The Tao of the Trail 2: Become Small
The Tao Te Ching is an ancient Chinese text, allegedly written by the sage Lao Tzu, around the 6th century B.C. It is comprised of short passages of philosophy which make up the central tenets of Taoism. Its wisdom remains applicable two thousand years later, in varied contexts, including thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, and processing the emotion and change that come with the experience.
Two thousand two hundred miles is a lot of miles. When I announced my intention to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, the first question on most people’s lips was “How long is it?”
“A little over two thousand miles,” I would reply cheerfully.
“Oh, okay,” they would invariably say, vaguely accepting the number and moving on to the next question without missing a beat. The reason, I think, that furnishing this number did not produce that many dopey stares or polite suggestions to get my head examined is that in this day and age, we simply have no frame of reference for such a number. Walk two thousand miles? How do you begin to even wrap your head around that feat?
According to The New York Times, Americans log an average of 5,117 steps per day, or approximately two miles1. In order to complete the Appalachian Trail in the typical six months, a thru-hiker will be logging in the neighborhood of twelve times that amount. My average — once I got my trail legs for real — for Virginia through Pennsylvania — was about 24 miles, or 60,000 steps a day. Even now, from the comfort of my chair, I cannot comprehend the idea of taking 60,000 steps in 24 hours. It is worth noting that the Hadza people, a group of modern hunter-gatherers in Tanzania, and our best way of speculating about prehistoric hunter-gatherers, only walk an average of 9 to 11 miles a day2. Thru hikers are likely walking, every day, twice as far as any of their ancestors did, and for what?
I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail for many reasons. For one, I was looking for something, but I wasn’t quite sure what. I have a suspicion that a large share of thru-hikers would agree with the sentiment. So, why exactly do we take such a monumental task upon ourselves? How does one begin to ask his or her body to do something that it was designed — but not conditioned — to do? Well, like most challenges you will face on the trail, it’s mostly in your head. And also like most challenges on the trail, the Tao Te Ching has some good advice:
Act without doing;
Work without effort.
Think of the small as large
and the few as many.
Confront the difficult
While it is still easy;
accomplish the great task
by a series of small acts.
The Master never reaches for the great;
thus he achieves greatness.
When he runs into a difficulty,
He stops and gives himself to it.
He doesn’t cling to his own comfort;
thus problems are no problem for him.
Tao Te Ching, 63
Think of the small as large, and the few as many
I’ve said before that the best gift granted to me by a summer in The Long Green Tunnel — a summer of strides and stumbles and stories, trials and tribulations and triumph — was a new and refreshed sense of perspective. This was a gift accrued piece by piece, each day, absorbed through the soles of my boots with each step I took. Two thousand two hundred miles has a way of throwing much into sharp relief, of giving new meaning to the small, of defining the object of my personal search on the A.T.: to become small. In a world so interconnected, whose technology enables us to reach the other side of the globe at an hour of the day, to hop across oceans in the time it takes to watch a feature film, when was the last time you felt dwarfed and humbled by it all? I have that feeling once in a while — as we all do — but looking back on my thru hike, I realize that during my hike I had it every day. “Feeling small within the vastness,” contends Author Alain de Botton, “is the core of religious experience.
“Why is a cathedral impressive?” he asks. “Is it God? No, it’s architecture. Yes, it was inspired by God, but ultimately it’s an architectural phenomenon where if you are very small in a vast space, that is both slightly frightening and also very uplifting. We all get this beneath the evening sky. You go out on a clear summer’s night under the clear evening sky, and suddenly you are paralleled with something so vast that your own smallness is seen not as a crushing and humiliating thing, but as a redemptive thing3.”
That feeling, if you let it, will be a constant friend to you on any hike in the mountains, long or short. “I want to remember,” I wrote in my journal after climbing Mount Washington on my thru-hike, “looking across the southern Presidentials, tracing our route with my mind’s eye from Mizpah Hut all the way to the cloud-shrouded summit of Washington. I want to remember those same clouds gradually dissipating, and the spires of the observatory revealing themselves. I want to remember climbing into the alpine zone as the first rays of the day’s sun broke through, illuminating a lone hiker, standing ahead on the path, on what seemed like the edge of the world, with what seemed like an eternity of space beside him. I want to remember that crystal clear sense of place in the universe that one gets standing on a mountain ridge: you are a dot, an insignificant speck, but you are a speck above all specks, a speck as close to the secrets of the world as you will ever be, a speck standing on the edge of eternity. At no other time do I feel so diminished yet so enlarged, so aggrandized yet so humbled. This is why I climb mountains. I can think of no better reason.”
Hiking the Appalachian Trail helped me to find my place, in a sense. Helped me to relate to the world around, and to understand how I fit into it. Gazing across the White Mountains and looking at each peak and valley we had to walk in only the time between sunup and sundown, I was baffled at just how insurmountable the distance seemed. No human being can make it all the way over to that mountain before nightfall, says a human’s doubting, constantly nagging brain. At yet, any human being can, and many human beings do, and so learn just how small — and how big — they really are. Multiply the yawning gulf of space across which a hiker has to traverse each day, and the brain’s uncomprehending reaction to it, multiply that by six months of hiking, and those 60,000 steps will become 5,000,000 steps more quickly than you realize, the small will become large, and the few will become many.
On the flanks of Mount Washington, in the forests of Virginia, among the vast fields of Pennsylvania, I became small, and I cherished it, just as I do every time I sit on my back in the grass and gaze into a star-dappled evening sky. There have been no better companions than the mountains in my continuing efforts to remain small.
Accomplish the great task by a series of small acts
Look at a map of the Appalachian Trail. Two thousand two hundred miles, fourteen states to walk through, 262 shelters to sleep in, 515,000 feet to climb up and down, and over 165,000 white blazes to stroll past. Frankly, those numbers defy my comprehension. The only way to wrap your head around what’s necessary to complete a thru-hike is to break it up, to make it manageable. You will be tempted on many occasions to flip ahead in your guidebook, asking yourself when the mountains flatten out, or how many more 4000+ foot climbs remain between you and Katahdin. This is inadvisable. You are cashing in the now in favor of an indeterminate point in the future, and you are viewing the trail as an enormous monster, a 2000 mile long serpent who can only be defeated once you walk all the way up to its head and chop it off.
To this day, I still have trouble wrapping my head around the idea of my Appalachian Trail thru-hike into a single vacation, or a single summer, or a single unit of measurement of any kind. I met so many people and walked through so many divisions, both obvious and arbitrary, that I’ve come to realize that what makes the Trial special is not the six month slog, but the minutes of joy that make up the days, the days of hardship and accomplishment that make up the months, the parts that make up the whole.
It is human nature to ignore the present for the future, but I urge you prospective thru-hikers to avoid that attitude. Get yourself to that shelter before nightfall, and give yourself a pat on the back. Cross your first state line and snap a photo. Reach the halfway point and give your companions a high-five. Hell, drink a dozen beers and make it onto the trail by 8 the next morning. View the trail as a series of hikes, a series of daily adventures, each one with the potential to be better than the last. Allow yourself accomplishments wherever you can find them, and remember that each state you pass through is a chapter in a book that is the whole Trail, and once you reach the end you will never again be able to read that book with fresh eyes.
Give yourself to difficulty
Hiking the Appalachian Trail — any long distance trail — is hard. Very hard. It is mentally punishing and physically demanding, it pushes you right up to the edge of what your mind and spirit and body can take. There will be lows, and plenty of them. There will be six straight days of rain, your gear will break, your knees will ache, and that restaurant you’ve been looking forward to for a week will be closed when you arrive in town. Difficulties will be present in spades, but they will harden you to the work, and soften you to the world, if you let them.
When I recall my worst day on the trail now, I do so with fondness and laughter. When I remember the state of my feet in the Smokies, after five days of damp cold in my boots and in my clothes and in my soul, I remember the grit and determination evident in my fellow hikers, and my desire — my need — to be just as determined. When I think back on the 8 degree day in the hills of North Carolina, shivering in my hammock, desperate for warmth, chiding myself for not bringing more layers, and hoping that I would wake up with the full use of my fingers and toes, it is not the misery of the cold that brings me back to that place. Instead, it is the geniality of the hikers in the shelter nearby, the roaring fire, the malodorous tang of drying socks, and the laughter of my fellow sufferers; the laughter that says we’re all in this together, so we might as well make the most of it.
If not for the biting cold and bitter wind that night at Jerry Cabin Shelter, the sunshine of the following day would have meant nothing. Instead, it meant everything. By noon, the clouds cleared, the sun shone, the snow melted, and it was a balmy 80 degrees at the road crossing below. As people extricated themselves from their sleeping bags which they thought might be their tombs, we gazed at and past each other with the goggle-eyed stare of one who has survived a true difficulty and come out the other side better for it. Just as smallness in a vast space gives you that feeling, so too does just a modicum of comfort — the sun in the sky, a nice log to sit on, a granola bar from a day hiker — in an uncomfortable place. It’s a little reminder of what it means to be human in the wild, a place that can be harsh and unforgiving just as easily as it can be benevolent and welcoming.
Everett Ruess, a young wilderness adventurer of the Southwest in the 1930s, put it best when he said: “the low spots are fearfully low, but I have learned that they do not last, and a few glorious moments make me forget them completely4.” Any thru-hike has two basic ingredients: misery and rapture. If you approach your hike with the right attitude, it can be a summer of rapture punctuated by occasional bouts of misery, instead of the obviously less appealing alternative.
Like many benefits given to us by trail life, becoming small is one that we don’t even know we are accruing, one that we didn’t even know we wanted. If we’re aware of our size, though, on the map, in the lives of your fellow hikers, and in the cosmos, we can derive even more benefit from our wilderness experience. So I urge you on the Trail to become small, and feel big.
1. The Pedometer Test: Americans Take Fewer Steps
2. Energy Expenditure and Activity Among Hadza Hunter-Gatherers
3. Alain de Botton: What Can Atheism Learn from Religion?
4. Rusho, W.L. (1973). Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty. Gibbs Smith.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.