My Pack, My Life

Before the final summit sign broke through the misty bliss and came into view, before I ate a half-gallon of ice cream denoting the halfway point, even before I took those first giddy steps on trail, there were grandiose dreams. It always starts with dreams. Some were of adventure and wonderment. Some of contentment. Some were even of despair and failure. Embedded deep in my bones were all those colorful sensations that sculpted the emotional rainbow that is a long distance thru-hike. So as I trained in the hills and peaks of Southern California, I visualized being two thousand miles away on the Appalachian Trail, fulfilling a twenty year old dream. Dreams are rarely kept to oneself however. I contemplated how I’d describe the feelings to others, with enthusiastic anticipation no doubt. “Speak it into existence” my millennial generation likes to say. But as soon as everyone knows, it becomes real. And as soon as it’s real, there’s no going back.

Jump cut to 2,193 miles down trail. I’ve completed the AT, I’ve released the documentary of my experience called PACK & SOUL on Vimeo on Demand(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) and acquired by the spectacular platform Documentary+(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre), I’ve written several stories for publications I revere, and I’m finally now starting to understand what the trail sages meant when they said, “The hardest part of the trail are your first steps.” The incessant fears and doubts I had before my 2020 AT thru-hike were by far the tallest mountains I had to climb. And the reality is, I knew it then as I know it now; just get there, take your first steps, the trail will provide. Over and over we hear it, we get it. But do we really? How many times did our parents tell us not to throw the ball next to the window? The answer is it didn’t matter. We’d never understand until the ball smashed through the window and we spent the summer mowing lawns to pay for it. As that is true, so is the fact that there’s just no way to quell those very human emotions before a thruhike. You simply force yourself to go anyway. If you want to thru-hike, throw the ball, break the window, figure it out. It’s what I did. It’s what we all do.

I’m glad I got that all out of the way, beginning is always the hardest part of writing an article, hmm… interesting.

A man taking in the view of the landscape in the distance while atop a mountain overlook Image courtesy of Nick Greene

WHO OR WHAT IS THAT? BECAUSE THAT’S NOW ME.

When I was ten years old I had one of those moments that would shape my character forever. I saw in someone else what I wanted to be. Though I didn’t know this person, I understood them completely. The figure came in the form of a hiker on the Appalachian Trail, specifically at Roan High Knob Shelter in North Carolina, only a few miles from Carvers Gap, and a few more miles from where my family had a winter home. The figure was rugged: leathery skin, tattered clothing, eyes filled with wisdom and purpose. He smelled god-awful. He was a vagrant whose mailing address was George to Maine. He was the future me. Clearly my ten year old self hadn’t the words to ascribe meaning to what I saw, but surely I mustered something apropos. Something like, “cool” or “rad.” The figure did have one more piece to him that stood out above everything else. It was his home, and it came in the form of a woven fabric and buckles that strapped seamlessly to his body. It was impossible to tell where he ended and the fabric began. It was invigorating. Apparently, his entire world was being carried from place to place, accumulating only what it could hold and shedding itself of anything superfluous. His home was his pack and his pack was his life. Right then and there, I became a hiker.

Let’s continue to jump cut, nothing fun ever comes from being too linear. The 32-year-old me couldn’t keep it a dream any longer, it was time. Just like how you know you’re in love or how you can feel that next fart won’t just be air, I knew what I felt. Oh, and yes, if you want to talk truthfully about thru-hiking, you have to be truthful, in all facets of life. A wise hiker named Walmart once said, “You’re not a true thru-hiker unless you poop yourself.” I digress.

A man posing along the Appalachian Trail, with grassy mountains in the background Image courtesy of Nick Greene

ONE WAY TICKET TO GEORGIA

Just before my 4am departure to Springer Mountain, the Appalachian Trail southern terminus, I took a gander in the mirror. The honest truth is that I looked nothing like that figure from Roan High Knob Shelter. My skin was clean and face shaved. My clothing wasn’t yet worn to rags. I smelled good. And the worst part, my eyes weren’t filled with wisdom or purpose or anything at all, except maybe childish wonder. One thing, however, connected me to that mythical figure of my past, both of our lives were strapped to our backs. I imagine that when I saw him in 1999, his pack looked a bit different. He maybe even donned one of those glorious external frame packs. Regardless, he and his pack were one and the same. And standing in front of that mirror on May 10, 2020, I too was my pack and my pack was me.

The first steps on trail are like few others in life, perhaps similar to your first actual steps as a toddler. I don’t believe I stopped smiling for the first full month. Every challenge one expects to find on a thru-hike presented itself frequently and unequivocally. The cold rain, the blisters, the shin splints, the hiker hunger, the bear stealing my food; feel free to fill in the rest, they’re all there. But I learned there’s a difference between something being hard and being challenging.= At no point whatsoever was the Appalachian Trail hard, because it was always where I wanted to be. Through all the pain and reflection and yes, even boredom, not once did I imagine myself being anywhere else. And slowly but surely, my skin began to break. My clothes ripped here and there. My increasingly pungent aroma turned day-hikers’ heads aghast as I wafted by. And my eyes… oh those transcendent eyes. You hardly see your own face on trail, not until you go into town. So when I caught myself in a gas station mirror a couple hundred miles in, I damn near cried. I saw it. I saw the deepness. I saw the purpose and wisdom. It was undeniable and growing by the day.

There’s an imposter syndrome many feel on trail, especially if it’s your first thru-hike. For me, an important distinction occurred somewhere around the 500 mile mark. I no longer viewed the trail as anything separate from my “real life.” Once I accepted that home was wherever I laid my tent, I felt like I belonged. The low drum of pain I’d consistently felt either went away or became such a part of me that it was unnoticeable. Whichever it was, there’s really no difference. My body was a machine and left to its own devices was operating at max capacity.