Before I started this hike, I knew there would be tough times. I knew I’d be “finding my edges” and “stretching” and “going outside my comfort zone.” That was a big part of the point, after all. When I made my list of reasons to thru-hike, transformation was among them, and as a wise man once told me, transformation does not tolerate mediocrity. I have to be better than mediocre to transform.
If mediocrity is staying inside your comfort zone (or being, frankly, comfortable whatsoever), then aside from town days, I’m certainly not being mediocre. (Actually, even town days are a stretch for someone as used to comfort as I … hostels have infelicities such as people smoking and dogs barking and coffee makers needing jerry-rigging to work and dirty floors and hair in the shower drain. But they have their luxuries as well, such as flat surfaces to set coffee cups on, walls to lean back on while journaling, and running water.)
So yin and yang, right? As humans interested in transformation or peak experiences, we put ourselves intentionally in discomfort’s way precisely because we know it is through this kind of deprivation and denial that we can begin to “re-see” and re-appreciate simple things like chairs and tables and sheets and showers.
Why? And is this contrast and intensity the only way to gain such appreciation?
When I planned this trip, a huge part of my reasoning and seeking was related to the peace and stillness that hiking has always brought me, the freedom from the chatter of my mind. But after two weeks out here and hiking being my new normal, that peace doesn’t come anymore. Sure, I can bring mindfulness and attention to moments, and walking beats the hell out of making PowerPoints, but it didn’t take long for my ego to realize this was my new reality and for the chatter and rumination to start up again.
It doesn’t help that I injured my foot. In fact that hurts a whole hell of a lot.
Yeah. A few days ago, I was so excited to encounter a friend I hadn’t seen in a while that I picked up my pace significantly in a barely conscious effort to match his. On top of that, it was my longest day, 13 miles, after previously having mainly done sub-10-mile days. On top of that, the morning took us over two big mountains. On top of that, I wasn’t eating enough because I was afraid of running out of food because I haven’t yet figured out how to correctly resupply. On top of that, it was hot, and since the leaves haven’t come out yet, there’s no escape from the unrelenting sun. On top of that, the water source I chose to use, which the guide said was 0.1 miles off trail, was in fact closer to 0.5 miles off trail, straight vertical. My knees where hot and swollen and my feet hurt and I hadn’t yet sent home a bunch of superfluous weight and the number of F-bombs I dropped on seeing yet more incline all afternoon was significant.
I knew that the last little bit of trail into camp would be downhill, and so when I started that last descent I pulled out Guthook to see just how far I had to go. 0.2 miles. Reader, I wept; it was so close. I couldn’t believe the day was almost over, couldn’t believe I had made it. I limped into camp and saw Montecristo, and just cried and cried. He saw me and came over, and I asked for a hug, and sobbed.
“That was so hard,” I said. I said it over and over. Within 10 minutes though, with my tent set up and my tears dried, I felt really fine, really happy. It just felt so amazing to not be walking.
Since then, though, despite two neros and a night in a hotel, the foot hasn’t stopped hurting, and I’ve been doing big-(for me)-mile days: 12.5, 11.3.
The injury means I’m painfully, excruciatingly slow, which makes 12 miles take 8 or 9 hours to hike, which leaves no time for restorative lunch breaks with my feet up or long morning journaling sessions–two things that I really had been feeling I needed and enjoyed.
So why do the big-mile days? They were in my plan, and seemed super reasonable in my pre-out-here understanding of what my capabilities would be and how soon I’d get my hiker legs. But more importantly, I felt I only had enough food for three days and therefore had no choice to push it to get to Franklin.
Saturday I started listening to Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now, and when I got to the part where he talks about the mind’s control over us, and thought’s power to make us miserable, and it was the late afternoon and I still had miles to camp and my foot was throbbing and I had to step sooooo carefully down wet, steep roots and rocks, again I started weeping. “This is just so hard,” I kept saying. “Why is this so hard?”
I knew the answer–it was hard because I was wanting to be in camp, or in a town, not walking, not carrying 30 pounds, not hurting. And because I couldn’t get my brain to shut the f**k up.
Turning off the audio book, I stood mid-trail and let myself cry and cry, periodically sneaking glances behind me so I could sniffle it up if someone came along, but no one did.
I walked on a bit and tried practicing presence. Just stayed with the stepping, with breath, with the sight of unfurling green leaves on scrawny branches, the brilliance of the blue sky, the scent of mountain air. Peace came in glimpses when I could forget how many miles I had until camp.
A short side trail appeared to my right and I glanced up it–it went to a view and, although my MO had mostly been to skip these in the interest in ending my misery sooner, I took the trail to a breathtaking vista where two men were already enjoying the view.
“Pull up a rock,” one said. I unlatched my pack and sat next to him, just drank in the view. We sat in a silence a while.
We started chatting–they were Mike and Bruce–Mike with a white goatee and Bruce with a white bushy beard–and it turned out they had thru-hiked in 1980. I didn’t know it yet, and maybe they didn’t either, but they were trail angels.
Later in the day I finally arrived at Betty Creek Gap to camp but found a No Camping sign (NC sets certain areas off limits periodically to allow restoration). The next shelter was 5 miles away–on the other side of the epically steep Albert Mountain, and there was just no way. I sat down on a log and felt tears close to rising again.
Mike and Bruce were there already scoping it out, though, and 100 yards down a blue blaze, Mike found a little collection of tent pads next to a bubbling brook.
On the way there I carried my hiking shoes in one hand and my poles in the other and limped so pitifully that Bruce came up behind me and said, “Here, give me your shoes,” and wordlessly I did.
“Notebook, you pick first,” Mike said. “This looks like the best one–you take this one.”
“Okay, thank you,” I said, and I dropped my pack. Bruce set down my shoes and he and Mike went to pick their sites. Again I wept, only this time in gratitude for the kindness of strangers.
They didn’t stop there. At supper we sat together on a log and cooked our food, shared more stories. They informed me I didn’t have to go as far as Winding Stair Gap to get to Franklin, that I could get there at Rock Gap, which was 3 miles sooner, which moved Franklin from day after tomorrow to tomorrow, which was the best news I’d heard in days.
Then they said they had a car and could come get me at Rock Gap (I didn’t think I’d make it there by the time the last shuttle came, 3:45). Then they said they wanted to go to Shoney’s, did I want to go to Shoney’s?
“Hell, yes, I want to go to Shoney’s!”
And so we did all that, and now I’m taking my much-needed zero in Franklin, luxuriating in not walking, in being clean, in wearing clean clothes, in typing, in having had a giant omelette for breakfast, in contemplating what real food to have for lunch, and in planning a resupply trip to the grocery store and a visit to a foot doctor.
Depending what he or she says, I might wind up taking more than one zero. I’m okay with that. This is a cool town.
And when I do get back on trail, I’m not hurrying up for ANY reason, and I’m backing way off of mileage. It’s not that this is supposed to be fun (as Jennifer Pharr Davis put it, it’s “better than fun”), and I know transformation requires stretching, but if my next 2,000 miles are anything like the last 50 have been, there’s no way I’ll make it to Maine.
Will I make it even if I do back off miles? Maybe not; statistically, probably not.
Do I have any answers yet to the deprivation, comfort-zone transcending, yin-yang, peak experience motivation questions? No.
Now I’m just deciding to trust that taking one day at a time will get me to some resolution somehow. The trail’s taught me some stuff but not yet nearly enough–I want to learn more, as trying as the learning curve is.
Some part of me believes Mike when he says this is the toughest part, that it will get better, that it’s worth it to stick it out.
So I am.
And, since this post has been weighted toward gloom despite the sprinkled successes and milestones I’ve also had, I will soon post something more positive.
Plus I have fun pictures to share :).
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.