Pegleg and Smokey the Bear. The story begins.

Life Changing Lessons on the Appalachian Trail

Among the many many things I learned on the Appalachian Trail, there is one that is arguably the most important. It out shadows almost all the others by a mile (or 2100 miles) and with this one lesson, my life will never be the same. I’m not sure anyone involved really knew how it affected me. Or what I took away from it. But it seems fitting to be the first blog entry because everything else stems from this.

It Started with a Phone Call

As this story crosses plot lines with the Epiphany Epiphany and the Nantahala Outdoor Center Hypothermia, and it starts near the end of the trail. It starts with a phone call. Two great friends that started the trail together Pegleg and Smokey the Bear hiked a long way together.  I would see them off and on, here and there, since the very beginning of the trail.

One Day, You Realize the Hike Will End

And then you realize too that the end is in sight. Months of hiking eventually gets you somewhere, and as your body finds its rhythm and you can estimate what you are capable of, you can start to figure out about when you could finish the trail. And for a few hikers, when they realize they can grind out the last of the trail very quickly, they do.

Stretching Out Every Moment

For some the feeling of trail life is so magical they don’t want it to end. I felt the bittersweet feeling myself and wrestled with what that would mean. The end of something beyond anything I could have ever imagined. And the thought of going back to what I had walked away from. Some took this feeling and called home. I remember hearing it. TiedRight’s phone call was my favorite. “mom.. yeah send me my warm sleeping bag… and my big backpack… no, the big one… yeah.. and the camp stove. I need the lantern too”. I laugh every time I play back the phone call in my head. Two friends realizing they would stretch out every moment of this incredible summer as long as they could, and knew that meant a later finish. And that means better gear for colder weather that was looming.

The Phone Call Between Pegleg and Smokey

But that was not the phone call I was talking about. The phone call between Pegleg and Smokey was something entirely different. Pegleg and Smokey decided to stop hiking together. Pegleg could see the end of the trail. He could taste it. And so parting ways and on good terms, he put his head down and turned the trail over quickly, and finished a good time before some of us behind. I happened to be with Smokey the night Pegleg finished and he called Smokey to tell him he had finished. I never heard the phone call, but I talked with Smokey about it after they got off the phone.

“so…? did he finish?” I was curious. Excited. I could feel the bittersweet in my gut thinking I might get a spoiler of what my end might be like. Smokey had a slightly odd expression. Troubled maybe. More like confused.

“Yeah… He finished… but I don’t know. He wasn’t excited about it.” This was not the response I was expecting.

“what did he say?” I’m not sure about what to ask to figure out what was going on.

“he said it was raining. Like, no one was there. And when he got to the plaque he said he sat there a long time.”

“in the rain?”

“Yeah. Like he was waiting for something to happen” I was pretty quiet now trying to listen as much as I could. “He said he just stared at it like something was suppose to happen. Like he was going to have an epiphany or something.”

“And nothing happened?”

“No. He just sat there in the rain waiting. He said he stared at it for hours until eventually he just left.”

What Happens at the End of Your Hike?

I shrugged it off for a bit but the more time went by the more I thought about it. The bittersweet in my gut turned into I don’t know what. Was I looking at this all wrong? Is something suppose to happen to me when I get to the end? When I finally reach my destination? What 5 months of nonstop determination leads to? Is there a reward you get when you finish the trail? Do I level up or something? Am I going to have an epiphany?

Smokey and I didn’t talk about it much about it after that. We just finished our night out with food and more food. Tomorrow was another day of hiking. And this ran around in my head as much as anything could until eventually it just settled there. Like a pile of laundry. Unresolved, but it didn’t really bother me either.

The next day was pretty normal. And as you hike along, you are left countless hours to ponder. Lots of time in your own head with your own thoughts and not much of a distraction from most of the normal things that comes with a modern day in society. I pondered this in circles, slowly spiraling in until finally one final exclamation entered my head and put it all to rest. In my brain, there was one simple phrase.

“He missed it.”

It was very simple and yet so profound, but not once have I ever questioned it again. What was the reward he was looking for? What was suppose to happen when he finished? Was there a reward when you get to the finish? And quite simply the answer was yes.

The Rewards of Hiking the Appalachian Trail

If you finish or not. If you hike the whole way. If you skip sections. If you only want to hike it for an afternoon. There is a reward. And TiedRight saw it. TiedRight called home because he wanted more. An entire summer of picking apples and building campfires. Hiking through mountains, forests and beautiful landscape. Getting out of “real life” for a while to realize how simple your life can be. Watching sunsets for hours. Watching shooting stars on a mountaintop. Watching deer, moose, bears, and mice all out there with you. After a long day, your sleeping bag feels like a bed of roses. Your ramen and peanut butter a feast for a king. The sunshine like magic after hiking in days of rain.

The bottom line was this. The Appalachian Trail was your reward for hiking the Appalachian Trail. I realized that yes, you need to have a finish line. You have to have a direction to know where you are going. But just finishing the trail is not the reward. It was all the experiences along the way that is your reward. In a very literal sense, yes everyone makes it to their end, but not everyone makes it to the end they wanted. And that’s how life works. Not everyone gets where they think they want to be. But they still get somewhere. They still get experiences along the way. And everyone can learn something about themselves.

The Point of the Hike is the Hike

As with every story, I’m sure there is more to Peglegs story, but he seemed focused on the end as the reward. The “if I have that, then I’ll be happy” kind of thinking that a lot of people have. There is just something about being out there that fixes you. And if you set your sights on the end, then you miss everything in between. The point of the hike is the hike. And there are countless other places to apply this. The point of watching a show is to enjoy the show. The point of the dance is to enjoy the dance. The point of this life is to enjoy this life.

Celebrating Wins and Losses Along the Way

And yet when I did get to the end, the flood of memories of that summer was overwhelming. As four of us huddled in the back of Seamster’s truck watching a video about what we had just finished, celebrating the wins and losses along the way, I remembered the beginning. My parents dropping me at a rainy mountain in the middle of nowhere Maine. The many nights of campfires. The creatures howling in the night just beyond my headlamp. The rain and mud for miles and the beautiful rainbows that came with it. The most amazing and beautiful people I’ve ever met. My wonderful time with Sharon and our days of stories. I did not know about her tragedy yet. They were all part of my epic and they didn’t even know the extent.

The physical scars I now have I carry like medals of honor. The memories I not only had in my head but in my heart. The end was bittersweet indeed. An acquired taste you could say. A flavor so sweet it takes a lot of understanding to enjoy all of its flavors. Some of which you only get as an aftertaste. And I suppose chugging the bottle is one way to do it. But I recommend really taking your time and savoring it as much as you can.

If it really was all about getting to Springer, you could just hop in a car, which some people did here and there. Which brings me to The lesson from I Ching, which taught me something more profound than anything else I learned from the Appalachian Trail.

Other blog crossovers

Epiphany and her epiphany-The forgotten lesson from I Ching

How I accidentally Hiked the Appalachian Trail

TiedRight and Rusty’s Hard Time Hollow

Sharon and my not broken heart

Nantahala Outdoor Center Hypothermia

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