Why such a serious topic?
Cheerful subject, right? This post has been a long time coming; I decided I wanted to write about this topic while I was still out hiking last year. More than a few things made me think of it:
Thoughts of my grandma who had died a few years before.
Omitting some details for privacy, I overheard a phone conversation of a fellow hiker who had just retired from their job and had planned to hike the AT. But apparently they had just been diagnosed with some cancer, which obviously threw a wrench into their plans.
Hiking at least part of the AT is a sort of bucket list item for me. Many days I prayed and thanked God for keeping me safe, and I “bargained” a little, pleading to at least make it halfway, to Katahdin. Perhaps as part of that bargain it crossed my mind that just after I had used up my time and reached the summit, I may have ironically stumbled and fallen to my death on the side trail back down Katahdin.
The 2019 killer on the trail, who will not be dignified and mentioned by name or take up any more than this one sentence here.
The thought that one false move could lead to my untimely demise, especially in the tricky areas of Southern Maine or even at Katahdin (where two people have recently died this year). I also saw five bears on my hike, and I thought about encounters with them that might end badly (very unlikely with black bears). I also thought about statistically my biggest threat: getting run over by a vehicle while walking alongside a road.
Some ducks I saw that appeared to be mourning their dead in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania (sorry for the road noise). Apparently grieving is a natural part of life, not just for humans:
What good is it to think of death?
I think it's pretty natural to think of death while hiking a long hike. Unlike many other things in life, the trail is set out before us, and we can keep track of the mileage and see us getting closer to the finish line with each passing day. That finish line is sadly the “death” of the hike itself.
In life we have something similar: we measure our lives in years, and can see ourselves aging as we get closer to the end. And we have a rough idea of where we “should be” compared to our peers: in our 20s we're still struggling to find footing, in our 30s we're supposed to settle down and be more responsible, etc. Then in our 60s we're expected to retire, and then some time after, the world fades to black…
The thing is, none of this is really guaranteed to us. Some folks will have untimely deaths and won't even make it to their 20s, for instance. How fortunate for the rest of us, but instead of really savoring that, we tend to distract ourselves with other thoughts.
I am a pretty slow hiker. Many times I was getting passed up. But sometimes I tried to slowed down intentionally, by doing things like staying an extra day in trail towns. Discovering fun little towns was part of the experience for me. That's the way I wanted to hike my hike.
When I was in the Presidentials in the White Mountains, I was passed up by a young couple, a woman taking up the lead, and her male partner seemingly begrudgingly keeping up behind her. They were talking to each other hurried, like they were trying to catch a bus. They had to keep pace to keep to their schedule (many of these young folks were pushing to do 20+ miles a day, something I only did very few times, sometimes through bad planning). I know there's a saying that says “hike your own hike” - i.e. “mind your own business!” - but it struck me that this was such a rotten way to experience this beautiful section of the trail. The couple was pushing through like they were late for work, like they were still beholden to the ratrace. But maybe age played some part in it (dang whippersnappers!) - it occurred to me that this young couple had yet to experience the banal decades-long ratrace.
It also occurs to me that if this hike is an analogy for life, then isn't it possible to be trapped in that ratrace in life itself, and speed on through sections of life without really savoring them?
Sometimes I have struggled mentally, despite relatively comfortable external circumstances. Sometimes instead of facing situations, I've prayed to God for a speedy death, an easy way out. But when hiking, when I had that goal set out in front of me, I prayed the opposite - “please, I know I've prayed for that, but please delay it till after my hike”. But this is obviously a rotten way to live life - and isn't it the same affliction that the young speeding hikers had? To rush unnaturally through sections in life instead of living them through at a more natural pace?
The more I live, the more this makes sense to me - a sort of Stoic way of thinking of things “in accordance with nature”. In addition with a steady pace - but not too slow or too fast, I don't want the duration to be unnatural. I don't want to live an unnaturally long life, and equally I don't want to live an unnaturally short life. Just an average length will be fine for me. And I hope to use it productively.
Even if I had a very long life, I would waste it and be lazy. I forget who it was - probably Marcus Aurelius or Seneca, that said that even if we had 1000 years to live, we would still squander most of those years. And yet some of the most memorable in history have done so much in their unnaturally short lives.
“Where do you see yourself in five years?”
I went for a walk tonight (and still a year after finishing the hike I have some slight plantar fascitis in my left foot…) - I went for a walk and was thinking seriously about returning to the AT in say, five years. I have always failed to paint an accurate picture of what life would be like in a few years. I think I am slowly coming to terms with some things that may never pan out, and I am trying to make my peace with them. But other things, other goals I will be kicking myself for not completing. And I know I need to get more healthy and stay fit if I want my body to be capable in a few years… this is good motivation for getting more active!
Here's to planning out that trail ahead - both the literal trail and life itself - and making steady progress towards it, using it productively…