When I was in Maine last year in the home stretch of an Appalachian Trail thru-hike, someone commented on one of my stories or photos and asked if I would ever do it again. I remember I began to respond, and after about 500 words I decided perhaps this was too big for just a Facebook comment. Or I may have been distracted by hot running water. It was definitely one of the two.
In any case, the question just kind of hung out there in the back of my mind, primarily unanswered. I do remember writing a bit about the dangers of hiking on insulin, and the probability that if I kept hiking perpetually I would probably die, which is not necessarily a deal-breaker, but the thought of dying on the side of a trail and not in some more spectacular way like careening down a waterfall was. I may be a hiker, but I do have standards.
So now it’s late March, a couple days before the anniversary of my start last year, and I think I can answer the question in earnest because I have now gone through all of the phases associated with an AT thru-hike. I’ve been through the “trail prep” period where you spend hours reading online forums learning about how to thru-hike the AT, in large part from people who have never thru-hiked the AT. This is a great phase of the whole experience because it’s the part where you know everything, kind of like being 16 again.
Obviously I’ve also been through the most important phase, the actual hiking, which can be broken down into many sub-phases such as the “This is awesome!” phase, the “Get me the hell off this mountain!” phase, and the “I’m going to hop over the other side of Katahdin and keep hiking to Canada” phase. In all seriousness, I think many hikers at some point think during some of the earlier stretches thoughts such as “I have to do this every year!” and pretty much all thru-hikers seem to have detailed plans to come back and provide trail magic by the time they reach Virginia. I have to admit to being one of those who really thrived in the “I have to do this every year!” phase, spending miles hiking in deep thought about various businesses that would allow me to spend every season on the trail. I made frequent mention of the Hiker Yearbook along my hike mostly because, well, I wish I had thought of it first.
Last but not least, I’ve been through the post-hike phase, which can be a bumpy ride. First you get home, and once you realize that the world has not stopped to have a parade in your honor, you take a very, very long nap and wake up feeling like you just fell down a flight of stairs… two thousand miles of them. If you were like me and refused to watch the news while you hiked, you start to catch up, and this of course causes a minor stroke.
You can handle the fact that a few great rock legends have died, but anything in politics or world news and your muscles start to go limp and you lose the ability to speak. The way the news gets you is by drawing you a little bit closer to the edge every day, slowly expanding your toleration for nonsense, very much like a day-time soap opera. When you take it all in at once, however, all the blood rushes from your head and you think “Oh my God, that’s not my wife who’s been in a coma for ten years, it’s her SECRET TWIN SISTER!”
So. After you recover from your mild stroke, it’s time to get back to the real world. You tell yourself you’re going to walk ten miles every morning or backpack every weekend, but now you’re back on “real world” time and you realize how long these things take, especially when there’s six months of House of Cards to catch up on and a three foot pile of mail stacked at the door. On the surface this seems like a minor problem, and intellectually it is. Physically, on the other hand, your body is not happy. Unless you are Tom Joad, you’re probably not expending a tenth of the energy you were on the trail even if you have a relatively physical job. If you spend a great deal of your time reading and finishing a book you couldn’t quite knock out from an iPhone keyboard from the trail (not naming any names), the drop in physical activity is mind-boggling. This can result in a very serious depression that should not be taken lightly, and since I am in a light mood we’ll move on to….
The final phase. This is the one where you start to look around the real world and see things differently. This phase is different for everyone. Thru-hikers come from every walk of life, from all over the country and the world. Everyone had a different experience before the trail, on the trail, and therefore will have a different experience afterward. I think there are some similarities, but I will focus on my own. For me in particular, the trail confirmed my belief that it is possible to live without many things we think are essential. The thing is, the reason they’re so easy to go without is because you’re
hiking through the wilderness. Temptation is gas station fried chicken, access to WiFi, or a private bathroom. In the real world, temptation is everywhere, and this is why it’s so easy to get sucked into it.
The problem is that once you have something, and more importantly, once everyone else has it, it becomes indispensable. This is how automobiles, telephones, personal computers, and cell phones all slowly evolved from luxuries to necessities. I will back up the perception that they are necessities by the fact that three out of the four will be provided to you by the government free or at a subsidized rate if you can’t afford them. Once our lifestyles adapt to new things, they quickly become necessities. I came back from the trail thinking “Heat? Pfffft. Who needs it? I sweat every time I walk into a heated restaurant.” Well this is an easy stand to take when you’re hiking 15 miles a day. Try going cold sitting behind a laptop all day and things start to look differently. As one of Thoreau’s visitors once wisely explained, firewood heats you twice: once when you chop it, and once again when you burn it for warmth.
I promise, this really is an article about whether or not I would thru-hike the Appalachian Trail again.
There are two things that are said to me very frequently these days. The first is “I really miss watching your adventures.” Tell me about it. I really miss my adventures, too. The second is “How is the book coming?” This second one haunts me. I admit I’m a bit of a perfectionist, but it’s not perfectionism that has slowed me down. My thru-hike had so much more significance than hiking and beautiful views, and most of it occurred in my head. For those not playing at home, I never intended to write a book about the actual thru-hike, although it has been incorporated as a backdrop into the book because it turned out to be so relevant. I could write a book about my hike in a week, and then write another one a week later without repeating a single story. Six months is a very long time.
Nevertheless, I didn’t expect it to take too long to write the simple book I planned showing evidence of how living simply results in less anxiety and depression, better health, and a general feeling of satisfaction, significance and genuine happiness. The more I learned, however, the more I saw how the social constructs aimed at preventing this simple life at every turn are very, very complicated. A minimalist might say (and some have said to me): If you want to live simply, you shouldn’t write such a complicated book.
Still, a great deal of the significance of my own hike would be lost if I did not share what I have learned. It is hard to live simply in today’s world, but it’s much easier to live simply as an individual or a family than to try to effect change. Most of the books you read about living simply are focused on what you can do as an individual, sort of like self-help books to de-clutter your life. I can’t make myself leave it at that. It seems to me that what we need more than ever are not ways of avoiding the complications of modern life, but instead figuring out how to make them less complicated. For everyone.
In a few moments my coffee will be finished, this article will be over, and I’ll be back to my writing chair surrounding with stacks of books and research and my real writing project for the moment, but I want to set aside “research” and “facts” for a moment and share some purely anecdotal, unscientific, biased evidence for the merits of a simple life that has undergone absolutely no peer review.
I can honestly say my 199-day hike on the Appalachian Trail was the only time I felt truly happy and fulfilled for any extended period of time.
As someone with a severe anxiety disorder, my anxiety went down to practically nothing. Virtually all of the anxiety I did have came from external sources or during pit stops in towns (a.k.a. the “real world.”), but even these were comparatively minor. For ten years prior to my hike, I was plagued with nightmares. Every. Single. Night. Every morning I woke out of breath and in a panic. It took a couple weeks, but on the trail they stopped completely. I woke up peacefully, excited about the uncertainty of the day to come. And this was all while dodging rattlesnakes and bears!
I expected some level of improvement, but the trip far exceeded my expectations. What I did not expect is that when I returned to the real world, the anxiety, the nightmares, everything would not only return, but get so much worse. I had been given a glimpse of nirvana, and then took the first flight home out of Bangor.
Would I thru-hike the Appalachian Trail again? You bet. Is thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail the only thing in the world I think can make me happy? Of course not. It’s just one of many ways to simplify life.
The obvious dilemma is that thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is not an occupation. In fact, parts of it have become very commercialized and expensive. Is it that obvious, though? In the “real world” we have a constant stream of expenses that are completely unnecessary in a simpler life, which causes the necessity of 40-80 work weeks. Why is it so much more expensive to live in the woods in a tent and cook pasta or rice on a tiny stove than to live in a climate-controlled apartment with internet connections and cable television and food delivered right to your door? In an age where one should be able to work from a laptop from pretty much anywhere, living simply on far less money should require far fewer hours of work and far more hours of actually living. But it doesn’t.
That’s what I’m trying to answer in my book, and I’m doing my best to get it right. Not just for me, who could easily run off and live a much simpler life by focusing on my own avoidance of complications, but for everyone, because to be blunt: This trend of everyone being out for themselves, the sense of community we have been steadily losing for decades, is killing us, and it’s killing this country. And not for nothing: it’s a trend I just didn’t see on the Appalachian Trail.
It didn’t take research for me to understand that most people were unhappy with many aspects of modern life. Even those that absolutely love their careers tend to feel frustration over something — bureaucracy, paperwork, or long, pointless meetings. Things are much bleaker for those who work in jobs they don’t enjoy at all but continue out of necessity. This disconnection with one’s work results not only in unhappiness, but in poor performance. A 19th century tailor took great pride in his or her work because the finished product was entirely their own. Today, most clothing is made in mechanized assembly lines, and one individual does not have a finished product to take pride in. They may have been involved in stitching the top button on a pair of jeans. There is no connection with the finished product, and therefore the sense of accomplishment felt by the 19th century tailor has gone. Even more telling is the result of the innovation. Technology allows us to manufacture clothing much faster and at a lower cost, but this does not result in less work or more income for those involved in making clothing — in fact, it typically results in more work and less income. The workplace is simply one aspect of a more complicated life. Similar disconnections are to be found in the dynamics of our familial and personal relationships, our hobbies, our leisure, our health, and virtually every other aspect of life.
2. An Approach to a Perceived Problem
I began as most people begin in non-fiction or academic research: Starting with an assumed answer (hypothesis), and then searching for evidence to support my point of view. The problem with this is that in today’s world you can find research to support anything. Historically, people have used “scientific evidence” to support anything from racial discrimination to the idea that women had a lesser capacity for science and math. Therefore, I decided to take a step back and examine the long chain of events that led to our modern, complicated world. Early on, the loosely defined movement of minimalism jumped out at me as both a great idea and an inevitable response to the world we live in. I believed, and I still believe, that simpler is usually better. Still, for me to begin with the answer and then find supporting evidence would have been biased. I had to take a step back. In doing so I followed the long chain of events that led to the most complicated aspects of modern life.
It was never my intention to write a “self-help” book for those interested in minimalism. There are plenty of those available. Providing advice on how to simplify one’s life is commendable, but this leaves those who choose to live simpler lives as outsiders, as a counter-culture, living a better lifestyle despite the norm. This is good, but I think not good enough. How do we change the norm? This may or may not be possible, but I am sure it is not possible if no one tries. Therefore, my focus is not solely on the individual, but on the complex systems which run our complicated world. The scientific method has probably been the single-most important tool in technological advancement, and it works well. What I think is too often overlooked is what happens before the scientific method can be used: defining a hypothesis. The scientific method is fairly objective when carried out honestly, but the process of selecting a hypothesis is highly subjective. Therefore, rather than beginning with an answer, I began with the facts, and use these facts to try to identify answers. The scientific method can help the scientist or researcher gauge the validity of a hypothesis, but it can’t help them come up with good ideas. It is these good ideas that turn into the hypotheses they test. In fields which use the scientific method such as psychology, economics, sociology, and of course the hard sciences, we have nothing until we have a good idea. You can train someone to utilize the scientific method, but you cannot train them to have good ideas. This is more a combination of intelligence, depth of knowledge, natural skill, and pure luck.
It is for this reason that I chose to proceed as I have, in the hopes of coming up with “good ideas” rather than a set of studies that seem to prove my point. I still rely heavily on research, but I did not begin with a bias as to which research I would pay attention to (and which I would not).
3. Cases and Causes
The meat of the book. A look at how complications developed, from financial and government systems, to specific technologies from transportation to communications. Why did Apple choose to remove headphone jacks from the iPhone? Why do we intentionally make light bulbs last for a very brief time when technology exists to allow them to last for decades? There are enough case studies to fill a dozen books, but the cases I present focus on the forces which create the complications. From strategies such as planned obsolesce, which result in intentionally forcing perfectly working consumer goods to become obsolete, or in some cases even strategically building them to have a short shelf-life, to market systems which survive only by marketing and selling an increasing number of goods, the forces that create our complications are much stronger than the complications themselves. Scale is another force examined. Our first President George Washington had open office hours during which anyone could visit and discuss an issue; today, you would be lucky to meet your local representative in congress. The sheer growth of population has caused some of our complex systems to function in an entirely new, unintended way. From food production to health care, the sheer number of people have drastically changed the way we do things. There is so much going on, and so much information to consume, that even someone working at it full time could never hope to keep up enough to understand what is going on around them.
The initial plan was to look only at the time stemming from the Industrial Revolution, and this is certainly where a majority of the changes began. This is not going far back enough, unfortunately. Realistically, the United States sprung up from nowhere, a culture unto itself yet built upon the customs of the countries (England, France, Ireland, Germany, etc.) from whom the first colonists came. The plan was also to look only at the United States. This was a naive approach because in today’s global economy borders are not so easily defined. Even some of the brands we most closely associate with America are now owned by foreign corporations, and most large corporations operate globally. Even micro-businesses run by one part-time artisan often cater to a worldwide economy. Therefore I have gone back not only to the influences on colonial American and eventually the United States, but also to the roots of many of the European ideas that formed these influences. The scientific method can be traced (at least) as far back as Aristotle, with Francis Bacon picking back up on it more than a thousand years later.
I have found during my research that influence — from marketing, from our peers, from media, from the news — has such an incredibly drastic effect on our behavior. It brings into question the very nature of free will. We clearly have an ability in the moment to make personal choices — for example, you can choose to continue read, or not. This is a freedom of choice. The question is to what degree our prior experience — for the most part out of our control — has an effect on the person we have become, and therefore the choice that we will make “in the moment.”
This is also a very substantial portion of the book, because the influences I discuss determine how and why we accept modern “complications.” It is easy to look at marketing and understand that it is effective and clearly has an influence on consumption, but it’s important to look further and understand that marketing exists in many forms. If we accept that a talented advertising agency can influence the breakfast cereal we choose, what can we say about politicians who have been hiring advertising agencies for a century? Why can psychological studies overwhelmingly predict the winner of elections based on subjects perceptions of their photographs? How much influence is conferred based on which book we choose to read to learn about a new subject?
I also review how technological advancements have changed the nature of both advertising and even news itself. Prior to the internet, we all read the same newspapers, listened to the same radio stations, watched the same television news. There may have been a handful of choices, but the were self-contained. Today, complex algorithms determine which news stories are presented to us based on our past reading history. The news articles that Apple or Google presents to you are different than the ones it presents to me.
The combination of technology and psychology has led to the ability to design video games and gambling machines meant to be highly addictive. It has also led to an ability to tailor advertising to the head of a pin. Decades ago, an advertising agency would have to choose one advertisement targeted at one audience. For example, a line of lipstick might be targeted at working women. Today, a line of lipstick can be targeted to working women between the ages of 22 and 35 who earn between $50k-$100k per year, live in an urban area, have no children, have a history of eco-friendly purchases, at least one pet in the home, and some type of active hobby. A different advertisement can be created for women who do not work, are between the ages of 40 and 65, have at least 3 children, grocery shop at a certain chain, and purchased a home in the last 18 months. If this demographic targeting seems highly specific, understand that these examples are rather simple and ads can usually be targeted on a much deeper scale.
One of the reasons advertising can be so fine-tuned is because we have slowly changed the currency with which we pay for things. Virtually any retail chain store pushes hard to get you to sign up for a membership club so that your purchases can be tracked, and in many cases, most especially grocery stores, you pay substantially higher prices if you refuse to sign up. This is old news, however. Today we are much more heavily influenced by the way in which we pay for online content. At this point we expect most things to be free. Free GPS software tracks where we go, free health monitoring applications track our exercise routines, news sites track what types of stories we read, and almost every other free service is paid for by the collection of fine-tuned data and the delivery of fine-tuned advertisements. In short, what we think is free is not free. Amazon is willing to sell a Kindle for $20 less if it includes a simple advertisement on the screen when you’re not using it because they know, over the long run, they will earn far more than $20 through the display ads.
In short, our attention is today’s hottest commodity, and everyone wants a piece.
5. Force into norms
I take a brief look at how even with our great amount of freedom, it is almost impossible not to be pulled toward whatever becomes the “norm” of our culture. Some of us may fall farther than others outside of these cultural norms, but not nearly as much as would occur organically. Whether through legislation or by a change in the way we access the basic necessities, once something becomes the “norm” it is almost impossible to live without it. There was a time when people built their own homes; today this has become a highly specialized skill. After so much time has passed, it is easy to believe that everyone simply agreed this was a good idea. The truth is that the closer hiring home-builders became the “norm,” the more powerful the home-builders became. Now, it is nearly impossible to build your own home legally, even on some distant 20 acres of land in an unincorporated area. It is difficult to look at these issues from the perspective of today. Today, it would seem silly for most people to try to build their own home because they do not have the qualifications. Going back, however, it’s interesting to look at how often such things became “silly” and were brought about not by people who wished to pass on the labor, but rather those who wished to sell homes.
I also look briefly at the growing technology gap. The faster technology in cities outpaces life in more rural areas, the more these two areas begin to look very differently. Given the expense of such technologies, how long can such a gap last? When residents of a 300-person village in Virginia are expected to live up to the same technical standards in areas such as manufacturing and transportation as those living on the outskirts of Washington, DC simply because they live in the same state, what will happen?
6. The Human Condition
The human condition is often referred to in an ambiguous way to explain the inevitable unhappiness — whether occasional or frequent — of the human being. I take a more scientific look at this cliche and attempt to provide scientific evidence for what is natural, such as the sadness of death, to what is unnatural, such as feelings of anxiety and depression directly related to activities which humans simply have no genetic instinct to perform.
7. Looking Ahead
Technology is not the “bad guy” in my perspective, instead it has much more to do with how unpredictable technological change has been, and will continue to be. Therefore, I also dedicate some time to showing how technology has given the individual and grass roots movements more power than they have ever had. While things have steadily moved towards forced norms, we are finally seeing a shift where we have more options and more opportunities than ever before. Micro-businesses, steadily rising telecommuting opportunities, solar and wireless technologies, and many other new opportunities offer a chance to live a lifestyle closer to one’s desires rather than being forced into a norm.
Just as I saw value in focusing my research on how simplicity could benefit the whole, I think strategies that focus on widespread change rather than individual opportunity can make a real difference in the future. Minimalism itself is more of a philosophy than an organized movement, in part because the whole idea of organization goes against the philosophy of many who consider themselves minimalists. Still, I see the future focused on making larger changes. Rather than figuring out ways to skirt the law to live in a self-built “tiny home,” I see a movement to apply pressure to legislators to allow such common sense economies. At the same time, I question whether some live in tiny homes because they truly want a confined space, or whether it is simply economics. I see growing evidence that working professionals making decent incomes living in vans because of the financial savings and freedom, but what if such savings and freedom could be obtained while still living indoors?
One of my main arguments is that we have rarely been able to predict the effects of new technologies, but I go ahead and make some anyway. From autopilot in automobiles to the future of personal communications I try to use my extensive research in the cause-effect of past changes to point out some possible scenarios in the future.
For as long as I can remember, there has been increasing political and academic rhetoric about income inequality. There is no point in arguing the existence of such a gap — it’s there — but to focus solely on income is to misunderstand the great divide that exists in today’s America.
While thru-hiking 2,200 miles along the Appalachian Trail last year I saw parts of America I had never seen before. Having spent the previous five years living in a small town in upstate New York, I thought I knew what a small town was. I was wrong.
Not every town along the Appalachian Trail is very small, but thankfully most of them are. This is part of the appeal. Once I got used to the fact that people were friendly, looked you in the eye, said hello, and sometimes even offered up their guest room for the night, I noticed other differences.
For one, VHS is not dead folks, it’s just been redistributed. I saw more VHS tapes during my thru-hike than I did in my entire childhood, before there was such a thing as DVDs. Why are they still there? That’s simple: they haven’t broken. Neither have the VCRs that the tapes are played on. This is not to say that people living in small towns do not buy DVDs or DVD players. The point is that they have not chucked VHS simply because something better came along. In short, an entirely different consumer culture exists and I had to ask myself why.
Since most of my time on the trail was dedicated to the research of modern culture, this was more than an idle curiosity. I didn’t have to look far to see the other major difference between these rural towns and the cities and suburbs I have known most of my life: the technology gap.
Many of the towns did not have access to wired high-speed internet, making satellite internet the only option. Satellite internet makes data usage an expensive commodity. When I first moved to upstate New York I briefly lived in an area like this and quickly learned that every 400MB over the limit would cost me $4-5. That’s barely an episode of Seinfeld. Many of the towns I came across along the Appalachian Trail also did not have cell phone coverage. While staying in one hostel in New Hampshire the owner took me along for his daily drive to the nearest signal to check messages and make phone calls.
At first I saw this as a social justice issue because entire communities did not have access to what has become standard methods of communication, but most of the residents I spoke to did not seem to care. The ones that did were usually worried about issues of tourism — would people drawn to the gorgeous scenery keep coming if commodities like high-speed internet and cell phone service were unavailable?
Once I saw that there was no apparent uproar over the lack of newer technology services, I began to look at other issues, and it finally hit me: these small towns are perhaps one of the greatest unintended psychological and economic experiments in American history. The towns were not only void of certain technologies, they were void of the constant, relentless advertising most of us are subjected to all day, every day. The grocery stores don’t blast out specials through overhead speakers, the gas stations don’t play advertisements while you fill up your tank, and blank spaces like park benches or public gazebos are simply left as blank spaces, not marketing opportunities.
Here was this world, right in front of me the whole time, where people didn’t run out and replace cars that ran perfectly fine, or replace perfectly good clothing because it is last year’s fashion, or buy the newest gadget because the manufacturer slipped it into their favorite tv show.
The only explanation I have been able to come up with is that all of the influences that compel us to make most of our purchases simply do not exist in this world — a constant barrage of advertising, an endless pressure to keep up with our peers, and a culture which disregards and even ridicules the idea of making things last.
Could it be a coincidence that America has increasingly become more divided at the same time that the population of people living in cities began to match and possibly overtake the population of those living in rural areas? Not by the slightest stretch of the imagination.
Politicians and academics use numbers for everything because it’s what they have available to them. In the case of income inequality, however, these numbers are misleading when we forget one pertinent fact: money is a figment of our collective imaginations. It is a placeholder to expedite the exchange of goods.
In the last year I have paid $2.49 for a gallon of milk in Tennessee, and $7.89 for a half gallon of milk in Connecticut — in both cases the cheapest price in towns with only one grocery store. This is an illustration — albeit a simplistic one — that all money is not equal. I see a greater difference between people living in a small rural town and a large suburb than I do between people making $32k and $98k. I see a larger distinction between residents in small villages and major metropolises than I do between Republicans and Democrats.
I am forever changed for having discovered these two Americas, but such divide is cause for serious concern. Imagine a woman living in a small, rural town of 500. She lives in a home three times as large as the average city dweller with a mortgage of $350 a month. She drives a car that is 14 years old because it runs just fine. She lives comfortably on a salary well below the national average, has savings to boot, and a quality of life that includes knowing pretty much every person she passes on the street. Within her community, life is good, but no community exists in a vacuum.
It was inevitable that one day she would find that her health insurance premiums were going to go up to $400 a month (more than the mortgage on her three bedroom home), it is going to cost $80k to send her son to college even with in-state tuition, and her part-time business will be shut down because of an obscure government regulation she has never heard of and did not realize was even on the table. Now, folks, we have a divided country, and it’s about much more than Republicans and Democrats.
The cost of goods will almost always rise to what the market will bear (if not higher). As the market is increasingly moving to large urban areas where even those with low incomes often own big-screen televisions and late model cars, we make false assumptions about what the entire market will bear.
Throughout my entire thru-hike last year, I refused to read or watch any political news. I lived in the DC metro for ten years — I’ve had my fill for a lifetime. I also knew it would take me about an hour to catch up on what has become an increasingly less intelligent debate by both sides. Finally, I don’t like to “choose sides” when writing about culture, because that corrupts the integrity and objectivity of my research.
Therefore, all I can say about how this increasing divide in America plays out in a political sense involves the apparent shock many experienced at the results of the recent Presidential election. This shock is increasingly rare in a world where polling usually has things pretty well nailed down before the first vote is cast. I believe that there are two lessons here. First, in a world where we are continually earning less but spending more, perhaps there is something to be learned from small-town America. Second, I believe many politicians, pollsters, reporters and academics would have been far less shocked last November if they hadn’t forgotten something.
By the time I passed Franconia Notch in New Hampshire this past September, I was fairly certain of two things. First, the White Mountains were kicking my butt. Second, my food was not going to last until my next stop. I could live with the fact that the White Mountains were going to be harder than I thought, but I couldn’t live without food. I took a side trail to the Flume Visitor’s Center, a tourist attraction with fast food, a gift shop and, I hoped, food that could be carried out. I was disappointed to find very little I could carry with me, so I ate a personal pizza and began finding my way back to the trail wondering how I was going to make it to my next stop on the amount of food I had. This is when a couple having a picnic flagged me down to confirm I was what I looked like — a thru-hiker. Aside from chatting with me about my journey, they scoured their car for all sorts of food — fresh fruit, granola bars, nuts, and more.
Given my situation, those apples and oranges might as well have been made of gold. They were a simple gift from complete strangers and I have been thinking about gifts a lot this month because it is, after all, the gift-giving season. As I slowly try to identify the meaning of my journey this year and the changes it has produced in me, Christmas shines a very bright light on some of those changes. When needs are broken down to the bare bones and the constant influence of marketing and social pressures are removed, everything in life begins to look a bit simpler. Even Christmas, a holiday that has brought me some of the greatest joy and some of the greatest stress over the years, appears differently.
What if I had walked out of that visitor’s center and been given a brand new boat? Could it have meant as much in that time and place? Of course not. You can’t eat a boat and I was on one of the most remote sections of the Appalachian Trail. On that particular day you could have handed me five thousand dollars in cold, hard cash and it wouldn’t have made a grocery store pop up over the next mountain ridge. If fruit, granola and nuts can create such joy in this time and place — both on my part, and on the part of the couple who gave them — why not in another? Why not at Christmas?
I think it can. I’m not suggesting you buy oranges and granola bars for everyone on your list this year. It’s the connection between the gift and the recipient. Let’s say your friend has a leaky faucet in their bathroom. Day after day, night after night, drip… drip… drip. It drives her up the wall. She has tried in desperation to fix it but has been unable and the high cost of a plumber is out of the question. You are pretty handy and think you can fix it. Is there anything you could buy at the mall that could match removing such a constant annoyance from a friend’s life?
Depending on your particular set of friends and family, such a gift might raise some eyebrows. Who cares? Your friend is going to remember it for a long time to come. You have given something money cannot buy: peace of mind. Sanity, even. Cut loose those invisible social constraints. Become a rebel.
Or, simply share a bit of science. The thing is, gift-giving is non-linear. This is a term used primarily in mathematics and certain sciences that means, in its simplest form, that an increase in one variable will not result in a proportional increase in another. Giving someone three video games will not cause three times the amount of joy as giving them one. The same is true in terms of money, time, and effort. A $100 dinner is not twice as delicious as a $50 dinner. In short, the little bit of thought, an hour or two of time, and maybe even a few dollars spent at Home Depot to fix a leaky faucet has the potential to create more genuine happiness than spending hundreds of dollars on a gift.
This is not to say that spending money on a gift is bad. Maybe that same friend spends an hour every day washing dishes by hand. In that case, maybe a $500 dishwasher is literally a life-changer. The point is that money and quantity are poor standards of measurement in the world of gift-giving. We live in a society with so many influences that I’m not so sure that we always write our own shopping lists. Let’s say you’re at lunch with two friends today and they tell you they are spending $10 and $15 respectively on each co-worker gift. Your plan was to give everyone a $5 coffee card. Did your plan just change? Psychology has shown time and time again that for a large proportion of people, it did. When this is the case, did you really choose your gift, or did someone else?
This attachment of dollar value to gifts may be a more implicit, subconscious phenomenon, but it’s there. If you spend more on one person than another, do you feel guilty? Do you feel guilty even if the thought behind the gift and the value of the gift to the person receiving it are the same? I love that Nick Offerman, star of Parks and Recreation, started writing books. I think he just may have single-handedly restored my faith in Hollywood. In his semi-autobiographical book ‘Paddle Your Own Canoe’ he talks about the value of making a gift with your own hands. Here is someone who can afford the latest trends pushed by Madison Avenue, yet has found that he makes much more of an impression by giving friends and family something he built in the wood shop.
There is a reason that many psychology majors end up in marketing. Market research and certain aspects of economics follow essentially the same procedures as psychological research, there are simply different goals. A psychologist may study what causes individuals to spend more money than they can afford. A marketing company will study what concepts (advertising campaigns) will cause individuals to buy their product. And then implement the winners.
We can tell ourselves that marketing does not affect us, that we are smart consumers — I know I tell this to myself — but the truth is that companies are willing to spend so much on marketing for one reason and one reason only: it works. It does not work on everyone, every time, but we are all susceptible to at least some degree. There is also some gray area. Advertisements tell us that products exist. The question becomes whether we purchase a product because we want it or because the guy in the commercial bought one and got the supermodel. So I go back to the example above: If your shopping list is full of products you — or so much more often the case, children — learned about through advertisements, did you really write the shopping list or has it been hacked?
If there were an end-of-year thru-hiker ceremony, I suspect I would win oddball loner by a landslide. Why hike alone? Among other reasons, I understand very well how much we influence one another. I wanted to experience my hike, not someone else’s, and I did. This was particularly important to me because I thought the less influence I was under while studying culture, the more objectively I could view the subject.
There was a side effect to these months of solitude that I did not anticipate. I have returned to find that there are all sorts of new electronic gizmos around that weren’t here when I left. I must admit I love gadgets, but to my surprise I have been much less interested than usual. I haven’t been been hammered with advertisements for months leading up to a product launch because I was in the middle of the woods. I haven’t heard them talked about endlessly because I had much less social interaction than usual. Perhaps most influential, I spent a good deal of the time studying how consumerism had grown over the last century or so. I had a new skepticism, a new version of critical thinking sharpened by months of focusing on the bare necessities.
I am not suggesting that we should shut out all forms of advertising, cross to the other side of the road when a big, shiny billboard is coming up, or even live in the woods for six months to gain perspective. I am simply suggesting, I think, that sometimes throwing some snacks a hiker’s way, making a gift with your bare hands, or fixing a maddening leaky faucet can make you much more of a hero than driving to the mall.
If there is anything most misunderstood about the Appalachian Trail thru-hike, it is the idea that it has anything to do with hiking.
This is a pretty tough argument to make about a 2,200 mile journey, but I’ve come prepared. Take a look at the current definition of hike as a verb:
To walk or march a great distance, especially through rural areas, for pleasure, exercise, military training, or the like.
I could start my attack right off the bat with the word walk. I walked a lot. I walked down state highways to the nearest town, I walked to the grocery store, to the laundromat, to Subway. I did lots of walking, but I’m pretty sure very little of it occurred on the Appalachian Trail. On the trail I remember lots of climbing, clambering, scaling, ascending, squirming, wriggling, crawling, dragging and some occasional sliding, but I don’t remember much walking.
This is not the important distinction, however. All of these words describe the physical act. To see “hiking” as a physical activity is to see only the external view, but the real magic happens internally. Anyone who hikes or walks even a mile or two on a regular basis understands this. It takes absolutely no concentration to walk, and therefore your brain has nothing to do. For the brain, this will not do. Even in sleep our brains must continue to churn on in the darkness, showing us in the form of dreams that they will not be quieted. Now imagine that same brain being fueled by lots of carbs and an incredible exertion of energy. The brain must work, too.
You can look at the scenery, you can even listen to music or an audiobook, but there is absolutely nothing that can keep your mind from wandering wherever it thinks best. Music is quickly tuned out, and a sentence of an audiobook will trigger a thought, which triggers another thought, and before you know it three chapters have gone by but you’re wondering what happened to your best friend from the third grade or why you can buy a coffee-maker for less than the price of a pot of coffee.
This is why the Appalachian Trail was such an amazing place to research culture. It is certainly not a cultural vacuum — far from it — but the normal influences are removed. The beauty of the trail lies not only in what is there, but also what is missing.
As we approach winter, local newspapers all over the country are publishing articles by thru-hikers about their epic journeys. In particular, I am pleased to see that many have covered the post-hike aspect of the journey. After spending five to seven months in the woods, how do you get back to the real world? This is an important question because it can be a difficult transition, but even more important than the utilitarian changes — how you sleep, eat, or spend your day — are the internal, mental changes. The physical journey of 2,200 miles is a drop in the bucket compared to the mental or spiritual journey that occurs in your mind. If getting used to climate control or having to be at a certain place at a certain time is difficult, how do you reconcile the fact that you are an entirely different person?
The only thing I knew for sure when I finished the trail was that I had a lot of work to do, but it was work that could be done anywhere and I had only vague plans for where I would be. I wanted to live in the moment — I have been trying to learn to live in the moment for half my life — so this was not necessarily a bad thing. So what did I do after “hiking” 2,200 miles?
I drove 2,200 miles. And then some.
It took a couple weeks to get to my car in North Carolina, but the first time I turned my tiny hatchback onto a rural highway and flew down the open road, I felt alive for the first time since I was on the trail. I had been feeling very claustrophobic, and I had once again found space. It was already my goal to visit many family and friends, but I never envisioned the miles I have been putting in. Suddenly trips that always seemed so far away were nothing. If I could cross Maryland in a couple days at 3 miles per hour, what could I do at 75? It was first exhilarating, but then, a terrifying thought came.
Who was driving?
I spent more than six months on the trail thinking and absorbing and… changed. I thought I knew what it was to see things differently, I have always seen things differently. But now I see everything incredibly differently. Game-changing differently. I was a different person. If I was a different person, though, why was I still living someone else’s life?
I didn’t buy this car or these clothes. I didn’t build a complicated business. I didn’t develop these habits or mannerisms. That old Talking Heads song keeps running through my head…
And you may ask yourself
What is that beautiful house?
And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go to?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right? Am I wrong?
And you may say yourself, “My God! What have I done?”
Right before I left for the trail my father gave me a bike he had only ridden a few times — a much nicer bike than I have ever owned — and one of the few things I felt I missed out on being gone for so long was the chance to start riding. I did get one short ride in right away, but it was winter and I didn’t go very far. I probably hadn’t been on a real bike ride in ten or fifteen years, but the muscle memory that allows you to jump right back on is what created the cliche for essentially everything that is easy to return to: It’s like riding a bike.
Maybe that’s just how life is. It’s very easy to slip into the same old routine. The old me was not a bad guy (I hope), but the new me has inherited all of his decisions and priorities. Chief among them was doing too much. Even the old me tried to live by the mantra of doing one thing at a time, but this is easier said than done. When you do one thing at a time, it means something else is not getting done or is being ignored. The toughest part of this reality is that we often get caught up doing the wrong thing, that is, the thing that is not in line with our values or priorities. A sense of urgency comes upon us and we let the wrong thing fall wayside, or worse, let down the wrong person. Every day there are bosses that win out over daughters, acquaintances’ over close friends, strangers over family members. It’s not intentional, but when overburdened and life becomes a blur these things happen before we even realize there was a fork in the road.
I don’t regret all of the miles I have done, or the ones I still have ahead of me. Wherever we go and whatever we do life teaches us things. Some parts of my journey over the last month have been difficult, particularly around large cities, but everything served a purpose. Would the book about modern society I am writing ring true if I had never had to buy a $7 half-gallon of milk or spend 30 minutes looking for a parking spot at the Jersey Gardens Mall or take the blue line into DC during the morning rush? I am thinking no. These experiences not only shed light on how much cultural influence had been removed from my life during my time on the trail, but also how vigorously I would have to fight to keep them at bay.
Still, I think it’s time the new me gets to make some decisions. I cannot be irresponsible. Some changes can be effected overnight, but others must be more gradual. So be it. The important thing is that after all I have experienced, it’s not good enough to live a slightly simpler life and call it a day. The new me deserves more than that.
Many people have asked what it felt like when I reached the top of Mount Katahdin after hiking 2,200 miles. Did I shed a tear? Did I regret that it was over? Was I relieved that I was finally done? The truth is that in that moment standing on the sign for Baxter Peak with my arms risen toward the sky for a picture that would be with me for the rest of my life, I felt absolutely nothing. I felt absolutely nothing because I was not there. I was not there, at least, in 2016.
I have told you before: I am a time traveler.
When I decided over the holidays last December, in a span of roughly thirty seconds, that I would thru-hike the entire Appalachian Trail, that I would do it alone, and that I would do it come hell or high water, I had zero doubts but many worries. I was not concerned about whether or not I could handle the hiking or living in the woods for six months or if I would get lonely or injured. I was concerned whether an anxiety disorder that had consumed me for the better part of a decade would do what it had done time after time: render me completely frozen, physically unable to force my body to move on.
I would not succeed in my thru-hike despite a severe anxiety disorder; I would succeed because of a severe anxiety disorder.
I have never tried this before, but I would like you to time travel with me. We are going to visit 2009. In the previous twelve months my best friend died far too young, my wife tired of my insanity and cashed in her chips, and after a medical leave of absence and one last, desperate attempt to return to work I finally resigned from the dream job that formed the entirety of my identity.
I am lying on a mostly deflated air mattress in small, bare bedroom in Falls Church, VA. I have given up refilling the mattress with air. It will just flow out again. I don’t know what day it is, nor do I care. I’m not asleep nor am I truly awake. I just am. I stare at the ceiling and wait patiently for the next round of sleep to come.
A few months earlier my anxiety was at such a level that I paced the floors constantly throughout the day. Day or night had no meaning. I simply alternated between sleep and wakefulness every few hours around the clock. I checked my blood pressure several times an hour just to see my skyrocketing pulse. It had become an obsession. No amount of Xanax, no amount of alcohol, no force of nature was capable of slowing my mind down from the raging, racing monster it had become. My calmest moments of relief would occur only when I fumbled through a case of DVDs, stuck one in, and tuned myself in so deeply that for a moment I could forget the wretched, painful existence that had become life.
A few months earlier I did all these things because I was still fighting. I was still trying to claw my way back. Yes, my focus was on sheer survival, but I was also trying to gain even an inch if I could like some poor soul rowing against the tide and trying to move upstream, knowing full well that merely to maintain position would be a miracle. That was a few months earlier. No more. Now, lying in the bare room I am still in so much pain, so much anxiety, but it is all masked by a fog of submission. I have given up and there is nothing left to do but watch the ceiling and wait.
There is the sound of the front door opening and my sister comes in with a sandwich from one of my favorite delis and asks how long it has been since I ate. Food has no meaning. I imagine it has been since the last time she brought me something. Eventually I force myself to eat and then turn my attention back to the ceiling. My mind still races, but it can’t hurt me anymore. I am now a spectator, not an actor. I idly wonder what will become of me and turn over various possibilities in my head, but I am indifferent to any of the answers. I decide they will lock me up in a psych ward somewhere, if I don’t waste away before then. I continue to stare at the ceiling and my mind races on to the next thought, and the next, and so on until eventually returning back to the first.
I think about all of the horrific experiences that have preceded this end, but they no longer trigger the panic and shame they once did. It is no longer me and therefore I can have no personal feelings toward the memories. It is just the mind doing what it does. I doze off. I wake up. Occasionally I draw my eyes from the ceiling to look at the window. Sometimes light protrudes from the edges of the blinds, sometimes it does not. Day and night and night and day. It has no meaning in this place.
Sleep comes and goes and thoughts travel in and out in their given rotation, but then a line of thinking seems different. A new thought. Is such a thing possible? I begin to give this thought more than my normal passive attention because it is… different. A voice whispers in my ear – do you hear it? –and I think I recognize the voice. Could it be… could it be me? The voice tells me that this is just a moment in time, and there will be other moments in time. Moments better than this one.
Suddenly I am no longer lying down. I am standing up. My eyes are closed so I cannot see my surroundings, but I feel an extreme wind blowing against my body and my arms which are outstretched toward the sky. A feeling overcomes me, some sense that I have just done something amazing. I don’t know what it is, but I feel like I have come a very, very long way.
Come back with me to 2016 now. Time travel is enlightening, no? So you see, it is not that I felt nothing at the top of Mount Katahdin. It is not that I was indifferent to the struggles and dangers and sheer determination required to reach that wooden structure for a photograph. It is that I was there seven years ago, when I needed to be there.
On that day back in 2009, I did not get up. I did not jump in the shower and go for a walk. There was still an incredibly long road ahead of me. There would be more pain, far more than I could have ever imagined at the time. A change had occurred, though. I no longer had the luxury of being a spectator. I was no longer indifferent to my struggle. I began to feel. I began to fight.
I did not shed a tear when I reached the top of Mount Katahdin. Tears did flow on one day on the trail, though, and I will tell you when.
I was hiking through Virginia near the Blue Ridge Parkway in the late afternoon. It was dark and raining lightly. Virginia had been very long and I was very tired and I was wondering if I was ever going to reach the end. My hiking had become monotonous because I was completely engrossed with a voice whispering in my ear. This time the voice was not mine, but that of a narrator of a book and the words did not come from the ether, but from the headphones in my ears. The name of the book was the Count of Monte Cristo. It was a long book and I had been listening to it for a very long time. The tears began to stream because the book had come to an end and I had just listened to the very last line:
“Darling, has not the Count just told us that all human wisdom is summed up in two words: wait and hope?”
I’m standing at the counter in my father’s condo in Delaware staring at five post-it notes filled with much to do and a familiar feeling comes over me suggesting I may have taken the wrong trail.
I pull my cell out of my back pocket and there’s my handy trail guide right there on the first screen, but it can’t help me anymore. There are no white blazes, no rock piles, no cairns and no tracks. Nothing but post-it notes and a phone that screams after having been silenced for so long.
Less than two weeks ago I awoke in a bunkhouse in Millinocket, ME, disoriented with the absence of a tent ceiling staring back at me. Looking around at all the hikers sleeping, I slowly cleared the cobwebs and understood I was in a hostel, but something still felt different. As I hobbled quietly toward the bathroom on creaky joints that refused to budge it came to me:
I don’t have to hike today.
The day before I had summited Katahdin and finished a journey of 2,189.1 miles and 199 days. There were no more mountains to climb, no more liters of water to filter, and no more instant mashed potatoes to eat. Nothing left but to find my way back… somewhere. It was an hour shuttle from the end of the trail to the small town, half of which was spent just getting out of Baxtor State Park.
There was much to do before getting on another shuttle at 9 am, but that was normal. There was always much to do in the morning when you rebuilt your home each and every night only to take it back down again the next morning. It was simple, peaceful work, but it was work. That day was slightly different, of course.
I emptied my pack of toilet paper, chlorine, and other things that I no longer needed to bring wherever I went, replacing it with new necessities like deodorant, shaving cream and razors. I stepped on a bathroom scale and noted that I had gained about ten pounds along the way despite losing 3-4 inches of waistline. I’m sure Jenny Craig would love that secret, but it’s not really a secret. All you have to do is walk from Georgia to Maine.
Millinocket may have been an hour from the trail, but in psychological space it might as well have been 100 yards. There would be no culture shock here, something I expected to occur very soon. Celebrating my birthday at a Marriott in Mt. Arlington, NJ was culture shock. This was home.
I wished I could stay longer, but it was mid-October, my adventure was over, and it was time to move on. I had time for a great cup of coffee in a hiker café, signed my name on a ceiling tile and got in the van. The shuttle would take me to a truck stop where I could catch a bus to Bangor.
I had never been to Bangor and wasn’t sure what to expect, other than small. What was small, anyway? The first time I visited Denver, I thought it was small. Now, the roughly 700-resident town of Millinocket felt gigantic. There was an outfitter and motels and half a dozen restaurants and it took a mile and a half to walk to the other side of town.
Things felt relatively routine at first as I stepped off the bus with the other passengers, almost exclusively hikers, but quickly everyone went their own way, some continuing on to Portland, others into taxis or toward nearby motels. By the time the dust settled, I was suddenly alone in a bona fide city. The airport was practically across the street and strip malls, branded motels and auto repair shops filled the horizon in every direction.
My philosophy on the trail tended to be to “wing it,” never looking too far ahead at the towns I was walking toward and my vague plan today had been to stay in a hostel or campground. I had booked a flight for DC during the bus ride, but it wouldn’t leave until the next morning. The hostel I had heard of seemed to be non-existent online and off, and the absurdity of waking up at a campground and making it to the airport by 4:30 or 5 for a 6 a.m. flight was realized as I gazed at “small” Bangor.
I reluctantly made reservations for a cheap motel with a free airport shuttle and headed toward the nearest strip mall. Hiker clothes can be boiled, bleached or given radiation treatment, but they will never be worn again without eliciting cries of protest from anyone unfortunate enough to get stuck in a small space with you. It was time to feel the comfort of street clothes for the first time since March.
Between a Marshalls and a local discount store I found myself a clean, if not trendy, set of clothes for my journey back to the “real world.” For the first time in months I was a bit nervous about leaving my pack outside and unguarded, but there was nothing to be done. I stuffed my wallet, phone and insulin into my jacket pocket knowing my safety no longer depended on being prepared for the next thunder storm or cold spell.
The increased stares and shuffling of children out of my path reminded me I was no longer in a hiker town, but I had gotten used to this 1,000 miles ago. I quickly learned that the only way to survive was to walk through every door as if you owned the place. Sometimes, after a particularly challenging stretch of trail, it almost felt like you did.
The afternoon went quickly as I had the strongest cell service since Connecticut and started down a long list of phone calls and texts. It had only been a week since I was joking with other hikers in Monson about my 360 unheard voicemails and 42,000 unread emails. “That’s a problem for future Kevin,” I had slipped, accidentally spilling my real name into the conversation. Then, suddenly, I was in an airport motel in Bangor realizing: Crap. I am future Kevin.
I considered ordering a pizza or finding a restaurant, but my appetite still insisted on quantity over quality. I had covered 47 miles in my last two days of hiking to the base of Katahdin, the last 25 in roughly 8 hours, so it would be quite a while before my hiker hunger subsided. I hobbled to the nearest gas station a half mile down the highway and picked up cereal, milk, piles of granola bars and heat window hot dogs and hamburgers. This would have been unthinkable a year ago, but now it was dinner.
There was no difficulty in getting ready in time for an early flight. Even now that the sun dawdled until almost 8 a.m. each morning I was always awake early, usually a result of temperamental blood glucose levels. At 3:30 I went down to the lobby for a cup of coffee, sprayed down my pack with linen-scented Lysol and got into the airport taxi. In ten minutes I was getting out at BIA’s only terminal, but after taking three steps I realized I set my cell phone down on the seat of the shuttle and missed it in the darkness. I turned around, but the car was gone.
In six and a half months of hiking I had never come even close to losing my cell phone. Why then? It was the pace. I had been in and out of shuttles since Georgia getting to grocery stores, post offices, and hostels. A shuttle ride often involved very lengthy conversations and disembarking could be a 20 minute process. Not anymore.
Bangor may have been a city, but it was a city in Maine. I went inside to the American Airlines counter to check my pack and receive my boarding pass, finishing off by sharing my cell phone catastrophe. Not only did the airline rep allow me use of the phone, but let me take my time in calling the motel and then the number the motel provided for the shuttle. Chalk one up for Maine. If the sunset wasn’t quickly headed for 4 p.m. each night I might have declared my residency right then and there.
I did not, though, and after an hour and forty minutes in the air I landed at Reagan National. There is something disconcerting about spending more than six months hiking to Maine and then traveling more than halfway back down in less than two hours. We are all affected to varying degrees by the culture around us and when you travel on foot those cultural shifts happen very gradually.
I’ve gone from Howdy to Hello and back to Howdy again. I’ve learned where it would be considered rude to pass someone on the street without saying hello, and where it would be considered a sure sign of insanity. Now I was going from one extreme to the other, from the largest wilderness area in one of the wildest states to one of the largest metropolitans in the country.
My first few hours were surreal. As someone who experienced daily panic attacks until spending six months in the woods, I expected the worst. Instead of panic, however, I found a world in slow motion, a world that I observed but did not appear to be in.
When the seatbelt light went off all of the DC natives simultaneously went into their post-landing routine. A chorus of seatbelts clanked in unison, cell phones were turned on, calls were made, luggage retrieved and a mad dash for a cabin door that was not yet open began. One man installed a Bluetooth headset in his ear in preparation for any calls that may come and I mentally smacked myself on the back of the head for having once been him.
I moved so slowly through the airport, loitering here and there, that I constantly expected to be escorted to a special room reserved for suspected hiker-trash writer-terrorists.
I knew the luggage would not be ready, so I ignored baggage claim. I got an iced tea. I went outside. I looked at the scrolling advertisements all over the airport. I watched the scene. I finally made my way to baggage claim and picked up my pack as it rolled along the conveyer and followed the signs to the metro station. I walked down the long corridor and looked at the people-mover as if I had never seen one. When an urgent warning told “passengers” that it was ending, I’m pretty sure I giggled.
It wasn’t until I started exploring the next day that I really began to feel overwhelmed by the differences. I was staying in a condo my father had moved into only a week before and he would be out of town for a couple days. I will have to admit the culture shock cannot be entirely blamed on six months of living in the woods. I spent ten years living on both sides of the beltway, but that was a long time ago. My last five were spent in upstate New York between Syracuse and Albany, the only rural area where I had ever lived, and I had become used to a different pace. DC had changed. I had changed.
I tried to make excursions on the metro to places where I could walk around. I’m an early riser, so this usually meant I was getting onto the train during rush hour into the city, and the cars were packed shoulder to shoulder. There were probably more people in one subway car than I was used to seeing in weeks.
The streets were different as well. Rows of shiny, identical bicycles were scattered about for rent here and there, like some dystopian society. The flow of people never ended, and they were all anonymous. On my first trek out, I accidentally said hello to the first person I passed. Habit. He just looked at me peculiarly and went on, and why not? Why say hello to one person when there will be one hundred more coming up right behind them? I started to feel a bit comfortable walking around the Washington Monument and the National Mall. These walkways were sparse and filled primarily with tourists. It couldn’t last, though.
Walking in the city presented new problems that demanded immediate solutions. It felt odd to have to give myself insulin shots on a busy street. Finding a bathroom now required google maps. I had been used to being constantly on the move and having shelter only at night, but suddenly shelter sounded pretty good. Driving was stressful, and this is where I learned how to drive. The GPS on my phone just wasn’t fast enough. Too many turns too quickly. By the time the poor British woman in my phone could speak, the intersection was gone.
The stress of so many people coupled with blood glucose levels that were even more difficult to control now that I had stopped hiking left me utterly exhausted. I walked just enough to avoid a serotonin crash from such drastic change in activity. I pondered what needed to be done, but it all seemed like some curious, abstract idea. Apartments, budgets, mail, insurance, excel spreadsheets – these were not things for me. I thought about streams for water, flat ground for pitching a tent, sun to dry wet clothes. The future to me was the next town where I would be able to do my laundry and take a shower and drink something cold.
Then one night I went to a small concert venue where a folk rock singer, Jaymay, was playing. A hint of Steve Forbert in some of her songs, he said, and I was sold. I love live music and listened intently. As I sat there in a tiny bar in Clarendon, I finally remembered what is so great about cities. For so many months I have been hiking and researching and writing, putting everything I have into creating a book that shows how modern life became so complicated, and at times it feels I am at war with technology or with progress or with city life.
I am not.
Blaming technology for modern culture would be like blaming a car for a car accident. Technology is not driving, we are. The same is true for cities. No one builds a city; a city builds itself as more and more people congregate. We want to be near other people, for business, for a social life, for common interests. Some of these cities burst at the seams. Sometimes an argument can be made that our own, independent purposes have backfired. This is especially true when so many live in populous cities but don’t know their neighbors, don’t participate in any type of community, don’t live “in” the city.
I am glad to have come to this realization, but after a week in DC those old familiar signs of stress began to crawl out of the woodwork, and it was time to go. I headed to the next stop where more family and friends waited at the Delaware Shore, and when I crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge I breathed a sigh of relief. The pace was so much slower. Not Appalachian Trail slow, but pleasant enough. For several days I saw person after person in a constant state of catching up, and I never seemed to get tired.
Then one morning I was looking through some kitchen drawers for a coffee filter when I saw it: a little pad of sticky notes. I made one list. Then I made another. And another. I made new lists that were better organized than the first ones. I stuck some on the computer and some on the dashboard of the car. I drove around doing errands all day. I was productive.
So I guess that’s how I got here, staring at a bunch of post-it’s on the kitchen counter. There are six now; I made one while you weren’t looking. Is there no-in between? I cannot turn my back on the real world, nor can I embrace it. What to do?
But then I start to remember a funny day back in June when I was hiking along a lake and listening to Greek philosophy and having ideas. I remember all the wisdom that came. I remember that concrete reasoning is a curse of popular culture. There is no “real” world, only a constantly changing barrage of many worlds. One starts long before another ends, and the worlds overlap and mesh and dance around one another.
I let the notes be for now. That’s why they’re sticky – so they can’t get away. They’ll wait. I set my phone on airplane mode, take a long gaze at the sun sparkling on the bay, and begin to write.
I’m in my world now, and I know that with just the right amount of dancing (or hiking) it can connect with any world I want it to – when I want it to.
I have finished a hike along the shores of West Carry Pond just after dusk until finally reaching a campsite where the trail cuts back into the woods. Before setting up my tent I turn my headlamp off and sit for a bit on a flattish rock, taking in the dark and peculiar silence. It is too late to enjoy the beauty of the lake, but I will be rewarded instead with a sunrise over the water in the morning.
It seems there are very few people in a five mile radius. There was the clattering of a small boat being taken in or put out, a canoe or at most a row boat, to the south. To the north a dog barks briefly and isn’t heard from again, likely the companion of another thru-hiker or an angler. A coyote howls distantly to the west in search of one of his own. The sound of a high-flying jet is heard faintly overhead, but it’s passengers are far removed from this scene.
Without the assistance of a flashlight I try to imagine the feelings of early adventurers like John Muir who carried not even a lamp. Could I have endured such darkness night after night? I’m not sure. The coyote’s howl is returned by another even more distant.
This pond where I am camped — which I will call a lake — was crossed by General Benedict Arnold on his way to Quebec with 1,000 soldiers. I chuckle at this irony, because hiking the last few days I have been thinking I have perhaps betrayed some of my readers who are interested less in hiking and more in the caprice and freedom of such a journey.
Let me explain.
I long to write, and to write simply. Every day as I thoughtfully put one foot after another a dozen article ideas present themselves to me, and in fact are even written, if only in my mind. It is the tree of time that falls, blocking my path, that prevents the transfer of these words into keystrokes.
Sometimes I think I would be better suited to writing trail updates if I were no writer at all. I have, here and there, been following someone’s thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. After days or a week without signal, he seems without fail to still upload a few words and photos for each day. It is the writer’s curse to be vain, to wish every last character to be meaningful, without realizing that on such a journey as this each keystroke is meaningful, if not perfect.
It seems to me that the articles that win out always tend to be thundering and emotional, carrying to you only the highest highs and the lowest lows. This is, of course, a thundering and emotional journey, but not every hour of the day. My greatest fear is that I present a scary picture of a thru-hike, at least a thru-hike by someone like me, but these are only scattered instances, a sprinkling of bitter cinnamon on an otherwise sweet apple pie. The cinnamon may be bitter, yet it completes the dish.
I assure you the resultant articles are not intended to be dramatic, and certainly not to cause fear in those anxious for my safe arrival at home. These are just the moments that tend to fight their way to the top of the stack in my mind.
The truth is that the freedom and caprice are very much alive. I sought solitude on the trail, but found myself instead surrounded by 30 tents many nights. The only problem, if you could call it a problem, was that I hadn’t hiked far enough. Through New England I was rewarded with my solitude, and now I might see one northbound hiker a day in between towns. Now in Maine, I have true solitude, and my thoughts are crystal clear.
I stood at the top of one of the taller climbs a few days ago, looking hundreds of miles in every direction, and saw very little besides more mountains. There was Sugarloaf ski resort, abandoned for the summer. Rangely, Maine was large enough to be seen, but from there it was barely barely a pinhole in the fabric. I know there are people out there, but I could count the number of houses I saw with one hand.
It is as if I own the mountains now, paying for them not with money, but with steps.
I have set up my tent now and boiled some water, opting for hot chocolate at the last moment over coffee in the hopes that sleep might easily come. I have almost 10 miles to go before reaching the canoe crossing over the Kennebec, but this only operates for two hours every morning, so there is no way I will make it tomorrow.
And that’s okay. I will not pretend that I am wholly at peace, for someone with my disposition is never wholly at peace, but I am close. I am closer than I have been along the whole trail, and perhaps off the trail as well. As the hikers around me stress about time, or about the mountains that remain between Katahdin and their aching bones, I see the end very clearly and it is beautiful.
I saw Katahdin for the first time a couple days ago, and it might as well have been a star in the sky for as distant as it was. I think about the brief time I lived outside Denver and could see the snow-capped Rockies from the kitchen window. Could I ever have imagined a thought back then such as “Yes, I will walk, and I will be there next week?” Surely not.
I believe this calm to have many sources, but the primary source, the one that guides each step, is a sort of arête if you will, that I apply to each step. It seems to me that rushing poor steps slows one down, but allowing each step to be thought out and true does just the opposite. It is not how quickly or how many steps you take, but the quality of these steps that get me farther.
I had hoped to hike 20 miles today, but made it only 17. They were a good 17, however, rather than a poor 20. A poor 20 may have left me closer to the ferry, but also possibly injured or tired in the morning, but a true 17 were… Perfection.
It is 4 a.m. now. I have slept wonderfully and I feel energetic. I begin to think that perhaps I can make it to the ferry in time. I make a cup of coffee and do some yoga, which now takes the place of the Advil I stopped taking a couple days ago. I must use Advil sparingly because of problems in my pancreas and gall bladder, and I decided that it is now best if I stop completely for a while.
By 5:15 my pack is secured on my back, my headlamp is on, and I begin to slowly make my way through the darkness. It will be almost 90 minutes before the sun appears. My pace is quick but not rushed, and every step deliberate. There is no doubt in my mind now that I will make it to the Kennebec in time, and my only regret is that I will miss the sunrise over the lake back where I camped.
We must allow, however, that the only way to hike into the rising sun is to begin in darkness.
I’m wandering around town 8 miles from the trail in desperation, having a moderate panic attack and meeting with the all-too-familiar words “no public rest room,” having conquered the White Mountains, having conquered Mahoosuc Notch and Arm, body feeling bruised and battered, pace shortened to the slowest yet, perhaps for the first time realizing the cumulative effects of hiking from Georgia to Maine in my aching bones and in my yoyo blood sugar and in my overburdened mind. How did I get here, and how have I made it this far retaining my sanity?
Have I retained my sanity?
Weeks, possibly months ago now, someone pointed out to me that I have failed to write about why I am doing this. I thought I had, but in truth all the preparation and then the early miles gave focus to what this hike has come to mean, rather than the initial flickering of thought that resulted in the last 1900+ miles of hiking.
Since silent contemplation consumes the large part of my day, whether climbing from boulder to boulder, fetching water from a stream, or searching anxiously for a campsite at dusk, I have given the question fair consideration. The inciting incident was no doubt the overwhelming feelings I had about life at the time, but this only explains why I chose to do something. Why, among all the possible ways someone might make a change, a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail?
Walden has long been a favorite of mine, but reading between Thoreau’s lines after listening to this book over and over along the way, I see my purpose was much like his. Just as I look back upon my journey filtered through the lens of what it has become, scholars look at Thoreau’s work in terms of what it meant after the fact. The truth, in my opinion, is that Thoreau was simply looking for a way to live simply so that he might dedicate his time to read and write and think. This was considered frivolous by some in his day, and by almost all in mine. Yet this is what I was seeking when I came out here.
I thought my problem was time and peace of mind, and that this adventure would bring both. I would read and write and live simply in the woods, crafting a book about how life became so complicated. The hysterical catastrophe of my plans became evident before I made it 100 miles, of course.
Instead of time, I found myself busier than if I had stayed home. I supposed I would save money by living in the woods for six months; Instead, life is more costly than in the real world. But. But… I continued. Why?
Because what I found, what I could never have dreamed of finding without taking the leap, is far grander than what I sought.
While after many failed attempts at various configurations, writing is limited to an iPhone. Research has been able to continue through the splendor of audiobooks and the side effects of my insomnia, allowing brilliant men and women to speak to me through time.
I mentioned previously that one of my goals was to live my life like a song; even better, and with more depth, I am living my life like a book. When I hear John Muir’s anxieties during his walk to the Gulf of Mexico, visiting the post office day after day, hungry, waiting on a package, I feel them because I have lived them. When Muir searches endlessly for a place to sleep away from people, fearing strangers in a strange place, I understand. I laugh at Norman Paperman’s disastrous escape to the Caribbean from New York City just as loud as at my own foiled plans, and I toss unnecessary items out of my pack the way Thoreau tossed pieces of limestone from his desk straight out the window for their want of daily dusting.
I have become a traveler in time.
Still, there has been a growing uneasiness in the back of my mind, particularly as I reach the end slower and weaker than when I began. It hit me as I entered the White Mountains on Labor Day, quickly running into a man providing some serious trail magic in the form of gourmet omelettes. One southbound hiker was even going for the record, working on a big bowl of 18 eggs.
Suddenly, I stared at the eggs and a feeling of dread came over me. Was this my hike? Was I doing nothing more than the equivalent of seeing how many eggs I could eat at one time? The world turns on without me while I hike day after day. Am I letting it pass so I can shove every last metaphorical egg down my gullet?
I don’t think I am. I surely hope this is not the case. I feel already that this is or will be one of the most pivotal events in my life. Aside from reading more than 100 books and laying eyes on more beauty than I have seen in a lifetime, I have become immersed in my research as a living specimen and every day is a new lesson in life and in culture.
It truly is a beautiful disaster: I came to the woods to find simplicity, to write about how we have lost simplicity, and it has become the most complicated endeavor of my life.
Sometimes I feel received as if a hero, other times women spit at my feet as I walk by. Both receptions encourage me on in equal measure. I have seen the real life consequences of modern life, as well as what happens when these complications are resisted. I have lived in fear, yet carried on. I have broken down life far enough to learn what I truly need, and found that even the basic necessities of life do not come simply or easily.
They say love is the strongest emotion, and I love life. The good, the bad and the ugly, I want to devour it all, as much as my irrational nerves try to pull me back.
I cannot help, have not been able to help since that day, however, questioning myself, and this is why:
This stopped being my hike a long time ago.
This hike belongs to two very distinct sets of people. First, it belongs to the family, friends and complete strangers who have helped me make it this far, because all the strength in the world could not have alone brought me here. It is this guilt that keeps me awake at night should I have misjudged the value of what I am doing.
The second group includes all the diabetics, agoraphobics, all those who are hard on themselves, and all those on whom life has been hard. For you, I hike and I write so that perhaps, in the appropriate place and time, you may time travel, too, and see that anything is possible.
Only a diabetic can understand what it means to wake up with a blood glucose of 550 and push yourself on for 10 miles anyway, or to give yourself a shot while hanging on to a tree down a long, steep rock slide. Only someone with anxiety can understand that the sound of creatures outside the tent are easier to bear than the voices, the cars rolling by, the gunshots, each unnatural noise causing a start. Only one who rushes to the rest room 25 times a day can imagine the complications of doing thus hiking through miles of touristy area or open rock, or even through towns where one must search in desperation for something as simple as a toilet.
My hike belongs to those who have made it possible, and to those whom I am trying to show it is possible. What would I show if I hiked 90% of the Appalachian Trail?
I’ll tell you a secret. Kevin got tired and beaten down physically and psychologically a few hundred miles ago. Kevin gave up and went home, because Kevin was alone. But the Unlikely Hiker?
The Unlikely Hiker hikes on.
He hikes on with the strength and fortitude of all those who inspire him, and all those he is trying to inspire.
May providence forgive me if I am wrong, but like Springsteen said:
Author’s Note: This article describes one of my scarier lessons in insulin management on the trail. I want to stress that I am safe now, and as with all lessons, I am even more prepared having been given the gift of this learning experience than I was the first 1800+ miles of trail.
I knew going into the White Mountains that it would be difficult terrain and I would not get as far each day as I have been used to. The AWOL trail guide even suggests you may only do 1/3 to 1/2 the miles you are used to, but luckily it hasn’t been that bad for me, although my longest day has been only 15 miles.
When I started the first section of the White Mountains I carried more food, mostly snacks, than I think I’ve ever carried in anticipation of this. I figured I was well-prepared, even given the tough terrain. Going into it knowing my mileage would not be what it has been has allowed me to set miles aside for this brief period and instead focus on each mountain range at a time, enjoying the beauty and hiking at a pace safe for the conditions.
Still, two things did slow me down that I did not expect. The first was that there are many stretches of trail that are above treeline or with dense underbrush where you cannot camp. This meant you may get ten miles and not be able to go further even though it’s 2 or 3 in the afternoon. The second was that I would need to eat so much more because of all the energy required for the steep climbs, using up food faster and causing blood sugar to go haywire.
So, inevitably, I went even slower than I expected and I knew probably four days in advance that I would run out of food before I reached my first stop. This would not have been as much of a problem in the Whites because there are many “huts” that sell cookies, brownies, and even full meals sometimes, if it were not for the fact that my debit card had expired. You know you’ve been in the woods a long time when you have to start worrying about things like that! My new card came at the last possible minute, and was forwarded on to a hiker center 3.5 miles off trail 60 miles ahead.
Of course having the card itself would not have been much of a help anyway since everything was cash only (so my guide said, I later found out this was not true!). I also now know that the huts are usually dying to get rid of food because they must pack out any food that is not eaten. Still, between my agoraphobic tendencies and my difficulty in asking for help, I didn’t know this at the time.
I took a one-mile side trail to a tourist attraction with a snack bar, using a different card that happened to have a bit of cash in the account. There wasn’t much to carry with me, but I ate a pizza (good long-lasting carbs) and bought a couple overpriced pop tarts.
As I was hiking back to the trail there was a couple having a picnic on the grass next to parking lot and the guy waved me over. He could tell I was a hiker and probably that I was a thru-hiker. He said he saw me eating pizza inside and said I was probably full (ha!), but asked if I would like any food to take with me. I didn’t tell him I was basically running out of food, just that hiker’s are always ready to eat, but it’s like he knew. He was rummaging all through his car, pulling out Kind bars, mixed nuts, two apples, and a wonderful orange. The orange was important, because juice is the best way to handle low blood sugar.
So I continued hiking on, rationing what I had. I had stopped taking insulin and assumed that the worst I faced was just having only 1500-2000 calories a day of food very low in carbs. I wasn’t going to starve, I wouldn’t starve in four days even if I had zero food, I just wouldn’t have the normal amount of energy to climb. By the second day without insulin, however, I noticed that because of how much exertion was required, the tiniest traces of residual insulin left in my body kept my blood sugar just about normal. Normal was scary in this position because normal is one hard climb away from low.
Finally, I awoke one morning with just 26 miles left to go, plus the 3.5 along the highway. Anywhere else on the trail I could probably shoot for doing the 26 in one day, but here I was worried about doing it in two. And I absolutely had to do it in two. The first half was mostly uphill, the second half mostly downhill. I was determined to do all the uphill on day one because downhill burns up much less glucose, and I wasn’t sure how much food would last until day two
I made it 14 miles the first day, definitely feeling the lowered energy. The climbing was hard but the views were gorgeous. I hiked fast all things considered, but had to stop frequently to test blood sugar, hoping to keep it above 200 to give me a safe cushion.
On the last day, I started getting ready at 4:30 AM and was hiking shortly after six. I had nothing left except tortillas, summer sausage, and my emergency orange. Tortillas have a lot of carbs but are incredibly slow acting, far too slow to help a low or provide energy. The good thing was that they take a long time to metabolize, so they would continue slowly raising my blood sugar for a long time.
The White Mountains are very touristy and crowded, so I knew if I really got in trouble I could probably stop a day hiker and tell them it was an emergency and I needed something with sugar. Still, I’m not very good at asking for help, so I saw this as an absolute last resort. I think it was the first time I truly felt real fear on the trail, with images of me getting a low and the orange not being enough… and seizures… and worse…
Here is another area where I will be scolded. I keep forgetting to get a medical ID tag. I have no valid excuse for putting this off, I just have not been sure where I would get one offline, and every time I reach a town everything feels so rushed. In any case, given this lacking I hiked with a sharpie in my pocket, ready to write Type 1 Diabetic on my wrist if things started to go bad.
Everything I have told you has been so you can understand my state of mind my last morning of hiking out. I was actually in relatively good spirits, but in the back of my mind there were many dark thoughts. I knew I would be going downhill, but I didn’t know if it would be an insane rocky climb that would take forever, having to take every single step cautiously, or something a bit easier.
I went through the first few miles relatively easily. It was rocky, but not so steep so I maintained a good pace. Then all of the sudden the trail turned and it was pure soft sand, flat and straight as far as I could see. Now, this has happened to me several times in the Whites already, and each time it has meant the same thing: I missed a turn on the trail. The AT is constantly crossing other trails in the Whites, and the other trails always seem so easy in comparison.
So it was, in horror, I wondered how far I had gone the wrong way. The AT does not have as many white blazes in New Hampshire, so this happens sometimes, but I always notice within .1 or .2 miles. A tenth of a mile seemed like a long way today, though.
And then I saw it. The tree. The tree with the white blaze on it. This was my trail, and it was easy and beautiful and flat.
I felt like crying. It was like I suddenly realized all of the pressure I had been under for days, the hunger, the lethargy, now that I had finally caught a break. I didn’t know how much longer the trail would stay easy, and I didn’t care. I felt so much relief to have even a small stretch of nice, easy trail. The feeling was indescribable.
It lasted at least five miles, and I flew like the wind. Toward the end there was a bit steeper downhill climb, but I had renewed energy and it was still easier than all of the trails I had done in the whites so far.
I did the 12 miles before noon, and at 11:45 I was walking down the highway to food, to my debit card, to safety.
And as I walked, I realized that even on this day, the only time on the trail where I truly feared for my life, that it was all still amazing. I was still in awe of the beauty, and I can look back and see that I was still stopping to take pictures.
And after I reach Katahdin, the picture of that easy trail with the tree to the side embroidered with that beautiful white blaze will hang on my wall for the rest of my life, wherever that wall may travel.