Monday, February 27, 2023

Ten Years Ago Today

Ten years ago today, my Aunt Paula dropped me off at a road crossing less than a mile from the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail in north Georgia. I had no idea what I was signing up for.

Well, that's not entirely true. I'd learned about the Appalachian Trail during the spring semester of my freshman year of college, and immediately I was hooked. Not even a bungled spring break trip to the Smokies - lost shoes, hypothermia, a stuck truck, and bearanoia - could dampen my enthusiasm. I re-framed mundane daily tasks in thru-hiking terms. When I studied for exams instead of procrastinating, I told myself that I was disciplining myself to endure the hardships of the AT. When I left the familiar Midwest for a summer internship in Utah, I spent my weekends climbing mountains.

It was therefore no momentary flight of fancy that led me to the top of Springer Mountain, Georgia on that drizzly last day of February 2013. It was a culmination of several years of hope and planning. Still, my actual backpacking experience was slim - a grand total of 3 trips, two of which ended in failure - and my enthusiasm greatly exceeded my capabilities. The trail was about to swiftly punish that exuberance.

March is ordinarily a rough month on the AT. The grizzled trail veteran I met at the first road crossing reminded me that it was "still winter". In a normal year, he'd have a point. In 2013 however, he was downright prophetic. I hiked through three major snowstorms in the first month. On one occasion I hiked with a posse of about 10 shivering hikers, taking turns breaking trail through waist-high snowdrifts near Erwin, TN. On another morning, the mercury read five below zero. I woke up and started hiking at 3am just to stay warm. The suffering was intense, the dropout rate was high, and morale was low. 

But somewhere in Virginia, something clicked. Weather and terrain still presented plenty of challenges, but I felt better equipped to deal with them. I was more comfortable in the environment and found my groove. My daily mileage increased, I made several great friends, and was generally relaxed and confident. The circumstances hadn't changed too drastically, but I had. 

When I therefore had to quit the trail in southern Maine that year to start a job that I'd agreed to months prior, I was heartbroken to be leaving this marvelous adventure but confident that I'd be back to fill in those missing miles. And over the next two years, I did finish the trail during a series of vacation-length hikes. 

Growing into It

I began the AT as a complete beginner. By the end of that first journey, I was comfortable and confident in the outdoors. But it would be a mistake to call me an expert. I'd learned what I needed to survive in one particular environment (namely, a well-trod trail with tin-roofed shelters and plenty of water sources), but my education was 100-level at best.

Over the following years, that all changed. I didn't do any long-distance hikes, but I made a concerted effort to hone my skills. I went through a brief ultralight-zealot phase, cutting my pack weight in half. I learned about snow travel, navigation, mapping off-trail routes, water management, and dozens of other topics that hadn't ever surfaced on the Appalachian Trail. I absorbed a steady drip-drip of knowledge and experience, and eventually I emerged from the chrysalis as a competent backpacker and outdoorsman.

N+1 Adventures

Right around the time I hit my stride in mid-Virginia on the AT, I had decided that long-distance hiking was my cup of tea. I wanted more. So after working and saving for several years, I left my job in 2018 to begin another thru-hike - the Continental Divide Trail. One thru-hike turned into three years spent almost entirely on trails.

But despite having spent a good long while scratching the adventure itch, something keeps gnawing at me - the Pacific Crest Trail. Although I've schemed and dreamed about the PCT for a decade now, it just hasn't happened yet. In 2018 and 2019, I prioritized other more demanding hikes. I drew a PCT permit for 2020, but then 2020 happened. This year, I've got a fresh permit and a golden opportunity. I've put it off long enough. It's time for the PCT.

Fear and Trembling

It turns out that the decision to do "harder" hikes in the 2018-2019 window was providential. Most hikers see the PCT as the easiest of the Triple Crown trails (AT, PCT, CDT). And it doesn't even hold a candle to grueling DIY routes like the Route In Between, Hayduke, or Greater Yellowstone Loop. Yet though the PCT has a cakewalk reputation, it's perhaps the most daunting challenge I've faced since that drizzly 28th of February, 2013. My foot's still on the mend, and a restoration to full pre-injury function seems like a pipe dream at this point. I'm preparing to walk 2,600 miles with a doubly-surgically-repaired foot that hurts every time I go out for a hike. Even before we factor in the burly 2023 snowpack, the PCT is a leap of faith.

I'm not going into this completely blind however. I did a pair of hundred-mile hikes in 2022, one of which shared about 50 miles of tread with the PCT. Those walks went fairly well. I'm as confident as I can reasonably be that a bionic foot can withstand the rigors of 5+ months on trail. But until I get out there and spend days postholing in the Sierra, there's no way to know for sure. It may be that the foot just needs to do shorter days, or needs more days off. Perhaps it just can't maintain the pace needed to stay ahead of  fires that are an annual occurrence in our current mega-drought climate. In short, a sober assessment of the circumstances would lead any reasonable observer to conclude that the odds are stacked against me.

Yet I go. The foot probably won't get any better as I get older (arthritis and entropy only operate in one direction). I'm single and relatively financially stable. If I don't take this opportunity now, I'll forever wonder whether long-distance hiking was still a possibility. I proceed in the knowledge that God saved me from a seriously pissed-off grizzly. He brought me back from a shattered heel bone to a point where I can at least walk again. Clearly he's got a plan, I've got an opportunity, and it's time to see the tricks he's got up his sleeve. I embark on this journey because it's something I'm created to do.

What's Old is New

But first, a return to roots. Tomorrow morning, I'll again stand atop Springer Mountain, GA, ten years and a day after that first journey began. My good pal Blue Moon and I are celebrating a decade of adventure with a week on the AT. Having learned absolutely nothing from our previous experiences here in early March, we're once again daring the weather to thrash us with rain, snow, sleet, and all manner of chilly unpleasantness. There will be joy in our shivering.

After that it's out to the desert for some relaxed hiking on the AZT. Two years of relative inactivity has taken a toll on my fitness, and I'm hoping to use the AZT as a pleasant warmup for the main event, the PCT. 

A Programming Note

As is typical on my Mexico-to-Canada forays, I'll probably update this blog a handful of times over the course of the trip. My on-trail posts tend to be pretty banal, disjointed, and stream-of-consciousness, so I apologize in advance. But my grandparents enjoy them, so everyone else will just have to deal. You can also view additional photos at my Instagram.

Finally, for those in a praying mood, I'd appreciate a little intercession. If I manage to pull this thing off, it'll be nothing short of a minor miracle - and not one of my own doing! Hope you'll follow along this year!

1 comment:

  1. You know where we are in Oregon -we can always drive to pick you up off trail for a few days, or bring re-supply items. Tell Blue Moon "Hi" for us!