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The Appalachian Thru-Hiker

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July 22, 2019

500 miles on the Appalachian Trail and Norman Paperman won’t go home


I think in the back of my mind, 500 miles is one of those milestones that I’ve been anxious to hit. It may not quite be the quarter mark, but it’s a nice round number — and it goes well with my favorite Proclaimer’s song.

Five. Hundred. Miles.

I don’t drive five hundred miles. For me that’s generally a distance just outside the road trip zone and into cheap flight territory. But now it’s momentarily my longest hike, a record that will hopefully be broken daily until reaching Katahdin this fall.

For years it’s been believed that it takes one month to form or break a habit, although some researchers are now finding that some habits take several months or even a year. Still, I’ve been on the trail for just short of two months now, and I have certainly become accustomed to a new way of life that consists of living in the woods, spending the better part of my day hiking, obtaining water, enjoying incredible sights, meeting new people almost every day, taking care of my heavily-tried body, reading, writing, and figuring out how and where I might next find a hot shower, clean clothes, and more food.

As early as Fontana Dam, NC, only a few weeks into the hike, the beginning of my habituation was shown. I was wandering around this luxury resort where a three dollar shuttle had taken me to do some laundry and buy food when I happened across a stream flowing between rows of quaint condominiums. I was carting nothing but my iPhone and maybe a Diet Pepsi at the time, but instinctively I changed course for the stream, taking several paces before realizing my folly. It looked like good water, and a hiker never passes by good water.

I don’t believe I have once overlooked or misunderstood what an amazing opportunity, what an incredible life experience this wild 2,200 mile trek is, but I do think my habituation, as well my gradually changing lifestyle leading up to it, made it difficult to realize how it appears to the outside world — to friends, family, and anyone following my hike or my writing.

It was not until Damascus, VA, where someone was kind enough to visit me on the trail and later on give me a ride (gold to a hiker) that I first began to see it through someone else’s eyes, and then through the eyes of my 25-year-old self. This gentlemen didn’t really have an interest in backpacking; he had an interest in the escape and freedom. I hope my memory accurately represents his thoughts, but I seem to recall the phrase “You could just disappear.”

And I could.

Since beginning to write about this trip, I have struggled over the fact that I am covering, or attempting to cover, many different topics all to the same audience. There is the thru-hike itself and all that such a tromp through the wilderness entails, the difficulties of managing diabetes and insulin on the trail, coping with an anxiety disorder on a most unusual adventure, and finally the research associated with the book I am writing as I go along, which is focused on the complications of modern life.

After hearing someone else’s perspective of my hike, it hit me: it’s all connected!

When I was in my mid-twenties and making fairly good money for a cocky college dropout, I could never afford such a trip. It may have been possible monetarily through saving, but that for many would be the easy part. I would even venture to say that the greater the salary, short of accumulating real wealth (something increasingly harder to do), the more difficult it would be to take such a trip.

Making good money causes you to do wild things like purchase a home, a reliable car, perhaps nice furniture. If you have children, they may demand such extravagances as food and clothing. The highest salaries are often found in cities, which bring with them all sorts of additional expenses such as a closet full of suits or some type of more expensive attire, high property taxes, $100 rounds of golf and $20 martinis. Making money causes even many a shrewd budgeteer to spend money. When I lived in the DC metro, the general feeling was that you should buy the most expensive house you could afford, because it was only going to double in value. And for many years houses did this, until the house of cards fell down.

In reality, all of these things I am talking about are mere synonyms for responsibility. And before you hold me to the fire understand, I am not saying there is anything wrong with any of these things, and there is certainly nothing wrong with responsibility. The point is that in my case, despite a decade of desperately trying, I became suffocated and was slowly, and then quickly, overcome with debilitating anxiety. Enter panic disorder and agoraphobia.

I know many feel this same suffocation to varying degrees, but most are able to sprinkle in a Jimmy Buffett concert here, a new motorcycle there, and take reprieve enough from these pressures to carry on. For whatever reason, through some combination of genetics, environment, and personality, I was not, and was therefore forced to seek a new way of life. In retrospect, this seems as though it were inevitable. I have always been such a hopeless romantic in work, play, and love, to a degree that the real world has never been able to fulfill. Tamed for a time by a hereditary Irish reserve, eventually the dam broke free.

One of my favorite books of escape is titled “Don’t Stop The Carnival” by Herman Wouk, in which the protagonist, Norman Paperman, has a heart attack and decides he must give up his stressful PR career on Broadway to move to the Caribbean and run an island hotel. This, of course, turns to disaster, becomes even more stressful than his former life, and in the end he heads back to New York City to re-enter “the real world.”

From the time my agoraphobia was at its peak, and for many years after, I desperately tried to claw my way back into that “real world.” There was no conscious decision, nor can I recall quite when the change occurred, but eventually I stopped trying. I didn’t stop working hard — I wrote fiction, fixed computers, built a business, earned a degree in psychology — I simply lost the drive or the desire for that “real world” I had previously been clawing my way back to. It was understood, perhaps not consciously, that I just wasn’t meant to live a normal life.

If you’ve made it this far, trust: there is a purpose to my rambling. One of the things I have come to understand is that I am not only hiking these miles for the diabetic, or the anxiety-stricken, or those who may find something of interest in my finished book. I am also hiking these miles for the guy in the cubicle with a screensaver of the beach he gets to go to once a year. For the sales guy who hates sales, but has children and a mortgage. For the woman who works her fingers to the bone in a thankless government job serving thankless people.

In short, I’m hiking these miles also for those who did not crumble under the pressure to the degree that I experienced, and yet who feel the pressure just the same. And you shall be with me in spirit, even providing the strength, that I might scale every mountaintop, go dashing into every lake, tromp through every summer rain, take five chances for each one fear past allowed to pass by, and if need be howl at the full moon at midnight.

I don’t have an answer for the predicament the modern world has gotten us into, where we spend so much time in ways so unnatural to our souls, but I’m searching for one. Hard.

In the meantime, I will suck every breath of life I can out of this adventure, your encouragement pushing me past the timid boundaries of my past, and after this I will find the next adventure, doing as much good as possible along the way.

I promise you this: Like hell is Norman Paperman giving up and going back to Broadway.

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