“Did the trail change you” is the question I get almost every time someone finds out that I thru—hiked the AT. Every time they ask the question part of me wants to say “no” — I’m the same guy but another part of me says “you bet—ya, it changed everything.”
I will never forget when I actually witnessed for myself that, yes, it changed me. It was one of those things where you sort of needed to be there — but I will try to get you there.
So it was well past the halfway mark — I am guessing around 1400 miles — maybe around Pennsylvania. I had been on the Trail for over three months. The day had been hard — lots of slab walking — slippery, wet granite ups. I had been hiking by myself most of the time for the past week.
It was late in the afternoon. I had maybe another three hours left in my tank that I could hike. The last few hours had taken me up a number of taxing climbs, and I was now on relatively level ground following the blazes and hoping that they did not take a turn back up the side of another rock face. “Please don’t let me see a blaze heading up another big up” was spinning thru my mind.
I had been walking parallel to a towering granite vertical rock face for a while. It went straight up — almost vertical — dark, unmarked, almost defying me to look at it. It wasn’t part of the trail thank goodness — at least a part that hikers were walking on. By that time on the trail though, I knew that it was probably just a matter of time until I would spot a blaze on that rock face that would take me off this level ground and up that forbidding up.
I hiked on, making good time and shifting into that zone that hikers who have been on the trail for any extended amount of time find themselves in often. It’s a place , this zone, that is subtle — one that the hiker rarely is aware of at the time.
You cease to be a hiker following a trail under the forrest canopy and become as much a part of the trail itself as the trees around you, the stones you walk on, and the dark colors and the shadows of the late afternoon. Your pack becomes weightless. Your steps blend in with your heartbeat until you cease to notice them.
The contact between your boots and the ground disappears. You are not aware of sound or noise of any kind. Your eyes effortlessly scan the ground in front of your steps — left to right, forward and back, with easy rhythm. Only the blazes — “hello blaze” — only the blazes almost interrupt your cadence or break the straight—lined passage of time.
I knew that soon I was going to have to leave the level ground and I knew that the more I willed the trail to remain level, the sooner and higher the up that I would have to transverse would be.
And then I stopped — or at least my feet stopped moving and I stared without thought at that dark raw rock face, staring right, then left down the ridge, then way up the face, pulling in all the years, the weather, the blazing sun, the rains that had fallen on the ridge. I saw and understood my place there, in that moment. And then I spoke out loud — I heard my voice saying “It doesn’t matter. If the blaze goes up that face,
I go up that face. I’ll find a way. I’ll find enough ledges to grab. Doesn’t matter if it’s vertical or not.” Then I heard my voice again and it said that even if the blaze never touches that up, if the trail veers away from it, yes, I could climb it. It was not meant to stop me nor would it if I decided to take it on.
And I just stared and knew it was no longer a question of “if” I could do it. I could. That simply was a fact. Then I remembered thinking about how I would have felt about trying to climb that formation if I had encountered it earlier on the Trail or even before I started. “Never happen” I knew is how I would have felt. Not now though. I was not that person now. I was the one that knew that the rock face would not be able to stop me.”
All these thoughts had passed thru my mind is seconds I was sure. — in the back of my head and then I realized what had just occurred and it made me smile. Changed me? No, remade me