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August 22, 2018 / Comments (6)

Week 25 – Can I finish this journey on my own?

[I made this a 5-day “week” because it better captures logically/organizationally the theme for this week and sets up nicely the next “week” where I leave New Hampshire, enter Maine and start my 14th and last state.]

There’s not too much hiking to report on this week. (I took a “nero” and two zeros this week, the purpose for which ties to the theme of this post.) Because it is so “iconic,” I will cover my trip to the summit of Mt. Washington – where I left everyone last week. Most of this post, however, will be more personal where I share some thoughts and feelings about certain matters that became more focused and intense recently.

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Mt. Washington. Briefly, on a cloudy morning I was first to leave Lake of the Clouds AMC hut and start the 1.4 mile climb to Mt. Washington. The trail was relatively easy. The clouds began to lift at the summit and I had some nice views as I approached. At the summit there were no hikers and only a handful of summit workers, one of whom told me the summit was in clouds 300 out of 365 days a year. I had some descent views, coffee, and a muffin, and then made my descent. Saw cog railroad go by. Descended to Mt. Clay, Mt. Jefferson and eventually Madison Springs AMC hit. Short break – saw Pulitzer, McGyver, and Sputnick. Very, very difficult ascent and descent of Mt. Madison – during descent rain started. Very tough rock fields with difficult footing. Finally get below tree line – still long, very steep, very difficult descent to Osgood campsite. Rain intensifies as I descended. Raining steadily trying to setup camp. Rain continued and intensify into night. Still raining in morning. Hiked out to trailhead for Gorham and got ride to Libby Barn hostel – Gbolt and Recon already there.

So that was Mt. Washington day. The rest of this post is much more about my emotional state and how I have tried to manage it in connection with attempting to finish this journey.

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Week 25, wow! Twenty-five weeks sounds like a long time – it is , it was! It’s been essentially six months since I left Springer Mountain in Georgia. My original (even then admittedly ambitious) plan was to try to summit Katahdin on July 15 – my birthday. That assumed about 15 miles a day and a zero every 10 days. After the first week or so I was doing about 15 miles a day, but I was taking more days off – both for fun and for resting/recovering from some pains. (For example, I took two zeros in the middle of the Smokies because my hip started to bother me.) And, planning for 15 miles a day in New Hampshire and Maine was a mistake – so, 25 weeks later, I’m still out here. But, as I like to say, I’m still standing (and still heading north).

It’s often said (and I mentioned this in my “Banana Pudding Moment” post for Week #19) that the challenge of completing a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail is “more mental than physical.” That proposition struck me as being accurate. What I’ve learned, however, is that (at least for me) the challenges imbedded in the undertaking change, at least in severity or degree, over time where the primary challenge initially was certainly more physical than mental, but became more mental or emotional over time.

Initially, the excitement of being out on a long journey was a positive influence on moving along the 2,190 mile trail. Later, with the daily regimen of hiking 10 to 20 miles a day, the physical challenge becomes less front of mind and the mental obstacles that result from bad weather, monotony, cleanliness concerns, aches and pains, missing family and friends, etc. come more to the forefront. For me, it’s been a process whereby the balance between physical and mental is 80-20 (80% physical) and eventually becomes 20-80 (80% mental).

By Week 25 the challenge of the thru-hike was mostly mental or emotional. I wasn’t at a point where I wanted to quit. I didn’t dread the idea of heading out to keep hiking. It was not another banana pudding moment. It wasn’t a moment at all. I was tired – tired physically, tired of the routine, and ready to get home. Moreover, even though one might say I had accomplished a lot, I still had over 300 miles to go. And not only that, much of what I had learned from fellow hikers (friends a week or two or three ahead of me and southbounders) was that southern Maine, on which I was getting ready to embark, might be the most difficult part of the trail. I had gotten this far, but my mind was preoccupied with the question of how was I going to get through this last state? I guess I had to again whip myself in shape, pull myself up by my own bootstraps, and stop feeling sorry for myself. Or did I? Was that the only option? I’ve begun to realize that too often I failed to seek strength and guidance from God, who I knew was with me, but nonetheless thought I would or should rely on my own problem-solving than to trust in the one who has promised to sustain us.

I had been reminded from time to time during the hike of God’s protection of and provision for me. In my more sober moments I recognized that I wasn’t some superhuman tearing up the east coast from south to north accomplishing something few could do – I had real help in God’s presence. And I did on a fairly regular basis give thanks for God’s role in helping me work through numerous difficult challenges. (One of my daily habits when I got settled in my tent at night would be first to lie back, exhale, and give thanks for making it through another day.) Yet, recognizing God’s active participation in my journey was not as front and center as it should have been. Sadly, I was often absorbed in what “I” was accomplishing as the miles and the states completed started to accumulate. When properly humbled, I did see that God had been with me every step of the way. Thankfully, somewhat like the prophets He sent to his wayward chosen people, God sent gifted, spiritual men to me to remind me of his promises and my need to rely and trust in Him, rather than the strength of my own back (and legs).

Carl called me in Pearisburg, Virginia and helped me see that I had spent the first 500 miles without actively acknowledging God’s role in my hike. In a sense, it took me all that time attempting to complete the adventure “on my own” to be reminded of my limitations. I committed to “up my game” in terms of my active reliance on God, which I thought would best be accomplished by a better prayer life on the trail. And I started to work on that commitment actively. But, as I’m prone to do, I fell back into my own self-confidence and self-reliance and fell away from active trust in and reliance on God and fell away from developing a better prayer life on the trail.

God then sent Sleeves into my life. At a quiet shelter on our way to Laurel Falls near Hampton, Tennessee, I met this fellow, northbound hiker – who was from north Georgia. We were the only ones in the shelter that night. Considering that it’s the only shelter I have stayed at where I wasn’t required by rules to do so, perhaps I should have be more observant as to how God was moving – particularly because I got to know Sleeves I learned that night that he takes a zero (a day of rest) every Sunday, whether he was on the trail or not. His faithfulness convicted me about the priority I was placing in my relationship with God and the shortcomings in my worship. It wasn’t long after that meeting that God sent Sleeves down the hall to encounter me at the same hotel in Damascus, Virginia. It was a Sunday. He was heading out to church. I was getting ready for Masters Sunday. (I guess God had to send many prophets to the Israelites, who – like me – just didn’t seem to catch on promptly.)

I’d see Sleeves, who was a much stronger hiker than me, near Blacksburg and then at Daleville (where Cheryl net him) and then outside of Glasgow. My Richmond friends, Wally and Ned, picked Sleeves and me up near Spy Rock and we went to dinner and then to a Waynesboro hotel together. Sleeves and I stayed in touch and reconnected in Pennsylvania at Pine Grove Furnace, Boiling Springs and Duncannon. With his “knee” still hurting from a fall in Maryland, he stayed behind in Duncannon and I hiked on. Hoping I’d see my friend soon, I texted him the trail conditions as I hiked on for a few days so he could consider how the terrain might impact the resumption of his thru-hike. But, a couple of days later he texted that he actually had broken his tibia, which he had hiked on for 150 miles! He would have to get off the trail for 4-5 weeks.

Gbolt was a regular listener to the Mighty Blue and Returning to Katahdin podcasts. We met at the Mohican Center in New Jersey. Among our first discussions were issues of faith concerning some issues that came up in the podcasts. I started following Gbolt’s Trail Journal. He both impressed and convicted me with his faithfulness as he regularly gave thanks and credit for God’s daily provision and protection on the trail. Again, I knew I had to “up my game,” in terms of not only recognizing God in my life daily, but witnessing about that impact – I had a forum between the podcast, YouTube channel and this blog, but did not use it well as it related to my faith and the journey on the AT. But again, I failed to listen adequately to these “prophets” sent into my life.

It wasn’t long after my encounter with Gbolt that I had my banana pudding moment. Yet, miraculously, I was able to pull myself up with some help from family visits and improved hiking conditions. Or did I? Perhaps God played a role in that restoration? While my brain was not turning to mush, towards the end of Massachusetts I was starting to get down emotionally. I had been on the trail a long time and was discouraged somewhat that I still had over three, fairly long, states to still complete. Recognizing that I was having trouble solving this problem on my own, I finally realized that I should humble myself, recognize God’s sovereignty, and ask him for help and guidance – which I did by asking that He bring a hiking partner into my journey – which I had concluded would likely help me get through the rest of the trip. (Again, while I was finally asking God for his help, it was still my solution. What if God’s plan was for me to finish the Trail as I started?)

The next day, I met Hawk as we both headed out of Massachusetts and onto our respective Long Trail and Appalachian Trail, which both run concurrently for 100 miles. Hawk and I hiked until the trails went separate directions at Maine Junction. The time together confirmed for me the benefit, at this time, of having a hiking partner or two. So I encouraged Sleeves to come out to Hanover and hike with me to Katahdin. Unfortunately, his doctor didn’t think he was ready for the White Mountains – so I guessed I was back on my own. Yet, my focus on prayer improved. My petition was for continued for strength and encouragement – and for a hiking companion if it be God’s will.

I headed out of Hanover to try to conquer the White Mountains on my own. Maybe, I thought, this challenge in the proverbial wilderness was supposed to be the way I was to finish this pilgrimage.

A few days later, as I was about to cross the “iconic” Franconia Ridge, I reconnected with Gbolt and his hiking buddy, Recon. For me the opportunity – and maybe even God’s plan – was obvious. After further thought and prayer, I asked Gbolt and Recon if I could join them and hike Maine together.

On Saturday of this week 25, Gbolt confirmed their willingness to let be tag along. The following day was Sunday. I was taking a zero to rest my knee, which the White Mountains had strained. I attended church at the Gorham Congregational Church. When I opened the day’s bulletin just before the service began, I was greeted by this scripture:

Remember the long road by which your God led you for forty years in the desert, to humble you, to test you and know your inmost heart. . . [and] made you feel hunger, [and] fed you with manna which neither you nor your ancestors had ever known, to make you understand that human beings live not by bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.

Deuteronomy 8:2-3

My eyes filled with tears. God’s word seemed written for me at that moment. I rested Sunday and the following day. Gbolt and Recon returned to Gorham. My spirits were high. My knee seemed to benefit from the rest. I was eager to head out and try to conquer this last state, but not without some concern and fear and doubt. But perhaps I am listening better. Perhaps I am beginning to see that a life of faith requires devotion, but also community. I am thankful for my new hiking partners. I pray that this is God’s plan and that I will continue to mature in the race set out before me and, less importantly, that it will also get me to Katahdin.

So, at the end of the week, I left Gorham, New Hampshire with Gbolt and Recon. We were heading for Maine and Mt. Katahdin.

 

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Last modified: August 21, 2018

6 Responses to :
Week 25 – Can I finish this journey on my own?

  1. Re “… the challenges imbedded in the undertaking change, at least in severity or degree, over time where the primary challenge initially was certainly more physical than mental, but became more mental or emotional over time.”

    I agree wholeheartedly.

    But I also think one challenge that many hikers — perhaps especially strong hikers who can rack up big miles from N. Virginia through S. Massachusetts — don’t give much thought to is the powerful effects of *cumulative* stress, both physically and mentally, along the trail.

    Just because I could put in 150-160-mile weeks during “easier” parts of the trail, I learned to my dismay once I hit Vermont, didn’t mean I *should* have done that; likewise, just because I could forego zeroes entirely until New Hampshire and Maine, doesn’t mean I *should* have.

    Simply put, every day was taking gas out of my long-term tank, albeit at levels that I wasn’t necessarily aware of. And in my experience, slow, steady physical depletion translated eventually into mental depletion. Thus, I “quit” in Vermont, though after a night’s sleep I realized I just needed to take some days off and decided to renew my excitement by flipping up to Maine and finishing SOBO.

    It’s great to read about your spiritual connection on the trail, RTK. Mine was of a different sort, but powerful nonetheless.

    ~Pony

  2. Jamie says:

    Bruce,

    Beautifully written. Keep on truckin’. You got this AT nailed! Best, Jamie

  3. Diane Sampson says:

    Wow! Bruce this was amazing to read. So encouraged to read how God faithfully carried you these months these miles. Thanks for being open to Him and vulnerable enough to pen your thoughts and your heart.

  4. Wally says:

    Awesome post buddy.
    If you get down call me…my current job leaves me lots of free time:)

    John Hood had me a little worried about Mt Washington…apparently the wind can be challenging up there

  5. Bill says:

    Bruce, your spiritual thoughts are spot on and an inspiration to me. Thank you for pointing out the (narrow) way. Phil. 4:13. Bill

  6. Tony Villani says:

    Awesome Bruce!!!! Keep on going and trusting in God!!!

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