Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Every Journey Begins With One Step

The Appalachian Trail

It starts on Springer Mountain, a tree covered Georgia summit a couple hours drive from Atlanta. It ends on the alpine summit of Mt. Katahdin, the great mountain of Maine. In between are over 2100 miles of lung burning ascents, knee obliterating descents, and a wide variety of flora, fauna, and weather conditions. Millions of people have walked at least parts of it, but only thousands have tried to walk the whole thing. Significantly fewer have overcome the rain, snow, blisters, ticks, snakes, bears, poison ivy, precarious trails, and sock eating porcupines to say they walked the entire trail.

Why do people undertake this great adventure? Some do it because they want to reconnect with nature, to live a simpler life, if only for a few months. Others do it because they have just gone through a major life change, such as graduating from college, ending a marriage, or losing their job. Many do it because they want to experience the vibrant and eclectic trail community. Some do it because it is there, and it can be conquered.

For myself, I have to say pretty much all of the above. Far too often my life involves doing complicated things for seemingly arbitrary reasons to achieve goals that are at best murky. Hiking the Appalachian Trail may be much less comfortable than a climate controlled cubicle, but it is a concrete, steadfast goal. It offers a rugged clarity lacking in my life. A walk with nature seems like a way to assuage that lack of purpose.

On the other hand, I relish the idea of accomplishing something that relatively few people have ever done. That isn't to say I don't value the journey itself (because I do), but that I am trying to be honest about my motivations. The idea of standing triumphantly at the end of the trail is something that frequently inhabits my mind, as much as any of the other thoughts about the trail.

Whatever the reason, every spring hundreds of people descend on Northern Georgia to try this feat. A couple months later, a much smaller group of hikers decide to be contrarians and start atop Mt. Katadhin and go south. Whatever the direction, only a fraction reach the other end. Some bow out after the hard climbs to the starting summits. Others make it much farther, only to be felled by poor planning, unfortunate injuries, or the various necessities. Some, reaching Harper’s Ferry, decide to start over at Katadhin to make sure they get New England conquered before winter descends. Many more conquer the trail over years, section by section.

There is no dishonor in flip-flopping or section hiking. Hiking the Appalachian Trail isn’t a competition, and a 2,000 miler is a 2,000 miler. The unofficial motto is “Hike your own hike”, and one would be wise to follow that. After all, the value of the hike is in the journey, and not the destination. Still, the romantic vision of the hike is of the the thru-hike, the great trial of logistics and determination.

For my sister and I, our journey starts long before our planned thru-hike in 2012. As of this post, I have spent a grand total of one day in the “wild backcountry” of Illinois. Before we take our first steps in Maine or Georgia (as yet undecided), we will have to acquire the equipment that will serve as our homes for about five or six months. We’ll have to get in hiking shape, and learn how to do things without the easy crutches of modern day life. And even then, I'm sure the trail will still kick our ass those first few weeks.

Nevertheless, I am excited about this once in a lifetime opportunity. From shake-down hikes, the puzzle of logistics, to becoming familiar with cat-holes, bear bags, and mouse trapezes first hand, we hope to entertain, to interact, and possibly even educate. Like the roller coaster of Northern Virginia, I anticipate plenty of ups and downs before, during, and after the expedition. Plus, there’ll be pictures. So fire up that beer can stove, fix yourself a cup of instant coffee, and follow along as we work to our great Walk with Nature.

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