On Not Having a Mistress in Argentina
I was eating a donut after an English department faculty meeting at a community college where I taught writing when Michael, who had hired me years earlier, approached me. He had been promoted and became something of an important figure on campus, but it had not changed him. He was a warm, intelligent teacher at heart and his role as an administrator would not change his style. He had heard from my colleagues that I was leaving the department to attempt a thru hike of the Appalachian
Trail. Like many intelligent, educated people I knew and respected, he seemed skeptical of my plan to take off on a journey of more than 2,000 miles. It sounded a little crazy even to me.
“You don’t have a mistress in Argentina, do you?” He asked me, joking. I laughed, getting the joke. He referenced former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford who claimed to be hiking on the Appalachian Trail as an alibi to cover up an affair he carried on in Argentina.
Many skeptics asked me what my wife thought of my plans to hike for seven months. My wife was quite supportive, as she was embarking on her own odyssey, writing her doctoral dissertation in a hard science discipline. My wife believed in my dream and my journey, mailed me food drops, and visited me twice along the trail. Various people offered me practical, material and moral support. Another teacher offered his van to take us both day hiking. My department chair asked me to send updates– I sent out email updates from the trail. When I returned from Maine and returned to the classroom that fall, I’d lost so much weight my colleagues hardly recognized me.
I hardly recognized myself. Living out of a bag in the woods for most of a year had changed me. In the classroom, I ceased to think of myself as a career person, that most common rat racer, looking for a way through the maze. I had found my cheese. It was located in innumerable memories of my 2011 hike. It was in ongoing correspondences and conversations with hikers. Mostly, it was located somewhere out in the eastern woods. I took weekend trips. In 2013 I found myself feeding Appalachian Trail hikers with a fellow 2011 hiker, Convo. In 2014 I hiked a 500 mile section on the southern AT. I met some new people. I saw more old trail friends than I had expected. Since that time, I have been writing about the AT, much of it appearing on thetrek.co.
Some hikers I know have not returned to a lifestyle that resembles mid twentieth century, nine to five, Monday through Friday production and consumption. Most people I know that have made significant hikes on the Appalachian Trail have had transformative experiences. A young woman I met on the AT now does black bear research. Other hikers I know do seasonal work between hikes all over the world. Most of these people are in the their twenties, but some of them are much older. Whether retirees, small business people, high tech hobos; rich or poor, I have been so fortunate to meet so many people who love the Appalachian Trail. The AT provides a touchstone for life for so many people.
I was eating a donut at the restaurant job I will resign from when I take another long section hike next year. A coworker was curious about my hiking. I told some trail stories. I explained that my house is a 1.8 mile walk from work and that I walk both ways most days. I work at a deliberately quick pace. I lift fifty pound bags of potatoes and scrub and mop floors, among more skilled tasks. I don’t measure how many steps I take at work. I do keep a pace that amazes some of my coworkers when they discover I’m old enough to be their dad. I get dirty and wet and rev the engines of my body’s metabolism for hours at a time and keep in some kind of walking shape. Mark Sanford is currently a member of the US House of Representatives. Me on the other hand? I’m doing something productive with my life.
This spring I went on a number of day hikes with friends I met through my current job. Our little day hiking crew is mostly newbies. They show me around metro Atlanta’s many green spaces. Some day soon I hope to get one or two of them into the back country. I am interested in returning to the classroom sooner or later, particularly with an eye toward fostering conversation and writing about public space, public land, urban green space; but also: the demystification of the automobile and the re-mystification of pilgrimage-on-foot. Leave No Trace is as an applicable ethical code for the urban hive as much as it is for the back country. Making course plans is one of many things to think about on a long hike. Making trail plans remains one of the best things I do at any job.
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