Miles Vs. Smiles (The Rumble in the Jungle v. 2.0)
An Appalachian Trail Anecdote:
Many people start the Appalachian trail alone thinking they will find a hiking partner they will get along with, or at least share more common ground with than the usual three-ish foot wide path they are currently treading over. I too was one of those people when I made my way up Mount Katahdin on June 24, 2014. Unlike most people however, I had a friend, a GOOD friend, A COLLEGE ROOMMATE who I lived with for two years hiking the same direction, the same year as me. Knives was on my college Ultimate team and occasionally I would mention my AT post-grad thru hike intentions. Like most plans that seem larger than life he would scoff them off (not his fault, I have 15 layers of flaky covering up a deep level of drive) thinking that like most people I would go the more traditional post -grad route. Then sometime in March of last year his friend Garrett (unplugged) decided to hike the AT and Knives decided to join him. Though they extended me an invitation to hike with them, their early start date didn’t suit me because of a pre-existing desire to make money, download the latest Lana Del Rey album to my Ipod Classic, and attend the Firefly Music Festival.
Knives started June 6, 18 days ahead of me, and with no training; his initial 170 mile lead seemed like forever away. However, Unplugged and Knives took the trail at “leisurely” pace, whereas I, once my initial group split apart, started up the engines pushing 20 miles consistently about 300 miles in. My goal was to walk the Appalachian Trail and without a group to slow me down, I was doing that and at a pace much over my estimated 13 miles a day I planned on before the hike.
In pre-trail planning I imagined a 6 month hike, finishing right before Christmas and I figured I would never catch Knives and Unplugged because of my supposed sluggish pace. As the states passed Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, NY and finally NJ, I got staggeringly closer and closer until finally in Delaware Water Gap (first SOBO town in PA) I caught Moxie, a hiker they had been with all trail, and four miles outside Wind Gap, PA and The Beerstein the next day, I caught them. When I caught them, I told them how I thought it would take at least 1700 miles to catch up to them instead of the 800 that it did take, and there, 4 miles outside of Wind Gap, sitting on a fallen log, Knives in his usual humorous tone stated to me half serious half joking, for the first OF MANY times all trail,
“It’s about Smiles, not Miles”
Therein the debate began. What is the advantage to each? What is the core idea beneath each thought? And after some thinking, here’s my theory. There are two existing schools of thought for thru-hiking, looking at it like a job (Miles) or looking at it like a vacation (Smiles).
The Miles Argument (Hiking as a Job)
To me, a recent college graduate, one of my biggest motivations was the thought of “what else would I be doing right now if I wasn’t hiking?” The most obvious answer would be working, or even more regretfully, looking for work. My thought processes were if I am not contributing to society, I should be excelling at whatever I am doing. When you are hiking the Appalachian Trail and pushing a mileage of 20 and up per day, that usually meant that you were up and walking by 8am and finished hiking at about 4pm or later depending on your specific mileage. For me at a consistently 2.5 mph pace all AT, that meant a minimum of 8 hours moving my feet each day. That is a little less than 8.4 hours the average full time employee works each day. If I was pushing a big week, I called it overtime. The point is, when I was hiking and took a zero or a nero, I felt like a little like Ferris Bueller playing hooky, not doing what I was supposed to.
Hiking had a schedule, a reliable one: wake, breakfast, hike, protein shake, hike, lunch snack, hike, snack, hike, camp, refill water, dinner, sleep.
During my day I would see an overlook, give it the onceover and then pass on, knowing any elongated break would ruin my end goal and if I fell short one day, then I would need to make up the miles another. I, without remorse, skipped over numerous “great views” because 0.1 meant a 5 minute deviation from the planned mileage.
At the end of the day when I reached camp, after skipping viewpoints, cutting conversations short with day hikers, and only sitting down two to four times all day (I am a slow hiker) it brought me a great sense of accomplishment. I did what I expected of myself, I did not let myself down and I made it to my goal. Another day done in the wildest office cubicle known to man.
I want it to be known, in my final 5 weeks I tried to be a smiles hiker. I realized to hit my target end date I only needed to average 15 miles a day, which is a ridiculously slow pace for most hikers by the time they are at the end of their hike. I did a 15 mile average for 2 weeks straight, I had plenty of free time but I didn’t feel any better about my hike, I felt quite the contrary. I felt as if I was wandering aimlessly walking from point A to point B without really accomplishing anything all day. For those two weeks I wasn’t proud of myself or the way I was accomplishing my journey. To quote a term my frisbee team used I wasn’t “working for my rest” I was just taking it undeserved. After those two weeks roughly from Damascus to Roan High Knob shelter, I reverted back to my old ways and finished the hike on my terms. For 9 straight days I averaged 25 miles so I could get to the GA/NC border, and enjoy the rest I EARNED by finally cranking the engines down and finishing the AT averaging 7.2 miles a day through Georgia.
The Smiles Argument (Hiking as a Vacation): brought to you by Knives
I saw Chickenfat at a party the spring before we started our thru-hike. We were chumming it up like old pals do, and discussed the potential of us ever meeting on our 2185-mile journey. He was convinced it wouldn’t happen because he planned to hike at an exceedingly slow pace and I argued there was a chance because I too planned to hike like a tortoise. However there was a difference in the ideology of our plans from the start.
We both estimated a 13-mile a day pace. I spoke with a lot of other Sobos in the beginning who planned the same thing. If you don’t have extensive backpacking experience and you are unsure what you are capable of, 13-miles a day lays a 5 ½ month hike out nicely and evenly, and it doesn’t sound like a murderous pace. I found, like many other hikers do, that trail-legs are a real thing, and they will drastically shape the way you hike. So whether it takes a week or a month to get your legs (terrain depending as well) miles per day can greatly vary. The point is: many hikers that plan to hike slow quickly realize they are capable of going a lot faster, and continuing to do low miles has to be a choice.
That choice for me was not about a responsibility to excel due to my lack of employment, but rather what style of hiking will I enjoy the most and what will allow me to take the most from the experience.
When I met up with Chickenfat on the trail in PA I was taking long unscheduled breaks and was totally uninterested in hiking competitively. But I had also done some 20+ mile days. On average Unplugged and I hiked at 3 mph and faster on easy terrain. Choosing smiles over miles did not always mean lollygagging about and not challenging ourselves physically, it was about doing everything we wanted to do on our thru-hike and getting the most out of the experience.
The pace of our hike greatly changed as the months rolled by. Our leisurely 10 miles per day pace from June was changed to at least 20 miles per day for the last month and a half; partially because terrain got easier and we got in better shape and partially because we wanted to be done by Thanksgiving. Some rules had to be changed. Our old rule of always finishing before dark was nearly reversed. Instead we made night hiking a part of our regular routine, favoring to continue our practice of stopping at all overlooks and breaking whenever we felt like it. Sure a .1-mile side trail might mean 5 more minutes of hiking, but you might NEVER be at the side trail again! So although the rules changed, our overall hiking philosophy stayed the same: never skip what you really want to do just to maintain a schedule. I understand that many hikers can’t afford to compromise their schedules, whether it is for financial reasons, travel visas or whatever; the point is you compromise certain comforts to preserve the ones you really care about.
This mentality affected our decision making even up until our last 3 days of hiking. We got to Mountain Crossing at Neel Gap around noon on November 23rd on one of the nastiest days of our hike. The rain started around 4am and had no chance of stopping until late into the night. We started our morning at a shelter 1.2 miles off trail and it was cold, not cold enough to turn to snow, but cold enough to make hiking in it suck the life out of you. We got to Mountain Crossing around noon and had planned on doing 15 more miles that day. This would have left us with a 15-mile day to summit Springer the following day. The nice folks there accommodated us with hot coffee and frozen pizzas to warm up for lunch. Only we didn’t warm up. We sat under the heater, drinking hot coffee, eating hot pizza, and were still shivering up a storm. So we said forget the miles and embraced the smiles. We’ll summit the 25th and not the 24th. I never intended my race to be a hike and the hostel had both Jeremiah Johnson and the original Muppet movie on VHS. Decision made; no regrets.
I know Chickenfat. I lived with him for two years. I would argue that in a lot of ways he hiked for smiles as well as miles. He pushed it hard and had some really crazy days. The Connecticut challenge, the four state challenge, the Virginia Tomato challenge. The man ate 30 tomatoes in a day because he challenged himself…no one even encouraged him…. the acidic nightmare of the 30 tomato day he experienced at the end of Virginia was purely his idea. The guy likes a challenge and gets smiles from accomplishing them. As do many other competitive hikers. Competition is fun for competitive people.
To hike for smiles is to not compromise your hike. To be cliché, to hike for smiles is to hike your own hike; whether it’s fast and competitive or relaxed and full and detours. I was disappointed for a bit that Chickenfat and I only got to hike together for about two weeks, but in the end we both hiked the way we wanted to. I slept in longer, took more breaks, and stopped at more overlooks. He completed more challenges and licked more signs.
I’ll end on a more radical note. The trail only exists because of the hard work of a large network of volunteers. It is not a utopian walking trail that exists outside of society. Society keeps it tidy and makes it possible for thru-hikers to attempt the journey every year. An overabundance of hikers and irresponsible hiking practices could potentially rob future generations of hikers from being able to experience the joy of an AT Thru-hike. So if you are only hiking to prove something or be the baddest-motherfucker to ever walk long distances: go buy a treadmill and leave the beauty for the rest of us. .
In the end I would say that both miles and smiles are not mutually exclusive. There are times where I hated walking, 34 days exactly where I hated carrying tomatoes, and in Connecticut during mile 45 of 52 where I hated the rash that was developing between my butt cheeks, but now I look back upon those accomplishments glad I did them. The Appalachian trail is a journey of discovery, out in the woods with yourself and the owls you channel yourself and find out who you really are. I learned I can take anything and make it competitive.
I say at the end of the day we are all smiles hikers regardless of if we took a zero or are in the middle of a “marathon week”. We are all smiles hikers because it’s a mental game to hike all 2185 miles the Appalachian trail entails. The people out there that can’t figure out how the trail makes them smile drop out before they accomplish anything. Find what style of hiking makes you happy, and hike in a way that allows you to get the most out of the trail be it slow or fast.
Because it’s about miles and smiles.
(Oh God, the moral of the story is hike your own hike)
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