hiking in Pennsylvania tag

Rolling With The Rocks: Learning Lessons From the Trail

It was early February of this very same year. My mom, along with one of her long time friends, had come to visit me in San Diego.

Over lunch, we began discussing my upcoming, seemingly insane adventure of an entirely inexperienced camper going into the woods for a half year backpacking trip- covering the length of the East Coast.

My mom’s friend asked how I thought I would respond to the trail’s more challenging moments. A very fair question, and one I had spent the previous two months wondering myself.

Quickly my mom interjected, “you know Zach, if you end up hating it, there’s no shame in leaving the trail early. There’s no good reason to force something you don’t enjoy upon yourself.”

At this point in my life, any response other than the one I had just received from my mom would have been a major surprise. She wants nothing more than for her kids to be happy, comfortable, and above all, safe.

That’s why I knew my response to her would cause alarm.

“You know what the weird thing about this trip is? I hope parts of it suck…I hope parts of it suck beyond belief. If I come out of this without any struggle- I don’t think I will have received the full experience. I will have missed an opportunity for growth. To answer your question I look forward to the trail’s challenges.

Fast forward to June 17, 2011

The day began with stiff joints and sore muscles. Not uncommon following a 27 mile day, especially one covering some of the rockiest terrain experienced on trail thus far. Fourteen hours of backpacking doesn’t exactly leave much energy in the tank for the necessary stretching or care taking. Upon rising I was immediately paying the consequences. As I sat up in the crowded, mini-shelter (known to be the home of a nearby Copperhead Snake as mentioned in the trail register), the swollen feet pain was immediately met by the realization that I had scheduled another 24 miles for myself today. ShitFuck.

As is usually the case- a few miles of walking tends to numb any sort of pain you were experiencing to start the day. Today was no exception. I’m no doctor, but I’m guessing that the human body eventually gives up on sending pain signals once it realizes the individual is too stubborn to alter their behavior accordingly.

Before leaving the day’s first resting point- we note that the next spot to get water is 12 miles away. This span- would involve 85 degrees of direct sunlight and what appeared in our guide book to be a pretty serious climb- at least by Pennsylvania’s standards. I load my pack up with 4 liters of water (almost 9 extra lbs) to prepare for the upcoming stretch.

Upon crossing Lehigh river it was quickly apparent that this climb was not only steep and into a looming dark sky, but the terrain was a sheer rock face, rendering my hiking poles useless.

(the iPhone wordpress app doesn’t allow me to rotate an image. Get your shit together wordpress)

Much of the ascent was so intense that I had to throw my poles ahead of me because climbing required the use of all four limbs. A misstep or faulty rock meant a steep fall and a very bloody Badger. Add 40 lbs onto my back and a heightened state of alertness became an involuntary response.

To my surprise, I summit the mountain without breaking my face open. Because this particular stretch is so rocky- there are very few tress to obscure my view of the awesome lightning storm happening to the mountain range just to the west. I just hoped it was moving in any direction other than towards me.

I wasn’t so lucky.

As the lightning storm moved closer to me – and my metal hiking poles – my pace began to increase. It wasn’t until I hit the rocky descent that the rain and lightning really intensified. Perspective was gained that what I did on the way up the mountain was more challenging than it was dangerous. Now I was hopping from wet, jagged boulder to wet, jagged boulder with lightning striking in all directions of me. This was more dangerous than challenging- and still very challenging.

Before I know it- I’ve reached the gap (the bottom of the mountain). The whole experience was so intense it felt like it couldn’t have lasted longer than 30-45 minutes. In reality- I had just covered 5 miles- in just over two hours. Apparently time flies when you’re about to die.


This is just one challenging day of many in the recent past.

Add to the above that I’ve been battling pretty severe headaches for over a week (enough so that I made a hospital visit to be tested for Lyme Disease) – a near constant battle with Mosquitos, ticks, and gnats, and a brutal heat wave – and, well…

I got what I was asking for.

This stretch has “sucked beyond belief”.

Well, at least, it should have sucked beyond belief.

Despite all of the elements going against what would be considered “perfect”- I’ve managed to keep a clear, appreciative mind-state (at least relatively so).

I’m learning to roll with the punches- whether the punches be rocks, lightning, dehydration, or parasites. The woods have a way of keeping perspective. A perspective that life will deal to you what it will – it’s up to you to decide how these elements are perceived.

I perceive a life of walking in the woods. What more could I ask for?