When I started hiking my first long distance trail – The Appalachian Trail in 2011 – I was no spring chicken. I was not straight out of college…newly free in the adult world. Instead, I was nearing forty, had been married for over ten years and had had a professional career. So, it would be only reasonable to think that I already knew what life – and myself, for that matter – was all about.
I came to see that one of the best parts of long distance hiking is the way that life gets boiled down to the essentials…food, lodging, water. Without all of life’s other distractions, life becomes simple and more peaceful. In this new reality, it is pretty easy to see where some of my preconceived notions, or idiosyncrasies just didn’t make sense. They were no longer masked by societal expectations, and I could clearly see what was important and what wasn’t.
Most people who know me, would never describe me as a competitive person. However, I have known for years that I have a ridiculous need to be better than other people – not something that I am proud to declare to the world, but I’m just trying to be honest. Whether it’s playing pool, learning Swahili, or ____, I have secretly harboured a competitive nature which makes me want to do all things better than others. Hiking was not any different for me. I wanted to be able to hike faster and longer than the other folks on the trail. Hiking the Appalachian Trail showed me pretty quickly, that this competitiveness of mine was completely silly. Whether someone walked 10 miles a day, 20 miles a day, or 5 miles a day, who cares? No one is keeping score…and if they are, then they’re lame. Hiking over 2,000 miles is such a big accomplishment, that distorting it by comparing your days hiked to others is just disappointing. Appreciating your own accomplishments for what they are has been a big lesson for me.
Most people have heard the saying which goes something like, “Long distance hiking is a small % physical and large % mental.” I never really gave this much thought before getting into long distance hiking. However, as the long hours of walking, many days of rain, numerous blisters, and general calorie deficiency took their toll, I knew I had to keep walking. As my legs got stronger, my mind would sometimes sour. I could easily frown my way into a bad mood during the day, as the negative self-talk with get going. I was surprised how easily, this could come on, and luckily, how easily my mood could return to positive. All it would take for me, would be a short rest break, a snack, or just talking with Beardoh. These things would raise my spirits and I would be ready to tackle the final miles for the day. This realization that my attitude makes such a difference on my experience has helped me to be more aware both on and off the trail.
There have been several experiences in my life which have had a lasting impression on me. The unifying lesson from these experiences is that “I can do anything.” I don’t mean that in a sassy, “don’t tell me what to do” way. Instead, what I mean to get across is that I am pretty resilient, resourceful and committed. Those qualities will help me to be successful in a variety of endeavors. Whether it is hiking a long distance trail, volunteering for the Peace Corps, or studying in a foreign country during high school, I know that I am capable. This knowledge will help me to embrace new and exciting opportunities in the future.
Even though I wasn’t visited by a great epiphany while on my long distance hikes, I see all of the smaller lessons as a blessing.
Prior to my first thru-hike, I considered myself a fairly introverted type of person. I worked from home for over a decade, my hiking outings were generally with my wife or one or two other friends. We live in a very small town in New Hampshire, and do not get out into the bar scene or have a real outlet to meet new people. This suited me fine at the time.
Our first hike was on the Appalachian Trail in 2011. My wife and I choose to hike the less chosen direction – southbound – partly for scheduling reasons, but also to not be part of the crowd that was headed northbound (*in recent years the starting number of hikers starting at the southern terminus (northbounders) has approached 3000, while hikers starting at the northern terminus (southbounders) has been just shy of 300). At the time, we expected and desired a more solitary experience. Wandering the woods alone has a certain romance to it.
What we found however, was that there were quite a few south-bounders. We saw other hikers nearly every day….especially in the first several hundred miles of the hike. We camped with other hikers quite regularly, and learned that people are continually leapfrogging one another. We’d hike with someone for a day, then not see them for a week, and then they happen to be cooking up their Ramen at the shelter that we planned to stay at that night. And…the hikers that we met were great people. People from several ‘walks of life,’ in different places in their lives, and out there for a lot of different reasons. We spend significant time with a retired fire chief, an ex-insurance risk assessor, recent college grads, a minister on sabbatical, and many others.
I found myself loving this interaction with a variety of types of people….and I didn’t expect to take so much enjoyment from this side of a long distance hike – the social side of backpacking wasn’t something I’d given much thought beforehand. Meeting new people, daily at the beginning, and weekly towards the end (as less hikers were on the trail) was very gratifying. We were all on this multi-month journey, not necessarily together, but on the same path. We had a commonality in that moment in time, a similar goal, which made us – forgive me for sounding kitschy – a ‘tribe.’
The surprise to me was this: I am more social than I think of myself. There is a special humanity on the trail, a bit of kindred spirit, and a lot of good will – be it from hikers, trail angels, or just simply strangers that we have met on the trail. This makes long distance hiking as a sport standout….and is one of the reasons I love it so much.