My boyfriend Roy has been thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail since March. He came off the trail September 3rd after hiking 1,439.4 miles of the 2192 miles of the trail. His right knee wasn’t cooperating anymore. It was becoming dangerous to descend the mountain. He was concerned he was doing permanent damage to his knee; perhaps irreparable damage. It was an anguishing decision that thru-hikers make every day. So the mental debate becomes: “If I continue, what damage am I causing to myself and those that love and support me? If I don’t continue, what damage am I causing myself and those that love and support me?” He made that decision and I support it completely.
This is what I have learned from my experience helping support a thru-hiker:
Let go of control
As much as I would like to think I can control the temperature, wind and weather that occurred over and around Roy, I had none. You may find this not surprising. I, on the other hand, found it very surprising. I honestly thought that if I prayed, wished and gnashed my teeth enough, that the wind speed on Mount Washington could drop to 30 mile an hour gusts instead of 65 mile an hour gusts. It didn’t. I wished and prayed for that thundercloud to avoid Mahoosuc Notch (the hardest mile on the entire trail) on the one day Roy was there to no avail. I had to let go of control. I could not control anything on the trail. Not Roy’s knees, not the rain, not the temperature, not the rocks, not a thing. The illusion of control is what was causing me the anguish. I have very little control in this world except for my own thoughts about control. Once I let go of the thought of control, things are much simpler.
Embrace the unknown
I met up with Roy about every three weeks while he was on the trail. In preparing for him to go on the trail, I was under the delusion that I would be able to know exactly where he would be four weeks in advance. This is crazy in retrospect. I don’t even know my precise location four weeks from today. I may assume I will be in my home but I’m not completely sure. Roy? He could average 5 miles a day or 7 miles a day or 10 miles a day or 15 miles a day. He averaged all those rates depending on the terrain and weather. As you can imagine, this means upwards of a 200-mile difference in locations. We could end up meeting in Virginia instead of Tennessee. Sometimes the hotel I had reserved weeks in advance was over an hour’s drive from where I met Roy on the trail. Sometimes I found him in the pouring rain and the GPS wasn’t working. Once the GPS wanted to take me up a gravel fire road instead of Skyline Drive which took me an hour out of my way. There were trail towns I thought I would definitely see this summer like Damascus Virginia and Harper’s Ferry which I didn’t. I ended up in places I never thought I would experience like Rangeley, Maine. These last six months have taught me to be more flexible and to accept the unknown.
Be here now
Every time that Roy was able to call, text, or meet up with me were golden moments. I have a new appreciation for technology and the fact that Roy could call me in the middle of the Wildcat mountains to tell me how he was. There was no rhyme or reason why he could or could not get in touch with me. He might be at the bottom of a valley, the top of a mountain, or trudging up the side of a boulder-strewn mountain. I learned to appreciate the moments we had were able to be in touch regardless of the time or place. If we were in a motel in New Hampshire or a hotel in Georgia, it didn’t matter the quality or location of the place, what mattered was that moment. We could be eating at Taco Bell or in a local a diner or driving 45 minutes to a grocery store for a resupply. Take each moment as it comes, regardless of where or when it is. Appreciate the moment, right now.
Hike your own hike
This hike was Roy’s hike. He had to do it his way. My “hike” is my hike. I have to do it my way. We’ve talked a lot recently about what hikes he would do, now that he is done with the AT. I’ve realized that I love to hike to the top of a mountain. I don’t care if I hike back down, or sleep in a tent. I just want to get to the top of a mountain. I’m nervous about carrying 30 pounds on my back, when all I really want is the sense of accomplishment and view from the top. I’m not saying I’ll never backpack again; I just know that what I really want is getting to the top of a mountain. In comparison, the Appalachian Trail skirts quite a few mountain tops. Many of them are a blue blaze (alternate trial) away. It might be .2 miles or 1.5 miles, but the AT does not go over every mountain top. I think about that in life. Am I headed to the top of the mountain? Am I looking for a view from the top? We are all just hiking our own hike. Perhaps I need to look for the blue blaze to get to where I want to go.
I am so proud of Roy and all that he accomplished this year. Many of the hikers he met were in their early twenties and practically running down the trail. Many were section hikers and only doing a day or two on the trail. He met folks from overseas, retired military, engineers, students, boy scouts, triple crowners, stoners, dropouts, and reborn Christians. They are all out there on the trail making their own way; hiking their own hike. I’m so glad I got to experience this journey with him and most grateful that he is safely home. I can’t wait for the next adventure.