“To the untrained eye, ego-climbing and selfless climbing may appear identical. Both kinds of climbers place one foot in front of the other. Both breathe in and out at the same rate. Both stop when tired. Both go forward when rested. But what a difference! The ego-climber is like an instrument that’s out of adjustment. He puts his foot down an instant too soon or too late. He’s likely to miss a beautiful passage of sunlight through the trees. He goes on when the sloppiness of his step shows he’s tired. He rests at odd times. He looks up the trail trying to see what’s ahead even when he knows what’s ahead because he just looked a second before. He goes too fast or too slow for the conditions and when he talks his talk is forever about somewhere else, something else. He’s here but he’s not here. He rejects the here, he’s unhappy with it, wants to be farther up the trail but when he gets there will be just as unhappy because then it will be “here”. What he’s looking for, what he wants, is all around him, but he doesn’t want that because it is all around him. Every step’s an effort, both physically and spiritually, because he imagines his goal to be external and distant.”
— Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
While it wasn't sunshine and rainbows all the way to Maine, my hike on the Applachian Trail has without a doubt had a positive impact on my life. Now that the dust has settled somewhat in the two months since my finishing, I thought it would be a good idea to go over my post-trail thoughts.
So far since coming back, nearly every friend I've run into has asked me what experiences meant the most to me, what life lessons I learned out there, or how the trail has changed me as a person. Initially I responded by saying that the trail was a fantastic adventure, but I quickly became frustrated by the fact that I rarely had a good answer for them. In fact, barring some knee pain, an enormous beard, and a ravenous appetite that didn't diminish for weeks, I still felt like the same person. Panic soon ensued. Had I just wasted six entire months doing nothing but bumming around in the woods?
Well, yes, but that's not really the point. The point was that people seemed to expect something to show for all that time spent walking, panting, sweating, pooping in holes, and sleeping outside. Admittedly, when I talk about "people," I'm mostly talking about myself. Hearing other people ask me these questions only made me turn further inward looking for an answer. But maybe this lack of a clear lesson was a lesson in and of itself: the people who hike the trail (or pursue any endeavor perceived to be huge or daunting) shouldn't focus on what they get out of it once they're done. The AT is a trek that can be as unfathomably long as it can be mind-numbingly tedious. Even though it's easy (and tempting) to think about the last mountain every single day, that end will remain out of sight and feel impossibly distant up until the last hundred miles. Agonizing like that, day after day, across 14 states on foot isn't a hike so much as a really shitty way of traveling 2,200 miles. Or going nuts.
Instead of focussing on how I've changed, I think it makes more sense to reflect on the experiences I've had out there that have broadened my perspective. I slept outside more times than I can count, gotten a hitch out of Poplar Hill, Virginia from a 400-pound lumberjack nicknamed "Booger;" stayed with a cult in Rutland, Vermont; helped build bunks at a hostel in Roan Mountain, TN; hiked through the White Mountains with my brother; forded rivers in Maine; and accepted many random acts of kindness with much thanks from total strangers (as well as amazing friends) all across the east coast. If you were one of these people, you're awesome, and my hike wouldn't have been the same without you. These encounters mean far more to me than any lesson I could have learned.
That said, I have felt a lot more patient lately. Before my hike, driving behind somebody going five below the speed limit would have given me hives. Now, I sometimes catch myself doing the same thing, and feign indignation when angry commuters lean on their horns and pass me. Waiting for a bus, a delivery, or a friend's arrival doesn't bother me nearly as much as it used to. Something from past experience tells me that as long as something is willingly determined to make it to its destination, it'll get there one way or another.