This begins on page 10 of the manuscript I have nearly finished. It is also the first time I have publicly posted anything from it to be reviewed by anyone. It is not entirely edited yet, so please excuse any typos or poor structure. If you enjoy it even a little, please hit the like button and also share it with anyone you think would be interested in it. I will be posting a few other shorter excerpts in the weeks to come. Thank you for visiting and reading my post. Cheers and Happy Hiking.
In the Real World I Hike- By Michael “SY” Sisemore
This will not be a book about how to hike the Appalachian Trail (AT), nor is it a book about how I hiked it necessarily. If you are looking for such a read, the library is full of eminently readable editions. I will have an obligatory chapter on how to hike the AT just to meet the standards of a hiking book. I will not regularly be describing what the shelters looked like, (some do stand out though) or how the trail was a picturesque image of paradise. It’s really not much to look at most of the time. 80% or more of the trail seems to be encased in trees. (it is often called the green tunnel) Even through the Shenandoah’s, known for its incredible vistas, the trail has few available to the hiker. It parallels the scenic auto road, and many a hiker, me included, has hiked the road through at least part of that section just to get a view of something besides more freaking trees. On one stretch of this heavily travelled section, I happened upon two randy bikers fornicating like rabid weasels on the trail (right in the middle of the trail, like legit on the trail) just off a parking area near one of the waysides. So yeah, I suppose that part of the trail was memorable. I have not looked at leather and bandanas in the same way since. They were still wearing helmets!
I recognize that I may be committing a serious blasphemy to the general hiking world in saying that the vast majority of the AT looks the same no matter where you happen to be standing along the way. But it’s true. Even the AT’s first thru-hiker, Earl Shaffer, said that the trail in 1998 was much harder and less interesting to look at than when he did it in 1948, and again in 1965. His comments regarding the placement of the trail up on the ridgelines and away from things that you would actually want to see, and better water sources for shelters have been echoed by many. You don’t find waterfalls of the tops of mountains, you don’t find many nice swimming holes, or scenic meadows on the tops of these mountains very often. This is farther down the ridgelines and in the valleys. You don’t need 6 months on the trail to figure out the trail’s placement is not one that considers the enjoyable hiking experience as a priority, or even a concern at all. There are a few picturesque views on the AT, but that depends on where you camp or how the weather happens to be that day. Sure, there are sometimes subtle and other times extreme differences in terrain, geography, and the footpath itself, but for the most part you are walking through a tunnel of brown and green. This is not simply a harsh critique of the trail, it is what it is. You will find beauty and awe on the trail, but if measured in time and distance, it will represent about 1 percent of the trails distance. Consider it may take all day to get to an overlook or clearing with a nice view, in a matter of minutes it’s behind you.
The trail is placed where it is going to be out of the way, and in spots that are going to be less likely to suffer encroachment from development. This does make it easier and more cost-effective to protect for future generations. It’s hard to build on the steep sides of rocky ledged mountains; and the population of the East Coast is not getting smaller. If you are looking for sweeping vistas, and nature in her most majestic of poses, you will find it sparse on the AT. The Grayson Highlands, The Balds, Dragon’s Tooth, McAfee Knob, the White Mountains, and Katahdin are certainly going to be at the top of most hikers lists. But, you really need to go out west to see massive spectacles of nature. The mountains of the east coast are old, weather-beaten, and tired, yet they are still rugged and physically demanding on the untried legs of fresh-faced ambitious hikers. However, do not underestimate the difficulty of hiking the AT. Hiking the AT is hard work.
My friend Jack admonished me on more than a few occasions for my “simple minded insolence” when speaking about the blandness of the AT’s corridor. But even he had to admit and preached at length, the trail is not about the trees, it is about the people. I could not agree more. For it is the people that we encounter along the way, and often form intense emotional bonds within very short periods of time, that take this footpath of more nearly 2,200 miles, and turns it somehow into a malleable river of a human community that at once flows in from all directions towards a mountain named Katahdin, or Springer if you’re one of “those hikers”. Just kidding, we love out South bound brethren. Regardless its position as your beginning or ending point, all paths lead to Katahdin. We are however, all coming from a great many starting points on our journey to get there. So many thousands of people coming from so many thousands of places, times, backgrounds, and experiences, coming together to end up on a singular path. It’s pretty magical if you think about it.
The people of the trail community are not relegated to just the other hikers you encounter. They are the townsfolk, the generous drivers that give us rides to towns and back, the Monks at Bear Mountain in New York, ridge-runners, hundreds if not thousands who volunteer to maintain the trail, all those who work at the trail clubs and the AMC, thetrail angels, hostel keepers, outfitters, curious day hikers, locals bellied up to the bar in some dive arguing over their favorite NASCAR drivers, the people that want to share the history of their little towns, they want to let you know what is important in their town, and how proud they are of it. Everyone has a story, and if you are willing to ask and listen, they will tell you. It truly is an experience like no other. As far as strangers go, hikers are such a curiosity, that it is almost like the travelling bards of medieval Europe. They come to towns for a short time, spreading stories and narrations of their exploits to anyone who wants to listen, collecting more stories and gossip from the towns people; and poof! they’re gone before you grow tired of them and a new group is there the next day. Since a thru-hiker is crossing the eastern part of the country at about 2.5-3 miles per hour, you can literally stop and smell the flowers any time you want. And you should, every time you get the chance. Unlike a road trip in a car, everyone you encounter is within an arm’s reach on the trail and in the trail towns. You need to stop once in a while to take a break anyway, spare ten minutes to have a conversation with someone, it may change your life.
These opportunities to interact and speak to different people are limited only by our desire and willingness to STOP and say hi. It is very easy to get caught up in the mileage and the destination; but sometimes you just need to take off your pack, sit down and have a chat with someone. It could change the course of your life. I’m living proof.
So often we are reluctant, as thru-hikers, to slow down and take in the sights when we are on the march. The pressure to meet certain mileages, stick to our carefully crafted plan, get to a specific shelter for the night, keep up with our hiker friends, get to the post office before it closes, gotta get back to work, school, spouse, and hundreds of other things that can detract from our just being present in the moment. Let’s face it, the odds are heavily stacked against us. Challenges and obstacles are endless. The fear of falling behind and failing can drive us forward with such momentum, that we are missing out on the most important parts of the journey. Most hikers will not complete this trek.
When looking at those challenges or even the many opportunities that we encounter, the fear of failure can be so overwhelming that many of us will not even begin the attempt. Just like the old phrase, it is better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all. If we cannot get past the idea of getting our heart broken, we will never experience the joy of having mutual love and genuine affection with another human being. That is a lonely-assed existence. We should not allow ourselves to be so focused on the potential for failure, that it prevents us from taking risks and challenges. Measured risk is one thing, total avoidance is another thing entirely. My favorite quote is by William H. Murray from his book The Scottish Himalayan Expedition (1951). It’s a long one, as quotes go, and he references a couplet often attributed to Goethe:
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:
Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it!”
This quote epitomizes the thru-hiker ethos. You will not complete a thru-hike unless you are committed to it body, mind, and soul; and Providence is trail magic.
It is a curiosity to me now, as I cannot for the life of me recall when or where I first encountered this quote. I have no idea if it was pre or post-hike. If I had to guess it would be post-hike. The year after I completed thru-hiking the AT, I had moved from Georgia to Hanover, NH. and read over 200 books. It is reasonable that I encountered it then. The public library, The Dirt Cowboy– the BEST coffee shop you will ever find-, and local bar Five Olde Nugget Alley were my homes away from home. I had some great times there, and it allowed me the luxury of processing my hiking experience in a comfortable setting. Examining Murray’s quote in its simple complexity reveals why it has such an appeal to me. The first line parallels the absolute commitment I had made prior to taking my first steps on the AT. Hike or die, I was going to finish the trail or else, and I had eliminated all possibility of going back. There was nothing to go back to. I was definitely committed. Providence was regularly at work. Providence is defined as protective or spiritual care provided by God or nature. I am not religious, but I am very spiritual in my own way. Being within a natural setting is where my spirituality soars. Every step I took on the trail from the very beginning gave my spirit, soul, and body strength. I smiled so much in those first few days that it was hard to recognize myself. Providence was providing me a path to joy and fulfillment that had been missing for many years. I would be defined as homeless for the next 9 months, yet I never felt more at home in the world than I did on the trail. Sleeping on the top of a mountain had a greater sense of comfort and permanence than any bed I had ever slept on. Although waking up at 3:00am with a giant moose nose two inches from my own was a bit disconcerting. I successfully tested my theory that freezing every muscle in my body and holding my breath was a great way to not get stomped to death. Do you know how big a moose head is? It’s HUGE! The size of a small Russian car to be exact. He eventually meandered on his way. I had a snack and went back to sleep, but farther off the trail.
The fellowship and whatever else we are seeking is going to be found in the people we encounter, and the daily challenges that encourage us to become what we are supposed to be and can become. Unforeseen incidents will bring a moment of happiness, a laugh, a gesture of compassion or care from another human being, a moment of brevity, even a glimpse of the unrestrained beauty of nature in its rawest of forms can be transformative to your mood and possibly your relationship with the world or yourself. It could be lightning crashing across the hilltops, thunder exploding down the valleys and hollers, water suddenly cascading down the trail after a downpour, even a single wildflower demonstrating its natural tenacity by growing out of a crack in a rock wall. A tiny red newt could become a thing of wonder and curiosity as you watch it slowly make its way across the trail. It’s probably thinking, thanks for not stepping on me. The rainbows above a creek in the morning after a violent rainstorm gives a traveler pause on a steep uphill climb.
Stop for a minute, be present in the moment, stop and watch the newt on the trail, it may stop to watch you, or it may be gone in an instant. You may be the only one to witness something like it on that day. Stopping for 5 seconds to take a photograph is not going to yield the same rewards. Our brains have a magnificent capacity to recall sensational details from an experience. Put the camera and phones away and just stand there. Breathe in the smells of what is around you, above you, beneath your feet. Feel the moss on the rocks, touch the tree next to you, splash the cold water dripping off the rock wall onto your face. Look and absorb every visible detail, listen to the sounds and let your brain make a permanent connection to this moment. You will be able to replay it in your head over and over. In another time and place you will see something, hear something, smell something, feel something similar and it will take you right back to that moment. It is a way to transcend time and place. That’s magic.
Physically, you can feel the strengths within your body growing quickly. This is another form of transformational magic that takes place. More quickly in men than women. And no, it has nothing to do with sexism, it’s just the physiology of our bodies. Men’s bodies give up fat faster than women’s bodies do. Biologically, men are not nearly as necessary as women are for the survival of our species, so nature has designed women to live longer in extreme situations. Basically, men slowly starve to death on the trail no matter how much we eat. The first three days I struggled to go 8 miles each day. The fifth day I went 15 miles, and day 11 I hiked for 20 miles. After three weeks a 20-mile day was as easy as walking across the road, it required little effort and seemed to pass by quickly. Every single day can be a victory worth celebrating. After only 6 weeks of hiking, I had lost 27 pounds. I weighed myself three times to make sure I was seeing it correctly. I had not been that weight since the Army 11 years prior. At that point I was only a few hundred miles into the trail and anxious for more. All too often hikers get overwhelmed by how many miles are left to go. The majority of hikers quit for this very reason. They hike very hard for 4-6 weeks and then look at the map and see they have so much more to go and it seems an impossibility. Commitment begins to soften, fade, or disappear entirely. I wanted it worse than ever and felt great inside and out. Many people quit before reaching Virginia.
Hikers need to take care of themselves physically, and mentally. It can be hard to look back and appreciate how far you have come if you are fixated on how far you think you still have to go. Make every day a goal. Break this enormous impossibility of a two-thousand-mile hike into many small hikes. Every day you move forward or grow stronger is a win. Small goals accumulated over time lead to great accomplishments. We emotionally fragile humans tend to over think things, psyche ourselves out, let those voices from the real world get inside our heads. The commitment fades further, then one day is not there, and they go home. Some leave the trail with the intention of coming back after a few days or weeks, I think most do not.
A heartwarming story was told to me on my hike by the keeper of a hostel in the Georgia section of the trail. He had related that he had hiked part of the AT with his son, at one point they got off and went home with the intention of going back to finish it later. He never did, but his explanation resonated with me so strongly that I recall it to this day. I am paraphrasing but hope to be as true to his words as possible. Someone asked if he regretted not finishing the AT. His response was along the lines of I think that a lot of people that come to the Appalachian Trail have a hole in their heart for some reason, whether they know it’s there or not. After I had been home for a few days I realized that the hole in my heart was not there anymore. So, for me, the trail did its job and I didn’t need to go any farther. Other people need to get back out there and find what they need.
That’s real transformative magic right there! I will speak more about the therapeutic realities of hiking and nature, throughout this book and with the stories that others have shared. The trail is the greatest psychotherapist you could ever hope to find. Not only will nature listen, but nature will also challenge and push to be your best and to live your best life. It’s also free generally. Caveat, If you think that you will have this incredible revelation of self and life once you get to the summit sign of Katahdin, you will have wasted your journey. It is everything that you experience along the way that provides the growth and transformation.
Many of us have a hole in our hearts that needs to be filled. I know one person who may never have been able to fill the missing pieces of their own heart. I think this led to an endless search for redemption and fulfillment that may have proved in the end to be elusive. Or maybe it did fill that void so completely with a new ideology on life, that there was never a need to return to the real world so many find themselves stuck in. His name is Jack Tarlin, or Baltimore Jack as his trail name goes. As I said earlier, I will write about his story as I know it, and as some of those who knew him best have shared with me and trusted me to do right by our brother. There will never be a complete and accurate biographical accounting of his life, but I hope this one will demonstrate who he was to those who will never get the chance to meet him. He accomplished much, but outsiders would be quick to label him as a failure when using the artificial rubrics of the social world. We all fail at things, but how many of us have really and truly lived a life of our own choosing?