We had finished dinner at a restaurant in my hometown, my girlfriend and I, and she was listening with wide eyes to my trail tales—the bear ones (here and here, for example). She was saying “I can’t imagine” and evincing bemusement that (a) anyone would put herself in such life-threatening, unpleasant circumstances and (b) she would want to do it again.
Backpacking’s allure can baffle me, too. You might know about my love-hate relationship with the AT. I’ve written about the love; I’ve written much more about the hate. I’ve called the AT an abusive lover. I’ve spent significant thesaurus time at the “misery” entry. And I’ve documented, in wince-inducing detail, more crying jags than you can shake a trekking pole at.
But at dinner with my friend, I sat back and stared into the distance and thought about the love. It was time to shift from “it’s so hard” mode into “it’s so amazing” mode, so I did. But she just patted my arm and kept smiling at me in a way that said, “Should I get help for this woman, or will she be okay?”
Before I started my thru-hike attempt, the headline on a vision board I made was, “Truth everywhere, all the time,” an idea that emerged from some inquiry into my life’s purpose. Journaling and discussion had distilled it to this: Authenticity.
On the AT, I got it. Pure, simple, authentic everything. It is so amazing.
Pure emotion. AT emotions are stronger than everyday emotions: fear of an actual, live bear versus anxiety about the passive-aggressive tone you detected in an email, but maybe you were reading into it … but what if you weren’t … you know the swirl. AT feelings are purer, too. How? Perhaps because of the lack of modern detritus or noisy cultural inputs, one’s mind on a long-distance hike becomes a spacious place in which invented feelings are exposed for what they are—babble—and it’s easy to discard them. What’s left is only the raw and real.
Pure satisfaction. I could write a whole blog post on how deeply gratifying I find camp set-up and break-down tasks. Every morning on trail, I wake up knowing exactly what must be done and in what order. After stretching, I sit up, turn on my phone, and remove my ear plugs and eye mask. These I pop into my sleeping bag’s little zippered pocket—so tidy! Then I remove sleeping clothes and squirm into (usually damp and cold) hiking clothes. The sleeping clothes go into a Ziploc, I press out the extra air and seal it. Then I twist open the valve on my mattress and feel my body lowering onto the ground as the air hisses out. Next it’s time to slide it out of its sleeping bag sleeve, flatten, fold, and roll it, pressing out its last breaths (my breaths, really, from the night before), and tuck it into its mesh drawstring sack. Then I feel around behind me, twisting left and twisting right to try to eye the sleeping bag stuff sack. This accomplished, I gather the sleeping bag under one arm and start shoving it in; shove, tug; shove, tug; shove, tug, until the whole massive bundle is straining the seams of the sack. I pull the drawstring and all at once, with these bulky items stowed, my tiny tent feels vast, and it’s possible to find whatever remaining hiking clothes I haven’t yet put on.
I’m not saying these tasks are fun, but each action is necessary and productive, so doing it feels good; it moves me along. Philosopher Matthew Crawford would call such chores “straightforwardly useful.” I never, ever minded doing them. Off trail, I miss that state of methodical industry.
Pure purpose. You know that meme, “Stop the glorification of busy”? Not needed on the AT. You’re certainly fully occupied most of the time, but you’re not busy in the sense of having to juggle and prioritize. You’re simply threading your way along the ridges with a singular intent: advance.
Pure pleasure. Everyone knows that food tastes better outside. Unless of course it’s cold and raining. On second thought, if you can cadge a covered corner of a picnic table to boil your ramen water and wolf down a warm dinner, even food eaten outside when it’s cold and raining tastes amazing.
But food eaten outside when it’s nice and dry? When you’re at the top of an ascent catching a delectable breeze? When your body has burned through the balance of calories you last gave it? Off trail, I doubt there anywhere exists this access to a such a basic pleasure and total license to indulge it.
Pure joy. I know, if you’ve got children, you have joy. But isn’t it the kind of joy author Zadie Smith calls “not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily”?
Happily, backpacking-induced joy is clean.
One example is the first time I heard Darius Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel” while hiking. Previously, I’d been unfamiliar with the song aside from one night at Laughing Heart Hostel, when a group of us were sitting around a fire and one hiker was strumming it out on guitar, singing, while another one harmonized and a third played at its melody on a harmonica.
It was one of those amazing, is this really my life? moments, but it wasn’t joyful; it was simply serene. Hearing the song on the trail a few days later though, I was struck by the memory of the evening and all the happy gravity of the human fellowship it implied. The clarity and hope that overtook me then hasn’t happened much in my time on Earth, but in that instant I knew simply and inarguably that only one thing mattered: connection. That knowledge, and the accompanying idea that I could always choose to connect, was joy.
Pure misery. It must be included. But, since I’ve elaborated endlessly on it already, I’ll spare you today.
Pure accomplishment. The map doesn’t lie; at day’s end you can see how many miles you walked. Your body doesn’t lie, either; you can feel in your bones how hard you worked. No typing up a report for your boss, no accounting for hours on a timesheet.
Pure sleep. It takes a while to learn how to sleep outside, on a sleeping pad, in a shelter or tent, but once you get get it down, you get it down. It starts with forcing yourself to stay awake until 8 p.m., your eyes dropping closed on your phone’s Kindle screen, your foam earplugs expanding to fill your ear canals until the hiker voices dim to murmurs, and it ends with your body settling into stillness: sleep from an exhaustion so lovely it feels almost drugged.
Pure relief. Finding a water source two miles after running out. Scoring a level patch of ground for your tent. Reaching the shelter before the downpour starts. Discovering there are under 0.2 miles left for the day. Running into a friend you thought you had lost.
Pure strength. Those hiker legs, though.
Pure grace. Here’s an example: We had had an awkward and unpleasant exchange the night before concerning sleeping arrangements in the shelter, I had judged another hiker to be acting childishly, the argument had cast a pall over the whole evening, and the outcome had favored him. But he looked so hangdog and tired and thin the next morning, trudging up the path to the bear cables, that any residual static in my feelings toward him dissolved instantly. “Did you sleep okay?” I asked, knowing, having felt his tossing and turning next to me all night, that he had not. His simple “no” in response and the way he came to a dead stop to say it contained as much abject despair as I’d felt in the last hundred miles. I made a sympathetic face, stepped toward him, and gave him a hug. He hugged me back; we really hugged, feeling each other’s thin shoulders underneath our thin arms. And then he patted me on the back and thanked me.
I hadn’t willfully chosen between 1) passive aggressively expressing my disappointment in his behavior by ignoring him or being otherwise unfriendly (which had seemed a reasonable plan the night before) or 2) seeing in him our mutual humanity and reaching out to him in love. It wasn’t like that. Rather, the second option simply and suddenly presented itself as the only, and correct, and desired one. The first disappeared like hot broth on a dirt floor. Pure grace.
Pure kindness. People’s generosity on the trail overwhelms—and its timing frankly blows my mind. I’ve lost count of all the trail angels who have come along just in the nick of time, but a few memorable ones are Mike and Bruce, who gave me intellectual companionship, laughs, a ride into Franklin, and hope; Mountain Man, who gave me encouragement and a backpacker’s hug on what was probably the day I realized I wouldn’t make it to Maine; whoever left a pile of apples and precisely-ripe bananas at Stecoah Gap; Ronnie, who decided with his family to “adopt” me and mail me resupply packages for my whole journey; and Encourager, who hiked four miles out of Hot Springs with me (and four miles back, to meet his wife; he was getting off the trail!), keeping my lonesome self company, and then praying for me. AND THERE ARE SO MANY MORE.
I’d heard about trail magic before getting on the trail but was nevertheless unprepared for how much it astonished and humbled me with its simple but huge mercy. Like nothing in my life before, it brought me to my knees.
Pure delight. At a view, a flower, trace fossils on a stone, an unexpected meadow, moss on a tree trunk, a salamander, a pair of wild turkeys on the path, a cascade of alluvium on a mountain side, the shape of a mountain. Because you’re operating in that crystalline, close-to-the-bone condition, these little unexpected things have the power to truly move you.
Pure cargo. There’s freedom, and then there’s the freedom of carrying literally nothing you don’t need.
In one of my early, pre-trail posts, I eagerly anticipated the low-decision life of a thru-hiker. Our modern era’s surplus of possibilities helps make our lives more precisely right in many ways, but it creates noise and clutter, too.
The absence of that clutter makes all the above purity possible—a realization I’m far from the first person to have. Rob Moor, in his mesmerizing new book On Trails, call it a “reduction,” the thing “that makes a walk feel so freeing. In walking, we acquire more of less.”
It’s difficult to achieve such freedom in the midst of modern life, so that even if, back home, we can go to sleep confident no bear will bite through our tent, the paradox is that as we are sheltered from the outdoors’ perils, so do we insulate ourselves against its miracles.
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