I like reading the stories of amatuers trying achieve their dreams. Bill Bryson, a writer from New England, decided one day that he wanted hike the 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail. After a day hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire Bryson thought “Why not?” This was the beginning of what would become his best-selling book “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.”
When Bryson made the decision at the age of 45 to hike the Appalachian Trail, he was not in shape nor did he have hiking experience outside of the typical day-hiker. Bryson begins his book cataloging the process of mentally processing his hike, gathering his gear, planning his trip and doing research on how many people have died making the trip.
His book is not a technical manual about how to survive in the woods; rather it chronicles Bryson’s own incompetence and doubts about his trips. Technical manuals often have an air of certainty that scares away anyone experimenting with something hard. Yet after Bryson starts the trail, it is clear that he has a lot to learn. Yet figures out how to sleep, walk and eat in the woods without needing someone to come rescue him. Bryson is an excellent writer. He’s informative and he can characterize people he’s met so well (if you get his book, check out how much he makes fun of a woman named Mary Ellen he meets). Since Bryson makes fun of himself so much, it gives him license to make fun the people he meets, which makes his writing hilarious.
Mixed in with Bryson’s humor, he makes observations about the moments of awe and joy that I’ve never thought to articulate about being in the woods: forgotten from my hiking days:
“I was beginning to appreciate that the central feature of life on the Appalachian Trail is deprivation, that the whole point of the experience is to remove yourself so thoroughly from the conveniences of everyday life that the most ordinary things—processed cheese, a can of pop gorgeously beaded with condensation—fill you with wonder and gratitude.”
Bryson never actually completed the entire Appalachian Trail. He hiked 900 miles of the 2,200 miles of the trail. Some people dismiss Bryson’s book because he did not finish the entire trail or because they are a hiking elitist, etc, as if Bryson’s perspective was an inaccurate perspective of the trail because he only did half the trail. Yet that's partially the reason I find the book so helpful; his story is attractive because he’s not a perfectly prepared professional hiker.
Re-reading "Walk in the Woods" this past January made me think to myself “If Bill Bryson can hike half the Appalachian Trail in his mid-forties, I can do a weekend backpack again in my mid-30’s. If he can do 12 miles a day for 3 months, I can do 10 miles a day for 2 days.” I am at a point in my life where I need to take a 2-3 day hike in the woods once every 3 months even though I am a busy 35 year old adult. The problem with this is that it requires time-consuming planning and also time set aside to actually go hiking in the woods for 2-3 hikes. The reason I re-read Bryson's book is because my cousin Rebecca decided to hike the Appalachian Trail in 2019. She's a successful videographer who has made documentaries for the last 4-5 years. However, finding herself in between projects, she decided she needed time off to recharge(she's on the trail now).
Realistic "Bucket-List Conversations"
In February I joined my friend Travis for dinner on a Monday night. This past semester I didn’t normally eat dinner with friends on weeknights, especially Mondays. For the Spring 2019 semester I had three intense classes on Tuesdays, specifically one literature class that I had to create lectures for since I’d never taught it before. But this time, I’d budgeted enough time to spend 3 hours eating dinner with Travis, his wife and some friends.
Our conversation at dinner started to take a turn about which is better Instagram or Facebook. Naturally, I defended Facebook as being overall superior, yet Instagram is often thought of as better simply because it is a newer. Of the 6 of us at dinner, I was the only one who was firmly pro-Facebook. After we settled that issue, Travis said “So, Nate, me and some guys are going hiking on the weekend of March 24th. You interested in going?”
This is what I wanted to hear. After reading Bryson’s book I was waiting on someone to ask me this question. But I did some interrogation before I committed: “What kind of hike? And where are you thinking of going? Like local or in the mountains?”
“Dude, Nate, I gotta get to the mountains man. I am thinking like drive up there on a Thursday afternoon and getting up early on a Friday, hiking 8-10 miles and then camping Saturday night somewhere in the backwoods, then hiking out like 6 miles. Ya know, getting way out there.”
After reading Bryson’s book I was wanting to hike. But since I became a teacher in my late 20’s, I have a natural skepticism of dreaming and road-trip ideas. I now talk less about dreams, big ideas and possibilities whether they be career related, hobbies or bucket-list like ideas. In your twenties it is easy to have have bucket-list conversations that speak casually about going snowboarding in Switzerland, hitchhiking across the state of NC, writing a nonfiction memoir, or living in New York City. But the realities of what is possible became clear about the time I turned 26 or 27 and now those “bucket-list conversations” I hesitate to have. I only want to enter into those conversations if I am actually going to try to do it and/or if I think it is actually possible. In my late twenties I realized that I am a finite person living on earth a finite amount of time. This can be very disappointing to find out. I want to dream, but I want to dream about ideas that are realistic and things I am truly committed to. In my mid-thirties I listen, nod my head and say less when bucket-list conversations happen.
But in this situation, I’d just finished Bill Bryson’s book. His book sort of pushed me out of my typical mode of skepticism of road trip ideas. Furthermore, I could tell that Travis was committed to this idea. He wasn't just talking, he actually was going to do this. The knowledge I gained from Bryson’s book prepared me to answer correctly when Travis invited me to do something slightly unrealistic.
Did I want to get to the mountains? Very much so. Did I have the time? I wasn’t sure. Did I have the experience? Absolutely. Could I hike 10 miles with a 27 pound backpack on my back? Probably not.
So, I said “Yea man I’ll go. Just let me know the details and I’ll be ready.”
Hard Thinking Sessions Create Confidence
For a hiking trip (or any vacation) to actually happen there need to be hard facts and hard thinking sessions. Doing your research and forcing yourself to do hard thinking grows confidence rather than kills it. To me, a "hard thinking session" is where you take an hour and you just force yourself to problem-solve anything that is concerning about your trip.
Hard Thinking Session 1: Discussion at the Sports Bar----The guys on the trip were Bill, Travis and Dylan. We all met at a sports bar in Morehead City to discuss equipment and where we wanted to go hiking in the Appalachian Mountains. From the coast this would be at least a 5 hour drive depending on where we traveled to. Here we threw out different trails we'd thought about doing: Grayson Highlands, Grandfather Mountain and Pilot Mountain. We all tried to come to a consensus on what type of hike we were looking to do. After a discussion, we decided on Linville Gorge.
Hard Thinking Session 2: Which Trail in Linville Gorge? Even then, we needed to find a good trail in Linville Gorge. Over the next week we all emailed one another possible trails. I'd hiked in the Linville Gorge, but couldn't remember any details. So I got in contact with my good friend Phil Freeman who had told me stories about hiking in Linville Gorge with his 80 year old grandfather. I told Phil what kind of hike we were looking for and he suggested the following plan:
---Thursday: Drive 6 hours from the coast to Hawksbill Mountain Trailhead. Car-camp next to the trailhead at a nearby campsite.
---Friday: Wake up and hike the Hawksbill Mountain Trail to the top. This was a 3-mile hike and rated the #1 hike in Pisgah National Forrest. This is a 30 minute hike up to the top with a 360 degree view of the entire gorge. After we finished this hike we’d get in our car and drive down a fire-service road for one mile and get on Spence Ridge Trailhead. This would take us down a trail 3 miles down into the gorge where we would camp by the river.
---Saturday morning: The following morning we could chill down in Linville Gorge and then hike 3 miles back out. Then drive back to Morehead City on Saturday afternoon.
After running this plan by the guys, we decided this would be the plan for our trip. This hike would allow us to get somewhat deep into the woods without having to hike 8 miles to set up a camp where we'd be totally alone in the wild.
The good news about doing a "hard thinking session" is that it allows you to find the facts and information you need along with thinking through logistics. These sessions are not pleasurable. It is typically the opposite of eating Moose Tracks Ice Cream. I do not know why I expect the process of making a dream or adventure possible to be painless and effort-free. I always assume this, but I don't know why.
Yet the good news is, after the hard-thinking sessions are through, there is room for “winging it.”
The Mountains in of North Carolina are Good for Burnt Out Workers
The day came for our trip to Linville Gorge and we made the 6.5 hour drive into the mountains. Bill, Dylan, Travis and I rode in a black SUV up the service road, closing into the Hawksbill Trailhead. The sun was setting in Thursday night sky and I feared that after our long journey there would be nowhere to set up our tents at the campground. As we pulled up, I prayed to God that there would be an open camping spot. While there were 5 cars there at the trailhead at 7pm, there were two open camping spots there. Thank God.
It was 60 degrees outside and we all walked past the overhanging rhododendron leaves all around us attempting to set up our tents before the sun went down. I hurriedly put up my 2-man North Face tent, checked to see if I had set up my tent on any roots and then threw my backpack into the tent.
Travis, meanwhile, was nearby working hard to start a fire and suggested we find some firewood. I was eager to explore the woods a bit before the sun went down, so I walked off into the woods pretending I was looking for firewood, but in reality I was looking for small trails that lead to epic overlooks so I could see the sun-set. About 30 yards from my tent was a break in the trees and I slipped over to this overlook and sat down alone, looking out over the mountains.
I could see 180 degrees to my left and right. I saw 3 sets of brownish-green/gray mountain ranges before me set against a blue sky scattered with white clouds. The ranges of mountains were smooth and fully covered in trees that were mostly bare, but on the verge of budding for spring. I sat down on the rocks there at 7:30pm as the sun is setting. This short poem describes what I think, pray and see:
On the side of a mountain
Sitting on a craggy overlook
A reminder of how separated we are from society
Like Jesus intentionally escaping the crowds to be alone
To pray and communicate with the Father
In view of the vast expansive range there is a gigantic
silence that feels strange but demands my full attention.
And now I am calm
Many friends from my past who I have not seen in months
Come to mind, I long to be with them:
family, old friends, new friends, cousins,
I briefly feel heartbroken
Because I want this grand view in my life as a habit
I offer my heartbreak to God
And thank Him for this view and long for more.
By the time I got back to the camp-site, Travis had a fire blazing. And had his cast-iron skillet cooking some chicken over the fire. I bought two steaks (on sale) at the Morganton Food Lion for $4 on the way up. Travis threw my two steaks on the grill, and covered them in salt and pepper and garlic (out of some little camping spice kit) and cooked them medium-rare.
I sat on the ground eating my steaks with my hands out of a metal bowl I borrowed from Dylan, as I listened to Travis and Dylan tell stories about the drone they plan on using when we reach the top of Hawksbill. I taste the fullness of the meat and apparently cooking something on a cast-iron grill over a fire enhances the flavor. These were the best steaks I have eaten in 2019.
This was the beginning of a 2 and a half day trip. This mid-semester escape into the woods fueled me until the end of the Spring 2019 semester. Travis's invitation, Bryson's book, Bill and Dylan's adventurous attitude, my cousin's choice to hike the AT and the "hard-thinking sessions" all made this trip possible. Can a 50 hour work-week and a weekend hiking trip can co-exist? Yes, with the right people, the right research and intentional planning.