Ready to quit the Appalachian Trail? Read this first.
This post is about mercy.
What do you mean by mercy?
But first: Happy 4th of July!
Fireworks explode as I write this
But I can’t see any of them.
I am sitting on the back porch of a suburban home in Leesburg, Virginia. The Appalachian Trail feels a million miles away.
But my morning started there. I woke up at the Ed Garvey shelter about five miles north of Harpers Ferry with two of the first people I met on trail in March (see above).
While heating water for morning coffee, we recited the Pledge of Allegiance and sang a few bars of “My Country Tis of Thee.” Jim of course had a flag for this, which he has been meticulously folding each day, military-style, with our help.
I love the 4th of July
I always have.
I love the colors, the red-white-and-blue. I love the songs. I love the summer heat and picnics. I love the food and beverages (see below).
But – full disclosure- I’ve always loved most that it’s the night before my birthday. I was born a few hours shy of being a “Bicentennial Baby,” born on the morning of July 5, 1976.
These two days together link my history with our country’s history. And speaking of history:
Me on July 4th, 1982
Me on July 4th, 2019
Not much has changed. Though I no longer wear an eye patch and I traded the hot dog for a notepad.
Because I’m pausing at the halfway point to take notes.
I love fireworks but I am skipping the show because my body says it is very very tired and needs to sit in this screened-in porch and breathe.
“Happy breath day,” my friend Kim texts. This is what her hippie friends call birthdays. Breath-days. The day you took your first breath.
Now I am breathing my millionth or trillionth breath- to stop and ask what in the world I am doing on this Appalachian trail.
The trail that never ends.
How did the first half go?
How do I want to live into the second?
Second halves matter
Columnist David Brooks recently wrote The Second Mountain: the Quest for a Moral Life, which echoes some of Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward: a Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.
Both are worth reading, and here’s the basic theme:
At mid-life you have a choice to make:
Will you keep striving to have more, be more, do more?
Or will you ask yourself what really matters- offering the sum of your gifts and experience to make a contribution to the world?
What does it mean in the second half of life to revise the plan, savor the good, nurture friendship and family, redeem life’s inevitable pain, and receive rest?
But between the first and second half may come the disorienting arrival of the blues.
Give me a break, you might be thinking.
“You have no job or responsibilities. You’re staying at fun hostels and towns along the way. You’re meeting interesting people. You’re spending every day walking in nature, for crying out loud!
“And you feel down?”
I said people get the blues. It’s why some get off trail. It’s why I almost did.
It’s why I need…
A mid-way re-boot
We all know the iconic locker room scenes in those feel-good sports films.
The coach gathers his players together at half-time and just when it seems there’s no way the team can win, he inspires them to play like a team, try a new strategy, and remember who they are!
Cue Christina the half-time coach. She’s my next-door neighbor in New York and possesses that rare blend of empathy and strategy.
After a 27-mile day last week I called her by the side of the trail in the Shenandoahs. Weepy and tired, I whined, “I don’t want to do this.”
She listened first. Affirmed second. Advised third. I’ll share that below.
The blues aren’t just for Virginia
In AT thru-hiker land, the “Virginia Blues” are notorious. When hikers get bogged down in the 500+ trail miles in Virginia and even consider giving up.
Virginia can lead one to the brink of despair not because it lacks its own beauty and charm-
But because it is so long, so hot, so lacking in water sources, so sparse on epic views, so pressured for making miles, so rough on your body to hike for 12-15 hours of daylight…
And also this one more thing:
The bubble has BURST
Remember all those fun group pics I used to post? Back when lots of people hiked and camped and hung out in towns together? Aka the “northbound thru-hiker bubble”?
We laughed around campfires and packed into hotels. We sang and played games. We hitch-hiked and danced. Sometimes at the same time! See below:
But in Virginia, the bubble kinda pops.
Some people get off trail for good. Some stay back due to injuries. Some speed way ahead. Some (like me) get off trail for a wedding and then come back only to find the entire bubble has passed you by and there’s no way to catch up. You hike 27 miles in a day and 80 miles in 5 days and you are still. way. behind.
If a hiker falls in the forest and no one is around to hear, can she still break her leg?
You are SO behind the throng that when you hike towards Harpers Ferry, a super clean-smelling group of day hikers stop you to ask,
“Are you a thru-hiker?”
Like you are all manner of rare exotic animal not seen for months and now you are the last member of this endangered species and yes, they ask to take a PHOTO with you.
“We’ve been hoping for weeks to see one of you! A real thru-hiker!”
Followed by the ever-encouraging:
“Wow, the north-bound thru-hikers we’ve met are all in New York by now. Do you think you’re gonna make it all the way to Maine?”
Suddenly everyone’s talking numbers and deadlines
It’s like arriving at a final exam for a class you didn’t even know you were taking.
Now everyone on trail is in second-semester mode:
“He’s going the distance, he’s going for speed”
Who knew there was this famous “rule” that if you don’t make it to Harpers Ferry by July 1, you’re statistically unlikely to make it to Katahdin?
(For the record I got there on July 3rd, so save your condolence cards)
“She’s all alone (all alone), all alone in her time of need”
And then you find yourself for the first time in a trail town, ready to rest and resupply and shower, and you are really truly ALONE.
Now if you are super solitary by nature and came out here to have a hermit-like experience – where it’s just you and the wasps and woodlands, this could be heaven.
For most of us, not so much.
See, the trail already provides a ton of solitude. Many of us hike the majority of the day alone.
But alone at shelters and tent sites? Alone in town? Alone to get ice cream?
Welcome to the bubble-bursting blues.
Or maybe you’re not alone, but the group you’re with isn’t what you’d hoped it would be. People don’t seem on the same page. Expectations differ and go uncommunicated. Factions break off. Some go home.
One girl I know who’s a part of a very close-knit, fun trail family wrote a week ago in a shelter log. She described feeling many of the same things I was.
And one guy I know who got off trail said:
“I just wasn’t having fun anymore.”
What happens in the middle
At the spiritual halfway point, as Harpers Ferry is called, you get to have your photo taken at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters and officially register where you are in your thru-hike.
There are lots of nice people and bottles of cold water and they will even take your picture twice so you can show off how you lift your 18.2-pound pack with one finger:
This will be a super exciting day!
And then it will be back to the heat, long miles, sparse water, and so on.
As you near the halfway mark, it’s a good time to assess what this hike means to you and what you want for your second half.
A monk told me this, when I asked him what made him join the monastery:
“Why you started, is always different from why you stay.”
In other words:
What got you here, won’t be what keeps you here
SO: before you quit!
How ’bout a mid-point check-in?
Here’s what I’m asking this week:
What can I modify?
1. The route
Can you change course?
Yes! You would be amazed how many people on the AT switch course along the way.
Either they get injured and take time off and then shuttle ahead to where the group is, or they alter their course to a “flip-flop” route to give them more time and better weather.
After a lot of deliberation, I decided on a modified flip-flop. After getting off-trail for the wedding (which I’m super glad I did), and taking too many zero-miles-days early on (which I’m semi-not-glad I did), there was no way I was ever going to catch up with the bubble, let alone my group.
So (deep breath), today I skipped ahead 80 miles. I am calling this “a modified flip-flop,” meaning that when my trail is finished – God willing at Katahdin – I will take a week to come back and hike those miles in PA/MD.
I am writing this in my blog to hold myself accountable. I’m also writing it because I think there’s no need for secrecy and shame around this.
People can be very judge-y about other people’s hiking strategies. But this is where MERCY comes in, friends.
Mercy for yourself and others when your perfect plan has to be revised in order for you to finish strong.
2. The companions
As you go, you have to modify your expectations of people.
Wondering how you will ever cope without those people you started out with?
Maybe they will come back. See below:
I think this is one of the biggest reasons people get off trail altogether, even though they don’t talk about it:
They miss their friends.
“The second half of the AT is a mental thing, man.”
You hear this over and over as a thru-hiker. I disagree. I think it’s a social thing.
The social dynamic
So many of the people I know who got off trail got separated for a prolonged time from their trail family, or felt somehow distanced from others on the trail socially.
Remember, out here the people you hike and camp with are not just pals like back in the real world.
They are your coworkers, your neighbors, your friend group, and your family. We don’t have somewhere else to go to – phone and text notwithstanding – for moral and emotional support in person.
So again I entreat you – have mercy.
Have mercy for whomever you happen to find yourself around, even if they are passing day-hikers or section-hikers. Even if they are not “that amazing group you hiked with way back when.”
Have mercy for your past, present, and future groups of fellow hikers, who may or may not be all that you need or want them to be. They may not fully understand you or vice versa. But you are sharing together something special and hard and unique, and everyone’s pretty much doing the best they can.
Most of all have mercy for yourself, for still doing this thing without your network of community back home. Thank yourself for what you’ve been able to do thus far. And thank the AT for giving you a place to do it.
3. The means
Sometimes you gotta modify the means.
Most of us start the trail thinking “I will pass every single white blaze and not miss a mile! I will do everything the ‘right’ way! 2192 miles on foot, or bust!”
And then I heard of aqua-blazing…
Aqua-blazing refers to paddling in a canoe or kayak alongside the Appalachian Trail, typically in the Shenandoah River. Although I think there are other places to aqua-blaze as well.
Initially I turned up my nose at this, privately considering it cheating.
But let me tell you, after 500 miles in Virginia, on your feet for close to 20 miles a day, boiling in the heat, parched for water, there is nothing like aqua-blazing to completely reset your spirits.
The case for aqua-blazing:
1. It’s a merciful change of scenery that you will love. Still in the Appalachian nature- just a different side of it.
2. It’s inexpensive and affordable. $75-$100 for three days.
3. Finally you get an upper-body workout, after all that legwork!
4. You are still very much using your own strength to get yourself up the Appalachian Trail.
5. It’s sooo FUN.
Thank you, Radagast and Small Slice, for recommending!
4. The motivation
Sometimes you have to modify the motivation.
As I mentioned earlier, what got you here may be very different from what keeps you here.
And this is true for those of you in all kinds of jobs and lives, not just the trail.
Remember Christina the halftime coach? Yeah, she’s full of good stuff.
What she said to me when I was down and out and ready to quit was this:
“Give it a couple days. I’m so proud of you. Try turning off the audiobooks and the music while you hike and just being present quietly in the woods for a while. See what happens.”
Basically what Christina communicates in her words and friendship is this:
“I love you. I believe in you. Keep going.”
So I do.
And Jim and Megan and I aqua-blaze. And then Doppler and Queue join the party:
Well. There are about a million things I could tell you about Doppler and Queue.
But here’s what you need to know: they started the AT when I did. We met multiple times on the trail in the first couple of months.
They were the lone voices singing with me the one and only time I played guitar around the campfire, which of course endeared them to me for life.
Then sadly Doppler had a serious knee injury, and had to get off trail about a month ago for surgery.
His doctors told him there would be no hiking in the near future, but I know they will get back on trail as soon as they can.
In the meantime, they live in Northern Virginia, about an hour from the trail, and have at least two dozen names of fellow thru-hikers in their phone contact list. So what does that mean?
Instead of sitting around feeling sorry for themselves, missing the trail and watching TV, they asked themselves, “How can we repurpose our hike? How can we be of service?”
So this couple of faith and good humor and hospitality have welcomed in at least 15 thru-hikers, by way of shuttling them to new locations, bringing people food, and hosting them in their home.
Not only did they host me for two nights and make me feel like family, they shuttled me the 80 miles I missed so that I could catch up with my group today.
Talk about a true birthday present.
I can’t wait to make up those miles in the fall and hopefully have the two of them join me!
How they changed my hike
But here’s the takeaway – instead of self-pity, Doppler and Queue re-invented the hike they thought they were going to have, into the hike they never imagined.
A hike that sidelined them from the actual trail, but put them in touch again with dozens of people on the trail. People they could help and encourage and serve in tangible ways.
People like me who will be ever grateful to them for their kindness.
What would it look like for the second half of my hike to have a “Doppler and Queue” mindset?
What would it look like if I took all the things that didn’t go my way, and turned them into an opportunity to bless and serve others?
This is not how I naturally think, I admit. But I think Doppler and Queue really meant it when they said, “We are the ones who get the most joy out of this.”
The trail is full of choices
My friend Jeff recently sent me a quote about how hiking the Appalachian Trail is blissfully free of choices. Your only choice is whether to quit or keep walking.
And at one level I get this. He’s right.
But at another level, there are a staggering number of choices:
To slow down or catch up? To be a purist or modify as needed? To resupply with this food or that food? To keep the gear I have or swap out for new? To stick closely with the group or go solo?
Always a choice
Choices are a part of life, and not just when it comes to beer and sunscreen.
So here’s what I want to say if you’re still reading: before you quit, think about what choices you still have.
Your choices don’t have to match those of people around you. Maybe you have a whole new set of reasons you’re hiking from the ones you started with.
But claim the agency you have. Sometimes when the choice becomes “Do I keep doing what I’m doing? Or quit altogether?” You can also declare, “I choose neither.”
For me, showing myself mercy meant that I didn’t have to choose between trudging along hiking in the no-man’s-land of isolation and getting off the trail for good.
I could choose “neither,” and pick a third way.
Which brings us back to…
A river of mercy
Mercy is what it felt like to paddle a kayak in the river last week:
You go over rapids and you have to let go of control and loosely let your vessel find its way over the waves.
Then you go through a placid section and you have to paddle harder and steer forward.
Sometimes the current takes you toward a rock or tree. Sometimes your boat gets stuck.
But you don’t curse yourself or judge your movements harshly. You’re learning how to navigate, which way to lean, when to back-paddle and when to hold still so you don’t disturb the turtle on the rock.
There is a gentleness to obeying the rhythm of the river. There is an ease in knowing the work of motion doesn’t all depend on you.
You keep paddling, yes. But there’s a deeper something underneath that carries you, propelling you forward.
Mercy for the healing
Part of what I came to the trail for was for healing. And to be a healer.
But part of my mid-way realization is how much the trail can break you. You are asking so much of your body and heart.
On Sunday I was able to go to church again for the first time in weeks, and it was a small 8 AM communion service at an Episcopal church.
Reverend Valerie, the priest, served each of us the elements at the communion rail, and then without me even knowing what was happening, she prayed individual prayers for each of us. She laid hands on us. She prayed for our healing.
I don’t remember the words, but I remember the feeling. It was like being held by that river. It was like the merciful voice of Love saying to me,
“You don’t have to figure out all the ways to be healed. You don’t have to name them or dissect them or solve anything about yourself. I will work the healing in you. I am the river.”
If (my AT mentor) Mary Stewart Murphey’s word for me at the start of this hike was “fortitude,” the word for my second half is
p.s. – If you’re thru-hiking right now and tempted to quit, message me first! I’m cheering you on. 😊
This blog brought to you by the pies of the brilliant and world-changing Rachel & Tina of The Pie Chest in Charlottesville, VA…
… and the outrageous hospitality of the Schetlick family – who lavished upon us food and laughter and sunsets in the extreme.
Especially their daughters Ava who carried my packages and gave me motivational music, and Caroline and her friends who said they love my blog which is the only reason I’m writing right now!
Additional shout-outs to M & M for ferrying my pack in their canoe and not capsizing. 🛶
And to Grubber for that burger & fries at 11pm after my 27-miler! 🍔 Special place in heaven for you, friend. And in Baxter State Park.
And to all my friends and family and trail-team who remembered my b-day 🎂
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