Appalachian Trail wisdom: “Cronin’s Law”


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Photo courtesy wesbl at Flickr

As late winter snow falls gently outside my window, my thoughts wander to the Appalachian Trail.  I open my WordPress blog reader and check on the brave souls who have already departed Springer Mountain for Katahdin.  My mental Rolodex flips past the memory of a number of people I backpacked with.  Most I remember quite a bit about.  A few hold a more tenuous slot.  Many hikers and backpackers I remember for what they did, and what they said.  But one stand out for his economy of words and actions; so much so that it has left a permanent impression which haunts me to this day.  His name was Mike Cronin.

What little I remember about Mike is that he was from New England, a resident of the Boston area.  And though I never personally heard him say it, I remember the six words credited to him which I would catalog in the category of genuine “trail wisdom.”

It came to be known as “Cronin’s Law.”  It is still as valid today as it ever was.

Having slogged over a sweltering sweaty week through the Georgia “hills” along the AT, I was impressed with two realities: the lack of switchbacks (the trail simply went straight up and straight down!), and how it seemed it took forever to reach a summit.  There were no signs which said “Summit in one mile” or anything like it.  On reflection, I suppose such things would have driven hikers half mad with frustration and unfulfilled anticipation.  Best to leave such things alone!

Dealing with the switchbacks was relatively easy, since my lower body strength was more than adequate to the muscle-burning task.  On the other hand, I suffered from the company of a few hiking companions who seemed more than impatient with making dramatic progress and who expected to enjoy attaining the “peak” experience in rapid time.  Should the trail wind or meander on the uphill side far too long  (which it often did) they would commence to spit and curse and often grouse “When are we going to reach the top?!”  Now, while I agreed with their sentiment and appreciated their desire, I also knew that you cannot force nature and geology and trail dynamics to acquiesce to your whim.

“We’ll get there when we get there,” I said, or something like it.  And while we eventually made each and every summit, it was not without the price of enduring their swearing and complaining and whining about how long it took to get to the top.

Enter “Cronin’s Law.”

A backpacking companion informed me about Mike’s method for dealing with “summit attainment frustration.” He call it “Cronin’s Law.” On hearing it, I quickly adapted those six magic words and became somewhat of a trail evangelist by spreading the gospel according to Mike Cronin.

It seems that adapting “Cronin’s Law” helped a hiker stop looking up expecting the peak to be just around the next tree or boulder.  Expectation could be tempered with patience and it would than be easy to simply enjoy the moments of the hike, to let go, and let the eventual arrival at the mountaintop happen when it would.  I experimented with the simple method and found it helped me greatly to be “in the now” wherever I was on the trail, instead of feeling the pressure to “bag peaks” or “make miles.”

Henceforth, whenever I heard other hikers and backpackers crank up the complaining I would say gently: “Remember Cronin’s Law.”

After the glaze melted from their stare they would ask me what that was.

Clearing my throat and smiling benevolently, I explained.

“Never assume you’re at the top.”

“That it?!” they would ask.

I nodded.

It appeared Cronin’s Law was unacceptable madness, and they sputtered and sweated and turned away, trudging down the trail leaving behind a string of verbal invectives.

In the silence which descended, I said the words softly out loud.

“Never assume you’re at the top.”

At that, I smiled again and resumed my hike.

While few others adapted this trail wisdom, I found it useful – especially when I entered the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where the “top” took a  long time coming.  I look back fondly over those words, which make up what little I know or remember of Mike Cronin after all these years.

I offer them to you, gentle reader, in the hope that when you encounter the slippery slope and elusive peak along a trail which twists and turns and seemingly mocks your efforts to win altitude, that you will find solace and expectation that you will attain your goal.  You will at last stride proudly to the summit, caressed by a cooling breeze, the echo of “Cronin’s Law” having been a part of what enabled you to stand where your hiking boots find you.

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Filed under A.T., Appalachian Trail, Backpacking, Hiking, Life changes, outdoor gear, outdoors, Writing

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