I volunteer teaching Basic Math at Literacy Volunteers in Rochester, NY. Today, just before class started, I mentioned my upcoming hike to a couple of students. Their reactions were not unusual, I think:
Marvis: “Why are you doing that? Why do you want to walk all that way? What’s it gonna achieve?”
Dave: “You’re gonna take time to enjoy the scenery, right? Enjoy Mother Nature and all that?”
I didn’t really know how to answer. Of course in the grand scheme of things, nothing earth-shattering is going to be achieved. Most of the world won’t know whether Melissa and I finish the trek or not. Will we enjoy the scenery? I hope so. But that’s not my motivation. I’m not sure what it really is that makes me want to tackle this thing. I hope to find out as I plod along.
David Miller, aka “Awol” (in Awol on the Appalachian Trail, WingSpan Press, 2006), on what motivates thru-hikers, writes “Most thru-hikers, when asked, will offer up a single motivation. In part, it is the reason currently dominating his thoughts, in part it is the type of answer that is expected, and in part it is the type of answer that is easiest to give. It is not that simple. The reasons for a thru-hike are less tangible than many other big decisions in life. And the reasons evolve. Toward the end, possibly the most sustaining rationale to finish a thru-hike is the fact that you have started one.”
Taking on such a challenge, for me, is not like thinking about a casual stroll in the park. I’ve been realizing that the idea of a 2179 mile hike is a bit scary. There are things that could do me in, like intestinal parasites from contaminated water (such as Giardia), an attack by a bear, or breaking an ankle. Maybe I just won’t be able to handle being away from my wife and my home for so long.
Some of these fears are things I can prepare for (I’ll micro-filter all the water I need to drink from streams and springs, for example). Some fears are just overblown from reality (bear attacks are rare, after all). There will be some bad turns that happen despite my best planning and caution (when you take a zillion steps, you’re bound to twist your ankle badly once). Some fears are fear of the unknown (after nearly 34 years of marriage, do we really know how well we’ll get along without each other for several months? Maybe we’ll each grow and blossom without each other in ways that our togetherness prevents. Then again, that’s a bit scary, too!).
Here’s a partial list of some of thoughts I’m sure will come to me at some point or another in the coming months:
- It’s been raining for days. I’m soaked. What was I thinking?
- So, you thought these dehydrated meals would be tasty enough? Aren’t you tired of chicken and mashed potatoes? We should have stopped in that last town for the night. We could be in a restaurant now.
- This pace is a killer. I’m aching, but I can’t slow down. We’ve got too many miles left to go today.
- These boots aren’t going to last and they’re giving me blisters. What was I thinking?
- When I ran marathons, I always lost one toenail per marathon. It wasn’t the 26.2 miles in a single day as much as the miles and miles of running to train for each race. At least after the race it was over and I could rest and begin to heal. Now, I’ve lost two toenails since the hike started, but I have months to go, hiking mile after mile, day after day. What will be left of me when I finish?
- It’s great to be in a town and eat a big meal in a restaurant. I want to stay here until tomorrow, but we’ve only done six miles so far today. We’ve got another nine miles ahead of us to get to the shelter we’ve planned to stay at. Do I have to go on?
- It’s raining again this morning and we have to pack up a wet tent. There’s no way to dry it, and every bit of wetness means more weight. This is miserable.
I found an article entitled “Overcome your Fears” by Claire Colvin (on the website powertochange.com). In it, she says, “Fear keeps us in the background. It convinces us we can never accomplish our dreams, tells us to keep quiet … Fear has an unparalleled ability to freeze us in our tracks, and limit what we are willing to try. Fear makes us lead a smaller life.”
I don’t want to be frozen in my tracks. I don’t want to lead a smaller life. I’ll take all the precautions that are reasonable, but among them will not be the ultimate precaution, staying home. Instead, I think about the goal and how it will be so joyous to proclaim, “We’ve reached the end of the trail! We’ve walked through 14 states! We’re at the top of Mount Katahdin in Maine!” You see, I want to have the opportunity to face the final scary question … “Now what?”