I finished my hike yesterday. We hiked differently than most people on the trail. Most thru hikers were so exhausted, had pushed themselves to their limits and hiked maybe 15 miles a day, over mountains and mountains. We took our time and lay on sunny rocks and didn’t push ourselves too much when our knees ached and our feet got sore. We only hiked about 8 miles a day, and that was hard but not profoundly hard, and I wondered whether I was missing the point of hiking this trail – or whether they were. How do you know when to challenge yourself and when to take it easy; when to slow down and whether it really is nice to fall into your sleeping bag at the end of the day deeply exhausted, having pushed yourself to your very limit, past whatever limit you imagined your body had? I felt badly sometimes when people talked about how many miles they’d hiked but the mountains made me humble maybe and I don’t think it was about miles really, just like at Smith it wasn’t about grades really and next year it won’t be about money.
But we had fun even if we never hiked in ways that felt deeply demanding and difficult. I mean it hurt still. The mountains were steep and rocky and slippery and all I did every day for three weeks was walk up and down mountains, and there was such beauty in doing nothing but also thinking and sweating and not thinking and watching the light pass through the trees and concentrating most simply on not falling and where the next water source was. There really is something to it, hiking for long periods of time. Hope you do it someday.
What I thought about was how uncertainty is a beautiful thing – how I have no idea what I’m doing with my life and that’s actually fine. Whenever I met other thru hikers I asked them what made them decide to hike the LT, and they said things like, It was just there, Why not, I was in graduate school and just needed to get out of my head, I just retired, My daughter asked me if we would hike it with her and we said Why not. Then they asked us too why were hiking and Emily always said, Because we just graduated! We have no idea what we’re doing with our lives! And the funniest thing happened: every single person we said this to laughed and said, That never changes. Wait until you’re 32, wait until you’re 50, wait until you’re retired. I think this hike reminded me that more people than I’d realized, whatever their age, have less things figured out, and that maybe that’s freeing if also a bit terrifying. It’s never too late to be lost, and go for a really long walk in the woods to try to get unlost. For now I’m good with uncertainty.
One night we shared a shelter with four teenage boys who smoked and hung their socks everywhere, and also two seventy year old men who drank whiskey on the trail and one told us his first wife went to Smith and his second went to Sarah Lawrence (where my sister went), and asked me if I knew these were the second oldest mountains in the world. Nah, I said, older than what? He goes: older than thunders and lightnings and radioactivity and laughed at himself. That night I missed Smith because the men were so loud and smelly and talked about such annoying things but also I thought maybe loudness, smelliness and bragginess can be funny and sweet, a little, in small doses and if looked at in the right way, and in that moment I thought again how it was nice to go to Smith, to be temporarily in a place where only women were, but I’m glad to not be there forever.
“I sometimes think I’m not completely gay – I mean those men we just passed were kind of cute. Maybe I’ve just been on the trail too long.” –me
“Or maybe their plaid flannels reminded you of lesbians.” –my sister