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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