Category Archives: A.T.
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.
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.
“On the street of by-and-by, one arrives at the house of never.” – Cervantes
The pressure is strong; the urge unrelenting. The demands of life – work, earning a living, plus a thousand other things – quickly jam into each nanosecond of our existence, leaving little time to catch our breath, plan meaningful futures, or nurture things which matter most, such as relationships and finding a life purpose to fully commit to.
Sometimes, you’ve just got to take a leap of faith. You have to simply put all other things aside and go; even if you don’t know how you’ll get there or what will happen when your backpacking boots move beyond the starting line at Springer Mountain, Georgia.
You just know: “I’ve simply got to do this. Now!”
Somehow you just know. The food that will fuel your soul, the sustenance which will galvanize you into going inside and giving yourself time to think and get to know who you are – lies in the glory of nature. Yes, there will be a price to pay in pain and hardship, loneliness and ache. But if you cross the zone along the trail (for me it was about the fifty mile mark) where it feels something has shifted and that you’ve somehow “broken through” the majority of your resistance and second-guessing, you will know you can achieve what you set out to do. Hike from Georgia to Maine!
That’s when things will get really interesting.
Backpacking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine (or in any other configuration you choose) will always be a benchmark for the rest of your life. Even if you should not succeed in completing the entire trail, you will discover your outlook is brighter, your spirit bolder, your boundaries of possibility expanded.
My advice is not to fuss too much about which gear to use or whether or not you should saw the handle off your toothbrush. Not if it delays your setting out too long. I spent a year in research, gathering equipment, and planning. Even then, I hit the footpath with a pack weighing 55 pounds to start with. By the end of my trip that weight had drastically dropped to about 30 pounds. The thing to remember is that is plenty of room to learn as you go. Stick with the basics and set out.
Treat the land as if it were your own back yard. In recent years I’ve been dismayed to learn the trails has suffered from littering and graffiti. If you care about stewarding the world you live in, leave shelters and campsites better than you found them. You will be amazed at how good you will feel when you spend a few extra minutes sweeping out a shelter with a broom!
Take time to – as the old saw goes – “hike your own hike.” Leave high-daily-mileage setting to those who feel the need for such accomplishments and focus on your own; the pace that enriches your soul and makes your spirits fly when you unload your pack at the end of the day.
Whatever date on the calendar you mark to begin your journey, remember that the dare out there will bring out everything that is within you, both good and bad. And that’s OK. You are about to grow in ways you could never imagine before.
A new year – a new discovery: this wondrous winter wild man heading south on the Appalachian Trail! For something truly different in winter backpacking and camping, check out http://www.therealhikingviking.com. He doesn’t disappoint!
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach has the key to my head (more on this in a moment).
When I’m backpacking or hiking I have an inner soundtrack that plays in my mind. Since I can readily recall and play music it in my head I don’t need to take an MP3 player when I’m on the trail. I find it’s better that way; no extra weight, no batteries or recharging involved, plus I can hit pause at will.
If music could express how I feel about backpacking, here are some significant pieces from my playlist which stand out:
When I was climbing summits on the Long Trail in Vermont, or venturing along scenic ridge-lines: Soundtrack to “The Last Valley,” by John Barry.
When I’m stepping through deep, dark forests: Overture to “Parsifal” by Wagner.
Want to get inside of my hiker’s head? Well, the piece of music to describe my passion for the Appalachian Trail would be: Cello Concerto in A minor, by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.
I want you to perform an experiment. Sit back, relax, close your eyes, and listen to the feeling and passion behind this music.
There — you’ve just seen inside my hiker’s head!
After walking around the lake I bought a broom. I needed a broom to replace the corn broom I’ve had for eight years, which was no longer effective and looking a bit shabby. Too much sweeping of the sand and salt mixture from my sidewalk wore it down, and since I couldn’t find corn brooms at a major retailer, I went to my local hardware store to fetch a replacement. Brave new world! — I even compromised my “corn-broom-only” position and got one which was a sort of artificial-tree-of-the-corn-broom-world variety.
As I walked home, broom under arm, admiring the frigid, blazing sunset, I was ambushed by a cliché. Rising from nowhere it came — “time to make a clean sweep of things…” Ouch. (Yes, I know it’s cliché, but did it ever occur to you that we keep hearing maxims like this because there’s a big grain of truth in them?)
I dare say the phrase arrived to haunt me in a timely way. I often fall into this sort of space between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. It’s a sort of “thin place” where I start out feeling unsettled and is quickly followed by an awareness of needing to set aside time to think and plan how I wish to have things different in the future.
Which leads me to my point. “Write in Front of Me” will be changing in 2014!
In reflecting on my “seeing what’s there — saying what’s needed” theme, I realize I’ve not been sharing many things that are in front of me I feel are important and interesting to share; not just about the Appalachian Trail and hiking and backpacking. Make no mistake: I will still be posting about these topics as ideas, news, and observations arise. But expect me to “wander afield” and expound on other topics of interests in hope of enriching you — my readers.
Meanwhile — at the end of 2013 — Happy New Year!
…out under the sky. No ceiling obscures my gaze of the heavens. There are no walls to shield me from wildlife. There I am witness to unfurling miles of forest. I tackle durable mountains, am lulled by rolling hills, and rest by springs of water. I am alive, in the wild, moving, breathing. My soul expands in the out-of-doors. Limits fall away even as summits rear themselves; they call, even as they provoke — “Are you up for the task?” I respond by embracing them with effort and sweat, slips and falls, muscle stretch and ache. My recompense is in catching my breath, sleeping under the stars, being awed by the views. Such endeavor brings reward — gratitude — and joy!
Merry Christmas to hikers and backpackers and lovers of the wild everywhere!