Two weeks ago, my cousin Becca Jones and I hiked four days on the Appalachian Trail in Vermont. Becca planned our four days in the woods as hiking 9 miles, 9 miles, 8 miles and then 12.5 miles respectively for the four days. She was in charge of trail logistics in how long we would hike, where we would camp and the pace we were hiking at. Since I was joining her on her thru-hike of the AT, she slowed down her days from about 15 miles per day to around 9-10 miles per day so I could keep up with her.
Part of the reason I wanted to join Becca on the AT is to enter the headspace that happens when I get deep into the woods. I can pray more directly to God when I am alone in the woods. I feel free to unload some of my big questions and frustrations to God when I am deep in the woods. Along with that, when I am “way out” in the woods with friends, it leads to longer discussions about meaningful topics. And lately, I have been trying to find the time and space to think out a larger vision (or calling) for my life, which I wrote down on a piece of paper as "My purpose in life is to create community within the church, in the workplace, and among my friends/family. How do I do this?" I assumed the walking on the Appalachian Trail would be an ideal place for me to come to practical conclusions about this larger vision I have for my life.
The Four Factors: Weather, Logistics, Pack Weight and Terrain
Having a light pack is essential for surviving 4 days in the woods. This pushed me to invest $250 on a 2lb. tent at REI. I spent at least 5-6 hours researching which lightweight Osprey backpack to buy. If I wanted to be undistracted on the trail, I need a light pack------which is a factor I have control over. I ended up with a 50L pack that weighed about 30 pounds. Becca thankfully took care of the other factor we had control over on this hike: logistics. She knew how long we would hike each day and the specific details of the camping spots.
I could not control the weather, but I was prepared for all types of weather. I prepared myself for cool weather at night, burning hot weather during the day and any kind rain.
Day 1: Mud. Our first day we had excellent weather, about 75 degrees, no rain and the sun was shining. My pack was light and Becca had charted out exactly where we needed to go. Yet the problem was, the trail was muddy. Terrain is a factor, I learned, that is out of my control. What I mean by terrain is the slope of the hills and the condition of the trail. Two miles into the hike, we ran into some hikers named Gar-Belly, Critter and Mis-placed (trail-names). They were really friendly and told us that Vermont was sometimes called Ver-mud on the AT. Misplaced told us “Well, you might as well embrace it and just truck through the mud, get you feet muddy. That’s what I’ve been doing.”
A typical trail on the AT is probably 2 feet wide. On the AT in Vermont, parts of the trail have become 3-5 feet wide because people walk around the muddiest part of the trail (the middle) to keep their shoes clean. Rather than walking right through the middle of the trail, I walked on the edges, therefore making the trail wider. I wanted to keep my shoes as dry and clean as possible. And this process took rapt concentration to place my shoe on the edge of the trail, balance my weight on one leg and then somewhat hop over a muddy area to avoid going ankle deep in mud. While we did hike 9 miles easily on our first day, we didn’t talk as much as I imagined because we were intentional about keeping our shoes dry. I only went ankle deep in mud one time, only one shoe wet.
Survival beat out reflection. I think that's how it typically goes. Along with that, I was slowly finding a rhythm on the trail. We also heard this 3 second terrible, grunting noise at about 9pm that kept us up, wide-eyed wondering "Was that human? Was that a moose or a bear or a coyote? Or a beaver?" Nothing happened.
Day 2: Downhill Mordor This day offered another reflection disruption. Steep, rocky downhill terrains also required an equal amount of attention. On our 2nd day of hiking, we came to a downhill staircase that looked similar to the to the uphill staircase that Gollum took Sam and Froto to reach Mordor. The staircase was man-made out of boulders of all shapes and sizes, which made each step require intentional thought in order not to tumble face first down a steep rock staircase.
Again, this did not allow for much conversation with my cousin about the recent documentary she worked on with Ken Burns. Nor did allow me much time to pray, enjoy the view or even think about anything at all except “Don’t let your left knee buckle!” “Is my pole going to slip?” I didn't get much prayer about the future in on Day 2, except asking God for strength for the present. Again, I was finding my rhythm for the trail, before I could start to reflect on a vision for my future.
Internal Monologues to My 17 Year Self, Far Away from Home
Day 3: Flat Dirt Paths The terrain changed on our third day of hiking. We walked lots of flat, dry dirt paths that following along creeks and vistas. I’ve never loved seeing flat, dusty, dirt paths with roots sticking up so much in my life. Not black mud. But paths that were dry. The picture you see here is an example of the perfect thinking terrain. As normal as it looks, to see this was as good as drinking a ice-cold blue Gatorade.
With the change in path, so did my daydreams and this resulted in by far my favorite day in Vermont.
What surprised me is what I daydreamed about while hiking. During this time I briefly pondered my question of fulfilling the vision I have about community and also with my relationship with God, sprinkled with a few prayers and thinking of people I missed. However, my mind kept floating around one question: “What could I have done differently my senior year of high school football?”
For some reason I could not stop thinking about the 2001 East Davidson Eagles, who were 2-7. I played left tackle my senior year. We could have been 7-2. But for some reason we couldn’t seem to finish off games. We were always within close reach of winning games. Our team lost 5 games by a touchdown or less. One time we were up 28-0 at halftime. We’d lost the first four games of the season and we entered the locker room semi-celebrating as the Atlanta Falcons did in the 2017 Super Bowl. You know what happened next. The other team scored 36 points in the second half and we didn’t score at all. We spent the hour long bus ride feeling like idiots. Do not celebrate at halftime.
But it all seemed crystal clear what I could have done on the football field years ago and Day 3 through the Vermont woods became a kind of Uncle Rico-style pep talk to my 17 year old self:
“If I could have known how important it was to study the EDHS playbook, that would have made all the difference for me. I could have been a smart-studied offensive lineman who knew all of the assignments of my fellow offensive linemen. Even more, I could have studied the film of the opposing team’s defense before every game with the coaches. This would have made me more aware of how to exploit the other team’s weaknesses. If I had played my junior year (rather than just my freshman, sophomore and senior years), I could have easily learned the offense more thoroughly.
Even more, what if the coaches had noticed my eagerness to learn and moved me back to middle linebacker? This would have given me the confidence to be more of a leader on the field so our team might have had a winning record rather than a losing record my senior year. I would have loved to have played middle linebacker my senior year and been like the Luke Kechly of the East Davidson Eagles. I could have trained in the gym to become faster and stronger and got up to 200lbs plus be faster on my feet. I could have added about 15 pounds of muscle so I would be stronger. All good football players are smart, strong and quick. I could have easily improved in all of those categories.”
And so, there I was, walking alongside beautiful overlooks in Vermont, a place where Robert Frost regularly wrote many of his timeless poems, and my imagination locked in on what I could have accomplished as a 17 and 18 year old football in 2000 and 2001.
And that is my central question for this blog entry: Why did my mind seemed to drift towards my football career 18 years ago?
I do think it matters what happens in our imaginations during the course of daily tasks. I sincerely don’t always understand what happens in my imagination and daydreams. What sparks a daydream that seemingly has no connection to anything around me? In some ways, it can be like having a strange dream, you wake up thinking “Why did I dream about that last night?”
Here's my answer to the question, which is more of a guess because I sincerely don't understand how my imagination functions sometimes:
(1) The intense physical aspect of hiking the trail (having a heavy pack on my back) sparked memories of wearing shoulder pads and a helmet in the summer heat. Mental metaphors help me get through hard physical tasks, so I mentally pretended I was Julius Peppers trying to sack the QB as I hiked. As I walked on the AT, I was a defensive end rushing towards the quarterback as fast as possible. As I pushed through the limbs of trees that were in my path, I pretended to be swatting the arms of an offensive lineman attempting to block me. Just like rushing the QB, hiking is similar in that you are moving forward pushing obstacles out of the way, going forward, forward, forward.
(2) And this train of thought then helped me see clearly as to how much more of a logical person I am since the age of 17. I talked to myself: “If only I could give my 17 year old self the leadership skills, the physical discipline and logical processes that I have at 35. I could have been more than a mediocre lineman! Our team could have won all those 5 games! We could have went to the state playoffs.” Part of hiking on a trail like this, being isolated in the woods, does put a person's mind in reflection on the past. And for me, I always think about my younger self and what he could have done if he wasn't so self-conscious, unorganized, insecure and stubborn. It is a normal habit for me to mentally write "A Letter to my 17 year Old Self" or "A Letter to my 22 year Old Self." That's the norm for my imagination.
But then again, I was glad I got to daydream about football on those flat trails on Day 3 of our hike. Near the end of Day 3, I posed the question to my cousin Becca “Hey, are there any parts of your academic or athletic career in high school that you regret?”
Becca said: “Well, being a straight A student and playing three sports, I wish I would have been maybe more social. I wish I would have invested more time into relationships. And also, I wish I would have played one sport instead of three.”
After hearing her say this, I wondered maybe my high school football experience was fine even if it were mediocre.
We finished Day 3 of our hike off standing on top of a 80 foot Glastenbury Fire Tower. The tower had an 360-degree view of the Vermont mountains, built in 1927 with very few safety precautions. I was legitimately scared standing up there, because the staircase didn't have anything to catch you if you fell.
You can see the fear in my face in this photo below (my grip on the rail.)
Becca was more brave than me, taking photos from all angles of the 360 degrees. Climbing this tower was the highlight of my entire trip--------the beauty of untouched wilderness all around.
We were looking out in all directions as if I were in a drone; and I couldn't help but thank God for everything around me.
Here are some excellent pictures and thoughts from my cousin Becca's blog about the same trip. Thanks to her for the photos above.