Life is full of decisions. In my life before the trail, my job required numerous difficult decisions to be made daily – and I found myself accumulating a lot of stress and fatigue by the end of the day. Yet, in heading out to the Appalachian Trail, I did not abdicate my decision-making responsibilities. Every day there are literally thousands of decisions that must be made, from the minor details (Should I step on that slick, moss-covered stone, or the precariously angled, unstable rock?) to the more consequential (Where should I get off to resupply before my food runs out?).
Most of the minutiae is sorted out on a subconscious level. With nearly 2 million steps taken since the start of the hike, the act of hiking itself is much more of an automatic process. I no longer need to think about how my center of gravity is altered with my pack on and how this will affect my ability to scale up a rock scramble. I now just know on an intuitive level, and this guides my movements. Yet the trail is full of obstacles – fallen tree trunks blocking the path, stream crossings, and the occasional highway intersection – that require full use of one’s mental faculties to safely navigate. Perhaps the most dramatic example thus far on the trail occurred in the mile just after Dragon’s Tooth.
Dragon’s Tooth is a large monolith located just off the AT near Catawba, Virginia. Its size and shape has earned it the sinister-sounding title. We had heard much about this feature and had been looking forward to seeing it. What we had not heard about, however, and what our guidebook had negligently failed to mention, was the fact that the trail directly north of the monolith was extremely rugged, strenuous, and downright dangerous. On other such parts of the trail, there was at least some warning – either on signs along the trail or in the guidebook, or both – but not so here. After a somewhat disappointing view of Dragon’s Tooth, as the rain and fog obscured much of the scenery beyond the rock, I was suddenly met with a sheer descent of wet, slick rock. Surely I must have taken a wrong turn and missed the trail, I thought to myself, but then there it was – a white blaze painted on the steep, intimidating rock face under me, indicating I was to somehow climb down this rock face! Even without my pack on and under better weather conditions, this would have been a tedious and precarious affair. I slowly and gingerly eased myself down the slab of stone, at times with only a few centimeters of a rock shelf to grasp, praying that I wouldn’t slip and lose my hand or foot hold and go tumbling down the side of Cove Mountain. Several times I had to stop and literally ponder for five whole minutes how in the world I was going to traverse a particularly challenging section. The entire section itself was only 0.7 miles in length, but took me over an hour to complete. Not only was I physically tired, but I was utterly exhausted mentally.
Other decisions that must be made don’t involve the hike itself so much, but rather how one enjoys the hike. There is always the ongoing tension between pushing for big miles on a daily basis, or slowing down and enjoying the views, side trails, and trail towns along the way. Some days or weeks, I lean toward the “stop-and-smell-the-roses” approach, other times I get into performance and goal-oriented mode and just want to hammer out the miles. Both have their merits and pitfalls; often the ideal approach is a combination of the two and can vary significantly based upon the weather, the terrain, and the group of people you find yourself hiking with. Much like life itself, there are no hard and fast rules that one can follow to eliminate the need to make decisions. Often our decisions can be quite difficult to make. And in a culture that fears failure, there is that ubiquitous apprehension of making “the wrong” decision, which can lead to an ongoing indecision that is debilitating. But it seems to me that it is never really that black or white. Sure, a certain decision may have resulted in a less-than-desirable outcome, but we learn from every experience and gain a new understanding and confidence that will greatly assist us in making other decisions the next time around.
And with that, I have decided to keep pressing on, edging ever nearer to West “by God” Virginia, as I now enter Shenandoah National Park.
Until our paths cross again,