Psychopaths lead interesting lives. I learned this one night in a Pearisburg, Va., hostel when I listened to a former biker-turned-hiker empty his vault of violent, hypersexual stories for two hours.
Apparently, 1980s Berlin was the place to be if you wanted to raise hell and get away with it, but that didn’t stop George from trying to do the same in the deep South after he came back to the states. Naturally, stories about getting caught ushered in a discussion about the Catch-22 of freedom in modern America. If you do whatever you want to do, you’re free; but eventually it will catch up to you and there is nothing less free than a jail cell, so you find yourself making compromises and living a life of self-censorship and is that really freedom at all? Neither of us knew for sure. I had never thought about it that much, and he had figured out that living in the woods for extended periods of time pretty much solved the problem entirely. By the time we reached this conclusion, my head was heavy with fatigue and the realization that I had a lot more trouble to get into before I could spin yarns like the old man sitting across the kitchen table; I excused myself and went outside to pitch my tent in the front yard of the hostel. I slept deep into the next morning.
After an early banquet, I rented the first motel room of the trip and spent the day eating and ruminating with my former hiking partner Matt. We had met in a Dairy Queen the previous day, after hiking apart for fifty miles. He wasted no time in announcing his plan to leave the trail and hitchhike home. It took me a while to figure out that he was serious, and I sought consolation in the bottom of a Blizzard Cup. I didn’t want to talk about his decision too much, preferring to accept the things I couldn’t change. I did, however, manage to coax him into staying an extra day in town before “yellow-blazing” back home. After a while, I decided that it was funny that either of us had even got this far.
We’d only gone on a handful of backpacking trips before this one. The longest outing I’d ever done was two nights through the West Virginia/Maryland border. At the time, I considered the trek to have been one of the most miserable experiences I had ever encountered, including my 18 years of family-planned, red-blooded, look-son-there’s-a-majestic-blue-tailed-sapsucker-right-on-our-front-porch-hey-how’s-that-full-body-poison-ivy-rash-treating-you vacations. As terrible as it had been, I never enjoyed a hot shower or greasy meal more than I did afterward. Back then, three days was an eternity and 36 miles was as distant and out of reach as anything had ever been.
Matt had called me a few months after the ordeal, talking madness about an attempted thru-hike of the A.T. the following summer. My hands were tied; I couldn’t budge his resolve and under no circumstances would I allow one of my best friends to show me up by going alone, so I was in. A few shopping sprees and one overnight trip later, Matt and I found ourselves on a bus destined for Atlanta. At this point, I was still betting on returning home no more than two weeks later, and looking forward to a slightly shorter bus ride home.
The overnight Greyhound took 12 hours to get to Georgia, but not many people slept well. The reason for this was the operatic vomiting performed by a disheveled passenger, strategically located in the exact center of the bus. Looking back, I’m now sure he chose this precise spot for its acoustic value. He expelled for a solid three hours, only to leave both the bus and his plastic-bag receptacle (perched daintily on the seat) in North Carolina. Needless to say, morale was not at its highest as two tired, slightly nauseated hikers rode in a taxi to the top of Springer Mountain, the official southern terminus of the A.T. After a round of picture taking, we headed out, ready to see where the trail would lead us.
When we decided to set up camp eight miles later, Matt and I discussed the daily mileage necessary to complete the entire trail in the time we had. We would have to average a little over 20 miles a day, a task that seemed insurmountable. Still, we decided to give it a shot the next morning, and picked our destination, an established campground 18 miles north, lying at the end of about a mile of spur trail. By the end of the formal first day, I was tired enough to get hopelessly lost looking for the campground and Matt was dehydrated enough to convince himself that there was a good chance that I existed only as a figment of his imagination. I found him, wide-eyed, when I backtracked up the blue blazed path. Eventually, we both calmed down and set up camp nearby, vowing to know our limits in the future. And, for the most part, we would. Over the next 600 miles, we would meet a smorgasbord of people, ranging from the common, irresponsible hippie to the timeless, deranged vagabond.
The first true challenge of our hike was the food conundrum; we had to carry the food. At first glance, this seems simple enough, but after a few days, it became clear that there was a distinct difference between the amount of food necessary and the amount food desired. It only took two weeks on the trail to drop 20 pounds from my normal, healthy weight.
Hunger aside, it was surprisingly easy to get used to the conditions of life outdoors. It had only been the second week of the trip when I started to feed peanuts to the mice that plague every shelter on the trail, and began to completely ignore the way they tickled when they ran up and down my sleeping bag at night. Bears went from spiritual to irritating in a matter of days, and I know now that their ingenious kleptomania is matched only by their cowardice. I cannot count the number of times a bear would blunder into sight, large and intimidating, only to unabashedly flee after identifying me as a potential threat.
At first, I was truly worried about them. I had heard stories about the bears of the Smokies and the way they had learned to steal food from hikers. By some miracle, the brain behind their beady little eyes had figured out that if they were to charge at any food-carrying human, the person would invariably fail to call the bluff and run. Of course, the hiker would drop their backpack in order to retreat faster, and there were several accounts of bears running around the park carrying freshly stolen backpacks in their mouths, happier than a dog with a new milkbone. Conversely, I found the furry, black creatures to be completely harmless and easily frightened until I entered Shenandoah National Park, where they have learned to be bold. I should have known they would be problematic from the start; on my second day walking through the park, I witnessed a man feeding a bear a ham sandwich from his car window. I could hardly believe the man’s lack of good sense, and to this day deeply resent not being offered a single bite.
Even though my worst experience with animals was mild (I was forcibly exiled from my shelter by a gigantic rat that was tame, though very noisy), I would have been kept awake many nights had I not generally been too tired to care about anything but sleep and food. After Matt went home in Pearisburg, I really started to push myself, and soon was doing bigger mileage days. Advil became as much of a diet staple as ramen and trail mix. I cut all the tags off of my clothes and sent every single unnecessary item home. At the end of any given area, the pages in my guidebook that I had passed by were torn out and tossed in the trash. There was no room for dead weight.
I hiked this way through Virginia, and kept on walking through the halfway point in Pennsylvania before I ran out of time and money and stopped. The last day on the trail, I completed the customary half-gallon challenge with a few other hikers, and then walked gingerly to a shelter two miles away from a road crossing where my mom was waiting to pick me up. I sat there and talked for a while, wrote a goodbye to everyone I’d met on the trail in the shelter log and gave away everything I didn’t need. I took their trash and gave them food, my Snickers bars, and my trail mix.
When I finally left the shelter, I was sprinting. I passed a hiker who had been at the feast the night before and when he asked me why I was running, I answered as honestly as I could. I told him, quickly, that I knew if I walked, I wouldn’t want to go back home anymore. And I was right to run. I came into a clearing and touched the most northern blaze I have ever touched and ran to my car before I really realized that I was closer to Maine than Georgia. I felt sick on the way back when my car covered mileage in an hour that had taken me three days to walk.
So I went back home and gained my weight back in two weeks, woke up at 6 every morning and did all the household chores I could. It was odd, being back in society; it took me a long time to get used to crowds again. I left more than one 7-Eleven when a few too many patrons milled about and I started to get inexplicably nervous. I went through a few horribly awkward interviews and kept my cell phone off. Eventually, I adapted back into the life I’d left behind just two months ago. I got a job, lost my trail-legs, shaved my beard and took showers every day. I got acclimated to groups of people and going to bed at 12 instead of 9, and tapwater gradually started to taste less and less like chemicals. I even lost most of the supreme patience I had cultivated while on the trail. My friends would tell me about their problems and I started asking them why they cared so much. I would say, “You have a house and food and water and air conditioning. Do you really think this matters?”
It still bothers me that I didn’t finish the entire thing. I know that I’ll probably, hopefully, go back one day and start again. I’d like to do it while I’m young and don’t have much to hold me back from disappearing from the world for a few months, but I won’t mind doing it when I’m retired and need to get out of the house for a little bit. I don’t think I’ll enjoy the attempt any less the second time around.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t truly and honestly miss it, and not just the good times or utter lack of responsibility. I miss it because it was really nice, living hard and honest. It was nice appreciating amenities, getting excited when I had a chance to sit at all, never mind if it was on a rock or a bench that was so damn comfortable I never wanted to get up again. I miss refusing to stagnate, and most of all, I miss looking out and seeing rows of hazy blue waves.