Henry David Thoreau writes in “Walking,” that every walk is a crusade, and declares sauntering an art. I set out this summer to hike about 1,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail, bringing a copy of Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers with me for the first 100 miles. I’ve spent more of my time reading Walden than any other work by Thoreau, but A Week has shown me another side of him, the side that says “keep a stiff fin” like the fish, and just keep on swimming. After nursing some nasty blisters in Hot Springs, NC (I hiked the last mile downhill in flip flops), I know now that hiking long distance is a lot like achieving most long-term goals in life: HARD. I used to think running the last 4 miles of my first marathon was the hardest physical accomplishment of my life, but as the tears mixed with the sweat beads on my face, it was hard to think of a single moment tougher than this one.
Keep a Stiff Fin. A buddy in the group of hikers I’ve met on the trail named Dash (read his story here) said yesterday that you never quit on a hard day, and I think that’s sage advice for most things. We reach many periods in life where we could easily quit at the end of a sentence instead of pushing on, testing new boundaries and seeing how far we could live out a story by challenging its end. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning…” (“Circles”). Once we reach a new horizon, we look back to see how small our initial ambitions were and look forward to see how great they have become–but only if we keep on going. 50% of hikers who start Northbound from Springer Mt, Georgia don’t make it to Max Patch (250 miles), mostly because they push themselves too hard, probably trying to meet short-term mileage goals and forgetting to saunter in nature and really experience the trail. The true difference between success and failure (and I do think we should aim to fail and get things wrong more often) is when we reach a moment when we could stop, and then we find the will to continue. The semicolon symbolizes just that kind of stiff-fin moment, turning a period into a comma.
Hike Your Own Hike. That was the best advice I got from a friend who hiked the A.T. several years ago. Most hikers start in Georgia, aiming to go Northbound to Maine over the course of about five and a half months. Well, my father wanted to kick off this Thoreauvian journey with me for the first 40 miles of the Smokies, so we started at Newfound Gap and headed Southbound to Fontana Dam together, spending five nights in the Smokies. I was so excited he wanted to do it with me, and he was equally happy I wanted him to come along. It wasn’t easy (they don’t call them mountains for nothing), but we talked philosophy, watched the sunset from the fire tower, made a camp fire, scared off a coyote and a bear, and we watched the fireflies make a bed of grass glow in the night while drinking port wine and having the father-daughter experience of a lifetime.
Much of what makes the trail a magical place is the people you meet along the way, the company of good folks who take time to learn your name, exchange tips and share their stories. As Dash writes in his blog, I’ve shared the same spoon with four other people to polish off some Velveeta mac and cheese, I’ve shared laundry duty, coffee brewing duty, and pretty much everything with the good folks I’ve met on the trail. We share and we struggle and put mind over mountain together. However, I also started 166.3 miles after these wonderful folks and haven’t gotten my trail legs yet, so it’s been hard trying to keep up AND hike my own hike.
Self-Reliance. To really hike your own hike, which for me is to saunter and take it all in, can be difficult when your impulse is to stay with your friends. But I’m not hiking as fast. This is my day 11, and I know my limits. I also know why I originally came to hike the AT: to commune with nature. Emerson writes, “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost…” (“Self-Reliance”). I just spent the morning with my friend Flick who hiked the trail last summer and she told me to follow my inner voice. While saying goodbye to one group of amazing people is tough, meeting the next group along the way is also amazing. So I’ll keep up with this awesome crew (Dash, Moose, Doc, and Optimist) while I can, leave early and arrive late between camp sites, and enjoy the music of the birds, the whispers of the trees, and the laughter of the streams while I’m sauntering on.
The good news is, as my dad said, that now that I’ve drained my blisters my total shoe weight should be 10 grams lighter. These are the things we think about when gaining thousands of feet of elevation. Sending the nalgene and cold weather gear home today, I weighed my pack and the base weight without food and water is 18 pounds. I’m sure it’d be lighter without my hardcover copy of Thoreau but there are some things worth carrying.