What Did I Really Get Out of the Trail?
Inevitably, a long-distance hiker must choose between traveling light and not traveling at all
As NOBOs get to Neals Gap, many go through the process of having someone at the outfitters there shakedown their packs to lighten their loads. All of us walk around with a long list of things you think you need in your life to be happy. Let me tell you, if you live in woods for three and a half months, that list goes through a shakedown of its own. Every mile chisels on it, until all that’s left is what you really need. So what’s left? Family, friends, pizza, wild places and ice cream…
My wife was a rock star. We talked whenever I was in town. There were times when I painfully felt her absence. My being away from home was tough for her to handle too. At any time, she could have brought me home with a word or a tear, but she knew how long I had dreamed of this hike and that word was never spoken nor the tear shed. I met a dayhiker who told me that he had set out to thru hike the trail a few years ago. After hiking 1900 miles his wife asked him to come home and take a break. He went home and never finished. I couldn’t have done this hike without her strength and support. Maybe she would have caved if I was in the woods a few more months, but I think she’s made of stronger stuff.
I think it might be worthwhile to look at behaviors that clearly changed during my two extended section hikes this year.
I know in the spring, I probably used the word doubt in virtually all of my trail updates. At one point, I said, “Doubt stalks me like a pack of wolves.” I loved the line and still think there’s a poem hiding in the shadows around it somewhere. Doubting that I could physically do what I had set out to do has always been something I had to deal with on any extended hikes and the mental grind is a hundred times worse than the physical. Without checking I know I never used the word in any of my trail updates from the fall. I was always certain that I would get to Springer. I didn’t know how long it would take, but I was going to get there. While shockingly lying in bed eating oxicodeine like chiclets doesn’t do much for your trail legs, I have never felt more comfortable on the trail. The routine, the struggle and hardships were simply accepted like spices flavoring the experience. This acceptance sprouted in the spring, but blossomed into full flower this fall. I doubt I will ever be able to backpack for less than a month again. I think, at 65, it may take that long to regain this sense of total belonging that I’m feeling for life on the trail right now, but I know it’s there waiting for me to find whenever I take the time to look for it. I also know that I’ll have to go looking for it again. I have no choice, I’m hooked for life.
In the Spring, I started out with my Hennessy Hammock. I had had to replace my air mattress before I left and on the trail I found that the new one simply didn’t provide enough insulation to keep me warm. After a couple of chilly nights, I sent it home. I kept the rain fly to use in case I needed to be creative about shelter. I used the rain fly only once and cowboy camped a couple of times. I slept in shelters almost every night. After I got home, I bought a Big Agnes Fly Creek before I injured my shoulder. My son had planned to hike the Hundred Mile Wilderness with me and I figured a 2 man tent was the way to go. While my shoulder injury changed those plans, I did take this tent with me in the Fall. The first couple of weeks, I targeted a shelter as that day’s destination. I slept in that shelter and simply carried the tent for emergencies. There was one night near Wautuga Lake where I slept in the tent because I missed the trail to a hostel I planned to stay in that night, but other than that, I slept in shelters every night. As I approached Erwin, my routine changed. I would stop at a shelter sometime in the afternoon and eat, then pack up and walk until close to dark and set up the tent. I ended up really loving this routine. I was able to rack up another 2 to 4 miles each day setting up and taking down the tent got to be so routine that I could do both in less that five minutes. Sometimes I would target a camping site in Guthook’s AT guide, but if none was available I would just keep my eyes open. Not sure my son (who is 6’5″) and I would be able to comfortable fit in this tent, but it was perfect for me. I kept that routine until the Smokies although if I hit the shelter close to sunset, I would just go ahead and stay in it rather than bother with the tent. When I got to the Smokies all that changed. With a long distance permit, in the park you are required to sleep in shelters. If the shelter is full, you have to tent in designated spots nearby. If I got to a shelter in the afternoon, I didn’t really feel like I could head for the next one unless I was sure I could make it before dark. This usually meant knocking off early. While I loved the Smokies, I couldn’t wait to go back to my more productive routine. After the Smokies, I slept in my tent every night even if I was setting it up next to an empty shelter.
Shelters are centers of whatever social life you have on the trail. I was only walking about 12 miles a day. The southbounders were typically walking twice that much. For the most part, when I met a southbounder, we were going to talk once and that was it. While I found them a very likable group, I was walking with the fastest 50 or so. Tom, another section hiker and Sgt. Doppleganger, a thru hiker who tried to slow down to saver the experience around Roan Mt., were the only hikers I saw more than once. I’ll admit to envying the warmth of some of the trail families I met. AT Rigby and her crew…4.0, PJ and Splinter… Chicken Feet and Disco…I enjoyed my conversations, but I wasn’t fast enough for family. I could see what they had, but had to accept that it wasn’t mine. In a perfect world, I would have walked north with my trail sister, Dysfengshuianal with the legendary/infamous Otis joining us from time to time, but my injury put an end to that. You don’t always get to hike the hike you’ve planned. Sometimes you have to accept the hike you actually get. I learned to accept my limitations and to be comfortable with my solitude. The Transcendentalists had it right. Relationships taste sweeter amidst the solitude of wild places, but the quiet calm that envelops you in the midst of your loneliness is also a gift.
Trail shape is amazing. I lost 27 pounds on both my hikes this year. After injuring my shoulder in the May, I regained all the weight I lost on first hike by July or about two months. This is not all that surprising considering how much my injury limited my physical activity. Now back in the real world, I’m running for the first time in years. While I’m slower than Christmas, distance isn’t a problem. I’m more likely to get bored than tired. I’m swimming laps too. I found while rehabbing my shoulder that I liked it. Will this be enough to hold onto the level of fitness I found on the trail? Probably not, but the trail will always be a part of my life. I read about a legendary backpacker in this month’s Backpacker magazine, George “Billy Goat” Woodward, a 77 year old triple crowner who has walked the PCT nine times. He’s totally a geezer, but looking at his picture it looks like he’s received leg transplants from a 2o something millennial. I finally know what I want to be when I grow up!
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