For many years I’ve harbored a dream. I don’t remember when it was or how old I was. I suspect I was in my twenties when I read an article in a magazine. Can’t even remember the magazine but the article was about this guy who decided he was going to hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. Phenomenal. To do such a thing was unfathomable to me. To hike 2178 miles over the course of 4 to 6 months was awe inspiring. I wanted to do that. But how?
Thus began the on again off again sporadic reading of accounts on the AT and hikers adventures across this wonderful swath of green and rock and dirt and distance. This is no small thing. Small people may attempt it but should they complete it, they will have stepped into a realm of greatness not easily measured in this world by mere men. Even today when I speak of this dream out loud, the instantaneous responses are profoundly amusing to me. “You’re out of your mind.” “You can’t do that.” Why would you do that?” “That is insane, I can’t believe you would think about that.” At each rebuff I find myself grinning as though I’m the only sane one in the room and they are all children with no understanding of what is being presented to them. Silly rabbits, long distance hikes are for giants. I know giants, and you sir or madame, are no giant.
The dream turned down the path that leads to reality about two years ago. I got back into the woods camping and was able to do some hiking (modest by comparison to say the least) and fall in love with the outdoors all over again. I have a young son who has enjoyed the camping and hiking some and has been an excellent opportunity to bring us closer together and give us a common interest to enjoy. But hammocks have truly opened the doors of imagination and possibility like nothing else. To sleep in blissful comfort. To have an elevated perspective, as we call it. To cradle a body that suffers from the perils of a misspent youth, is nothing short of a miracle and has allowed me to get out more in the last year than I’d done in over 40 years. Hammocks have been the tipping point of this dream turning to the potential that it could truly happen. I’ll blog later on hammocks. Trust me, I can go on for hours. This is about the dream of the AT.
So fast forward to or flash back depending on your perspective, to my wife back at the first of this year trying to decide where we could do a family vacation. We have two kids, Noah who is twelve (will be thirteen in October – heaven help us) and Bailey who turned 9 in February. She looked at beaches, out east, out west, up north and everywhere else one looks when thinking of ideas for such a venture. I quietly suggested we go back to the Smokies. We had had a good time in that tourist trap of commercial hillbilly capitalism that runs from Sevierville to Gatlinburg, TN. It’s campy and crazy and full of fast fun and silliness. It is also a hare’s breath away from, you guessed it, the AT. The AT runs through the GSMNP (Great Smoky Mountain National Park) and is easily accessible by numerous roads and trail heads in that area.
Now I’m not a foolish man. I mention nothing of my ulterior motives to the wife or the kids. It’s all about the things we didn’t do the last time we were there and how we had such a good time with the kids and I’m selling it,selling it, selling it. Hard. And well. Now before you begin to accuse me of manipulation, let me just stop you right there and tell you. I am. I own it proudly. In the vernacular, it’s a win win for everyone involved. They have a great time, I have a great time and my dream gets a little taste to see if it is everything I’ve built it up to be in my mind.
I’ve read over a dozen books on the subject over the last year and seen in print the good, the bad, and the ugly of hiking 2100 miles in snow, rain, muck, heat, bugs, snake, bears, rock, and wind day in and day out for months. Now that didn’t sound very appealing. To be certain, it is no cake walk (pun intended). My vision of this is hard, uncomfortable, dangerous. It is also potentially rewarding, cathartic, enlightening, and epic.
She and the kids bite the bait, darn near swallow it whole and I’ve masterfully set the hook and have all but reeled them in and cooked them up. Mission accomplished. Now to get the pan ready. I say to the wife, “How about I go ahead of you guys and get a couple days in hiking and meet you in Sevierville?” She looks knocked off kilter just slightly but she knows this hiking and hammock disease is terminal. I’m not letting go of that and being the gracious and loving wife she is, says in a confused and cautious tone, “I guess, so. That seems okay.” She’s worried I’ll be eaten by a bear. Possible. I’m a little gamey at my age. She’s worried I’ll get lost. Possible but there are literally hundreds of people on the trail at this time of year also looking for a piece of the dream. While I’ll be alone, I’ll never truly be alone.
Thus begins the tip of the dream. In late May I will be doing a section hike of the AT. Nothing grandiose. Just 30 or so miles over 4 days, on my own. Why do it you are still thinking. Well, to see if a full blown thru hike is even a possibility for me. To me, the greatest regret would be to start that adventure only to discover a few days or weeks in that I don’t have the metal to do it. That I was a small person, unable to do this great thing. That would be a disappointment I don’t think I could live with.
So this is a test. I have every confidence in my equipment. I know that I know that I know I have the correct, lightest, most efficient and essential items needed for me to complete a thru hike. I have every confidence in my physical ability. I’m not an Adonis. I’m a grinder. I have the ability to put my head down and do the work. Slow and steady, hour after hour after hour. In some ways, it appeals to me. No, these are not areas of concern. For me, it’s the mental aspect. I enjoy being alone, me time. However, days on end of just me, myself and I can be mentally challenging. The daily get up, hike, eat, hike more, eat more, hike even more, stop, eat, sleep, repeat, again, and again, and again….this can make for a type of madness some are neither prepared for or capable of surviving. It won’t be the bear that eats you but the gray matter melting that does you in. Those who have done the AT from Georgia to Maine will tell you that the trail is 90% mental. Overcoming injuries, loneliness, being homesick, being sick, tired, wet, cold, hot, covered in dirt, flies and your own particular odoriferous funk can drive you to madness, or worse, to quit.
I’ll continue to blog about the preparations, the plans and ultimately the actual hike. I’m not counting on a particular outcome either way. I know, and I think my wife knows, that I’ll either get this AT thru idea out of my system, or it will be moved from dream to goal and more madness will ensue. Either way, I’ll be happy with the outcome. I won’t be chasing after vain things wasting energy or I’ll be blissfully grinding and honing the dream to a fine edge and when I do it, I’ll do it. A great thing. A grand thing. Something epic.