“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
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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.