Tuesday, September 3, 2013

200. The First Day

200 Terrific Things About Long Distance Hiking

Back in Pennsylvania, when the rocks were hard and the bugs maniacal, I kept myself sane by compiling a list of the good things about hiking. I told my hiking family about it, and they eagerly contributed their ideas. There were several days that Grim, Whistle, Dumptruck and I sat in our tents at the end of the day, sweating and physically miserable, staunchly ignoring nature and taking ourselves on a mental mind trip of happiness. One by one the list grew longer, each one of my hiking partners shouting out gems of joy. 

At the time, it was stunning to me how long the list grew. 200 things! My memories were a colorful parade: elephants, balloons and dancing jugglers of contentment and humor. My current state of affairs was more like a parade of increasingly large swarms of mosquitos, climbing over each other desperately for the honor of caressing my sunburned, sweaty and impossibly filthy skin with their stabby proboscises. The effect was that I was able to transport myself out of the grueling nature of the mid-Atlantics by occupying my mind with all of the good things about hiking the trail. It worked better than imagining other happy things about the world, because that would only entice me wickedly, beckoning with elegant fingers of escape. Instead, I was able to grind and trudge forward, encased in a protective mental bubble of my family and our list-making. 

And it got better.

The trail is an amalgamation of very good and very hard. This is why I chose the adjective "terrific" for the title of the list. Interestingly, the root of the word terrific is actually the word terror. It's the same as horrific's root word being the word horror. Somehow over the evolution of our language, terrific became known as a good thing. I like to think that terrific, in particular, describes something that's so awesome that it's a little bit scary. Taken in this way, hiking the trail is like eating trail mix in spite of your slightly-less-than-deadly peanut allergy. The 75% chocolatey bits, cashews and raisins are all delicious, life-sustaining, taste bud tantalizing nuggets of glory. And maybe you're going into just a little bit of anaphylactic shock from the 25% peanuts but whatever, because you're not so allergic that it'll kill you, but just enough that you'll be all puffy and groggy and maybe pass out a little bit. 

I thought about just publishing the list, as-is, in one giant post, but I didn't think that would pay proper justice to the source material. The source material being my experiences and the cumulative experiences of my community and friends. Each individual moment, each thing that made it onto this list, fills up my heart with courage and joy, even if it's something as simple as a food or as profound as a sunrise over a mountain in the fading fog. So I decided that I will make each number its own stand-alone story and post, counting from 200 down to 1.

I initially wanted to call the list "200 Terrific Things about Thru-Hiking," but I decided that "Long Distance Hiking" captures the spirit of the list more accurately, even if it does make the title a bit long and unwieldy. Even though I've only hiked the Appalachian Trail, I think that almost everything we came up with can apply to almost any long-distance hiking, whether it's for 2 weeks or 6 months. Also, if as a consequence of reading this list, you decide that you might want to take up hiking, I want you to know that any distance can be just as fun, enriching and rewarding. You don't have to thru-hike a trail to be a hiker. 

Lastly, I want to keep blogging. My thru-hike will be over in 2 weeks or so, and after I summit, I want to have something to keep writing about that will entertain you, dear readers. Each entry will have stories and experiences, things that hadn't made it into the blog before, or tales from the perspective of other hiker friends of mine. I was also inspired to make this list based on a blog that I thoroughly enjoy called 1000 Awesome Things, which is a list of a whole lot of amazing things about existence in general. Our list is going to be much more specific, regarding all of the ins and outs of being a hiker. 

After I'm done with the thru-hike (sometime in the middle of this month) this blog will be updated on a consistent basis because I'll no longer be living in the woods. A new entry will go up every Monday, Wednesday and Friday until the list is exhausted. There will be other stories sometimes on off-days, but the MWF update schedule will remain solid until I've counted down all the way to number 1. 

Full Disclosure: the reason I'm telling you about this now instead of waiting until after I summit is that I want you to keep reading even after I've punched my fists in the air on the top of Katahdin. Hiking the AT has been one of the best experiences of my life, and I want to do justice to all of the things that made it, well, terrific. I want you to be able to love it all, too.

Thus, without further ado:

200. The First Day

You'll be laying awake at 3am, staring at the ceiling. Objectively, you should be quite comfortable. The bed might be cozy, the blankets warm and snuggly, and your partner might be dozing contentedly next to you. But if you're like me, your body will have settled into a constant low-level hum of excited twitchings. Just as you start to drift off, your mind will remind itself suddenly and violently that you are about to have a CRAZY COOL ADVENTURE and your eyes will snap open to resume their previous task of staring at the ceiling. 

You may try to appreciate the bed, snuggling down into the mattress to really absorb that last bit of regular life creature comforts. You know this is the last night that you'll have access to running water, be the right temperature, and be at significantly decreased odds of being struck by lightning in your sleep. In spite of this impending flying leap into living like a neanderthal, you are happy and excited. You may even be grinning like an idiot in spite of yourself.

When the alarm goes off, it's completely unnecessary. You've already been staring at the clock for the last 3 hours, watching the last minutes of your imprisonment in regular life tick away. You sit straight up in bed, bouncing around like a child on Christmas morning. You might even whack your partner across the face with a pillow. Who knows what could happen?! You're out of your mind with giddiness! You leap to your feet before remembering that you are pantsless (because you did not bring pajamas with you for this trip), and you are perhaps staying at a friend's house, so putting on pants might be your first order of business. 

You pick up your backpack, which you oh-so-dutifully packed perfectly the night before. It feels like trying to pick up a sack of lead-lined bricks. You groan and puff your cheeks out, dragging the creature upward onto your back. It pulls on you with heavy dead-weight, like a child in the grocery store who is absolutely refusing to leave the cookie aisle until those Oreos end up in the grocery cart. 

You might not be consciously aware of it right now, because you have no idea how bad it's going to get, but: your backpack smells amazing. You should give it a good, deep sniffing. It smells like clean nylon and the fresh scents of an outfitter store. Really dig your nose in there and rub it around. Appreciate it. You will never be able to do that again. 

Frankly, all of your gear smells delicious. You smell like the inside of a basket of potpourri, compared to what you're going to smell like. The hiking clothes you are currently wearing have never been worn more than 1 day at a time without being able to get washed. That pair of pants is going to be worn every single day, and you'll be lucky if you wash them every 2 weeks. Your clothing is soft and warm against your skin, and doesn't have months of accumulated salt and sweat that threaten to make it stand up all by itself when you take it off at the end of the day. Your boots are in one piece. You have soft, supple, blister-free feet. You are fresh and beautiful. 

You climb into the car of whatever kind soul has offered to drive you to the trail head. Tell this person you love them, whether you have known them for 5 years or 5 minutes. They will be the last person you see before this trip changes you. Likely you will be changed for the better, but who knows what could happen! You'll be living in the woods for days on end, for heaven's sake. You might go totally bizonkers! Don't worry, that hardly ever happens.

When you step out of the car and onto the trail, it will feel like your chest is filling up with happiness, like a hot air balloon filling with helium. You have experienced nature before; you've walked through parks, you've been on vacation, you've crazily pulled your car off to the side of the freeway to sprint briskly into the woods and relieve yourself because the next rest stop isn't for 30 miles and you just finished an industrial-sized bucket of black coffee. You know what nature is like, but you also know that you've never experienced it quite like this. It feels like walking the door of a brand new apartment. This is your new home. 

As you begin your hike, you should take some time to appreciate how fresh and good your body feels. The first day will largely be charged on adrenaline, so you will be able to hike quite a distance without feeling the affects of exhaustion or fatigue. Don't worry, those things will come later. For now, for this day, you feel like a superhero. Invincible and strong, you can leap tall mountains in a single bound! You are made of steel! You are a rip-roaring spring-loaded cannonball, ripping through the landscape leaving nothing but destruction and dust behind you! But you are also a conscientious steward of the woods, so you leave no trace.

Every single bit of the forest will be beautiful to you, as it should be. You will marvel at the gorgeous balance of simplicity and complexity in your new home. You should try to stay inside of your body as much as you can, to be mindful of these sweet, satisfying feelings and what they mean to you. The day will either feel very long or very short, but probably not anywhere in between. When you arrive at your first campsite, you will be greeted by 5-40 other hikers who are also totally brand new at this and have absolutely no idea what they are doing. Most everyone will burn their dinner, accidentally drink water that has not been properly treated yet, or take 20-30 minutes to put together their tent, that will, in later days, be put together with such ease that it seems to set itself up. 

Most people at this first campsite will humbly giggle at themselves and their lack of knowledge, even if they are already a somewhat accomplished hiker. Most everyone will small-talk shyly and be sort of unsure of themselves, even if they were confident people in their life before starting the trail. Everyone, for the most part, will be friendly. Most folks, including you, will go to bed early because they've run out of small-talk, and you all know on some subconscious level that setting up your sleeping arrangements will take approximately 1 million years. 

However, there may be one or two people who are also brand new, but think that they are the coolest thing since air conditioning was invented. They will sniff at how fast you did your miles that day, and try their hardest to make you acknowledge the (false) fact that they know exactly what they are doing, and you, dear freshman hiker, are nothing but a complete idiot who pinballed your way down the trail, smashing into trees and laughing like a drunk hippopotamus. They will try to make you feel small and feel like maybe you made a bad choice by starting the trail. IGNORE THESE PEOPLE. They are the worst, and they will drop out after a few weeks anyway after they bust their ankles because of over-exerting themselves too early. 

It's okay that you don't know what you're doing yet. You won't really know what you're doing for 2 weeks or so. But that's part of the adventure. You will figure out all of it as you go along. You may meet a hiker who has hiked this particular trail already, and you can learn from them. But if not, that's okay too. You will be good at this because you are willing to take it slow at the beginning and learn from your mistakes. 

You are already good at this, because you have a smile on your face, and hope for the future.

This is your first day. One day at a time.

Clever Girl

A photo of me on the first day of the AT:

200 Terrific Things


  1. Awesome.

    Simply Awesome.

    I will admit that I was starting to get bummed that your adventure was going to be over soon and we'd not get to read any more of your excellent writing. But now you've easily got another years worth of material!

    The only person that's gonna be upset is that guy who keeps saying you should write for the New Yorker instead. Seriously--WTF? They're a bunch of pikers.

    Anyhow--I love the idea, and if the next 199 are as half as good, well then, your audience will be very happy.

    Love your work--keep it up!

    And congratulations on not only doing something that so many people fail to finish, but also sharing it in a way that makes it fun and inspirational for all of us armchair thru-hikers, too.

  2. Wowsers! What a fabulous idea; makes us so happy to think of you continuing this writing adventure even as you finish the physical adventure. We're already speculating on what you all have chosen as the "200 Terrific Things". Here's one of ours: good people supporting each other with courage, humor, and kindness. You, Dumptruck, Whistle, Grim, and all the members of your hiking family have carried each other a long way. I told Dumptruck yesterday I don't think the trail has changed you so much as it's made you more of who you already were: kind, decent, caring people doing a difficult thing with grace and style -- and if you can face plant with style you know you've got it! Love and kisses, Mom and Dad

  3. Bravo! Dumptruck, I'll never forget your words early on, "after having lived in NYC for so long I believe my faith in humanity has been restored here on the trail." I'm glad for that. I'm happy too knowing that all the things that are good and decent with you guys have only been made stronger through your adventures. Enjoy your last weeks on the trail. We will so look forward to seeing the continuation of your list. Love you bunches Mom and Dad

  4. That is an AWESOME start to the list....

  5. Yay! I'm glad you're doing this. I got a little teary thinking about my first day and meeting you and Dumptruck so very briefly before I ran and hid in my tent. So glad I got to see you both yesterday!

  6. Hi, I love your blog and your idea! I would love to continue reading! I first met you and dump truck in a video posted by Dreamer of TNT on the trail! My niece, SRocket is due to summit next Friday, the 13th. Ugh, just noticed Friday the 13th.....no superstitions.......she, Elliot and Why Not will summit together! You may have met SRocket in your travels. Thanks for making me laugh, cry, cry from laughing and think! You indeed are a very clever writer! Good luck to you and dump truck the rest of the way to your finish! Say hi to Srocket from me if your paths cross again! Thank-you! Deb

  7. This is so awesome and helful... I just wanna hug ya, thank you for someone who wants to and dreams of doing this. WOW, I love it!! So excited to continue the journey with you as you continue the count!! You are a fabulous writer and I hope that you will at some point write a book! :)

  8. My friend Wags shared this blog with me and I'm so happy she did. What a perfect description of the first day, and I'm looking forward to reading the other 199 terrific things about LDH. -Gangsta

    1. Thank you!! I'm so glad you have found your way here!