Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lessons from the Appalachian Trail: Goals are Good but Hot Showers are Heavenly

Last Sunday was the anniversary of the start of my 1998 Appalachian Trail thru-hike, and I wrote about it and how that first day reminded me to stay humble here.

Since then, I've been paging through the photo album of that hike and the stories have come flooding back.  My husband, nicknamed the Professor, and I have been sitting on the deck going down memory lane over coffee. This is nothing new, actually.  It's something we do on a regular basis.  One of us will start with, "Do you remember when..." and the next thing we know we've followed a spider-web of stories from one trail memory to the next, just like surfing the internet.

So this morning I was remembering how effing cold it was those first few days in Georgia on the trail, and how grateful I was for my first hot shower at Goose Creek Cabins.  There is nothing like it after a few grueling days of hiking and sleeping in the cold.  I try to keep that experience in mind whenever I'm getting impatient for at a child to grasp a concept I'm trying to teach hard work to pay off.  

Patience is a virtue, but its hard to appreciate that until you've experienced the euphoria of having given your all over a long period of time and then achieving your goal.  When you have a big, long journey ahead of you with the end result months and months away (even years away), its super easy to get discouraged.  You have to find a way to keep motivated, to satisfy that need for some sort of reward, anything at all.  That's where hot showers can come in pretty handy, literally and metaphorically.

The first day on the trail it rained and then turned to snow as the temperature plummeted.  We hiked roughly five miles the first day, not nearly enough by my estimations to get us to Maine on time.  And when we woke up the next morning, everything was covered in an inch of snow, including our friend, Snore, who opted not to pitch a tent under the pavilion we slept in.

We hiked about five miles that day, too, because, well, of me.  I was not yet trail-hardened and hiking even five miles was kicking my ass.  Prof and Snore had hiked the Trail just a few years before, and I can remember resenting how fast and hard they could hike right out of the gate.  I was left behind in their dust to mutter and curse their names.  

Your body doesn't forget that kind of training, and they had no trouble falling back into the cadence of stride, breath, and pace required to hike long distances day after day.  It took a good six weeks before I could do that.  But to this day, I can walk and walk and walk for miles, and while I will definitely feel it, I can do it.  But back then, during the first few weeks of my hike, I was a tender-foot holding my husband back.

I even felt a little sorry for myself the first couple days and nights, I have to admit.  It was hard, discouraging work hiking for hours on end with a 40 lb. backpack only to accomplish five miles at the end of the day.  And Prof and Snore were always ahead, waiting for me to catch up on breaks.  It sapped my initial excitement over our adventure fairly quickly. 

The second night with only ten or so miles behind us, I fell into my sleeping bag with my legs twitching and a sense of foreboding.  What did I get myself into?  How was I going to keep this up, day after day for six months?  And did I mention that in order for us to make it to Katahdin in Maine before the snow forced the rangers to close the mountain trail, we'd have to average 15 miles per day?  That wasn't going to happen at my current pace.

Oh, and did I say it was bitter cold?  So cold on the second night that both Prof and I kept waking up.  Our sleeping bags were rated to 20 degrees and come to find out the next morning when Snore loudly decreed, "It's 9 fucking degrees!" our bags were insufficient.  Not a surprise considering our ordeal to keep warm that night.

Here's a little trick for keeping warm on a night like that:  put on every stitch of clothing you have with you, then heat water to almost boiling and fill a couple of Nalgene bottles.  Slip a sock over the Nalgene bottle and put one at your feet inside your sleeping bag and hug the other one to your chest and belly for dear life.  This will keep you from getting hypothermia, at the very least, but it won't necessarily allow you to get a good night's sleep.  When the water cools down, reheat and repeat until morning.

After another day and a half of grueling weather and work, we finally made it to Neel Gap, the first rest stop along our six month journey.  We stayed at Goose Creek Cabins and I will never, ever forget the pure bliss of a hot shower.  I stood under the pounding spray, eyes closed with an utterly grateful heart.  When had a shower ever been so gratifying?  Never before in my life.

With a towel wrapped around my wet head, I climbed into bed just because I could and Prof
turned up the heat until we were sweating and melty.  I learned from the other hikers there that they too were struggling with the daily miles thing, and Prof and Snore assured everyone that in a few weeks, we'd all be hiking like old pros.  Well, not all of us.

I am sad to say that a bunch of folks we met over those first few days never made it out of Georgia.  They quit before the North Carolina border. I can't say why because I never saw them again, but the most typical reason people give for quitting early on is that they didn't realize how hard it was going to be.  And they got discouraged thinking about how far away the end was.

But Goose Creek Cabins taught me a lesson that would keep me going no matter what:  make the little things your sweet rewards when you're hiking the trail.  That shower?  bliss.  And when I was back on the trail, slipping on the ice, grinding out my few, pathetic miles at the beginning, I reminded myself that in a few days, I would get to have another hot shower.  Ahhhhhhhh!  And I'd pick up my pace.

Now, if I'd worried about how far away Katahdin was (2000 miles) back then and how few miles I was making, I could have gotten just as discouraged and quit, too. But I chose to focus on the next rest stop and the next shower and the next hot get the picture.

I still use the promise of a sweet, little reward along the way to get me through the tough stuff now that I'm back in the "real" world pursuing other big dreams and adventures.  I had no choice on the Trail but to wait for my rewards; now, it's a matter of self-discipline to make myself work for them.  

But the sweets are sweeter for it.

Ever hike and camp in the cold?  How'd you stay warm?  What rewards keep you on task when you have a long-term goal you're working toward?  Post a comment and let me know how you stay motivated.

Happy hiking, my friends.


  1. I can remember on St. Patrick's Day in '98 in Georgia I was so cold and wet and so close to hypothermia that my hands were shaking uncontrollably and I barely got my tent up and my sleeping bag inside before I collapsed into the danger zone. I had hiked for 12 hours and made a measly 6 miles. Once I was really strong, I think my best day was 38 miles, something like that. But what got me to Katahdin wasn't my physical condition, but my WILL or, rather, my unwillingness, to give up. That and the support of the people, like YOU, that I got along the way. But damn wasn't that Chinese buffet in Virginia just the Bomb?

    1. I don't know how that Chinese restaurant stayed in business with all the thru-hikers passing through there. I'm so glad we found each other on the trail, luluwan. Love and light, my friend. <3

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.