I have no idea what the hell I’m doing, but I know that I’m lucky.
I’ve hedged some bets on this hike, and I’m all in. So in, I’ve sold my car, and the last five months of my car insurance policy. I allocated that money as an emergency fund of sorts. So far it has covered all the zero’s I’ve needed due to my leg, an orthopedic boot, and my meals for the next five weeks. I haven’t even touched my trail budget yet. It’s an absolute wonder what abundance can arise when you put to death a few vices.
In the past few weeks I’ve gone from being one of the strongest hikers on trail, to having my wings clipped by injury. Now I’m home and I’m bound by the fact that I can no longer legally drive myself anywhere, nor can I reasonably walk more than a few hundred yards a day without re-injuring myself.
This would be emotionally debilitating, if not for the fact that I have an amazing family. Family willing to pick me up at a bus station at 11pm, no questions asked. Family willing to let me live in a guestroom, even if my “rent” comes in the form of doing dishes, laundry, and a few odd electrical jobs around the house. Family willing to let me tag along to the grocery store, so that I can buy my food for the week.
My lifestyle has gone from free range, in every possible sense, to monastic; in a very real sense. I have such immense gratitude though. For the first two or three days, I ate food that I had failed to consume before I left for the AT. I salvaged half a bag of spinach, nearly a full container of Greek yogurt, and some frozen berries. Millet, yerba mate, and several bags of frozen vegetables too, made for a stark contrast to my trail diet. A diet filled with sugar, which I am now always craving.
Those few days making do with what I had, made me appreciate my first trip to the grocery store in a way I haven’t in years. In the same way, I’ve never appreciated my ability to walk or run before now. There is the conceptual “I should be grateful” and then there is the visceral reality of “I am grateful” when threatened with loss. Much in the way that you’re told to finish your plate as a child, after being presented with the idea of “those less fortunate.” Fast-forward fifteen years, and a few sketchy months in your 20’s… I’ll never waste a bite again.
I’ve heard of the Stoics performing similar exercises. Men like Cicero, and Seneca dressing themselves in rags, and sleeping on the streets a few nights a month, just to truly appreciate their status. Also, to realize the fanciful absurdity, and transience of the notion of “status” itself. The exercises also extended to the physical body in the form of various meditations. Imagining the difficulties of navigating the world as a blind man, for example.
Sure, I’m in a lofty place. It’s 1am, I’m drinking freshly brewed tea, and I’m typing away on a laptop in a climate controlled space. The point is, I am grateful, and I appreciate all of these things.
It is exactly the cultivation of this kind of awareness, and the appreciation for simplicity, which lured me towards backpacking in the first place. At first you come to understand that indoor plumbing, and HVAC are magical things. Spend enough time in the woods however, immerse for a few months or more, and soon you’ll realize deeper truths. The truth that it takes so very, very much food to keep one human alive. That those calories are so rare and precious in nature.
Then you learn, quite literally in your core, that your entire existence is really just a little spark of warmth. That you’re only here, because hundreds of generations before you didn’t let that little internal fire go out. Little fires came together to warm themselves as a tribe. We may as well call that little spark “love.” Spend enough time cold and wet, and you’ll see how delicate it really is. You’ll see what a miracle it is that you’re even breathing right now.
The truth is, I’m blessed to be home, and have a home. I’m quite lucky to be learning these lessons in such a gentle way. Best of all, I’ll be back on trail in about a month. Being able to hike the trail at all is a very, very lucky thing. I’ll appreciate that even more now.