On October 16th, 2015 my northbound thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail ended. I decided to not climb Katahdin due to blizzard conditions and return in the spring with my little brother. This meant I would not try to climb in unsafe conditions with my crew, but I owned my decision to climb the last mountain with my brother. Ultimately, it took me 6.5 months from the start in Georgia to that day but I still am incredibly grateful to have had the experience of a lifetime doing that long distance trail. In June of 2016, I road tripped up from Philly just to climb that last mountain.
Since having done the trail life has been good but… there is just one problem, I still haven’t re-acclimated to civilized life.
Honestly, I was always told and even believed people when they said that the world will not be the same when you return home. No kidding. I still bring up stories from the AT and I am sure that my best friends and family are tired of the tales I bring up. But I can’t help it. Its in my blood now, and I will admit that I am completely living a minimalist lifestyle for the hope and plan to do more thru-hiking some day.
I know that my eyes probably glean over when people ask me for a story and reply with, “From which state?” I know that I am prone to looking off into the distance when I begin pontificating and reliving memories. I still can picture places at the drop of a hat when they are mentioned.
Upper Goose Pond.
100 Mile Wilderness.
I can picture and even smell those places and how wet (or not) I was when I visited each of those places.
I bought close to 20 new albums to listen to when hiking so that after I finished my hike, when I listened to those albums I would be transported back to where I was when I first heard each song.
Its difficult to translate or to even expect others to understand what you have gone through. The suffering, the rain, the cold, the hunger, the night-moose, the bears, the hitches, the mouse-that-got-into-the-foodbag, all of it. I want to experience all those things again.
Civilized life is too dang safe, comfortable, predictable, easy. Sometimes I just want to sleep outside on the ground without a tent.
But that’s not all.
I am sure I will come across as condescending in these next comments, but I fear I must attempt to communicate the very things that are always echoing within me.
I see so many people living without living. So many people breathing without thriving. I see so many people pea-cocking their feathers up and trying to impress other people (sometimes that is still me). I see so much dang pageantry that I get nauseous looking at Hollywood. Our clothes, our cars, our vocabularies, our haircuts, our titles are all just trying to sell other people on an image of ourselves that we hope they will buy. How do we know when we have sold ourselves out and in the process have sold our souls and lost sight of our true selves?
Last summer I was at a coffeeshop at the Jersey shore. I forget what paraphernalia I was wearing, but it was some shirt that said Appalachian Trail on it. The kind barista was ringing up my coffee when she asked if had ever done part of the AT. I replied, “Yes, I did it.” Immediately, she stopped and said, “Wait, the whole thing? I’d love to do it. What advice do you have for me?”
All expression dropped from my face and in a slow voice I looked at her directly in the eyes and said, “Quit your job right now and drive to Georgia. I’ll even give you my pack today.”
It was like I was possessed. Her face turned serious as I imagine she quickly took stock of the repercussions of doing just what I said. I further commented, “Too many people forget to live while they are alive. No one will give you permission to start doing your bucket list, so you have to take permission for yourself and start living.”
Right now I live just west of Philadelphia. The area does not have nearly enough trees, and all the land is bought and taken up. There are not enough parks or rivers or streams for the soul of a person to thrive.
On the Trail there are plenty of slogans or catchphrases to keep us motivated, or with good spirits. Of course, people quote JRR Tolkien’s “Not all who wander are lost.” But Jack Kerouac has a famous quote as well that I think hits just the right tone for western civilization’s idolatry of hurry, noise and crowds…
“Because in the end you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that @$!%#$# mountain.”
With all sincerity, I still eat ramen from my cook pot. I can’t help but get nostalgic every time I see a Mango-Rita at the liquor store. I have my hammocks hung up on my wall as decoration (and easy access).
But what was it about the whole experience? Well, I don’t think I can boil it down to one thing, because there were a number of things that made it so remarkably transformative for me.
So let me begin with this…
1. I once had a professor who told me that the three greatest obstacles to having any kind of interior or reflective life are…
Those three things are a kind of unholy trinity that keep people from having lives of depth, meaning, challenge and growth. Especially if your life is dominated by all three. The trail will show to you your comfortability or addiction to those three things rather quickly. There is no need for watches, there is sunrise and sunset to gauge your day by. There is no noise pollution from cars, planes, loud stereos, etc. Not to mention, there is no mental clutter caused by billboards, commercials, trash magazines in the checkout isle, tv or movies. And finally, you might run into people, but there are no more crowds to stay anonymous within. Instead, you have clear opportunity for intentionality, meaningful sound or silence, and bonfire conversations with no more than a handful of people.
2. Mountains are great levelers. They put everyone on even ground. It doesn’t matter your titles, your age, your gender. All that matters is if you had the gumption and drive and perhaps stupidity to keep putting one foot in front of another. Yes, other people in your crew can cheer you on and walk with you, but deep within, it is always your choice to keep moving forward. Even if it is by a few inches.
3. Carrying all you need on your back is both the best and the worst (and now I am a self-proclaimed minimalist). Modern life is filled with so much comfort but not much quality. Once you go through the experience of a thru-hike, you can’t help but become a minimalist and thus have difficulty re-aquiring certain comforts/luxuries. Its one thing to buy a new couch because you want it, its another to do with what you have so you can put that $300 toward your next cold, wet and sleepless adventure.
Every so often, I have to catch myself on a youtube binge. I will confess to having lost more than a few minutes just watching other people’s highlight reels from other long distance trails around the world. The PCT, the CDT, the Te Aurora, the El Camino. Golly. I want to do all of them and I want to relish those unexpected conversations and mishaps that could happen on any of them as if they were sacraments themselves.
Life is meant to be lived. It sounds so cliche’ to say that, but I think once you have actually done it everything else feels bland. This doesn’t mean that every moment needs to be an extreme adventure, but perhaps every moment needs to be embraced and not merely endured.
A friend from the trail and I commented about how western culture doesn’t really have any rites of passage. Sure, prom is kind of one. So is getting your drivers license. But we really need to encourage pilgrimage, something like an Australian walkabout, or taking a gap year between high school and college. We learn so much about ourselves and the world through these types of experiences. They broaden our world, humble our perspectives and help to declutter our homes and souls.
I’m not saying everyone has to hike. It may not be for you. But to not dive into life as though it is an adventure may be slowly eating away at your chances of depth and vitality.
I guess I don’t know where I am going with this. I guess I just don’t want to forget the lessons I have learned and I don’t want to go back to the old way of doing life. So, yeah.
2 years and I still haven’t re-acclimated…
And I don’t think I want to.