I recently finished reading Cheryl Strayed’s account of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) titled Wild, which has also been recently featured as a film. Cheryl who loses her mother, divorces her husband, and struggles with heroin addiction turns to the wilds of the Pacific West for healing. She ends up making friends, facing challenges, and ultimately coming out of the wild as a changed woman. While I am no Cheryl Strayed and I have never hiked the PCT, I have had my share of through hiking experience on the Appalachian Trail (AT).
It all started in late elementary school when my parents would send me to Quaker Camp in the summer. At first it was two day hikes and later those two day hikes led to three week long adventures in the wilds of West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland. A common Quaker motto being live simply, these trips embodied simply that.
When I was younger I focused on the fear of being almost alone in the woods and the physical pains of being on the trail for long hours in high humidity. There were instances when this was fully acceptable, like when I stepped on a hornet’s nest and was stung more than nine times. Or even when I got Tabasco sauce on my sleeping bag and then very unfortunately in my eye. But as I hiked more and more I overcame my fears and discomfort.
By the time I was in high school I was spending at least three weeks every summer hiking the Appalachian Trail or canoe/rafting near it. I saw and experienced places those summers that are only accessible by walking or flying. There was the 360-degree view of Spy Rock, the never-ending field of boulders at the Devil’s Marble Yard, the overlook of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers above Harper’s Ferry, the occasional waterfall, and the endless wonders that the AT has to offer to hikers.
Not only was I being physically challenged while reaching these destinations, I was also mentally challenged. There is a certain mental toughness that creates itself when your basic survival instincts kick in. Whether it is avoiding a rattlesnake on the trail, making it to the next water station, baring a heavy pack, or hiking up a large mountain one learns quickly how to cope. Not only to survive, but to enjoy the endless incentives that the trail has to offer. Hiking becomes less about physically getting somewhere and more about getting somewhere mentally.
“It only had to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed is would always feel this way.” – Cheryl Strayed Wild
As I hiked and the summers went on I learned how to live in the wild along with my friends. Our toilets were six inch holes dug in the ground by our trowels at least two far sees from water. Without soap we bathed in streams in lakes. We were all so smelly deodorant lost all effectiveness. Laundry happened once in the whole three weeks. Drinking water came from the occasional trail well or iodized stream water. Our meals consisted of a lot of beans, pow-cow (powdered milk), oatmeal, peanut butter, and the through hikers treat, G.O.R.P. (good old raisins and peanuts). And at the end of these long days we would pile underneath a tarp strung up among the trees or simply lay out underneath the stars.
“I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” –John Muir
When spending long amounts in the woods like we did, the woods became a home for our trail family. Whether it was singing, telling stories, playing games, or our inside jokes it is difficult to explain to others the bond between us. It probably had to do with the lack of walls, but even in something as vast as nature we were hardly ever alone.
There were the odd times I found myself hiking alone on the trail with others far behind or ahead of me. Those were the most powerful times. There is nothing as raw or real as experiencing the middle of nowhere as a small fish in the proverbial pond. At times like that I began to imagine what the America’s were like before the European invasion or even before the immigration of indigenous Americans. Did they experience the same smells, see the same plants, happen upon the same wildlife, and witness the sites that I saw those summers? How many people had stepped in the same place that I was stepping at the time?
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” – Henry David Thoreau
The simplicity of life on the trail left me with a strong predilection for a modest lifestyle and an appreciation for nature. I left the AT with the impression that I only needed the gear in my pack and basic needs, like food and water, to live a fulfilled life. As I progress into my professional career after college I do not want to forget the fundamental lessons that I learned from the AT. To be happy I don’t need much, but a natural existence on this earth full of adventure and wonder. So as I possibly move into a 9-5-office job, I want to make a promise to myself to make time for nature. But most importantly I want to acknowledge that we could all live with a little less, so that others could have a little more.