Thursday, August 9, 2012

Everything I Need to Know about Life I Learned on the Appalachian Trail

I was listening to Krista Tippett’s On Being interview with Sarah Kay about the power of words, and Sarah explained an exercise she uses as a prompt when working with students to cultivate their self expression. (She used it in her TED talk, too.) The prompt is to answer this: What I know to be True.

When I thought about what I know to be true, it came to me that everything I ever needed to know I learned by hiking the Appalachian Trail, all 2,172 miles of it in six-and-a-half months. That is where this begins.

The end of the Trail, October 4, 2003.
Life isn’t in 4 walls: It isn’t the house that surrounds us. It isn’t in the office where we spend the majority of our days, positioned behind a computer. It is outside in this vast compendium of earthliness – from the smallest critters, like ants, centipedes, and chipmunks – to the calm of a deer grazing without notice of your presence – to the fierce protection a mother grouse has of her nest – to the magic of a bear in his element, his home, not one constructed of four walls, with regular feeding time. The minutiae of the organisms in the dirt. The sun. Time spent in such regular contact with the moon, daily knowing her waxing and waning. By four walls, I also mean the constructs of our society that keep us chained to our “place,” items of imaginary importance – politics, war, violence, “trending” news – like celebrity marriages and children. Why is any of that more important than what we can witness and experience for ourselves, separated from all of that?

Appreciate everything: Seriously, if you can’t find reasons to be in love with something through endless days of rain, there isn’t a way you can complete a six-and-a-half month hike on the Appalachian Trail. Just like life, it has its highs and its lows (sometimes more lows). I couldn’t have completed my 2003 thru-hike during “the rainiest year on record” without a positive outlook, which sometimes meant creating things to be thankful for. Optimism, yes, positive outlook mixed with hope for good to come, goes a long way toward fulfillment.

I am everything. Everything is me: I grew up with Christian principles, and I learned this distinctly eastern philosophy through my direct experience in my 25th year on this planet. It’s hard to capture in a snappy paragraph, but it was hard-won knowledge that left me feeling more compassionate toward the earth and all her animals, including my fellow humans and myself.

I started to connect that if we treat the earth poorly, in our industrial food production systems, for instance, that it returns to us, with unhealthy food choices and unhealthy bodies. I reasoned that we don’t know our food any more. (This was prior to my familiarity with the slow food movement, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle or Omnivore’s Dilemma. I was still a conventional food consumer to the core before my hike, unaware of the food practices plaguing the natural seed banks of our nation.) I suspected that animals carved and sold to us in Styrofoam on things that look like maxi-pads to soak up the blood were part of our disconnect with what we ate. How could we appreciate our food when we didn’t know where it came from? If we couldn’t even bear to see the sight of its blood?

The food system is just one example of the awareness that bubbled up in me during my hike, of the connectivity of life and life cycles on this planet. I became more distinctly aware of my connection to my ancestors (then living and dead), to what impact my words, my “footsteps”, and my actions have on everything and everyone around me. I continue to learn this life lesson; it’s a big one.

The trail gives you what you need: It’s an expression that litters the trail, just like those silly little corners from granola bar and candy wrappers that tend to slip out of fingers or pant pockets (so watch you don’t loose yours). Experienced long-distance hikers dispense this nugget like yoga teachers spout ancient Sanskrit text or Christians throw around John 3:16. It is THE BIGGIE! But hearing it and living it are two different things. I learned it then, but must continually revive it for myself in my off-trail life – faith. It’s nothing but faith.

I started my hike with faith founded in my Lutheran upbringing and the idiom my momma dispensed “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” But before long I came to trust the expression of the trail delivering what I need much more, because the challenges were harder than anything I had faced before.

I had to trust that entering the heavy spring snow of the Great Smoky Mountains I wouldn’t die of exposure, and that I had the right gear and knowledge to stay safe. I had to trust that a wild animal wouldn’t carry off my food, and if it did I could survive. I had to trust that I wouldn’t get lost in an attempt to cross-country navigate in the 100-mile wilderness of Maine. I had to trust that despite walking through a sunken trail that resembled a river and endless days of mud that I wouldn’t develop trench foot or hypothermia. I had to trust that being scared out of my wits by an aggressive grouse was precisely what would be best for me at that moment. See, this phrase didn’t just say “you can handle it” it also went a step further to suggest that it’s necessary growth. It’s what you need.

And, while the trail gave me challenges and obstacles (like scaling vertical ladders on sheer rock faces of New England), it also gave me things like lakes for swimming on a few perfect, sunshiny days, flying a kite from a canoe, easy hitches into town with kind strangers, the soaking rain of a thunderstorm just after I arrived at a shelter, and friends showing up in unusual places. These things, too, were just what I needed, when I needed them.

What if we look at all of life as a perfect dose from the Universe of what we need, trusting that it will all work out? Faith, trust, hope – that’s about all we can do…Oh, and love.

There is no perfect time: There’s now. On my hike I encountered people who lamented not being able to go on a long hike. The secret, the hidden truth, I came to understand after a few conversations that started this way, is that hiking (or insert your dream here….) is accessible to all of us. Each of us can save a few thousand dollars to hike, find a way to jump off the ferris wheel of “life as we know it” and get on the trail. When we leave, things continue. The world doesn’t stop because we we aren’t there to attend meetings, answer the phone, or meet for drinks at the bar on Tuesday. Family, friends, employment, and house…all of it will be there when we come back. But there’s too much that’s fleeting in this life not to go now, especially if it is what you want. This goes for anything, writing a book (write!), dancing (dance!), learning to fly (get a lesson!). Don’t wait. There may never be a better time than right this instance!

Another way to say it: there is fear and the excuses bred by those fears, and there is doing. Please, for the lova’, be a doer! (Note: I reminding myself of this lesson again and again and again…preachin’ to me and you!)


What do you know to be true? 

(Sarah would challenge you to elaborate. Don’t write just one word, but explain what it is, where it comes from…Go! You have 2 minutes!)