Reflection: My Long Walk
It’s been one week since I reached the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine, officially completing my initiation into long distance “thru” hiking and solidifying my place among a varied band of brothers and sisters that have taken refuge in the wilderness to embark on a 2,198 mile hike from Georgia to Maine.
I did it.
I walked, slogged, slipped, swam, climbed, butt-scooted, forded, jogged, jumped, and crawled a terribly long way over roots and rocks, through rivers, across boardwalks, and through so much mud! I endured sleet, snow, high winds, drought, wildfire smoke, flash floods, and lightning strikes, flicking ticks and dodging pockets of norovirus contaminations along the way. I went through three (3) pairs of shoes, swapped my Columbia shorts for Wal-Mart swim trunks (let’s be honest; they made me more fun!), replaced a sewer-smelling wicking shirt with a fresh backup, and adopted another pair of socks (thanks Darn Tough!) to finish the trip.
I hiked with a small and tight-knit group with ages ranging from 17- to 38-years old. As it goes on trail, sometimes you have to leave behind the comfort and companionship of others to prioritize the needs of your hike. I had to push ahead to resupply my food stores and later ended up slightly in front of the group on account of bad weather. I am thrilled that the balance of the group are healthy and headed towards their own summit soon. Known for our fast-pace and few breaks, I won’t soon forget these characters; helping carry packs during injury, hiking through full-on military wilderness training (with helicopters and sniper rifles to boot!), annointing members with trail names (“Jersey!”), team stretches (cork balls!), all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets, hitch-hiking, and highway walking.
Hiking alone provided it’s own seasoning to the experience. The benefits include total control and zero negotiation needed to hike however you want; stopping for food when you want, hiking bigger or smaller miles when you want, hiking early in the morning or late at night, stopping to smell the (prairie) roses, trail (very silly) dancing to my music playlist, and taking all the dang photos your i-Cloud storage can stomach. The downsides for me were that I got a bit lonely and had to work harder to stay positive. It was also more expensive to stay in town when hostels weren’t available as you aren’t splitting the cost among roommates, and it can be harder to get a hitch to town as a solo male.
Though a solo trek wasn’t my preference, I remember fondly stopping for (delicious) gas station Mexican food at a road crossing before night hiking to camp where my only company was a campfire I’d made. This time also proved that I could do this on my own. I could plan my mileage and resupply needs; I could make quick decisions (to set my tent before the cold rendered my fingers useless near Stecoah Gap) and I could push head-on into the challenge to stretch my boundaries of personal comfort and capabilities (still hiking a full 19 mile day after resupplying in town, and ramping up daily mileage to the 20-mpd range).
The Road to Damascus
The solo hike officially lasted only a couple of weeks (I would have short periods of solo hiking later in the trek) before I linked up with a group of guys looking to split the rent on an Airbnb in Damascus, our quarter-way point. They hailed from Ohio to Pennsylvania to England and had a rapport akin to that which forms in a sports locker room. It’s not unusual in this environment to form bonds based on some level of convenience, and cheaper room and board is as good a reason as most. Though we didn’t hike continuously for that long, karaoking “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by the Proclaimers at the local brewery, enjoying a hiker home-cooked dinner (sitting at a real table!) and a proper English breakfast, and playing the card game, Shithead, early into the morning are highlights.
Out of Damascus, I hiked solo for a couple of days, bouncing (hiker terminology for hiking and/or camping in the vicinity of other known hikers without official group affiliation) with those from the Airbnb and others. One evening I was camped alongside a road crossing and beautiful stream when a new friend from Damascus decided to set up shop for the night. This proved to be a pivotal moment of the trek as she and I would go on to hike the remainder of the Appalachian Trail together.
Just the Two of Us
This partnership experienced many ups and downs (pun intended?) along the way. We enjoyed each other’s company more than we were maybe well-suited to hike the remaining 1,700 miles together. The weather got to her and my post-trail career anxieties got to me, but we persevered. We picked alpine blueberries and made blueberry pancakes, we swam in ponds and streams, we started campfires after a rain using Frito’s and bunches of fallen Pine needles, we cooked Stir-Fry and Steaks in town, packed out a few trail beers, but, above all, we had each other’s backs.
We looked out for one another that time we stayed at a stranger’s house that a hiker friend had met on Reddit. We extended an invitation to fellow hiker friends that time a nice couple we met in Pennsylvania opened their home to us along a very dry section of the trail. We scrubbed the freezer and the stove at a hut in New Hampshire for a free sleep on the floor and leftovers. We slept inside (and got kicked out of) a locker room at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. We met up with friends and family from home together, we cooked real food together, we napped in a slew of parking lots (and on rocks and in shelters), and we even convinced a high school kid to loan us his car so we could go get groceries. We’d argue, and cry, and laugh, and console one another. We’d talk about life and walk quietly for miles.
Even if we did often hike alone during the day (she being much faster than I), we still had a lot (too much?) of one-on-one time together, but we did occasionally mix it up by bouncing with a few different groups; receiving regular ‘trail magic’ (think meatball subs and walking tacos) from a church ministry, going into NYC with one group, eating wild mushrooms with another, and beach camping with an awesome group we didn’t meet until close to the end.
The things I learned from my hiking partner are numerous, but a few things stand out; “you don’t yet know everyone that will love you,” “you aren’t out here to fix or even find yourself; you’re out here to accept yourself,” and “don’t ruin today worrying about tomorrow.”
I’ll Never Forget
- Skinny dipping in the 100-Mile Wilderness,
- Crossing raging rivers with the Pyramid Squad,
- Cooking breakfast ‘trail magic’ for fellow hikers,
- Floating on my air mattress in a pond within the Presidential Range in New Hamphire,
- Mooning the train that services Mt. Washington,
- Catching the sunrise on Mt. Lafayette,
- Cowboy camping on Mt. Cube,
- Walking through torrential downpours turning the trails in Vermont into rapidly flowing streams,
- Hanging with the ‘Stanimals’ crew in Waynesboro, playing music, and reading Marcus Aurelius
- Attending a wedding at Wood’s Hole hostel,
- Receiving t-bone steak ‘trail magic’ in the parking lot off Roan Mountain,
- Getting mobbed by billy goats in Tennessee,
- Hitch-hike riding in the back of pickup trucks
A Special Thanks To
- My parents for taking care of all my affairs while I was away, and my Mother for coming out to visit in PA, sending care packages,
- My hiking partner for sticking in there with me, especially when it wasn’t going well,
- The group we went into NYC with, and the crews we hung out with in New Hampshire and Maine
- My friends and family for sending messages of love and support while I was out on trail, and taking my phone calls at random times,
- The many trail magicians taking their time and resources to meet hikers at crossroads to provide food and drinks and town rides,
- Ci-Ci’s Pizza in Gatlinburg, TN for giving me a crew-member t-shirt so I could wear something while I did laundry.
So What Now?
I’m back in Wichita for the time being, trying to re-assemble a life in society that reflects my newer outlook on life and living it. I haven’t walked more than a mile since my summit date and it’s resulted in some anxiety about losing the physical gains I made out on trail. I’ve reconnected with friends and family and, boy, do they make me feel special. The big task right now is getting back to work. You hiring?
Take care and thanks for tuning in,
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