A Slice of Life Worth Remembering
It was very difficult to start this particular essay because it is impossible to completely and accurately recreate the euphoric emotions that were felt on that date in mid-October when the journey was finally completed. For seven months-and-nine-days I fantasized about the day when the hiking would finally come to an abrupt halt. It would no longer be my job to wake up nearly every morning and walk all day long bare against the elements of insanity, boredom, fear, anger, the weather, and physical discomfort with occasional doses of explosive happiness.
In other words, I am talking about the completion of my 2, 174 mile Appalachian Trail hike back in 2005. After college, I decided to take on a very unusual journey when most of my classmates were taking the GRE’s to get into graduate school or paving their career path. But in many ways it was much more difficult than any job I had ever had in my entire life. At least in the work world there are options to pilot transportation that can take you sixty-five miles an hour on some highways. There is also the possibility of stopping by one of countless gas stations to purchase a carbonated beverage with pearl-like droplets of condensation. On the Appalachian Trail, most of these conveniences no longer exist and one is left with nothing. I mean…what do we expect? Escalators? Or the ski lift bar that pushes your behind up the bunny slope?
Most people hiking from Georgia to Maine complete their journey on Mount Katahdin that welcomes hikers like the Ivory Tower from the epic 1980s gem, “The Neverending Story.” After climbing mountains for over half-a-year it was not such a big deal, and I paced around the gorgeous hotel like in a dream as the chlorine tablets from the indoor pool filled my nostrils like perfume. On the PBS channel there was a cartoon episode of The Berenstein Bears and believe it was the episode where the family had to help Sister Bear break her nailbiting habit by paying her pennies to try and stop. Such a silly cartoon would not have been as incredible and entertaining if not for the fact that any form of television was considered a novelty.
My walk of 2, 174-miles actually did not conclude at Mount Katahdin in Maine, believe it or not. There are many different terms that hikers use on the trail and one of them is yellow-blazing, which means skipping miles by car. I gave into weakness and chose to yellow-blaze for 38 miles in New York State to reach my home faster. My mother picked me up at Bear Mountain along with my hiking partner, Skylarke. It felt great until it came time to redo the mileage when I just wanted to finally stop the relentlessness of constantly moving. The 38 miles were waiting for me at the end like a score that had to be settled. A relative encouraged me to just forget about the missing mileage and brought up some of the rules regarding breaking a Guinness World Record. He said that people are human and the Guinness committee has rules that allow people to sleep for a while as they are breaking a record. But I could not “let go” and it would have haunted my dreams forever.
Attitude determines altitude is a common expression that we use on the journey. The Appalachian Trail was one of the few adventures where success was just dependent on moving at a reasonable pace. Of course, working very hard and having a positive attitude helps in many situations but it is not always a guarantee. Nobody could say, “This is not for you” as was the case later on in my substitute teaching assignments where I wanted to succeed so badly but was told to “let go.” There was no choice in the matter during that experience, but I had the right to make such a decision for myself during those 7 months.
The final section of the trail lasted from New Jersey to Poughquag, NY. What I remember most are experiencing the harbingers that the end was very close. All of a sudden, I saw an article from the Poughkeepsie Journal taped to one of the walls of the shelters. It was so darn beautiful like an albatross in the middle of the ocean indicating nearby land. I remember seeing two hikers from Israel going southbound in Georgia just a couple of days after I had started. There were enormous smiles on their faces that had been earned for over two thousand miles. I was happy for them but also a little bit jealous that they were nearly complete where I had just-barely begun. Now it was my turn to have that gimlet-eyed, ear-to-ear grin and embrace victory.
When I finally arrived at Route 55 there was the temptation to rush out into the road and forget about the danger of cars in my excitement to reach the final trailhead and call the family to come pick me up. My goals at that moment were not very ambitious in the short-term. I was not thinking about my future career goals or even writing a book. Or finding a job immediately after going home to stop the loss of money because on the trail one is not employed and it took a toll on all of my finances. The only ambitions at the moment were to watch a lot of DVDs and become reacquainted with the Internet. Also...my fridge would be stocked with as many sodas and Mountain Dew beverages as it could hold. At the time, my physical form was in the shape of an Olympic athlete and wish I had bothered to weigh myself. I was probably under 170 pounds, and wish I had the sense to understand that consuming so much unhealthy food would be different off the trail when not hiking seven hours per day to burn off every calorie and then some.
I want you to experience the joy of finishing something that seems like it is going to last forever. Perhaps in some cases it is a good thing I have no ability to “let go.” What would have been the harm of quitting the journey early as some people had suggested. My father said, “Sometimes you just have to know when to say ‘uncle.’” The last words of my sister, Dena were, “Know when to stop.” These were not encouraging words but very realistic ones. I wonder whether it would have been possible to stop and ‘let go.’ I assume that if my own child had taken on such a grueling endeavor where I could not reach them my cell phone at a moment’s notice then I would have kept myself as busy as possible with anything that could fill a moment of idle time. “Worry is like trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum,” as the 1990s song, “Suncreen” once said.
Life was very unkind to me for a long time after the hike ended. In 2006 I saw my human service and teaching career destroyed before my very eyes for a number of years due to ignorance. One time I returned to the place that ended my employment in hopes of earning back my job and in so many words I informed them that they had ruined my life. The other action I took is trying to be sponsored to hike the Pacific Crest Trail to benefit the Lance Armstrong Foundation. I am VERY glad that did not work out, by the way. It made sense at the time to return to an activity where I was entitled to victory every so often. But the only way I would even think of performing a task like that is if I had at least seven months of time and more money than I knew what to do with that could serve as an open faucet.
The hike was eleven years ago, and the sensation of victory has lessened to some extent. It would be nice to trap those feelings of satisfaction in a jar that day in October and inhale it on a very bad day like fine wine. But the greatest feeling that I can hold onto is the understanding that if we were to do something that incredible a long time ago then perhaps that motivation still exists to do it again one day or something even more profound…