Monday, March 30, 2009

TRAIL + 1

A few months back, I met with Matthewski, a veteran AT hiker I spent time with in Virginia. He warned me that the year anniversary would be a heady one. Well, here it is. Hard to believe it was a whole year ago since I walked onto the Approach Trail, headed up Springer Mountain. Even harder to believe that it took the better part of this past year to then walk to Mount Katahdin. I finally visited the AT a month or so ago, when Elizabeth and I met up with Zen at a cabin in Maryland that the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club rents out. We climbed up the ridge behind the cabin on a blue blaze trail, with me following behind Zen, staring at his pack and boots as I had done for so many months. At the top we saw the first white blaze any of us had seen since last October. Lots of emotions, but I think the dominant one was happiness that the AT is still there. That's the most amazing thing about it really: that it actually does exist, this little footpath that runs through our collective backyard, available for anyone who needs an escape. A month ago I received an email from a friend of a friend of Elizabeth's, who was planning his own thru-hike starting in March. Very glad to know the cycle continues. Lots has passed since leaving the trail. I rebuilt my kitchen (almost done!) and planted a small garden out back. Elizabeth and I have been preparing for our wedding in May. I returned to work in November, but was laid off two weeks ago, and am now trying my hand at freelance work. But I still think about last year's adventure at least once a day. In celebration of today's anniversary, I'm taking the train to Harrisburg. I will cab to the spot I skipped last July, when I came home to Philly early and surprised Elizabeth for Independence Day. It will be nice to see my other home once again.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

TRAIL SUMMARY VIDEO

I took over 5000 photos while on the trail - thats over 2 pics per mile. Took me over three and a half months to go through them, sort them into folders, and then pick my 80 favorites for this 5-minute video. But it shows some of the majesty out there. Hope you enjoy... video

Thursday, January 08, 2009

THREE MONTHS

Hi all. Three months since summitting, a pretty odd feeling to go from counting the time past summit in days, then weeks, and now months. Talked to a buddy, Matthewski, a few weeks ago who warned, "wait until its been as long as the time you spent on the Trail." That will be weird, but perhaps not as scary as the anniversary of my start date on March 30. Also got to see Snack, who with her friend Snap, are a great pair of great trail buddies. Orion and I only spent a week with them, in central VA, but it was memorable, and seeing her again last week was fun.

I am also finally turning in my 2000-Miler Application, the form the ATC uses to record thru-hikes. I will be official! The form asks the usual questions of dates, ages, etc., but also asks for a trail summary. Some hikers were able to complete theirs soon after summitting, but I could not, preferring to let the experience sit around for a while. But its done now, and I thought you might appreciate what I wrote:

MY TRAIL SUMMARY

For six and a half months I hiked the Appalachian Trail, from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Katahdin in Maine. The details of my experience are now fading, but what I am left with is how fully human the Trail allowed me to be.

The scale of the Trail and the time needed to thru-hike it perfectly interrupts the normal egotism of civilized life. I climbed the bare bones of ancient continents that humans never walked on. I felt tiny and timeless under the same moon and stars as our ancestors once stared at. I lived every day surrounded by the uninterested cycle of life, watching sprouts inch out of the humus, grow full and green, and slowly drain away in the cold leaving a final show of color. I woke to songbirds, walked with woodpeckers, slept with owls at night. I huddled through storms and slacked through heat and bent into winds and shivered in cold. Almost daily, I was reminded of my powerlessness and unimportance.

Through walking, I was given a perspective that is uniquely pedestrian, and therefore human. I know what a mile, a yard, a foot is. I know how they relate to my body. And consider my body – after the first month or two, I realized the Trail started doing more than exercising my body. It was bringing out the ancient homo sapiens frame buried deep within, the body given to us through two million years of walking and surviving and mating, the body that exists for most people as a memory buried under softened muscles and accumulated fat, a mere prop for hands and eyes. I used it as it was meant to be used, upright in motion, horizontal when resting, with the ability and need to consume all the fats and protein I could get my hands on.

I experienced a social humanity I was once certain did not exist. We moved from individuals and couples to become small tribes, as our ancestors once lived, banding together as support groups, unified by our common purpose. Get through the tough physicalities of the South, mental trial of Virginia, distractions of the mid-Atlantic, and cold emptiness of Maine. And I’ll never forget that magical milk of humanity: the so many friends, family, and strangers who ported us, fed us, housed us, and cheered us on. The innocence that surrounds such unrequited kindness is beautiful.

For six and a half months I enjoyed freedom of thought; what could be more human? Most uninitiated people are afraid of that idea, equating it with intimidating boredom. But without media distractions, without jobs that impose on your thoughts, without the material goals of life to concentrate on, minds will widen. We spent every day as gods, sitting atop mountains, observing society thousands of feet below us.

With a campfire to rest our eyes on, our minds and ears were free to converse, and not simply talk at each other. We shared stories, that most ancient and human way of conveying information. What’s more, people had the patience to participate as listeners. Our conversations grew wider and more intimate as the Trail wound on. Fears, joys, deaths, loves, nothing was too sacred. I grew as close to fellow hikers, people I might have known for two days, as I have with anyone, ever.

There is no meaning in hiking the Trail, despite all the searching for one that some people, myself included, do. It simply exists, and amazingly so. It is a conveyance, a catalyst, a tool for any of us to explore our own humanity, our instincts, our raw abilities. It’s a human construct, intertwined through nature, in whose service we may connect intimately to something as large as life itself.

SUMMIT

Lookie what I has - summit photos!
The last stretch to the top
Celebration!
Not quite lonely at the top

SUMMIT PHOTOS !!

67 Thru-Hikers!
My NH Buds: Me, Zen, The Thinker
The Rap Pose
Ouchie
The Naturalist

SUMMIT PHOTOS !!!

My 100MileWild Crew (cw from top left): ZeroZero, me, NoAmp, Zen, Spidey, CookieMonster
The Flamboyant
The Standard - a fave
Say goodbye No longer a thru-hiker

Friday, December 12, 2008

2 MONTHS OUT

WAY TOO LONG BETWEEN POSTS. My apologees, but been busy with the holidays and work, etc. Excuses, excuses. At any rate, its been 2 months since summitting Katahdin, and its interesting to note what aspects of the trip linger on. I have finally lost the "old man" walk when getting up after a long time seated or laying - though my knees and ankles did feel stiff well into late November. My weight has increased only slightly, but I can feel the muscles I had so wonderfully gained starting to atrophy into fat. Yum. The holidays are here indeed. The biggest physical remnant of the trail are the calluses on the sides of my toes and balls of my feet. Still large and knarly as of mid-December. Mentally, its been tougher. I expected to have a time rejoining this world, but I had no idea it would be this tough. I've forgotten so much, especially things at work - my account number for the carshare, how to use such-and-such a program, where these files exist on the network, how to fill out the TPS reports. Its very telling the things trail life completely eradicated or suppressed. I also find that I'm very easily stressed out - had to use a new program under deadline yesterday at work and could feel my heart pounding and breath shortening under the stress. Eight months ago, this was not a problem at all. My theory is that six months in the woods so completely destresses a person, that afterwards, anything slightly stressful becomes a major obstacle. Destressed life is amazing really. Simple pleasentries like good conversation and time with family are real joys. Fun things like cooking can be truly amazing. Of course there are some things in life like bills and grocery shopping that are torturous but simply unavoidable. But there are whole categories of things in life that seem so unnecessary, so painfully wastes of time. These I simply PREFER NOT TO DO. Not sure I've ever understood Bartleby the Scrivener as well as I do now.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

BACK TO WORK

Well, the savings account is finally running out and so it is finally time to head back to work. I started at my former job last week, but am only doing 3-4 days a week there, since our billable workload is not all that great right now. (While I was in the woods all summer, it seems the world economy has collapsed...) Part-time is really fine with me - gives me a little more time to finish the kitchen project and can better concentrate on my teaching gig at Penn too. Plus, I’ve become convinced (it wasn’t hard) that we Americans work way too much. Compared to the rest of the developed world, we get the least amount of vacation time and work the longest hours. As a result, we suffer the worst amounts of stress and sickness. I’m not against hard work – I’m all for it actually – but I want to have a life between bouts of intense work. My real complaint is that work takes up way too much time. Not just the 8-10 hours at the job every day, but the hour or two getting ready, and the hour or two afterwards it takes to unwind. And lets be realistic – its hardly necessary. Those of us in office jobs are lucky to get 4 or 5 productive hours each day, with the rest of the time spent distracted by the internet, phone and email interruptions, snack breaks, and conversations amongst the cubes. We even decorate our cubes as a result, trying to bring our lives into the space where we spend most of it. All this time spent at work hasn’t really earned us much either. Thirty years ago, when working-aged women often stayed home, a single salary could buy a house, one or two cars, three or four kids, and a vacation. You are fortunate if you can do that with both parents working today. And technology doesn’t help – despite all that has been invented to make our jobs more productive, the “curse of work” remains unrelieved, despite the promises of its inventers. If anything, new technology just promotes work-creep, as people are spend nights and weekends emailing and laptoping work. A friend of mine once worked for a huge accounting firm that favored this kind of over-work, promoting only those employees who fully gave their lives over to the company. How sad. The worst is that this overwork then ruins your “free” time too. You get home each night, you’re exhausted, and you zombie out in front of the TV. The weekend (all two days and one night) is spent mostly on ignored chores, and if there is time, squeezing in the sleeping, family time, exercise, cooking, dating, sunbathing, learning, drinking, sex, hiking, reading, volunteering, hobbies, worshiping, thinking, doing nothing, and everything else that makes life wonderful. Family time is minimal, and time with extended family is squeezed into the whirlwind holiday tours which are often more stressful than pleasurable. Once or twice a year (when you can fit it in to your work schedule), you squeeze in a vacation, and often these are spent doing some hyper-active travel, sightseeing, and sped-up relaxation. What goes missing is Play. Play is the anti-Work. Play isn’t video games or movies or sitting on your butt. Play can be hard work, but play is never Work. I consider myself an expert on Play, having spent the better part of 7 months at Play this year. I will write more about Play next.

THE IMPORTANCE OF NARRATIVES

Story-telling is a lost art. Out on the Trail, with no distractions around and only a campfire to stare at (we called it “Hippy TV”), hikers depended on stories and good conversation for entertainment. The best thing about story-telling is that it really requires two people – the person telling the story is important of course – but the listener is just as important. It’s in the listener’s head, fueled by imagination, that any story comes alive. The storyteller can supply just the thinnest of details, but within the listener’s head, the faces of characters and look of the settings become realized. It’s too bad that in regular life, people are too often content to simply be talked at for entertainment. Television especially ruins the story experience – you sit down on the couch and are talked to and shown all the action and there is rarely any participation required from the viewer. Just sit and absorb the simplistic tales, clich├ęd characters, and of course 30% advertising. How often will you sit and watch two hours of TV and then not remember anything of what you just watched? In trail life, even mundane tales and bad story-telling become memorable. This is important too – because stories are how we learn about the world, pass on our traditions, and explore ourselves. Everyone can remember the short tales of our youth and the lessons that were either obvious. (I once spent a whole evening with other hikers recalling Aesop’s Fables and their little summary lessons for fun.) But it works for adults too. Since humans started using language millions of years ago, we told stories to each other: about the animals we followed for food, the constellations that mark the seasons, the examples of famous heroes and heroines, and even stories about the world’s creation. Stories are still meaningful today, despite (and perhaps due to) the distractions of modern life. One of the reasons Obama was such a compelling candidate and McCain was not, was because Obama consistently portrayed his would-be presidency as continuing the story of America. That story – our founding break from tyrrany and our ever-upward motion towards equality and freedom and opportunity, a country that always has the power to reinvent itself in the name of progress – is a very compelling narrative. It is baked into every American’s sense of self, and that view of our history has always had appeal across the globe. As a result, Obama’s election was very emotional for so many people. It was an amazing experience to ride across North Philly after watching the returns at a friend’s house and see hundreds of people pouring into the streets to celebrate. The next day, it was like another Phillies victory - the whole city felt proud to be re-born Americans. (As my friend Frank pointed out, I got back in time for Red October and Blue November – too bad for us Iggles fans it’s not looking like a Green December.) Pretty electrifying, but since narratives are so memorable, it sets up some pretty high expectations for the new President.

Monday, November 03, 2008

A TIME FOR CHANGE

One of the joys of the Appalachian Trail was spending six months living on mountain tops. Being that high up, for that length of time, allows hikers to escape the flatland and exist in a raised dimension. We enjoyed a perspective usually reserved for gods, and were able to experience and process and think about the world in a scale beyond what daily life affords. Getting into that philosophical mindset wasn't immediate - we had to learn to think about space and time from such a scale. It took several months to get the daily routine and physical requirements of hiking to a comfortable background state, and several more to fully cleanse the mind of long-held belief systems, influences of mass media, taught educations, and the daily distractions of normal life. I was lucky enough to share that vantage point with several other hikers who were open to thinking about our world and interested in its future. As we went along, it became clear to us that the problems now facing humanity are of a level never experienced before. I don't intend to spend time here lecturing about how we are disrupting the earth's natural systems to an extent that endangers life itself, or losing the resources that future humans will depend upon, or how so many of us are living lives without meaning while polluting our bodies and minds out of distraction or desperation. There's plenty of other places to learn about the bad news. Most of the time, we hikers didn't like to dwell on the bad things either. It should suffice to say that life as we live it, especially here in America, is simply unsustainable. The time for change is coming, but whether it will be a catastrophic change brought upon us, or a renaissance of thought and action that we create ourselves is our choice. What we hikers discovered this summer is the possibility for this renaissance. Americans have often led the way when it comes to revolutionary thinking - the AT itself is but one example of our capacity. It was fantastic to meet so many others this summer, who are already involved in this renaissance - people from every walk of life looking at improving life for others, for themselves, for the future. People who long for real community, for simplicity in living, for places and activities that support good lives, for a holistic approach to problem-solving and solutions that don't create more problems than they solve. It's a very encouraging sign that so many people like this exist, and were taking a summer to spend time thinking and discovering. Obviously, this post is timed with tomorrow's election in mind - it is one of the few times we Americans can directly influence events at a large scale. I'm not going to plug any of the candidates, but instead urge my readers to go into the booth tomorrow with wide minds, thinking about the world from the vantage of mountaintops, concerned with the global scale instead of the personal, looking for candidates who will put our future ahead of any selfish present, choosing leaders who will help us move towards a more sustainable world.