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  • Tuesday, January 3, 2012

    Thoughts from Civilization

    I loitered all alone on the summit of Springer well after Footwork left. The fog subdued the sunlight and concealed the view. Sounds were reduced to only the patter of rain. The combination of these things gave me a greater and much appreciated feeling of isolation. With the strong emotion I felt, I needed the alone time.

    I sat on the southern terminus marker and flipped through the log books. It made me smile whenever I saw the name of a friend I met along the way who also made it to Springer. Most notably, Deckeye, Witticism, JTT, Right-Click, Lightfoot, Sponge, and Splake.

    Amicalola Falls, the tallest waterfall
    east of the Mississippi
    It took a while to get myself to leave the summit. The realization that there would be no more white blazes to lead the way depressed me a little. When I finally left, I began to feel the post-hike blues. I'll be getting back on a trail before too long, but the AT is a unique experience. I was looking forward to seeing everyone back home, though, and spending a couple idle weeks out of the cold and rain. Not to mention eating massive amounts of holiday food.

     Pennsylvania
    I hiked the nine miles down Springer to Amicalola Falls State Park. My cousin, aunt, and nephew drove the ten hours from Indiana to meet me there. Before getting into their clean vehicle, I asked a park ranger to direct me to a camp shower where I could wash away my hobo aroma. My sister sent along some of my old clothes for me to change into. After lathering, rinsing, and repeating, I slipped on my old jeans without needing to unbutton them first. I walked out of the showers and showed my nephew how baggy they had become.

    Virginia
    “Hey, check this out,” I said as I pulled my loose-fitting waistband away from my waist with my thumb. “I could fit Jared from Subway in these pants with me! Or, you know, something less weird of equal or lesser size.” 

    Tennessee
    During the ride home and the following weeks, I found it difficult to talk about anything but the trail. I decided to take advantage of this time when everyone wants to hear trail stories, because I’m sure people will get tired of hearing them long before I’m tired of telling them. Whenever there was a break in conversation, I often jumped in with a sentence that contained the words, “when I was on the trail.” 

    New Hampshire
    After ten hours on the road, I was back to where I left six long months ago. It’s incredible how efficient cars are at moving you around. For a measly three bucks in gas and half of an hour, I can cross a day’s hiking distance, even with hundreds of pounds of extra gear. Gas prices could double and it would still be an extraordinary deal. That's just one of the many things I see differently now.

    Big Hump Mountain
    The first night back in my hometown, my brother-in-law and I went to his bar. He let me have all the free celebratory drinks I wanted. I sipped on whiskey and drank shots of whatever the bartender brought over. A guy with a full beard walked in and sat at the table next to me. My instinct was to ask, “You thru-hiking? North or southbound?" but sadly, those words would have had no meaning here. I tried starting a conversation with a couple people, but I seemed to have lost my ability to talk to non-hiking strangers, unless I’m talking about the trail. My mind is still consumed with the AT. What else is there to talk about? 

    The view from a hot tub
     in Rangeley, ME
    The hangover the following morning made me regret drinking over a half bottle of whiskey. It reminds me of the hangover I had “when I was on the trail...”

    It was five months ago, a woman in Rangeley, Maine invited us to stay in her beautiful lake house. We weren't the only people she's had over. She had photos on her walls of some others who have stayed in her home: Bill Clinton, Shaquille O'Neal, Jimmy Carter, and Al Gore, to name a few. She had a wonderful photo of Barack Obama playing peak-a-boo with her granddaughter. She has lead quite an amazing life. Bambi and I got to hear all about it while relaxing with her in her outdoor hot tub under a bright full moon. When I got too warm, I jumped into the clear cool lake.

    North Carolina
    Red made a huge dinner that night on her outdoor brick grill. She opened up six bottles of wine, two of which I drank myself. The next morning I woke up early and walked back out to the lake. I couldn't see to the shore on the other side because the fog condensed my visibility to a few dozen feet around me. That also meant nobody could see me. I walked to the end of the pier. It was a little chilly, so I didn't plan on swimming. I didn't even put on shorts to swim in. I stripped down and dropped into the water. While I acclimated to the cold, two loons swam out of the fog toward me. They were so close that I could see their necks palpitate when they sang their infamous undulating song. I've never seen loons get that close to someone. 

    McAfee Knob
    The Last White Blaze
    All that wine the night before gave me a bad hangover like the one I got from the free whiskey I drank in my brother-in-law's bar. The point in telling you this story right now is so you can see how all my thoughts lead to a trail story. Everything reminds me of the trail, and I reflect sentimentally about all of it, even a splitting headache with nausea.

    The First White Blaze
    After leaving the bar, I slept on the floor of my sister’s house. There was a perfectly good couch a few feet away, but I couldn’t fall asleep until I grabbed my sleeping bag and moved to the floor. I guess I’ve gotten used to the ground. I woke up the next morning and took my third consecutive daily shower. I haven’t had a streak like that in months. I understand the need for it in civilized life, but it almost seemed excessive. By trail standards, I’m already satisfactorily clean if I can step into a shower and not see a trail of dirty water circling the drain at my feet. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very fond of cleanliness, but I kind of miss not caring about getting dirty. I smell like soap for god’s sake. Clean, fragrant, soap, like a common day-hiker! 

    If I didn’t already have plans to get back on a trail, I think I would feel completely lost right now. I got used to letting white blazes tell me where to go next. I miss having my course so clearly laid out before me, with no decision-making, stress, or anxiety about what I should be doing next.

    I also miss the simplicity of living outdoors with my possessions limited to what will fit in a twenty-five pound backpack. I would love to sleep in a lean-to tonight, fully enveloped by natural sounds and cerulean moonlight, even if it had mice scuttling around. Actually, especially if it had mice scuttling around for reasons I don't think I could explain. I want to go back to when each day meant new mountains to climb, new towns to explore, and new people to meet. I want to see all my trail friends again. I want to wake up every morning with purpose and that unquestionable confidence that I’m doing exactly what I should be doing. 

    The only thing that seems to diminish the post-hike blues is planning and thinking about my hike to Florida. I wonder if I should or could ever go back to life as it was.

    I know it has only been a few days, but I believe the trail has changed me forever, and for the better. It seems living so simply for so long has ruined me for the traditional modern life, but I'm fine with that. I see people getting stressed so easily, and needlessly. I've been reminded of that dread of having to get out of bed to start another day of unsatisfying labor, to buy things that I've learned I don't really need. I don’t want to go back to that life. I have to believe there is a better way. 

    Maine
    I know living how I have for the past six months is ultimately unsustainable, both financially and physically, but I have to keep it going for as long as I can. I have to because since getting back home, I've begun to feel like I'm losing the thing I love most about the Appalachian Trail.
    The feeling of knowing, beyond any doubt, that I’m living my life in a way that is worthy of life itself.

    - - -

    One last thing before I end this post. I've been thinking about a poem Footwork read to me one morning in the Smokies. Good or bad, depending on your interpretation, I feel that in some ways I'm becoming one of the men it describes. It is called, The Men Who Don't Fit In, by Robert W. Service:

    There's a race of men that don't fit in,
    A race that can't stay still;
    So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
    And they roam the world at will.
    They range the field and they rove the flood,
    And they climb the mountain's crest;
    Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
    And they don't know how to rest.
    If they just went straight they might go far;
    They are strong and brave and true;
    But they're always tired of the things that are,
    And they want the strange and new.
    They say: "Could I find my proper groove,
    What a deep mark I would make!"
    So they chop and change, and each fresh move
    Is only a fresh mistake.

    And each forgets, as he strips and runs
    With a brilliant, fitful pace,
    It's the steady, quiet, plodding ones
    Who win in the lifelong race.
    And each forgets that his youth has fled,
    Forgets that his prime is past,
    Till he stands one day, with a hope that's dead,
    In the glare of the truth at last.

    He has failed, he has failed; he has missed his chance; 
    He has just done things by half.
    Life's been a jolly good joke on him,
    And now is the time to laugh.
    Ha, ha!  He is one of the Legion Lost;
    He was never meant to win;
    He's a rolling stone, and it's bred in the bone; 
    He's a man who won't fit in.



    Creative Commons License
    A Backpacker's Life List by Ryan Grayson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.