If there is anything most misunderstood about the Appalachian Trail thru-hike, it is the idea that it has anything to do with hiking.
This is a pretty tough argument to make about a 2,200 mile journey, but I’ve come prepared. Take a look at the current definition of hike as a verb:
To walk or march a great distance, especially through rural areas, for pleasure, exercise, military training, or the like.
I could start my attack right off the bat with the word walk. I walked a lot. I walked down state highways to the nearest town, I walked to the grocery store, to the laundromat, to Subway. I did lots of walking, but I’m pretty sure very little of it occurred on the Appalachian Trail. On the trail I remember lots of climbing, clambering, scaling, ascending, squirming, wriggling, crawling, dragging and some occasional sliding, but I don’t remember much walking.
This is not the important distinction, however. All of these words describe the physical act. To see “hiking” as a physical activity is to see only the external view, but the real magic happens internally. Anyone who hikes or walks even a mile or two on a regular basis understands this. It takes absolutely no concentration to walk, and therefore your brain has nothing to do. For the brain, this will not do. Even in sleep our brains must continue to churn on in the darkness, showing us in the form of dreams that they will not be quieted. Now imagine that same brain being fueled by lots of carbs and an incredible exertion of energy. The brain must work, too.
You can look at the scenery, you can even listen to music or an audiobook, but there is absolutely nothing that can keep your mind from wandering wherever it thinks best. Music is quickly tuned out, and a sentence of an audiobook will trigger a thought, which triggers another thought, and before you know it three chapters have gone by but you’re wondering what happened to your best friend from the third grade or why you can buy a coffee-maker for less than the price of a pot of coffee.
This is why the Appalachian Trail was such an amazing place to research culture. It is certainly not a cultural vacuum — far from it — but the normal influences are removed. The beauty of the trail lies not only in what is there, but also what is missing.
As we approach winter, local newspapers all over the country are publishing articles by thru-hikers about their epic journeys. In particular, I am pleased to see that many have covered the post-hike aspect of the journey. After spending five to seven months in the woods, how do you get back to the real world? This is an important question because it can be a difficult transition, but even more important than the utilitarian changes — how you sleep, eat, or spend your day — are the internal, mental changes. The physical journey of 2,200 miles is a drop in the bucket compared to the mental or spiritual journey that occurs in your mind. If getting used to climate control or having to be at a certain place at a certain time is difficult, how do you reconcile the fact that you are an entirely different person?
The only thing I knew for sure when I finished the trail was that I had a lot of work to do, but it was work that could be done anywhere and I had only vague plans for where I would be. I wanted to live in the moment — I have been trying to learn to live in the moment for half my life — so this was not necessarily a bad thing. So what did I do after “hiking” 2,200 miles?
I drove 2,200 miles. And then some.
It took a couple weeks to get to my car in North Carolina, but the first time I turned my tiny hatchback onto a rural highway and flew down the open road, I felt alive for the first time since I was on the trail. I had been feeling very claustrophobic, and I had once again found space. It was already my goal to visit many family and friends, but I never envisioned the miles I have been putting in. Suddenly trips that always seemed so far away were nothing. If I could cross Maryland in a couple days at 3 miles per hour, what could I do at 75? It was first exhilarating, but then, a terrifying thought came.
Who was driving?
I spent more than six months on the trail thinking and absorbing and… changed. I thought I knew what it was to see things differently, I have always seen things differently. But now I see everything incredibly differently. Game-changing differently. I was a different person. If I was a different person, though, why was I still living someone else’s life?
I didn’t buy this car or these clothes. I didn’t build a complicated business. I didn’t develop these habits or mannerisms. That old Talking Heads song keeps running through my head…
And you may ask yourself
What is that beautiful house?
And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go to?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right? Am I wrong?
And you may say yourself, “My God! What have I done?”
Right before I left for the trail my father gave me a bike he had only ridden a few times — a much nicer bike than I have ever owned — and one of the few things I felt I missed out on being gone for so long was the chance to start riding. I did get one short ride in right away, but it was winter and I didn’t go very far. I probably hadn’t been on a real bike ride in ten or fifteen years, but the muscle memory that allows you to jump right back on is what created the cliche for essentially everything that is easy to return to: It’s like riding a bike.
Maybe that’s just how life is. It’s very easy to slip into the same old routine. The old me was not a bad guy (I hope), but the new me has inherited all of his decisions and priorities. Chief among them was doing too much. Even the old me tried to live by the mantra of doing one thing at a time, but this is easier said than done. When you do one thing at a time, it means something else is not getting done or is being ignored. The toughest part of this reality is that we often get caught up doing the wrong thing, that is, the thing that is not in line with our values or priorities. A sense of urgency comes upon us and we let the wrong thing fall wayside, or worse, let down the wrong person. Every day there are bosses that win out over daughters, acquaintances’ over close friends, strangers over family members. It’s not intentional, but when overburdened and life becomes a blur these things happen before we even realize there was a fork in the road.
I don’t regret all of the miles I have done, or the ones I still have ahead of me. Wherever we go and whatever we do life teaches us things. Some parts of my journey over the last month have been difficult, particularly around large cities, but everything served a purpose. Would the book about modern society I am writing ring true if I had never had to buy a $7 half-gallon of milk or spend 30 minutes looking for a parking spot at the Jersey Gardens Mall or take the blue line into DC during the morning rush? I am thinking no. These experiences not only shed light on how much cultural influence had been removed from my life during my time on the trail, but also how vigorously I would have to fight to keep them at bay.
Still, I think it’s time the new me gets to make some decisions. I cannot be irresponsible. Some changes can be effected overnight, but others must be more gradual. So be it. The important thing is that after all I have experienced, it’s not good enough to live a slightly simpler life and call it a day. The new me deserves more than that.
It’s time to forget how to ride a bike.