Lessons from the Trail (I)

Not long ago, I finished hiking all 229 miles of the Appalachian trail in Pennsylvania. A few sections of the Appalachian trail in PA, I hiked multiple times, thus adding quite a few, non-unique miles, to this substantial total. But I can honestly say that I’ve hiked every piece of the AT in Pennsylvania. I intend to keep going on the Appalachian trail, and to eventually complete the entire trek.  Most of this journey, I was accomplishing as a day hiker. I would load up my backpack, drive to a specific location, have someone pick me up, and then drop me off at a designated spot along the trail, twelve, fifteen, maybe even twenty miles away. I would hike for however long it took me to get back to my car, and then head home. I didn’t have to carry a particularly heavy backpack, pack a tent, a sleeping bag, sleeping mat, cookware, extra clothes, and multiple days worth of food. Most of the time, after my day hikes, I felt weary, hungry, and a little sore, but for the most part, exhilarated and satisfied. Additionally, the next day my body felt somewhat fatigued, but not with aches or pains. My feet were blister free, and my body devoid of scrapes and bug bites.
Recently, in an effort to tackle more miles at a time, I decided to start hiking multiple days on the trail. To execute this strategy, I needed to stay overnight in a shelter.  I could have packed a tent, but I decided to map out my course along the trail, and to set a stopping point, somewhat midway, at one of the shelters. Having done many outings of substantial miles in one single day, I set my first day mileage for 20 miles, and my second day mileage, which would bring me back to my car, at 16 miles.
I packed my backpack with the essentials, or so I believed. I had my backpack, sleeping bag, a few changes of clothes, a large container of body wipes, first aid kit, trowel, towel, paper towels, campsuds, rewetting drops, a massive charging battery, probably three days worth of food, three liters of water in large nalgene containers, a heavy knife, mres, camping cookware, butane burner and attachment, and various additional items I believed I would need to be prepared for the overnight excursion.
I was dropped off early in the morning, and confidently set out on my quest.
The first few miles were a breeze. I was riding a hefty caffeine rush, the cool morning air was invigorating, and the blissfulness of hiking and being outdoors carried me forward almost weightlessly. I blew through the first seven or eight miles before reaching the first shelter along the way, and chose to take a long rest. I refueled with a snack of trail mix, beef jerky, and an mre bar. There was drinkable water that flowed from a tap nearby. So, I refilled my two forty-eight ounce Nalgene bottles. A thru hiker came stopped at the shelter, going northbound towards New Jersey, while I was waiting, and we began to chat amicably. He introduced himself as Billy Goat, and gestured towards his friendly, but tired-looking dog, saying “and this is Springer.” Billy Goat was a young, college-aged Asian-American man who was nearing a reunion with his family, so that he could spend a few days off the trail with them at their home in New Jersey. He intended to continue along the trail further north, until it was time for him to take a break for college orientation. We went back and forth about our hiking experiences, about our background, and what had brought us to that moment of connection. He graciously introduced me to an invaluable app for navigating the trail, and of which I had previously been unaware, Guthook.  Our conversation continued for about fifteen minutes, while we rested and snacked, Springer laying in the shaded dirt beneath the cover of the shelters roof.  The conversation took a bit more of a serious tone when I asked him to share with me the most difficult part of his thru hike. Without hesitation, he said “Morale. Absolutely, morale.”
“Of all things, I didn’t expect that to be your answer. I thought maybe it would have been a difficult stretch in another state, or the absence of particular luxury items.” I said.
“Well, when I set out from Georgia, on my first three hundred miles, my dad was hiking along with me. And then he had to go back home to go back to work. I still had my dog, but I realized after he left how alone I felt. And then in the next few days, I hit a bad patch of really rough wintery weather, and in one day during the snow, I had four or five rough falls.  I then had to make find a camping spot that evening, and spent the entire night freezing. I honestly felt like giving up, it was so demoralizing. So when I say morale, that has truly been the most difficult challenge.”
This struck me very deeply. I had been hiking the trail in sections, one day at a time, wishing I could take off work to just disappear and thru hike the AT. As wonderful as that sounded to me I was ignoring a lot of the costs involved with such a journey. Maintaining a pace everyday was a challenging task. Planning, and calculating, and rationing, had its effect on ones nutritional and physical well-being. Braving the elements was a formidable obstacle. Naturally, hygiene was a consideration. For all of these, and so many more of the issues that could, and would, affect my body, I felt I was prepared. It was the soul side, the emotional, mental, and spirit challenges that I hadn’t really taken seriously. Billy Goat, though his story was told from a position of lightheartedness, had strong undertones of melancholy, and frustration. It was a warning to me, to not take the trail lightly. His message was clear, don’t discount the importance of morale. In order to last for the long haul, an internal fortitude is absolutely necessary. Maintaining morale on the journey was the most important element to him, and I would come to realize, it would be incredibly important to myself as well.

One thought on “Lessons from the Trail (I)

  1. I like the telling of your story, and the accomplishment of conquering PA AT.
    Especially great message from your new friend, Billy Goat. A universal lesson well-told.

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