One night at a shelter in the White Mountains I met a hiker named Gandalf. The most important thing about through hiking, he said, was this: “First, start out slow. Then…slow down.” This is good advice. Athena and I had a slow day yesterday, and decided to spend the night at Black Bear Resort near Hampton, Tennessee. Sure, we could’ve pushed on, and sure, we could’ve walked out this morning, but instead I’m right here with a space heater next to me and a chance to do a little writing. We may or may not stay another night. The weather’s a-changin’. We’ve had some chilly nights, but nothing we couldn’t deal with, partially due to the amazing mittens Athena’s mom, Daphne, made for me.
We hiked for a while with Forager, a 24 year old with a knack for finding and identifying edibles on the trail. Over a couple of weeks he became one of my favorite hikers. Things happen when he’s around: climbing up cliffs, impromptu root beer floats, easy rides to places we need to go. Hiking with him made me feel like a hiker. We tented next to waterfalls I would’ve skipped otherwise. We met town folks out partying and got some free beers. Forager’s openness just attracts these situations.
Taking a random zero here will put him quite a bit ahead of us, and I’m guessing we won’t see him again, which sucks. But that’s how it goes. The trail teaches you how to say goodbye to people, at least in your mind.
This morning I wrote the beginning of a program for creating fantasy words in C++. I just used a text editor, but it’s solid code. I can see already that it’s going to become very complex, which is expected. For example, if I want the user to be able to specify a syllable count, I have to really define what a syllable is; this isn’t as straightforward as it might seem, but it’s a great exercise. Doubtless there are places where people have posted algorithms for that sort of thing already, but it feels good to think through and solve a problem like that.
Early on in my hike I said things like, “In a way I’m already ready to get off the trail.” By that I didn’t mean that I desire an end to the hike, but that I’m okay with the idea. After just a week of hiking I already felt like I’d accomplished much of what I came out here to do. That feeling is stronger now, almost overwhelming at times. I love the hiking, the culture, the friendships, the cold, the campfires, the bear encounters, the unexpected kindness, all the weird and wonderful stuff you see and do when you’re carrying all you need on your back. I love it all, and yet I’m content with the idea that soon it’ll be over for now.
Lots of people say, “You’re only going to do this once, so do it right.” That’s true in a general sense; your average through hiker will hike only once. It would surprise me if I hike the entire AT fewer than 3 times in my life, though. The PCT is more beautiful, according to most everyone…the CDT is more remote and peaceful…but these are folks I meet out here, people who have been everywhere else and still come back to Appalachia. They’re old timers with tens of thousands of hiking miles, young men barely old enough to shave, parents, scientists, criminals, and teachers. Something brings them back here again and again. It’s hard to imagine being long separated from this new world.
Still, there are things I need that I can’t easily get here. I need intellectual challenges. Staring at my code and finding an effective way to achieve results that actually sound like words was really fun. It surprised me. Athena sat here and watched for a while, and I explained what I was doing, stepping from line to line and telling what it all meant and did. My interest in programming is rubbing off on her a bit. I’m a miserable programming teacher, if only because I’m a total amateur, but I can at least introduce her to some of the concepts she’ll run into when she finishes the trail and tries a CS course, as she’s planning on doing. Actually, if she understands most of what I’ve told her, the first CS course is likely to hold no real surprises. You have a lot of time to talk while hiking. At this point we’ve definitely covered material outside the scope of my own first SC class.
Every day I’m more aware of the backlog of tasks that I need to accomplish when I finish. I try not to think about it. For a while I was keeping a spreadsheet that tracked our progress and estimated an end date, but I haven’t touched it in a couple of weeks. What’s the worry? 16 days or 20? We’re winding down. My other projects are winding up. Soon I’ll have a computer in front of me and my novel’s outline and a whole lot of free time. The book is still my first priority. If my “career” as a writer has taught me anything, it’s that that little voice that tells you it’s all right to think about stories and not write them down is full of horse shit. That first draft, that bold first step, is the most important moment of the entire thing. You’re not a writer unless you actually write.
We’re heading out this morning, I guess. We’re likely to get our first snow in a couple of days. I look forward to seeing just how effective this zero degree sleeping quilt I’ve been carrying really is…
I was going to post some new pictures, but this computer isn’t capable of doing that. This is one of my biggest peeves, and one of the things I want to do right when Athena and I look into having our own hostel in a year or three. When you look in your AT guide and there’s a little image of a computer next to a hostel, there’s a reasonable expectation there that you’ll be able to accomplish the tasks on the Web that you need to accomplish. I’m not talking about anything demanding or unusual. Just the basics.
But at the vast majority of the hostels on the trail the “computer” they have for your use was made in the early 2000s. Sometimes they wave their hands and explain that it was “upgraded” some years ago and should be fine. They never know what part of the computer was “upgraded” (it’s usually the RAM, as if plugging in another stick of 333 Mhz DDR1 will magically make the thing stop sucking). They never understand that for 300 bucks and 5 hours of research and construction time they could have a machine that’ll do everything hikers need reliably for years to come. They have no idea why running Windows 7 on a machine that barely ran XP when it was made 12 years ago is a shitty idea. So…no pictures. Inserting media into my blog is somehow beyond what this thing can do. There’s no excuse for that.
Ah, well. Back to the trail.