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Editor’s note: In advance of our second annual AT in a Day trail event on August 20, 2016, we’re publishing some of our recent love letters to the AT, long-distance hiking, and the wide, wonderful outdoors. Show your support by signing up for a trail segment and helping us thru-hike the AT in a day.
I believed what I had to in the beginning. Mostly, that my 10-week hike on the Appalachian Trail was the same as 10 weeklong trips. I was wrong, but how could I have known? I could barely even focus. Not with the din of unread email, urgent deadlines, and calendar alerts playing like a soundtrack through my life. It was a week before I stopped feeling those phantom vibrations in my phone pocket. It was two weeks before I stopped missing the whiz-bang instant gratification and started being free.
In this hyper-connected world, any individual’s purview is pretty much unlimited. I could Skype with my nieces in the Philippines, catch up with old friends without the hassle of talking, and search for a soulmate with an online form. Existing beyond our own physical reach is a point of pride in this modern life. We strive for it; we need it. And I thought I needed it, too.
So when I decided to long-distance hike, I didn’t know it yet, but I was rejecting this modern world with the cold finality of Connection Lost. And I wanted to think I’d grow, personally, mile by mile, but that’s not what happened. Instead, I shrank—fast—to the exact size of one human being. It’s a scale I knew nothing about.
The transition wasn’t easy. At first I worried—about bears, about how dirty my hands really were, about whether my headlamp’s batteries would last all the way to the gear shop in Neels Gap, Georgia. And a few days went by and I was bug-bit and animal-hungry. My back hurt, my feet hurt, I smelled like a hobo—hell, I’d have robbed a hobo for a Hot Pocket.
Then around three weeks, there’s a shift. You get your trail legs, but can only realize this as an absence—you’re no longer robot-stiff in the morning, and hiking actually feels good and normal and right. The days glob together. Worry is replaced by wonder, and then wonder by sheer, beautiful, uncomplicated existence. You’re floored by the way tree bark looks when the afternoon shadows give it infinite depth, the sight of a caterpillar silhouetted through a beech leaf, the way a summer cloudburst sounds when you can’t get out of it and don’t care, because being wet has been a condition of life forever and now it’s part of yours, too.
You touch rocks with your hands and feel the trail with your feet. You suck water straight off the earth (sometimes without even filtering it), and you divide things into two groups: That which you can do something about, and That which you can’t do anything about anyway, so what’s the use. You leave that second group in a privy somewhere around the Smokies—the one with no roof, no walls, and a view of the deep, old forest. You bathe in a mountain stream and it makes you feel better than you ever thought possible.
Then one morning, you open your tent door and you know, sure as dew glistens in the sun, that you are just exactly where you should be. There’s no distinction between you and the woods and the trail, because you are all part of the same bigger organism, all characters in the same larger picture. And that’s what everyone means when they say, “Hike your own hike,” and “The trail will provide.”
You nap in a meadow atop a Tennessee bald because the wind whisks the grass in a way that makes you want to dream. You smile like a fool, and you lick your peanut butter spoon after it falls in the pine duff without even thinking about it—sort of like a 5-year-old kid (page 72). You wake up at dawn and fall asleep at dusk, and you feel this is somehow right. You make memories and friends and sign the trail register with a new—and strange—name. You take your watch off and mail it home, and the idea that the same ragged, calendar-synced world is dragging on without you is like a fairy tale.
Because when we’re striving to extend ourselves as far over the planet as possible, what we’re really after is connection. We’re just casting as wide a net as we can for it. But only when we give up the hunt do we find what we’re looking for. So go. Find a trail—one of the famous ones, or one closer to you—and learn what it’s like to be there. Learn about life at the exact size of one human being.
5 Tips for Long Distance Hiking
Advice for the would-be thru-hiker in your life.
1. You can’t train up to 20-mile trail days—expect a couple weeks of body break-in— but you should be in shape. Start here: backpacker.com/getfit.
2. Keep town stops quick. Plan nutritious meals and send yourself packed boxes to post offices close to the trail.
3. Make yourself a 1-ounce alcohol stove: backpacker.com/alcoholstove.
4. Get your head around hitchhiking, because you’ll do plenty of it in order to resupply.
5. Carry an umbrella. Nothing fancy, just a non-collapsible, drugstore umbrella and cut the handle off (to save weight). You’ll always have a dry place to cook, consult your map, and just rest.