Aging with Adventure with Eric Weld: Hiking his own hike: Lessons from the Appalachian Trail

  • After 23 days and 280 miles hiking through Maine, Eric Weld crossed the border into New Hampshire on July 23. ERIC WELD

  • Most nights along the trail are campouts. Eric Weld opts for hammock camping, here alongside Little Jo Mary Lake in Maine’s 100-mile wilderness. ERIC WELD

  • Day 1, June 30: A southbound Appalachian Trail thru-hike begins at the summit of 5,200-foot Mount Katahdin in Maine’s Baxter State Park. ERIC WELD

  • Saddleback Mountain in southern Maine, 150 miles south of Mount Katahdin, offers particularly spectacular 360-degree views of the many lakes below and lesser mountains in the distance. ERIC WELD

Published: 8/4/2022 2:41:11 PM
Modified: 8/4/2022 2:38:03 PM

Out here on the Appalachian Trail, you receive a lot of advice. Not all of it is useful or welcome, but it’s one of the great things about thru-hiking this classic, challenging trail: The culture among fellow thru-hikers is refreshingly open and friendly, and we all genuinely want each other to succeed and get the most out of this adventure.

I started my Appalachian Trail (AT) thru-hike, headed southbound, by summiting Mount Katahdin, in Maine’s Baxter Park, on June 30. The peak of Katahdin is the northern terminus of the 2,180-mile trail. A thru-hike means a continuous trek along a trail, beginning to end, in this case from Katahdin to Springer Mountain, Georgia, or vice versa.

Most AT thru-hikers travel northbound, starting in Georgia in the spring and finishing on Mount Katahdin around August or September, a five- or six-month journey. I plan to complete my southbound hike around mid- to late-November. I write this from Gorham, New Hampshire, where the White Mountains loom ahead (going south on the trail).

The most pertinent advice I received came from a thru-hiker going by the trail name Kangaroo, a fast-hiking woman from New York City. The day before I began my journey, I met Kangaroo as she dashed through the hiker town of Monson, Maine, just before her final stretch heading north.

“Don’t listen to what others say,” she said. “Everyone has their own experience on the trail and you will have yours.”

It was an arresting comment that has stuck with me. Don’t listen to what others say. The longer I spend on the trail, the more apropos this nugget becomes. And it’s not just applicable to hiking the trail. It applies to any adventure, and to life.

In particular, don’t listen to what others say when they tell you that you can’t do something you want to do. “You’re too old,” for example, or “you’re too soft, weak, inexperienced, late, undisciplined ...” Don’t listen to them.

Your adventure 

To be clear, this is not a suggestion to spurn others’ commentary, often given with helpful intention. It only means to take it all with a grain of salt, and to not allow it to deter your aspirations.

Not long ago, I rode my bike from coast to coast, Atlantic to Pacific, with a southern route stretching across the Mojave Desert in early July. Admonitions flowed in from friends and loved ones to reroute, replan, reconsider that crossing, as it would be simply too hot and dangerous. I heard all their words and went ahead with my plan anyway. Riding across the Mojave, while it was monumentally challenging, was one of the major highlights of the trip that I would not have wanted to miss.

Likewise, I planned my AT thru-hike with the intention of working part-time along the way. To do that, I decided, I would have to hike with my laptop computer inside my backpack. “You can’t do that,” I heard from a few hikers, “it’s too heavy.” They were right, it does add about 3.5 pounds to my backpack load. Sometimes I lament that. But stepping off the trail to work and write has added an essential balance to the rigor of everyday strenuous hiking. I haven’t regretted the decision yet. (And, bonus, my trail name is now Laptop.)

The point is, if you want to do a thing, you will be the one to figure out how to do it and live with the consequences, not anyone else. Maybe you want to take a grand adventure you’ve long dreamed about. Perhaps you’ve decided to quit your day job and pursue your dream vocation. Maybe you just turned 78 and want to skinny dip under the moonlight.

Others will have advice and opinions about if and how you should go about pursuing these adventures. Hear what they have to offer. But ultimately, don’t listen to what others say.

This is related to another common phrase heard on the AT: “Hike your own hike.” That is, do your adventure your way. Go at your own pace. Get off the trail when you want. Stop when you need to. The idea is to enjoy the journey and to do whatever you have to do to make that happen.

Lessons from within 

In addition to the wisdom offered to you by others, you naturally learn a lot on your own via the exercise of hiking, alone much of the time, for six to 12 hours every day.

I’ve been reading a downloaded book along the trail, titled “Bline Man Walking,” by Brian Thompson, about his experience hiking the Appalachian Trail with a legally blind companion. Thompson offered a piece of wisdom that has echoed in my head during many long afternoon hikes. He wrote (I paraphrase): “It’s not about what hiking the Appalachian Trail says about you; it’s about what you learn about yourself by doing so.”

No matter who you are, attempting an activity as exerting as hiking a 2,000-mile trail in one go will teach you things about yourself. You will have to dig deep at times to muster the physical and mental wherewithal to keep going. You will ride an emotional roller coaster that propels you through extreme highs and lows every day.

You will, sooner or later, question the point of what you’re attempting, a danger zone that threatens to derail your plan.

Ultimately, if you are successful, you will learn not to judge as good or bad the moments of pain and uncertainty, and not to make decisions based on those moments. As in life, if you are to succeed in what you set out to do, you will push forward with persistence and consistency — what I call the big P and C — always toward your goal.

Slow down

A final bit of wisdom that I’ve been working to internalize as I close in on a month into this AT thru-hike is to slow down. It’s yet another lesson from the AT that applies to life.

For whatever reasons, my tendency when I’m engaged in a difficult endeavor is to push myself, drive hard with blinders on to reach the final goal. But that attitude, conscious or not, costs some sacrifice. Spectacular views passed by for the sake of making good time. A memorable encounter with a rare individual because you didn’t want to take a detour. An unforgettable swim in a deserted mountain lake. Lunch with a forgotten friend.

Once I consciously forced myself to adopt the mindset of slowing down, it has had a dramatic effect on my thru-hike. I have not once regretted taking the time to stop or get off the trail to enjoy something unusual.

Any long-haul adventure, such as aging, has to include a mindful intention to enjoy the process of getting there. Taking it slower, with ample observation and awareness of the experience, will enhance that enjoyment.

In fact, the act of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is itself an exercise in living slow motion. At walking speed, you have no choice but to hear the birds sing, feel the sun and breeze, notice the changes in terrain, smell the forest potpourri.

And to ponder. For hours. Lessons imparted by thru-hiking the AT. 

Eric Weld, a former Gazette reporter, is the founder of agingadventurist.com.


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