One Step, One Breath

I could sense that it was time to leave the trail. I had been sensing this for some time, and  it was not easy to accept. The realization was composed of more than just reaching another “wall”. Many times on this journey, along the Appalachian Trail, I had reached the “wall”. It was the point where every ounce of my energy, physical, mental, emotional, and psychic, was tested and focused only on taking one step, then one breath. The “wall” was the point where I could not see continuing, yet I could not conceive not continuing. At that point, one takes one step, one breath, and pauses. I had many important realizations on the trail, but the realization I was facing was different.

One of the most important realizations I had came early in the hike, and it was as difficult as it was simple. I realized that my hike was not to be compared to anyone else’s hike. To release myself from this comparison, and the consequent evaluation and judgement, was a huge and important lesson. My hike was about myself, and no one else. The saying, often heard along the trail, is so apropos: “Hike your own hike!” A young person I had met summed up hiking styles well: “On the days I walk 20 miles, all I remember is walking. On the days I walk 8 miles, I remember where and what I had for lunch, I remember the views, I remember the fire I built in the evening.” One of my most important realizations was that I’m an 8-mile-per-day type hiker, and I wasn’t going to be – nor should I compare myself to – a 20-mile-per-day hiker.

It was true, I was burned out. I was hungry, tired, cold, wet, lonely, and generally weary. But the realization to leave the trail was more than all those challenges. I was losing heart for the trail. I was losing heart because I had fulfilled my purpose for the hike, at least for the season. The hike had been challenging, most of all it was an internal journey, a probing of my psyche. It was a mindful exercise in getting to know, and make peace with, myself and my own limits.

The following quote sums up well all the season’s realizations:

“Anything is one of a million paths. Therefore you must always keep in mind that a path is only a path; if you feel you should not follow it, you must not stay with it under any conditions. To have such clarity you must lead a disciplined life. Only then will you know that any path is only a path and there is no affront, to oneself or to others, in dropping it if that is what your heart tells you to do. But your decision to keep on the path or to leave it must be free of fear or ambition. I warn you. Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary.

“This question is one that only a very old person asks. ‘Does this path have a heart?’ All paths are the same: they lead nowhere. They are paths going through the bush, or into the bush. In my own life I could say I have traversed long, long paths; but I am not anywhere. Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t, it is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere; but one has a heart, the other doesn’t. One makes for a joyful journey; as long as you follow it, you are one with it. The other will make you curse your life. One makes you strong; the other weakens you.

“Before you embark on any path ask the question: ‘Does this path have a heart?’ If the answer is no, you will know it, and then you must choose another path. The trouble is nobody asks the question; and when a person finally realizes that they have taken a path without a heart, the path is ready to kill them. At that point very few people can stop to deliberate, and leave the path. A path without a heart is never enjoyable. You have to work hard even to take it. On the other hand, a path with heart is easy; it does not make you work at liking it.”
― Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge

Alone

Being alone never felt as alone as it did on the Sunday afternoon that I arrived at the Tucker-Johnson shelter on the Vermont section of the Appalachian Trail. It was late September, well past the peak hiker season, and the leaves were starting to fall. The shelter was about a half mile off the main trail, which meant that even weekend and local hikers would be few. Typically, I took refuge in knowing that other hikers would be staying at the shelter. Even if we didn’t connect, there was a sense of safety in having other eyes, ears, feet, and hands around. The place was desserted when I arrived.

I had recently slowed the pace of our hike to savor the colorful change of the season in Vermont. The red, orange, yellow, rust, and brown hues of the leaves had been slowly creeping into the summer greens making the transition to Fall beautiful and dramatic. The wind was washing through the trees sending them swaying to and fro, shaking loose waves of leaves that slowly floated to the ground. Birdsong was sparse, not like the vocal dominance that is typical in the Spring, when the earth comes to life. Fall is the season of decline, gateway to the silent dormancy of Winter.

There had been copious warnings of bears in the vicinity. Typically, Fall sends them into heavy feeding in preparation for hibernation. After an early dinner, I sat for a few moments and watched Bella keenly tuning her senses to the area. Her ears were erect like dish antennae. I’ve come to rely on her senses of acute hearing, smell and sight. I had come to read her various postures of awareness, with her moans, groans, and growls. As the sunset faded toward darkness, I stuck with established bear protocol by hanging our food with a PCT style bear hang.

On the one hand, I was glad to be away from the sound of cars and other intrusions to the natural order. The forest is a welcome refuge from the imposition of aggressive drivers, the ubiquity of capitalism and advertisements, and other plagues of modern civilization. However, on this particular afternoon, I was visited by a sense of aloneness, one not touched by loneliness and not blessed by the wekcome sense of solitude. I simply felt alone.

Through that aloneness, I looked ahead to the dark uncertainty of nightfall. I struggled to not think of the night as a long eternity, with hours of anticipation of dawn and the safety of daylight. I knew I could depend on Bella and her keen senses to help allay any overwhelming threats. I turned on the phone and switched it out of airplane mode. There was about half a bar of signal, and not even the dreaded 1X roaming network was available. This further drove home the sense of aloneness, bordering on isolation. So I sat, alone, and listened to the overwhelming silence of the deep Vermont forest.

Later, lying in the hammock waiting for the blessing of sleep to arrive, I realized that with the onset of Fall, our hike for the season would soon end.  Faintly I heard, in the distance, beyond the safety of the mountain, the rumble of trucks on the Interstate. They were, at best, two miles away. I wasn’t sure if I should be comforted, or if it was the imminence of a system of life that I’ve forever struggled to accept and call home.

The Zone

Stop complaining about all that. Just ‘get into the zone and walk‘”. This was a chastisement that I overheard one hiker give to his buddy. It’s not uncommon to hear something like this, as it’s easy to focus on the difficulty of the trail and let it overwhelm the pleasure. However, what is this “zone”, how does one get into it, and why?

For the purpose of this article, I’d like to define this zone as “a mind state wherein an activity or involvement seems to move or flow automatically, without undue stress or effort“. There are benefits to being in this zone. I once did a study of several athletes and musicians who were extremely good at what they did. They were artists of creativity in their respective field. They could make their effort seem to be easy, free, and distinct. Knowing how difficult it is to do what they did, one was left to wonder at the hours of preparation and practice that they had put into their craft.

The “zone” that’s being referred to is a mind state, or a shift, that everyone makes at one point or another. Some become aware of it, even familiar, and can call upon it at will. Others never learn what it is, what it’s good for, nor how to summon it and use it to advantage. Like most mind states and/or emotions, it’s hard to describe or map, but I’d like to take a stab at it.

Within the zone, the mind works differently, especially with regards to the rational thought process. The focus of the mind shifts, and the activity that has been engaged seems to go into auto-pilot. If you’ve ever watched a dog engaged in chasing a ball, you’ve seen the zone in action. If you’ve ever been absorbed into watching a movie, or reading a book, to the exclusion of where you are physically within present time and space, you’ve experienced a zone (of sorts).

What is this “zone” good for? It’s helpful to know that the zone exists for the task at hand, to have experienced it, and to be able to repeat it. My experience in walking the Appalachian Trail was made much easier by being aware of, and being able to go into, the “walking zone”, and to stay there. Walking, day after day, for weeks or months on end, becomes the sole focus during an extended hike. Consciously entering the zone, and using that awareness and what it opens, to ones advantage, helps with planning, preparation, prevention of injury, and many other aspects of the hike. The enhanced awareness of my surroundings helped me spot and identify many animals, plants, other hikers, etc.

Is the zone a meditative state? It can be. That’s what I used it for. The mental process is what makes the shift, and using this shift as a doorway to meditation is possible. Some people choose to “zone out” as they enter the “walking zone” by plugging in their ear buds and listening to podcasts or music on an electronic device. Others choose to be stoned on marijuana, which provides its own meditative-like state and zone, complete with the drugged side- and after-effects. I chose to use the “walking zone” to expand my awareness into the surrounding environment, learning the language of the birds, the forest, the rivers and streams. Within “the zone” the forest opened up to reveal a deeper meaning, a communion with Nature. It was my doorway to mindful walking meditation.

How does one get into the zone? Can it be repeated upon demand? The process that got me into the “walking zone” was to put my breath into cadence with my steps. I’d take an inbreath with a certain number of steps, perhaps two, or four – or maybe one. Then an equal number of steps to the outbreath. Yes, it can be repeated upon demand. The key is to pay close attention to the activity, learn the subtleties involved. Use the rational thought process to advantage, don’t let thoughts of before and after the activity dominate the thought process. Stay focused upon the activity. Remain open to what is happening in the moment, and learn from it. Learn more from the activity in each moment, and each time the activity is repeated.

The interesting part about the interaction that I overheard is that tomorrow, or perhaps later in the same day, the person who did the chastizing may well become the person who receives it.

Difficulty, Part 4

Thick fog hung in the air like a sponge when I awoke at 4 AM. That was good news and bad news. The bad news was that the trail would be covered with moisture. The good news was that it hadn’t rained. Rain was in the forecast, but had not fallen. There was 30% chance of rain for the night before, and 40% chance of rain for the day. I thought of the “mountain of the day”, my hiking goal was to ascend and descend Baldpate Mountain. A sense of dread descended on me as I thought of the upcoming task.

The day before, when I asked about Baldpate, the hiker who had just come off it said it would “suck” for me, it would be more difficult in the direction we would be negotiating the climb and descent. His words were what started the sense of dread that had now freshly arisen. The Appalachian Trail in Maine has been described as rugged and remote. The only thing I would add to that is that it is raw. It’s Nature on Nature’s terms. There have been people who have met their demise on this trail. Others have had to be air lifted out to safety. My entire goal in hiking the trail was to do it safely, and to live to tell about it.

I had analyzed the mountain as best I could. I studied the topographic maps. I looked at the elevation profile. The elevation showed a particularly steep ascent and descent, more than those we’d encountered so far. Also, I had noticed that any time there’s a shelter at either end of a mountain, they’re typically there because the mountain is unusually difficult. You can spend a night at one foot of the mountain, spend a day up and over it, and spend the next night recovering. This rationalization further fed my fear and paranoia.

I read the online reviews of the mountain. There were warnings to not attempt this mountain if it was wet or raining. I could go for that. However, I certainly had no control over whether it would rain or not on this particular day. Further, waiting or turning back was not an option. So, with full sense of trepidation and extra measures of caution, Bella and I packed up camp and engaged the trail slightly later than usual.

It was true, the mountain presented difficulty beyond what we had encountered so far. There were long, barren rock climbs at about 50 degree angles. There were crevices to traverse. There were several vertical ladders to deal with. However, I continued to notice, as we approached and engaged each and every obstacle, there was always a safe option for getting through, or around, or over it. One by one, we climbed, crawled, pushed, pulled, and puffed our way up the mountain. We were like the childhood story of “The Little Choo Choo Train”, with the mantra “I think I can, I think I can” at every breath.

Finally, as we approached the top, we climbed up and out of the fog. We were above the clouds. We could see in all directions, and there was sun light at the top. The fog, as dense as our fear had been, was below us and had given way to a sense of triumph. We made it up, fully engaging one challenge at a time. I began to have confidence that we would make our way down safely in exactly the same manner.

We got a shuttle into town, and another hiker in the truck was bemoaning how difficult his terrain had been. He had just come from the direction we were to head in a few days. He asked us how we felt about the next section of trail. I said, off the cuff, “I keep hearing bad and fearful things about lots of stuff. I’m tired of thinking about it. We’ll deal with it when we get there.”

And so it is, so it was, and so I hope it to be. How much of my own trouble do I create by overthinking what’s ahead of me? How much of my own trouble do I borrow from the opinions of others? Too much. I’d rather just show up in the moment and deal with it.

The Refuge

If you’ve read my previous entries about the difficulty of hiking the Appalachian Trail, and my reasoning process for quitting, at least for a while, you’ll understand this post a little better. In short, I lost a lot of weight and could not continue the hike in safety. Many people had told me that I was looking gaunt and needed to lay up for a while and take care of myself. However, it took a moderately frightening fall to bludgeon the truth into my head. As I was crossing a water dam on logs, one of them rolled and I did not have the physical prowess to deal with it. I stood there, watching one of my trekking poles drift down the fast moving water, making it’s way toward the North Atlantic. At that moment I realized that if I did not get off the trail, the next fall might well put my unconscious body in the water headed toward the North Atlantic. Therefore, I decided to change course.

I stayed at the Caratunk House, a hiker hostel modeled in the style of a typical New England Bed & Beakfast, the night before my incident. The owner had mentioned that he was having personnel problems, and was looking for help. So I hiked back to Caratunk, found the owner, and asked if he was still taking applications. He hired me on the spot. I laid my pack aside, and immediately went to work in the hostel.

Caratunk, Maine. Zip code 04925, population 55. Various sources list the population in the 60’s or 70’s, but it’s not difficult to get a current and accurate count. There is no wireless phone signal, from any carrier, available – so lay your devices aside. The town was in it’s prime, population about 350, around the turn of the 20th century. It’s claim to fame was as a logging town. Several of the original homes still stand, with what were barns attached to the houses, typical of heavy snowfall areas. As one sits in the town, the pace of life slows to a screeching halt. In fact, time moves so slow the clocks seem to turn backwards.

In this backward sense, the Caratunk House is an antique museum in full functional regalia. I was blessed to have spent several weeks working in the hostel. The owner, Paul Fuller, is a seasoned hiker and was an antique dealer for most of his life. He rolled his life’s treasures into the hostel, and it’s arranged tastefully and with impeccable character. I felt not that I was stepping into my grandparent’s home, but back into their lives. We cooked, ate, sat, and lived in a world fully adorned as it was in yesteryear. There were land line phones with rotary dials. One hiker remarked “I love the way you have all these antiques.” I responded “they’re not antiques to us, they’re our normal life.” And so it was that I found refuge to heal my aching body and weary spirit.

It took two weeks of ravenous hunger to finally feel like some of the food I ate was staying with me. My body needed a lot of replenishment. It was about this time that I started to think of the trail again. I was beginning to feel the original desire to walk the trail, and I was becoming strong enough to take action in that direction. The time I spent in the hostel exposed me to a lot of hikers, some of them about to finish their trek. I learned many “tricks of the trade”, especially with regards to food and a lighter pack.  Finally, after a section hike from Stratton, Maine, back to Caratunk, I took the plunge and packed up my gear. I struck out, SOBO (South Bound), on the Appalachian Trail with renewed vim and vigor.

The Psychology of Quitting Sense

I once had a friend who headed up a very popular Bluegrass band for several years. He was a musician all his life, and he was very successful. During the time that his band was at its peak of success, the personnel changed a lot. This bothered him, to a degree, and one day when we were talking about the people he had in the band and why they left, he said “Everyone pretty much does what they want to do, all the rest is just the excuses.” I’ve thought about this quite a bit since the day he said it.

I’ve thought of all the things I’ve started and not finished. It leads me to a conclusion: there are real reasons to quit an endeavor, and there are trivial reasons to quit an endeavor. As I write about my process, it may seem cognitive, or overly thought out, but I find this analysis necessary in order to reach wise decisions. Therefore, I’ll focus on my current undertaking, which is hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Sometimes we dream. Sometimes those dreams are big, perhaps bigger than what we think we can achieve or accomplish. However, when we find ourselves taking steps, practical and tangible actions, toward realizing those dreams the dreams take on a life of their own. It’s in dreaming, and stepping into the realization of those dreams, that we find purpose and connection. When we stop stepping into those dreams, the dreams don’t go away, we go to sleep. As I look back on the times I’ve stopped stepping into my dreams, I’ve become numb. Therefore, as I step into this dream of walking the Appalachian Trail, when the temptation to just throw the pack away and return to comfort and safety of my ordinary life, I tend to remember all the times in my life that I’ve gone numb. Therefore, I’ve concluded that if I’m going to quit, it needs to be for a real reason.

For the sake of clarity, I’ll list what I consider to be the trivial temptations that I face:

  1. I’m sweating, it’s too hot.
  2. I’m too cold.
  3. I’m sore and tired of walking up and down mountains.
  4. I’m tired of being rained on.
  5. There are too many bugs.
  6. I’m tired of carrying this heavy pack.
  7. I miss my loved ones.
  8. It’s Friday evening, I should be somewhere other than deep in the forest.
  9. I’m tired of eating trail food, I want real meals.
  10. Why did I ever think up this absurd undertaking?

I’ve only listed 10, and there are many more, but you can begin to see what the diversions are.  I consider these reasons to be trivial because if I want to make my dream come true, if I really want to realize this dream, I will deal with these reasons and give my dream priority over them.

In contrast, I’ll list what I consider real reasons to quit:

  1. I’m sick or injured to the point of jeopardizing my health.
  2. There’s a family matter that requires my attention.
  3. I have, or there has come up, a situation that requires my presence.
  4. I have given the endeavor adequate effort and attention, and realized that it is truly not for me.

Continue reading “The Psychology of Quitting Sense”

Difficulty, Part 3

There comes a time, after continued hiking, that hunger – true hunger – becomes an irrestible physical force. This phase of hunger is different from what we ordinarily know as appetite, which is an everyday occurrence. Perhaps a simple review of physiology can help in understanding this hunger.

The body, under normal circumstances, has three phases or modes of operation with regards to processing food intake. When we eat, as the stomach breaks down the food, the resulting sugars are sent to the bloodstream where they are used as energy, cell repair and maintenance, etc. When there is an excess, more than what is needed, it is stored as fat. The remaining solids are sent through the stomach to the intestines for further processing and elimination.

The common experience of appetite is a signal that the stomach is empty, and wants to be filled. If we eat at this point, the cycle and process repeats and continues itself, and all is well. If we do not eat, the body takes a different route in order to maintain itself.

First, the bloodstream empties itself of available sugars. Next, stored fat, the body’s reserve system, is broken down and used as needed for essential energy, maintenance, and repair. Finally, when the body’s stored fat reserve is depleted, the body goes into a severe state in order to survive wherein it breaks down muscle tissue, and that is used for essential functions. This third state is signaled by true hunger, over and above appetite, because this phase is essentially the onset of starvation.

The process, as applied to long distance hiking, is the result of the rigorous physical demands being placed on the body. In short, it becomes very difficult to carry and eat enough food, the kind that has the amount of calories that the body needs, during the hike. All the food that is taken in is used immediately as energy for the hike as well as essential maintenance and repair. The body teeters on the edge of starvation and consuming/processing whatever is eaten. This is known as hiker hunger, or the “see food” diet: see food, eat it. People who are naturally thin have a more difficult time, as there isn’t as much excess reserves for the process.

In my experience, as I went through the process, I did not eat enough food, nor did I eat the right kind of food, to sustain myself. I got to the point where I was weak and not making good choices. I was not agile enough to hike in difficult terrain. I was no longer on top of my game. There were people who were telling me that I didn’t look well, and that I needed to lay up for whatever amount of time I needed to build myself back up. From inside myself, I couldn’t see it. Openly, perhaps willfully, I pushed forward until the obvious caught up with me and I could not continue. Fortunately, I finally realized how dire my circumstance was and siezed the best available opportunity. I got off the trail.

More About Zero

It rained today, all day. I’d checked the forecast last time I had phone connectivity, and – once again – the weatherman was incredibly accurate. The rain started about 5 AM, and continued all day. The forecast called for 5-8 inches, and while I don’t have a way to measure it, I’m sure that was accurate, too.

I didn’t regret the rain, not in the least. It gave me a chance to catch up on writing about some ideas I had. I tried to write last time we stayed in town. Although the hostel where we stayed was incredibly nice, it didn’t provide a place to focus on what I wanted to say. The rain gave me the opportunity, and I siezed it. I stayed under the tarp most of the day with Bella, while she slept. Somehow, she understood perfectly what a rainy day was for. I took a nap, too. I made a second round of coffee and enjoyed the lake, the fog moved in gusts as the wind blew. I did yoga to stretch out the kinks in my back that came from carrying a heavy pack. I realized, and fully enjoyed, the rain and the water. I don’t have a way to measure or know with any sense of accuracy, but I’ve had the sense that I’ve seen more water in three weeks in Maine than I saw in 10 years in Texas.

The Appalachian Trail is a world class trail. Not only for the terrain it occupies, but also for how it’s managed and maintained. There are shelters every few miles that are havens in times of need. Sometimes Bella and I stay in the shelter, sometimes we stay under the tarp. When we arrived at the Moxie Bald shelter, there was already someone inside, so we didn’t stay there. I don’t feel like it’s fair to expose others to sleeping with Bella and her habits. Also, I’m addicted to my hammock for the comfort it provides, and hanging it across the shelter unnecessarily intrudes on others. So we spent the rainy day under the tarp, it was a “Zero Day”, no mileage gained.

A friend I made on the trail and hiked with for several days introduced me to a practice that I’ve continued to embrace. Even though we didn’t stay in the shelter, in the evening we took our cook kit and food up there at dinner time to enjoy the company. It’s a nice practice, a wonderful time for conversation and exchanging information about the trail.

Last night, when we went over there, I found the conversation difficult. It was lively, and everyone was talking, but I couldn’t join in. The topics weren’t anything I cared to embrace or comment upon, and the points of humor weren’t my style. So I listened, cooked, and ate in a personal silence.

Hikers come in all shapes, sizes, and demeanors. There are young and old, short and tall, heavy and thin, fast and slow, etc. There are “gear heads” who have the latest, greatest gadgets. There are ultra-light weight types who brag about how light their packs are. There are those who carry lawn chairs and super duper mattresses for comfort. There are those who measure their time on the trail by how much mileage they cover per day. I’m somewhere in the middle of all this, having honed my approach to compromise for as little weight as possible, but not over-compensating for comfort, safety, or necessity. Also, I’m of the old, slow sort. I’ve found myself at times in a comparison mode, but when I lapse into that attitude I lose sight of why I’m here.

The truth is that I’m not trying to get anywhere. I already am where I’m going, I’ve arrived at the destination of where I want to be. I’m deep in the forest in Maine, someplace I’ve never been and – likely – never to have the opportunity to be again. It’s an enchanted place, with pine trees of so many sizes that there are thousands of acres of Christmas trees in all directions. There are birds in all directions, many of which I’ve never heard before. Yesterday, while filtering water by the lake, a snake crawled slowly between my legs. And I embraced it’s presence. That, too, was a sacred experience.

It’s not easy to stay out of the comparison mode. But there is a personal freedom to being true to myself, and to be grateful for who I am. For the first time in my life, I’ve embarked on a journey that I just show up for and participate in, one piece at a time, and watch closely where it leads me. I’m very eager to follow the inner process. My final comment at dinner last night was “This entire thing for me is a gigantic retirement party, and I’m not about to turn it into a competition of any sort.”

Faith & Wits

I never thought that there could be such a sense of safety and security as I experienced in the rented car. As I sat there, rain pattering on the windshield, I had nothing but time to inventory the safe and secure life I had left behind, as well as the uncertainty that was ahead. Indeed, the comfort of my own cavalier attitude had now shifted, leaving none of the self-assurance and confidence that was once prevalent. I felt alone, without familiar people, places or things, and I was sure that the days ahead would only plunge me ever further into a deep dive of the unknown.

There was a slight comfort in realizing that I could bail out, up to a certain point. However, to quit without giving my full effort was thoroughly unacceptable. Also, nagging at the edge of my thoughts, were hard facts of those before me who had trodden the path, a few successful and many not. Home, family, dear ones, familiar places and habits were all now hundreds, even thousands, of miles away. When I first heard about the Hundred Mile Wilderness, the lure of the wild caught my imagination the way a bass snaps at a plastic lure. Unlike the bass, I realized that there were hooks attached to my fascination. Now that I was only hours away from entering this challenge, the dominant thought was “Why on Earth did I choose this path?

I sought conventional wisdom and experience. The old man had said “It’s been raining and it’s wet out there. There’s water everywhere, and you will not make the mileage that is common in other conditions. Do not do anything that your intuition speaks against. Be extremely careful fording the creeks and rivers.” At least two others told of those who had been swept away, even drowned, crossing rivers that were deep and swift. I asked the old man whether any of his cautions included, or suggested, to not go. He said no, the path was possible, but extremely precarious. His admonitions were about caution and common sense.

It had been an uncommonly wet Spring, following a Winter of record snowfall. As I sat in the Abol campground and surveyed the Penobscot river, there seemed to be an ungodly amount of water flowing between its swolen banks. For the first time in 10 years, some parts of Baxter Park were closed for Memorial Day Weekend because the snow had not receded enough to make the trails passable. With a sense of doom, the forecast called for more rain. Also, once inside the Hundred Mile Wilderness, phone signal, as well as an easy exit, would be virtually impossible.

Personal moments of uncertainty weren’t uncommon or unfamiliar. Many times, through these moments, I had looked at Bella – with her youthful exuberance and enthusiasm – and questioned why such a capable and talented creature had come into my life. In her complete lack of comprehending what we were about to undertake, she seemed so incredibly enthusiastic and undaunted, living only in the present moment. As we had faced challenges in the past, she had always risen to the task with simple words of encouragement. She had, naturally and effortlessly, risen to every challenge and excelled, and all it took from me was encouragement. The encouragement was always about uncovering what was already there, within her. For me, swallowed by uncertainty, my step was one of faith, which imparts its own encouragement.

The late contemplative, Thomas Merton, wrote in his book “Seeds of Contemplation” that Faith is an intellectual assent. It took me quite some time to realize that this translates to a conscious and intent choice. In other words, as I approach the path that lie before me, I could conciously and attentively choose the attitude and outlook that I wanted to embody. Not all humans exercise this freedom. Further, there was something inside me, deep inside, beneath the chatter and commotion of insecurity, that suggested taking just one step. I thought “What if I just show up, one day after another, one mile at a time, and see what happens?” I realized that I was proceeding by Faith and wits, and testing the very limit of my own knowledge and skill.

And so it was that I entered the Hundred Mile Wilderness, fading from my life of the  known and comfortable. With loaded pack and trail-blazing canine, we broke camp at first light. I held tightly to words of encouragement, and stepped toward mile #101.

Burying the Hatchet

I’m convinced that the key to being successful at backpacking is a two step proposition: keep the pack light, and keep the belly full. It is simply said, but it is not always easy in practice.

In terms of what goes in the pack, there are four broadly defined categories: a) shelter and bedding, b) food and water, c) necessities, and d) comfort. While each person “hikes their own hike”, the difference between necessity and comfort can shift considerably from person to person. The shift may be because of the particular hike, or from season to season. There are items that can bring comfort or ease today, yet be a burden tomorrow. I am culpably guilty of holding that which should be rightfully in the comfort category, therefore optional, as a necessity, for way too long.

In terms of all the weight that one carries, there are three categories. First is dry weight: the weight of the pack and everything in it, less expendables like food, water, cooking fuel, etc. This is also called the base weight of the pack. Second, added to the base or dry weight, is the weight of the pack with all the expendables – the full weight of the pack – which will vary as the expendables are consumed. Finally, there is the weight of everything worn or carried on the person, such as clothing, shoes, pocket knife, etc. When all three of these categories are added together, it’s called the “skin out” weight.

As I persisted in my “shake down” hike on the River to River trail, it continued to be driven home by virtue of the pain of carrying way too much baggage that I needed to get rid of some of the junk that I had in the “comfort” category. It became glaringly apparent that I could not endure multiple days on the trail with everything that I was carrying in my pack.

The first realization came fairly early in the hike. I decided that I didn’t need three phone batteries, several yards of paracord, and other miscellaneous detritus. Therefore I came up with a scheme: I’d bury the stuff in a tight, tidy Ziploc bag, and come back for it later.

I had the same realization later in the hike, so out went another layer of excess crap, buried in the woods, to be retrieved later. Then came the big realization: I needed to get rid of my hatchet. It weighed 1 lb. 11 oz., which made it one of the heaviest single items in the pack. It’s actually a pipe hawk, the cousin of a tomahawk and a trail hawk, which made it all the more alluring to carry. I’d been arguing with myself for years about the necessity of having it, but I knew the penalty of carrying that much extra weight. Indeed, I’d never met another hiker who carried a hatchet. But, I reasoned, it’s driven many a tent peg into stubborn earth. It’s made short order of firewood that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to use. The war within my head continued, centered around whether the hatchet was truly necessary or not.

Finally, the raw pain of carrying the hatchet brought me to the day when I buried it, too, to be later retrieved. On the day that I buried the hatchet, I had a series of introspective thoughts. How long have I carried personal baggage, ideas or attitudes, arguing with myself over their necessity while bearing the torture and torment of their weight? I realized that, if there’s a war or conflict going on inside my head over these issues, it’s because I’m stuck in the attitudes, and using the outdated tools, that I inherited. I’ve learned better attitudes and tools in my journey, if only I’d let go of the past, and free myself in the present. The day that I buried the hatchet was one of the happiest days of my backwoods life. I’ve never missed it, nor have I ever looked back.

I read an article recently, “Why Facts don’t Change Our Minds“, that succinctly pointed out how we, as humans, remain with non-rational behavior in the face of the difficulty it causes. The article perfectly described what I have been doing with my hatchet. However, when the raw pain of continuing the behavior outweighed the behavior itself, I became “teachable”, ready to release into something new.

At any rate, the end of this particular hike will bring me an extra day of driving across Southern Illinois, retracing my steps, to reclaim all the buried treasure that I chose to proceed without. It’ll be a day of celebration, as I travel lighter and with more freedom.