Make the Whole Trip That Way
I’m sitting next to the Nolichucky River near Erwin, TN, approximately 340 miles and exactly 44 days from my start at Springer Mountain. Bird chirps punctuate the low, soft whoosh of river water over rocks. Sun filters sparsely through dense pines and the occasional maple. I’ve walked a half mile from the hostel for solitude and thinking space: it’s time to decide whether to quit.
Ever since I wrote my last post about my doubts and struggles, this next post has been forming and changing. No fewer than 35 people commented on that post (and still other people reached out to me over text and email), were universally supportive and encouraging, and offered a variety of solutions and approaches.
Each time I was able to get signal and log in, I saw more comments, and each time, they touched me deeply.
Many people gave me implied permission to quit, with reasons along the lines of “thru-hiking’s not for everyone” and “you’ve already done more than most people would” and “if you’re not having fun it’s time to stop” and “you don’t have to be relentlessly miserable in order to grow.” Initially, I clung fiercely to these comments. They filled me with calm and breath. They let me know that stopping hiking wasn’t failure; it would be, if I made it, a legitimate decision–MY decision. I could walk away without shame; I could chart a new path. As my friend Akilah put it, “There are so many good options. Be intentional.”
Other people suggested that my “luxury” weekend with Inti had been a mistake and that I should limit such indulgences, that they would simply make it harder for me to get back into a “hiking headspace.” While I see some logic in this, I noticed that among all the people who suggested this, none was a thru-hiker. (Although some thru-hikers did concede the first few days after time with a loved one were always the hardest.) Despite giving it tons of thought, I’ve mostly decided to respectfully disagree with the idea I should not enjoy time with my boyfriend when I do get to see him. The depth of the nosedive I took after Asheville can only partially be blamed on the trail’s contrast to town. That said, on Inti’s and my next visit, I want to bring him into the woods for a night. I want to introduce him to Notebook.
The most powerful thing about all the feedback I received after writing my “Many Struggle, Such Doubt” post is simply the notion that what I’m doing out here, and whether I continue, actually matters to more people than just me. That is a revelation.
At the same time, I’ve recently become aware that one of the lessons the trail has to teach me is raw humility: In the scheme of things, I’m not actually that important. In my old life, one of my guiding principles is efficiency; I can’t stand to waste time, and so I make sure that I’m always being productive …. OR that I’m intentionally being unproductive; i.e. resting. Out here, though, with no car, reliant on shuttles and hitchhiking getting nothing much of anything except walking and eating accomplished, I’m aware that the universe functions pretty much as well without my productivity as it does with it.
Before I came out here I wrote a post lamenting the fact that the work I did, while worthy in the abstract, was not “straightforwardly useful.” I couldn’t see a clean cause-and-effect relationship between anything I did any any kid learning better, despite my company’s mission statement of “Partnering to Help All Kids Learn.”
While hiking all day and attending to mundane but extremely useful tasks such as setting up a tent, cooking, eating, and peeing is very, very tangible, I have struggled–particularly in my darkest, most desperate moments out here–to see impact beyond building physical strength in my legs, triceps, and lats. As I mentioned in my last post, it’s impossible when you’re “in the suck” to obtain anything approaching objectivity about your own growth or transformation.
After I posted my last blog entry, from Hot Springs, and took a much mentally and physically needed zero, I went back out into the woods and sank EVEN LOWER. The weather got worse. We hiked up into a cloud and for two nights in a row stayed in fog-wreathed shelters with wind and cold and rain worse than any I’d yet experienced. The afternoon of the first day of this, there was a break and the sun came out. I stowed my rain gear and pack cover, chugged up a final hill, less than a mile from the shelter. A wind came up and I heard a pattering of drops, but I had heard this all day–nature releasing leaf-collected water–so I ignored it, until suddenly it was a downpour.
I scrambled to unlatch my pack and get out my rain gear. I grabbed my umbrella and put it up, which left me no free hand to put on my jacket. I threw my rain skirt over my pack and felt such panic–the fear that one’s sleeping bag will get wet is so primal and real–and just stood there, hoping it would pass, but it kept on. I finally got everything covered, including myself, and hiked on.
It’s hard to convey to someone who hasn’t experienced it (it’s hard to convey it even to myself now, sitting here with sun dappling everything) just how demoralizing and devastating something as simple and seemingly harmless as rain can be to someone who cannot get out of it. It’s fun to splash in mud puddles or go tearing down the street in a downpour when you have a warm, dry place to go afterwards. It’s nothing short of desperate to be in a downpour when you don’t. I arrived at the shelter and, knowing that no matter how much I wanted it, there was no way I could not continue to be at the mercy of the weather for the next 48 hours or so, broke down as badly as ever have.
But you must be getting tired of reading about me crying.
The list of ways in which rain makes hiking suck is infinite, but here’s a tiny subset: You have to get up to pee in the middle of the night in the rain. You have to poop in a privy whose toilet seat is soaked by rain, and you have to hold your umbrella while doing it because your femurs are too long for the door to close and the overhang doesn’t hang over far enough to keep rain out. The picnic table where you prepare food is wet, so anything you set on it gets soaked. Your food bag has been hanging on a bear cable all night so it’s wet, and since mice chewed through it a few weeks ago, the stuff inside is wet, too, even though you made a duct-tape repair. If you tented your tent is wet and must be packed up wet and carried wet (I’ve mentioned how much water weighs, right?). Your sleeping bag and all your clothes, even if you slept in the shelter, are damp from the mist. And it’s COLD.
My turnaround didn’t come until a few days later, timed, not surprisingly, with the weather’s turnaround.
The next morning (or the one after that, who knows), I had another breakdown while hiking some of the most poorly maintained miles of the Appalachian Trail. After so much rain you expect muddy paths, but most sections have logs placed diagonally across the trail at designated points to divert the water and prevent rendering the trail a creek. This section? No such thing. The trail was a creek. It was a stream. It was a swamp, a river. In places a pond.
Back to the fear of the wet sleeping bag? The fear of wet socks? Imagine the painstaking process of navigating this
I could appreciate that it was an interesting technical, balance, and athletic challenge, but I also got mighty tired of it after a while.
Then I reached the peak of this ridge walk and, just like when I reached Clingmans Dome, there was nothing but whiteout. I contemplated the uselessness of a tough climb when it didn’t lead to a view. That made me contemplate the uselessness of hiking generally, which brought me to the uselessness of pretty much most of life.
Existential crisis, much?
Yep, things were bleak.
And then Inti’s face popped into my head. I thought, even if I have to quit this thing and go home, live in his tiny bedroom in his house with three other people, have no job and no idea what’s coming next, his smile isn’t useless. His face brings me genuine joy.
I lay on my back on “Howard’s Rock” at the ridge’s peak, closed my eyes and felt the sun trying to burn past the clouds. Felt the brightness beyond the could cover. I had a snack and drank water. Then after a bit I stood up, looked around, and gasped.
A hole in the clouds gave me a view of the valley and the metaphor was unavoidable–even when you can’t see it, there’s life and wonder and joy and sunshine out there.
No, I wasn’t suddenly on board with this whole thru-hiking thing, but it didn’t rain (much) that night and the next morning I got to a hostel and took a nero, enjoyed hikertrash company, watched Deadpool on a slow-wifi Netflix connection with a bunch of dudes in their 20’s, drank PBR, and watched a glorious fighting rooster come at ingenuous puppy named Smoky, who, bless his heart, thought it was a game. (Neither cock nor pup was harmed in the exchange.)
Since then I’ve had a really amazing day, a sort of “meh” day, and a pretty-good day. The weather’s been a million times better, and I wonder often if it isn’t just as simple as that.
It’s a privilege to be out here. I haven’t forgotten that. It’s probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I probably have undergone some growth and transformation, even if it’s not abundantly apparent yet to me (Inti swears my smiles are “less fake,” though, so I’ve got that going for me).
For reasons I can’t really fathom, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have been on my mind recently. Strong, creative, successful women who, I am very certain, did not come by their success easily. The intentionality I’m bringing to this hike right now is simply that of using the AT to get stronger. To more deeply know that I am strong, that I CAN endure the suck.
Because whatever I do next, it’s not going to be comfortable or cushy, because: been there done that, enjoyed aspects of it, but, finally, came to understand its limitations. There’ll be suck involved in my next venture, whether it’s goat farming, yoga-studio opening, B&B running, or some peculiar-but hopefully-endearing combination of these.
There’s an E.L. Doctorow writing quotation I’m appropriating for this journey: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Right now I can see only as far as Damascus (just barely; that’s more than 100 miles away), but maybe I can make the whole trip that way.
As for what “whole” means … it doesn’t likely mean “to Maine.” Right now the idea of hiking home, i.e. about half the AT, appeals to me. Realistically, I’m probably too slow and I definitely started too late to get to Maine this year, and I’m very okay with that–to me there has always been something arbitrary about Katahdin, about 2,189 miles.
But I’m not quitting today, and probably not tomorrow, either. Beyond that, and beyond Damascus, we shall see.
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