Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive: August 2014
Readers Dish: The Hardest Hike You've Ever Enjoyed
Bill "Rock Lobster" Curtin, Westmont, Illinois
"I had already hiked 1,100 miles on the Appalachian Trail, but none would push me like the 13.5 I ground out in late November 2008. With temperatures in the high 20s, I woke to a thick fog and a thin patina of ice coating the barren branches of Shenandoah. The fog soon gave way to a slow but constant drizzle as the temperatures rose into the 30s. I hung back in the shelter as long as possible in hopes that the dangerously chilly rain would let up, but with my food supplies dwindling I knew I had to either make miles or go hungry. I finally put my head down and charged into the drizzle just after noon.
Shenandoah is not the toughest section of the AT by any means, but on this day a measly 1,000-foot climb seemed insurmountable. It was late in the season, and I was alone in the grey void of mist that encased the trail. With damp, numb fingers, a growing chill in my bones, and soggy boots that slid half a step down the mountain for every step up it, I barreled through the still-green rhododendrons as fast as I could. I knew that I didn't have much daylight left, and I wanted to make it to a shelter so that I could be sure of a dry night. It was so cold--and I had so little time before dark--that I had to keep moving or risk hypothermia. For four hours I chugged ever onward like the little train that could.
As I gritted out the longest climb of the day, the fog began to clear. More light started to filter through the haze, and the steady rain gradually became less steady before finally ceasing together. I paused, for the first time all day, as I noticed a spider web twinkling with the last drops of dew illuminating its intricately repetitive spiral pattern. I checked my guidebook against my surroundings, and mentally calculated a 3.4 mile-an-hour pace over the last four hours: no wonder I was exhausted! With daylight waning, I pressed on, and soon the rolling mist gave way to clear sky as I crested the last mountain of the day.
I had done it.
After four of the most miserable, damp, frigid, exhausting hours of my life, I had climbed above the clouds and now looked down on the dreary valleys and lesser peaks with the satisfaction of a newly minted god.
The barren tree branches permitted a glimpse of the setting sun, and I spotted a rocky outcrop 100 feet off the trail. I knew my final objective--the relative warmth and security of the shelter--lay no more than a quarter-mile away, so I picked my way through to that perch and watched the sun sink slowly into the gloom from which I had just emerged.
As I sat, I reflected on the day I had just endured and the entirety of the hike I had completed thus far. I had come to the Appalachian Trail at least partly in an attempt to discover true happiness, and on this day I’d found it in a way that sunny skies and rolling hills just could not deliver. It was only after enduring the frustration, exhaustion, and bitter cold of a hard day's hike that I finally understood: happiness requires contrast, not mere contentment. My formerly comfortable, well-fed, air-conditioned life had left me content. But now I knew: True happiness has to be earned. "
[photo courtesy of Bill "Rock Lobster" Curtin]