the magazine of the columbia daily spectator
May 1 2013
Mmm, baby: The very best in food porn
April 27 2013
Alternatives to Butler
April 19 2013
Red Bull and relaxation
April 17 2013
Back to the kitchen: A short journey through sexist pop culture
April 12 2013
Bikinis and big booties, y’all
April 8 2013
Azealia Banks Did What?
April 5 2013
More stories from Columbia’s military veterans
April 3 2013
Sing, O Muse, of some sappy story
April 1 2013
Missed the Cliterary Open Mic? Check out the highlights here
March 29 2013
Sex & Low Beach
There’s a joke among thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail: While you’re on the trail, all you want is off, but once you’re off, all you think about is getting back on. For the uninitiated, a thru- hiker is an in individual who traverses the length of a trail continuously, walking for months at a time. On March 15 of this past spring, I flew to Georgia. The next day, I started walking North, Maine-bound.
It’s a migration that, each year, draws around a thousand hopeful souls who don’t know what they’re in for. By Damascus, Va., 500 miles later, more than half of them have quit. By Harpers Ferry, W.Va. with another 500 miles in the bank (including the maker and breaker of thru-hikes, Virginia), half of the remainder goes home. Those who remain do so out of a sick devotion that’s taken root in their souls. They’re not having fun— at least, not the kind glossy ads for The North Face promise. They’ve lost weight, they’re hunch-backed from carrying a pack all day, and they smell like freshly ripened garbage.
Disapproving mothers from trail towns across the American Mid-Atlantic give wide berth at the grocery store to the perennial surge of long-haired 20-somethings who show up each year on their six-month odysseys to “self discovery,” bushy- bearded and filthy as they are. Some locals enjoy the vitality of the idea at arm’s length. They walk in the forest with backpacks just because, and some give you a hitch into town, sipping a little of the vicarious Kool-Aid that the husbands seem to enjoy much more than the wives. Along the way, they ask about your camping gear or parents. Maybe a church group leaves a cooler of soda by the road. Most “trail-adjacents,” though, have their own lives to think about and don’t have time for hippies, calling them “hiker trash.”
By Pennsylvania, thru-hikers are haggard and lean. They joylessly devour jars of peanut butter just to stay at weight. Their brains subsist on a streamlined to-do list of block-cheese, sleep, and footfalls. The mind gets strangely quiet. The woods aren’t scary anymore. They move, by now, with a mechanical pace and preciseness of footfall, robotic almost, that’s weirdly mirrored by the deadened look in their eyes. This is just what they do; they walk. It’s what they did yesterday, it’s what they did today, and it’s what they’ll do tomorrow.
“Hiking the Trail” might conjure up images of wild outdoor adventuresomeness to the uninitiated; fierce thunderstorms braved on big mountains and bears at every turn, but in fact it’s just a matter of routines. The making camp routine; the breaking camp routine; the forcing-down 8000-calories of cheese and peanut butter a day just to stay at weight routine; the generic conversations with day-hikers heading the other way who always ask the same questions to which you always give the same answers routine; and most of all, the miles routine; the four-step of alternating foot-and pole-plants that takes you, yard by yard, from one end of the country to the other.
Eventually, the daily mileage grind can feel as pedestrian as a day’s work at the office; it’s put off in the morning with the same near-sighted lackadaisy and cunctation (swimming spots always make for prime procrastination, an escape from the mid- summer heat), and then it’s crunched, eventually, as the daylight starts to fail, with the same resigned sigh, and an almost lazy casual confidence borne of having done this a thousand times.
Walking 20 miles becomes a daily habit. It’s just what they do, and the woods are just where they do it. I got strangely good at putting my feet just where and how I wanted them, like a veteran dancer. With a thousand miles done, and a thousand more to go, the “green tunnel” feels no more alien than a hometown street.
So the routine can get wearing, and sometimes it’s hard to even keep from hating it. When it’s too cold, or too hot, or when it won’t stop raining, and when the view is the same as the last hundred ones, the chance good fortunes of hot food, trail magic (charity in the form of food and showers provided by trail locals), and flat miles are what see you through.
Forty miles out of Hanover and three days soaked in rain, I sat in the dirt on an unnamed roadside, crying, thinking how easy it would be to just go home, until a man in a jeep let me shower in his guest room and watch movies in his basement for an afternoon, out of the rain, while his wife did my laundry and cooked me pasta. The trail is a magnet like that. It pulls hikers, and with them a social insulation of associated culture and lifestyle, around itself and forms a bubble.
Most of the other people you talk to are thru-hikers. You spend all your social time with people who share the same single-minded purpose as you. The trail is everything to everyone around you, and, thus, is everything to you. It’s where you eat, it’s where you sleep, it’s where you live, and it’s where you think about anything, anything all day to pass the time and miles. Then suddenly you’re standing on Katahdin’s (the tallest mountain in Maine) Southern flank, staring at a sign that says you’re done walking 2,180 miles. So you go home, and get ready to go back to school, in the torturously complicated-by-comparison real world, longing for the simplicity of the one you’ve come to know.
This must be what inmates feel like when released from prison. Maybe that’s dramatic. But really, it’s not easy, I can tell you. The calluses on the ends of my toes are peeling off, and I feel the piano-string taught tendons in my knees and ankles getting weak again. My posture is growing reaccustomed to not wearing a pack all day, and my calves are shrinking back to normal. A thin layer of fat has begun to reemerge on the surface of my stomach. I feel the shell of a thru-hiker body, so honed to its craft, melting off again for want of exercise. It’s not all bad, though—showers still feel glorious.
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