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The Appalachian Thru-Hiker

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December 9, 2019

Appalachian Trail time travel, laughter and beautiful disaster

I’m wandering around town 8 miles from the trail in desperation, having a moderate panic attack and meeting with the all-too-familiar words “no public rest room,” having conquered the White Mountains, having conquered Mahoosuc Notch and Arm, body feeling bruised and battered, pace shortened to the slowest yet, perhaps for the first time realizing the cumulative effects of hiking from Georgia to Maine in my aching bones and in my yoyo blood sugar and in my overburdened mind. How did I get here, and how have I made it this far retaining my sanity?

Have I retained my sanity?

Weeks, possibly months ago now, someone pointed out to me that I have failed to write about why I am doing this. I thought I had, but in truth all the preparation and then the early miles gave focus to what this hike has come to mean, rather than the initial flickering of thought that resulted in the last 1900+ miles of hiking.

Since silent contemplation consumes the large part of my day, whether climbing from boulder to boulder, fetching water from a stream, or searching anxiously for a campsite at dusk, I have given the question fair consideration. The inciting incident was no doubt the overwhelming feelings I had about life at the time, but this only explains why I chose to do something. Why, among all the possible ways someone might make a change, a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail?

Walden has long been a favorite of mine, but reading between Thoreau’s lines after listening to this book over and over along the way, I see my purpose was much like his. Just as I look back upon my journey filtered through the lens of what it has become, scholars look at Thoreau’s work in terms of what it meant after the fact. The truth, in my opinion, is that Thoreau was simply looking for a way to live simply so that he might dedicate his time to read and write and think. This was considered frivolous by some in his day, and by almost all in mine. Yet this is what I was seeking when I came out here.

I thought my problem was time and peace of mind, and that this adventure would bring both. I would read and write and live simply in the woods, crafting a book about how life became so complicated. The hysterical catastrophe of my plans became evident before I made it 100 miles, of course.

Instead of time, I found myself busier than if I had stayed home. I supposed I would save money by living in the woods for six months; Instead, life is more costly than in the real world. But. But… I continued. Why?

Because what I found, what I could never have dreamed of finding without taking the leap, is far grander than what I sought.

While after many failed attempts at various configurations, writing is limited to an iPhone. Research has been able to continue through the splendor of audiobooks and the side effects of my insomnia, allowing brilliant men and women to speak to me through time.

I mentioned previously that one of my goals was to live my life like a song; even better, and with more depth, I am living my life like a book. When I hear John Muir’s anxieties during his walk to the Gulf of Mexico, visiting the post office day after day, hungry, waiting on a package, I feel them because I have lived them. When Muir searches endlessly for a place to sleep away from people, fearing strangers in a strange place, I understand. I laugh at Norman Paperman’s disastrous escape to the Caribbean from New York City just as loud as at my own foiled plans, and I toss unnecessary items out of my pack the way Thoreau tossed pieces of limestone from his desk straight out the window for their want of daily dusting.

I have become a traveler in time.

Still, there has been a growing uneasiness in the back of my mind, particularly as I reach the end slower and weaker than when I began. It hit me as I entered the White Mountains on Labor Day, quickly running into a man providing some serious trail magic in the form of gourmet omelettes. One southbound hiker was even going for the record, working on a big bowl of 18 eggs.

Suddenly, I stared at the eggs and a feeling of dread came over me. Was this my hike? Was I doing nothing more than the equivalent of seeing how many eggs I could eat at one time? The world turns on without me while I hike day after day. Am I letting it pass so I can shove every last metaphorical egg down my gullet?

I don’t think I am. I surely hope this is not the case. I feel already that this is or will be one of the most pivotal events in my life. Aside from reading more than 100 books and laying eyes on more beauty than I have seen in a lifetime, I have become immersed in my research as a living specimen and every day is a new lesson in life and in culture.

It truly is a beautiful disaster: I came to the woods to find simplicity, to write about how we have lost simplicity, and it has become the most complicated endeavor of my life.

Sometimes I feel received as if a hero, other times women spit at my feet as I walk by. Both receptions encourage me on in equal measure. I have seen the real life consequences of modern life, as well as what happens when these complications are resisted. I have lived in fear, yet carried on. I have broken down life far enough to learn what I truly need, and found that even the basic necessities of life do not come simply or easily.

They say love is the strongest emotion, and I love life. The good, the bad and the ugly, I want to devour it all, as much as my irrational nerves try to pull me back.

I cannot help, have not been able to help since that day, however, questioning myself, and this is why:

This stopped being my hike a long time ago.

This hike belongs to two very distinct sets of people. First, it belongs to the family, friends and complete strangers who have helped me make it this far, because all the strength in the world could not have alone brought me here. It is this guilt that keeps me awake at night should I have misjudged the value of what I am doing.

The second group includes all the diabetics, agoraphobics, all those who are hard on themselves, and all those on whom life has been hard. For you, I hike and I write so that perhaps, in the appropriate place and time, you may time travel, too, and see that anything is possible.

Only a diabetic can understand what it means to wake up with a blood glucose of 550 and push yourself on for 10 miles anyway, or to give yourself a shot while hanging on to a tree down a long, steep rock slide. Only someone with anxiety can understand that the sound of creatures outside the tent are easier to bear than the voices, the cars rolling by, the gunshots, each unnatural noise causing a start. Only one who rushes to the rest room 25 times a day can imagine the complications of doing thus hiking through miles of touristy area or open rock, or even through towns where one must search in desperation for something as simple as a toilet.

My hike belongs to those who have made it possible, and to those whom I am trying to show it is possible. What would I show if I hiked 90% of the Appalachian Trail?

I’ll tell you a secret. Kevin got tired and beaten down physically and psychologically a few hundred miles ago. Kevin gave up and went home, because Kevin was alone. But the Unlikely Hiker?

The Unlikely Hiker hikes on.

He hikes on with the strength and fortitude of all those who inspire him, and all those he is trying to inspire.

May providence forgive me if I am wrong, but like Springsteen said:

“No retreat, baby, no surrender.”

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