Reflecting today, I have become aware of another reason I hiked the Appalachian Trail. I wanted to taste risk. Having read Ed Garvey’s book on the trail (“Appalachian Hiker II”), which was one of only a handful available at the time, I found not just his achievement compelling. I discovered a greater adventure than just hiking and backpacking. I had done plenty of that; long weekends in the woods near my home, camping overnight. But the only sounds I heard consisted of a distant bellowing cow. How thrilling is that? No wolves called my neck of the woods home.
The first taste of risk came when I met my first pit vipers while on a day hike in the Uwharrie National Forest. To be sure, adrenaline never became so familiar as it did in those tense moments within striking range. Rather than coiled, however, the snake was lying lethargic on the chilly earth on an April morning, trying to gain enough warmth from the sun to begin moving. Even so, just the hint of danger was something I’ve never forgotten.
The Linville Gorge Wilderness of western North Carolina was another savoring of risk. I did a mid-winter day hike, struggling to the wind blasted summit of Table Rock on a frigid day, barely able to light my Svea stove to make soup. Slipping and sliding over ice atop the summit, I felt the exhilaration of my early experience in more serious mountaineering.
When the full Appalachian Trail experience began, I reveled in the challenges it brought. Even the misery was chalked up to stoic achievement. Fortunately, I had laid aside unrealistic expectations and let the trail teach me what I needed to learn. In that incubated state of mind, I was able to stretch myself further, tacking heights which until then would have left me paralyzed with fear; fording a deep river, something I’d never imagined doing; handling myself in a hypothermia situation and using my head instead of mindlessly plodding into further danger.
For some time, I chalked up these experiences as “adventure.” And it’s true, they were and I still think of them that way. But they were also risks I had taken. They were not a mere “stretching” of myself; they were me deliberately moving beyond my comfort zone into an unknown land with potential for greater hazard. When climbing, I might have fallen. When fording a river I might have lost my footing and drowned. When hypothermic I could have ignored the signs and ended up a casualty. As a result of these encountered risks I learned to handle the events with hard-earned wisdom and a great dose of humility. Had I taken them for simple “adventure” or a lark, I would have made unwise choices that might have cost me greatly.
Risk. We live it every day we step out the door. Adventure. We seek it to remind we’re alive. The Appalachian Trail is a living laboratory for you to enjoy adventure; but remember that you’ll take risks – both chosen and those thrust upon you. Handle them with humility and be open to being taught. Above all, learn all you can about the risks the trail entails. Though it’s been greatly tread, written about, and heralded, it’s still a “footpath through the wilderness.”
Video showing risk:
- “Nature Don’t Care Who You Are!” The wisdom of Ricky Ruiz for the Appalachian Trail (writer77.wordpress.com)
- The Appalachian Trail: Lessons from the footpath (writer77.wordpress.com)
- Appalachian Trail – lessons from the footpath, part 2 (writer77.wordpress.com)