Blisters, Beards and Ben & Jerry’s

This post is a slightly edited version of a speech I gave at an Appalachian Trail Conference event a few years back. I thought it was fitting to share it here.  When I was a little kid I loved being outside. I loved climbing trees and running around on any little path, in even the smallest sliver of woods, imagining that I was an explorer or some sort of backcountry spy charged with monitoring an unidentified adversary. I would build forts and think about what critical items I’d need for each adventure. I was thrilled by finding any small trail that wound through any swatch of trees on the edge of an office complex, or a hole in a fence that led to the unused and overgrown field next to the vacant warehouse beside the freight train tracks.

For the better part of my early childhood, I lived in southwest Philadelphia surrounded by concrete in a tight little row home. I was lucky though to have every outdoor experience that I did, each playing a critical role in all that followed. As much as I hated the thought of leaving my friends when my parents said that we were moving, I was secretly overjoyed. We were moving to a house with a yard. My own yard. With a tree. With a couple of trees. 

My love of the outdoors continued through my teens. I loved stories of exploration. Thoughts of climbing mountains, scaling walls, mountain biking on new unknown trails and wandering through wilderness filled nearly every daydream. When I was a sophomore in high school, spending yet another procrastination filled study hall in our school library, I stumbled on a book called Mountain Adventure, a National Geographic book about this long trail from Georgia to Maine. I immediately knew that this was something that I would do. Throughout high school and into college this was a goal that I knew I’d at least attempt to meet. 

Eventually the time arrived, I had finished undergrad in the fall and had just enough time to plan and prepare for a 2001 through hike of the Appalachian Trail. My early experience preparing for childhood adventures actually had practical application and I poured over guidebooks, online journals, potential gear choices and various other elements of preparation. I analyzed every piece of gear, eventually deciding that it would be best to just make my own. With and old sewing machine that had been around my house for as long as I could remember, I started making stuff sacs, then a backpack and eventually a sleeping bag that I ended up using the entire hike. When packed and ready to go, I managed to get the weight of my pack, without food and water, down to less than 15 pounds. There were a few items that I could have trimmed further, the 2 pound Chaco sandals, the one pound leather bound journal, the extra layer of primaloft filled clothing, but each of these were things that I soon learned I’d be glad to have. 

On March 31st, 2001, my birthday, I walked north out of the hotel at Amicalola Falls and onto the approach trail and began walking the 8 or so miles to the beginning of the Appalachian Trail. 4 months and 20 some days later I would begin another journey. A journey that for the first time in months had me travelling south. South, backtracking along trail I had just covered that morning. South, off of a summit that I had dreamed about since before this amazing trip began. South, to the awaiting car that would take me to Bangor, Maine by way of Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor and eventually, a bus ticket to Philadelphia where I would walk the short distance from the station to my home, put down my pack and be done.

What happened between the Springer mountain approach trail and the summit of Katahdin is such a critical component of my life. The experience of being on the trail had such a deep and profound impact on who I am that after even the deepest reflection it is hard to imagine what I would be like had I not thru-hiked. 

What would I say if asked to choose a singular thing, a particular element that is my Appalachian Trail story, my take away? What is the quintessential element of this long trail in these eastern woods? The one idea that I have taken away is so simple and so basic that it is often overlooked. Hiking, covering ground on foot, being fully in the forest, on the mountain tops and down in the valleys, is just plain fun.  

Every second we have the opportunity to have fun. Above all else, I learned that I am most alive when I embrace this idea wholeheartedly and with awareness. This moment, this path, this vista, this trail, this experience is fleeting. Enjoy it. Take a second, look at the rain as it falls, look at the mud that is oozing between your toes, look at the silhouette of the decaying tree, precariously stretched out over the starlit sky. Enjoy it. But most of all, have fun. 

The trail has a way of forcing you to embrace the fun. It requires that you take yourself a bit less seriously, that you move through the world with flexibility and at times a sense of humor. This is the trail’s less serious and seemingly less profound requirement of each person who plans to hike from Georgia to Maine. You cannot hike for any significant length of time on the AT, especially in the presence of other thru-hikers, without an excellent sense of humor and propensity for a youthful sense of play. A willingness to take each situation and extract, how ever miniscule, every drop, every ounce of fun. This is evident in many of the traditions that are a fundamental part of the trail community. 

My need for humor and ability to embrace the fun began even before my thru-hike started. Anytime anyone heard what I was planning to do, the response was practically scripted. I’m going to hike the Appalachian Trail, I’d say. You mean all at once, they’d say. I hope to, I’d say. At which point they would state one of the following questions. Number one: Have you read Bill Bryson’s, Walk in the Woods? Number two: Are you going to carry a gun? Number three, and perhaps the most alarming: Have you seen Deliverance? This last question made me overtly aware that the majority of individuals have a very skewed and frightening idea of what happens in the woods.

In addition to the pre-trip Q&A, there are the near daily occurrences of humor inducing events that make the AT more a simple celebration of having fun than anything else. 

In its simplest description, you are wandering through the woods, sleeping under the stars or in a tent, or better yet, in a wooden shelter built just for this purpose in the middle of nowhere. Shelters that, while sometimes similar, are all, every single one, a bit different. Stumbling up to a two-story shelter with a sleeping loft and covered porch in the middle of nowhere is just like finding and newly built tree house in the woods where you and you friends play capture the flag. So you walk, you explore. Each day is a new adventure, a new mountain, a new town, a new side trail to a spring or a shelter or a vista that stops you dead in your tracks. Catches you completely off guard and reminds you that this is so much fun.

Many of the AT’s longest held traditions promote and embrace this sense of childlike fun.

It is likely that first time many of us had ever encountered the concept of a nickname was when we were kids. These are terms of endearment, although occasionally derived from an unendearing part of our physique or personality. “You’re killing me, Smalls.” Getting a nickname though, good or bad, makes us a member of a community. It adds us to the group. Your nickname, or in the case of the AT, your trail name, is your bond to those around you. So whether your Trail Name is Mud or Tha Wookie, or two-o-four, this becomes who you are. I vividly remember walking into a hotel lobby and up to the registration desk with an individual that I’d hiked with for days, an individual that at that time I would have given all of the food from my pack. I remember being completely stumped and astonished. I quickly learned that “Mud” is not an acceptable answer for “Name” when listing the individuals that will be occupying a room on a hotel registration form. The tradition of the trail name certainly adds to the community of the Appalachian Trail. It creates strong bonds among, frankly, complete strangers and adds to the simple fun. 

My trail name came late, near Pearisburg, Virginia, some 600 plus miles into the trail. Named after a random hotel room in Marion, Virginia where I planned to take a couple days off the trail. I just needed a couple days to be stationary. Sticks and Patches, Homeless and Unemployed, Dig, all people that I’d been hiking with for the last weeks relentlessly joked that they were going to tell every hiker they met that I was throwing a huge party in the Holiday Inn in room 204. And when I returned to the trail a few days later, now three days behind my friends, I found notes in all of the registers at the shelters. Reminiscent of the 60’s sitcom, “Hey, 204, where are you?” they said. The name stuck and when I caught up with them a week or so later, they were pleased to have finally given me a trail name. Perhaps every year there is a Leprechuan, a Numbers, a PorkChop, a Hardtime, a Stump, a No Regrets. But I am pretty certain that there has never been and probably will never be another two-o-four. The name made it official. I was part of the 2001 thru-hiker class. My birth name was stripped away, discarded like unnecessary gear, and I fully assumed the tradition and used the name that had been given. Two-o-four. It was fun. Everyday is so much fun.

There are a number of trail traditions that are clearly rooted simply in having fun. There is Trail Days, the annual hiker gathering in Damascus, Virginia where hikers join the parade down Main Street and the locals lovingly douse the hikers with water, from water balloons, water guns, and garden hoses. The symbolic gesture of washing the dirty and exceptionally smelly thru hikers that invade their town annually is hard to overlook. 

The Appalachian Trail is a community steeped in tradition, rooted in simple fun.

It is a community where you are rewarded not for the things you have or what you do for a living or the neighborhood you live in or how you spend your free time, but for simple things. The humor in your trail name, the jokes you make around the occasional campfire or simple stoves at the end of the day. You are rewarded for the miles you travel. You are rewarded for the amount of ice cream you can eat, how quickly you can swallow an entire pizza and how long before you can eat another one. You are rewarded not for the things that you carry, but how you carry them.

And your reward? Sure, you get the mountains, and the views, and the little pristine streams. You get the cold windswept nights spent solo on Max Patch, hunkered down under your tarp dreaming about those you miss from home, but giddy with excitement about the purity, the shear divinity of your current situation. You get the blisters, the beard, and the countless pints of Ben and Jerry’s. You get the single ray of sunshine that splits the misty morning on a random stretch of trail in Pennsylvania and shines directly on the path ahead. That, for certain is a reward. 

But the real reward, the truest perk for the hard work and the seemingly unending miles travelled, is the friendship of the individuals that share the path. It is the laughs that you have over your relentlessly boring diners. It is the jokes that you make about the varying degree of stink that an individual can produce. It is the fun you have when you decide at noon after 10 plus morning miles to practically run the next 16 into town in pursuit of burgers, pizza and the coveted pint of Cherry Garcia. It is the fun that you have laughing hysterically when you and the entire group you are hiking with realize that you have totally disregarded all outdoor advice you have ever heard and decided to “sneak up” on a mother bear with cubs and then proceed to run away screaming and yelling when chased. Seriously, that happened. The reward is the sheer joy and the unadulterated fun of every single experience. 

It was just plain old fun. 

Now, as I stand at the cashier counter in the local convenience store mindlessly daydreaming about the course of my day, the girl at the register looks me dead in the eye and says, “204.”

I am overtaken with excitement. This person knows me, this person knows the best version of me. I don’t recognize her, but being off the trail changes one’s appearance, in some cases drastically. 

I stare directly into her eyes and smile, just as she says, “Sir, it’s 2 dollars and four cents.”

“Got it,” I say, digging into my pocket, glad that I was graced with this mini moment of the trail life. 

This is so much fun. Remember that every step, every second is just plain old fun. 

I am having so much fun.

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