Last winter I was talking to the mom of a Thomas Worthington student. She was explaining that her son had signed up for several of our blended learning courses as a way to get ahead so he could graduate in December of his senior year. He wanted to spend the spring of that year hiking the Appalachian Trail before going to college. Not only was he working ahead in school but he was planning his hiking routes and purchasing his needed gear.
Our conversation intrigued me. I knew a little about the 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail that begins in Georgia and ends in Maine and I’d read several hiking books such as “A Walk in the Woods” and “Wild” but I’d never actually done any significant hiking. At that time the thought of being deep in the woods without cell service was sounding very pleasant and thus I began investigating ways to do some hiking this summer.
With that Doreen and I just finished hiking 40 miles or so of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Because we have zero experience and were hoping not to get eaten by a bear we worked with Wildland Trekking who provided us a guide and a group to hike with. For four days we hiked in the rugged backwoods of the Smokies (beginning on the Appalachian Trail at Clingman’s Dome and then hiking the Forney Creek, Benton MacKaye, Noland Creek and Deep Creek Trails.) On day one we descended over 4,000 feet and promptly re-climbed it on the second day.
Let’s be honest, hiking beat us up. It was more difficult going up and down with a full pack than I had anticipated. Others were feeling the same way. But, it was also a great learning experience and that’s what I wanted to share. Here’s what I learned out on the trail:
I learned and re-learned that you can’t quit. All spring I spoke to groups with that simple theme: don’t quit, keep moving forward. But after the first night laying in our tent I said to Doreen, “What are we doing?” It was a tough day. On day two after about 8 miles four members of our group of seven decided they had had enough and quit. Wildland Trekking sent a van to come get them. We were left with just our guide, Doreen and I. Did we want to quit too? Yes. Honestly a shower and the pool sounded like a good idea at this point. We were already, sore, tired, wet, smelly and really wondering why we were doing this. But like most things when you persevere things get better over time and each day of our hike did get better. By putting one foot after another, uphill and downhill we saw amazing wildlife, moss covered rocks, and beautiful waterfalls. We crossed rickety wood bridges and camped next to rushing water. On day three we hiked 12 miles and saw no other humans. I went four days with no cell service. I’m glad we stuck it out.
Side note that is in the TMI (too much information) category when our group members decided to quit, they left with all of the toilet paper. I believe it was an accident but we already were having to dig a whole to create a restroom in the woods and now we were left with 20 miles to hike, two nights to camp and no toilet paper. I told you it was TMI, but true story.
I also was reminded on this trip that it’s important to stop and look up every so often. The Smokies are dense wooded forest and the terrain is steep and rocky. I’m wired to want to finish the mileage and accomplish the day’s goal. But it was when I stopped to look around that I saw small toads hiding in logs or found the markings of the yellow bellied sap sucker on a tree. I especially enjoyed the straight tall poplar trees along our route.
Finally, I learned again that it’s O.K. to accept help. Our guide Nick Weaver was a 24 year old graduate of the University of Tennessee. He was exceptionally competent and focused on keeping us safe while fording streams, helping us learn to hang our bear bags properly, and navigating the maps. Without his help and guidance I would likely be lost in the park. Age is often not related to competence in an area. I’m 43 and Nick is 24. I trusted Nick’s knowledge in the woods explicitly and it was a reminder that when you trust others you’re often rewarded with a better experience than if had you tried to do it alone. (Read more about what I learned from Nick on our Absolute Excellence blog.)
They say you hike to clear your mind and get focused. For me that happened and I relearned a few lessons along the way.