Monday, December 12, 2011

The mental hike - what's the destination?

I cannot fly
like this small guy,
who soars upon the gale.

But that's no shake -
I'd rather take
the Appalachian Trail.

To paraphrase Yogi Berra, "Ninety percent of [a thru-hike] is mental, the other half is physical."

It's not all that hard for the average person to walk twelve miles a day, even carrying 30 pounds of weight. Once you get used to it, it's downright easy.

Human beings evolved to walk. We are uniquely adapted to a nomadic lifestyle. We became the 'bipedal, walking ground-ape' when the climate changed and the African forests gave way to endless savannah. Food got scarce, and we had to scramble to find enough. We became the pinnacle hunter/gatherers, omnivorous, foraging far and wide across the land for our subsistence.

So an AT thru-hike is built into our genes. In fact, our ability to walk relentlessly day after day defines the species Homo sapiens as much as our gregarious social nature does. These two characteristics embody our niche in the natural ecosystem.

Twelve miles a day ... that's all there is to it. That's the physical challenge. In the hunter-gatherer days of our Ancestors, we wouldn't give that a second thought. We would be on the trail our entire lives, keeping up with our nomadic tribe - our extended family.

And there's the real problem. The problem is not that you and I want to walk the AT from end to end in one calendar year. The real problem is that our 'tribe' - our extended family - *doesn't*.

The real problem is that our natural psychological support system will be sitting in front of the TV watching 'One Tree Hill' while we're slogging hour after hour, day after day, through the rain and cold.

The real problem is that our once proud and self-sufficient hunter-gatherer society has devolved into an unnatural, sedentary malaise - the result being epidemic obesity, diabetes, heart failure, cancer, and ubiquitous, unconscionable pollution of the mind, the body and the planet.

So take heart, fellow thru-hikers. You are the ones who've got it right. You are the ones who are taking back our heritage. You are the ones who are remaining true to the human mandate.

Our extended families will not hike with us. The whiz and frenzy of daily life has sucked them into a vortex of stress and entanglements. We, somehow, have managed to extract ourselves from that whirlpool to declare that our lives *will NOT suck*!. We have broken free, at least for a time. But the fact remains ... our families will not come with us.

The result: it's the loneliness, the monotony, the relative discomfort and deprivation that will be our greatest challenges.

Each of us will face these in our own way. We will substitute a new 'trail family' for our blood kin. We will extract moral support from each other and through high-tech contact with family and friends back in the artificial 'real' world.

We will renew our spiritual touch with our primal Ancestor genes. We will make deep connections with nature's miraculous rhythms, long buried within us. We will relearn what's truly important - to live for today and embrace the moment - 'Carpe diem!' - to find the joy in the first fleck of sunlight at dawn, in the pure musty fragrance of damp moss after a rain, in the call of the wood thrush, in the crunchy sweetness of an heirloom apple fresh from a trailside tree. We will re-learn what it means to be human.

And this ... at least for me ... is the destination of my mental hike. It is a place I forever seek - and *the* place where I belong.

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