Friday, August 22, 2008


Almost ten years ago I quit my job in Cincinnati to hike the Appalachian trail. By the time I stepped onto the trail in a cold rain, mid-March in the north Georgia hills, I had spent six months planning, daydreaming, and longing for the countless steps that would take me from Springer Mountain to Mount Katahdin in central Maine. I collected books of all kinds on the subject: humorous, practical, poetic, mystical, historical, personal. I examined my gear; I bought new gear (I threw out some of this and bought even more along the trail, finding much of the stuff I started with either superfluous or way to heavy). I examined my reasons and motivations for going; I tried explaining these to other people, as much to work it out for myself as for any other reason.

So what were my reasons? I’m not sure I really remember, though I do recall what I told people at the time: “I want to experience a different way of living,” I would say, “and for a long time so that it’s not a vacation, but just my life.” I wanted to stop staring at a computer, which I was doing way too much of. I was realizing that I had ignored a part of myself that loved the woods, the open air, birdsong and the sound of tumbling water for far too long and I wanted it back. I wanted change, and I wanted to feel like I had accomplished something.

I spent about a month on the trail, going somewhere around 250 miles through Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee to the northeast end of Smoky Mountain National Park, well short of the 2100 miles that was my goal. I remember telling myself that the experience and the process was what was important, more so than finishing; maybe that was why I didn’t. But I can see other reasons I stopped hiking, from the sharp pains in my knee (I can no longer remember which one it was without consulting a photograph) to the new songs that ran through my head, calling for a fuller realization, a guitar and some kind of recording device. But I also just don’t think I was quite ready for this kind of journey. I didn’t have the drive to finish at all costs, and I didn’t have the maturity or peace to accept the experience for what it was, whatever it was.

As much as I hate to admit it, I fell into a trap of boredom. I did enjoy my time, sometimes blissfully so. I particularly loved the late afternoons and evenings, hunting for a good spot to camp, pitching my tent and rummaging for a proper meal, firing my stove, chatting and relaxing with fellow hikers, drinking cocoa, zipping myself in as night closed in and the nocturnal creatures awoke. But too much of the hiking became drudgery, or trudgery, and I developed a tunnel vision that blotted out much of the trip. I think you have to be open to each step to really make it the distance on a trek like this, and most of mine were lost. It finally was too easy to get off during a dispiriting moment when my aching knees couldn’t keep up with a small group of friends I had been hiking with. Still, it was a valuable and enjoyable time, and many memories and faces loom large in my thoughts.

Now, I am soon embarking upon another change, another journey, physical, personal, spiritual, practical. Next year I will be spending a full growing season, some eight months worth, on a farm in Ipswich, Massachusetts as an apprentice. The folks up there run a successful, 500 share CSA up there, and I will be trading my labor, a considerable amount of it, for education and experience in all that they do, whether it be tractor work, seeding, harvesting and weeding or managing the distribution of more than 100 different crops to the local shareholders.

I hadn’t really connected my Appalachian Trail experience with my new plans until I noticed that I will be starting up my apprenticeship almost exactly ten years from the moment I stepped onto that trail in north Georgia, and that got me thinking. One obvious thought – we all change and grow as we pass through life, and sometimes we need to step into new shoes to do so and keep our feet healthy. On a personal level, I looked at my experience ten years ago, at what I learned, at how I failed and how I succeeded, if those are even appropriate terms; better to say at how I lived up to my expectations of myself and how I didn’t. I’ve looked at who I am today, wondering how this person is different than that person, and what would happen if we switched places.

I’d like to think that I’m more prepared now for something like that, a six-month journey through the long green tunnel; more prepared to simply accept what the experience gives me. Maybe. I still don’t think it’s right for me, not yet. I still have some growing yet to do in order to spend that much time inside my own head and skin without going a little stir crazy. This apprenticeship thing shares many things with my hike, but really, it’s a much more practical affair, and has been undertaken as much as a career stepping-stone and practical education as any kind of personal journey.

But if I can take any lesson from ten years ago, from thirty or so difficult, enlightening, beautiful, painful, monotonous days in the rugged green hills of the South, it’s to be as open as I can to what I see, hear, feel, taste and smell. To listen and learn, to learn by doing, to pay attention to what the soil feels like in my hands, and to watch little green plants grow up, day after day, reaching for the sun.

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