In many ways, every thru-hiker undergoes his or her own psychology experiment: How will you adapt to the rigors of the trail? Will your motivation sustain you in the face of horrific weather, cranky companions, or injury? Do your relationships at home help or hurt your chances of success?
The mental challenges can transform a hiker in unexpected ways. When Duane had started walking, he'd treated it almost as a race, hurrying to knock off each day's mileage. (Hence his trail name, "Calculator.") But over time he's learned to slow down and enjoy the trail. He follows side paths to waterfalls and overlooks. Still, he admits feeling guilty that his wife is working overtime and taking care of their 13-year-old son. "She'll call and say, 'Are you about ready to come home yet?'" he says. He isn't, not by a long shot. He's dreamed about hiking the AT since he was a Boy Scout, more than three decades ago. "I'm gonna owe her big-time," he says. "But at my age, I feel like this is my one shot."
He isn't the only one whose cell phone pulled at his or her heart from time to time. "Each of us has someone at home who's enabling us to quit," Jimmy says.
Yet no one does quit. They had promised not to. "Every time we formed the Circle we renewed our agreement," says Carol. "Pulling together gave everyone strength."
They hike on, each week bringing them closer to their goal. Sometimes, toward the end of a long day, Jimmy whistles a tune to keep everybody going. At one rest stop, the over-50-year-olds play "duck-duck-goose." They swim naked in ponds and streams.
After the rocky unpleasantness of the mid-Atlantic states, they're relieved to reach cooler, greener Vermont, which they enter on July 27. That, plus their hard-won fitness, makes them feel so strong that in Hanover, New Hampshire, they hike an extra six miles rather than take the first rest day of the entire trip.
That is, all but one hiker feels strong. Dave has been getting slower with every passing week. Back in Pennsylvania, he had fallen into a rocky crevice that left him with a gashed forehead and a fear of hiking on rocks. He no longer trusts his balance. Crossing the White Mountains nearly does him in. At sunset on August 13, he's still on Mt. Carter, several miles out from the trailhead, hiking with Doyle. He sits down on a rock in despair, ready to give up. "I can't do this!" he says. "My legs don't work."
"You can do it, Dave!" Doyle urges. But Doyle knows that there's no way Dave can make it down before dawn. And the next day they're supposed to begin the Mahoosuc Range, which is perhaps the most deceptively difficult section of the entire trail. So he makes a snap decision: Dave will spend the night out on the mountain, and the following day will be an unscheduled rest day for the whole group. He gives Dave his extra clothing, wraps him in a space blanket, and hands him three Snickers bars. Dave will hike down at first light.
That night Doyle is more tense and anxious than I've seen him; the Circle is in danger of falling apart. "It's the most difficult moment of the trip," he tells me.
For most of the hike, Doyle has kept his distance from the group, hiking at night and sleeping mostly in his car. But now, all of a sudden, he is in their faces. He needs to know where everyone is, all the time; he locks horns with Pokey over her late starts. In the coming days, I'll watch him get in an argument with a trip member over whether that person is going to use a shelter privy, or go in the woods. "He thinks he has to babysit us," Jimmy complains.
The level of grumbling increases. A particular point of contention is his car, which the hikers are often forced to ride in if they want to get to town. It smells like a hunk of prime rib has been rotting in the trunk for a month. Eddie, the only hiker who has not joined the Circle, grows particularly embittered. Yet while he could easily leave at any moment and hike on his own--he even went out and bought a full-size backpack--he stays. "These are my friends," he says simply. The power of the Circle is so strong, apparently, that it even keeps dissidents in its orbit.
But can it keep Dave hiking? More to the point, should it?
It would be clear to any rational person that Dave needs to stop and rest for at least a week, maybe more. His knees are swollen, and his equilibrium is off. Not the kind of shape you want to be in for hiking the almost 300 miles of rugged, rocky terrain ahead. He'll be better off, and so will the group, freed from the burden of looking after him. As Claire, the van driver, notes in her blog, "The thought crossed my mind that [Dave] might just sit down and die on the trail if he didn't have the group to take care of him."
Dying might be an option, but quitting is not. If Dave leaves, the Circle will be broken. But would that really render the whole effort meaningless? "I think it would have been a failure in Warren's mind, but I wouldn't have taken that as a failure for the group," says Hazel.
The episode becomes a defining moment of the trip. "When Dave started having trouble, Warren stepped up as a leader," says Carol later. "He brought us all together to help Dave. Before that, we were on autopilot." Keeping the Circle together becomes Doyle's sole concern--just as he held his family together after his sister's death. And unlike the others, he knows the purifying power of physical suffering, and why it's worth embracing. He's known it ever since that first AT trek in 1973, one hot July day on a Pennsylvania ridge, when a pack of Girl Scouts--young women his dead sister's age--trooped past. He broke down sobbing. "I had lost all my emotional fat," he says.
That place, to him, is the true destination of a long-distance hike. It's something you find way beyond the boundaries of how much you think you can take. As I'd heard him ask a group of aspiring thru-hikers: "How long can you walk putting on wet socks every day? How long can you walk while sick? How much can you give?"
At a little before four in the morning, after six hours on the trail, we reach the Katahdin Stream campground. In its last throes, Hurricane Earl has unburdened itself of staggering amounts of rain--four inches in 14 hours, we later learn. We're soaked; I can feel water trickling down inside my underwear. Dave is still hiking, but slowly. We huddle under the campground's shelters, grateful for a break, and wait for three stragglers. As they often did, Pokey and Duane and Eddie had left Abol Stream later than everyone else, knowing they could catch up. But the gap has made Doyle agitated, and when the trio appears--after all of 15 minutes--he chastises them for being "irresponsible." Pokey stomps away, and for a few long moments it's unclear if she's coming back.