So, I left for my Appalachian Trail Hike three months ago – March 6. I am currently in Virginia about 740 miles from my starting point at Springer Mountain, Ga.
That is a lot of walking for someone who basically doesn’t care for hiking – or camping for that matter. At least half – probably more – of those miles were uphill (a couple thousand feet of elevation gained at a time - often). That’s carrying between 40 and 50 pounds on my back – tent, clothes, sleeping bag, food, water and more.
Most rational people out here carry less than 30 pounds. I’m working on that. It is not as easy as one would imagine – dropping the weight of your pack.
It has a lot to do with this hardwired mentality most of us have for redundancy and the “what-if’s” installed into almost all of us from birth by our mothers.
“What if there is an avalanche and your shoe lace is caught on a tree limb and the only way to free yourself is if you had your reading glasses on, a knife and a pair of tweezers … you get the point.
In reality it is very hard to forget these practical backups even when we know intellectually that most of them are absurd.
I am hiking by myself most of the time primarily because I am one of the slowest hikers on the Trail. (Note: See earlier reference to pack weight.)
Just me, and a 2-foot-wide “path” identified by white blazes painted on trees about every couple hundred yards – most of the time – along with a lot of trees, mountains and valleys. And there is either utter silence or howling wind gusts of up to 60 miles per hour.
The Trail starts at Springer Mountain in Georgia and is 2,200 miles long running through 14 states – Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. It ends at Mount Katahdin, Maine.
They say to “hike your own hike” in most of the Trail literature.
Let me translate that for you.
That really means that it is almost impossible to find two people who walk at the same pace, stop at the same stopping places and take pictures of the same things.
“Hike your own hike” means you are on your own most of the time so don’t count on walking with a partner even if you want to.
My trail name initially was “Three Weeks” – in reference to the approximate amount of time between my making the decision to do this hike and starting it – or (this is the more popular one) the amount of projected time I would last on this adventure.
So I passed three weeks and someone gave me a more fun name that I decided to keep – “Alpaca.”
The inspiration for that name came from a group of thru-hikers making fun of me and my pack load.
So what is it like out there and tell me again why you are doing this, Ray?
I don’t have a great answer for the latter part of the question but for the first part I would answer as follows:
Deciding to walk the Appalachian Trail (all 2,200 miles Georgia to Maine) is not dissimilar to volunteering for solitary confinement with the following three exceptions:
• that it is not confined;
• that you must carry and provide for your own meals and living necessities instead of having them provided to you;
• that each day you must walk up a set of stairs of varying length but all much longer than multiple football fields and then back down, while carrying a heavy weight on your back.
That is what it is like. It is a lot of very hard work and seldom are there any of these romantic “wander the country to be free” instances, although occasionally they do occur.
The “why” is where it starts getting interesting to me and I am still working on understanding it.
It has everything to do with meeting people and learning stuff you don’t know. It includes some effort to step outside of one’s comfort zone.
It has something to do with immersing oneself into an environment that is more free from all the noise and distractions that we all face day in and day out.
That includes electronics, the media, politics, stop lights and people honking at you, the artificial light and noise.
It has everything to do with absent all this static being better able to process your own life experiences, your own filters and biases, and your own self.
That is walking the AT. I don’t think it necessarily “adds” anything to your life. You don’t understand the universe when you finish. You don’t have life-changing epiphanies generally speaking.
Walking the Trail does not make problems back home go away or solve them. They are still there when you get back. But what I believe it does is give you a fighting chance to have a better idea of who you are and why you do and behave how you do because your time on the AT gives you a window to process your life experiences in a way that we seldom can.
Virginia Woolf once said, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
While her idea has application on a number of different levels, one of them has to do with having the environment within which one is able to understand, learn, and be creative. It is free from distraction and circumstance. Hiking the AT is not too dissimilar to Woolf’s “room of her own.”