Measuring up?

IMG_1700I was listening to thru-hike audio books in the car before and after my first hike on the Appalachian Trail, trying to figure out why this is so important to me. It’s the question thru-hikers get all the time from admirers but also from detractors. “Why are you doing this?” Ultimately it’s a statement, heavily underlined, that defies the nature of the question. The true meaning stems more from the person asking than it does from some inherent cliche or from the hiker being asked. Maybe the heavy underline contains more of the answer than does whatever answer lies atop. Grandma Gatewood was asked that question a thousand times and gave a different answer each time. She hiked the AT the first time when she was 67. Then she thru-hiked it again. Then she section hiked it a third time. Then she hiked the Adirondacks. She took seventeen pounds of equipment with her, slung over her shoulder in a sack. That made her not only one of the first thru-hikers, the first woman ever to thru-hike the trail, it also made her the first ultralight thru-hiker and even the first ever woman ultralight thru-hiker. She just got up each morning and walked the blazes. Earl Shaffer hiked the AT to put WWII behind him. The upswell of thru-hikers every year since the Sixties attests a simple truth. We need these wild places. And we need people willing to put aside conformity to love them not by reading articles about them in Outside magazine or Sports Illustrated, but to make all other considerations secondary for a time and love them with their feet. With their whole soul…by doing something amazing. Becoming something just a bit beyond ordinary. The people who have thru-hiked a long trail were already a bit beyond ordinary. The youngest thru-hiker was six when he started. The trail has been thru-hiked by a blind man and by old men with no cartilage in their knees. It’s been hiked by people dying of cancer and people healing from physical and sexual abuse. I think, and this is just my own opinion, the the AT, or any such undertaking, is something we measure ourselves against. Knowing that we are two completely different things, us folks and the mountains, and that the hills will outlast us in the end, but just for a season we outlasted the hills. That is a measurement to be recorded on paper for a time through shelter logs and ATC certificates, but forever in the heart or the human spirit or whatever sappy else you might want to call it. I am not yet a thru hiker. I’m just a middle aged man who loves to hike and camp, and my reasons for hiking are my own. But I will measure myself against the mountains, and one day soon I will measure up.