Ups and Downs in the Mental Preparation

Ian and I just got back from a successful extended shakedown trip in Maryland. Both of us were more enthused than ever on our drive back to Massachusetts. I’ll provide some more detail on the trip later, going over our equipment and our experiences (all good).

First I wanted to touch on the mental preparation part. I had been working on my list of reasons for thru-hiking and was feeling pretty good about it, but hit a little snag yesterday. The last week has therefore included both a “High” and a “Low” in the emotional roller coaster. They were both little ones and I expect much larger ones are to follow. I think working through these will help me build the mental stamina that is just as necessary as the physical stamina for walking 2,186 miles.

The high point came just before halfway in our shakedown trip. Ian and I stopped for lunch at the Pine Knob Shelter on the AT just north of the I-70 crossing in Maryland. This is a rather modest, aging but well-kept shelter that was originally built back in 1939. It was pleasant, but not the most majestic or inspirational setting —  although the privy adjacent to the shelter was worth the visit in its own right. It had a freshly painted white interior, an Airwick air freshener, a full bottle of Purell, and even a mirror. While I have very little use for a mirror in a privy in the middle of the woods, I really appreciated the homey touch.

While eating lunch, I scanned the trail register. This is always interesting. And every now and then, you come across something that is really inspirational. Here is one of the notes left in the register at the end of November, 2014:

The last time I was here was July 1 this year. At that point I was 1042.5 miles into my thru-hike + had to get off trail for a stress fracture in my foot. I was off trail for 8 weeks and not sure if I’d finish my hike.  

Now almost 5 months later, I am here again after having walked back to this point from Maine.  This is my Katahdin. It doesn’t look like much, but damn if it doesn’t feel amazing/surreal/bittersweet to be here.

Peace and Love

— Hard Head

PS — Don’t give up on your dreams

Wow. I ended up taking a picture of this entry and several of the shelter. In a previous post, I had written about wanting to visit the “storied places” on the AT. Here I was at one of them, and the “story” was freshly made – less than a month old. I fully intend to re-visit Pine Knob Shelter when Ian and I are on our SOBO trip.  And…  I’m going to remember the sentiment behind this entry.

It caused me to reflect on the fact that often we can place more weight on the venue than on the event. Katahdin is truly a majestic place and a wonderful setting to complete an adventure like thru-hiking the AT. But we have to remember that the “majesty” of that setting belongs to the setting itself. It’s separate from the “majesty” of the achievement — that’s something that we bring to the party. In fact, we can bring a a good amount of “majesty” to an otherwise modest setting by striving for and achieving our goals. Pine Knob Shelter now has a level of significance to me that far exceeds the setting, all because of Hard Head’s story.

This brings me to the low point. The day after we got back to Massachusetts, I was catching up on my email, etc. and started reading a post on the ALDHA Facebook page entitled “Is there such a thing as a “purist” any more?” The thread contained over 240 comments with much heat, a little light, and large doses of pettiness. There was significant argument over whether you really achieved a thru-hike if you: blue-blazed; yellow-blazed; stayed in a hostel; slack-packed; flip-flopped; hiked in more than one direction (slack packing) or even in any direction but north; slept in shelters vs. a tent; and – believe it or not – took showers before you finished.

What was particularly depressing were the comments by some of the people who I am learning are some of the “big names” in the AT community grousing that the “cheaters” (those guilty of committing one or more of the potential “sins” listed above) who then got the designation as a 2000-milers somehow “cheapened” the designation of other thru-hikers and somehow lessened the accomplishment of the “purist”. In short, these “cheaters” didn’t “earn the trophy”. I began to feel I was following a religious argument – sort of like Presbyterians arguing that Methodists shouldn’t be allowed into heaven – and then thought about the fact that throughout history, various persecutions, killings, and even wars have been fought over such things as trivial as this.

I allowed myself to get sucked in to this and it put me in a bad place. I went to bed last night not sure I wanted to associate with a community that got caught up in these kinds of discussions.

I woke up this morning realizing that the difference between these two experiences was the focus in internal vs external. In the first case, the focus was on the internal victory, the sense of accomplishment that had little to do with the setting or with recognition  — “This is my Katahdin”. The second was more focused on external recognition. It was a “Type A” competitive need to be recognized as “the best of the best” and that others who maybe didn’t work as hard didn’t “deserve” the same external recognition. Having a little of the “Type A” tendency myself is why I probably got caught up in the mood of the comments and got depressed about the experience. What the commenters in this thread seem to have missed is that outside this little community, the vast majority of the 350 million people living in this country don’t know anything about thru-hikers and could care less about recognition. And if they do learn about it, I expect most would feel we need psychological counseling rather than accolades or a trophy. (You thru-hiked the AT seven times? What’s wrong with you?)

I realized that the only thing that really matters is the internal perspective. That’s what needs the focus. It’s finding that “amazing/surreal/bittersweet” feeling of personal accomplishment and cherishing it. Sometimes we can lose sight of that.

So I’m going to make a New Year’s resolution to try an focus on the internal vs the external, to look for that “amazing/surreal/bittersweet” feeling regardless of the setting, to revel in and be happy for others who have found it, and to avoid getting caught up in the arguments of who deserves external recognition and who doesn’t. It won’t be easy for me to keep all my “Type A” tendencies in check, but I’m going to try.

I want to thank Hard Head for that register entry as Ian and I prepare to set out and find “our Katahdin”. I will make a point of revisiting the Pine Knob Shelter (and the privy!) on our way south next year. Most importantly, I will try to keep that simple piece of advice in front of me throughout my hike:

Don’t give up on your dreams


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