Monthly Archives: June 2012

Training Hikes—Part 1

When this ambition (let’s avoid the word obsession) reasserted itself some time ago, I decided my best training would be on the local Trail itself. At the very least it would give me an opportunity to test the waters: Am I really up for this? Am I seriously going to live basically on cat food for the next few years, only to spend the half year after that in insane hardship? Am I as in love with hills and rocks and work as I think I am?

     My first training hike was a beautiful June day, sunny with a breeze that turned blissfully cool once I got up into the hills. I drove a couple of hours to the state game commission parking lot near Pine Swamp Road, which is much prettier than it sounds. I’d hiked the Trail up there before, but not for a few years. On the way in I startled a deer grazing the fringes of the forest. A well-muscled doe, she glanced at my car then leaped into the woods with strength but no panic. Go, sister, I thought. A sign.

     I’d cobbled together some gear and clothing, the best bits and pieces of what I had. New shoes—trail runners, since my old, expensive, professionally fitted boots had never been comfortable. Nylon basketball shorts, a lightweight short-sleeved shirt, my plaid daypack. A couple quarts of water, some lunch. My new trekking poles. (I’d never hiked with trekking poles before, and man, am I a convert. But more on that later.) Everything was a different color, from the purple bandanna to the green socks. A vagabond jester.

     The first half-mile out of the parking lot, up the blue-blazed trail, was a wakeup call. It’s probably a twenty-five- or thirty-degree angle, downright gentle by Trail standards, smooth and easy and wide—and I was so winded I had to stop twice. Then I saw my first white blaze, and the emotion was overwhelming. I accepted in that instant that obsession is the right word after all, and that trekking this trek has probably been written in my stars since the first time I stepped from the blistering sunlight into the cool green arms of the woods.

     I headed northbound toward the Pinnacle. The Trail there is steep for quite a ways, but easy to follow. (Too easy, for this rookie. I need to develop the habit of watching for the blazes.) Particularly on the slopes it’s blanketed with loose rocks and gravel, which warrants a little care in the walking.

     Eventually the Trail flattens out. It narrows to the width of a couple of tire ruts as it moves through the state game lands, and after the recent storms it was muddy. Not Vermont muddy, but boot-sucking in a few places, the worst of it easily avoided by stone stepping or walking across logs like balance beams. I passed a swollen pond with cattails jutting like enemy spears and nearly jumped out of my skin at this horrific groaning shout not ten feet away; a bullfrog! A freaking bullfrog! I had to laugh at myself. I remembered doing exactly the same thing the last time I’d made that hike. In fact, that was the day’s litany: “I remember this.” “Oh, yeah, I remember this part.” “Shit, I forgot about this!”

     I passed four hikers that day, three going southbound and one going north. Two men and two women, all solo. That two of them were women, I took as a sign. The men had the grizzled lankiness of thru-hikers. I chatted a few minutes with one of the women, a long section hiker from New Hampshire. All of them, my heroes.

     On the trail, I saw a baby toothbrush like a little white bone in the mud. “Somebody’s going to be missing that,” I thought. I imagined how disheartened I’d be if it were me, and how many times I’d empty and search through my pack, convinced that that toothbrush would turn up if only I looked hard enough.

     The rocks near the Pinnacle were more difficult than I remember. I was in much better shape the last time I’d been there, thinner and actively training in martial arts, so I had a stronger core. That was a wakeup call, too. It was the first time ever that I had the Pinnacle all to myself. So I sat near the edge and looked out at the majesty while I ate my lunch, and I thought, “Yes. You can do this. It won’t be easy, but you can do it.”

 

 

     In typical fashion, I wanted to overdo it, to go a little farther, but for once I listened to the little voice in my head that said, “Stop. Calm down. You have three years, and this is your first time out. You can push your limits once you know what they are.” So I headed back home. It was about eleven glorious miles, round trip—barely a blip for a long-distance hiker, but enough for me to start with.

     All in all, a good walk. The last time I’d hiked there, my feet had felt like they were bleeding on the bottoms. This time there was none of that, nor any knee pain. Yay, New Balance trail runners! I was stiff that night, but the shoes were an unmitigated win. The next day, though, I had a brand new agony—my hips! The fronts of my hips were so sore I could barely move. I realized that because of my sedentary day job, because of all the sitting, the extensors in front have shortened. It took three or four days for that pain to pass, and I’m happy to report that it didn’t recur after the second hike.

     I felt so gloriously optimistic after that first training hike. Yes, you can do this. It won’t be easy, but you can.

     It was the second hike that was the punch to the gut.

 

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The Beginning

“If you get out on the trail [and] all you got is a backpack on your back, you really get to learn what’s important, what’s not, what’s necessary, what’s dead weight, dead emotion, I mean you really get to know you and your personal world. Nothing else. Just you.”

     —Bonzo, in The Spirit of the Appalachian Trail

 

“If you look at the people on the trail, it’s hard not to think of it as a pilgrimage. And so for it to be as meaningful and as great an experience… it has to be something more than just a hike. By the time people are done with it, they’re changed.”

     —Brice, the Shopkeeper, in The Spirit of the Appalachian Trail

 

~ ~ ~

Let’s face it. I need to be very, very clear about why I’m doing this. Why I want to do this. I had a wakeup call last week (more about that later), and since then I’ve been granted some epiphanies. This isn’t a transition time for me: I’m not between jobs, between wives, between working life and retirement. I’m just pinching pennies to be able to take six months away from the computer.

     The Trail is a social experience (perhaps even too social for this deep introvert). But that can’t be the core reason to do this, eh? That’s a happy byproduct, a little side order of serendipity.

     For me, at over 50, I can’t lose sight of the fact that this is a rough, physically demanding road. I imagine that every day on the Trail must be extraordinarily and uniquely difficult. Every day on the Trail is some flavor of struggle. Am I up to that sort of challenge?

     No. Clearly I’m not, as I recently realized (more about that, too, later). But there’s time, and there’s hope. I can figure out how to prepare my body to climb rocks and scramble. First and foremost, I can lose twenty pounds (very challenging now, although it used to peel off without effort when I was training two decades ago). I can stretch and do balance exercises, use my old martial arts experience to work on my core. I can make the commitment, drive out to the Trail, and walk the hills and rocks of Pennsylvania to get my heart and lungs in better shape and to work on my fear of heights and falling and rocks. I can relearn how to get on my hands and knees, to scramble and revel in the limberness of muscle. Half of my stiffness is simply that I’ve forgotten how to relish getting dirty.

     The romance of the Trail is insufficient. The fact that the Trail has owned a piece of my brain for half a century is clearly insufficient.

     My major impediment to the Trail is also the main reason I believe I need to do it: to shed the shackles of a fear-based life. Not to “find myself” at over 50, but to finally let go of the things that are not myself. To surrender. To lighten the load.

     To learn trust. To live one day at a time truly. To connect, to really connect, with this earth, with this universe that has blessed me by loaning me some of her precious atoms. To feel her bones beneath my feet, to touch her ancient rocks with my hands. And yes, to challenge my body one last time.

 

White blaze near Eckville Shelter, Pennsylvania

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