The Balance of a Challenge
At the end of a ridge, at mile 701 on the Appalachian Trail, is a peak called Dragon’s Tooth. I reached the sign for the side trail to the outlook but continued to hike. I was only two miles from the end of my day. There were no water sources up on the ridge and I needed to get down the mountain.
The trail turned left after the sign and began to descend. I began calculating how long it would take me to travel these two miles. Forty-five minutes. On a downhill and with the motivation of a hostel ahead, I could move pretty quickly.
I stopped walking. The trail had come to a ledge. Below my feet a nearly vertical wall of rock lowered itself about eight feet to the familiar [yet narrow] dirt trail. I saw blazes yards ahead, painted on rocks instead of tree trunks.
Two hours later I was sitting outside of a hostel, underneath a running water spigot. I was crying.
This hike is a challenge. There may be more difficult trails out there, but I don’t think you can find any hiker that will disagree that this journey has its difficulties.
Choosing to accept these obstacles, low points, soreness, and discomfort is to be open to what life brings you on the other side. That day on Dragon’s Tooth I was the closest to quitting I have ever been on this trip — but I wasn’t even close.
I met No Justice in Georgia. She was out on a short hiking trip with her daughter-in-law and grandson. No Justice completed the Appalachian Trail when she was 67. While hiking she found a dog she called Justice. She made every effort to find its owner but no one called. She wasn’t always able to hike with Justice, so she was called No Justice.
We were camped with about a dozen other hikers in a gap between two brushy, brown mountains. It was early on in the trail and crowded with thru-hikers and section hikers like No Justice.
She came over to check on my dog, Sadie. We talked about food portions, terrain, Sadie’s pack sores and the emotional boost of hiking with a dog. The whole time we spoke her hand was on Sadie who slept between us.
I asked her about her hiking story. She had answered an ad seeking female A.T section hikers in an Appalachian Trail newsletter. She felt that this was something she had always wanted but never known until that point. She called the phone number and began her multi-year section hike of the Appalachian Trail.
She specifically mentioned the challenge of choosing to take such a long-term journey with such a specific, pinpointed goal [summiting Katahdin in Maine]. I asked her about this challange.
More and more I find that this hike is most rewarding when I’ve struck a balance between my desires, goals and the reality of each day.
Experiences, both physical and emotional, are more concentrated on a backpacking trip. You have stripped your life of anything excessive and each step is a reminder of what you have decided to carry. Your daily goals are narrowed to walking, enjoying the landscape, and perhaps nothing more. Every mile brings you a sense of accomplishment and any obstacle to hiking becomes an adversary: rain, difficult terrain, injury or discouragement.
At the same time there is the collective pressure of over 2,000 people attempting the same hike. The trail narrative, especially of the Appalachian Trail, is well-known. Other hikers’ pace, mileage goals, schedule and stories are present in conversation and comparison is impossible to avoid.
I find myself constantly torn between what I feel I should do and what I desire to do. A ten mile day at this point in the hike seems lazy and too easy for a thru-hiker, but if a swimming hole catches my eye and the heat of the day is strong, why wouldn’t I stop if that is what I want?
There is no should out here. That word, which I have intentionally removed from my vocabulary, ladders up to an authority, a standard or a set of rules that do not exist. I feel most free when I internalize this aspect of thru-hiking.
At the end of the day each hiker only has his or her personal goals to reconcile. This seems to be one of the hardest balances to level during a thru-hike. No one is telling you to do anything, except yourself and your choice to continue walking. There is no right or wrong way to hike.
A friend of mine, Stealth, came upon a book The Alchemist. It’s on my reading list now because it continues to crop up in conversations.
Over dinner in Hot Springs, NC, Stealth recounted a story from this book that speaks to the challenge of balancing an individual motivation amidst a larger landscape.
When my friends are hiking at a faster pace six miles ahead I try to remember the oil in my spoon, my reason for hiking.
One afternoon Sadie and I were hiking along a ridge and the hottest part of the day was congealing in a cloud of humidity around us. The next water source was at a shelter just ahead. Unfortunately the shelter was 0.5 miles off trail, down a very steep trail. My friends were ahead, most likely already at our campsite for the day.
I felt the pull of their schedule, their pace, their routine for the day. They hike through the hottest part of the day and camp early, with plenty of time to hang out.
Thunder rolled in the distance. I was going to run out of water. More than that though, I like to take a long break in the middle of the day and finish my hiking in the evening, when it is cooler.
I walked down the trail, occasionally turning around to see how far I was straying from the ridge. It would be a difficult climb out of this shelter. We arrived and I found myself alone, halfway down a mountain, in a sun-dappled grove. For a couple hours the rustling of leaves was the only noise I heard. I journaled, took a nap, ate lunch and made coffee before I headed back up to the trail.
When I reached the top I had plenty of time to get to camp, the sun was low in the sky and I felt rejuvenated. I was proud that I’d chosen to hike in a way that brought me the most enjoyment. That afternoon I had kept the oil in my spoon and remained connected with a walk that will take me to all the way to Maine.