Timeless wisdom holds that “The longest journey begins with a single step”, but it seems that the deeper genesis of the beginning was long before the first step. I got the idea to walk the Appalachian Trail about two years before I retired and started the journey north, to the traditional ending point of the trail in Baxter Park, Maine. Even before that, there was incubation in the great Chaos of not having a tangible idea or concept, but having all the elements that would eventually coalesce into the idea. Finally the process evolved through the fruition called action, and birthed into the great First Step.
I have chosen to hike the AT from North to South for two reasons. This is against hikers’ typical approach, which begins in Georgia and ends in Maine. First is that this approach has the potential to give me a more woodsy, solitary experience. Since the majority of hikers are going in the opposite direction, I’ll (theoretically) pass a glut of them somewhere in the middle and have the beginning and end of the trail in relative solitude. Next is that I’m hiking with my dog. By nature, dogs are not pack-inclined animals, and can’t be expected to endure high mileage day after day. Therefore, having a more flexible ending, when considering the weather in the South, is more desirable. For those who hike Northward, the end date must be before heavy snowfall in Maine.
And so it happens. It is happening, step by step.
Breaking Out of the Past
I’ll be the first to admit that the city of Austin has seduced me. There is abundant convenience, not to mention Abundance itself, in the city. The way that life in the city has grown, most anything one could want is available locally, or rapidly. The population of Austin was 345,890 when I first arrived in 1980, the population is 926,426 by the 2016 estimate. That’s over 250% growth, and it’s only the numbers for Austin proper – not the outlying areas. The effects of the growth are abundantly obvious in the engineered stacks of concrete we call downtown. However, the forest gently and persistently beckons. It’s a gentle beckoning that manifests as growing restlessness while I’m in the city. It’s a patient beckoning that says “welcome home” when I return to the forest.
An additional aspect of the city, particularly Austin, that has kept me enticed are the friends I have made. I live among some wonderful neighbors in a decent neighborhood. I have deep, enduring, loyal friendships that have developed for most of my adult life. It’s easy to meet new and interesting people who are intelligent, open minded, and abreast of the issues we currently face. The city has a lot to offer, and – in my experience – Austin offers some of the best. However, the forest beckons…
Leaving my job wasn’t easy. Working for another year or two past the traditional retirement age would have made much more financial sense. Also, it took most of my working life to evolve into a position within an organization that made use of not only my technical talents, but also the natural tendencies of my personality. The search for a qualified replacement was difficult, and required that everyone involved become uncomfortably elastic.
As with all well considered decisions, one gathers information, looks at the available options, prioritizes and evaluates, then makes the best choice possible. Along with, and throughout, my decision process still runs the wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh: “I already have more than enough conditions for happiness”. Finally, decisively, I made the choice to retire, and I took action. The forest beckoned, and I rose for the first step in her direction.
Can There be a Goal?
In most ways, I can not say why I chose this particular undertaking, other than the simplicity of that I like it. Retirement is a major transition, and for me demands a rite of passage. Many who have hiked the full Appalachian Trail have said that the person who finishes is not the same person who started. I undertake this adventure with full acknowledgement that I’m willing to let my trail experience shape the person who emerges at the end.
It’s hard to tell what I first notice when I return to the forest. There is an overwhelming stillness. It’s not the absence of sound, more the absence of noise. Useless churning of the mind seems to automatically slow and stop, opening to the sound of birds, crickets, the wind. There is the fresh scent of clean air that naturally draws the breath more deeply. The sight of an unmolested landscape that is naturally architect-ed unfolds with a silent awe that opens to Humility itself. Just how much control do we really have? There is a natural humility that borders on the spiritual when one’s daily life is reduced to the minimum elements necessary.
I could not ask for a better hiking partner. Bella has become my Soul Mate. I’ve bonded with different dogs through the years, but my bond with this German Shepherd seems to trump all the others combined. She is a challenge to keep up with. She has a five mile per day exercise requirement, and that’s the minimum. When I can give her 10 miles of exercise, she begins to show signs of tiring. That’s her off trail regimen, I’m working her into the trail routine now.
Bella and I came together out of a difficult and tormenting decision. Before her there was Kosho, a Catahoula Leopard dog. Kosho and I came together when he was about three months old, he had been tied to a tree and abandoned in the woods. I worked with him for two years, shaping him into a trail buddy. Finally, I was forced to make the excruciating decision to retire him from the trail and rehome him. Due to a genetic disposition called elbow dysplasia, which presented in his shoulders, he could not endure carrying a pack. It was an agonizing decision that turned out best for him, for me, and for Bella. Once I clearly realized what needed to be done, and took the steps to that effect, Kosho moved next door to a family with kids. Everyone, including Kosho, was joyous. Within 24 hours of making the decision, I was taking steps to adopt Bella.
Bella is a Parvo survivor, which is typically devastating. Fortunately, she’s one of the few who managed to endure. Austin Pets Alive has a Parvo Clinic that boasts a 90+% survival rate.
Conventional trail wisdom holds that after spending two to four weeks on the trail consistently, one develops “trail legs”. This comes down to (hopefully) the fact that one is in shape, hardened to hiking several miles consistently, day after day. My plan is to start, and hopefully realize, this phase before going to Maine, the hardest parts of the trail are in the Northeast. I’ll spend some time in Oklahoma at Cedar Lake, camping and hiking short distances. I’ll then go to Illinois, in my home area, and spend several weeks on the River to River Trail. Also, the Bella will need to become thorougly familiar with trail life. All of the above will be easier in relatively controlled outings before committing to the more distant Appalachian Trail.
To anyone who has read this far, there is a Caveat Emptor: commencement of this undertaking is an act of Faith. I am fully aware that few who attempt to hike the entire Appalachian Trail actually finish. Indeed, by Appalachian Trail Conservancy information, only about 25% of those who attempt a thru-hike complete the task. I know that many who have aspired to hike the entire trail were much more capable than I, but were not able to finish – for one reason or another. At this point, there is no guarantee that I could be one of the few, but I believe it is possible. Stay tuned for the developing Saga.