The following infographic details four gross, but entirely factual, elements associated with the Appalachian Trail. Feel free to print this out so you can educate others. Everyone loves facts.
I’ve been awake for about two weeks now. The previous five months were merely a dream.
You see, reality comes equipped with these little nuisances, we call “responsibilities”. In the dream, there was only one responsibility: “don’t die”.
Over the past five months I have stripped myself of excess. This not only refers to the physical comforts: a wardrobe, electronic entertainment on demand, artificial scents, food that expires, etc., but also all of the artificial bullshit that comes along with it. I wasn’t concerned with schedules – hell, over the last two months, I didn’t even have a watch. There was only day, night, and whatever shades that lie in between.
Today, I’m confronted with the task of re-integration. For anyone who hasn’t spent a half year removed from reality, you may have trouble empathizing with how difficult a task this really is. I’m not asking for your sympathy, I am fully aware how spoiled a lifestyle a long distance backpacker lives.
On a regular basis, I would come across a beautiful mountain overlook, waterfall, boulder field, etc. On a whim, I could stop, lie down, and soak in the day- and I often did. You sleep when you’re tired, eat when you’re hungry, relax when your lazy, and walk when you have energy. In the dream, you do as you please, when you please. The dream was awesome extract.
In the picture above, you are witness to what happens when a ginger head lays unattended for five months. Despite it’s inherent ability to repel women, the beard will remain an indefinite resident of my face.
But that’s neither here nor there.
Over the past five months, I have done my best to paint you a picture of what life looks like on the Appalachian Trail- with words. Today, I paint this picture with, well, pictures.
The video below highlights some of my favorite pictures taken over the course of my five months on the Appalachian Trail. I’ve been off the trail for less than a week and this slideshow already makes me feel super nostalgic. I’ve been told that the AT will leave a permanent emotional mark. I’m starting to understand this first hand.
Luckily I can tell people the tears on my face are merely beads of reverse-gravity beard sweat.
Quick side notes:
1) All of the pictures were taken with my iPhone 4
2) The songs in the video below, “The Day is Coming” and “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” are from My Morning Jacket’s latest album Circuitular. I listened to this album no fewer than 30 times, therefore it has a strong emotional connection to the trail for me – thus my reason for the selection.
3) I saw a total of one rainbow while on the trail (photo included in the video). It just so happened to appear while I was listening to Radiohead’s album In Rainbows. Coincidence?
4) The video is actually much closer to six minutes. I didn’t think that “Five Million Steps in Six Minutes,” had the same ring. No need to point this out.
Update: apparently YouTube is blocking the video because of the songs….trying Vimeo….stay posted.
Problem = resolved. For anyone who’s interested, this is how you can legally bypass YouTube’s audio copyright block.
So, just a couple of days ago, August 22nd, 2011, exactly 5 months and 1 day from my start date, I completed my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.
There will be more reflection and insights on my merging back into your crazy indoor universe in posts to come, but as for right now, I need to get to something very important off my chest.
It’s nearly impossible to recall all of the acts of kindness I have been the recipient of over the last 5 months. Friends, family, and strangers have been absurdly generous throughout this entire journey. To a weary hiker, receiving a mail drop means much more than the cookies, whiskey, or baby wipes that lie inside. It serves as a reminder of the people who care and are pulling for you to persevere. I have been running on a fuel source compromised mostly of your love (and high fructose corn syrup).
And because of this, I want to say THANK YOU.
The following list of thank you’s attempts to cover all of the individuals who have been instrumental in offering a hand along the way.
Preamble: This post is both long and un-funny. I am taking a momentary lapse from humor to rant about a subject that I have spent much time consumed in the last 150 days or so. Despite what the proceeding post would imply, I still find fart jokes to be tremendously funny.
Although I joke about the profound truths that have found me along the trail, I have undeniably had moments of clarity. Moments where “life” seemed to make perfect sense.
In the process of being removed from the onslaught of media stimuli, the superficial concerns that plague much of society’s motives (status and appearance mean nothing out here), and the self induced stress that comes alongside a long work week that offers little to no sense of fulfillment- my eyes have been opened to a new “normal”. Currently, my days consist of: walking terrain that could be described as both tranquil and majestic, quiet moments of introspection, cracking jokes with other smelly hikers, and all the other daily human chores (pooping, eating, and sleeping). But of even greater importance than the new culture I have become a member of over the last four months, is the outside perspective I have gained of the society I have recently left behind.
To put it bluntly, there is a lot of bullshit permeating through our lives. Some “bullshit” (we’ll call negative emotions, energies, events, etc), is inescapable: disease, death, serious financial hardship. Most of this bullshit, however, is entirely artificial; of our own creation.
I want to talk about the artificial bullshit.
I’ve received a few requests for an updated list of the gear that currently rides on Badger’s back. This post is dedicated to you. And whoever else may derive value out of it.
Instead of listing everything that I’m using, I will detail only the differences in gear from my original departure.
I write this from the cement patio floor of a frat house at Dartmouth College. This is completely irrelevant to the proceeding post- but how could I not mention that?
You know that uneasy feeling you get when some significant stage in your life is nearing its conclusion? Maybe you’ve experienced this during your senior year of high school, or college, or before moving to a new city or leaving a job, or the end of a meaningful relationship. You’re still in the midst of it, but once you let your mind wander just a little bit forward in time, you can sense the end. I call this “Last Lap-itis”.
I have a severe case of Last Lap-itis.
You should definitely pay attention to this post if you are:
1) Planning on doing any sort of extended backing packing trip in the future, and
2) A sweaty individual
You can still pay attention if you are only one or none of these things, but you have less to gain (other than a sense of superiority over Badger).
So in the “Rolling with the Rocks” post, I lightly detailed some of the longer term physical ailments I had been battling. Admittedly, I had underplayed the degree to which I was suffering.
Starting in approximately mid to late May, when northern Virginia was hit by an unseasonable heat wave, I really learned that the Appalachian Trail is a three season sport. The temperatures during this stretch got into the mid 90’s, with the heat index (the feeling outside according to human skin) reaching into triple figures. Although it has cooled off a bit since, our average day has been in the mid to upper 80s.
A little biological background on Badger: I am a sweaty dude (I think it’s all the hair?). After going for a run, I have been questioned on multiple occasions if “I had just jumped into a pool, or something?” No. I perspire the same way I do most things in life, excessively and intensely.
So what happens when you put a 30 lb pack on a professional perspirer, tell him to walk up a mountain, and the outside temperature feels like 100 degrees? Funny you should ask- I will tell you.
Well for starters, a hospital visit.
Many of my posts attempt to paint broad strokes of life on the Appalachian Trail. Whether it be the social dynamics, the concept of trail magic, or the personal growth that comes from a few challenging weeks- I have a tendency to try and place all events into a larger, overarching theme.
But not every event on the trail fits under the category of a challenge, learning lesson, or cultural oddity. Some days- are just days.
And some days- are just good days.
Allow me to paint the picture of a good day on the Appalachian Trail for you.
Lets play a visualization game, shall we?
Close your eyes and envision outer space just moments after the big bang. What do you see? Chaos, right? Some gasses are spinning off in separate directions while others are pulled together due to their gravitational force. That is until another wave of hot gasses ruptures through and breaks the converging mass thus creating a whole new series of smaller sets of gasses as well as other converging masses. The only constant- is change.
Now, replace “hot gasses” with “smelly hikers” and you have accurately grasped the social construct of the Appalachian Trail. Actually, the proper term would be “smelly hiker with hot gasses” (the AT is pretty much a symphony of farts- yes I found it necessary to inform you of that. Blame yourself for ever reading this site).
Prior to departing for the AT, I had imagined the trail to be a cluster of static groups marching north from Springer Mountain, Georgia. And in the early stages of the trail, this is exactly how it worked. Most hikers either come out with another person/multiple people or quickly attach to those within a near proximity, not unlike the way you would make friends on the first day of school. Groups would form to relieve the anxiety of not having to walk through the cold, bare woods by your lonesome. Early on, it wouldn’t be uncommon to witness groups of up to eight people stroll into a campground at a time.
Slowly, however these groups started to break into smaller divisions. The 45 year old school teacher had less in common with the 19 year old stoners than she may have originally considered. Or – the super competitive, army vet wanted to push out big miles while their soon-to-be former hiking companion was slowed due to a series of small nagging injuries. All of a sudden the grouping by proximity philosophy started to prove impermanent.
Soon group dynamics had more to do with common interests and hiking pace. The recent college grads looking to do 22-mile days seemed to find one another. So too did the retirees. Groups of 6-7 now were in clusters of 2-4.
And then eventually, the concept of “group hiking“ breaks down as we know it. Although it’s not unusual for hikers to arrive to a common destination in groups of 2 or 3, the day of the static group is over (with few exceptions, of course).
It is at this point you might hike with the same person for three days, split apart because they needed to stop into town to pick up a mail-drop, only to run into this person two weeks later and resume hiking as if you’ve never separated.
It is at this point you have likely camped underneath the stars by yourself- multiple times.
It is at this point you have likely gone a full day without seeing another human being.
It is at this point in the hike, the AT cliché “hike your own hike” has really taken precedence.
To the reader at home, I understand that the concept of hiking/camping alone for a few days might seem terrifying. I assure you however, that it is not. After a few months of living in the woods, the woods become your mental concept of home. A tree becomes the norm, while a building, road, or artificially scented human being is what stands out as unique. Now, you feel no more uncomfortable walking through the mountains by yourself, as you would have felt sitting on your couch watching TV by yourself just a few months before. We have turned into feral creatures.
But still – you might be thinking, “maybe hiking alone isn’t that bad, but I would still prefer to hike with someone else.” Maybe you would fall into this small subset of people who remain with the same familiar faces. Odds are, however, that you would eventually feel otherwise.
The alternative to “hiking your own hike” is essentially, “to hike someone else’s hike”. This could require forcing big miles in the face of severe fatigue, deviating into the nearest town when you have more than enough supplies to get to the following, or taking it easy on a day where your energy level is screaming 25+ miles. For a few days, or even a few weeks, this compromise may be worth the social security. Remaining with the same person/people for 5-6 months and working around their schedule arouses a level of annoyance meant to be reserved only for those in the institution of marriage. The AT, in large part, is about finding yourself – which is hard to do if you’re living on someone else’s terms.
Collectively, what the social dynamics have evolved into, is a community of independent spirits. Often we are still pack creatures enjoying each others company, but our long-term loyalties are tied only to ourselves.
Finding peace in times of solidarity, I believe, is one of the true benefits of this journey.