When I was in Maine last year in the home stretch of an Appalachian Trail thru-hike, someone commented on one of my stories or photos and asked if I would ever do it again. I remember I began to respond, and after about 500 words I decided perhaps this was too big for just a Facebook comment. Or I may have been distracted by hot running water. It was definitely one of the two.
In any case, the question just kind of hung out there in the back of my mind, primarily unanswered. I do remember writing a bit about the dangers of hiking on insulin, and the probability that if I kept hiking perpetually I would probably die, which is not necessarily a deal-breaker, but the thought of dying on the side of a trail and not in some more spectacular way like careening down a waterfall was. I may be a hiker, but I do have standards.
So now it’s late March, a couple days before the anniversary of my start last year, and I think I can answer the question in earnest because I have now gone through all of the phases associated with an AT thru-hike. I’ve been through the “trail prep” period where you spend hours reading online forums learning about how to thru-hike the AT, in large part from people who have never thru-hiked the AT. This is a great phase of the whole experience because it’s the part where you know everything, kind of like being 16 again.
Obviously I’ve also been through the most important phase, the actual hiking, which can be broken down into many sub-phases such as the “This is awesome!” phase, the “Get me the hell off this mountain!” phase, and the “I’m going to hop over the other side of Katahdin and keep hiking to Canada” phase. In all seriousness, I think many hikers at some point think during some of the earlier stretches thoughts such as “I have to do this every year!” and pretty much all thru-hikers seem to have detailed plans to come back and provide trail magic by the time they reach Virginia. I have to admit to being one of those who really thrived in the “I have to do this every year!” phase, spending miles hiking in deep thought about various businesses that would allow me to spend every season on the trail. I made frequent mention of the Hiker Yearbook along my hike mostly because, well, I wish I had thought of it first.
Last but not least, I’ve been through the post-hike phase, which can be a bumpy ride. First you get home, and once you realize that the world has not stopped to have a parade in your honor, you take a very, very long nap and wake up feeling like you just fell down a flight of stairs… two thousand miles of them. If you were like me and refused to watch the news while you hiked, you start to catch up, and this of course causes a minor stroke.
You can handle the fact that a few great rock legends have died, but anything in politics or world news and your muscles start to go limp and you lose the ability to speak. The way the news gets you is by drawing you a little bit closer to the edge every day, slowly expanding your toleration for nonsense, very much like a day-time soap opera. When you take it all in at once, however, all the blood rushes from your head and you think “Oh my God, that’s not my wife who’s been in a coma for ten years, it’s her SECRET TWIN SISTER!”
So. After you recover from your mild stroke, it’s time to get back to the real world. You tell yourself you’re going to walk ten miles every morning or backpack every weekend, but now you’re back on “real world” time and you realize how long these things take, especially when there’s six months of House of Cards to catch up on and a three foot pile of mail stacked at the door. On the surface this seems like a minor problem, and intellectually it is. Physically, on the other hand, your body is not happy. Unless you are Tom Joad, you’re probably not expending a tenth of the energy you were on the trail even if you have a relatively physical job. If you spend a great deal of your time reading and finishing a book you couldn’t quite knock out from an iPhone keyboard from the trail (not naming any names), the drop in physical activity is mind-boggling. This can result in a very serious depression that should not be taken lightly, and since I am in a light mood we’ll move on to….
The final phase. This is the one where you start to look around the real world and see things differently. This phase is different for everyone. Thru-hikers come from every walk of life, from all over the country and the world. Everyone had a different experience before the trail, on the trail, and therefore will have a different experience afterward. I think there are some similarities, but I will focus on my own. For me in particular, the trail confirmed my belief that it is possible to live without many things we think are essential. The thing is, the reason they’re so easy to go without is because you’re
hiking through the wilderness. Temptation is gas station fried chicken, access to WiFi, or a private bathroom. In the real world, temptation is everywhere, and this is why it’s so easy to get sucked into it.
The problem is that once you have something, and more importantly, once everyone else has it, it becomes indispensable. This is how automobiles, telephones, personal computers, and cell phones all slowly evolved from luxuries to necessities. I will back up the perception that they are necessities by the fact that three out of the four will be provided to you by the government free or at a subsidized rate if you can’t afford them. Once our lifestyles adapt to new things, they quickly become necessities. I came back from the trail thinking “Heat? Pfffft. Who needs it? I sweat every time I walk into a heated restaurant.” Well this is an easy stand to take when you’re hiking 15 miles a day. Try going cold sitting behind a laptop all day and things start to look differently. As one of Thoreau’s visitors once wisely explained, firewood heats you twice: once when you chop it, and once again when you burn it for warmth.
I promise, this really is an article about whether or not I would thru-hike the Appalachian Trail again.
There are two things that are said to me very frequently these days. The first is “I really miss watching your adventures.” Tell me about it. I really miss my adventures, too. The second is “How is the book coming?” This second one haunts me. I admit I’m a bit of a perfectionist, but it’s not perfectionism that has slowed me down. My thru-hike had so much more significance than hiking and beautiful views, and most of it occurred in my head. For those not playing at home, I never intended to write a book about the actual thru-hike, although it has been incorporated as a backdrop into the book because it turned out to be so relevant. I could write a book about my hike in a week, and then write another one a week later without repeating a single story. Six months is a very long time.
Nevertheless, I didn’t expect it to take too long to write the simple book I planned showing evidence of how living simply results in less anxiety and depression, better health, and a general feeling of satisfaction, significance and genuine happiness. The more I learned, however, the more I saw how the social constructs aimed at preventing this simple life at every turn are very, very complicated. A minimalist might say (and some have said to me): If you want to live simply, you shouldn’t write such a complicated book.
Still, a great deal of the significance of my own hike would be lost if I did not share what I have learned. It is hard to live simply in today’s world, but it’s much easier to live simply as an individual or a family than to try to effect change. Most of the books you read about living simply are focused on what you can do as an individual, sort of like self-help books to de-clutter your life. I can’t make myself leave it at that. It seems to me that what we need more than ever are not ways of avoiding the complications of modern life, but instead figuring out how to make them less complicated. For everyone.
In a few moments my coffee will be finished, this article will be over, and I’ll be back to my writing chair surrounding with stacks of books and research and my real writing project for the moment, but I want to set aside “research” and “facts” for a moment and share some purely anecdotal, unscientific, biased evidence for the merits of a simple life that has undergone absolutely no peer review.
I can honestly say my 199-day hike on the Appalachian Trail was the only time I felt truly happy and fulfilled for any extended period of time.
As someone with a severe anxiety disorder, my anxiety went down to practically nothing. Virtually all of the anxiety I did have came from external sources or during pit stops in towns (a.k.a. the “real world.”), but even these were comparatively minor. For ten years prior to my hike, I was plagued with nightmares. Every. Single. Night. Every morning I woke out of breath and in a panic. It took a couple weeks, but on the trail they stopped completely. I woke up peacefully, excited about the uncertainty of the day to come. And this was all while dodging rattlesnakes and bears!
I expected some level of improvement, but the trip far exceeded my expectations. What I did not expect is that when I returned to the real world, the anxiety, the nightmares, everything would not only return, but get so much worse. I had been given a glimpse of nirvana, and then took the first flight home out of Bangor.
Would I thru-hike the Appalachian Trail again? You bet. Is thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail the only thing in the world I think can make me happy? Of course not. It’s just one of many ways to simplify life.
The obvious dilemma is that thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is not an occupation. In fact, parts of it have become very commercialized and expensive. Is it that obvious, though? In the “real world” we have a constant stream of expenses that are completely unnecessary in a simpler life, which causes the necessity of 40-80 work weeks. Why is it so much more expensive to live in the woods in a tent and cook pasta or rice on a tiny stove than to live in a climate-controlled apartment with internet connections and cable television and food delivered right to your door? In an age where one should be able to work from a laptop from pretty much anywhere, living simply on far less money should require far fewer hours of work and far more hours of actually living. But it doesn’t.
That’s what I’m trying to answer in my book, and I’m doing my best to get it right. Not just for me, who could easily run off and live a much simpler life by focusing on my own avoidance of complications, but for everyone, because to be blunt: This trend of everyone being out for themselves, the sense of community we have been steadily losing for decades, is killing us, and it’s killing this country. And not for nothing: it’s a trend I just didn’t see on the Appalachian Trail.