I covered the easiest of questions in my last post – when? I’ll cover the medium difficulty question – how? (what gear, general itinerary, logistics, prep) in some later posts. I want to cover the hardest of questions in this post – why?
But first a little side track on some of the language I am using to frame the hike for myself. In my previous post I used the word “attempt”. In the title of this one I used “try”. This is extremely intentional. I know that only roughly 1 in 4 people that attempt a through hike each year actually finish. With the prep I have done (mental, physical, gear, shake down hikes, financial) I’d like to think my odds are slightly better than that, but they are still not 100%. I fully intend to complete my hike AND I am fully aware that I may not. The biggest thing that might prevent me is injury although there are many other smaller possibilities. I am doing all I can to physically prepare and fully intend to listen to my body as I go to mitigate the potential for injury AND I recognize that its a long trail and anything can happen (one reason I am also carrying a InReach satellite messenger for my trek). By framing it as an attempt, I am giving the future me some grace to be able to step off if something comes up. I am a “finisher” so this framing is what I need to make sure I don’t push things too far.
OK, now for the why. Like anything this major and long developing, there are several reasons why. I also must admit there are probably some I have forgotten and, even more interestingly, some I might not realize until I am on the trail. But here’s what comes to mind, in no particular order:
I am hiking the trail to keep a promise I made to myself a long time ago.
Work has been pretty OK for the last few years. I credit a great team, leader that I am sync with and a wonderful cohort. It wasn’t always that way. A while back I needed something to look forward to that would let me escape the grind that work was back then. My problems were absolutely of the “first world” variety, but they were still my problems. I found that when I had a trip (of the leisure or back country variety) it gave me something to look forward to and, yes, escape whatever petty pressure I was feeling at work. So what better than a really big trip a long way off!
I’ve had a countdown timer on my desk since Sept 5 of 2018 (thanks Amazon order history!). The date it was counting down to has changed a few times, but by the time the time I start my hike, it will have marked over 2,000 days. I looked at that clock so many times over the last few years (more since I have been mostly working from home since Mar of 2020). I worried sometimes that I was wishing my days away, but mostly it kept me focused on the bigger picture.
Having something to look forward to helps me avoid getting pulled into petty dramas and stay focused on the big picture. Setting big goals, doing the work to achieve them and then giving it a go regardless of the outcome (remember it’s an “attempt” 😆) helps me find more meaning and feel more fulfilled.
I am hiking the trail because of a campfire conversation I overheard years ago.
This is a small but important part of the story. Years back I had the privilege of helping to organize our church youth group Memorial Day weekend car camping trips to the Red River Gorge. These were a staple back in the day that were revived when my kids were in the youth group. They haven’t happened in the last few years (a victim of the pandemic I think) but I’m hopeful we’ll get them restarted in some form in the future.
One on of these trips, we were sitting around the fire after a day hike and dinner. Someone was playing guitar. Two rising Seniors in the youth group were talking about what they wanted to do once they graduated. They both were toying with the idea of hiking the AT. I asked them why that interested them and heard all about the freedom, the accomplishment and the challenge that it represented for them. They didn’t end up attempting a through hike and they nor I realized it at the time, but the hook was set in me from that simple, accidental conversation around a fire in the Gorge. Over the years that followed the idea of hiking the trail became more and more real for me for some of the same reasons those two seniors had and some of my own. Be careful what conversations you listen to and join and be mindful of what you talk about – you never have any idea what seeds are being planted 😝.
I am hiking the trail to mark and consider a transition.
I celebrated my 50th birthday this year. And I am not using celebrated lightly – there were distillery tours, steak dinners and horse racing at Keeneland and a walk through Red River Gorge with some of my best friends. For some reason, 50 seemed important and more of a milestone / change from what we before than 20, 30 or 40. Perhaps it was that we are now the parents of adults rather than children. Perhaps it was achieving a key financial milestone (debt free!). Perhaps it was (and is 😀) my body starting to show its age with a few injuries that took a bit longer to recover from than they used to. As I approached this transition, I paid attention to what ideas were coming my way, and paid more attention to those that would help me understand and navigate it. A few things bubbled to the top.
The Hindu concept of the 4 stages of life, Chatuashrama, came into my awareness sometime in the last few years and I was immediately captured by the 3rd of the 4 phases: Vānaprastha which literally means “way of the forest” or “forest road”. This third phase of life in the Hindu tradition traditionally lasts from 50 to 74 and is about a gradual shift from economic to more spiritual concerns.
(Side note: IF – big IF! – I ever get a tattoo, the Sanskrit for Vānaprastha – वानप्रस्थ – is a strong contender…unclear if some might find that offensive?)
I’ve also been fortunate to find and read a few books that talk about different aspects of the transition from a more western (although not necessarily more secular) tradition: a couple by two Brook’s (not Brothers) From Strength to Strength and The Second Mountain and one by a Dr. Hollis Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life. There was lots to learn from all of these (so much so I might re read them before I hit the trail), but the one overarching takeaway I had is that there comes a time (maybe as soon as 35 or as late as 70) when your skills, abilities and interests will change. This isn’t all about decline – some things get better with age and experience. One part of living the good life is noticing these changes and making related changes in how you structure your life. Taking 6 months of unpaid leave is both one of these changes (its something I never would have even considered when I was focused on “building my career”) and will also give me distance from the day to day I’ve built up over the past 20-30 years and take the time to notice what I want to focus on beyond my family and friends in the next 20-30 years so that I can start to make the associated changes when I get back.
This post took me a little longer to get to a place where I was ready to hit the publish button than I thought it would when I started. I have the feeling this might be a post I come back to when I am on the trail to remind myself why I am doing this when its cold, dark, wet and I’m hungry and maybe lonely. Always know why.