In Appalachian Trials, Zach Davis’ psychological and emotional guide to successfully thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Davis shares a number of “learned and applied strategies that enabled (him) to stay the course, both physically and emotionally” while on the trail, providing examples of how one “can prepare for when the (proverbial) shit hits the fan”. Davis’s statement “you should know that encountering obstacles is a matter of when, not if” is more profound than it is simplistic! He continues by saying “Coming to grips with this fact before you actually encounter the roadblocks is crucial to persevering, (and) a surefire way to deal with the challenges that lie ahead is simply to expect them”. Sure some of the obstacles Davis present in Chapter 7 seem synonymous with the word ‘hike’ and are to be expected – rain, cold, heat, insects, blisters, shin splints, boredom, even being homesick. Others however, like contracting Lyme Disease, West Nile Virus, or Giardia, breaking a leg, or having your pack stolen from right under your nose, are not.
One specific obstacle that Davis presents to his would-be hiker is as follows:
They could endure the rain, cold, heat, and the insects. These are all elements of the trail; they were expecting it. The sprained ankle, however, they were not prepared for. They tell their trail friends that they’re going home to rest and will rejoin the trail in a couple of weeks. They don’t return. The sprained ankle tested their resolve and they failed.
I had not sprained my ankle, but I knew with certainty that the injury to my left quad muscle was more than a simple muscle pull. What’s more, I was some 6 miles from where I camped the night before, almost 9 miles back to trail entrance on Norwich Road, and I was completely alone on the North Country Trail.
To me the process of mentally preparing for any hike, whether it be a 18.2-mile one day trip on the Paint Creek Trail from Rochester, MI to Lake Orion, MI and back, a 100-mile ten day trip on the North Country Trail in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula or a 2200-mile seven month thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail through fourteen states from Georgia to Maine, should be the same. The process should be the same; however the actual preparation for each will undoubtedly be different as the non-deterministic characteristic of a 2200-mile seven month thru-hike will require you to consider many additional factors, and be much more flexible, as opposed to a 100-mile ten day hike.
Having read Zach Davis’ Appalachian Trials from cover to cover and taking his recommendations to heart, as I prepared for my 100-mile ten day trip on the North Country Trail in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I stopped to answer the following three simple statements :
I am hiking 100 miles on the North Country Trail because …
When I successfully complete hiking 100-miles on the North Country Trail, I will …
If I give up and don’t complete hiking 100-miles on the North Country Trail, I will …
Of the three statements that Davis recommends any would-be hiker consider before setting out to ramble afoot (like what I did there?), I feel the last is the most important, as it holds you accountable and directly connects consequences to your actions. Perhaps it’s because Davis actually finished thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail that he overlooks and omits the opportunity for his would-be hiker to close the loop with feedback in case of failure. In particular,
If I fail to complete hiking 100-miles on the North Country Trail, I promise to return to list:
5 successes I had while on the trail
5 mistakes I made on the trail
5 lessons I learned on the trail
5 things I will differently next time on the trail
As I struggled, both physically and mentally, while reassessing my current situation, asking myself “Do you continue to push yourself? Do you find a spot to setup camp for the night, and rest? Do you stop, turn around and hike back, knowing you’re ending your hike?”, I thought back to those statements I had written just a few weeks ago:
I am hiking 100 miles on the North Country Trail because I want to give myself the opportunity to experience a longer distance hike on a trail with terrain, conditions, and weather very similar to what I would experience on the Appalachian Trail, while shaking-down my gear to discover which items work best and will be most useful for what will become my style of hiking. Oh, and I want the 100-Mile patch from the NCTA!
When I successfully complete hiking 100-miles on the North Country Trail, I will celebrate my success (for some reason ice cream seems essential here), blog and document my adventure, add to/remove from/modify my gear based on what I experienced and learned, and continue preparing for my ultimate goal – The Hiking Triple Crown.
If I give up and don’t complete hiking 100-miles on the North Country Trail, I will celebrate my failure because I actually did something most people would never do – I tried! (nope, no ice cream for me, consequences remember?), blog and document my adventure, add to/remove from/modify my gear based on what I experienced and learned, and prepare to return to the North Country Trail to finish what I started.
It seemed as if the forty pounds strapped to my back was growing heavier with every step. Each time I had to stop to ease and relax my quad muscle, allowing the cramp to subside, it became more difficult to start again. After crossing over a familiar little stream, and slowly making my way up a hill, to my left I noticed a small clearing, complete with the remains of a fire in a pit and a number giant pieces of tree trunk, cut to be stools, arranged in a semi-circle around the fire pit. This would be a perfect spot to stop, take my pack off, give my muscles, my legs, my back, to give myself a break, as long as I needed to be able to continue, and to easily filter water from the stream to replenish both now empty Smart Water bottles.
As I peeled my pack off my back and sat it down next to one of the tree trunk stools, for some unexplainable reason I felt as if the heaviest load had been lifted from my shoulders. Acceptance? I gathered the Katadyn BeFree™ 1.0L pouch with filter, the Sawyer Squeeze water filter, the two empty 1-L Smart Water bottles and headed back down the hill to the little stream. I crossed over the stream and knelt down so I could place the water pouch just under a section of rocks and directly in the flow of the water. The pouch quickly filled, I placed the filter in the pouch, tightened the seal, and filtered the water into the first Smart Water bottle. Once the first Smart Water bottle was full, I screwed the Sawyer Squeeze onto the top of the bottle and ‘squeezed’ the water through and into the second Smart Water bottle. It probably wasn’t necessary to filter the water twice, but at this point I wasn’t taking any more chances. I repeated the process of filling the Katadyn BeFree™ 1.0L pouch and re- filling the first Smart Water bottle. I placed and secured a screw-on cap to the top of the first Smart Water bottle to remind that the water had only been filtered once, then gathered all of my belongings and headed back, over the stream and up the hill to the clearing.
It was well after 4:00 PM now, I was hot, extremely tired and honestly didn’t even notice the mosquitoes anymore, as they lined up one after the other taking their turn in the O+ blood type withdrawal line. As I sat there on the tree trunk stool, finishing the first liter of cold, refreshing water I had just filtered from the stream, and finishing the last piece of the Gatorade Green Apple Energy Chew, my only thought was that I had just over 2 miles to go.
When I made it back to the wooden bridge stretching over Mason Creek, I knew I was getting close. It wouldn’t be long now. All I had to do was fight through another half-mile or so, then I could drop my pack and poles next to road at the trail entrance, walk .9 miles to retrieve the Grand Caravan, drive back to retrieve my gear, and then figure out what to do next.
Even now, that last half-mile I spent hiking on the North Country Trail feels as if it was the toughest thing I have ever mentally done. It was certainly one of the most emotional.
Without question, I met all four of the listed qualifiers that the online version of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as failure:
1. My body was at a state of inability to perform a normal function
2. I was experiencing an abrupt cessation of normal functioning
3. Clearly my performance was one that was exhibiting a great lack of success
4. In short, I was one that had failed