On November 24th I climbed Mt. Springer. It was an 8 mile day, and I made it last, falling behind my friends and stopping here and there to look around and think. It seemed like I hadn’t done enough of that during my hike. Clear images of every view and blue blaze I had ever passed, set on getting some miles, marched through my mind. What was I in such a rush for?
Then again, I guess I did that part pretty well. Nowhere did I record how many zeroes I took, and never did I regret a single one. When something seemed interesting I stopped and checked it out; I talked with people I met. Toward the end I seriously considered extending the hike past Thanksgiving, and after all, I certainly spent a lot of time checking out views. Still, on the edge of the end of it, I deeply regretted missing anything.
Thanksgiving was amazing. My family, always considerate, had made sure there was food without meat in it for me, despite me never asking for that. Truth be told, I probably would have eaten whatever was there if they hadn’t done this. I don’t expect special treatment.
Walking all day gives you a lot of time to think. This is an aspect of the trail that doesn’t get enough coverage. Out there things become clear. I realized that I had engaged in a lot of small, silly conflicts with people I care about and respect over things that I can’t change. More than this, though…I had a habit of engaging in these conflicts. I tend to stick to my guns on things like ethical decisions (vegetarianism), but so do other people. At the end of the hike I was (and remain) more interested in the things that I can change.
This has given me a renewed energy. I’m beginning a new career, inspired partially by a hiker named Illusive who I met in West Hartford, VT. At age 35 he quit his job as a teacher and became a software developer. He wrote his own genealogy software in C, then implemented it again and again with each new language he learned, expanding his understand constantly. Illusive was probably 65 when I met him, and he spoke almost wistfully of his early days as a programmer, learning new things, exploring this new world where his actions had the power to accomplish big things. It reminded me of how much I love working with computers. It woke an old wonder in me.
In the 11 days since the end of my hike I’ve learned more about programming than I had in the previous 10 years. I get up, make some coffee, and sit down to learn. I can sit still. I can focus, with or without some wordless EDM in the background. Everything is interesting now. Each problem is an opportunity to improve, and each task deserves my attention. This is something everyone else seems to grasp intrinsically, but I’ve always had a hard time with it. In the wake of my hike, the things that are important seem very clear to me. I don’t waste a lot of time.
Just as rest days are a fundamental component of turning your body into a hiking machine, stopping to pwn some n00bs in Battlefield 4 on my mom’s Playstation 3 is a vital part of this learning process. Just kidding. The n00bs pwn me more often than not, but still. You have to give your brain some time to relax.
The lessons I learned out there apply very smoothly to other aspects of life. Forgive me for talking about gear (it’s something the newer hikers tend to do, I know), but the mental process of evaluating, in iterative fashion, what is necessary and what isn’t, is wholly applicable to life in general. I always believed in a casual way that you don’t really need a lot of clutter to live happily, but I now enact this maxim with force. Someone offered to buy me some clothes, saying I would need them for the winter. I made it out there, I said. Nothing here will be any worse. Still, my brother loaned me a pair of pants and a t-shirt, and my dad gave me a hoodie, for which I’m grateful. There’s something to be said for not looking like a homeless person in public. Yes, I checked what materials they were made of and weighed them against my lightweight hiking stuff. Don’t judge me.
In southern Virginia we ran into a NOBO named Chewy who had skipped a 100-mile section and returned to finish it. One night at the campfire he said he felt like he was chasing the ghost of his hike, a ghost that always remained just ahead around the next bend. His friends were gone, finished, summitted, heading home, off in another world. Everything was different. But there he was, still hiking, seeking something.
I think I’d feel the same way out there. Athena’s out living the life still, doing a section near Roan Mountain that is now free of the snow that gave us several grueling 1 MPH days in that area. I’m sure it’s great, but I have to remember that my task is sitting in front of my old Macbook, developing skills that will (hopefully soon) allow me to go live in the woods again…but also to accomplish other things in this world.
It’s important to stay centered. I’ve tried not to think about it much. It would be easy to indulge myself and binge on sadness and longing for that life. It’s all right there behind each thought: bright summer days, towering storms perched on ridges above, the OH SHIT of startling a bear in the early morning, the taste of water after a too-dry day, the beautiful biting cold, the warmth of running into a friend I thought I’d never see again. Nothing I write will ever encapsulate the magic of it. If you’ve been there you know, and if you haven’t you should give it a try.
I’ll be back. Moonshine asked me why in a text. I stared at that text, uncomprehending. Finally I answered that I’m not done with The People’s Trail. I’ll go north for another through hike, probably in 2016. I can’t wait to feel those pains and pleasures again and see months of freedom stretched out before me. I’m a solitary guy most of the time, but I chase novelty. I went out there to find newness, and found it. What could be more novel to a quiet, contemplative guy than hiking with hundreds of other people (10 times as many hikers go north as go south)? I can hardly wait for that adventure!
There will be another entry or two. I have a list of questions people have asked, and thought it would be best to answer then here rather than in person over and over. Eventually I’ll put this all in a section of the blog and continue to use it for other things. There’s no final word, though. This thing, I suspect, will not finish until I die. This is the new me.