Friday, August 17, 2012

Wipe Your Fears Away

One of the more common questions we get asked as thru-hikers is, "How has this trip changed you?". It's not an easy question to answer, and truly changing a person is not an easy thing to do. That being said, the trail has taught us ( and re-taught us, and re-taught us again) some lessons that I hope we will carry with us for the rest of our lives. One of those lessons is how we deal with fear (I'm going to lump fear/dread/avoidance all together for this one).

Confession time: We didn't start philosophical discussion on fear because that's what we like to talk about over dinner. We started talking about fear after reading our friend Matt's blog post "Practicing Poverty and Other Lessons In Stoicism (AKA United Kingdom and Iceland Are Expensive!)". Matt is currently taking 7 months to explore Europe, and is keeping a fantastic blog that you can find at In this particular post, Matt talks about how "Stoicism teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions"......emotions like fear.

On the trail, we experience fear in an outright and direct way more often than the average American probably does. We actually worry about threats like venomous snakes, Lyme disease, falling trees, water-bourne illness, lightning, protective bears, storms, falls, dehydration, hypothermia, heat stroke, hunger, drowning, hunters, and losing our way - these are things we think about on a daily basis (sorry Mom, I know that was a tough sentence but I figure you've already read "A Walk In The Woods"). And here's the amazing thing.....a good portion of those fears have already happened to us, and here we are, hiking New Hampshire and feeling great.

The Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote about overcoming the fear of poverty:

"Set aside a certain number of days, during which you will be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with course and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: Is this the condition I feared?"

In other words, once it happens, is it really that horrible, or is it just something different, and maybe uncomfortable, but something that we can adjust to?

One fateful day, Guyline set out to answer this question - is the fear we feel worse than actually experiencing the things we fear? Was FDR right when he asserted his firm belief that "the only thing we have to fear itself"?

Exhale, parents - Guyline didn't intentionally put himself in harm's way via any of the threats and fears I listed above. Why not start small? In actuality, the day he tested Seneca, FDR, and our friend Matt was the day - and the only day since - we realized we were going to run out of toilet paper in the middle of the woods.

"Well," I said, shaking my head in disbelief at our oversight, "Maybe we won't even need to poop before town." (These types of things are perfectly acceptable, if not encouraged, topics of conversation with significant others, perfect strangers, etc. on the trail).

Guyline looked back at me, his eyes blazing with determination and a hint of "Who are you kidding?", and declared, "No. I'm not letting this hang over me like that. Have you seen any sassafras bushes?".

"Guyline!," I gasped in horror, "You don't need to do this! There are still at least 15 - 20 squares left!" (although inside, I was screaming silently, "please don't use it, you crazy fool, please don't use it......I could totally make it to town on this without you!").

"Bearcub, I SAID, have you seen any sassafras?" he repeated, eyes still blazing.

In disbelief at my good fortune and his bravery/stupidity, I helped him locate the "safe to touch" sassafras leaves and watched in amazement as he picked a healthy handful and headed toward the shelter's privy with his head held high. What a guy......rather than dread this over the next few days, he was taking the bull by the horns and willingly wiping his butt with leaves instead of toilet paper.

"Well?" I asked tentatively when he returned, bracing myself for the worst.

"It wasn't was totally fine. It was just like Seneca said."

Well there you have it, folks. It was fine. Just like Seneca said. And so it is with many of the things that we fear on the trail but also in everyday life - failure, being alone, being poor, feeling inferior, change. I'm not advocating that we all go stand on top of a mountain in a lightning storm and challenge the awesome power of Mother Nature to give us something to be fearful of.....but I am advocating that we start using a technique that Tim Ferriss (one of Guyline and Matt's heroes) encourages in his book "4 Hour Work Week"; imagine the worst case scenario - could you handle it? Sometimes, the worst case scenario may be: I will get struck by lightning twice and go into cardiac arrest, causing me to lose my balance and fall off a mountain, breaking both my legs. I will lay there in agony for days, too weak to call for help, while vultures circle and begin pecking at my head. Ok, so go ahead and be fearful for that one.

But more often than not, the worst case scenario isn't that bad. Should I take a leave of absence to hike the Appalachian Trail? Worst case scenario - I fail and go home with my tail tucked between my legs, and everyone just has to get over it. People worth talking to will probably respect the fact that I even tried. Should I leave my safe job and try to start my own business? Worst case scenario - I fail, lose all my money, can't find another, and move into my parents' basement. Sounds lovely, Laun makes one hell of a quiche.

The AT re-teaches me this lesson at least once a week....every time it rains. When my handy dandy iPhone actually has reception, the first thing I do is update the weather report, and the dread starts creeping in for any day with a chance of rain above 30% (about half the time). I spend my day praying for dry weather and dwelling on how terrible it will be to get soaked to the bones. And every time it happens, I realize that a.) all of those hours worrying didn't change anything, and b.) it's fine (just like Seneca said). I'm wet and slightly uncomfortable, but I'm fine.

I recognize that fear has it's place, but next time you find yourself avoiding something, play the wort-case scenario game. You just might find yourself with a clean butt and a peaceful mind.


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Stating the Facts

To make up for the infrequency of blog posts throughout this trip, we
thought we'd give you a state by state rundown of the entire AT as we've
experienced it and as we anticipate it. Here's the catch...I like blogging
and you like reading, but we're both busy people. So rather than taking the
time to carefully craft a post that's both informational and easy to read,
I'm going to forget the rules of grammar and just shoot from the hip on
this one. I'm also including for each state the Appalachian Trail
Conservancy's difficulty range, the trail's distance, and our average daily
mileage. For the record I disagree with most of the ATC's difficulty
ratings. Sections of each state are harder they are rated. For example,
Pennsylvania has a very steep, incredibly rocky climb more difficult than
anything else we've done yet the difficulty rating is a 4.

*Georgia* - Difficulty 6 - Distance 76.4 - Mileage 8.23 - Bearcub's friend
Anne drops us off at the trail. We let out a collective gulp as we watch
her drive away. We're anxious, excited, nervous, and slightly scared. The
trail goes up and right back down again through the entire state. It's
rough on Bearcub's knees so we take a day off to play bar trivia with the
locals. We consider holing up in a hotel for 6 months writing fake blog
posts about the trials and tribulations of the AT, but instead we keep
hiking. Or do we?

*North Carolina* - Difficulty 3-6 - Distance 95.5 - Mileage 7.5 - The
terrain is still pretty up and down as if it was a bunch of mountains or
something. For some reason we didn't think it would be this hard. Bearcub's
knees are still acting up, so we take 2 zeroes and a few very short days.
We start to get a steady pace going as we reach the Smokies. This is the
time we meet everyone we'll be hiking around for the next 1,000 miles.
We're getting the hang of hiking and decide we might could keep doing it.
That's Carolina speak for we might be able to keep doing it.

*Tennessee* - Difficulty 5-6 - Distance 287.9 - Mileage 10.12- The trail
hugs the TN/NC border for miles. We never know what state we're in. Bearcub
comes down with what eventually becomes known among hikers as the Erwin
Sickness right outside of Erwin, TN. This sidelines us in the trail town
you least want to be sidelined in. Sorry, Erwin. Trail at the end of
Tennessee is beautiful and not too challenging. Our spirits are renewed.

*Virginia* - Difficulty 2-6 - Distance 550.3 - Mileage 12.19 - We're
excited to get to what we hear is the easy part of the trail. Disappointed
to find it's only slightly easier than the first part of the trail. The AT
reaches into its grab bag of ailments and hands Bearcub a healthy dose of
Giardia. This makes Virginia's 535 miles seem even longer. Nonetheless, we
finally get into a groove and start consistently logging decent miles.
However, we kiss the hopes of finishing before Bearcub's cousin's wedding
on Sep 23rd goodbye. We get our first visitors when Bearcub's aunt and
uncle, my family, and friends Anne and Sarika come to visit. Anne
henceforth not so secretly hopes for blog mentions. My mom makes it clear
that she doesn't like my beard. I tell her hopefully it will grow on her
like it did on me. Zing.

*West Virginia* - Difficulty 2-3 - Distance 4 - A tiny state that we're
happy to knock out quickly. Hit the psychological halfway point in Harpers
Ferry. They take our picture at ATC headquarters to prove we made it this
far. My eyes are closed in the photo. 1.017 miles wasted.

*Maryland* - Difficulty 2-3 - Distance 40.9 - Mileage 12.47 - Another tiny
state. I tease Bearcub in front of some friends about a previous fall she
took only to take a fall of my own seconds later. I stop teasing Bearcub.

*Pennsylvania* - Difficulty 2-4 - Distance 229.6 - Mileage 16.25 - It's
flat! For once, the trail is flat. We rejoice by catching the Sound of
Music at a resort/playhouse right off the trail. Not joking. Soon the flat
is negated by a hundred miles of jagged rocks and boulders. Fa - a long,
long way to walk on rocks. So - ready for our feet to stop hurting. In PA
we realize that if we really hustle, we may be able to finish before the
wedding. We decide to make like a Pizza Hut and Book It.

*New Jersey* - Difficulty 2-5 - Distance 72.2 - Mileage 16.06 - Overjoyed
to be done with PA. We face off with a protective mama bear. The wind
steals my trekking pole and throws it off a mountain. Not The Situation I
was hoping to encounter in Jersey.

*New York* - Difficulty 2-6 - Distance 88.4 - Mileage 17.38 - Unnecessarily
challenging trail takes us over every rocky incline in the entire state
even though there are plainly easier routes. Water sources are a far cry
from the crystal clear springs in the south. Luckily, trail angels provide
water, take us in for the night, and feed us. We don't know how they get
our laundry smelling so clean until we get poured on the next day and soap
suds start running down my legs.

*Connecticut* - Difficulty 4-5 - Distance 51.6 - Mileage 16.4 - pretty
trail, but difficult. Not much else to say about it other than the fact
that we got a free beer at a liquor store just for being thru-hikers.

*Massachusetts* - Difficulty 3-6 - Distance 90.2 - Mileage so far 17.1 -
similar to CT in that it's both beautiful and difficult. Dissimilar to CT
in that we're currently in it. Amazing visit from Bearcub's sister who
takes us to see the new Batman movie. The film is even more awe-inspiring
since we're so out of touch with reality that we think it's real.

*Vermont* - Difficulty 5-6 - Distance 149.8 - We've heard the trail in VT
is beautiful, but it looks pretty rough on the elevation map.

*New Hampshire* - Difficulty 6-10 - Distance - 160.9 - supposedly the most
difficult state, but a planned visit from Bearcub's mama and papa bear
should help to soften the blow. Also supposed to be amazing beautiful.

*Maine* - Difficulty 3-10 - Distance - 281.4 - also supposed to be
difficult, but we should be on cloud 9 knowing that the journey is almost
at its conclusion.

Guyline's eyes are closed - 1,017 miles wasted

The rocky trail of Pennsylvania

Somebody needed an extra rinse cycle
A beer and wine shop in Cornwall Bridge, CT offers all thru hikers a free beer of their choice

To be honest, at this point of the trip the state I'm most looking forward
to is Illinois. I hear Chicago is as flat as a pancake. Later, readers!

- Guyline