Thoughts Gathered from Hiking on the Appalachian Trail

2014-06-12 09.51.51I finished my 8-day section hike on the AT just eight days ago. People have asked me about my experience and I have answered in a variety of ways: “epic,” “an adventure of a life time,” “totally fulfilling,”  “an incredible experience.” I spent over 18-months dreaming, talking, and learning about hiking the Appalachian Trail. I tried to manage my expectations, so I didn’t start my hike with romantic notions about trail life. For the most part I did fairly well. I knew the trail was going to be hard; it was. I knew we would get rained on; we did. I knew I would have trouble sleeping some nights; I did. I knew I would run into interesting people; I did. I knew I would be overwhelmed by the views; I was. I knew I would be sweaty; I was. I did NOT expect it to be so cool at night. Most nights were fine, but I did get cold in my hammock one night. I used every piece of gear I took, so I felt really good about my gear choices. I got ZERO blisters, making me very happy in my decision to hike in trail runners and not boots. Would I do another section again? Absolutely.

I am not sure if I could do a thru hike or not. A thru hike is a complete hike of the entire 2, 185-mile trail from Georgia to Maine (or the other way around) completed in one hiking season. My brother and I discussed this topic a couple of times. I know I could physically do the hike. They say if you can make it through Georgia then you can make it to Maine. The Georgia section may not be as difficult as the White Mountains in New Hampshire or the rugged terrain of Maine, but the Georgia section is no walk in the woods. It is littered with rocks and roots; it is constantly going up and down. We completed the Georgia section plus the Approach Trail and 5- 6 miles in North Carolina in 8 days and I could have done it in 6 days. I know for sure I could do a thru hike physically, but I do not know if I could do it emotionally. On my 8-day trip I was still in the honeymoon of hiking. I hadn’t been out there long enough to hit the wall of monotony. I was out there long enough to miss home and that subtle homesickness would be the one thing to keep me from attempting a thru hike. I am blessed with a great wife and great kids and even though they drive me crazy sometime, I love them. I love being with them and leaving for a 5-6 month hike would be a daunting task.

This hike however was doable. I was only gone for a week and a half or so. Now that I have been home for a week and have looked back, here are my big takeaways from the hike. I did not learn anything new. I did not have any mind-blowing epiphanies. Rather the trail reminded me of a few simple things I already new.

#1 Technology is not the enemy of simplicity

There are a number of debates in the hiking community. One debate is over electronics on the trail. Do you carry the electronic comforts from home with you or do you try to “unplug” and soak in all nature has to offer? Another debate is pack weight. Do you worry about the weight of your pack? Are you a lightweight hiker? An ultra lightweight hiker? An extreme lightweight hiker??? These debates are somewhat connected because they are related to gear. To weigh in on the second debate, I would say I am a lightweight hiker. My base weight before food, water, and fuel for my stove is right at 14 lbs. With food for three days, water, and fuel my pack was 25.5 lbs. I am 200 lbs and a 25 lb. pack was very comfortable.  I met a guy on the trail, Hobbit, who was about 5’6″ and 130 lbs and he was carrying a 55 lbs. pack! Crazy talk!

Over the last 18 months, I have enjoyed learning how to hike lighter. I have learned how to weigh all my gear, choose certain gear according to weight, and figure out what I could leave behind. I number of hikers have experienced the freedom of simplicity on the trail, learning to live on just the essentials. I too share the love of the freedom of simplicity, but on the trail I did carry my iPhone, an iPod shuffle, and an external battery charger. The iPhone may be the best piece of technology ever invented for the hiking community. (I am sure Steve Jobs was thinking about hikers when he created the iPhone, right?) My iPhone, case, charger, and ear buds weigh in at 8 oz. and it may had been the most important 8 oz. I carried. My iPhone served as my camera, video camera, journal, communication device, music player, and video player. (I had the movie Tombstone on my phone. We watched the first hour of it one night in the shelter.) It was a piece of technology that did indeed make my life simpler. I was able to document our hike and carry a little entertainment we me as well. I enjoyed listening to music when I had trouble sleeping or when I was tired and was facing a tough uphill climb. You can be a lightweight hiker and still carry key pieces of technology. In the “real world” we all need to simplify our lives and possessions, but simplifying does not mean throwing everything out.

#2 I am my brother’s keeper

Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote: “We are all responsible for everyone else—but I am more responsible than all the others.” Never did I find these words to be MORE true than on the trail. There exists an unspoken ethic on the trail that everyone is responsible for everyone else. Whether it is warnings about bears or rattlesnakes or directions to the water source or warnings about the weather, it seems like the hiking community understands we all need to watch out for each other. Such an ethic flies in the face of a culture dominated by rugged individualism and yes, such stubborn individualism can be found on the trail. You hear it behind the condescending and over-used-trail-phrase: “Hike your own hike.” I refuse to use the phrase because it is just a way to dismiss other people. Obviously, each person is going to decided what is the best way to hike the trail and we will not always do things the same, but “hike your own hike” sounds like a way to tell people off. It sounds like there should be an expletive at the end of the phrase: “HIKE YOUR OWN HIKE, @#$%# !!!” We do not need to judge one another on the trail. If Hobbit wants to hike with a 55 lb. pack, then so be it; I say nothing.

But…we should watch out for each other. This thought became clear in my encounter with Paul. I have reported on Paul in my previous blogs, but we stayed with him on our first night. He was hiking in flip-flops and carrying a gym bag. We shared food with him and boiled water for him. We later learned that he is a mission person who may be suicidal. When I first met Paul, I knew he was strange. I was not surprised to learn he was suffering from a metal illness and was off his medication. We shared gear and food with Paul because he was hiking the trail and he was in need. I felt responsible for him as I felt responsible for everyone I met on the trail. I understand how deep bonds are formed among thru hikers. It doesn’t take long for that sense of responsibility to carry over into a solidified emotional bonds. I have heard more than one thru hiker on the AT speak of their “trail family.” I understand why. On the trail we look out for each other and we form a bond; we begin to love each other in the way I hear Jesus calling us to love one another. I wonder if such love for neighbor can really happen in the real world?

#3 Community is not only necessary for human existence; it makes life better

We cannot survive on our own because we were designed by our Creator for each other. We were created to live in community, to go through life living interdependently with other people. I could not have hiked the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail if it had not been blazed and maintained by other people. I could not have got off the trail in rainstorm and taken into town if it were not for other people. I would not have a backpack or gear to put in it if it were not for other people. I would not have had delicious freeze-dried trail food if it were not for other people. Yes community (other people) are necessary for human survival, but other people also make life better.

I loved hiking with my brother Jeff and our friend John. My brother and I had not spent that much time together since we were kids. I loved it, even when Jeff got impatient like our dad. I enjoyed calling him “Ed Vreeland.” John cracked me up constantly. I will never look at a purple shirt again and not think of John (sorry…inside joke)! I also enjoyed meeting so many interesting people at the shelter at night. Our first night it was Paul. Enough said. The second night was Senator, Amanda, and Kendall. Kendall had a can of bear spray proudly displayed on her hip. I think it was creepy-guy spray as much as bear spray. She was not wearing it the next morning. I guess she figured we were harmless. They were all great fun. The third night we were in town. No interesting people in town. Night #4 was the best night at camp. We slept in the shelter with Colin, Jason, Sampson, and Hobbit. Too many stories. Too many laughs. Those guys were great. Night #5 we camped alone. Night #6 we stayed the night in a cabin at Neel Gap. Night #7 was the most crowded night at the shelter, maybe 13 of us. Most of us tented. I did enjoy talking with Carrie and her husband from Atlanta. We were hoping to stay the night with them on the eighth night at the Springer Mountain Shelter, but we hiked out on the eighth day. These people were really a major highlight of the trip. I love hiking, but walking into camp always felt like a downer, except for the people we encountered.

#4 Everyone needs a little kindness

This need for kindness is connected to the idea that people make life better. Philo of Alexandria said: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” The trail is an adventure and, in some ways, it is a kind of battle. You are battling the weather or the terrain or the ascents OR the descents (we would say that going downhill is just a different kind of pain). Sometime you are battling your body or mind. I love hiking, but it includes some degree of suffering. Everyone is fighting something. A small act of kindness goes a long way. After shivering in my hammock one night I was looking to sleep in the shelter the next night on the trail when we expected a thunderstorm. I did not have a sleeping pad, but Hobbit loaned me his. He wasn’t using it and it was just a small act of kindness but it went a long way.

We never know what small acts of kindness do for other people. I included Paul in our morning prayer before we left the shelter. He said, “Thanks for the prayer.” Who knows, maybe that prayer saved his life? Maybe Paul was ready to take his life that night at the shelter, but he found some kind of hope in the prayer from a stranger. By the way, we have received word that Paul is still on the trail. His girlfriend is concerned about his well-being. I hope he can find his way home.

#5 Physical health is a part of the good life

I worked hard to get in good physical shape for the hike. I turned 40 years old while on the trail and I believe I am as fit as I have been since college. I lost 12 lbs before the hike (and lost another 5-6 lbs while hiking). I ran hard during the winter and spring months and it really paid off. It is true; you do not need to be in shape to hike on the Appalachian Trail. If you start with low mileage days and then build up, you can get into trail shape. You do not HAVE TO be in shape to hike the trail, but it sure makes hiking much more enjoyable. John was…how shall I say…the least fit hiker in our group. He was a trooper though. He never complained, but I can tell he was struggle up some of those mountains. (We did find out John lost 18 lbs while hiking on the trail!) I found the climbs to be difficult at times, but not strenuous. I was easily able to set a pace and then hike 30-45 minutes up the mountain without a break.

As I enter my 40s, I am more convinced of the importance of good physical health. I do not want to go back to the laziness of my early 30s. I started running about five years ago. I loss over 30 lbs. and I feel great. I am thankful for good health and I want to treat it as a gift. I know our human bodies are a part of God’s good creation and I know God is a healer, but I have to participate with him. I cannot choose a sedimentary lifestyle and eat junk food every day and then expect a miracle when my body begins to fall apart. I want to live the good life, the life God has designed for us and a part of the good life is staying in shape.

#6 The God of the trail is the provider for and sustainer of his good and beautiful creation

I have often heard the popular saying on the AT: “The trail will provide.” The thought is whatever a person needs they can find on the trail. Very often the trail provides through the kindness of other hikers. Other times provision comes through trail angels, people close to the trail who provide food or rides or some form of “trail magic.” We did not experience “trail magic,” but Jason at Mountain Crossings did give me a piece of foam that kept me warm in my hammock. I understanding the saying, but every time I hear it I want to rephrase it to say, “The God of the trail will provide.” The God of the trail did provide for us at every turn. He provided everything we needed including the occasional encounter with his beautiful creation.

The very first overlook view I saw was, in my mind, the best. I described it in my Day 2 blog post. We had been hiking for two days in the green tunnel, under a constant canopy of green leafy trees. We followed a blue-blazed trail .2 miles off the AT to a vista and we were reward with a breathtaking view. It was a God-encounter. I brushed up against the finger prints of God. I do believe in Natural Theology, the idea that the attributes of God can be seen (in a reduced way) in creation. As the Psalmist declares, “The heavens declare the handiwork of God.” Well the mountain declare his handiwork too! Seeing the mountains from that overlook took me by surprise. It took me to a place of gut-instinct primal faith, where I could look at creation and see the work of the Creator. God not only creates things like this, but he sustains it. Encounters like this one remind me that life is such a gift. Humanity has such a way of screwing things up…myself included! The only thing holding us together is the gracious hands of a loving God.