The Tao of the Trail 1: Take Your Time
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.
“On your left!” came the familiar shout from behind me, somewhere south of Trimpi Shelter in Virginia. It wasn’t a rude shout, nor did I detect any scorn aimed at my own meandering pace, but it was certainly the shout of someone in a hurry. Sure enough, a few seconds later a pair of Salamon trail runners and a Hyperlite Mountain Gear pack with a beard whizzed past me, trekking poles clacking audibly and quickly on the path with each frenetic step. I trudged along, wondering how many miles my very temporary companion had planned for that day, and how many miles is the right number of miles.
“Don’t judge the speed-hikers,” say some, “hike your own hike, after all.”
“Smiles over miles,” say others.
“My tourist visa ends on September 1…better get moving,” says the fleet-footed Englishman in your party.
All valid points. I’ve fielded questions from dozens of prospective thru-hikers in my year and half since completing the trail, and the topics of scheduling, and miles per day, come up every time. I completed the trail faster than others, and slower than most. After all, I fall pretty squarely in the “smiles over miles” camp. When I talk to future classes of thru-hikers, I usually urge them to take scheduling and speed a little less seriously. I’ll let Lao Tzu explain why:
Do you want to improve the world?
I don’t think it can be done.
The world is sacred,
It can’t be improved.
If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.
There is a time for being ahead,
A time for being behind;
A time for being in motion,
A time for being at rest;
A time for being vigorous,
A time for being exhausted;
A time for being safe,
A time for being in danger.
The master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
He lets them go their own way,
and resides at the center of the circle.
– Tao Te Ching, 29
There is a time for being ahead; a time for being behind.
Like most of you prospective hikers, I set my A.T. plans in motion long, long before I set foot on Springer Mountain. When my brother and I first decided on a start date, I was living in another country and I was 10 months away from the proposed departure date of March 17. What does one do with an enormous adventure waiting in the wings, 10 whole months separating him from boots hitting the dirt? There are many ways to reconcile the frenzied excitement of an upcoming journey with the necessity of waiting, or the context of living and working in a cubicle. For me, it was spreadsheets. If I couldn’t walk the Trail, I would do the next best thing: research and plan my trip with the meticulous organization of an obsessed stalker (likely the same thing that has brought you here, future hiker trash).
Soon after the arrival of my 2014 Northbound AWOL Guide, I had a bevy of absurdly detailed and wholly unnecessary spreadsheets littering my PC desktop. I had a complete list of possible places to stay, compiled from the AWOL Guide, the AT Guide, and various online resources, with headings for dog-friendly lodging, price point, miles from trail, nearest beer and cheeseburger…you name it. I had a list of all potential mail-drop locations, color-coded and organized for my mother and maildrop quartermaster. This was, I think, the best use of my mental energy and excitement at the time, but you know what they say about the best laid plans.
When confronted with the reality of the Appalachian Trail, I realized very quickly the harsh inflexibility of my seemingly perfect and exact schedule. So much will come up that throws off your plans. You may end up skipping a section, or flip-flopping, or going off trail for a week to vacation on the Outer Banks or see New York City. You may get invited into someone’s home and want to stick around and help them out around the property for an extra day. You may meet the zaniest and most wonderful group of hikers who are a bit slower than you, and decide to drop your pace so that you’re getting the most out of the human component of this experience.
At first, when a fellow hiker asks you if you want to take a zero, or explore that side trail, or go into town for a quick beer, it’s easy to look at your schedule and say “no thanks, I’ve got miles to do today.” However, we will probably only do this once. Don’t let your schedule make your decisions for you. Take it day by day, and say yes more often than you say no. Try to say yes at least once a day. Years later, you’ll hardly remember those extra five miles to the shelter, or your four-state challenge, or your 12 hour, 30 mile days.
You will remember that time in Hot Springs where your schedule demanded you get back on the trail, but instead you stuck around and a retired doctor with a love of hiking bought your group of nine pitcher after pitcher of beer because he admired your journey. You will remember that time that you were due in town for the last hours of the Post Office that week, but instead you spent the day swimming and sunbathing with your friends. You will remember reaching the Hundred Mile Wilderness, and experiencing a twinge of not quite regret, but a feeling of bittersweetness, as you think about all the other times you should have said “why not?” instead of “no thanks, I’ve got miles to do today.”
There is a time for being in motion; a time for being at rest.
I knew hikers for whom breakfast consisted of a granola bar on the go, and lunch was the time when they’d strap their trekking poles to their pack and spoon peanut butter into their mouths as they continued striding along. This approach (hike your own hike aside), did not sit well with me. Around the time we reached southern Virginia, my brother and I had developed a sort of unspoken hiking philosophy: “walk fast, break long.” At lunch time, you would find us beside the trail for forty minutes or more, snoozing in the shade, boots and socks drying in the sun, feet reveling in the glory of fresh air, and canine companion content to doze next to his master. A road crossing was a time to take off your pack and stretch your shoulders. A summit was a time to take off your sweat-soaked shirt and take in the view, not just take a picture and move along. A town was a time to eat an entire pizza in bed and watch six hours of Law and Order: SVU without moving a muscle.
It’s easy to forget after four months that you’re camping. The Trail becomes almost like a job. There are miles to make, there are deadlines to uphold, there are goals that are set and challenged and reached. But don’t forget how lucky you are to be out in the woods day after day, sleeping on the ground (or suspended between two trees), drying in the sun, feeling the earth beneath your feet, breathing the mountain air and drinking the best water you’ve ever tasted. You should be grateful for these opportunities: grateful to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy for keeping up this unique American landmark, grateful to Myron Avery and Benton MacKaye for having the vision, grateful to your friends and family and co-workers who don’t understand, but support, your crazy dream. And guess what? You can be grateful to yourself as well. Grateful for letting yourself out of phantom obligations, for being disciplined enough to save all that money, for the planning and the plotting and the dreaming, for not just wanting to do something great, but deciding to do it.
The best way to express that gratitude is to take your time. Take it all in. Make an extra cup of coffee in the morning and follow that blue blaze trail up to the overlook to drink it with the sunrise. Climb every fire tower you see and relax in the sunshine on top. If it’s raining, spend a day, or two, or three, in town eating pizza and watching movies with your new best friends. Call your parents from a summit. Take a nap on your pack. Untie your shoelaces, hang your socks up to dry, and give your feet a break. Give your mind, body, and whole self a break. You deserve it. Look up, and remember where you are, and why you are here.
There is a time for being vigorous; a time for being exhausted.
Most of us are not Jennifer Pharr Davis or Scott Jurek. In fact, almost all of us are not. People come to the trail from all different backgrounds, many of us from sedentary or minimally active lifestyles. To attack the trail from the get-go like swift-footed Achilles is a recipe for disaster. On my third day of hiking, I walked 18 miles, because I wanted to get to Neel Gap, because I didn’t have a bear canister for Blood Mountain, and because I thought I was a hero. I was an active and fit hiker before the Trail, regularly crushing 10 mile hikes up to elevation and back in the Adirondacks, I thought another 8 would be no problem. Unfortunately, that arrogant attitude laid me low with the worst chafing I’ve yet experienced in the backcountry, and a case of hemorrhoids that persisted all the way to Katahdin. I still finished my hike, but my rear was much the worse for wear because of it, and if I had simply listened to my body to begin with, I would have likely had a stroll through the woods with considerably less pain.
How many stories have you heard of hikers that see the flatness of Virginia (relative to Georgia and the Smokies, I mean), and open up the throttle as soon as they exit Damascus, only to be driven off trail by an irrecoverable knee injury, or stress fracture, or case of brutal shin splints? Listen to your body and take your time! You should not attempt to push through your exhaustion, instead you should listen to it, value it, and even revel in it. If you’ve just climbed all the way up the Webster Cliffs to the spine of the Presidential Range, and you can hear the blood pounding in your ears, and feel your shirt drenched with sweat, your legs shaking with effort, and your lungs gasping for air, lay down and talk to your body. So many people, living conventional lives, struggle at the gym to stay fit, or to get that runner’s high, or to sweat their frustrations away, and you get to experience that feeling multiple times a day. You’ve already done something heroic, no need to push yourself into dangerous physical extremes in order to grab the rush which you would already notice yourself feeling, if you simply sat down and listened.
There is a time for being safe; a time for being in danger.
How can you value vigor without exhaustion? Activity without rest? Safety without danger? How can you value your time if you don’t know what it’s worth? Why do people launch themselves out of their comfort zone anyway, and walk 2200 miles from Georgia to Maine, if not for the danger, the adrenaline? One of the most valuable insights I had while hiking the trail was just how subversive this experience is, to your own conventional life and to those of others.
“The real self is dangerous,” says Gary Zukav in The Seat of the Soul. “It is dangerous for the established church, dangerous for the state, dangerous for the crowd, dangerous for the tradition, because once a man knows his real self, he becomes an individual.”
Your walk in the woods is dangerous because it will change you, and it will change those around you. It will make you question your values, your assumptions, the way you perceive the natural world and the opinions and stereotypes that you graph onto others, whether you mean to or not. It will make you quit your job, abandon your obligations, and it might piss off your friends and family. These are all the reasons that you ought to do it. Perspective is the most valuable commodity that the Appalachian Trail gives, and you’ll never find perspective without putting your person and your beliefs in a little danger. You have your whole life to be safe, this is your time for being in danger.
I remember a turning point, somewhere around the Vermont-New Hampshire border. Katahdin was within reach, I felt that I was ready for my next adventure, and I began counting down the days and the miles with renewed zeal. I was thinking about the pillow on my bed at home, about a breakfast of bacon and eggs and toast (or, frankly, anything that wasn’t oatmeal), about waking up and not having to hoist a pack that day. I had been living on the Trail for almost four months, but I had a hard time allowing the Trail to become my life. I found it difficult to remain present.
How does one keep one’s eye on the prize, while remembering to also look up and breathe deeply the cool mountain air once in a while? When I truly learned to be present, it was nearly too late. Atop White Cap Mountain in the Hundred Mile Wilderness, I finally caught my first glimpse of Mount Katahdin. The goal I had been struggling toward for months, that I had been planning toward for years. There it was, right in front of me. Another 70 miles to go. I could practically hop over to it. And then reality hit me like a slap in the face.
“It’s coming to an end,” I thought, “I’ve been living each day for the next instead of for itself, and now I only have five days left.” Denial quickly rushed in to fill the spot recently vacated by the pigheaded determination that had gotten me this far. I looked at the mountain, the terminus, the end, warily and sadly. “You know,” it occurred to me, “if I never reach Katahdin…I could just walk the Appalachian Trail forever.”
It wasn’t until I had rushed to the end that I realized I had rushed at all. I realized I had been treating the Trail, my world, as an object on a schedule, and trying to guide my own journey instead of letting my journey guide me. Does this mean I have major regrets about the way I hiked the Appalachian Trail, about my journey and my experience? Of course not. It is simply a reflection on the value of attempting to be present, to acknowledge your surroundings, and to appreciate how lucky you are. It is a lesson that I have since tried my best to apply to my life, and that I hope you will try to apply to yours.
People hike our trail for different reasons. Some people have something to prove, to themselves or others. Some are attempting to break records, others are attempting to reach Katahdin before the fall semester starts or before their Visa expires. All perfectly good reasons to pick up the pace. However, for my money, hiking the Appalachian Trail could be the best 6 months of your life, or it could be the best 3 months of your life. Which sounds more appealing to you?
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I LOVED this post! I’ve been reading (almost) all the AT thru-hiker posts on this website and have not felt compelled to ‘reply’ but a few times but this post is the pinnacle of my reading about the AT so far. Thank you Connor for summarizing what backpacking the AT is suppose to be all about. I’ve thought to myself that I am going to take my time and stretch those 2200 miles as far as I can, March to October (after I look up to see when snow flies on Katahdin). So many people treat it like it’s a race and, as you say, some have time constraints, but whew! I’d rather take my time as long as I’ve already quit my job and committed to the adventure -why would I want it to end so soon? The memories from saying ‘yes’ instead of ‘no’ was the sweet spot in this article.
Love love love this post! Thx for sharing your wisdom. A future thru-hiker. Colleen
Wow, thanks for this post. You have inspired me even more to “take the walk”. To be present is the key and what I plan on doing. This really made me think how much I really want to do this and to absorb it all in as I make the journey.. Amen brother.
Loved this post man. I want to show it to EVERY aspiring thru hiker.
Wiseguy, what a lovely piece. I’m currently thru hiking Nobo, and am just two days from the halfway point. Your post is great food for my soul. Thank you.
I feel like I read this at the perfect time. Thank you.
I loved this and so very true – “hiking the Appalachian Trail could be the best 6 months of your life, or it could be the best 3 months of your life. Which sounds more appealing to you?