My White Mountain Emotional Rollercoaster: Part Ten, Wildcat
Note: This post describes events that occurred on August 14-17, 2023.
The next morning, I packed my things and finally headed out. First, I got some coffee and breakfast from a nearby gas station. Afterward, I got a cup of hot water. I had learned that it can be really hard to remove the tips from trekking poles, and that it helps to boil them. I sat on the ground outside of the gas station and submerged the bottom of my trekking pole into the styrofoam cup with the steaming hot water. The tip came off easily after this pretreatment, so I repeated the process with the other pole and then walked to the outfitter. I got some replacement tips that were different from my original ones but fit on my poles just fine. After that, I was ready to hit the trail again.
I did notice some important differences as I was hiking. My trekking poles were providing so much more support and stability with the new tips. Once I began to climb Wildcat, I found that my pack weight certainly made it less effortful. But I still felt as though an invisible force field was impeding my progress up the mountain. It was like I was still carrying something heavy, and I realized that I couldn’t keep trying to power through my inconvenient emotions.
I stopped climbing the mountain and took off my pack. I sat on a boulder. I took out my phone, opened the notes app, and started journaling, unpacking everything I had been feeling lately. I wrote, “I don’t want to hike today. I’m sick of it.” I took more time writing down my thoughts, reflecting on everything that had happened recently and why my feelings may have changed. Yes, the Prezis were tough and wore me down, but I knew that it didn’t completely explain what was going on. Upon continued reflection, I made an important realization. With my many recent zeros, I was writing way more than usual. And something is different now: I’m not afraid of blogging anymore. When I first set out on the trail, even the most insignificant public sharing of my writing paralyzed me with fear. Every time I tried to write, I would be gripped with fear and discouraged from pressing on. I couldn’t quite explain it, but doing this crazy thing, trying to thru-hike the AT, seemed like a good way to try and get out of this rut. And you know what? It worked.
When I first hit the trail, I didn’t know what the outcome would be. I set out to hike 2,198.4 miles of a trail I had hiked maybe 5 miles of previously. I had no idea if I would fail or succeed, if I would like it or dislike it. But I felt desperate to try, feeling like it would help me get unstuck from living a life I wasn’t happy with. Every time I faced unpleasant conditions on trail, like the drenching rains, the constant mud, the biting insects, or the stifling humidity, I would think about quitting, but would ultimately decide to stick it out. And the reason was always because there was nothing to return to, nothing that I was drawn to more than continuing my walk.
And there, on the side of the Wildcat Ridge trail, I figured out why I didn’t want to hike anymore: I finally wanted to do something else. I wanted to write more than I wanted to hike, in part because hiking was scarier to me than writing. When I first set foot on the AT, I felt like my amygdala, the part of my brain that controls my fear response, was broken. The hazards of the trail didn’t scare me as much as innocuous things like blogging did. When I got to the hard part of the trail, everything changed. The prospect of dodging lightning bolts on the summit of Madison profoundly shifted my perspective. My fear was directed to a more appropriate hazard.
Even though the writing I want to do still scares me, I have convinced myself of something important, which is that I can do hard things. I can face my fears. I had commented to some hikers recently, “I am scared of mountains. I am scared of rocks. I am scared of streams. It’s unbelievable that I’m out here doing this.” All I have been doing for the past three months is walking on mountains! All I have been doing is facing my fears! With all the distractions stripped away, just me on the trail with my thoughts, I could appreciate what I had done and realize why it didn’t fulfill me anymore. I was putting forth all this effort toward a goal that I didn’t really care about. Couldn’t I redirect that energy to something that truly matters to me? I realized that the answer was yes. I was finally ready to work on a hard and scary project that I actually care about. I was ready to commit myself to writing projects that are deeply important to me.
Honestly, finishing my thru-hike was never that important to me. And that’s probably why I got as far as I did. A few years ago, I figured out that it’s easier to apply myself to things I don’t care about. That way, I won’t be disappointed if I don’t succeed. I thought this was the ultimate life hack for a while. But eventually, I realized that I’m not immune to the universal human condition of needing a sense of purpose. I have things I want to do that I care about, like writing a book, which seems like one of the most scary and daunting endeavors I can think of. As I set out to write, I don’t know what the outcome will be. I don’t know if I will like it or dislike it, whether I will fail or succeed at my goal. But I am allowing myself to try hard things, to take a stab at the projects that matter to me, whether people understand or not, and whether or not I will actually see these projects through. I’m finally willing to allow for the possibility of failure, which is the only way I can get started in the first place.
There, I found Sparks, a hiker I knew. He was one of the ones who had to descend Madison in poor weather the day after I had gotten out of the Prezis. I asked how it went. His eyes widened, and he explained that he and his partner Selah had spent 8 hours going from Madison Spring Hut to the tentsite just below treeline. 8 hours to go 3 miles, and in 60 mph winds with below freezing windchill. I had been miserable spending 4.5 hours going the same distance in favorable conditions. It was unimaginable to me how tedious and unpleasant that must have been. Sparks and Selah are flip-flop hikers and after that experience, they decided to flip down to Virginia. Sparks explained that Madison had been so grueling. They just wanted to enjoy hiking again. They planned to come back to finish the northern section next summer. I totally understood their decision, and explained that I had thought about ditching this tough stuff and going down to Virginia myself. But ultimately I felt like I was probably getting off indefinitely, since I was pretty sure I had gotten what I wanted from the experience. He sounded surprised to hear that, but nodded. HYOH, right?
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