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The Appalachian Thru-Hiker

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July 22, 2019

Staying in tune on the Appalachian Trail


When my father visited as I passed through Harper’s Ferry, he took me somewhere that offered him the opportunity to observe a process that must be amusing when seen for the first time. The place was a grocery store and the process, of course, was the resupply of a thru-hiker.

I won’t go into too much detail about how hikers circle the store over and over, tallying in their head the most important factors of trail food: calories, cost, convenience and weight. All those intricacies merit a whole dissertation! But something came up as we talked about my cartload of groceries that got me thinking.

I had been trying to shorten the time I spent getting packed up in the morning and set back up at night, and I realized I hadn’t been cooking as much. “But I have to make the coffee though…”

He immediately understood this, but I was still trying to come up with the right word for why this was so important to me when he said “It’s a routine.”

And he was right.

On the surface, I probably seem like the last person in the world who would desire a routine. I absolutely hate alarm clocks, so much so that when I have important engagements my body wakes up in self-defense five minutes before they go off. I also hate appointments — the necessity of being at a certain place at a precise time — although I live with this as a requirement of the “civilized world.” Besides, this last one is more likely to be more of an agoraphobic tendency than anything else, and while I don’t go out of my way to set them, it’s probably good for me to suffer them from time to time.

All this being said, I tend to have an internal routine. I may not set an alarm clock, but all things being equal I tend to wake up at the same time every day: six hours after I went to sleep. And when I do wake up, the routine begins. Turn the coffee pot on, do some minor yoga/stretching before my brain has a chance to turn on and ruin it, drink the coffee, glance at email to see if anything stands out, see what’s happening outside, and so on. (I have found this last one to be far more reliable than the weather channel).

I also like rituals. I love playing records because there is a process to it, an engagement. Carefully removing the vinyl from its sleeve, the musty smell of old cardboard, the mechanical queueing up of the album, and the increasingly rare act of listening to a whole album through.

But now I’m on the trail… What is my routine? I think in the early miles I struggled to figure this out, but things began to run more and more smoothly as I moved north. Things just seemed to be “in tune.” I never paid too much attention to miles, I just went with the flow and kept a minimum pace I felt I should.

One piece of information I learned as I neared Harper’s Ferry was that the Appalachian Trail Conservancy recommended that anyone hiking northbound should reach Harper’s Ferry by Fourth of July weekend. I didn’t know this, but it was precisely this weekend I had planned on reaching it and therefore had made plans to meet my father there, hiking out late on the morning of July 3rd.

I knew that I would start out the trail slower and pick up the pace along the way, and once I was on the trail but a week or two I also knew that I wouldn’t have as much time as I thought I would, and therefore all of my reading and writing would slow me down. Still, I kept up a pace that felt like the right balance between making miles, enjoying the sites, and doing the research and writing that was an important aspect of my trip, all while reaching the “sort of” halfway point precisely when I had hoped: just in time.

Coming up to Harper’s Ferry, I decided it was time to assess where I was and where I needed to be. I saw I would need to average 100 miles a week if I wanted to finish in my goal of 183 days, before October brings much more harsh weather to Katahdin, and this seemed not only reasonable, but a more relaxing way of timing myself.

Rather than counting the miles every day, I would count by the week. If I want to take a short day, it’s no longer a big deal, because I know a long day will even it out. So far this has worked, and I have only come up up short the week of my laundry/chemical burn debacle.

Other things have become more in tune as well, in terms of my interactions with both nature and people.

The birds tell me what time it is, or warn me of an impending storm. I mark the passage of the day with the sun, the passage of the week or month by the waxing and waning moon. I know the sounds of most animals now, and rabbits or deer rustling about no longer alarm me with visions of a bear outside my tent. There is very little consciousness in these things. I don’t look at the sun and try to tell the time, I simply feel the sun and realize it is approaching late afternoon.

Many of the sounds change as I move quickly north, but they are quickly understood and integrated into the senses. In Caledonia State park I was alarmed by a sound foreign to me, so with fear and curiosity I opened my tent and shined a light in the general direction. Sure enough, something new: three raccoons were slowly making their way to my front door. A light in their eyes and an aggressive tone from me and they happily went on their way. Similarly, since I have entered PA I now hear more sounds around me at night that I can’t identify. The second night, when the shuffling and snapping twigs seemed to circle my tent, I finally got out, stood up, and shined a light in every direction. I saw nothing, and nothing bothered me, yet it continues night after night so I have just learned to let it be and blend into the natural ambience.

In terms of people, I am learning to go with the flow more. I remember weeks ago in Virginia showing up at a hostel in early afternoon, planning and expecting that my early afternoon arrival had gotten me there in time for a shuttle into town to resupply, really the main reason I stopped. After about an hour in the hostile however I realized that one of the hikers hanging around talking and drinking beer was not actually a hiker, but the hostile owner/shuttle driver himself, and I knew there would be no shuttle til morning. In the end I had much more fun playing board games and taking my time to do laundry and shower than I would have rushing to the grocery store and heading back to the trail in the early morning.

I have also gotten better at my own rule: ask questions. I did this in Boiling Springs, PA when I arrived around lunch on Sunday. Like most hikers I camped out on the porch of an ATC headquarters trying to stay out of the 95 degree heat, felt much more once the tree cover is gone, and taking advantage of the cold running water slicker there. There was a gas station across the street with nothing that excited me for dinner, but the grocery store was a mile away. After asking a few of the right questions, I learned there was a bike I could borrow, albeit a slightly small women’s (or girl’s) “mongoose.” Remember those?

I have to admit, I think I enjoyed the summer bike ride and the breeze that came with coasting along the pavement more than the half dozen hot dogs I ate that night!

All of this to show that things have not so much been out of tune, but routine was lacking at a time where my hiking days were becoming longer. I couldn’t remember the last time I had done yoga, the only thing that seems to restore my stuff legs, and I always felt rushed starting out in the morning, even though there was no reasonable justification for me to feel rushed.

So I slowed down and began to form a routine. I made coffee every morning, not just when I got up very early, and I did yoga often. I took advantage of the cellular signal that had been hard to come by until I reached the northern part of Virginia, texting and calling friends and. Family more often.

And a funny thing happened. My sprits were lifted so much by my coffee routine, my muscles so invigorated and my mind at greater ease by the frequent yoga, that even starting out later than I was used to, I still managed to hike the same amount of miles.

In tune.

Even today, at 5 o’clock in the morning, I am aware that I could hike 10 miles or 30. And it doesn’t matter which. I have supplies coming to a post office 34 miles up the trail, but it will close for the weekend at 11 Saturday morning. I might make it, I might not. I might try hard to make it, or I might decide to just let it be.

That’s the beauty of being out here. The choice is mine, and there are many more than those two. I could walk back down the hill to the road and in 45 minutes be sitting in a Dunkin’ Donuts having a real cup of coffee. I could tear down the dead flat 30-mile stretch of trail before me just to see if I can. I could meander along the trail all day taking my time and lots of pictures. Whatever I choose to do, as I hear the cars flying down 81 a mile below me, I’m glad I’m not in one of them, and that everything is… In tune.

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