More Questions Than Answers These Days
As Bill Bryson puts it in A Walk in the Woods, one of the central features of hiking the AT is deprivation. Bryson was 44 when he hiked the AT. He had a career already, a wife and kids. He had a nice house, a Volvo. In other words, deprivation was many more comfort steps down from his usual life than it probably was for the “typical” thru-hiker, a young man who might be doing a gap year before college, or might be sowing oats after college, who might have left a coffee shop or kitchen or factory or farm job. Whose usual life, essentially, isn’t particularly comfortable, whose usual life might involve demanding physical labor, roommates who leave sinks full of dirty dishes, bathrooms that get cleaned irregularly and imperfectly at best.
Of course many thru-hikers defy such generalizations, but for the purposes of this article, let’s pretend most, or at least many, thru-hikers do fit the mold. I’ve met many of these guys on the trail, and with few exceptions, they are having the time of their life. They are certain they will make it to Maine. If they are forced off trail for a week by an injury, their eagerness to get back on trail radiates off them like a puppy’s desire to tumble into a pile of its bothers and sisters.
It will surprise no one who knows me at all that I have more in common with Bryson than I do with the typical thru-hiker: the athletes who crush 20-plus-mile days before 3 p.m., who night hike, who polish off Ben & Jerry’s pints after whole pizzas, after six-packs of beer each.
I’m not saying I’m a slouch out here in the mileage or calorie-consumption departments, but my biggest days so far are 16s and and 17s, and so far the largest pizza percentage I’ve managed is a half–of a DiGiorno.
I know the typical thru-hiker appreciates a town day, but my guess is that they don’t see the AT’s defining attribute as dearth.
I do. I’m not having the time of my life. My overriding answer to “how’s the trail going” probably will never be “I’m enjoying it,” the way that is the answer for a typical thru-hiker. I’m not making plans to one day hike the PCT or the CDT. At this point, I’m loosely working on my Plan B of hiking home instead of hiking to Maine, i.e. hiking about half the AT. So at this point, I’m not only not a typical thru-hiker, I’m not a thru-hiker at all.
For hikers like Bryson and me and all the others of us who left posh, comfortable lives, I imagine on some level the whole point of this is perspective. As my friend Sage, retired Airstream-driving half of the Sage-and-Ladyslipper 60-something hiking couple, put it in a DeNiro-inflected tone, “It’s my penance” (for what sins, he didn’t specify). Hikers like Sage and me are out here maybe hoping for a prodigal return; we’re out here knowing that sometimes you need to lose things to appreciate them.
For hikers us, this endeavor is mostly one thing: unreasonable. It’s unreasonable to walk for eight hours; it’s unreasonable to walk eight hours in rain, in wet, squishy shoes through 6-inch deep mud, up steep inclines carrying 35-pound packs, with the constant buzz of gnats in our ears and eyes, over and on top of slippery roots and rocks.
And it’s unreasonable that as many times as I’ve answered my own question, why am I doing this, I continue to ask it of myself and to look for a good or better answer. Because when you are in the woods for three days, all of them long and/or difficult and cold and/or hot and/or rainy and/or humid and/or buggy, you find that you can’t gain any perspective whatsoever to answer this question. You simply progress. You get to the next snack spot. You get to the next shelter for lunch. You get to the next place with enough cover to pee. You get to the next water source. You get to the next campsite. You get through camp chores, you get through dinner, you get through hanging your food bag and blowing up your air mattress and changing into dry clothes and then you read a little bit and fall asleep until you start it all over the next day.
I don’t mean to say it’s ALL drudgery; there are moments of breathtaking beauty. There are tears of joy, there’s the victory of charging up a hill and not growing weary, walking and not being faint (thanks for that one, Pop).
But as the body exhausts, so does the mind and spirit. They really are all three inseparable, and as much time as you have alone out there on the path, time you assumed you’d be thinking and calculating and plotting and solving and dreaming and deciding important things about your post-hike life, in fact your thoughts narrow down to the present moment and the next break.
And I realize there’s tremendous beauty in that kind of immediacy of thought; I really do. It’s a kind of near-enlightenment, how the trail nails you to the present moment. Not that you never ruminate, not that the rare, level stretch of terrain doesn’t permit your thoughts to drift into monkey-mind chatter, but for the vast majority of the time my legs are stepping, my demons are quiet.
And of course it’s working, the whole deprivation-as-strategy approach to changing your perspective and attitude. I’ve never more appreciated level surfaces, for example. It pleases me deeply to be able to do something as simple as set down a cup of coffee and know it will stay put.
My enduring question though is whether this shift will persist. Or, like with my newly lean and muscular frame, will it soften over time? Is this the kind of “peak experience” that will forever alter me or is it just a blip?
Of course I’ll get used to again controlling my microclimate, having clean water whenever and wherever I want it, and using exclusively toilets for my elimination needs. But will I permanently better appreciate having instant access via reliable wifi, signal, or physical proximity to my loved ones? Or enough solitude, a chair, and a table in order to write more than a few delirious lines in my journal, sitting on my air mattress, bent over in my tent?
Another thought that occurs to me frequently is the role of contrast on this journey. It’s been kind of a pebble in my shoe that so many people suggested after my “I’m about to quit” post that I should not go in and out of indulgence and deprivation; that I should stay in the “hiker mindset.” In the same way it’s precisely being out there that renders a Subway sandwich into a gourmet meal, it’s a day in town, a good night’s sleep, a shower, clean laundry, and several hours of writing with a clear head that make trailside fluttering leaves and slanting filtered sunlight bring me to tears. Because after three or four days in the woods, I don’t care how beautiful the view from the summit, my mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion blocks that beauty from reaching me. I need the break from it to appreciate it. The yin and yang need both directions.
Another question that nudges at me is whether my time out here is mellowing or toughening me up, basically having any impact at all. And whether I’m any closer to knowing what I “want to do when I grow up.”
Perhaps it’s a measure of how “me” I still am that I even need to know. My boyfriend and cousin both say I feel different to them, and I could come up with some anecdotes about ways I’ve interacted with people lately that depart from my old ways of interacting, but who knows, again, if these alterations are permanent.
I am learning some things. I’m learning to let things be what they are, let days and weeks and miles unfold as they will. I’m learning to spend more time with people and less time on maximizing productivity. Let people be who they are, understand and give them room to have their own struggles and reasons for needing what they need from me, like patience and flexibility.
And for now that will have to be enough. It might get me home, it might get me to Maine, or it might just get me another 100 miles down the trail.
I’m good with that.
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