First, let me set the stage. Stripped to its core, hiking the Appalachian Trail in the southern mountains consists of the following, more or less: First, rise at dawn and climb a steep, uphill mountain path, for, say, four hours. Next, clamber down the other side, two hours or so, and try not to make like a snowball. Repeat. The next day, start the cycle over. Rain or shine, wind or snow.
Only the pathologically upbeat would describe what you do in between all this recreational activity as sleep. Before dark, you put on your plastic underwear*, slip into your plastic sleeping bag and zip yourself into your plastic tent. Utterly, physically, mentally exhausted – you shut your eyes and try, optimistically, to take a nap.
Because a nap is all you’re going to get. Fighting the mountain doesn’t end at sunset. All night, every 20 minutes, you wake up, disoriented and with heart pounding to either A) rearrange yourself after you and your plastic sleeping bag have slid into a small ball at the downhill end of the tent or B) yell at the bears to get them out of your campsite.
And you’re truly off the grid. There’s not much of a safety net, at least where we hiked – 40 miles on the North Carolina-Tennessee border. Cell phones don’t work. If you have a serious heart attack, you might die. Simple as that. You might survive, depending exactly where you are, if you get lucky with a cell phone and if there are people around to hike to help. But that’s not a thing you can really depend on. And you could easily be dead before the good Samaritans get to civilization.
If you fall and break a leg (easy to imagine where the trail meanders inches from heart-stopping cliffs and ravines) you may or may not get out alive. You could freeze to death, take a snakebite, die from dehydration or starve after bears steal your food. The Appalachian Trail is a tutti-frutti variety pack of opportunities for demise.
Sound like fun? Trust me, it’s not. But I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
So the obvious question becomes – why? All the standard responses. The hiking is in some of the most spectacularly beautiful scenery that exists on the East Coast. The Appalachian Trail (or AT, as aficionados prefer) is a true enigma. It runs over 2,100 miles through 14 states, Georgia to Maine. Largely intact, in the form its forward-thinking planners and builders devised back in the mid 1920s, it’s mostly wilderness. Yet it rarely strays more than a few hours’ drive from the country’s most densely populated megalopolis.
And it’s bona fide, Katy-bar-the-door wilderness. At least it feels that way. What struck me – besides the natural beauty of largely undisturbed tracts of woods, rocks and mountaintops – was the quiet. There are few places so close to so many people where you can experience what the earth sounded like before we started building highways, electric refrigerators, cell phone towers and godforsaken leaf blowers. (Don’t get me started on that infernal engine of Satan.)
When you’re out there, there are times when all you can hear are bees working the meadow flowers, trees creaking, an occasional bird squawk. And that’s it. No backdrop of motors, sirens, fans, phones and all the rest of the cacophony of chaos that we have grown accustomed to, every day. The world is a deafeningly noisy place once you’ve heard the quieter bits of the AT.
But solitude isn’t enough reason to risk your life and forego indoor plumbing and a warm bed. You can experience that kind of solitude on a half-day hike, humping nothing more than a bottle of water and a Snickers bar in your Sponge Bob rucksack.
But that’s not enough reason. As you’re making that 4,600-foot trek to the top of Max Patch, one of the things you see is the bloody parking lot. You can drive nearly to the top of Max Patch, for God’s sake.
The hiking is, at best, arduous and at worse, unimaginably terrifying. If you’re not in shape when you get there, you’re going to have a miserable time, especially if you’re only doing a few days – not enough to get into condition as you go. The trail is occasionally smooth and level, but more often gnarled with roots, rocks and poison ivy. Blisters become your constant companions. And an extra bonus comes in autumn, when we did our four days – acorns. By the thousand, each a ball bearing underfoot, ready to acquaint you up-close-and-personal with the Newton’s laws of acceleration in the style of Wile E. Coyote.
And that’s where I landed (no pun) when I finally came up with a decent answer for why? You do it, because it’s hard. It’s what psychologists describe as flow: true happiness that results from a challenge towards a goal, requiring intense concentration to the complete exclusion of all else.
For me, the concept describes the AT experience nearly perfectly. You’re in the zone, so to speak. You have to make your next destination, be it a shelter, gap, mountaintop or checkpoint. Nothing else seems to matter. Time is distorted. You focus exclusively on putting one foot in front of the other – and not just anywhere, but in the exact right spot that hopefully won’t send you hurtling down the ravine. The activity becomes its own reward.
And it’s you against the mountain. You either come out in one piece to hike another day, or you don’t. There’s something comforting about that kind if binary finality. It’s a black and white world we rarely get to glimpse in the daily negotiation of life – governed by so many shades of gray.
I think that’s what makes the AT special. And possibly a popular motivation for the thousands who try it each year – some going full-Monty in an attempt to hike all 2,100 miles in one go. (My hat is off to them.)
In a hyperkinetic, hyperconnected, 24/7 world, the AT is a place where you can simply be. And at least in our little corner of the world, precious few places can stake that claim.
*Everything you wear on the A.T. is synthetic. It's a safety issue. Cotton takes forever to dry, in the event you hike through a downpour. And wet means cold.