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The Appalachian Thru-Hiker

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October 16, 2019

Appalachian Trail thru-hike mile 419: No mountain man

I have written a lot about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail with diabetes and a bit about agoraphobia, and I know these two factors are the reason many are interested in my hike. Be that as it may, neither of these conditions define me, at least not anymore, and I think it’s also important to understand, for those that do not know me, who I am and why I am the unlikely hiker.

Any self-deprecation to follow is not an attempt to be charming. Just as I strive to show that diabetes, anxiety disorders, or other conditions need not prevent one from adventure, I want it to be clear that I am not a long-distance hiker that has spent years preparing for such a journey. Insulin-dependent diabetics have done everything from scaling Everest to becoming world-class athletes. This is not me. I am just a guy taking a very long hike, and to be given any other impression would be to jeopardize my goal of showing that you probably can too.

I suspect that few, if any, of my family and friends expected me to make it anywhere near this far. This is not because they don’t believe in me — I have the most supportive family one could hope for and was raised to believe I could do anything — if I worked for it. I have not worked for this. Those who may have doubted my chances would have done so precisely because they do know me. I am not the guy who thru-hikes the Appalachian Trail. And yet I am.

Let’s face it: very few people finish, and not many even make it this far. Who am I to think I can? Let me explain.
I will admit I am no stranger to walking, hiking, and even leisure backpacking. Trust me, these things are worth nothing when it comes to the demands of an AT thru-hike.

Walking? Everybody walks. I recently saw a friend who works in IT post a screenshot of his cell pedometer to show how many miles an IT guy walks in a typical week. I forget the exact number, but it was ridiculously high. I know these miles, because I walked them as a quintessential geek for a decade, spending most of my time behind a computer screen or three. During these years, during which I lived in the DC metro, the closest I came to nature was hotel rooms overlooking beautiful views which I enjoyed from afar.

It was not until I moved to upstate New York in 2010 that I returned to hiking and camping. Again, we are talking about a whole other world, and nothing I did in this time could have prepared me for the AT. My idea of backpacking is to hike 5 miles into a really cool spot so I can lay in the sun and read all weekend and then hike the five miles back out. On the AT, I may hike five miles on a whim after dinner, after hiking a 10-12 mile day and then loading six pounds of water onto my 35-45 pound pack just because that’s how many miles it takes to reach the next cool place to camp.

I will admit that some type of change in me must have taken place in the years after I left IT and the time I have spent living in upstate New York. I was secretly elated (and shocked) when a fellow hiker, whilst trying to give me a trail name, decided I didn’t seem like a very technical person or someone who would bring a lot of tech on the trail. Absolutely no offense to my many friends that still work in IT, but she couldn’t have paid a better compliment to a guy who spent so many hours coding web sites in notepad at 15 years old that he had to be dragged from the computer. And that was before I got serious about it…

But… I must be an athlete, right? Alas, no. In my freshman and sophomore years of high school, which were spent in three different schools, I tried my hand at soccer, swimming, wrestling, and golf, and I did a splendid job of warming the benches of soccer fields, gymnasiums, and indoor swimming pools.

Health nut? Not by a long shot. The most that I can boast is that I don’t eat fast-food or even much “heat up” food unless I’m incredible busy (or hiking 2,200 miles). I like real ingredients and I haven’t owned a microwave in years. But all of this is because I love to cook and I love to eat and the best food? ‘Tis not healthy. I don’t drink anymore, but this is probably only possible because to do so with my health issues would be dire, and I must admit that before I retired I nearly went pro. Ah, and my gravest health sin of all, tobacco, I seem unable to give up for very long.

I am not proud of many of these things (except the cooking; a life without good food drowned in butter is not worth living). I simply want to avoid being perceived as anything I’m not, lest anyone think there is some other explanation for my adventure or my success so far. I don’t care if you’re a couch potato: you can do it!

Perhaps more important than doing it, however, is enjoying doing it, and this I can attest I do. I’ve mentioned Zach Davis’ book Appalachian Trials before, in which he describes many successful thru-hikers admitting that they finished out of spite, hating every minute of the trail for a pretty good chunk of the time. As I look around me, I get a sense of that in some already.

In short, I am no mountain man. I cannot give you a precise definition for such a person, but if you know some like I do you understand exactly what I mean. There are actually surprisingly few mountain men on the trail — they’re probably off backpacking in the real wilderness. I am just an old-school computer nerd, a city boy, who began searching for a simpler life. I haven’t found it yet, but I suppose that search is what led me to spend so many years in upstate NY after a life of city living, and what led me to get on the trail. I’m not sure I’ve found what I’m looking for here, but I have definitely found something.

Now, after all of the things that I’m not, what am I that I not only remain on the trail, but with a smile on my face? Every time I think about this — and there is a lot of time to think out here — I am brought back before technology took over my life, to my early childhood.

My first experiences with camping and other outdoor activities began with Boy Scouts and similar groups. I am not sure if my involvement in these activities were a result of my own desires or because my father knew they would be good for me. In either case I am incredibly grateful that my father, who has trouble wrapping his head around the idea of enjoying a weekend in a tent, let alone six months, took the time to not only expose me to these things, but in many cases to actively participate.

What I have realized when I think back on these younger years is that camping and backpacking, for most people, are no escape from technology. There is nothing more technical than backpacking gear, where a difference in material or a few ounces can mean a difference of hundreds of dollars. The thing is, the world of technology was not a part of my childhood outdoor adventures, nor is it today on the AT.

As a Boy Scout, my sleeping bag would get soaked, I would slip into icy water and finish the weekend with my feet stuck in garbage bags in my boots to keep my feet dry, or I would bring completely inappropriate food to cook in the woods and botch dinner. The thing is, I was usually having the time of my life even as these disasters unfolded.

I didn’t have fancy gear then, nor do I have it now. I use an external frame pack, something that the outfitters along the AT don’t even sell, and probably haven’t for decades. I carry a 5 pound tent that I am in love with. My pack weighs 30 pounds without food and water, and as grow stronger and hungrier, my food bag has grown up to as much as 15 pounds after a resupply.

For me, I think, the draw to the woods is an escape from technology, and therefore to turn it into a technical endeavor would shatter my rose-colored glasses. I am not sure this way I have of approaching outdoor adventure has anything to do with making it this far, but I’m positive it is responsible for making it this far with a smile.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking those who take a more technical approach. I may not know what material my tent is made out of, but if you ask me what you should look for in a new computer, you’ll get a 90 minute response. To each his own.

Finally, let me not give you the impression that I’m ill-prepared, hiking down the trail in a pair of Levi’s and $30 boots. It’s just that I leave the technical stuff to someone else. If you’re a pro and you tell me Smartwool socks will keep my feet going, I don’t need to know why. It’s much the same way that someone who wants their computer fixed just wants it fixed — they don’t care what the problem was or how it’s resolved. And much like the computer owner that you can’t talk into a RAM upgrade, you can’t sell me on a $500 sleeping bag or a cuben fiber tent. I like what I like, and it suits me just fine.

I know I have a long way to go, and I am keenly aware of how quickly an injury could take me off the trail. But for now, I’m having the time of my life, in part because I allow myself to continue on with my old ways, somewhat awkwardly at times.

Most importantly, if getting to know me a little better has taught you anything, it should be that the most important prerequisite for an AT thru-hike is the right spirit, and they don’t sell it at R.E.I.

I checked.

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