6/24 – Bear Mountain Inn
6/25 – Bear Mountain Inn
6/26 – Meet Brooke; Clarence Fahnestock State Park
6/27 – Morgan Stewart shelter
6/28 – Brooke returns to NYC from Pawling
6/29 – Pawling to Bulls Bridge, CT
6/30 – Matson/Halloran picnic
This reflection or summary of week 19 is more personal than most and involves little comment directly about hiking. (In fact, between waiting for Brooke and family activities in Connecticut there was not very much hiking, except essentially the 2 and ½ days with Brooke.) Hence, this post reports primarily on my own, first (and hopefully only), “banana pudding” moment. Let me explain . . .
It’s often said that attempting a thru-hike is more mental than physical. I have always believed that. In fact, I predicated almost every bit of planning and preparation around that belief. (An example: Some hikers save weight by eating only cold food, so they need not carry a stove or fuel. For me, a sound proposition but when I considered the emotional/mental aspect of going without a warm meal, etc. I concluded I needed to carry the stove and accept the “weight penalty.”). And those of you following me on the “Returning to Katahdin” podcast know that Mighty Blue has teased me considerably about the amount of planning that I did. [Yes, we’re getting to the “banana pudding” stuff. Patience . . . (not one of my most admirable attributes).]
During this process of collecting and cataloging my preparation and decisions, I not only realized no one had done a thorough job of focusing on the emotional/mental aspects of detailed thru-hiking planning, but that I had a good start for such a book. And, if you know me, writing a book is a fun, if difficult and challenging undertaking. As mentioned (and as the subject of much joking on the podcast) I really did a lot of preparation, including watching many YouTube videos and reading many trail journals and blogs. Of special note, for our purposes here, was this observation by a 2015 thru-hiker:
There are low points on the trail, when morale dips a tad from not finding my favorite Pop Tart in the food bag or realizing that the town brewery doesn’t stock IPA, and then there are Death Valley points when I ponder whether I was abducted by aliens who replaced a sizable portion of my brain with banana pudding. This was a pudding moment.
I loved this post and have used it in connection with the initial draft of my book on the emotional/mental aspects of planning for a thru-hike: Avoiding Those Banana Pudding Moments: A Guide to Planning and Managing the Mental Aspects of an Appalachian Trail Thru-hike. OK, maybe it’s too long, but it’s just a working title.
So, my banana pudding moment –
Week 18 ended with me getting off the trail and taking zero days waiting for Brooke to arrive so we could hike together again. I took at least one more day off than planned, and related to that, I did write in that week’s blog: “For the first time during the journey I was questioning the extent to which I was having fun and wondering if I was eager to finish.” Here’s the rest of the story . . .
I entered New York with mixed feelings. Pennsylvania had not been much fun and New Jersey had been okay – it started with a wonderful first day that included Sunfish Pond, but most of the rest of the state was less than exciting. While it seems like rocks is omnipresent in hikers’ discussions of Pennsylvania (and somewhat beyond), looking back (as discussed at the end of this meditation) the rocks really did continue and really did start to wear on me, more emotionally than physically.
Day one in New York was glorious. The first notable point of interest was Prospect Rock with great views east, including Greenwood Lake. The rest of the day was a ridge walk rolling through various rock ledges requiring many, modest (and a few more challenging) ups and downs. In the rain it would be difficult – even scary in places. On a sunny day it was mostly fun with many great views east and west. Despite the mental lift from this first day in the Empire State, I was not ready for the day that followed.
This second day in New York started with a bear walking down the shelter spur trail as three of us were walking out. If this was a novel, that might be a creative way to begin such a day. (The bear turned away from us once it saw us – no incident or concern.) After the prior day’s pleasant hike, early on I was hit by a tougher than expected climb through a steep rise after Fitzgerald Falls, which involved a steep climb through rocks with many difficult maneuvers. Then came Buchanan Mountain, which was as steep and as difficult (and as dangerous at times) as any part of the AT thus far. The climb here required extreme caution, hand over hand climbing (where you’d have to toss aside or put away your trekking poles), some precarious handholds and foot placements, and a snail pace.
Shortly after battling up and over Buchanan Mountain (to me abit like Jacob’s struggle with God, but even more physically challenging than the “Jacob’s Ladder” on the AT that Brooke and I climbed together doing her first visit, over 1200 miles earlier in NC), I had a similarly grueling ascent of Arden Mountain, which might not have been as brutally vertical but actually consisted of three separate, longer climbs and descents (where we’d gain elevation but then lose much of it ) before reaching the summit – at which time I had lunch, and at which time I had my banana pudding moment (which had nothing to do with what I was having for my midday meal).
While I rested at the top of Arden Mountain and enjoyed peanut butter and honey on a tortilla, some dried mangos and a Snickers (a classic thru-hiker lunch), I started to stress. Because there was a very active bear at the logical ending point for the day, a fellow hiker and I had agreed to hike a long day and get to a safer tenting area – due to the severity of the hiking, I was stressed because I was way behind schedule. Could I catch up to my friend and tent together as we planned (unlike most days, we acknowledged the benefit of tenting together where there might be active bears)? As I looked at the time and my progress, my best chance was to only reach the shelter area with the active bear.
Rain was in the forecast, which added to the stress. I had just worked my way, albeit very slowly, through some particularly tough (and often dangerous terrain) where I noted, seemingly every five minutes, “I could never do this in the rain or if the rocks were wet.” I have been through a number of these precarious rocky areas where I’ve said the same thing about the almost impossibility to work through those parts of the trail when wet. Not only was I tired from the tough morning thus far, I was now clearly unsure I could finish this difficult stretch before the rain came – this added enormous stress.
Even without the stress of my commitment to my hiking buddy, my inability to keep to my plan or schedule, and/or my fear of increased risk of harm from being stuck climbing through difficult rocks in the rain, I was tired and unhappy. I still had a ridiculously steep descent down off of Arden Mountain. I still had three more challenging climbs just to get to the “active bear” site, not to mention the actual, planned destination, which was an additional five miles. How did the terrain change so quickly after such a pleasant experience the previous day? How did I not know about the fearsome climbs above Fitzgerald Falls or up Buchanan and Arden? Didn’t I realize just how dangerous and difficult this hiking would be – and would it continue? I didn’t feel like I was having fun. I really wondered how much more of this I could take. Should I just admit I wasn’t tough enough and be happy with a 1300-mile trip?
What to do?
Following lunch I started down the extremely steep north side of Arden Mountain. Even without the rain or wet, I was struggling in places to lower myself down safely. These challenges did nothing (obviously) to improve my mental state. By the time I had eased my way down to the bottom of the mountain at NY 17, I had run through a number of scenarios and options in my mind. At the trailhead I sat on a log, and with little final debate I called a motel and ordered an Uber. In twenty minutes, although I was generally calm (and on my way to a motel room), nonetheless my stress and uncertainty was increased – had I quit or “bailed” from a tough situation when I should have dug deep and solved this situation or crisis differently. Regardless of the “right” answer, I was at an emotional low. The more I considered that I might want to get off the trail, the more my stress and discomfort. I wasn’t in a good place. I had three days off to think about it.
I planned to go back and make up the miles missed that day, but the next two days involved rain or the forecast for rain. The third day was dry but I had agreed to a business call and I had a good friend visiting from NYC, so I couldn’t hike that day. (I still have almost 15 miles to “cleanup” around Bear Mountain.). Brooke was arriving the following day.
I headed out of Bear Mountain on a beautiful morning, crossed the Hudson, and headed for my rendezvous with Brooke. It was a good hike and I was excited to see Brooke. Brooke and I had two tough hiking days (with very few rewards in terms of views or points of interest), including an all-night deluge on our second night. Absent having Brooke along, I fear my mental state would continue to have been low. The uncertainty about my enthusiasm for the hike stayed below the surface.
Brooke caught a train from Pawling, NY back into New York City. I hiked on to Connecticut the next day. The day was beautiful and the trail smooth. My brother-in-law picked me up in Bulls Bridge, CT. I enjoyed family time and some day hiking on the AT with my sister’s family and my daughters over the “first” fourth of July weekend. Despite a record heat wave, I still thoroughly enjoyed hiking in CT. I had a day hiking with Amy and Uncle Jim. The interesting, smooth trails, diversity of terrain, and variety of interesting features renewed my enthusiasm for hiking, which I took into Massachusetts. Recognizing that the trail conditions in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York were not without end (that I could return to fun and interesting hiking) and spending time with family helped transform the tattered, questionable emotional state left from my banana pudding moment in New York to a new enthusiasm to complete the thru-hike. For that I am most grateful to God.
Last modified: July 11, 2018