Tuesday, September 14, 2010
Appalachian Trail On My Mind
I have a dream. I'm standing with my husband on the apex of Mount Katahdin in Maine: Baxter Peak, elevation 5,258 feet. It's taken 9 hours of brutal hiking to get here and the view is awe-inspiring. I look out over an incredible panorama of mountains and valleys, breathe in the crisp, thinning air...I can't believe I made it. It's not just that I made it to Baxter Peak that's amazing. It's not even that I did it in my late 40s. What hiking to the highest point on the highest mountain in Maine means to me is the end of a 5 month, 2,150+ mile hike that started at the top of Springer Mountain (elevation 3,782 ft) in Georgia and ended here.
The Appalachian Trail.
I've walked somewhere around 5 million footsteps, taking me to elevations as high as 6,625 ft (Clingmans Dome in Tennessee), to a low of 124 ft (near Bear Mountain in New York). My emotions and physical stamina have seen as many ups and downs as the trail itself, but I have spent time with Russ, God, and nature in the experience of a lifetime that, it feels in my dream, has left me forever changed.
It started with a movie called Southbounders, in which a young woman takes some time off before heading to medical school to hike the AT from Maine to Georgia, by herself. It's an Indie film, contemplative and beautiful. A lot of the draw of the movie is what is not said, the sheer magnitude of the quiet, the unmatchable ever-changing landscape, the abrupt contrast when hikers leave the trail to head into a nearby town for supplies, good food, a shower, and a night in a motel. As a person wanting to commune with God in nature, I couldn't help but feel that I would certainly run into Him out there. For me, the idea of 5 months of literally living in the green cathedral, with only periodic necessary interruptions back into civilization, coupled with the opportunity to spend that much time with my husband without the distractions of modern life, is intensely appealing.
After watching Southbounders, I started reading A Walk In The Woods, by Bill Bryson. He set off to hike the AT almost on a whim, although he did take the time to properly plan and outfit for his trip. Irreverent and funny, Bryson does not sugar-coat the AT experience: "Nearly everyone I talked to had some gruesome story involving a guileless acquaintance who had gone off hiking the trail with new boots and come stumbling back two days later with a bobcat attached to his head or dripping blood from an armless sleeve and whispering in a hoarse voice, "Bear!" before lapsing into unconsciousness." Bryson and his friend logged a little over 1/3 of the total miles, doing a section here and there, before deciding in the middle of Maine's "100 mile wilderness," that they were done. Interestingly, despite Bryson's record of every difficulty they had, and tale of every tragedy that could happen and has happened along the AT, A Walk In The Woods stoked the fires of my growing interest in actually hiking it.
There are many eccentric and amusing hikers portrayed in the movie Southbounders, and talked about in A Walk In The Woods. I have since confirmed that even the most bizarre stories about "weird" hikers are likely true, through a book written by Winton Porter, purveyor at Mountain Crossings store and hostel on the AT in Georgia. His book, Just Passin' Thru, is a delightful true story of: A Vintage Store, The Appalachian Trail, and A Cast of Colorful Characters. Even if you would never even consider hiking the AT, I recommend you read this book. It will either make you change your mind and plan the trip, or reinforce what you already thought - people who do that must be crazy. In either case, it's laugh-out-loud entertainment!
A thru-hiker is a person who completes (or is in the process of completing) the entire Appalachian Trail in one year. Eleven people have completed a thru-hike over the age of 70. The record-holder is a man named Lee Barry - trail name Easy One - who, in 2004 reached Katahdin at the age of 81. A woman in her early sixties - trail name Lorac - hiked the AT with terminal ovarian cancer, a pharmacy stuffed in her backpack. Will I actually hike the whole AT, and join the esteemed "2,000-milers club?" Maybe... I don't really know what God has planned for me. If I ever get to give it a try, and then make it all the way to Katahdin, it will be because God has chosen to heal me of all my physical ails. Or, like Easy One, Lorac and numerous others, I have been granted the gift of being able to press on through and despite them.
I'm holding on to this dream for now... because it makes me smile at the thought of a different me - a person that is, by God's grace, beyond being limited by a battered and uncooperative body.