This essay was originally written April 30th, 2014 and selected for presentation in the Austin School Conference panel on Happiness. Timber’s Presentation Video
In 2013, my wife and I walked from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Katahdin, Maine. Walking is not exactly the best word to describe what we were doing. What we experienced is commonly known as a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. It is a very difficult trek; 2,186 miles across 14 states along the backbone of the Appalachian Mountains taking us 6 months and 10 days to complete the journey. Part of the journey was adapting to what is known as “trail life,” learning to cope with the stresses of walking all day everyday and living off of very little. By very little, I mean very little comforts and conveniences. The thrill of adventure stifles this adaption period and folks starting are generally very excited to be out hiking despite the cold weather. After six months of living an alternative life style, including the widely accepted adoption of pseudonyms known as “trail names”, almost entire isolation from main stream society, and a singular focus on walking each day and enjoying the simple things, like being dry, the journey was over. We now had the task to re-adapt to “normal” life. Six months later I sat down to reflect on our trail experience and our new revelations on life. These are some of our lessons from walking.
Simplicity of Choice
In today’s society, we have an abundance of choice and decision. Our choices are so wide in variety and in substance that the choices themselves are choices; I choose to be someone that chooses these things. I’m a Mac, I’m a PC. This over abundance of choice has led to an extreme increase in the amount of meaningless distress in people’s lives. Is this the car I really wanted? Is this the best school for my kid? Is this the career path I really want? We second guess ourselves in our choices and constantly wonder if our decision was the right one; looking to others to compare our choices to confirm their validity or to judge ourselves and others. This level of false stress and false perception of correctness ultimately leads to the polarization of any given choice, right or wrong. We even create compilations of choices to isolate our possibilities such as political parties, interest groups, and other narrow ideologies. This gives us a guide to “correctness” from individuals or groups that we have been socialized to see as people who make the right decisions. The reality of a situation becomes meaningless and the perception of a “correct” choice becomes the goal. To top it off, we live in a society where we fear failure. Making the wrong choice can seem life ruining, when in actuality, it is simply just another path.
On the trail, our ability to choose became very limited, or at least we thought it did. Our choices for extraneous things became completely irrelevant. Meaning, we started not to care about the things that didn’t actually matter in our lives. We noticed that the real choices were in our actions and reactions to the people around us and the situations we found ourselves in. Choices became easy. The big choice, what to do today, tomorrow, next week, and next month, was pretty easy; walk north. Although we broke down our journey into manageable mental chunks, we spent the vast majority of our time walking. Hours and hours on end with only one thing to do, walk. The simplicity of our day to day decision making liberated our minds allowing us to be completely free of self-induced stress. Although some situations, like a surprise blizzard in the Smoky Mountains, added stress to our experience, it was typically eustress. This healthy type of stress pushed us through some of our most trying times which added a whole new level of satisfaction to our journey. Along with the simplicity of our choices and the almost non-existent outside influence, we began to focus on what we really needed to survive and be happy: Our experiences, the people and beauty around us, and very little stuff.
Somehow, somewhere, people started to fall in love with having an abundance of material things. We have been taught through our culture and tradition in the U.S. that having more stuff means that you are doing well in life. Either as a kid getting lots of gifts or as an adult who can afford to fill the house, we correlate these items with prosperity. We have also been taught that more is better and bigger is better, striving for more money, more food, bigger houses, bigger families, and more “nicer” stuff. We have been developed by society for social competition, sometimes leading ourselves into a false sense of wealth from buying with credit in order to “keep up with the Joneses.” We know the common phrase from our U.S. Declaration of Independence, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. This was derived from a bit in John Locke’s essay, Two Treatises of Government, stating the government should protect the, “natural rights of life, liberty, and property”. Although this doesn’t directly relate to the urge to acquire material goods, it does show that we have related owning “property” to “happiness” since the very founding of The United States.
On trail, stuff literally weighed us down. We actively sought to carry less and get rid of things that did not adequately provide some level of necessary comfort or convenience. A sleeping bag so that we wouldn’t freeze to death through a nine degree night, enough food to keep our energy up enough to make it five days to the next town. We tended to carry only things that we needed or that we could justify through a sort of weight/benefit analysis. Occasionally we would pick up a book left by someone and read in the evenings and share the story as we walked the next day. If it wasn’t good though, we would get rid of it. It’s just extra weight at that point. As we adjusted to trail life, we began to realize that we needed very little to live and be happy. We were living with only what we carried on our backs. It could all be laid out in the morning, packed into a bag, and then lugged 18 miles where it would be dumped out again. This was our material life. At first we really did miss our all of our things, but after a while our stuff back home, sitting in storage, became less important and actually started to feel like a burden. We were paying for storage for all of our stuff, stuff that we weren’t using, stuff that we didn’t need! When we returned home, it became an immediate priority to go through our storage unit. We got rid of half of it. Fifty percent of our stuff was crap. We discovered things that we had never used or didn’t even know why we had. It was just stuff that we kept without reason. It felt wrong at first, taking truck loads of our belongings to Goodwill, but the less we had the better it felt. It felt manageable, easy.
We often hear the word anarchy and think of a vicious sense of chaos. Something like: After the soccer match, the city erupted into pure anarchy as riotous mobs roamed the streets flipping and burning cars. The original definition of the word simply means lack of enforcement from government or that the people govern themselves. In reality, anarchy is the basic social human state. Whether it is the very beginning of the human existence or within our personal lives, anarchy is the foundation of order. However, the human desire to organize and expand order has evolved into the creation of all types of government in order to maintain stability and continuity of any person’s day to day existence and experience. I think this is great in general. Our population can focus on tackling momentous tasks that benefit the public and that allow us to continue to progress as a whole body in a very methodical fashion. However, the culture that has developed around government has created quite a bit of unusual behaviors. There was once a time in human history where each person in society had a genuine interest in what was going on in their respective society. Where is that interest now? Also, it seems as though people have lost the realization that they are in control of their lives. I have met numerous people “trapped” or “stuck” in a living situation or a life path that they do not want. This still baffles me. They have somehow been made to believe that it is impossible to take control of their lives. If someone is incapable of taking control of their life, how could they be able to progressively contribute to society? I would argue that the culture of complacency due to the existence of government has led to a lack of interest in extra-personal involvement. Why bother dealing with something when there is someone else to deal with it. I realize this doesn’t hold true for everyone, but I strongly believe that it applies to an unhealthy number of the U.S. population.
On trail, anarchy works. There are a few areas where law enforcement steps in to take on issues with vandalism and the like, but for the most part, the hikers take care of, and reprimand, the hikers. When a situation arises on the trail, we had to deal with it. Responsibility cannot be passed on to anyone else. Plans rarely hold together and it is critical, sometimes life threateningly critical, that we handled the situation well. Although they can be very difficult and sometimes frightening, when our equanimity prevailed, our confidence and character grew. This is part of the experience of a thru-hike and is part of its appeal. Trail culture is surprisingly deep yet simple, but all based on one phrase: Hike Your Own Hike. It is a very cliché phrase on trail, but it really applies to everything. We are all out there for some sort of an experience. It doesn’t matter why anyone is out there; it’s that they are there. For most, we share a common simple goal; complete a thru-hike of the trail. How we go about doing that doesn’t really matter. There are many different methods of traveling from Georgia to Maine. For some, it means stepping foot on every bit of the trail and seeing every white blaze. A white blaze is a small rectangular swath of white paint that can be found on trees, rocks, light poles, and walls to mark the official path of the Appalachian Trail. There are many other side paths along the way that are marked by blue blazes signifying alternative paths. Those that take blue blazes and end up skipping part of the official trail are known as “Blue Blazers” and those who meticulously follow the white blazes are known as, “Purists.” Then there are all the other methods of transportation thrown in the mix or different methods of breaking the long hike up. Although people hike the trail differently, no one is thought less of or discriminated against while on the trail. Most hikers are more focused on the positive interaction with other people and the trail itself. We enjoyed meeting and getting to know other hikers from all over the world and sharing our stories, experiences, and cultures. We were also constantly attempting to harmonize with the trail and everything that it threw at us. The thing that we rarely had to deal with was any type of senseless regulation, restrictions or bureaucracy. We were, for the most part, free to do anything and everything that we wished. It is that realization that really hit home with my wife and me. We are free to do what we want. Some would argue that there are numerous limitations that hold us back. This is true to an extent. All of these rules, regulations, expectations, are made up by people. We choose to obey, concede to, and accept these things. Since these things are made by people they can be changed by people. This is the reason we have grown to question the roots of our ideology, the foundation of our thoughts and decision making. We have learned to reach down into our anarchist minds to find reality and priorities then apply it to a manipulated, chaotic world.
Arbitrary News and its Irrelevance
A common basic definition of “news” is something like: new information about something recent. Well, that could be almost anything which in lies our problem. Our society has been conditioned to thrive on news. Whether or not the news is relevant has become somewhat irrelevant. As long as the media deluge directs the public agenda, relevancy is only a matter of ratings. For six months, I lived without any input of what we previously considered news. Before our hike it was a very large part of my job to stay informed of all world issues. Removing myself from that was amazing and I began to realize what the correct meaning of “news” was. Throughout our hike, we were unburdened by the fleeting actions of others all over the world. We did not have to speculate, worry, or argue about things that did not directly affect our lives. We were not bothered by irrelevant “news”. On trail, news was, “That water source is dry, half a mile further is a good one.” or, “The hostel in this town is fantastic. They have food, it’s clean, and the people are really nice.” The information was valued and appreciated. Granted, trail life is very different from living in society, so relevance shifts. I realize the importance of being informed and learning about local and world issues, but they don’t have to dominate my mind. In some cases I am disgusted with what is considered news. I see inflammatory, fear mongering organizations that aim to better themselves by crippling society with anxiety: “NEWS ALERT! Your Rights Are in Danger!” It is a detriment to people’s lives and tears society apart, impeding the connection between ourselves in our communities. Such organizations foster hate and breed widespread fanaticism. How does this help our society? The news should help inform the people with meaningful, relevant information. A mix of arbitrary sensationalized “news” with legitimate meaningful news confuses us and ultimately degrades our level of tranquility. Luckily, we have the choice as to where we receive our news, how to react to it, and the freedom to investigate its credibility.
The Goodness of People
I had heard that thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail restored one’s faith in humanity and I have always been an optimistic and hopeful person, but I never imagined how wonderful connecting with numerous strangers could be. Most people go through their day to day lives avoiding unnecessary contact with other people. We live in a rushed society and focus on accomplishing our list of tasks then returning to our comfort zone as quickly as possible. We tend to interact with people only when it makes sence, when trying to pass time, to break the silence, or to get something we want. In many cases we see interpersonal interaction almost eliminated by virtual interaction, a faceless way to communicate with some and a completely anonymous way to communicate with others. A quick look into any comments section anywhere on the internet will show a staggering lack of respect, sensitivity, and general politeness. Although these kinds of remarks do happen in the real world, it can be quite rare. Nonetheless, it is disheartening to see people so callously disregard the feelings of others, not waiting to consider their circumstance or situation. Someone may argue that a man who is on welfare doesn’t deserve it and that he should work harder to better himself. In reality, he may be a recent widower with three children and had just lost his job. On the other end, it seems as though some people feel entitled to everything. They think they deserve something or everything without earning it. Perhaps a homeless man gets irate with me for not giving him any money instead of simply being grateful if I choose to give freely. At first glance, it would seem as though the world doesn’t care about each other anymore. When we slow down, we see that this is not true.
Ten strangers warmly welcomed us into their homes throughout our journey and countless others provided endless support: Dozens of drivers who stopped to give us rides in and out of towns, people bringing food out to rural trail crossings at our great surprise, people leaving food, soda, and beer in random locations along the trail, and numerous others providing random acts of kindness and support. All of these people are known on any long distance trail as, “Trail Angels,” and their acts of kindness are referred to as, “Trail Magic”. The people that already knew about the trail enjoyed the diversity of the ones who hiked it. They simply exchanged charitable acts for pleasant, possibly interesting, company and appreciation. Others simply took the time to a listen to our story and felt convicted to provide comfort and convenience, which at least, typically included a shower, laundry, food, more food, and a bed. It amazed me how willing the people who took us in as strangers were, even more so, how loving they were. Never were we fearful, worried, or anxious about being in any one of their homes; quite the opposite. We always felt like old friends and sometimes family. It was truly remarkable and it is hard to think back on those particular moments and think that we were anything but friends before; instead of complete strangers. What is even more astounding is that we were not isolated cases. We were not taken in because of our monopoly on awesomeness. Time after time, we heard stories of other hikers having chance conversations with random people that turned into sometimes elaborate accommodations and celebrations with some stranger’s entire family. We noticed these sorts of things happening all around us without regard to culture, race, nationality, or religion. People just wanted to help because they stopped and took the time to inquire about our individual situations and realized how easily they could make the world for us. This was not confined to the off-trail world either. Hikers provided for other hikers without stipulation or prejudice. I gave away a cheap fleece sleeping bag to another hiker that was sleeping cold because Fall was coming on quicker than expected in Vermont, and his warmer bag was waiting for him a couple towns up trail. We were going into town that day where my cold weather sleeping bag was waiting for me. Yes, this fleece bag was mine, but I wouldn’t need it any more and it would make the next four nights of his much more comfortable. There was no decision process for me. Once I knew he wasn’t warm enough, we stopped, and I dug out my fleece bag and gave it to him without ever expecting it back or getting any kind of compensation. He was extremely grateful, appreciative, and began to ask for my home information to ship it to me later. It was our conversation that provoked me to provide, but his reaction that justified my action. I use this example not to boast, but to explain a common scenario within the hiker community. If we continue to do this in our community now, I believe our communities would grow much stronger and interconnected. It is just a matter of taking time to listen then considering our ability to assist.
Reflecting now on my experience of thru-hiking 2,186 miles on the Appalachian Trail and the lessons I have learned, I have come to realize what is really important in life. I know the priorities that can be set and that it begins at the basics; knowing and being grateful for what I have and am able to do. I can walk, so I did. We met and stayed with Chet in New Hampshire. We slept in his garage and did simple chores to “pay” for our stay. Chet was an outdoor enthusiast and loved getting outside. He is now in a wheelchair due to a stove malfunction and explosion of flaming white gas. Even through his slow painful recovery and his inability to live the life he once had, Chet is an overall, happy man. On our worst days, we thought back humbly to Chet and his story and remembered how grateful we are to walk and be alive.
In the beginning of our hike, we referred to our reality before trail as “real life” and our current state as “trail life”. The further we went, the more trail life became real life and our old real life became an empty set of standards. Life is not about all the false pretenses that humans have fabricated. We are not designed to be falling into line with others, buying our dreams, drifting into a passive existence, inviting brainwashing, or ignoring those that surround us. Life is about living, being happy, loving others and experiencing this world with the ones you love. Everything else is secondary. If we choose to set our priorities to what is truly important, we would all be better off.
– Jeremy Scroggins “Timber”