Tag Archives: appalachian trail

A Lesson In Subtracting Fear

photo-11The tower was a medieval-looking structure – a tripod constructed of massive timbers which looked like over-sized telephone poles.  Wrapped with ropes the thickness of my upper arm, the structure rose into the grey afternoon sky.  There were climbing holds stapled along the legs at various points, and climbing ropes draped from its height.  There was a platform on top where one could stand and look out over the Connecticut countryside.  

My first impression was that it looked like a siege weapon from a Lord of the Rings movie, only missing a few attendant orcs.  It was at once challenging and forbidding.  And the closer I walked toward it the more uncomfortable I felt.

It was the afternoon break during a conference.  Participants could snooze, chat, read, play ball or –as in my case — check out the “ropes course.”  But this was unlike any challenge course I had seen.  Instead of cables strung between treetops there was this lone structure in a field, tended by a staff of three whose task it was to ensure the safety of climbers who would ascend while belayed in harnesses.

I was the first to arrive, and wandered below the three-legged device.  I looked up and felt slightly dizzy.  No one had come to climb the tower yet, and I had no intention of trying to climb it.  My plan was to hang out and watch more valiant souls do it.

Being curious, I peppered the climbing safety team with questions, such as who made the tower, how it was used, and how safe it was.  Admittedly, deep down, I had always wanted to address my own long-standing fear of heights.  Sure, I’d had limited encounters with vertical space, such as clambering up the Forehead of Mount Mansfield in Vermont and scaling Katahdin in Maine.  But those, while risky, never involved as much anxiety as the notion of climbing this tower seemed to stimulate.

After a few questions, one team members offered a candid comment.  “Even kids love climbing this thing,” she said.  OK, I could understand how fearless children, restrained with rope and safety harness, would not hesitate to tackle this over-sized Tinker Toy.  But then came the clincher.


“They even climb it blindfolded!”

They climb it — blindfolded?”

The statement stunned me.  How gutsy was that?  A troop of kids exuberantly clambering up a height without the benefit of sight to maneuver.

I kept walking around the tower, looking up.  I checked to see if anyone else was coming to climb, but no one had yet arrived.  I stared up once again, and kept walking around the looming structure.  The climbing ropes trailing from the top battered against the timbers in the wind.  I heard carabiners clink and bang together like wind chimes in a gale.

The notion of tackling a ropes course made my stomach twist in a knot.  But the idea of doing it — sightless!?

Yet, there was something else beneath my amazement.  Something that bothered me, which I could not uncover —

I stopped in my tracks, frozen in place by an experience I rarely have: what’s called an “Aha!” moment.

Of course!  It was completely counter-intuitive to anything I’d experienced — the notion of tackling a long-held fear by simply subtracting an element of that fear — namely, sight.

Moments later I was breathing deeply to suppress my anxiety as I was strapped into a climbing harness and roped to the tower by the belaying team.  My head swam with thoughts, my gut with emotion.  I had just blurted out that I wanted to try a blindfold tower climb.  I was amazed the words came out at all!  But, I had crossed the Rubicon on this one, so I walked to the nearest timber and, with guidance, I slipped the blindfold over my eyes and reached out to feel for my first handhold.

My focus remained on moving up, working to discover my next gripping point with my right hand, and launching my body upward with my left leg.  Any sense of anxiety evaporated as my concentration increased, and I alternated between pulling myself up with my hands while using my legs to push, and feeling for hand holds farther along the timber.  I lost count of my maneuvers and put my effort and energy into scaling my way up.  My breathing was steady but slightly labored, and – most of all – I noticed a remarkable absence of fear.

A few minutes later I paused to catch my breath.  “How’s it going?” I heard a voice below me say.  It was good to know my climbing team was keenly focused on my well-being.  “Good,” I said.  “I think I’d like to take a look around.”

Surprised, again, by my unexpected boldness, I used a hand to lift the blindfold so I could see.  I was struck by my continuing absence of anxiety or fear.  In fact, I marveled that the solution to my dread lay in simply doing something completely counter-intuitive.

Have I overcome my fear of heights since that pivotal experience?  Not totally — but to a great degree.  More importantly, I’ve learned there is more than one way to handle fear, and a means to manage it may be found by considering an outrageous-sounding, out-of-the-box solution.

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Filed under Achievements, Adventure, Adversity, Appalachian Trail, attitude, Blindness, challenge, Climbing, Climbing tower, Fear

The Importance of That Which Has an End

alone autumn mood forest cold countryside

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One of the most sublime things about the Appalachian Trail is that — it ends.  In begins in Maine (or Georgia, depending on where you start), and it unravels for over 2,000 miles.

There were countless times I wished it would surpass its mileage limit and continue on, unfolding forever into a far horizon so my vibrant young self could trek forever.  Yet, endings are so very important; containers in which we nest our hopes and dreams and accomplishments for safekeeping — and for the future.

Now, many years down the “trail of life” since my hike in 1985, I have found all the memories of that exploit sustain my heart and spirit; bittersweet at times, but oh so vivid!

The sight of delicate bluets alongside the trail during the early days of May when the hike had just begun.  The cooling breeze emanating from standing near a crystalline waterfall on a blistering summer day.


cascade creek environment fern

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The lazy purling water of a glittering Maine river on an autumn afternoon.  Numerous sunsets, each unique, each its own benediction to the day.  The memory of writing the adventures down in my journal.

fire fireplace burning on fire

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The many laughs and tales with fellow travelers by the night-time fireside.  The curious and informative entries of hikers from the world over in trail registers.  The outreach of smiling “trail angels.”  The respite in many towns and cities along the seaboard through which the trail runs.  The grace of rides given into town.

All these, and more, populate my mind today, as clear as if they happened just yesterday.   And, in my heart, they did.  They still do, because the movie of my recollections continues to re-run this one outstanding experience of my lifetime.  But, if it had never come to its end I wouldn’t have the gift inside me to unwrap during times when I need to get away.

So, you see, the ending is important.  Without an end to the trail the joys of the hike cannot curl up into my soul to find a home in which, when the time is right, they can come powerfully alive again.  It’s then they most nurture me and bless my life.

man in black jacket and brown hat standing on rock near lake

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So that I can say — “Yes, I did that!  I hiked the Appalachian Trail.  The memories and experience are mine to treasure and keep until I stand at the final trailhead.”

They are a story nestled within the larger drama of my life — one which still holds deep meaning — that began with something which has an end.

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Filed under Achievements, Adventure, Adversity, Appalachian Trail, Backpacking, challenge, Endings, healing, stories, Timothy J. Hodges

How far is it? Tips on mileage and time on the Appalachian Trail

Roads go ever on, the author said. Often the question is not where one is going, but how long it takes to get there. Does anyone know?

Write in Front of Me

Photo courtesy Nicholas_T at Flickr Photo courtesy Nicholas_T at Flickr

Not long into my hike on the Appalachian Trail I met day-hikers and southbounders asking me a common question: how far is it to _____?  (campsite, shelter, road crossing, etc.)  I would provide my best estimate, they’d be on their way, but I was left feeling a bit incomplete about the encounter, as if the information I had given was not of much use.  Later on I learned that a mile is an easy hike for one person and a grueling trek for another.  In those cases, distance has less meaning that time.  As a result, I would tell someone “how far” based on how long it had taken me to leave that particular point.  For instance, I would say “It’s about half an hour,” if it had taken me that long to walk from the requested landmark.  I would modify this advice depending on…

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Filed under Appalachian Trail, Backpacking, Decision making, Distance, Hiking, Long distance backpacking, Time

Y’all come sit by the fire now…it’s story time! (Tales, Poems, and Songs for the Appalachian Trail Hiker)

Northbound A.T. backpackers are nearing the New England wilds and, with it, evenings around the campfire as the nightly chill sets in. What’s more appropriate than a ghostly tale well told!

Write in Front of Me

What’s a hike along the Appalachian Trail without a good fireside tale?  Let Robert W. Service (1874-1958), known as “the Bard of the Yukon,” warm your bones with this classic chiller poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee.

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Filed under Appalachian Trail, Backpacking, Camping, Fear, ghost stories, Hiking, stories, wilderness, Writing

Obvious Lostness

In our age of distraction it’s more important than ever to slow down and pay attention — especially to where we’re going!

Write in Front of Me

railway-2439189_1920If I had kept my eyes lifted and looked straight ahead of me, I would never have become lost. But since the sweltering blaze of a blistering midsummer afternoon in August on the A.T. in Pennsylvania kept my head down — literally — I must have missed the turn.

Time has wilted with my motivation. A long roadwork through a dusty valley seemed at first an easy endeavor. An early start to beat the rising sun, to outrun its zenith, was the intention. Never made it. Lots of “cameling up” kept me alive, but pouring sweat and drenching humidity did their evil best to sap my energy. Despite many stops to rest in what shade I could find, I ended up in a late afternoon slog. The white blazes had directed me through some newly sown fields and alongside a two-lane asphalt road, now redolent with the smell of cooked…

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Filed under A.T., Adventure, Appalachian Trail, Backpacking, Camping, Consequences, Decision making, Fear, Hiking, lost, Travel, Walking

Never Hike or Backpack Alone

daylight-environment-fern-2078864I never thought the day would come when I would say this, but the world has changed.

Never, ever, hike or backpack alone.

I say this as someone who has spent countless hours in the deep wild, thrilled by the solitude and awed by the silence.  It has always been my intention to encourage the soul that is drawn to the stillness of the forest and the trail which takes them there to answer that call; to go and experience something rare and breathtaking and enriching.

No longer.

I know it is sometimes difficult to find one or more persons who have the time to venture on a hiking trip with you.  I had that challenge, but I went anyway.  In fact, I preferred being alone on the trail, and relished the unknown difficulties of each day.

Most days, these barriers consisted of where to find water, or how to ford a river.  Others might be getting a hitch into town or finding a store to resupply.

It’s different now.  The factors have changed, and not always for the better.

I still hear it, as I did today when I read the news; the trail (Appalachian) is safe — but there are no guarantees.

The story this date (May 12, 2019) https://bit.ly/2HfXT8j  is one where a loner attacked hikers using a machete, leaving one wounded and one dead.  It’s been a long time since I’ve heard of such an act of violence intruding upon such a marvelous hiking path.  Still, this time it seems different.  I’m not sure why.

Perhaps it’s because things have changed along the trail in the past dozen plus years.  Overcrowding of shelters, incidents of norovirus affecting hikers in greater number, the popularity of the trail compared to twenty years back.  Easy accessibility to the footpath, and plenty of media exposure seem to have only led to a more crowded outdoor experience.

What was once a near-hidden gem has become stained by the stress of over-use and violence.

Am I saying not to go?  Never!

But, I am saying one should be in a group of at least three or more.  I am saying, sadly, that more attention should be paid to other hikers and their mannerism and behavior, especially loners who seem not to fit in.

Use your intuition, your gut, your suspicions and, if you feel the least bit of doubt, avoid questionable company.  Report such individuals to rangers and trail officials.

The old saying is true: there’s strength in numbers.

For me, I grieve the loss of those attacked, who were enjoying the wonder of the wild in innocence.  I also grieve the loss of safety which I felt years ago, when I could walk the footpath without undue concern about my safety.  That does not mean I didn’t run across the odd character; I did, and more than once.  But I grieve the ability to enclose oneself in the emerald fastness of the forest without having to look over the shoulder to see who is following.

For me, the days of solo backpacking have ended.  I do not look down on those who feel the confidence and fortitude to venture out alone.  I only wish I could.

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Filed under Adventure, Appalachian Trail, Backpacking, challenge, danger, Hiking, risk, Walking, wilderness

Thinking about “Night Hatchet” on the Appalachian Trail

I just couldn’t resist dicing up your hiking Halloween without revisiting the chilling tale of this most unwelcome trail denizen! Trick or Treat!

Write in Front of Me


Consider this the “Halloween” post for Write In Front of Me.  It’s not my intent to fuel undue anxiety or alarm but I would be less than upfront if this side of backpacking the Appalachian Trail wasn’t addressed.  Specifically, I’m talking about safety in dealing with other hikers and people you will meet.

First a tale…a true tale.

Cold Spring Shelter along the Appalachian Trail was home for the night for myself and a handful of other backpackers.  We’d left Springer Mountain mid-April and were among the rear guard bound for Katahdin.  Most of us were getting our “trail legs” and starting to feel we were managing the tests the trail set before us pretty well.

What we weren’t prepared for was “Night Hatchet.”

“Night Hatchet” was a young local man, about his early twenties, who was hitching from trailhead to trailhead, hiking in to shelters…

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Filed under A.T., Appalachian Trail, Backpacking, Camping, Halloween, haunting, Hiking, outdoors, terror, Walking