Sunday, September 23, 2012

Changes

If you are the passenger on a long road trip, you often find yourself gazing out the window watching the scenery pass by in a blur after the conversation has hit a lull and the music has faded into the background.  This has an almost hypnotic effect on you and before long everything seems to be outside of some invisible bubble you’ve created and you’re alone in your own thoughts. 

 
While traveling home from a recent trip to Iowa I was alone in my thought bubble and was thinking about changes.  I had taken a picture of a tree that was changing into its fall wardrobe at a rest stop and it occurred to me that by this time next year, when the trees again begin to change their greens for reds, oranges and yellows, if successful, I will have already summited Mt. Katahdin in Maine and will be back home.  Would I see the beginning changes of the fall leaves in New England?  I’m sure I will have already felt the colder temperatures, but when exactly is the prime “New England in the fall” experience?  Will I have the opportunity to see the multi-colored quilt of color from the peaks of the Appalachian?  I made a mental note to research this matter and I thought about the other changes that will have taken place over the course of my journey.

There will be, beyond a doubt, physical changes.  You cannot hike 2,184 miles without having improved your muscular strength and endurance.  The weight loss that will occur varies for each individual based on the amount of calories an individual is able to consume in relation to the number of calories being expended, age, metabolism rates and other such factors.  It has been said that you will be in the best physical condition of your life after completing the trail.  The physical changes seem to be the first thing to come to one’s mind and they will probably be the most obvious, but what else will have changed?  What about the changes that don’t appear as visually obvious?

Over the course of 5-7 months of living a relatively primitive existence in the forest, there are bound to be some changes in your perspective of the things that are NEEDED and things that are WANTED in your life.  It is my opinion that the line between needs and wants is way too blurred in our current society.  Obviously, food, clothing and shelter are the minimal things needed for survival, but there are more than physical things needed for a healthy and good life.  Things like love, acceptance and social interaction are extremely important to one’s mental health and add tremendous value to life as well.  The majority of the time on the trail will be survival with the minimal physical elements and although there will be times of aloneness, and possibly even loneliness, there will be plenty of opportunity to have the social interactions that are required for good mental health as well.  Still, I assume that there will be two possible responses to living such an existence, either one will return to their former life and realize how much they own that they don’t really need and may even decide to reduce some household clutter or they will embrace all that they own as riches beyond measure and relish their luxuries with a new level of appreciation.  As for the social side of things, I’m sure that everyone who returns home from the trail will cherish the time with their loves ones even more and will have been enriched with the new friends and acquaintances they have made along the way.   So it’s probably safe to assume there will be changes in perceptions concerning physical belongings and new appreciations for the persons in our lives.

What about the people in our lives?  How will they view us after accomplishing such a feat?  Will their perceptions of who we are and what we are capable of doing change?  I think it is safe to assume that most people in our lives will have a positive view of our accomplishment.  Some may be awed, some inspired and some surprised.  Some may be jealous or envious.  Many will be congratulatory and give us kudos for a job well done even if they don’t understand why we did it and that’s ok too. 

So, yes, probably most people we know will have a slightly different view of us, maybe even more appreciation for us than before we hiked the trail, but more important than how others view who we are is how we view ourselves.  How will our perspective of who we are change after the summit at Mt. Katahdin?  We should have an enormous amount of confidence in ourselves when this trip is over; hopefully, not in an arrogant manner, because we certainly will not accomplish this journey on our own by any means.  Oh, we will be the ones to put one foot in front of the other, but we each will have a certain level of support from our home bases and others who assist us along the route.  However, I believe that we will come away with a healthy confidence and strength that comes naturally from facing and conquering the obstacles and trials in life.  Even as I am writing this, I have noticed how I transitioned from “I” statements, i.e. “will I see…” to “we” statements.  This trip is not a sole endeavor.  My fellow hikers, who I have yet to meet face-to-face, have already become a part of this journey and I find I cannot think about the trail without thinking about all the hikers, as if we were all one entity.  I have already begun to change.

So these all appear to be positive changes, better physical fitness and strength, new perspectives with regard to the luxuries and creature comforts of this life, a deeper appreciation for loved ones, new friends and acquaintances, a renewed sense of confidence, so is there anything negative that could come of this trip?  Are there negative changes that will or could occur while on the trail?

If you spend any time reading trail journals or blogs or books of the experiences that previous hikers have had on the Appalachian Trail, you will soon realize that every day is not going to be “sunshine and lollipops” with flowers blooming, birds chirping and Snow White skipping through the forest with all her little animal friends.  The trail slogan of “No pain, no rain, no Maine” alone makes you stop and take notice.  There are going to be difficulties and struggles.  There is going to be pain, sore muscles, joint aches, and the possibility of blisters, shin splints, sprains or even worst injuries.  There will be gnats, mosquitos, biting flies and possibly ticks or snakes that could bite you.  The weather can and will range from sub-freezing temperatures and snow to triple digit highs with booming thunderstorms and lightning.  You will have to protect your food from marauding bears and rodents.  You will have to protect your shoes or hiking boots from porcupines that like to chew the leather to obtain the salts that are dried on your shoe or hiking boot.  Salts and dissolved minerals that have been left behind after the shoe dried from the last stream crossing or from the sweat from your feet.  You will not have the daily convenience of a warm shower, a nice big bed to stretch out in, a refrigerator filled with your favorite beverages or food or easy access to most of your electronics.  There will be times that you will leave the trail or that it will go through town and you will have a temporary reprieve from the primitive life, but the majority of your time will be spent living in this other world of challenges and minimal conveniences. 

What about the world back home, the world outside of your primitive reality?  Life still goes on and time stops for no one.  There is the possibility of bad news reaching you while on the trail; a loved one is injured, sick or dies while you are “out there”.   Children and grandchildren will continue to grow and you may miss those first steps, first words or first lost tooth moments.  Some relationships may be strained by the absence of the partner; some may even break.  These are definitely things that must be considered before deciding to take on the Appalachian Trail or any long distance hike.  Yes, the possibilities of injuries, the daily survival challenges, the loss of conveniences and the strain of separation can all take a toll on the long distance hiker and their family; there could be negative changes.  One must consider this carefully and seriously before taking off on this adventure.  
 
So after weighing all these possibilities and changes in the balance, which way do the scales tip?   Are the struggles worth the rewards?  As I think about all these potential changes, I remember reading about the butterfly emerging from its cocoon.  The struggle the butterfly goes through to break free from the cocoon is what pumps the blood into the veins of its wings to allow it to fly.  Without the struggle to free itself, the wings will not unfurl and the butterfly will be doomed to starve to death or be readily picked off by a predator.  It is the struggle that enables the butterfly to flutter from flower to flower.  It is always the trials along the trail of life that enables us to grow and change.  There will be changes that occur in me as a result of hiking the Appalachian Trail and I believe that the positive changes far outweigh the possibility of the negatives.