What Woodworking Taught Me About Preparing for a Thru-Hike

So, I make things with wood. I cut through the grain and turn the wood so fast that it glides underneath my fingers. I’ve done it for fourteen years now so when I turn on my scroll saw, it’s like sailing with wood. But what I make doesn’t just materialize—there’s a process to it. Print the pattern, glue the pattern, drill the pattern, and then finally I’m ready to start cutting. These steps lead up to the challenge, time and time again, of not screwing it up and making sure the blade stays on the line and that I’m holding it down hard enough so that the wood doesn’t catch on the teeth and flap up and break. Looking at each pattern before I cut it, I think “how in the hell am I going to do this? Look at all the hard parts here and there and oh! can’t forget about that bit there.” Many patterns that I’ve chosen have even been scoffed at as I wave them about, face beaming: “there’s no way, it’s too fragile, it’ll break. Try a different one, try an easier one.” Maybe it’s stubbornness or maybe it’s pure determination, but each time I hear those words, I think: how? How can I prove this fear wrong?


Like I said, I’ve been doing this for fourteen years—since I was in middle school—so you’d think that after all these years, I’d stop worrying that it will break or snap or fall apart completely. That I could just pick up the wood, plop it down on the table and magic will unfurl itself before thine eyes. But, no. That never happens. Each time my nerves tingle and tighten and each time I think about all the ways it could go wrong and all the things I need to do to keep it from doing so. And that’s the magic right there. The fear focuses me. It prepares me for the precise intricacy of my cuts and fuels the steadiness in my hands and the fluidity in my movement. And then it’s done. Peel off the pattern and smile.


Now what does this have to do with hiking the Appalachian Trail? I mean, come on, this is woodworking we’re talking about, not mountains or boots or how to tell a friend I’m not taking a gun with me, or that yes I’ll be hitchhiking and that yes there are bears, no I won’t die, yes I’ll be hiking alone, yes it will be hard, yes it’s a long time, no I won’t give up. What can all of this have to do with me playing around on my scroll saw? Everything. Except maybe the actual woodworking bit (I hear there’s not a bunch of that along the trail, though some people do bring a chisel to pass the time, so there’s that).


But, seriously, everything. Everything about the time before, during, and after. As the months and weeks and days inch closer, that fear of failure is slowly changing from a linger to a presence always with me, even as I write these words on my laptop. It sits next to me, it goes to the store with me, it joins me at work, in the car, in the moments before I fall asleep. Let’s face it: I am afraid. I want to complete this thru-hike so hard that my biologically-bound body is sending me wave upon wave of fear. Thoughts like, I’m too weak, too out of shape, too unfit for lugging a forty pound bag, up and down mountains and across fourteen states. I just can’t do it.

atomic flower

But…but if I could…if I could then maybe I should find the right shoes, maybe I should try carrying my pack up and down the stairs, maybe I should go out and sleep alone in the woods and maybe I should hike until my feet ache and the rain doesn’t stop and my belly just wants to eat and eat and this is how the whole planning process happens in the first place. I hike, I read, I research. My gear list is made and my mind is made up. Print the pattern, glue the pattern, drill the pattern, and then finally, I’m ready to start my thru-hike. Each day of worry only brings me that much closer to achieving my goal. Because just like those seemingly impossible scroll saw pieces, this is something I know I can do.

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