Soul-Searching on the Appalachian Trail

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I stayed at my aunt’s in South Carolina, waiting for the weather to warm (it was March) and then she gave me a ride to Asheville, N.C. From there I was able to get onto the Appalachian Trail. I stayed the night in a beer-garden hostel where I quickly intuited how much more social the AT was going to be in comparison to the other three trails I’d been on. There was a sense of organization and camaraderie that I did like, and it comforted me, too; but I knew I’d miss the anonymity of the desert, of the CDT where I’d encountered nary a soul save for one person getting off the trail just as I was getting on (and the CDT, like I’ve said in a previous post, isn’t really a “trail” per se but more a series of guidelines for the adventurous.)  

It was time to sweat and climb like I’d done at the more arduous points of the Arizona Trail. I’m in my late forties; there were kids half my age on the trail, fully outstripping me, but I got over my embarrassment pretty quickly; after all, I wasn’t out here to prove myself a world-class athlete and I wasn’t concerned with reaching mount Katahdin, the longed-for goal of many an AT hiker. I was exploring the next part of this odyssey and becoming conscious of its impending end, the temporary nature of this whole escape. When I returned, was I going to be as profoundly changed as I’d hoped? I agonized sometimes over the thought that there wasn’t much to distinguish my journey from everyone else’s, that I was just accumulating miles like the rest of them and nothing was fundamentally changed about my inner world or the trajectory that my life would make through this world.

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You wake up to trees and the brook spilling and maybe there’s a troop of kids in your camp… North Carolina is a hardy land. I disliked the banality of the farmlands north of here, but when it was just mountains I felt the immersion into the wilderness that I’d been longing for. Sometimes I would make just a few hundred feet at a time, offering myself a break to the count of twenty as a reward, then another round. You’re bound to lose some weight, anyhow. I’d heard of people dropping forty pounds over the course of hiking the Appalachian Trail…

We were all faced with the same concerns, so you have a ready area to bond within: where’s the water, how many miles into town, is there a hostel, how are you doing for food? For the first time, I had to learn to hang a bear bag, and the absurdity of the task affronted my pride so much at times that I’d swear as I hurled that rope - it was attached to a heavy stick or rock, whatever was handy, over a tree. You perform the advanced math required: twelve feet from the ground but four feet below the limb, so a bear can’t climb and then reach down for it; and far enough out that it can’t reach from the trunk.

I had a can of bear spray with me. At times I thought I had it by my side more in anticipation of human predators. In fact a hiker had been killed in his tent on the Florida Trail while I was there and on the AT, now, I met a group and they were talking about a “psycho” who they’d encountered at the last shelter, waving his machete, stomping on the girl’s bag of chips. He was taken off the trail by police, but nobody wanted to forsake their hike in order to press charges and go through court proceedings so this individual was released. A few weeks later he attacked a couple of hikers in Virginia. The man was stabbed to death; the woman survived, I later found out, by playing dead.

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I was meditating at night to quiet my mind, to rein in my imagination so I didn’t veer off into envisioning all kinds of horrible things in the night when you’re away from any homey lights and laughter and the sounds of civilization, of grounding basic human contact, but it’s hard not to allow an event like that to creep under your skin. The experience tainted my overall feeling for the trail and probably contributed more than anything else to the sense that I wanted to wind this quest down to a close now. Somehow it violates the principles of everything else, the camaraderie and the sense of being embarked upon a joint venture - you think of it even in subtle ways, like “thanks who ever got out on this trail before me this morning, for brushing away all the cobwebs for me”; and then the next morning maybe it’d be my turn.

I was actually off-trail when the two hikers were attacked, visiting family in Maryland. In fact, I found out about it from a couple of ladies who I’d traveled with: Knowing where I was heading, and roughly how many miles I was putting in in a day, they’d done some calculations and realized that I could have been one of the victims (nobody knew their identities yet). It’s like the Altamont concert that the Stones played: An event that was meant to serve as a microcosm of a peaceful society, how people could meet in large numbers to celebrate love and peace, spirals down into incomprehensible violence and an undercurrent of ugliness so pervasive that some people hearken it as the death of a movement, the end of the decade and all of its most cherished ideals.

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I spent some time with an uncle in Pennsylvania and that’s where I got on the trail. Rocksylvania. Two hikers I know fell and got concussions on those rocks. It’s difficult, the mental focus required; you can’t ever let go and daydream as you move because you need to be aware of where you’re placing every single step; and the mental stamina involved with that is probably even more exacting than the physical exertion. Slow progress over boulder-strewn landscape. Sometimes I’d stop and think this has got to be a joke, why would anyone bother to even forge a trail over this; it’s like the rubble of a thousand ruined cities strewn for miles.

I camped on the ridgeline in a riveting thunderstorm. At times the lightning was so persistent that I could have read a book inside my illuminated tent. The rain poured. You lay in there and wonder if pools are forming around your tiny little refuge, if you’ll wake up inside a moat, which actually happened to me early on in my AT adventures, in Tennessee. I’d subsequently huffed it to the nearest shelter only to find that every hiker for twenty miles around had the same idea and we huddled close under the eaves, dripping on each other, and the rain turned to hail and then snow before it was done. In the morning I made it into town and was told that lightning had struck five houses in the night, burned one to the ground, and there I’d been on the highest ridge around in my Big Agnes. The newspapers confirmed the story.

I ate some of the best ramen soup I’d ever tasted in a bistro in Delaware River Junction. Gorgeous view of the river from one of the openings on the heights, with the highway running alongside it.

I’m nearing the end of the revelations that the wilderness has to offer and so much is still unresolved. Did I burden this adventure with too much responsibility for answering the most fundamental existential questions? Perhaps epiphanies only strike you when you aren’t consciously seeking them - what a paradox. We’re unlimited beings expressing ourselves in a world of self-chosen limitation. That’s paradox enough for anyone.

The hostel wouldn’t allow smoking on the premises. I got a four-pack of wine and drank on the back porch. I got a shuttle twenty miles to the next trailhead, hearing that the water was contaminated over the next stretch of trail. Leaving Palmerton. Later I would hear about a hiker who stopped here to recuperate after falling on the rocks. The trail forces you to reevaluate your commitment at every turn, to constantly question what you’re seeking and whether this is the best route to resolution. Maybe you’ve tried to world’s more tested routes and feel fundamentally unfulfilled and wonder if a more primal experience will remind you of things forgotten. Our whole racial heritage is out there, if we but scratch the veneer. We contest with elements and dangers that our most primitive ancestors faced.

Of course, the trail is preserved and clearly blazed so there’s no way to approach what Lewis and Clark contested with. The feeling of complete immersion is hard to achieve, especially on a path so populated. There’s seldom an hour that passes when I don’t encounter other hikers. Some are intent on their goal; others are eager to connect. Maybe they know the secret that I’m searching for. What’s the message of wanderlust? “I told a guy he had to hike the AT. It changed his life.” Pennsylvania gives way to New Jersey; you cross a bridge where the boundary is clearly marked (I discover later that I was cliché for taking a picture; this is a hotspot for photographs). It’s Memorial Day and, as a result, I spend a whole day feeling like I’m in a city park. There are signs saying camping allowed only for thru-hikers, but obviously this rule is often ignored.

A young man and woman approach me and point to the white blaze. “How far does this one go?” “That’s the Appalachian Trail. You can follow it all the way down to the southern border of Georgia if you want to.” Some people have started this at its very beginning and plan to continue on to the end. I have to remind myself that I’m not entered into a race and my objectives, such as I even understand them, are my own. But my time is coming to a close and I wonder if I’ve achieved what I set out to. How do you know if you’ve concluded one leg of a never-ending journey? Is it illuminating, or limiting, to even try to make such a decision?

A couple nights into New Jersey I camp at a small spot suitable for maybe five or six tents and a crew of a dozen kids and three adult chaperones converge on it. I ask myself, when will you ever get the chance to experience something like this again? May as well enjoy it. “I apologize in advance for all the noise we’re about to make,” one chaperone tells me.

You have to get snug in those shelters at night. I always preferred the solitude of my tent, but sometimes having a roof between you and a downpour is something to be grateful for. The worst is taking your tent down in the rain. What’s going to happen to me? I’ve been on this journey that has come to feel like my life, my life forevermore, but it must end soon. Oh, my money’s running low. My son and brother are in New York; I have more family in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont. I guess it’s time to hop off this train. It seems like there ought to be a parade and fireworks, something to acknowledge the culmination. It’s my love of fiction invading my common sense, I suppose: Everything must come to climax and resolution.