Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Zen and the Art of Walking: Ruminations of an Appalachian Thru Hiker

(This article was originally published in Volume 4, Issue 2 of Blue Adventure Magazine, now out-of-print, but you can find a cool original version of the article on pages 29-32 at this link.)

Long walks clear the head.

Each year, strange pilgrims from all over the world leave their homes, jobs, comforts and families in an attempt to hike huge stretches or participate in “thru-hikes” (end-to-end treks) of the longest trails on earth. One such footpath, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail (AT), extends a gargantuan 2,168 miles from Maine to Georgia. A thru-hike of the AT is one of the longest walks in the United States. People who stride over this or other long trails put up with six months of rain, blisters, bugbites (LOTS of bugbites) and plenty of muscle, joint and stomach troubles.

Like modern ascetics, some thru-hikers walk purely for the challenge or to combat rampant media addictions, choosing a life of quiet forest trekking over near-essentials like telephones, email and TV. Some are seasoned hikers, already used to the all-day weight of a pack on their shoulders, out to experience an extended connection to nature. Living out in the woods for several months creates an intimate bond with the most natural colors, sounds and scents of our living planet. Others take these long treks to figure something out about themselves. Or to try and stop figuring things out and simply walk. Either way, they are the seekers, the vision hunters, the believers in the notion that just walking, just being in nature, will get them somewhere further than point B.

I hiked the Appalachian Trail to change my life. I began my walk at Mount Katahdin, Maine, in May and I completed it, six months later, at Springer Mountain, Georgia, in November. I left behind a string of unsatisfying jobs, a crumbling love relationship and a host of troubling family issues. I wanted to carve months of calm reflection and heavy soul-searching into the rocks and roots with my own bootsoles. I was walking to clear my head.

During my time in the woods, I met people who had been hiking long trails for decades and had tapped into some inner world that made their faces glow, bright as campfires, even after many seasons of mud and rain. I befriended newlyweds who had decided to take the toughest and most beautiful honeymoon they could think of. I met recent retirees who were finally realizing a lifelong dream and college students taking time off to figure out what their purpose in life was. I also ran into some long-bearded freaks, who I simply could not imagine living anywhere but the woods. And they were as vibrant and authentic as anyone else out there.

That authenticity is available to everyone who walks. Away from the roles that conventional life asks us to play, hiking the AT allows you to spend five or six months being exactly who you want. And hopefully you’ll take as much of that person back to the paved life as you can. You can be the silent brooder who speaks few words and walks 20 to 30 miles every day. You can be the kid who everyone is happy to see because you play a great campfire harmonica or always have a surplus bag of M&M’s you’re willing to share. You can be the guy who writes sonnets in all the shelter journals. You can even be the woman who yogis (scams food from weekend hikers) better than anyone. And when you start hiking, you can give yourself a “trail name,” a new name that embodies all the things you are or wish to be or one that simply pokes fun at yourself and the universe.

Trail names help individual forest dwellers feel more connected to each other. For some, a trail name is just a fun conversation starter, (“How did you get the name ‘Wombutt’?”). For others, trail names contribute to a feeling of transformation, a sense of having entered upon a new and different kind of life, a life shared only by other hikers. The act of choosing your own name, one that’s much different from the one you were given at birth, can help you to be more introspective and to remember that destiny is self-determined. Some of my pals, months after finishing their walks, still sign letters with their trail names.

As I recall the thru-hikers I trudged with, I associate favorite memories, traits and experiences with hosts of unusual trail names. I remember pounding through the cold of the Great Smoky Mountains with a Georgia hiker named “Chunker”; discussing Krishnamurti and meditation with a former US Army Ranger named “I Don’t Know”; sweating through the swamps of the middle states with “Lost Sheep,” a muscle-bound North Carolinian (named for his favorite Dukes of Hazzard character); eating tuna fish with Lost Sheep’s pal, “Tunatarian” (he’s Unitarian and loves Chicken of the Sea); and soaking my feet in a cold Maine stream with my college pal and hiking compaƱero, a stentorian-voiced, red-bearded poet, trail-named “Booch.”

My own trail name? I’ll come to that. First let me tell you about my hardest (and best) hiking day ever.

It was a frigid November day in the snow-covered hills of North Carolina. I hadn’t slept well (read: warm) in a week and a half, since my really good sleeping bag was waiting for me at the Hot Springs NC, post office. Hot Springs was 21 miles from where I had slept the night before so I had to pull a long day through the white stuff to get there. Booch was a day ahead of me, presumably already eating warm diner meals and strumming his backpacker guitar in the Hot Springs hiker hostel.

When I started out from the shelter at 8am, the temperature was hovering around 30?F and six to twelve inches of snow covered the trail. Following the familiar white blazes that mark the AT, the pine trees were bent over with the weight of the snow creating a sort of tunnel out of the trail. I very quickly got into “the zone,” that state of mind where time and fatigue are barely perceptible, one foot in front of the other becoming a physical mantra that deletes all thoughts. For the first few hours, I hardly felt affected by the ups and downs of the landscape. I had lost 30 pounds since I started the trail more than five months before, some of it spare tire weight, some of it upper body muscle. I was basically nothing but legs, pack and beard. I zoomed up steep and slippery inclines, gorgeous mountain vistas rolling out on every side.

At noon I tried to stop for lunch but realized that if I halted for more than 10 minutes, my body temperature would drop too low for me to sit and enjoy eating. So I stuffed my many pockets with PowerBars, Snickers, tortillas, brownies and Little Debbie snack cakes and kept walking. When I got hungry, I would slow my pace to a meandering shuffle and eat and drink while I walked. This technique was great for covering big miles in the cold and giving my body a bit of rest at the same time. By 2pm I had finished all my water, but I didn’t stop to filter more. When I got thirsty, I simply packed a tortilla full of snow and ate a chilly burrito.

All was going smoothly, and I anticipated arriving in Hot Springs at about 5pm, just in time to catch a shower and meet up with Booch for a big fried chicken dinner. But at around 4pm, as I was beginning the longest and last ascent of the day, my thoughts went into hyperneurotic overdrive. This is an experience well known to many hikers. I think it arises due to the meditative depth that a hiker reaches on really long days. Your mind seems to become so aware of itself as a thinking mechanism that it starts kicking out wild worries and doubt-riddled thoughts about the future, creating a state of how-can-I-go-on-ness. You suddenly become supremely aware of the lactic acid burn in your legs and back and every step becomes a supreme effort of the will.

I was slogging up a cold hill, my body suddenly hurting, my mind hollering at me about jobs, money, relationships and family crises. I couldn’t believe how quickly I had gone from mountain man to mental mouse. My preoccupations had hunted me down and I was aching to be anywhere but in my own head.

This went on for 30 excruciating minutes. I cannot really say what kept me going, other than force of habit. But when I got to the final few steps of the incline, I saw a huge stand of trees stretching out over the ridge I was following. All their branches were covered with layers of ice that made them look like gemstone figurines, planted in some fantastic, through-the-looking-glass landscape. What’s more, they were pierced all throughout with the bright orange light of the setting sun which bounced off the entire snowy forest floor. I stopped, frozen by the beauty all around me. And then I lost it…

I started chuckling to myself about all the ridiculous psychodramas I had been playing out over the last half-hour. Then I started laughing out loud. Then I began bellowing at the top of my lungs. I actually fell down into the snow in peals of laughter. I heard myself sing out, “The job, the girl, the future, it’s all gonna be all right. You don’t have to worry about a thing. Just be.”

Had I gone crazy? No way. I was sane for the first time in a long while. I had hiked the future and the past right out of me. I was sitting stock still in the middle of the present. After five months of walking, I had been hit with the diamond bullet of pure, energy-filled peace. My head was changed for the way better. My whole thru-hike was worth that one moment.

The remaining miles glided by effortlessly. When I got to the friendly town of Hot Springs, I greeted all the villagers with a mysterious grin. After a great shower I pulled out my journal and penned this haiku-like poem:

High on the last hill, the wind blew everything away,
even my real name—
now I walk unburdened.

I found something that afternoon. It took almost half a year of hiking to tap into, but nothing’s been the same since. My trail name, by the way, is Change.

No comments: