When you hike the Appalachian Trail, you get in the habit of looking behind yourself periodically to make sure you are still on the trail. If you get into “the zone,” it’s all too easy to miss a turn in the trail corridor and amble off along some other road, trail or intersecting carriageway without realizing it for a while. By turning around, you can see if there is a trail of blazes running behind you, affirming that you are still on the trail, since the path is blazed bidirectionally, north-to-south and south-to-north.
There’s also a deeper reason to look back on my long walks, not just at the blazes, but at the path that my life has taken, and I often find myself stirring up old memories on these longer trips. Old songs pop into my mind: Carole King’s You’ve Got a Friend, Dr John’s Right Place Wrong Time, or Cat Steven lyrics, can occupy my thoughts for days on end. I think about my parents and the personality traits I’ve inherited from them, books that I must read again, episodes, both funny and painful, from the different phases of my life. It’s like dreaming when I’m awake and all the more reason to make sure I’m still on the trail periodically.
I’ve just returned from a long walk, actually the longest hike I’ve ever taken in the United States, starting in southern New Jersey, and walking north for 173 miles through New York State and Connecticut. It was still early spring and I didn’t see many other backpackers, the leaves were still not out, and the cold wind swept through the forest unabated. There are no views to speak of on this section of the AT, so I spent much of my time lost in my thoughts, looking forward to the new hiking season and sifting through my past.
I often tell people that backpacking is 90% mental, especially when referring to the struggles of going up and down hills all day, facing one’s fears of bears, snakes, and the loneliness of the night. But this trip surprised me. Unlike Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, the walking in the mid-Atlantic states is comparatively easy, leaving room for the mind to wander on its own byways.
If not the views, why this walk, in the silvered woods, so early in the hiking season? I pondered this question for the first few days of my journey, examining many different hypotheses to determine the motivation for this itinerary. It eventually dawned on me that this was a walk of independence: a chance to walk forward, but also to regard my past without being tied down by it. In other words to look back while moving ahead.
I’m home again now, my mind and body relaxed and content. I’ve traveled through time, a curious sensation, when I thought I was just taking a long walk.