Culture  97 days on the Appalachian Trail

The word “hiking” ordinarily brings to mind the image of casual strolls in the park or refreshing afternoon excursions. But for my brother and me, it became a lifestyle: last summer, we spent 97 days hiking across two thousand miles. We woke up to that task every morning, in spite of torrential rains and 50 kilometre day-plans.

For many, that might not sound like much fun; you may legitimately wonder why we did it. The answer, however, isn’t particularly revealing. The idea came to me on my first visit to the Appalachian Trail, on a chilly fall afternoon in the hills just outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The image of the labyrinthine path, coursing through the seemingly barren Pennsylvanian forest, elicited in me a passionate inquiry into its story.

Though I’d barely walked more than a few miles that day, that small taste of the trail – which follows the Appalachian mountain chain through the temperate forests of the eastern U.S. – spurred my imagination. My head began conjuring images of the trail rolling over a vast sea of deep, grassy knolls in the west of North Carolina, covered in brilliant red and white wildflower patches. I saw myself walking under the behemoth rock outcroppings of New Hampshire’s White Mountain Range. I imagined the lonely adventurers I might eventually meet, and the cozy little mountain towns of America’s original west: Appalachia.

So it was the mystique of the trail that lured me in. The opportunity to spend a summer living simply, free of technology and undistracted from nature’s splendour, invoked in me a special yearning. I also hoped that the experience could strengthen the bond I shared with my brother. To eat from the same pot, walk over the same stones, and huddle under the same log roofs – in temperatures ranging from tropical to just above freezing – I couldn’t imagine this experience doing anything but bringing us closer. But I never could have imagined the intensity of the isolation the Appalachian Trail brings.

On April 29, 2009, I left my 19th Century Philosophy paper in the Leacock Philosophy Office, ready to confront the coming challenge and fulfill an incomparable dream: to walk from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine.

But my brother and I soon found we weren’t alone. Every summer, a few hundred crazy souls unite themselves with the bio-rhythms of this peaceful land to seek fellowship with the wilderness. But romantics need not apply; beyond all else, life on the trail amounts to a continuous test of endurance – a fact for which an entire year of training had barely prepared us. And so, under a picturesque Georgian sky painted in blots of white, we set out, clueless about what would become of our feeble frames.

The trail would dump rain on us for days at a time. And on the trail, when you get wet, you stay wet. The path often became a stream and, on the worst occasions, we found ourselves walking knee-deep in mud, mile after gloomy mile through Vermont. The gigantic roots that covered the trail in Maine, meanwhile, made walking feel more like skipping. But probably the most persistent challenge for us was the fact that walking isn’t all a hiker is faced with – we had to climb mountains. Every day, a hiker changes about 4,900 feet (1,500 m) in elevation.

The whole sanitation thing out there isn’t exactly ideal either: going a week without showering or doing laundry got us scoffs at local grocery stores. It was tough working so hard everyday only to be humiliated upon re-entry into society.

Living off little more than a 15-pound sack and stream water was surprisingly liberating, though. Less stuff meant less hassle, and the freedom to peruse the depths of my inmost self without distraction was edifying. Solitude allowed my mind to wander through my past, my passions, my fears, and – eventually – nothingness. It is a glorious victory to be able to surrender one’s thoughts to completing a simple task for its own sake, and nothing else. The point at which my mind had nothing left to think about was the first time it was truly free.

I insist that the rewards of hiking lay in persisting through to the end of the act, rather than in some combination of fruitful anecdotes. My brother and I derived pleasure from simple things, like sharing a story with fellow hikers, or diving into a Chinese buffet with people we’d never met before. Strangers would offer much-needed food, or rides to places that catered specifically to housing long-distance hikers, free of charge.

Every person we met – from a federal prosecutor or the dean of finance at the University of South Carolina, to the man who asked us mud-covered hikers for money at a picnic table – was of deep value to the journey. We all enjoyed each other’s company so greatly because we all held a common love for the place through which we journeyed.

The reward I gained from this endeavour is absolutely indescribable. The feeling reaching the end point of our voyage – after pouring three months of our life into reaching it – was intoxicating, euphoric perfection. For the first time in my life, I had no desire to be in any other place but hugging that sign on Mount Katahdin that marks the end of the trail. I still have trouble comparing this moment to any other in my life.

To the readers I’ve compelled to consider taming the Appalachian Trail, you may find no other requisite for the hike than unbridled enthusiasm. If you can picture yourself eating heaps of junk food outside a small grocery store in some remote mountain community, or imagine zipping out of your sleeping bag every morning to the sight of a yet unseen forest, then you will be as prepared as I was. I nevertheless strongly recommend doing some preparatory hikes up Mont-Royal to test your motivation. Many a hiker has loved the idea on paper, but quickly dropped off within the first week. In fact, nearly 30 per cent of people drop off before they reach the 30-mile mark. So, if the trail beckons, don’t turn it away. Modern life can wait, as it did for me.