Exactly one year ago today, Emily and I woke up in tiny bunk beds, situated in a tiny room in the middle of the woods. We engaged in small talk with the other day hikers at Len Foote Hike Inn over a hearty breakfast, listened to short stories the cooks shared about the stream of failed thru-hike attempts they see flow through their doors, already knowing in our hearts we would not be added to that list. We gathered what little we carried with us, hoisted our tiny packs of life onto our back, and took our first giant steps toward Katahdin.
For the next four months and twenty days, we walked through pain and rain, sweat and stank, hunger and lightening. We weaved in and out of forests, danced through meadows, drifted over grassy balds. We climbed up mountains, scaled down cliffs, squeezed between boulder gardens, hop-scotched rocks. We sprinted through fading light, tripped over invisible pebbles, stumbled on actual rocks, slipped off wet planks, tumbled down anything that allowed tumbling. But often, we simply…walked. One foot in front of the other. And we didn’t stop until we felt Victory beneath our worn out trainers. If shoes could talk, what a story they’d tell.
Depending on who you are, that sounds like a glorious dream or a freaking nightmare. But in either case, how do you put an experience like this into words? How do you inject intense joy, complete satisfaction and the fondness you legitimately feel pulse through your body, into the sentence:
I smelled like cat pee, hurt like hell and ate ramen with hot sauce…every single night.
On June 15, 2015, while happily trudging through Virginia, I received an email entitled: INTERESTING OPPORTUNITY! In real life, these sort of emails are automatic deletes. But when you’re 57 days into hiking the AT, and you slightly resemble a wind-up toy that falls over to poop, eat, and sleep, any email is an INTERESTING OPPORTUNITY! to distract yourself from your daily wind-up activities, to keep your mind off the pain, the hunger, the smell, the heat, the miles to go before you sleep. And this one screamed at me with just how all-caps interesting it was:
But Virginia is long, and little things like mass emails become giant things that occupy your mind, keeping you company when putting one foot in front of the other becomes harder than it looks. The verbiage they were sending around is really what sparked my interest:
* High End Financial Services Web Campaign
* 25-35, male/female – all ethnicities
* Rate: $5000 buyout for one year – inclusive of shoot days
* $2500 (negotiable) for 1 year of social media integration
* Looking for interesting, vibrant people doing cool things in the world. We are interested in people who have cool jobs, yes, but more than that – people who have interesting lives & hobbies– who love to explore, travel, dine, to push the boundaries, who live outside of the box: People who love life, the experience of life and feel positive about your future.
* Types of jobs or hobbies that could fall into this category (but NOT limited to): Photographer, Filmmaker, Scuba Diver, Rock Climber, Graffiti Artist, Tattoo Artist, Designer, Chef, , World Traveler, Yogi, Social Enterprise Entrepreneur, Humanitarian, & any & all extreme sports…
* Please include a recent photograph, contact information, what credit/charge cards you use and any social media links to: xxx
They think I am interesting? Live outside the box!? Love the experience of life and feel positive about my future!!? I do, I do!! But I’ll be honest, as I was approaching Month 16 of my Vagabond status, it was those dollar signs that looked pretty special. And all I had to do to throw myself into that hat of opportunity was answer a few simple questions? Don’t mind if I do. And so just before entering Shenandoah, on our next Town Day, in Waynesboro, Virgina, I found myself staring intently at my phone, thumbs poised in position, with perhaps a touch too much wine in my belly as I crafted my response email. And it was good. Like, really good.
I clicked send, then quickly filled my mind with other pieces of distracting garbage, and didn’t think about the INTERESTING OPPORTUNITY! again. Until I saw the commercials. Maybe you’ve seen them too? Those American Express commercials about the photographers living outside the box, loving the experience of life while traveling through Alaska and Iceland? Yeah, that was the INTERESTING OPPORTUNITY! And I am 11.8% certain they stole the basic idea from my response email. Tricky bastards.
After I indicated my initial interest, the casting crew sent a list of simple questions to answer. Just to give you a taste of my mindset at the time, here’s a snippet of my email, in response to the question: Tell me what a day in the life is like:
Day in the life of hiking the AT:
Hiking days go like this: Wake up, pack up, eat up, poop out, hike out, break, eat, poop, hike, break, eat, poop, hike, break, eat, poop, hike, set up camp, filter water, eat up, poop out, play cribbage, sleep, REPEAT (a lot. Like, a lot a lot). The few days we pass a Town go like this: Wake up, WEEEEEEEE! We’re going to town today!!!!!, eat up, poop out, hike out, WE’RE IN TOWN!!!!, PIZZA! cribbage, check in to small town motel, shower, resupply, wine and/or local brewery, sleep, wake up to a hiking day, ugh, please, please, please poop in the toilet, hike out.
It’s an incredible cycle.
I knooooooooow, right?
Maybe I should have spent more time creating a more glorious portrayal of daily life on the AT, though I would be lying if I said it involved a lot more than eating, pooping, walking, and deep mindless thinking. But then again, I would be lying if I said it didn’t.
See, life on Appalachian Trail can’t be summed up in a commercial. The pieces that can be seen, that can be explained, they only make up a quarter of the journey. Despite having start and finish dates, southern and northern terminuses, the experience doesn’t have a beginning, middle and end. For a thru-hiker, it’s just there. It’s always been there, it will always be there. Even if you find yourself sitting in an office, configuring software, solving issues, day-dreaming about Katahdin long after Katahdin, it’s there. Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail isn’t something you do. It’s something you are.
And yeah, looking back, my description of daily life on the AT probably wasn’t exactly commercial worthy. No one needs to see anyone silently walking, sleeping in tiny tents and guzzling wine in crappy motels while binge watching The Bachelorette. But now that I think about it, my extended joblessness combined with not having an American Express card (What credit cards do you use? This is a commercial for AMEX, if you don’t have an Amex, it won’t hurt your chances but we need to know. Suuuuure it won’t.) to pay for the booze and shitty motels, probably sealed my fate. Using the word “poop” seven times may have also been a deterrent, but it’s hard to say.
So in celebration of my one-year anniversary of beginning a journey that doesn’t have a beginning and cannot be summed up in a commercial, here’s my attempt to sum it up in a commercial, written in the spirit of the 11.8% stolen idea:
Thru-Hiking The Appalachian Trail
Waking up every morning with one purpose: head north.
Experiencing the simplicity of a life driven entirely by basic needs: food and shelter.
Earning my beer, my bottle of wine, my Ben & Jerry’s. My entire pizza.
Staying at crappy motels, considering them luxury items; anyone with a car is a straight-up superhero.
Living outside, being outside, seeing outside in every light and light you never knew existed.
Walking into a public bathroom, totally thrilled with modern day conveniences of toilets and sinks.
Washing my face in a sink with Emily’s disgusting old bar of Dial to experience the most refreshing feeling in the world.
Stealing toilet paper from restaurant bathrooms.
Feeling accomplished every single day for 147 days straight, even days with zero miles, because resting overworked muscles and joints is just as awesome as hiking 23 miles.
Watching Emily make her nightly peanut butter and ramen cuisine, with exactly five drops of hot sauce, no more, no less.
Wandering forward, listening to her immense knowledge of the most random things.
Meeting strangers who turn into friends with an exchange of a few words.
Smelling the morning, the afternoon, the evening, knowing the difference.
Hiking past dusk.
Pushing on, even when I don’t think I can.
Thinking deeply about simple things.
Thinking simply about deep things.
Thinking about nothing at all.
Getting caught belting out Queen in the middle of a forest, when you think you’re alone.
Realizing you’re never alone.
Getting caught pooping in the woods.
(Seriously. You’re never alone.)
All of the sunsets, all of the sunrises.
Walking entire days above the clouds.
Jumping into lakes of glass.
Becoming an expert on calculating just how many miles per hour you have to walk, and how many miles per hour you’re capable of walking over every possible terrain.
Discovering kind souls and kindred spirits.
Crossing a road with fingers crossed for trail magic.
The thrill of there actually being trail magic, like 1 out of every 20 finger crossing.
Wearing the exact same clothes. Every. Single. Day.
Sweating. Sweat. More sweat.
And that smell.
Squeezing the last bit of toothpaste from the tube, sucking the last drop of water dry, eating every crumb. Waste nothing, leave nothing.
Approaching a summit to find nothing.
Approaching a summit to find everything.
Reaching the end, just to discover the beginning.
I’ll be expecting a call from the American Express people any moment.
I have touched both terminuses of the Appalachian Trail, and every mile marker in between, but I’m fortunate to realize my place in a longer journey that doesn’t have a visible end. And I have big plans. Huge plans. Plans for which I hold the recipe to create delicious Reality. Part of the ingredients include walking from Mexico to Canada not once, but twice: once on the Pacific Crest Trail and once on the Continental Divide Trail and bicycling from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon…and that’s just the beginning. The beginning of something that doesn’t have a beginning.
And you can’t have an end without a beginning.
Sometimes, the best journeys answer questions that, in the beginning, you never even thought to ask.