What Surprised You? Wanting to Quit

“The trail is full of surprises.” You’ll hear that almost as often as “the trail provides.” A common example which combines the two is good old trail magic. You see a cooler at a road crossing and for once it isn’t empty. There’s a guy with a box of bananas. Here, have this juice box and a bible verse. But trail magic isn’t really a surprise if you think about it. Sure, it is when it happens, but they told you before you started that it would be there and you looked forward to it. When a group of weekenders at the shelter gives you their extra steak you immediately recognize it as that magic you heard so much about.

A real surprise comes out of nowhere. It’s something so improbable that you didn’t even bother to think, “This will never happen to me.” When faced with actual surprise, you momentarily lose the ability to function because your mind has no prior frame of reference. This is how I felt the first time I really and truly wanted to quit. Even more confounding was the time and place that it happened.

Green Giant needs a nap.

Green Giant needs a nap.

I believe in a clear distinction between stopping and quitting. I think it’s obvious that if you break an ankle or fall off a cliff and into a beehive that you stopped hiking because you had to, not because you wanted to. Some people will ignore physical pain and continue until the body gives up. These people are not quitters. Arguably, some of them should be. If you take inventory, realize that the bad outweighs the good and leave the trail, you have quit. And really it’s a shame that the word itself carries the negative connotation that it does, because it’s often the smartest decision. Only a fool would relentlessly pursue an activity he doesn’t enjoy. It’s precisely the same reasoning that makes so many of us try in the first place.

I had to stop for medical reasons twice, one time for foot problems, and again when I got Lyme disease. In both cases, I was ecstatic because there was a treatment. Take these pills and wait a bit. Then I could go do the thing that I loved again. I was one of those guys who said things like, “I’ll walk my feet off. I’ll drag my bloody stumps up Katahdin by my fingernails if I have to.” You know. That guy.

The concept of quitting was one of those things that seemed so improbable that there wasn’t even a shelf for it in my brain. I threw that idea out a long time ago. At least I thought I did. It had been lurking in the bushes, and the concept of quitting finally walked up the front steps and kicked in the front door in southern Maine of all places.

My small group had recently caught up with a large group. We were at the shelter just before Mahoosuc Notch. We had only gone six miles that day and all of us felt dejected. All summer we had grown accustomed to waking up each morning, setting a goal and either achieving it or breaking it. This established a cycle of continuous confidence building. Despite being warned, we were all caught off guard the first time we fell short: you guessed it, in the Whites. You go very quickly from patting yourself on the back to, “I’m doing eighteen today.” Nope. Seven. “I’m doing seven today!” Nope. Zero. That’s very hard to accept and it wore down our spirits. This was offset by magnificent beauty all around us, but that beauty was fighting us every step of the way.

Rock Wall

That night in the shelter was also the beginning of a unexpected cold snap. Mainers call temperatures below freezing “a bit chilly,” but when you have a summer tent and a summer bag because your cold weather stuff is at the next post office, you call this a shivering nightmare. None of us slept, and in the morning too many of us huddled around a dismal fire. This was when I finally thought, “Eff this. I’m done.” I wasn’t the only one.

“Well, I told everyone I was walking to Maine,” one hiker said. “If I went home now, technically I’d still be right, right? Guys?” He was only half joking, and over the next few days people actually did drop out. We were all running out of money. One close friend hitched to Baxter the next day, climbed Katahdin and went home. When I heard the news it was, well, like losing a friend. “I’ll probably never see him again,” I thought. These kinds of thoughts, plus the weather, plus the difficulty of the terrain all sucked the wind right out of our sails, and what should have been a fun breakfast around the fire turned into a big ole pity party.

“Whatever I decide, I can’t stay here,” I thought. North was the only way to go, homeward or onward, so north I went. While I was climbing down into the notch, I realized that I had stopped thinking about my bed and my hot shower. The work of scrambling down these rocks had warmed me from the inside. As long as I was moving, I didn’t want to quit. Not even close.

Way back at the beginning, only ten days into my hike, I had my first of many “wet tent in the rain” mornings. I recalled that morning as I walked and how it had reminded me of Marine boot camp in a way. There had been an expectation to do things “whether you want to or not.” I always preferred to add to that, “If you have to do something, you might as well try to enjoy it.” These kinds of thoughts put the wind right back into my sails, and as I walked I thought about how closely mood is tied to movement. Sometimes you have to warm yourself from within. For me, movement is the solution. As long as I’m approaching a horizon, I’m improving my situation. What gets you out of your funk, I can’t say. Only you can.

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Comments 2

  • Put Put : Mar 9th

    Funny vid. Fake it until you make it.

  • Trillium : Mar 12th

    Thank you! This REALLY spoke true to me. And that dreaded sound… rain on the tent in the AM… it brings a groan to every hikers lips!


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