I don't regret not quite finishing my flip-flop hike of Appalachian Trail last year. I hiked over 1,800 miles. I churned through 3.5 pair of Altra Lone Peaks, hiked until my skirt literally fell off me and taught myself kinesiotaping on the fly to mend a painful knee. I actually got sick of Kraft mac 'n cheese. It took a lifetime, but I finally nailed it.
I got lonely and cold in October in North Carolina, though, and decided to get off the trail at Davenport Gap. I'd already bailed in Rangeley, Maine when my knee began refusing to let me descend mountains in peace. (I hadn't discovered kinesiotaping, yet.) It was three weeks before my knee let me get back on the trail. By then it was too late for Maine, so I flipped back to Grayson Highlands, where I'd started in April.
By the time I came within striking distance of the Smokies, I felt done.
So I went home. I hibernated. I rested. I spent time with my beloved poodle, Rico, who died suddenly just two weeks later. I'm so grateful I got those last two weeks with the dog who stole my heart.
My body was bruised and my heart was broken. An at first it did feel a bit like I'd failed.
Finding the Sweet Spot
But then, perspective happened. Just because the hike was over for the year didn't mean the learning stopped.
Here's what I know now about long distance hiking.
There's a sweet spot. There's a distance long enough to challenge a hiker, offering a variety of new experiences that run the gamut from bliss to holy-hell-what-am-I-doing-out-here? But it's also a distance not so long that grinding out miles becomes the point.
That distance will vary depending on the kind of hiker you are. For me, 2,000 miles is too many miles. I'm slow, and I like to stop a lot to ogle critters and sun myself on rocks like our reptile friends. So for me, 2,000 miles requires grinding out miles.
But grinding out miles is not the point.
Grinding out miles is not the point.
It took me a while to figure this out and I'm afraid if I don't keep saying it I will forget.
Or I could just keep reminding myself of what the point actually is, at least for me.
What the point really is...
The whole point of taking such a journey, by foot, carrying all that you need and nothing more, is to learn to stop taking our "one wild and precious life" for granted.
The point is to learn to see with new eyes, hear with new ears. That doesn't happen when you're flying down the trail, late for Katahdin.
The point is to pass by all that I do not love in order to embrace only the things that make my heart sing.
The point is to honor my soul and what I'm divinely guided to experience, which may be to sit and study a lady-slipper for a day or to sleep late, put my feet in a stream, go off trail for ice cream.
Long distance hiking can be a pilgrimage, a sacred journey where the destination is beside the point. Get there. Don't get there. It doesn't matter when each step is infused with awareness and attention to what breathes life into me right now.
The point is to use hiking as a way back to my soul. Connecting with spirit means trusting where it leads you. Which may or may not follow white blazes.
About that journey v. destination thing...
Hikers pay lip service to that old adage that it's about the journey, not the destination. But then everywhere there is pressure to finish, to summit, to keep moving forward like sharks, to swim or die.
The point is to follow our own rhythm, both on the trail, no matter where it leads. And then to carry that knowledge off the trail and into real life, where following your own rhythm is the only thing that matters to your soul. Your journey. Your rhythm. Your "one wild and precious life" to live as you see fit.
I still want to finish, though.
Or at least keep hiking the parts I haven't experienced yet.
So, this year I'll return to the Smokies and to Maine and to hike those hikes in my own natural rhythm. The other added bonus to not finishing last year, I'll get to hike while it's warm, while I'm pain-free (I hope) and with at least one member of my trail family joining the party in Maine.
Woo Hoo...can't wait to get back on the trail. June is for SOBO through the Smokies, NC and Georgia. August is for NOBO through Maine. That should just about take care of my sweet spot for the year.