What I learned on the Appalachian Trail: Lesson 1 – The Need for Hope & Adventure

This is my first post in a series of what I learned on the trail.  This not only includes new lessons, or new information, but a sharpening of focus on maybe what I already knew but have been ignoring.  As you will  read in a moment, this first post is in the later category. It will certainly be my most political one.

On any adventure like hiking the Appalachian Trail (mountain climbing, bicycle touring, backpacking, long distance motorcycle trips) which takes you out of the “rat race,” into a more elemental existence over an extended period of time, you have access to this type of experience.  Call it an epiphany.

So I had an epiphany about something which I think I already knew, which came into focus on this trip.  It was about addictions in general,  and specifically substance abuse. There is plenty of substance abuse on the trail, but it is oddly more visible because of the bubble. The bubble is the group of people that you find yourself traveling with, running into here and there, as you hike.   On any given day you may pass them,  or they may pass you, but from time to time you run across each other.  Also other hikers, or entries in shelter logs, will keep you informed.

As our society becomes more frantic, more anxious, we are at risk for becoming overwhelmed on many levels. What is making us more anxious? Technology is a major contributor, but other factors are economic, political, and even existential as we look for meaning in the midst of our present times.  We are easily overwhelmed, and over stimulated, and  often resort to numbing ourselves with food (we are an obese nation and the rest of the world is right there with us), nicotine, social media, sports, and those little magic boxes we call “smart phones,” which make us dumb.  Then there is of course prescriptions drugs, and illicit drugs.  It occurred to me on the trail that illicit drug use is no longer the realm of some fringe minority, but is now widely accepted.

I have heard this in my classroom from college students, and I saw it on the trail.  This doesn’t mean that most Americans are using drugs, or most college students, or most backpackers on the AT.  However, it does mean that drug use is no longer necessarily  deviant, and is certainly more tolerated. We are becoming used to it, our nation has an insatiable appetite for illegal. Exhibit one is the current opioid  crisis.

When hiking on the AT we spent 8 – 9 hours a day backpacking.  For that entire time, and most of the rest of the time, we were in the moment.  Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote a book entitled “Wherever You Go, There You Are.”  Which is true.  But, increasingly the trick is to be able to recognize and appreciate it rather than trying to escape it.  Why is that?  Because many of us, myself included at times, are not happy with where we are at the moment.  We want to be someplace else.  Someplace besides bullshit jobs, meaningless meetings, long commutes, or just struggling to live day by day. Struggling to pay the bills, and struggling to find some meaning in all of it.  We are becoming tired of being commodities, and cogs in an exploitative economic system with a government system that is viewed as ineffective, and often corrupt.

So what is missing from our lives?  Maybe it is adventure.  Or maybe the idea that things can change, things can get better.  Maybe it is the idea that we, as individuals as well as collectively, can evolve rather than devolve. That democracy can work.  Good will be rewarded and evil will be punished.  Maybe not all the time, but enough to where we think the playing field is fairly level.  That we can achieve some modicum of stability in our lives. All those things have been a part of the American experience which gave us a reason to get up in the morning.  Is that still the case?  Well, the jury is till out on all that.

Maybe the reason that illegal drug use is up is that increasingly more and more of us don’t have a reason to get up in the morning. We don’t have adventures.  We are becoming entangled in an existence where we seem to have little agency.  Drugs are a way to blunt the brutality of that assault on our humanity.

Along with this series on lessons learned I will also be making more post with pictures on the adventure that my wife Jenifer and I had together on the AT.

The picture below is just for fun.  I have never seen a Harley in a grocery store before.  This picture was taken in Blairesville, Georgia which was close to the place we stayed before and after our hike.

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Harley On Aisle 4
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Tales of the Trail

We are off the trail now, as planned, and relaxing at Misty Mountain Inn & Cottages in Blairsville, Georgia. Cabin 4.

We came of the trail at Woody Gap.

We now have this:

Yesterday we had this:

We don’t appreciate what we have, nor do we appreciate the power and magesty of nature which we think we have conquered. But that is a delusion. It was before us, and will be after us. This infrastructure we have created is as fragile, and temporary, as a spider’s web, a butterfly’s cocoon, and a Robin’s nest.

I will soon begin a series of post entitled “What I Learned on the Trail.” Not what I learned with complete certainty, but glimpses and hints. I’m not even sure what it is I really learned. Maybe just some kind of awareness? Language struggles to convey reality. Language, and this blog post, are just facades as to what really is.

First Hike of 2018 and Three Lost in the Woods

Great weather for a change inspired me to get out and hike. The low fifties on a sunny day was perfect.

Picture of author
Looking like a dufus

Every year I forget how hiking uses muscles that you don’t use otherwise. Especially the glutamous maximus. I need to train for this spring.  By the way, after seeing this picture I want straight home and trimmed the beard.

Hiking trail in Missouri
Trail close to the trailhead

Missouri has lots of parks and lots of small trails including those at Rockbridge State Park which is about a seven minute drive from my house.  I wanted to do the eight mile loop on the Gans Creek trail but opted out because they are evidently redoing the routes and it is a chaotic mess.  The blazes are being changed and the main route that was fairly well marked last year is, I think, incomplete.  I couldn’t make heads nor tails out of it.

I started at the South end and wanted to loop back around through the Northern trailhead and come back,  but cut my hike short by at least an hour because the trail markings were so confusing.  It was not so much about getting lost, but the uncertainty of where I was on a trail, and hiking on a trial where the blazes from last year were either missing or changed. It is that chaotic.

To get back all I would have had to have done is follow the creek which runs downstream from North to South back where my car was parked at the trailhead where I started.  Worse case scenario was bushwacking (hiking off the designated trail) my way back following the creek downstream to the trailhead.   That would have been wet and muddy.  A compass would have made it a bit easier, but I could have done it without the compass because of the creek. I had foolishly not brought my compass and will NOT make that mistake again.  Also, the sun was to my West and that was visible. So I wasn’t going to get lost.

On the way out I passed a group of three teenagers and we greeted one another.  On the way back,  about fifteen minutes after  I decided to turn around, I passed the group of teenagers again.  They asked me if they were on  the route back to the Northern trailhead.  Actually that is the same question I had asked myself, and was unable to answer because of the confused trail markings.  Essentially why I had decided to turn around.  They had a map which was useless to them because it was just squiggly lines, and I don’t even think it was updated with the new changes.

I told them I had no idea. That is not what they had wanted to hear.  They had started on the Northern end and were trying to make it back there where their car was parked.  They had asked other people for directions and the people they asked had  either not known or had given them directions that turned out not to be helpful.  They were not panicking but they were concerned. They had been over  three hours in the woods, they had no water, and the one cell phone they had between them was about to die.

I looked at  them and wondered what to do. Just giving them directions were not going to get it done.  At least two people had done that. I was familiar with the trail, but the new configuration, which I suspect is not yet complete anyway, had confused me. I could try to lead them back to where they started, and would have eventually made it, but it was late in the afternoon, and I didn’t know the distances.  Then I would have had to hike back to where I had begun.  Also I could see their feet were wet and muddy, and they probably had on cotton socks. I am also sure they were hungry and thirsty although they declined my offer of water.  The other option was to lead them out and drive them back to their car on the highway.

They were in a bit of a dilemma.  They meet a stranger in the woods who offers to take them back to the trailhead and then drive them to their car. If they were my kids, or if it was me lost in the woods, I certainly hope somebody would have helped out.  I could tell they were hesitant.  As I would have been.  As a matter of fact I had the same concerns about them but had sized them up as good kids, with no gear, out on a walk that went bad.  They decided to take me up on my offer.

They thanked me profusely. And they were grateful, but I am not sure if it was because I didn’t bludgeon them to death with my hiking pole, or they were just glad they were finally going to be able to get home.