During the last two weeks of my hike, each morning began the same. I woke up at 6am, stretched in my sleeping bag and began to pack up my things while I cooked breakfast. An hour later I started hiking while the woods woke up and the sun warmed the sky. I put in my headphones and began to recite a poem a loud — waking up my vocal cords along with my legs.
I did not listen to music often on the trail. I chose to listen when it most aided my hike: motivating music for a difficult climb or peaceful music to begin the day. Mornings on the trail started with a favorite album of mine [Riceboy Sleeps by Jonsi & Alex]. The songs have calmed me for so many years that my mind and spirit have a Pavlovian response to this album. I cannot help but slow down and breathe easier when I listen.
The poem I was memorizing is William Wordsworth’s, Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey. It’s 120 lines long and was an assignment from a study abroad course in London during my junior year of college. I memorized the poem in 2011 and it remains one of my most rewarding academic accomplishments. I chose to bring the poem along with me on the trail to revisit the lines. One morning I began to recite the poem while listening to music—something I had not yet tried— and I found the pairing perfectly transcendent.
That became my ritual. Day after day I began with the same music and the same words. I felt grounded and ready for the miles ahead. I maintained this practice until the final day on the trail, when I began my morning with a more upbeat album for my triumphant hike up Katahdin. Then it was over.
• • •
My first morning after completing the trail I sat in a fluorescent lit room, drinking coffee out of a paper cup. I stared out the glass door and watched the rain. I tried to understand that I was not out there, in the rain, and would not have to be for a long time.
One of the first questions that people have asked me during the past two months since returning from the Appalachian Trail is,
“What’s the hardest part about transitioning to life at home?”
Most questions about the trail are difficult to answer in a few words. It took me weeks to get to a succinct answer, but it finally came to me.
The fast pace and complexity of life.
That’s the hardest part to cope with, how quickly things happen and time goes by off the trail. In order to fully understand my answer to this question, I must circle back to the beginning.
• • •
When I decided to pursue this recording project, I wanted to practice speaking to a hiker before I began my own hike. I asked a Winston-Salem acquaintance, Savannah if she would share her story with me. Savannah thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2016 and in February of 2018 was in the process of preparing for a Pacific Crest Thru-hike (she has now successfully completed the PCT!).
I had every intention of using our conversation in a pre-hike blog post. I recorded the conversation but was too busy with my own hiking preparations. I didn’t have a chance to listen before I left.
But I’ve been thinking about Savannah’s story for months now. She said something, she said lots of things that did not have significance for me before my hike, but she said something that made so much sense once I got home.
“Hiking really slows things down.”
That is what I miss most. Time to process, time that slows down to match the pace of your walk. Or maybe it’s not time that slows down, but the hiking lifestyle that matches up with the cycle of a day and the quick nights of deep sleep. I miss the simplicity of having one thing to do each morning: wake up and walk.
The fact that this blog post — my first since returning home — has taken me four months to post is testament to the rush of time in a great whoosh right past my eyes. I am working to narrow my life, closer to two feet wide like the trail. Saying no to opportunities is difficult but necessary to maintain focus. I want to do less things greatly rather than more things decently.
A familiar anxiety rises into my head when I think about how quickly time is passing and how much there is to do each day with jobs, a house, friends, appointments, meetings. The overwhelming thoughts that come to my mind are familiar. I felt them before the trail. When I was walking, I was free from that type of anxiety. It was clear: wake up and walk.
Though life off-trail is more complicated, it is still true that all we can do (despite how we try to delay, procrastinate and waste time) is move forward. These days I still wake up and walk. Sadie and I like to head to a secluded path so she can run off-leash for a bit. Usually I’ll put my headphones in and play a familiar album while I whisper words about the woods.
First track from the album reference, below.