My AT Training: Delivering Pizza
When I first planned to do this hike on my gap year, I knew I’d need to make money for it somehow. But what I didn’t expect was that my choice of work could also teach me lessons of resilience I suspect are crucial for the Trail.
Delivering pizza and Greek food by bike isn’t the most grueling job in the world. But its demands are a far cry from the purely cerebral tasks that occupied me at school. And they were things I simply had to do, no matter how I felt. At the restaurant, I’m there to get a job done. No teachers are there to give me pointers if I’m anxious or struggling; no extensions are granted on my work if I’m having a hard time. The food needs to be prepped for the chefs in time for the busy hours, and the chicken souvlaki needs to go out to its destination on Central Park West before it gets cold (or the customers impatient). It’s the action that counts, the raw result–when it comes down to it, “did the thing get to the other place or not?”
My job involved biking back and forth over a 5-hour period, often up hills, and running food up to the chefs when they need it, all with the clock ticking. The combination of the job’s physical demands and its unbending urgency means that I often find myself working my body hard when I distinctly don’t want to. That is, to some extent, any exercise. But a work-out routine is all strategically designed and convenient. The physical activity there is the ends and not the means–a rather modern phenomenon, by the way–and you can divert your whole attention to form, proper breaths and the like. Juggling a floppy red pizza bag and 4 plastic bags of gyros and pasta and horiatiki while pushing up the hill on 96th and West End Avenue, mildly conscious of the cars zipping by to my left, trying to forget about all the mozzarella I still have to grind back downstairs–that’s a different kind of exercise. There’s stress, and the logistics of moving through space with unwieldy objects not really designed for a biweekly routine at the gym. On the trail, movement is also a means to an end, and it can be quite awkward too–navigating slippery rock faces with an off-balance pack, for instance.
Anyway, the more I powered through it all, the less I struggled. Taking four deliveries at once with one of them over a mile off felt more routine. I got used to pushing through my bodily and mental reluctance. That’s going to be an essential skill for the trail–being able to let those screams of no! from my legs wash over me without effect. Ignore the pain (to a reasonable degree, of course) and get those miles done. It’s that simple. I’ve had the full benefit of the peer pressure and time stress of the workplace to boost the development of that skill.
It’s more than just moving my feet on the pedals of my bike even when I don’t want to. The stress can make me bitter, stoke anger in the back of my mind; in the beginning sometimes I’d silently curse the faraway (and unsuspecting) customers for living so far up that hill, instead of on that amicably flat section of the neighborhood over here. If they took their time answering the door I’d grimace. But I got practice shrugging off that bitterness. Impatience just one option. It’s perfectly possible to take it all in with a relaxed and flexible composure. Grin at the hill because I know I’m mastering it again; use the extra seconds at the door to take a breath or two, maybe look around the decorated prewar hallway. Even unpleasant situations could be construed as fun–a customer haranguing me about the price of their meal only put me in a better mood, because I knew she wasn’t really yelling at me, and I could play the game of seeing how much of a tip I could extract from her anyway. (75 cents were the fruits of my labor.) That when I could have left in a huff, in a bad mood for the rest of the night. Why not just bend with the wind, as a strong flexible tree will do? That’s the one most able to ride out a storm.
A positive attitude, as it is put simply, can also help with another important take-away from my delivery job: how not to wish something is over in anticipation of the next bit. At this job, when I was feeling done for the night but was not, in fact, anywhere near done, or when I flashed to something I’ve read about the AT, I burned with longing to just get this over with and be there already. But as I’ve realized, that’s actually a dangerous mindset I’ll need to try to avoid on the AT. As soon as you’re waiting for it to be over, the whole thing gets much harder, and quitting’s going to have a much easier way into your mind. As I once heard one wise former thru-hiker put it to SoBo’s just starting out, “If you’ve got Georgia on your mind, get it out!” Throughout my time at the restaurant, I dragged myself out of pining, anticipatory daydreams of the trail and let myself enjoy what I was doing then as much as possible. This fresh coolness, rushing past my face as I zoom down the lamplight-colored avenue, this is not so bad at all. This will kick back at me with nostalgia someday. These customers–what greater way is there to exchange decent, good-hearted words with hundreds of strangers? Staying in the moment on the AT is a must; though of course I’ll point towards Katahdin the whole way, it’s the reliance on the gems of the present that’ll help me succeed.
I found training in an unlikely place. I learned more how to push on when I’m tired, how to let unhelpful spite subside, and how to root myself firmly in the moment, all helpful on the AT. But the Trail doesn’t offer the same round-the-clock access to New York’s best pizza.
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