Ed. note: Bruce filed this story in late August and successfully completed the Appalachian Trail on September 10, 2018. Here is his story. All images: Bruce Matson
As I sit in my tent and try to put the final words to this reflection, I am in Maine’s 100-mile wilderness, about 30 miles from the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail and three days before I – hopefully – summit Mt. Katahdin to complete a 2,190 mile journey.
What have I learned - about backpacking, about myself, and about chasing dreams?
Logistics, Gear, and More
Let’s address the easier stuff first – lessons on hiking and backpacking. First, the obvious: everyone is different and everyone must “hike his/her own hike.” Certain aspects of the hike that I might find nearly impossible (like descending into the South Carrabassett River valley), others barely recall.
Not only do we all have different perspectives, in a very real sense, no one hikes the same hike, even in the same hiking year. I might find the views and experience over the Bigelow Mountains to be among my favorites, while a fellow hiker can barely recall that section of the trail because conditions there were so different two days earlier. Second, a long distance (let’s say over 300 miles) hike is different from a weekend or weeklong backpacking trek. My observations here are focused on a long trip, like the AT.
Rather than address my Oboz (Tamarack Low) stove (MSR Reactor, which I’d take again) or my tent (Big Agnes’s Copper Spur, which performed great and I’d take again), the most important takeaway concerning gear should be: know yourself and know what will maximize your enjoyment.
Ultimately, the expedition is more mental and emotional than physical.
You are only likely to finish if you manage that state, and each gear choice impacts the emotional balance. If ultra lightweight is critical because you want to move more quickly, you may choose no stove and a lighter shelter option than I had. I knew I’d be heavier than many, but I also knew that I wouldn’t likely finish if I didn’t have certain things, like a hot meal and comfortable living quarters.
What about hiking and camping itself? First and foremost, it is very hard. Yeh, everyone nods in agreement, “of course it’s hard to walk over 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine.”
No, it’s really hard. Everyday is hard.
The romance of the adventure is alluring, but do not be mistaken, completing a thru-hike of the AT is brutal. Honestly, I say this not to solicit admiration for what I am about to complete, but to suggest that considerable thought and planning should precede any attempt to start walking from Springer Mountain. Remember, there’s a reason only one in four finish.
So what’s so hard?
Pack Weight and Rugged Terrain
Carrying a pack weighing 20 to 45 pounds on your back for 10 to 20 miles a day. Carrying that pack up steep, difficult climbs, often lasting all morning. And when you get the the White Mountains of New Hampshire and southern Maine, climbing takes on a new meaning – categorically different and materially more difficult. These climbs require much hand over hand climbing up severely graded mountains over 4,000 feet. And I could go on about slippery rock slabs, steep descent through boulder fields of angular rocks! Etc.
And, hopefully you can tackle these challenges when it’s clear and cool – but it won’t be all of the time. It will rain often, snow sometimes. The wind will chill your bones over open mountain summits and refuse even the slightest breeze when it’s 85 degrees and sweat is pouring down your face.
Whether you like it or not, whether you want to or not, you will have to get out of your tent (or hammock) each morning, prepare some breakfast (likely the same thing most days for multiple weeks), take down your tent, pack up your gear, and start hiking again – regardless of whether it’s raining or snowing or hot or cold. And pray it didn’t rain the night before so you are not packing up a wet tent, which will add weight to your pack and be miserable to setup (and sleep in) later that day.
And then there are the uncomfortable levels of dirt and sweat. Essentially you will wear the same thing, everyday. You often will put hiking clothes on still wet from the previous day’s sweat and/or rain – which haven’t be laundered for three or four days. You will not be “laundered” but every three to five days, and you will give thanks to be able to jump into a lake or stream (without soap) to wash up from time to time. And if you haven’t experienced real filth, wait to see what your hiking socks look and smell like after four days of use during which your feet were wet and muddy all day.
Yes, to borrow from Charles Dickens, there are the worst of times. Yet, you will also discover some of the “best of times.” Sunset over the distant ridges of the Great Smokey Mountains, or viewing the expansive forest dotted by wilderness lakes in Maine from atop a 4,000 foot peak, or being lulled to sleep by the gentle lapping at the lakeshore while you’re camped on a remote beach—these experiences are sublime.
I contemplated the eerie call of the loons at night, stared in wonder at the power and beauty of a waterfall deep in the woodland, laughed with new friends while eating another peanut butter tortilla, and contemplated the past and considered the future while enjoying an uninterrupted daylong, solitary walk through nature.
All of this helped me better understand my capabilities and limitations, and to soak in all of the other experiences offered while spending five or six months “ on the trail.”
When I was 17 years old, I fell in love with the audacious idea of walking the same footpath the entire length of the east coast of the U.S. I found that I really did love the outdoors and enjoyed my time hiking, backpacking, and canoeing. I pursued these activities in my youth, but life, career and family changes priorities – no regrets there. The idea or the “dream” faded a bit to the background but it never went away completely. As life, career and family changed, I saw an opportunity to “chase” that dream.
Having now essentially followed that dream, I have become mindful in a more sincere way about certain aspects of chasing our dreams. I will always enthusiastically encourage anyone who voices their dreams: go and visit the Great Wall of China, or run the rapids on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, or learn to speak a foreign language or play a musical interest, or do a thru-hike.
However, here are a few closing observations about our “dreams” brought home to me by having a considerable amount of time with my thoughts while following white blazes through the woods.
What It’s Like to Chase Dreams
First, living where you can even think about chasing dreams is an extraordinary privilege, for which I am and we all should be grateful. In many parts of the world the “dreams” of most are for a drink of clean water and a meal each day.
Second, chasing some dreams like an Appalachian Trail thru-hike can be a very selfish endeavor. Moreover, it is difficult to accomplish alone. We need to keep that in mind and appreciate the family and friends, and, for me, God, that helped make each day “out there” possible. We may think a thru-hike is the ultimate feat of determination and self-reliance, but few of us are really that alone or that independent.
We really do not pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.
Finally, keeping the more important aspects of life in perspective, do not hesitate to dream and to chase those dreams. It’s one of the most exciting endeavors of life. (For me, a secondary purpose in doing my thru-hike was to encourage others to dream and chase dreams.)
And don’t spend all your time counting all the reasons you just can’t plan that thru-hike or other “dream.” While “work” is the most typical excuse for failing to chase dreams, do not sell yourself short. Employers need and value good employees. Be willing to have conversations that will open up the possibility of pursuing a dream without risking valuable or important employment. Or, if nothing else, dream and plan and keep an eye out for when that opportunity may present itself, or create the opportunity yourself.
Home, Sweet Home
I had some of the best of times on the AT, but it was hard, everyday. I’m glad to be finished. I’m eager to return home to my wife, my family and friends. I will forever cherish both the opportunity to make a 44 year-old dream a meaningful reality and the lessons learned from the time on the trail. I guess many of those lessons are for another time and place.
Ambassador Bruce Matson practices law in Richmond, Virginia with the law firm of LeClairRyan, where most recently he served as its Chief Legal Officer. He completed the Appalachian Trail on September 10, 2018. Read more about his adventures at RTK Challenge and find him on social media: @rtk_at_challenge.