A Second Helping Of Life Lessons Learned While Thru-hiking The Appalachian Trail
A map of the Appalachian Trail
Almost immediately after publishing my first piece about the lessons I learned thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, I discovered that I neglected to mention a few essential things I learned.
The first is the simple fact that the most rewarding accomplishments in life are often the hard-won victories which require significant effort, hard work, and perseverance. Even with a light pack the Appalachian Trail isn’t easy to traverse, and the fact it was challenging in some respect every day made the experience more worthwhile. In 2010 I hiked the entire then 485 mile Colorado Trail—they added eighty miles to this trail in 2012—and, while also a sizable challenge which provided me with a sense of accomplishment, this wasn’t nearly the beast of a challenge that hiking the entire Appalachian Trail was. It’s one thing to complete a long distance trail in just under five weeks; it is quite another to proceed three months into a long-distance hike and realize that you have at least three more months hiking before you are, both figuratively and literally, out of the woods. I’m delighted with both accomplishments; however, I know that hiking the A.T. stretched me to a degree that hiking the Colorado Trail did not and possibly could not have. As a writer I can compare hiking the Colorado Trail to writing a novella, whereas hiking the Appalachian Trail is the equivalent of writing a full-length novel. In other words, it is a similar, yet a more daunting task to complete.
Another thru-hiker talks about the lessons he learned on the Appalachian Trail
On the trail you realize how cumulative life is. You don’t finish the trail without putting in enough daily miles, and such miles cannot be acquired if you are lounging around in town for many consecutive days because you “don’t feel like hiking.” With my writing I recognize that any effort, however small and sometimes disappointing, I put forward will eventually help me to become a better master of this craft. This truth also applies to relationships, learning a new skill or a new subject, and beyond.
While hiking I learned the necessity of rest. In hiker lingo a day when you don’t hike any miles is called a “zero,” and during my hike I quickly learned how essential such days were to the success of the overall journey. Occasionally I even took a zero on the trail, and, since there was little to do in the shelter besides write, play cards, converse, nap, or eat, it was a restful day indeed. In town it was often tempting to take long afternoon naps after eating a filling lunch, and, on occasion, relax by watching a movie with fellow hikers at a hostel. Mentally such breaks were useful because you knew that, even if you would return to the trail tomorrow, you wouldn’t have to hike at all that day.
On the A.T. I relearned a truth I had discovered in my youth while walking many miles on the dirt roads near the farm where I grew up: walking helps you think. Thomas DeQuincy once said, “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thought begin to flow.” I’ve found that one of the most guaranteed ways to free my brain from a sluggish interlude is to take a brisk fifteen minute walk around my neighborhood. The relationship between walking and writing interests me because I am both a walker (and hiker) and a writer. Even if you are not a writer per se, there is ample scientific evidence that walking (and exercise in general) helps to improve mental performance in all areas of life. Years ago I remember reading how the stereotype of “dumb jock” was often untrue because being physically active helped these students learn and excel in school. On the trail I was amazed by how alert and clear-headed I often was—that is when I wasn’t slapping mosquitoes or carefully navigating the rocky section of trail in northeastern Pennsylvania—and even today I notice how all it takes is for me to find a local hiking trail and walk for about twenty minutes before my mind begins to clear and, within another twenty minutes, I am graced with creative insights which eluded me while I was sitting at my desk.
This particular adventure taught me that you don’t know what you are capable of until you push yourself. I’m not saying that everyone can become the next Tiger Woods, John Lennon, or Albert Einstein. Nonetheless, I believe many people don’t fully tap into their potential because they don’t realize how much unused potential resides within them. With my writing I try not to mentally limit myself with thinking along the lines of, “Oh, I would never be able to write a passably good science fiction novel,” or “I simply couldn’t write a full-length screenplay.” The truth is, I don’t know whether I can or can’t until I try…which leads me to my next point.
If you are unwilling to take any significant risks, your rewards will be equally diminished. As professional hockey player Wayne Gretzky once said, "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take." No aspiring thru-hiker can know for absolute certain if he or she will be able to complete his or her thru-hike when first beginning. In fact, as was painfully true for one of my trail friends, she was injured near the very end of her journey and unable to finish the A.T. in one continuous effort. In other areas of our lives, it is our unwillingness to risk—whether a new relationship, or pursuing additional schooling, or even switching careers—which can make our lives smaller than they could be. Certain risks are not worth taking, and I am not writing about these. However, it is important to be striving and even uncomfortable at times because this is how we are able to best change and grow.
In which area of your life are you most willing to take risks?
One of the prevailing slogans on the A.T. is “hike your own hike.” This means that you should hike in a way which suits your needs, resources, and personal preferences. For some hikers this meant putting in big-mile days so they could relax in town longer than hikers who managed slower and steadier daily miles. Other hikers, myself included, decided that the opportunity to read at night was worth the weight of carrying a book or two in our backpacks. In our daily lives we are most likely to live a congruent life—one which lines up with who we are and what we value—if we are able to accept that what we consider a good life may differ considerably from what others deem a life worth living.
Finally, on the Appalachian Trail I found how liberating it could be to have a limited number of choices. Considering the abundance of choices available in our society—a trip to the grocery store to select a type of cereal alone is a clear reminder of this truth—it was a relief to be hiking along with minimal choices to make aside from what to eat, when to rest, where to camp, and what to write in the shelter registers. As a person who isn’t overly fashionable, the fact that I typically wore the same hiking outfit day after day was freeing considering how often I stand in front of my closet now and furrow my brow while trying to determine the “best” outfit to wear for my day’s activities. Last autumn I read Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice, and many of his observations resonated with me after the limited choices (with accompanying freedom and even joy) I encountered while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. He writes, “The more options there are, the more if only’s you will be able to generate. And with each if only you generate will come a little more regret and a little less satisfaction with the choice you actually made.” On the trail it was hard to get too wrapped up in thinking about “if only I had different food in my food bag” or “if only this campsite were nicer” because generally you couldn’t produce additional options. In fact, the limited choices on the trail often led to increased enjoyment because it was easier to be delighted by an extra nice campsite or by the fruit snacks you found in your food bag. Also, visiting town after being on the trail for several days or longer helped me appreciate all the options in town in ways that I find harder to do now that I am back in the so-called “real world.”
Barry Schwartz talks about "The Paradox of Choice"
Before hiking the Appalachian Trail I didn’t know how it would change my life or even my outlook on life, and, indeed, I wonder how these changes will continue to inspire and direct my choices for the indefinite future. It’s my sincerest hope that you are able to salvage a few nuggets of wisdom from my experiences and use these to live a more productive, congruent, and joyful life.