The Single Thing I Wish I’d Known Before My Thru-Hike That Nobody Told Me

One evening, damp and full of anguish, I arrive at a shelter and basically fall apart. I can’t believe—I’m, like, refusing to accept—that there is no way out of this hell, no alternative to sleeping in the woods another cold, wet night (and another, and another). It’s so ludicrous it doesn’t compute. A cry is coming on, so I scoot behind the shelter and sob. Never have I so badly wanted to escape something and had zero out. I want to talk to my boyfriend back home, but as usual have no signal. I start climbing on soggy leaves, moving higher, hoping. Finally, a few circles fill in on my screen and I call. His voice is like a hug, but as soon as we start speaking the rain drops start up again. As cold as the whole day has been, it’s extra cold now in this higher, windier spot. Reluctantly I let him go and trudge downhill to the shelter, set up for the night.

After a negligible sleep and a chilly, finger-pruning morning, I set off. The hike starts with a steep climb: a thousand feet over one mile. Although the cardio kicks me some endorphins, I can’t stop thinking there must be some mistake with this weather. I’m in gloves and a wool hoodie in late May. The gloom and fog pierce my body and soul. I can’t sit down to take a journaling or reading break because every surface is wet. I can’t stop to eat because only moving stops me shivering. But at the top of the climb there’s a flat boulder, so I lay my rain skirt out and sit on it. I pull out my phone to check, as I always do on high ground, for signal. Hallelujah! Four full circles! I text my girlfriend Maria, who had a baby a few months before my hike started, ask her for the latest picture of her son, and tear into a protein bar.

One of the folks I sheltered with the night before, Sage, comes up the hill. He’s breathing hard but beaming. I ask how he’s doing.

“Great!” he says. “What a terrific morning!” I want to curse, but I restrict my expression to skepticism. His wife, Ladyslipper, is presumably a few moments behind him per usual. “Isn’t this great?” I glare out at the mist. Ladyslipper emerges from the fog looking wrecked and desperate. He tries her: “Wasn’t that a fantastic climb, MaryLou?”

Ladyslipper regards him while she catches her breath. “That climb felt like exactly what it was,” she says. Her tone, never anything but sweet and sincere, borders on snippy. “A thousand feet in one mile.”

My phone dings, and I mentally will Sage and Ladyslipper to move along. Ironic. Desperate for connection, I don’t connect right now with these humans—whom, present irritation notwithstanding, I like quite a lot. After a little more chitchat, they do shuffle off, and with relief I look at my phone. It’s a photo of Maria’s son, and his smile is a shower of sheer baby happiness. My heart floods; my despair dissolves.

An iPhone advertisement showed up on the back of the New Yorker a few years ago, when FaceTime was new. A woman lies in a hotel’s queen bed, a phone on the pillow beside her. Its screen frames a man, smiling and speaking. Intimacy is the obvious point. Thanks to technology, the ad promises, enduring time apart is tolerable. In the wet woods, 650 trail miles from home, I know this promise is true. I’m not hyperbolizing when I say this photo is the only thing that gets me through the next twelve grim, frigid miles.

Before I tried to hike the entire Appalachian Trail, I did my homework. I researched gear and bought the right equipment. I practiced throwing a line to hang a food bag out of bears’ reach. I dehydrated fruits and veggies and assembled wholesome instant oatmeal packs. I read memoirs. I devoured blogs. I day hiked. I shelter-slept on a 15-degree night. To protect my knees, I lost body weight. By cutting the handle off my toothbrush, I saved pack weight. All of this information and preparation was invaluable.

But I’d have traded any of it for one clean fact I learned on the trail: For anything approaching reliable signal coverage, you need Verizon. I had AT&T.

Before my hiatus from modern life, I relished the idea of digital disconnection. Like many of us, I blamed a fusillade of social-media fueled dopamine hits for clipping my attention span and cluttering my mind. When I did get away from my phone—for a run or a yoga session, for example—my calm was palpable. The peace only amplified during longer periods of disconnection, on ten-to-twelve-mile day hikes, for instance. Surely, months in the woods would yield a device-free nirvana. To conserve battery but still use the camera and GPS, I’d keep my phone on airplane mode. I’d check in with home only at night. I tried to imagine what sort of schemes and ideas this minimalism would lead to, and it seemed the sky would be the limit. I would come back from my adventure with an infinite attention span and a clear-eyed plan for the rest of my life.

These days, it’s popular and understandable to malign the digital device. Who, today, would admit to NOT trying to cut back on screen time? Of course, we have varying degrees of attachment to our mobile phones, tablets, and laptops. We spend a varied amount of time on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and we don’t all use social media the same way. Some of us, to elude boredom or procrastinate work, mostly scroll. Some of us mainly document and broadcast activities. Some build our brand—promote events, develop platform. And some, who have managed to internalize the maxim that technology is a great servant but a terrible master, restrict its use to connecting truly with others. They curate their newsfeeds carefully, cull their friends list regularly, interact with intention.

All of us though, are working uphill here. An article in the Atlantic recently described just how insidiously social media and other apps are designed to exploit the principles of behavioral psychology. “The attention economy, which showers profits on companies that seize our focus, has kicked off what calls a ‘race to the bottom of the brain stem.'” Because social media apps take advantage of a powerful reward system that gives us pleasure intermittently but unpredictably, it’s hard to fight the urge to check. You never know when you’ll get a goody, so you frequently feel, and sometimes fight, the impulse to find out.

Out on the trail, released necessarily from such tyranny, I do, of course, have hours of calm and peace—many, many sets of hours of calm and peace which can at least partly be attributed to my inability to check. I also do cook up some schemes, like moving into my parents’ basement on my return in order to help them downsize and eat more healthfully and in order to help me save money. On balance, though, I’ll admit that cutting the digital “cord” was among the harder challenges I’ve faced in life.

During one of the bleaker stretches of my journey, I posted blog entries describing my struggles, and some friends, full of good intention, suggested that being “less connected” might help. Their thinking, from what I could tell, was along the lines of what mine had been before I left. They probably believed that by using my device less to reach my off-trail world and life, I could more fully embrace and engage with my on-trail world and life. Isn’t the whole purpose of backpacking to connect with yourself, to go inward, to immerse yourself in the natural world? All totally true.

And all totally unavoidable. There’s no way you’re going to walk for weeks in the woods without disconnecting. You get hours and hours and hours of alone time every morning and afternoon—even people with Verizon turn their phones on airplane mode to conserve battery. “Try being less connected.” Are you out of your mind? Lonesomeness in the woods eclipses lonesomeness in any other circumstance I can imagine, save perhaps outer space. I turned my phone off airplane mode at the end of each day and waited, prayed for the dots to fill. Mostly, what I saw instead were the words No service. Never before or since have I felt such isolation and grief.

But what about meeting actual humans on the trail? Isn’t that better than burying your nose in a phone? Yes and no. Yes, you meet many people—many people who are genuinely wonderful. And you might fall in with a bubble and stay with these friends until the end. But no matter how tight a bond you form, they are still essentially new people, and if you don’t fall into a bubble (I didn’t), the people around you will be constantly shifting as you leapfrog each other up the path. To be sure, when signal paucity forces everyone into the present, magic happens. You get to know, at least a little bit, people you otherwise wouldn’t. Isn’t that worth the tradeoff? I don’t know. Maybe a 20-minute Google Hangout with my boyfriend would mean more. Maybe I’d rather spend 30 minutes scrolling Facebook, lightly touching the lives of a lot of people I love. There’s no danger of developing device addiction in the woods because, particularly with AT&T, T-Mobile, or (guffaw) Sprint, your access is achingly infrequent.

But, okay okay. Yes, there is one undeniable advantage to unplugging. Although I believe it doesn’t cause it, I know it contributes to a trail phenomenon I’ve not seen named anywhere but which is ubiquitous. This phenomenon is the fact that long-distance backpackers are mask free. The guard we erect in all public spaces (at least in metropolitan areas) simply doesn’t withstand trail time; you’re too close to the edge, too focused on survival, to have energy left over for designing or deploying a persona. You simply are yourself; there’s no other option.

In off-trail life, devices are part of our guard. At a Starbucks, on a crowded subway, in a conference room with a few other people waiting for a meeting to start, or especially in an elevator with only one other person, our devices save us the energy of engagement. They buffer. The pressure to start small talk disappears if you, with someone on the other end of your device, are having big talk. (Except, of course, most of the time you’re not; most of the time you’re simply scrolling, checking.) On the trail, free from signal, we lose one chink in our ordinary armor, and, yes, it forces us together.

Okay, but still: who are we kidding when we disparage digital connection? Beyond temporary fasts and breaks, who among us truly disconnects? Not many. And is that a problem? No. It’s for a valid, legitimate reason. Constant and instant access to our loved ones is nothing short of marvelous! We take it for granted; we’ve forgotten that it’s wondrous. In a sketch about air travel infelicities, Louis C.K. mocks whiners who tell flight “horror” stories of delays, of seats that recline insufficiently. “You’re FLYING!” he shouts. “It’s AMAZING! Everybody on every plane should just constantly be going, ‘OH MY GOD! WOW!’ You’re sitting in a chair. In the SKY.”

Everybody with a cell phone should constantly be going, “OH MY GOD! WOW!” You’re communicating with somebody miles away. They’re COMMUNICATING BACK. You guys, come on. It’s sorcery.

Addiction, distraction, fasts, and breaks notwithstanding, we rely on the reality that if we want or need to, we can, in an instant, reach out to and connect with just about anyone we know. When we cannot do that? Not because of a self-imposed media diet or a spurt of phone-free productivity, but because we do not have service, WiFi, or battery? Very. different. story.

I’m aware, of course, that just fifteen years ago it was a regular state of affairs for a lot of us a lot of the time. Just fifty years ago it was the norm anytime you left your town, and a hundred years ago it was life, period, for everyone. But as with so much else, it’s the contrast to our new norm that makes departure from it remarkable. It isn’t a regular state of affairs now for us to be out of communication longer than it takes to ride an elevator to your floor or park your car in the underground garage. Liabilities of such constant contact exist, to be sure. Nevertheless, we are used to it. Removing it is nothing short of deprivation. Extroversion, introversion, whatever: A fundamental need we all have is to connect with other people. And no matter how inferior you believe a technology-mediated connection is to a flesh-and-blood one, it’s still superior to isolation.

Now that I’m home, people ask me, “What was the hardest thing about the hi—” and “loneliness” blurts out of my mouth before they finish the question. I was lonely to the point of desperation, to the point of fear, to the point of crawling out of my skin, of weeping, of gnashing my teeth. Even after I linked up with my trail buddy, Sunshine, I still longed for that cell signal, that connection to home.

One night, she, another hiker, Shade, and I are the only ones at a shelter. They both have Verizon, and in the interminable hours between supper and sleep, they thumb their phones, occasionally look up to share with us something funny or poignant. I look at the empty circles on my phone’s signal indicator and tap the screen resignedly back into airplane mode. “Man, I wish I had Verizon.”

“Sorry!” Sunshine says, clicking her phone off and putting it away.

“No, no,” I say. “I didn’t mean that. Connect! You can, you should. I’m going to go read in my tent.” Sunshine makes a sympathetic face, and I say goodnight.

I got off the trail because of a stress fracture, but I was struggling with other aspects of thru-hiking, and it’s not at all clear to me how far I would have made it even on a bone that wasn’t broken. I often wonder now what would have happened if I had had a good signal.

 

 

 

 

 

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Comments 18

  • Avatar
    Mark Whitcombe : Jan 17th

    I fully agree, Notebook!
    I only did a 45 day thruhike of Ontario’s Bruce Trail. Wonderful, absolutely wonderful!
    I set off on my own, but unexpectedly met a fellow thruhiker (whom I’d already met online!) and we stayed together the rest of the trip. But I did miss my wife of 44 years and my two daughters & sons-in-law as well as friends. I had cellphone signal most of the way along the hike. And I used it quite frequently — to a very positive degree.
    I stayed in contact with my wife via text exchanges every day. I blogged along the way each night as a way of journaling and reflecting for myself, and as a way of reaching out to family and friends, many of whom were clearly vicariously walking with me. Several times along the way I had extended text conversations with family and friends. One series in particular was important in supporting — and being supported by — a daughter going through a tragic situation.
    Only several times did I regret being attached too much to my phone — and from those situations, I learned to pay more attention to my present experiences along the trail, and less time tapping on my small screen.
    Relationships are verbs — and my cellphone enabled me to be active in maintaining my web of love and friendship.
    Thanks for your post!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Notebook : Jan 17th

      Absolutely–you’ve put it beautifully, Mark. “Relationships are verbs” is particularly poignant. Pretty sure if I do another LASH I’ll get myself Verizon first so I can do that extended texting you’re talking about. And you’re right that the connection doesn’t help just the hiker–family needs to know you’re okay and to live it along with you. Thanks for your comment!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Darrell Barrett : Jan 18th

    I look forward to reading your posts so much! No one is as accurate and poientient as you in describing what it is like. After just the short time I hiked with you out of Hot Springs before I turned around, I knew that we viewed the trail in the same way with common expierences. Keep writing. Write a book! You are so gifted. I got back on the trail and hiked to Marion, VA where I hope to pick back up in April and complete Virginia this Spring before my wife and I walk/hike the West Highland Way in Scotland in June. Maybe I’ll see you again if you get back on. I hope so. Encourager (Darrell Barrett).

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Notebook : Jan 18th

      Thanks, Encourager! I would like to write a book for sure. I have a lot of essay drafts sort of similar to this one and am trying to figure out how to string them all together into one coherent whole.

      Glad to hear you got up to Marion and will be getting back on in the spring again. I am contemplating a LASH in mid-May, perhaps from Newport, VA to Harpers Ferry. Not sure though. I still don’t have Verizon, lol!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Jorge : Jan 18th

    Loved reading this post!
    Must say that I didn’t felt like that on my 15′ SOBO thru-hike, I didn’t have a phone SIM card until I got to PA; I guess you are probably more of a heavy user of social media and have far different social needs than me but it was interesting seeing your point of view.
    I actually went SOBO because it was going to be less crowded and I actually went almost a month without any other thru-hiker near me, that was the only time I felt like you and I basically spammed small talk with anyone that I crossed (it didn’t help that it was also my first time in the US).

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Notebook : Jan 19th

      Jorge, Yes, definitely we all use it differently. I met lots of folks like you who could handle the solitude much better than I. Always envied folks like you. There’s something romantic about the idea of stealth camping alone, for instance, but I was too chicken to do it. Afraid of loneliness, not bears!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Vince Piquet : Jan 19th

    Good luck on your upcoming LASH. Started SOBO last June and did not get far before injuring a tendon in my knee. Going back to Maine to continue on in June, this year. As far as the human contact issue you mentioned, that must be a personal decision. I guess the most important thing is being comfortable being by yourself and coming to the realization that Mother Nature is gonna do what she always does, On her terms. When she’s ready. I wish you well in your travels and bid you, Fair Winds, and Following Seas.
    Vince

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Notebook : Jan 19th

      Thank you Vince! It’s weird. I am comfortable by myself … but only for so long, lol. Best of luck to you!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    George : Jan 19th

    I do have Verizon and was usually able to get some sort of signal every day. I needed up doing Springer to Harpers Ferry. I downloaded podcasts and posted pictures on Facebook and Instagram. My 90 year old mom told that this “proof of life” kept her from worrying. My immediate family keeps a WhatsApp discussion going (my son lives in Berlin) whether I’m on the trail or not. I do think being able to find joy in the hard stuff helps you keep at it.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Notebook : Jan 19th

      I like it–“proof of life”!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Dave Michel aka Pitchit : Jan 19th

    Excellent post. Ironic, I started March 21, and don’t recall if we ran across each other, but sense that I “know” you via, well, econnections and social media. I had a stress fracture (found out later it was two) with 117 miles to go. Will finish in August. Get back out there! After switching to Verizon.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Notebook : Jan 19th

      Hahaha, yes, AFTER switching to Verizon indeed!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Sarah : Jan 19th

    You said something in your article that is actually one of my fears. Something that I couldn’t put into words, but you did. That you didn’t fit into a social bubble on the trail. I’ve been thinking about going SOBO just to avoid having to find out that answer. Also, your transparency is amazing. Thank you for writing this.

    Reply
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      Notebook : Jan 19th

      Thank you for the support! I think whether you fit into a social bubble or not would say nothing about who you are. People really are warm and accepting on the trail for the most part. Bubble-finding has to do most with PACE, to be honest. Good luck on your hike!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Karyn : Jan 20th

    I have missed reading your posts, Notebook. I’m glad you posted this.
    I hike alone (I actually spend most of my time alone) so I was wondering, considering the distance/time involved, IF I’d feel lonely.
    I appreciated the comment from Sarah about “bubbles” too and your clarification about “pace” being the reason for bubbles makes total sense. Anyone can get along great with another hiker but if they don’t have same pace or ‘schedule’ (early riser, etc.) they won’t be hiking together for long.

    I will look forward to reading more of your posts – as they come – I love your visceral honesty (as I’ve said before) about the ‘not-so-wonderful-things’ about thru-hiking.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Notebook : Jan 20th

      Thank you, Karyn! Really appreciate your taking the time to post this. It’s especially meaningful to me that you appreciate the honesty. I saw on the public Trek page yesterday that at least one commenter doesn’t appreciate it–called me a whiner. So this means a lot. Yeah–loneliness is real for some and not for others. There were TONS of folks out there who didn’t mind at all hiking alone all day and then stealth camping by themselves as well.

      Others (probably unwisely) changed their pace in order to stay with a bubble and avoid those hours of solitude …

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Walter Johnson : Jan 29th

    Great blog and great description of the loneliness.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Notebook : Apr 28th

      Thanks, Pop. 🙂

      Reply

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