the integration of architecture and wilderness was magic; it enchanted me completely while producing an almost-panicked sense of yearning and disappointment in myself: I wanted to create something beautiful. I wanted to pour dedication and love into a thing, a written artwork, add loveliness to the world for its own sake. What was stopping me? This feeling descended on me often in the presence of art, be it music, film, dance, prose, painting, or poetry, that is conjured out of a pure love of the craft and a desire to express or celebrate the human condition in a lovely way. I searched my mind for a reason not to do this and the reliable obstacles surfaced: My writing’s not that good. I don’t have a platform. I’m too old to be a starving artist. I settled on adding material beauty to our home by way of overpriced souvenir coasters and a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle that depicted Fallingwater.
At the campsite after the tour, in Ohiopyle State Park, after erecting our gigantic tent and electronically inflating our queen-sized air mattress, we lit an Anthropologie pomelo-and-sea-salt scented candle, draped a bright green cloth over the picnic table, paired a phone to a speaker, and piped in jazz via Spotify. After dinner, from AWOL I learned that when mud collected on the tips of his trekking poles while he hiked through downpours, he smacked them on tree trunks to dislodge it.
Better Than Spreadsheets, Too
The next day we went whitewater rafting down the Youghiogheny River. Our guide was Jeremiah: rugged, tanned, shirtless, no more than 25. With calm deliberation, he commanded his amateur crew, and we executed his orders without question, rode the rapids with easy precision. When another raft in our convoy needed guidance, he grounded our boat, dove into the water without hesitation. His sweat-glistened skin flashed in the sunlight before he disappeared into the river.
“He has some job,” the woman next to me said.
“It beats PowerPoint,” I replied. Then I envisioned his home, made up a story about a beer-can littered apartment, three skeevy roommates, permacloud of weed.
Inti, not a huge fan of hiking, consented to climb one mountain with me, Mt. Ascutney in Vermont. Vermont mountains don’t resemble Virginia mountains. The trail was so steep we simply laughed, rested every 50 meters and gulped air, kept, just barely, our hearts from jumping out of our chests, and took turns with the trekking poles I’d just bought. The views were spectacular, but on the way down our knees and thighs screamed and our good humor fled.
This, I thought. Day after day of this. You do not want this.
That night we drove to New Hampshire and checked into the Omni Mtount Washington, in the shadow of the Presidential Range. After three nights’ camping and our miserable mountain climb, a shower never felt so good, and afterward, in a fluffy bed, I learned from AWOL that there was such a thing as trail magic. People brought snacks and hung out at roads the AT crossed so they could feed thru-hikers, who couldn’t carry enough calories to replace their daily expenditures.
Getting My Wings. Or Maybe Just a Feather
Before we left the Whites we filled our cooler with candy bars, bananas, doughnuts, and Cokes. We parked at Crawford Notch, where the AT crossed Route 302. For an hour, we sat on camp chairs with our feet up on the cooler, reading and scrolling and wondering whether we were too early or too late in the season, or whether the time of day was wrong. But then a young man emerged from the woods, walking slowly and slump-shouldered, burdened with a towering telltale pack and wearing a shirt that was the kind of grimy I’d only ever seen on a person with a cup and a cardboard sign. He wore stench like a mantle. His face brightened when he saw us and the cooler. I jumped up to open it, and he eased his pack off and squatted next to it, responding between gulps of Coke to my fusillade of questions. We drove him five miles to a trail club, where he could use a phone and find a bed, and on the way we passed two more hikers walking in the same direction. I slowed down and shouted out the window that we’d come back to get them, too. They were elated, and I was downright giddy—I hadn’t made this kind of contribution since the church mission trips I took in high school. Getting a ride mattered to these guys. I wasn’t used to anything I did mattering much—aside from maybe cooking Inti’s favorite dish, beans and rice, about which I had neutral feelings at best—and it felt amazing.
In Maine, we stopped at a gas station convenience shop near a sawmill. Eating our sandwiches in the section of the store devoted to tables, we watched workmen come in on their lunch breaks with sawdust on pant legs. They carried massive Mountain Dews and king-size candy bars to the counter in work-hardened hands, made flirty, familiar banter with the lady assembling sandwiches. The honesty of a day’s physical work. The purity of a lunch, earned. Envy pierced me, followed immediately by relief for the ease of my job. The comfort of luxury. We got back into the car and I read that AWOL missed his wife so much on the trail that he coped with it by deliberately putting her out of his mind.
After briefly considering hashtagging our vacation, I had decided instead to conduct a social media fast, and the advantages of this were evident almost instantly. I was free, easy, present. Instead of posting and checking and posting and checking, I gazed out the window at the countryside flashing by. I felt my attention span growing, returning to near pre-digital-era lengths. I read relentlessly, learning that AWOL dried his rain-soaked clothes by wearing them to bed over a layer of dry clothes—that his body heat, trapped in the sleeping bag, removed more moisture than the clammy air outside could have.
On our drive home we stopped in New York City to begin the transition back to our everyday D.C. metropolitan reality. I finished AWOL’s book. After summiting Mt. Katahdin at the northern terminus of the AT, he returned to his cubicle. This disappointed me. He says in the epilogue that he is more patient now, that he better appreciates the little things. But I wanted his journey to mean more than a four-month hiatus from the grind, a small shift in perspective. He had three kids and a mortgage, though, so what could he do? Fair enough, I thought. And yet I was glum. I pushed back even further any ludicrous entertaining of taking such a journey myself. From an Airbnb Brooklyn sofa, back from our tour of the botanical gardens, I read Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” instead. I dreamed of buying a farm and selling goat’s milk ice cream to Whole Foods for ten dollars a quart.
The Seed Is Planted
Still, my time with AWOL, which had comported perfectly with this entire vacation up till Brooklyn, had an impact. Notwithstanding the thoroughly difficult and dirty nature of his endeavor, his tale excited my imagination. That was coupled with my cutting ties to social media, doing active things all day long, and meeting people who work at active things all day long. I felt a shift inside me, as if someone pressed a reset button and, once home, I’d be able to look at my life with fresh eyes, decide with intention how to spend my time.
Whatever bell the young thru-hiking couple struck in me in May, it was still ringing.
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