Why Should You Hike the A.T.?
An aggressive sigh of equal parts relief and misery escaped my lips. With much mincing, I lowered my rear into the frigid creek and patently ignored the stares of disapproval from the day hikers nearby. I had tried scores of ointments, unguents, and magic spells to alleviate the interminable burn of chafed skin, but to no avail. This was the only way to get a reprieve. I stared absent-mindedly at the cracked and demolished appendages that were not so long ago my feet, adjusted the seven or eight loose fibers that were once something that you would recognize as a T-shirt, and sank lower into the stream until everything below my torso had plopped unceremoniously in the water.
“Come on Connor, still seven more miles to go!” shouted Gordon, my brother and hiking companion. I ignored him.
“It’s going to be dark soon. Don’t you want a shower and a bed tonight?”
Gordon had cunningly eaten the last of his food and therefore removed the possibility of remaining at this campsite tonight, because he wanted a shower and a bed.
“Seven more miles?! Twenty miles isn’t enough for one day?! Have you no concern for my bloody asshole?” I said, in less a British way and more a literal way. Or at least that’s what I wanted to say. Instead, I fixed my eyes petulantly in the distance and flipped through the mental Rolodex of all the ways that I could murder my brother. I asked myself, for the tenth time that day and the hundredth time that week, “why am I hiking the Appalachian Trail?”
Having reached the summit of Katahdin and thus the Northern terminus of the Trail just four short months after that day, I’ve gradually hit upon an answer to that question.
Hike the Appalachian Trail because you’ve never truly felt the sun. Sure I have, you think. In fact, you haven’t, not until you’ve walked through five straight days of rain and your feet have grown wrinkles that rival the folds in your brain. Not until clouds are such an omnipresent part of your life that you dream damp and foggy dreams and wake up in a puddle of rainwater and self-pity. Not until you lie on your back in the parking lot of a Dollar General in nothing but your underwear, idly watching the whorls of steam escape your drenched clothes as they dry in a nearby tree.
Do it because you’ve never truly tasted ice cream. Not until you’ve walked 200 miles just to get it. Not until you talk about Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough to strangers more than you talk about your hike or your kids or your home. Not until you can eat fourteen scoops and yet still yearn for more.
Do it because you’ve never truly known your friend, or your sibling, or your partner, or even your dog. Not until you spend weeks on end in the wilderness with them. Not until they’ve shared their last Snickers bar with you and picked you up when you slip and land abruptly in the mud. Not until they tend to you and stay with you when you can’t hike, and you do the same for them.
Do it because you’ve never truly known the wilderness. Not until you wake up to find a dozen ponies grazing beside your tent. Not until you stand above the clouds on a giant slab of granite and taste the freshest, crispest breath you’ve ever breathed. Not until you suffer the wilds and absorb them and revel in them with those whom you love.
Do it because you’ve never truly known kindness. Not until a complete stranger gives you and your companion and your soaking wet dog a lift fifteen miles out of her way. Not until a Mountain Dew left beside the trail with no thought of reciprocity is the best part of your day. Not until you carry a four-and-a-half pound hardcover book 80 miles because it was given to you by the nicest trail angel you’ve ever met.
Do it because you don’t know America. Not until you shake hands and receive encouragement from people everywhere you go. Not until the kind people of the south warn you about the rudeness of the north, and the kind people of the north lament the rudeness of the south, and you realize that divisions such as these are not only incorrect, but misleading and toxic. Not until you see that the people of this country are friendly and hospitable and warm-hearted, no matter where they’re from.
Do it because you’ve never truly known what you need or what you want. Not until you learn how to get by on the bare minimum, not until you buy a jar of peanut butter with the last change you scrounged from the bottom of your pack, and clutch it desperately to your chest until you can find your spork. Not until you force your body to undergo more miles of brutal punishment than you ever thought you’d be able to endure, and wake up to realize that you want to do it again. Not until you’ve discovered, as I did, that in order to be happy, you need very little and want even less.
On that fateful day, seven miles south of Waynesboro, Virginia, I only needed one thing. What I needed was a plastic bag full of ice, and thankfully I got it. I shoved it underneath my chafed bottom and sat on a dilapidated armchair, whose upholstery dated to no later than the Baroque period and whose cushions had witnessed, judging by the state of this particular motel room, no less than eighty-three drug deals and sixty-one ill-advised sexual solicitations. I half-listened to Jimmy Kimmel grasp for witticisms and drifted off into the particular blissful oblivion that comes only from the tingle of a bag of ice on your buttocks.
And as it happens, I did get a bed and a shower, and my brother survived my misdirected wrath and still lives to this day, and we’ve never been closer. What I earned from that episode, as well as all those other moments that made my thru-hike, was a sense of perspective. Perspective: the most powerful force in the universe, the ability to throw your whole life into sharp relief and reveal what you take for granted, what you have, and what you want.
Hike the Appalachian Trail because every time you ask yourself “what am I doing with my life?” or “where do I find meaning?” or “why am I so unhappy?” you’re actually just yearning for that same perspective. In fact, the real question to pose is “why not hike the Appalachian Trail?”
Hike the Appalachian Trail because you will find answers. Not the ones that you seek, but you will find answers nonetheless. You will not find any answers on your Facebook news feed or at the gym or at the bottom of a pint glass. The world is lousy with people looking for answers to those questions that have plagued us for millennia. I don’t pretend to know the answers. Hell, I don’t even know if there are any answers. What I do know is that if the answers do exist, the mountains are where we will find them.
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