A few weeks ago a friend called me from the Appalachian Trail. I’d originally met Jeremy at my hostel in Rome and then coincidentally months later saw him again for a day in Jerusalem, and then we met up yet again in New Jersey as he was driving through on his way to his sister’s in NYC (you’d be amazed how many new traveler friends I’ve seen–planned and unplanned–more than once in different corners of the globe). And now Jeremy was literally walking the Appalachian Trail.
The Appalachian Trail is a hiking trail that runs nearly the entire length of the United States on the east coast from Georgia to Maine. At approximately 2,179 miles (3,507 km) long, the trail passes through the states of Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.
Growing up on the east coast, I’d learned about the trail early on in school and had crossed it or been near it several times, but of course never really walked any bit of it. Later on I’d read Bill Bryson’s humorous and sarcastic account of his trail trials in his book, A Walk in the Woods.
It’s famous for its many hikers, some of whom, called thru-hikers, attempt to hike it in its entirety in a single season. Jeremy had decided to take his summer to literally walk the trail from Georgia back to near his home in Maryland. Like long distance runners who hit that ‘wall’ around the 20-mile mark, Jeremy was hitting his own wall. On the morning of his 48th day of hiking, he called me at about 600 miles into his hike. That’s six hundred miles of walking; walking nearly every day sun-up to sundown. He was having a tough time, was burning out, and was looking for help. I heard his message and the sound of his voice and called him right back.
He said, “I was looking through my cell phone numbers at which friends to call and I saw your name and thought, she’s been ‘here,’ she can help me.”
Now, although I traveled around the world solo for a couple years and challenged myself in physical and mental ways, it was still vastly different from what Jeremy was attempting. I couldn’t imagine doing what he was doing – besides carrying all his belongings on his back all day long in the summer heat, he was walking the same looking ‘scene’ alone for weeks on end, basically doing the same exact thing everyday, with very few variables.
Jeremy explained, “while hostel-jumping or WWOOFing [volunteering on organic farms around the world – a common activity of some long term world travelers] or whatever, an explorer has the right-of-way in their plans, and can alter a decision on a moment’s notice (time and money allowing), long-distance hiking (LDH) does not give that leeway. Instead, there is a tunnel. Speed is the most encompassing variable on the Trail: time spent at any one campsite, time in a town, miles per day, hours per day. Besides that, everyone has the same goals: move north (or south, as the case may be), sleep well, eat comfortably, have intense emotions constantly. Okay, the last one might not be at the forefront of every to-do list, but it certainly tags alongside the others.”
But why exactly was he doing this? Like myself, many traveler-types that I met like a challenge and like to keep pushing themselves. I often questioned myself about this — at what point do I push myself so far outside my ‘comfort-zone’ that I am just too uncomfortable? Toward the end of my trip, I realized I was ready for some more ‘normalcy’ and was ready to settle down a bit more, maybe not end my adventures entirely, but take a break. But I often still wonder ‘what’s next?’ Should I do something more challenging so I can grow even more? So after traveling around the world for several months, Jeremy felt the need to push himself even further with a new challenge. Jeremy’s original intent was to just be alone and away from it all.
“I suppose [it was] Thoreau-esque, but I was not as naive as others I met along the Trail. I knew that I would not be completely alone. I was surprised at the number of days on which I saw no one! But, as has been the case with many of my other short and long-term travels, I wanted to get away, not from humanity or society as a whole, but the specific, constraining life I lead at home and school. Just an escape from the norm, I suppose.”
He said his routine was down to a science. He woke up from camping, packed his bag the same exact way every morning and then walked…and walked…and walked. He met some people along the way, but either didn’t want to get stuck at their pace or decided they just weren’t for him. One of the great things about ‘travel’ is meeting people, but in ‘normal’ (not the Trail kind) travel, you can meet people and get to know them for a few days and then go your own way before they grow annoying or boring. But on the Trail, when you are all more or less going at a similar pace, it’s also hard to ‘lose’ these folks when you are all on the same exact path and camping in the same fixed campgrounds along the way. In that way it was so different than my experiences traveling the world. On the trail, Jeremy explained that everyone had generally the same outward experience.
“Whether it is obvious, such as meeting the same creepy person at a shelter or eating at the same ice cream shop in some ho-dunk town on the Nantahala river, or more discreet, such as witnessing the same sunset from two different points on a ridge, or seeing the same resident bear meander out from around the huge oak tree in the glade, hikers quickly grow tired of talking to one another, and relish in visiting a town or seeing a new or inexperienced face on the Trail: both of these instances allow for the hiker to talk. And talk and talk and talk.”
It seemed clear to me how hard and possibly mind numbing this type of travel could be. Yes, there were some beautiful, natural, and rewarding things to see along the way – majestic mountains, wildlife, inspiring towering trees – but the mundane-ness of a dirt footpath and being in your own head and with your own thoughts everyday – could just plain drive a person a little bit crazy.
Jeremy did, of course, have some amazing moments and enjoyed a good bit of his adventure. He was in awe of the beauty of the Smoky and Blue Ridge Mountains. On his birthday, he entered the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. While working his way up into the mountains on a steep climb, he came upon a turtle on the Trail, and saw it as a bit of a “revelation” to just slow down and enjoy the hike and to disregard his distance goal for the most part.
The lowest part of his trip was his last few days. He had had dark moments throughout the trek, but those last days were the worst. It was incredibly hot and humid and surprisingly there was very little water available. He was weary of the same hikers he’d been seeing over the days and was also not feeling well. His diet had deteriorated as he could only really eat ‘packable’ type food and little to no fresh fruit or vegetables. He was weak and his mind was darkening. I do feel the mind can be a scary place if you are left alone in it too long.
At one point, he was feeling somewhat ‘homesick’ and his mom had joined him for a few days of hiking.
“It wasn’t actually missing home, but rather being so comfortable and recognizing familiar sights and scents, from just my mom being there to the significant smell of her car to the great food that she brought for me.”
Now after 7 or so weeks of walking several hundred miles, Jeremy was feeling physically and mentally run down and just not sure what to do. “Should I keep going?” “Should I go back to a town I liked and stay and work there?” “Should I have some friends join me?”
They were all very valid questions. We talked about the American mentality to be goal oriented and keep trudging forward to attain that ‘goal.’ His original goal was to get to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, right at the corner where the states of West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland all touch, which is well-past the 1,000-mile mark. But besides losing a lot of weight, was he losing sight of the journey itself? Ultimately, my small advice was he had to ‘shake it up’ any way he could—by doing one or all of the things he was considering – but mostly, I really thought he needed to ‘get off’ the treadmill for a bit and regroup and refocus and get healthy. If his heath was deteriorating, what was the point? Get into a town and hang. Treat himself to a real meal (he was subsisting on trail mix and canned/boxed foods that wouldn’t spoil and was feeling weak, malnourished). Get some real sleep.
He had also called his mom and within a matter of hours she was there picking him up (moms are the best). He felt better about getting off the trail and cleared his head enough to know he needed rest and medical attention (it turned out he had literally been infected by a parasite which was living in his intestine and needed medicine go get rid of the nasty critter).
He didn’t reach Harper’s Ferry (yet), but I really think that did not matter. He learned so much more possibly by NOT reaching his initial goal, but wrestling with some larger issues along the way.
“ I received, in ‘life lesson’ terms, the assurance that I am capable of taking care of myself, at least in the wilderness and in back-country Southern towns. Also, that I am stronger than others might have me believe I am; that leads into the culminating concept, which I feel I only began to understand at the very end, thanks to some messages from my parents, but mainly my older brother: I can do what I want, when I want to, assuming it doesn’t harm anyone, fiscally or physically or emotionally. That is, I used to (up until a month ago, you see) have to ‘ask permission’ to do something. Not directly, but rather tell a parent or sibling or mentor my plans, but have the notion of uncertainty in my voice and maybe even tack on a question (or just a question mark) at the end, such as, ‘I am thinking of visiting a friend in Baltimore tonight. What do you think?’ Or ‘Maybe I’ll drop this class?’ thus inviting input on my actions. Now, I tell my plans with fervor and concreteness, accepting of opinion, but not at all tied to accepting the opinion. The hike made me stronger, and I do hate using this euphemism, but I am afraid it is all I have in my lexicon, both physically and emotionally.”
Jeremy ended up recovering at home with meds, good, healthy food and love from mom. Then he did return (not on foot) to the small town of Hot Springs, North Carolina and worked for a few weeks at the historic Sunnybank Inn where he’d stayed during his trek. And now, he’s back home in Maryland, gearing up for another year at university…he’s back in the ‘game’, back to the’ norm’ or at least what’s ‘normal’ as defined by our society.
Life changes as we plod along, goals change, and sometimes we actually make the change ourselves and really feel we are in control of our own destiny and already have everything we need to make ourselves happy. We adjust and adapt and hopefully learn a hell of a lot along the way… but either way we still have to put one foot in front of the other to get there. Kind of trite and a cliché, but still true.
(all photos courtesy of Jeremy Krones)