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The Appalachian Thru-Hiker

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September 20, 2019

Yes, your family and friends are worried about your AT thru-hike: Help them become less worried

Coming from a family that is so supportive and encouraging in virtually any endeavor, within reason, it is easy to forget that family members can sometimes be concerned when one of the younger generation decides to go off on a crazy adventure, such as my upcoming thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.  I have watched cousins go off to basic training for Special Forces, Captain giant ships at sea, take missionary trips to remote corners of the world, study semesters abroad in Hong Kong, or teach English in Georgia – the country, not the state (This is an important distinction when you need a broken arm fixed in the middle of the night).  What I can’t recall, however, is ever hearing a family member say “Don’t go” or “It’s not safe” or “You’re out of your mind, kid.”

This is not the sign of a family that doesn’t care or is not worried, it’s the sign of a family who supports the aspirations of their younger counterparts.  While I have had many strangers and several close friends tell me how dangerous my endeavor is or in some cases show serious, genuine concern for my safety, I cannot recall one instance of this coming from a family member.  This is why it’s important for me (and you, if you find yourself in my position) to take it upon yourself to answer the questions your family members are asking themselves silently.

In the case of my Appalachian Trail thru-hike, my answer primarily concerns education.  There is no true safety in this world, only varying degrees of safety and danger that can be manipulated by certain factors, the most important of which, in my opinion, is knowledge.  I can tell you that three blasts from a whistle is the international signal of distress and that a whistle hung from the shoulder strap of your pack or around your neck will be accessible even if you can barely move.  I know that if you are far out of whistle range, a triangle of fires is an international signal of distress that will be seen from an incredible distance from both land and sky.  I can identify plants that have as much as a liter of water in their roots and turn sea water into potable drinking water with nothing but a tarp and a shovel (Luckily, no sea water on the AT).  I can tell you the safe ways of handling food in bear territory, and that the rare cases of individuals being mauled by black bears almost always occur because food has been handled inappropriately (or bears have been approached inappropriately).  I can tell you how to break through the pain barrier when facing an attacker so high on chemicals that they are almost incapable of feeling pain, and more importantly, how to reduce the likelihood of such attacks in the first place.

These are just a few of many topics I have either studied in preparation for this trip or previous adventures, but the purpose of this article is not to teach you how to survive – that research is your job – but to show the importance of learning how to survive.  Getting your total pack weight down to 20 lbs (sadly, I’m still looking at 30-32) is admirable, but knowing what to do if something goes wrong will save your life.

The truth is the Appalachian Trail is not quite as remote as most people think, at least when compared to some other areas I have explored, most especially the Adirondacks in upstate New York.  Still, there are clearly dangers and I would suggest anyone going on such an adventure not take their family’s silence as a sign that they are not concerned, but instead are rooting for you and don’t wish to rain on your parade.  Even my mother (mothers always worry the most) has shown incredible restraint in speaking of my endeavor, but I have no doubt she has her own concerns.  Take it upon yourself to not just inform them about how you will keep yourself safe, but follow through and actually make the effort to learn what is necessary to ensure any risks are mitigated.  I think my instinct to spend much time researching such things before going off on an adventure is simply the lucky result of being raised in a family that places a high value on knowledge.

But was it luck? My grandfather, who sadly passed away about six years ago, was the one who taught me how to play golf.  I don’t mean he taught me how to swing the club or grip a putter, although he did do these things.  I mean he taught me how to play golf.  How to dress appropriately.  How to respect the course and replace my divots.  The etiquette of marking my ball, not stepping in another golfer’s line, and keeping quiet while other players teed off or putted.  How to take my time taking my shot, but then get moving so I didn’t hold up other players.

What I remember most about my grandfather and golf, though, is that he saw it as a luxury he did not allow himself until after he sent six children to college, or some form of post-secondary education.  It’s not that he couldn’t afford it, it was a question of priorities.  I don’t know what my grandfather was doing during the “Mad Men” era, but I’m pretty sure he wasn’t one of them.  He did, however, in my lifetime, work in market research, he did have a brilliant understanding of advertising and marketing, and he did live in the comfortable, peaceful community of Newtown, CT, until retiring to the Delaware Shore with my grandmother.  I have no doubt that his co-workers, friends and neighbors played golf, and I imagine it must have been difficult at times to put off this pastime for many years.  What I cannot imagine is how it must have felt to begin playing golf after seeing six children happy, healthy and prepared for the world, or the day he joined the Newtown Country Club, because I have yet to accomplish such sacrifice and reward.

Every generation has its own approach, but the principles that delayed my grandfather’s leisure sport were obviously not lost on my father.  I have no illusions about the sacrifices my father must have had to make as a 30-year-old with two children in a situation where things probably didn’t go quite according to plan.  Living in the DC metro during my later childhood I ran into many others who experienced frequent moves because the area has such a high concentration of military, diplomats, and those with parents that simply had careers that required great amounts of travel.  Many of my counterparts saw constant moves as a terrible inconvenience.  When I look back on my frequent moves, I see each one as a slightly better home in a slightly better neighborhood.  I see myself starting out in the less than stellar school district, and moving through a progression of better schools until graduating from one of the top 100 public high schools in the country.  Such progressions were clearly not accidental.

I recently had to participate in a psychological discussion about whether or not giving a child money for reading a book would be effective, or a good idea.  After quickly explaining the psychological concepts of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, which suggest such a strategy to be ineffective in most cases, I moved on to use my own childhood as a case study for true effectiveness.  I call it “controlling resources.”  When I was growing up, if I wanted to read a book, I got a book.  I didn’t have to make a fuss or beg for the latest “Hardy Boys” or later on, “Stephen King” novel, the library or bookstore were always an easy sell.  If I wanted to play video games, however, I would have to earn and save the money for that Nintendo (which I did).  My video game days ended for the most part when I discovered HTML at 14, but the reading has persisted a lifetime.

Education and learning is not something that is confined to a classroom, and it has little to do with degrees or certificates.  There are many people very close to me that did not go to college, some that did not finish high school, and yet still have far more knowledge in their areas of expertise than those that did.  Seeing learning as an exciting, lifelong activity is a wonderful side effect of my upbringing – which involved an entire family, not just a set of parents – and for that I am most appreciative.

In the end, no place on earth is truly safe.  That quiet, relatively upscale town of Newtown, CT, where my grandfather taught me the etiquette of golf was torn apart in 2012 when the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting occurred.  It is events like these that occur when and where they are least expected that remind us we must always be prepared, whether in the comfort of a calm community, or tromping through the woods for six months.  I have an uncle that still lives one town over from Newtown, at the time still with school-aged children, and while I have no doubt they were all deeply affected, I don’t see any of them shying away from adventure any time soon.

As someone whose life has been shrouded by a severe anxiety disorder, I can understand the tendency to turn away from fear, to avoid risk, to choose the safer path, but I can also tell you this safer path leads to nowhere but regret and missed opportunities.  I hate to be a cliché, but knowledge is power, and that power will let your adventurous spirit thrive without being reckless.  The rewards are well worth it.

Happy trails, be safe out there, and a heartfelt thanks to so many supportive family and friends who have, sometimes quite directly and sometimes inadvertently, made such an adventure possible for me.

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