On the Appalachian Trail, maybe a couple thousand hopeful “thru hikers” set out annually to conquer the entire 2,200 miles between Springer Mountain, Georgia, and Mt. Katahdin, Maine. More than a year of preparation has preceded the long drive to north Georgia for most, preparation for the challenge of a lifetime, a challenge most will have just one shot at. The expensive little Appalachian Trail Conservancy maps and guidebooks have been purchased and scrutinized, enormous research has gone into gear acquisition and hopefully a training regimen has been enacted. The anticipation and trepidation are daunting.
Yet, by Neels Gap, Georgia—a little over 30 miles later—about a quarter of these long-hike neophytes are calling to get a ride home. “It’s just not what I’d imagined,” seems a common refrain.
On the northern Long Trail in Vermont several years ago, I crossed paths a few times with an intelligent college-age young man on a break between semesters. We met while he was nursing fresh blisters at the highest shelter on the Long and his experience seemed to go downhill from there or at least his enthusiasm did. The last time I saw him, he was packing his gear into a friend’s trunk at a town along the way, giving up his own dream of conquering the Long in one shot. He shared some of what had been going through his head as he left me behind:
“I mean, yeah, living in the woods out on the trail and everything sounds great, but I’ve just got other things I want to do with my summer, too. I just don’t have a reason to keep going through the aches and pains and bugs and mud every day.”
Like so many others I’d encountered along the way, once this fellow lost sight of his original purpose, it was only a matter of time before his expedition would end.
Personally, I found that only keeping purpose in the forefront of my mind has gotten me through as the miles piled up and there were tough days now and then.
My drive west went well a few weeks ago. My tiny car wasn’t meant for crossing the continent but then, I’ve done many things over the last eight years my miniature automobile wasn’t meant for. No flat tires, no worn-through belts, no pebbles to the windshield and not even any truly severe weather, though I did drive through both rain and snow. Not even the gale-force headwinds of South Dakota could hold me back.
Driving across Iowa, I was starting to wonder if the classic western red sandstone and sagebrush vistas really existed or did it all just go on looking like an ever flatter Ohio till you hit mountains? I stopped at a rare hilly place for a pack hike to keep my legs in shape and found myself walking down to the Missouri River. Finally, here it was clear I was in the west. It all suddenly looked like a clip from the “Bonanza” TV series I’d watched as a child. The landscape then stayed that way for hundreds of miles.
During my brief hours in Wyoming, I finally began to spot the notorious western wildlife. Under a full moon, coyotes obliged me with a mournful serenade as I slept in the car. In the morning, I began to see antelope, a new animal for me, and hours later had seen over two hundred and fifty. More rarely, I’d spot little herds of mule deer and at one tiny Montana town, a group of these stood and posed for me as I walked up to them, clicking away. But I’ve always had some rapport with the critters. A bit later I drove under two bald eagles circling between prominent buttes. I stopped the car and got out as one coasted in and perched on the nearest rock outcrop. Yes, I had rapport with all the critters and my reputation had preceded me even to the West.
Days later I was enjoying my last full day with the old car and brought it to a place called Washington Park to see the Pacific Ocean for the first time. Tomorrow, someone from a car dealership would drive here with me and drop me at the same place I was now parking, he leaving with a tiny car and me with a check. I now walked west on the nearest hiking trail, a broad expanse of gently rolling water on my right with only the disturbance of a school of surfacing fish to punctuate its pacific condition. Hard to believe but at the moment I laid eyes on this expanse of water, a school of porpoises erupted behind the fish, welcoming me to a new ocean. It was a magnificent moment and a great start, but I took it as a reminder not to lose sight of my porpoises.