After the New Year in January of 2001 I was ready to share my secret intention to hike the whole Appalachian Trail.
I’d told my parents and they weren’t very happy about it.
I was met with disapproval similar to when I stated that I was leaving community college…
but with it came a resigned acceptance, as they knew no amount of persuasion would change my stubborn mind.
In 2001 there were only four or five websites that said much about the Appalachian Trail.
Trailjournals.com was one of them – it was a site where anyone who was hiking the Trail could open an account and publish their journal online. It was a basic setup, but it got the job done. In many ways, the site still looks almost exactly the same as it did back then.
This was before anyone had heard of the term “blog,” and such a thing may not even have existed yet. Every journalist on Trailjournals was granted their own “Guestbook” on the site where family and friends could leave comments. Remember when every site had a Guestbook?
So one cold night in January I sat down at my Gateway PC and tried to put into words exactly why I wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail. The question of exactly “why” is something that every AT hiker struggles with, so I cheated and used other people’s words. I posted my first entry via the dial-up connection and called it “The Resolution.”
THE RESOLUTION – January 11, 2001
I had some friends over one night, and mentioned the possibility of hiking the Appalachian Trail. The conversation went a bit like this…
SENSIBLE BUDDY: So, did you decide when you’re going back to school yet?
ME: Well you know guys, I just can’t get this Appalachian Trail idea out my head.
OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES: Indeed Jamie, a man’s mind stretched by a new idea can never go back to its original dimension.
ME: Yeah, but, it seems crazy, you know? I don’t have a great deal of backpacking experience. Walking up and down mountains with forty pounds on your back for six months isn’t exactly easy. What if I can’t take the rain, can’t handle the cold, get attacked by a bear, get bitten by a poisonous snake, get Lyme Disease, get homesick, or just quit, or… have you ever seen the movie Deliverance? Maybe hitting the books would be the most sensible thing to do after all.
WALT WHITMAN: A morning glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books.
MARK TWAIN: Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
ME: Now that you phrase it like that…
FERRIS BUELLER: Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
MOONLIGHT GRAHAM: At the time you don’t think much of it. You know, we just don’t recognize the most significant moments of our lives as they’re happening to us. Back then I thought, well, there’ll be other days. I didn’t realize that was the only day.
SENSIBLE BUDDY: But still, why exactly would anybody want to do this? I could just drive from Georgia to Maine in a few days, and look at the mountains along the highway from my car window!
HENRY DAVID THOREAU: I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear, nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms…
ME: Yes! Exactly!
ALBERT EINSTEIN: Look deep, deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.
JOHN MUIR: Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of autumn.
FRENCH DUDE: You don’t frighten us, English pig dog! Go and boil your bottoms, son of a silly person. I blow my nose at you, so called Arthur king, you and all your silly English kiniggits!
ME: Um, okay French dude. Anyway, the trail is over two thousand miles long. That sure is a long way to walk…
YODA: Judge me by my size, do you, mmmmmm? Size matters not!
FRENCH DUDE: I don’t want to talk to you no more, you empty headed animal, food trough wiper! I fart in you general direction. Your mother was a hamster, and you father smelt of elderberries!
ARTHUR: If you’re French, then what are doing in England?
FRENCH DUDE: Mind your own business!
ME: Okay, okay, that does it! I don’t want to be taunted a second time. I’m going down to Georgia to try and hike the whole trail, beginning on April 3rd.
YODA: Try? Hmph! Do or do not, there is no try.
About a week later I finally did come up with some of my own words, and I called this second entry “The Basis.”
THE BASIS – January 16, 2001
“I don’t know what I’m gonna find, maybe nothin’ at all, maybe a world I can call mine.” -Bruce Springsteen, from “Frankie”
“There is something out there Ray, and if I have the courage to go through with this… what a story it will make.” -Terrence Mann, from Field of Dreams
“Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’.” -Andy DuFresne, from The Shawshank Redemption
That’s enough quotes. This is me. It’s 2001. I’m hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Have you ever been out driving during the evening, and on the horizon you see a sunset so spectacular that it’s difficult to keep your eyes on the road?
Usually you’re so preoccupied that you won’t even notice. If you only gave yourself the freedom to pull over, turn off the engine, get out, sit your butt on the hood, and take a moment to stop and enjoy it for once, then maybe life would be just a little bit better.
The same goes for all those beautiful starry nights that we pass up because of all our priorities. Open the window and take a look when you can. Take a walk in the moonlight. Get some fresh air.
But wait, no, there’s always things to do, work to be completed, errands to run. The moment passes. Things go on like this forever, and that sacred point in time when all of your work is done and you’re absolutely free never comes.
I plan to live every moment in the upcoming months free of such trouble.
I guess I always liked to explore a bit, and see what was over the next hill. Since we were in grade school, my friend Eric and I liked to roam around the woods near where we grew up. We used to draw detailed maps of all the trails in them and everything, always looking for different trails that we had overlooked before.
We liked to ride our bikes too, like every kid. By the time we got to middle school and ditched the Huffy’s for real bikes, there was no stopping us. We rode everywhere we could, every weekend. There was always something especially exciting about riding up the local South Mountain. It had always been the border of the world that I had known, and it was thrilling to climb it under my own power and see what there was on the other side.
Once I remember riding up it one Saturday morning, and when we stopped to take a break, I could see the whole valley spread out below me – what a feeling. In the eighth grade I used to sit in social studies class early in the morning gazing out the window at the mountain, wondering where Fifth Street (The road we’d ride) went over it.
The hobby faded and I haven’t been bicycling much since Andy, one of my best friends that loved to bike, moved away to Wisconsin in ninth grade.
Soon afterward we found ourselves in the driver’s seats of big, loud cars.
That ruined everything, in a sense.
A one hour bicycle adventure was now a comfortable fifteen minute drive in a car. The mountains and woods became background scenery to a much busier and more “important” way of life, and the world suddenly became much smaller and started moving terribly fast.
My friends that lived less than a block away would now use their cars to come over, but we still explored. We would drive on the highways listening to music sometimes deep into the night, as long as we dared to, just to see where and how far they went. There was even talk of a road trip to Wisconsin. It never became a reality, as such ideas so often don’t.
The summer after junior year, my friend Brendan and I drove to the beach. We got terribly sunburned, but that’s another story. Anyway, when we got home, burned and tired, he left behind a Pennsylvania road map in my car.
I kept it. I love maps. It was useful for traveling to see high school sporting events, concerts, and all sorts of things.
Now as chance would have it, nearly a year later, I noticed this map featured a small dotted line that wound through the state, labelled “Appalachian Trail.” Huh? Appalachian Trail? Was this the Appalachian Trail?
Of course it was. I had no idea that it was so close to home. I also happened to discover that the trail passes through Bake Oven Knob, a local birdwatching site that I had been to on a field trip in sixth grade. I made some casual inquiries.
“So, uh, how do you get to Bake Oven Knob?”
I drove up there one day like a shot, ditched the car, and started walking. This was simply amazing. From here I could go one way, all the way to Georgia, and the other way to a far off lonely peak in Maine… all on a wild, beautiful footpath through the mountains and woods! And the view from the knob, oh, the view! That was the summer of ’99 after I graduated from high school. The notion of the thing was born.
Nine out of ten people with high hopes that set off from Springer Mountain in Georgia each year, intending to hike the full trail, don’t make it to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. That is a staggering figure. The trail is much more than the romantic notion of living a dream and a collection of inspiring quotes.
The people that leave the trail are just like me and the rest of us, making the plans, ditching a job, spending the money, telling everybody they know, and after a few weeks, they’ve had enough… or injure a knee, or something.
I guess nobody can really tell me enough about the rain and cold and bugs and dirt and continuous climbs. I often wonder how this adventure will end for me.
There’s only one way to find out.
See you out there.