Notice of Intent to Hike (or An Affirmation of Job-Leaving and Dream-Weaving)
I will be thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail southbound beginning in June 2017. This will necessitate leaving the education world (but I will return) and a life in Phoenix (but I will return to AZ). This is an explanation for context. I’ve come to realize the following: Don’t isolate yourselves from humanity, but set yourself on a path within it. Hiking is humanity on a scale of what humanity has always done for ages.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail is literally a culminated experience of childhood to the now. I have been planning this for years. Large journeys always need context and this is a glint of where the decision came from.
First impressions with all things great stick to the mind, especially when you are a child. Around 5th grade, my family traveled to the Great Smokey Mountains where we visited the iconic sites. At Clingman’s Dome, my family was taking obligatory photos when two mud-smudged hikers came swaggering out of the woods. Their external frame backpacks made me think military, as did their haul of gear. My dad strode over and quickly began talking to them. Nervous, I unclasped my hesitation and approached with fading wariness. Curiosity piqued at their badassery and obvious separation from the clean-washed crowd. They reported themselves as “Appalachian Trail” thru-hikers, traveling northbound from Georgia and just arrived here in the Smokies. They gestured to a side trail smattered with the same mud tracing their bearded faces. “This will lead you there.”
My dad and I both stared longingly at the hallway disappearing into the trees. I jumped into it. My father followed. We began talking excitingly – what would it be like? What would it be like to lose yourself among the trees and carried all you needed? Although we strode only a few paces onto the trail and away from the crowd blanketing the railed-in views, I felt encapsulated by the wild. My imagination filled in gaps about what to eat, how to avoid (always of course to the thrills and fears of the young) the beasts that lived here, how to stay dry, and how strong it would feel to walk so far.
Riveted, we both returned to the family and to the car. Driving away, I stared through rain-pocked windows, eyes glazed in that indifferent stare indicative of internal dialogue. I wanted to hike that trail.
Returning home was not without reminders of the AT. My parents purchased books on thru-hiking (my dad dreaming as much as me). Concurrently, Bill Bryson put out his audio-tape for A Walk in the Woods in 1998, making me an audiophile for the episodic chapters recounted on long drives through the car stereo.
I regaled my best friend Nathan with these same accounts. We sat, new middle schoolers, beneath a map of the United States loosely stuck with duct tape to my bedroom wall. We traced fingers along orange highways and blue interstates, imagining travel in all of its excitement. Hiking this trail was a different dream than before. That same map had been present in previous dealings and imaginings. Skip back several years to the elementary, and we had previously dreamed of driving America in style…by riding those giant electronic plastic beasts called Power Wheels. Yes, the glory. Yes, the adventure. We had dreamed of riding those damned buzzing vehicles across the backroads of America. What would we do for food? Eat fucking peanut butter. What about rain? Get the upgrade: some of those playthings had windshield wipers you could manually work with your hands by twisting a dial. Sleeping arrangements? What else than in the actual Power Wheel with your best bros parked close to you. Protection and safety in numbers after all.
But now? We had straight-up wisdom on our sides as 11 year olds. Although the trail wasn’t marked on the map, we could basically see it – stretching like another orange highway, slinking cross the mottled topography of the Appalachian mountains from Maine to Georgia. We were going to do it. This wasn’t haphazard promising, this was goal-setting agreement. These second thoughts grew to third reminders, giving birth to confidence that the trip would happen in a future of certainty.
The years of growing to adulthood continued to be marked by the reminder of this journey-to-be. Childhood maps were replaced with real books on the topic. Local bike rides that involved tramping through creek bottoms and overgrown thorn-studded fields transformed into real overnight adventures on genuine long trails. College wrought real experience from naivety. I joined a wilderness club and spent nights under the stars. During the summer, Nathan and I would haunt the woods, exploring by foot and pushing for the dream. I even got a walking stick for a 18th birthday gift – that’s how fucking stoked I was.
Adulthood Brings Real Plans
Then, graduation and teaching interjected new life in my dreams. I became a teacher Fall 2009 and stepped into the classroom, continuing my passion for science and the outdoors. Time moves slow in early years but the pace quickens as the rhythms of seasons become familiar. My wife, Janna, and I taught for years (I was up front about the hike when we met – it was a deal-builder for us) and outdoor adventures for us were ever-present. The AT-dream began to become hazy as predictability put in roots. I enjoy the comforts of dependability for what comes round the bend, but spontaneity and the vigors of those life-in-your-face moments that rock you back on the heels always drive me more.
We sat down then, five years ago, and made a plan. The AT in five years from that New Years. We squirreled away this plan, lest it unravel with what life brings or put careers on unsavory paths. Now, the time is here and our journey just six-ish months away. Time to light it up and announce my intentions:
- This will be my last year teaching (But not the end of teaching. I will return to the classroom after these hikes).
- After the school-year ends in May, Janna and I will be selling off some stuff, packing other shit away, and then traveling to Maine to begin a southbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.
- We will start our hike from Mount Katahdin in mid-end of June.
- We will be finishing when we finish. This will probably be mid-to-late autumn.
- Fuck riding Power Wheels around the country. I will be thru-hiking the AT instead.
I am pumped to say minimally of my sentiments. To my students, and all, make the life you live. Be alive and in this world. Stretch out the mind and set yourselves to something that gives you meaning.
Don’t isolate yourselves from humanity, but set yourself on a path within it. Hiking is humanity on a scale of what humanity has always done for ages.
For explanation and contextual purposes, as well as the strengths of goal-setting, below I outline the various reasons for taking this trek. The below items are written in no order, but have equal weighting for me.
Why I Want to Hike the Appalachian Trail
- A culmination of five years of weight loss and exercise gain.
- Exploration. Important to note that this is not a finale or singular adventure, but a plateau. From here, I will jump forward up to the next plateau, the next adventure. I will always pursue life this way.
- Enjoy the pleasure of pushing my physical endurance daily.
- To be alive and in the world.
- To experience wilderness. It is the one place where I find greatest peace and greatest exhilaration.
- Reduce the complexities of daily work schedule to the daily difficult simplicity of basic survival actions.
- To achieve a dream I’ve had since childhood.
- To communicate the wild and its beauty to my students. I need to inspire them about nature. Nature needs their inspiration for its protection.
- To be fit. To feel strong and not just merely be strong.
- To visit and drink in the wildernesses of the eastern US.
- To see wildlife.
- To overcome or habituate my mind to sleeping in the wild with animals.
- To be with Janna wholly now and not just in the oft-cited of “retirement.”
- Possibly collect ecological/climate data for my students.
- To choose each moment regardless of pleasure or discomfort (assuming my presence in those moments is under my control).
- Live life in the now and not in the promise of an unknown future.
- Breathe deep the Earth in all its smells and be conscious of it.
- Be the person of purpose and reflection that I have been but sometimes lose sight of while immersed in work.
- To experience the world with all senses and not just stare at it through car glass or behind a screen. To have true sense-experience and not just framed-experience.
When I successfully thru-hike the AT, I will:
- Feel strong and not merely be strong.
- Be a badass.
- Have Janna and I’s hearts be even more collided.
- Use this experience in my classroom for students (possibly take them backpacking in the future).
- Know how to choose every moment even when that moment is uncomfortable.
- Be prepared for the next adventure.
- Know challenge and the shear exhilaration of pushing through it.
- Feel like I accomplished a life-goal since I was a child.
- Not identify myself differently. Instead, I will continue the steadfast growth (purposefully) of who I am.
- I will know discomfort.
- Feel more solid about where we want to settle our lives (I use the word “settle” not in the traditional American-dream sense).
- Fucking fly (metaphorically)
- Encourage others (especially my students) to experience the world with all senses and not just stare at it.
If I give up on the AT, I will:
- Doubt my ability to be an endurance athlete.
- Feel like I failed my five year goals for weight and fitness.
- Probably question, for a significant time following, my ability to complete other goals in my life.
- Feel pissed that I will spend time trying to rationalize this choice when deep down, I know I could have (barring true illness, significant life challenge, etc.)
- Be unfinished and feel like future choices will never be complete.
- Be forever considering the What-If.
- Probably want to go back and finish but probably can’t because we will be establishing new roots.
- Be angry at myself for having overlooked some important pre-hike aspect that led to my downfall.
- Not feel like a strong model for my students about how to find joy in the discomfort of wilderness.
- Feel like I letdown Janna and the sacrifices we made to go on this adventure.
- Feel tremendously weak in the face of whatever strength I physically might actually have.
- Feel like I wasted a shit-ton of money and time.
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