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.

20180511_122420
Harley On Aisle 4
Advertisements

Calm Energy: How People Regulate Mood with Food and Exercise — a review

This is a review of  Dr. Robert Thayer’s last book (b. 1935 – d. 2014). Dr. Thayer was a psychology professor at  California State University, Long Beach.  He was an internationally known mood scientist, and his book is worth a look.

Dr. Thayer’s book explores the relationship between a depressed mood and over eating, and  not having the energy, or not feeling like, exercise.  His premise is that we often eat to help regulate our mood, and that even a moderately DSC_0002depressed mood drives us toward inactivity.  Paradoxically we do not have the energy to exercise, and use food to elevate mood creating a feedback loop.  While written in 2001 Dr. Thayer had already identified technology as something that has contributed to a rise in chronic background stress over and above what occurred previously.   Now I am going to tell you why you should read it.

I think the science clearly shows that our mood does effect when and how we exercise, as well as when and how we eat.  This book provides some great advice, and I will mention just a few things:

1. Sleep.  Get enough of it.  Lack of sleep has an adverse effect on mood.  Not only do we perform poorly when we have not had enough sleep, it does contribute to a negative mood, and to poor eating habits.  I am working very hard to get my own sleep regulated, and I suffer for it when that does not work out.

2.  You can use exercise to reduce the urge to snack.  Here is a quote:

If one of the reasons we snack is for the pleasure it gives us in the form of increased energy and reduced tension, and if exercise also gives similar pleasure through its effects on our moods, then it ought to be possible to substitute exercise for snacking, at least in a limited sort or way. pg. 79

He cites research that shows exercise can suppress appetite, and is particularly effective for when we cycle through our periods of low mood which happens periodically as a matter of course.

There is a lot more good information in the book.  Dr. Thayer has started us down the road into understanding how self-awareness can help us to not only be more aware of what is happening with our bodies, but also to  begin learning how to take evasive action to avoid the negative things in our life.

I am predicting that in the future we will find out that  learning how to control our moods will be a critical part of our fitness arsenal.  Running is nothing more than a tool for me, and one of many, no matter how much I like it.  And remember, at least for me, this is not just about  staying fit. I am not in it for the six-pack.  Not at 58 years of age.  It is about leading a sane life, with joy, vigour, and pleasure in every moment that we can.  I am also continually amazed at how everything is connected.  We cannot ignore one thing at the expense of another.

Live long and prosper. And get some sleep!

Mike