What is it that we do every day out here, we hundreds of hikers filing up the trail like ants along a sidewalk crack? Well, walk, mostly. But people, except perhaps for Hunter S. Thompson and a handful of true bohemians, have a set of rituals. They comprise the daily negotiation between the person and his or her surroundings and culture, a favored path of navigating one’s circumstances. We might not even notice that we have these rituals, they become so second-nature. Even as a quasi-adventurer, I’m a creature of habit, so it’s been interesting to notice the patterns that have evolved since we have decided to be outdoors nearly 100% of the time. Some mirror indoor living, and some are unique. So what’s a typical day on the trail, at least for two of us?
We awaken at dawn. Naturally. It’s crazy, we are not that kind of people. But living without electric lighting dramatically changes our bodies’ sleep cycles. It restores us to daylight-centered living, and it feels pretty good.
We get out of bed at six or six-thirty. We slip into our hiking clothes, then one of us packs up the bedding while the other scoots to the privy and then retrieves the food bags from where they have been hanging all night, ten feet up and four feet out (optimally; sometimes I don’t do quite that well) from a tree or cable, out of the reach of bears, mice, and creatures of intermediate size. We roll up the tent, brush our teeth, and apply various ointments and powders to irritated body parts. I comb my hair, which is incredibly enjoyable out here–something about the plastic tines massaging the scalp, and the semblance of civility, though my hair is usually thick with salt. If we’re raring to go, we tuck energy bars in our pockets to eat while walking. If it’s cold or a slow day, we have oatmeal–either soaked and hung with the food bag overnight, or heated that morning. This whole thing takes about an hour fifteen. Then we walk.
We’ll walk ten or twelve miles before lunch. We stop at a shelter or a lovely overlook, spread thick dollops of peanut butter over bagels, inhale crushed Pringles, treat water from a spring or stream, and take in our surroundings. We sign our trail names in the shelter register, and look for our comrades’ names ahead of us. We try to remember to say a little blessing before chowing down. As we pack up, we stash crackers and a Snickers bar each in our side pockets to fuel us through the afternoon.
We try to remember to pray for people as we walk. Sometimes we walk close together, chatting. (We are lucky in that not only do we both love hiking, but we also have a similar pace. Neither is the sticky wicket or the disappearing speedster; we take turns leading and following. It makes things feel equitable.) Sometimes we spread out and walk separately, listening to our own thoughts or the music of the woods. Sometimes we sing. Sometimes we walk with other people and get to hear their stories.
We walk about ten to twelve hours a day. I guess we are professional hikers. It is our job. Of course, it is more than a job, an occupation–oh yeah, and it doesn’t pay–but when the going gets tough, it is nice to be able to tell myself, “Sheesh, work was tedious today,” and get on with things.
We stop after twenty to thirty miles, when we reach a good shelter or camp spot, or when the sun gets quite low, whichever feels best, though about once a week we call it early, either due to weather or just to have a lazy few hours to clip toenails, sew a patch, and watch the clouds. We scrape sharp stones and sticks out of a campsite and pitch the tent. In a reverse of the morning ritual, one of us makes the beds while the other boils water for dinner. Dinner is a couple of Lipton Sides, or a pack of instant mashed potatoes and half a bag of stuffing, or if we are splurging, a freeze-dried meal. Plus more snacks and tortillas. Someone washes the dishes: pot, lid, two spoons. We do our nightly ablutions, partial bathing in a thicket or behind a boulder.
If there are others about, there may be a campfire, or folks on stumps shooting the breeze. Otherwise, we scoot into our sleeping bags. One of us will write out the next day’s landmarks and water sources on a small slip of paper destined for pocket reference, copying it from the Northbounder’s A.T. Guide, which we have in pdf on our Kindle Paperwhite. If there’s reception, we may quickly check email and the forecast. Every night, I take out my tiny Strathmore drawing pad and make a crude drawing, and write notes about the day on the reverse. Originally I had envisioned a seamlessly illustrated paper reflection of our journey, but the sketches are some in pencil, some in ballpoint pen, and with such varying drawing styles (due, I suppose, to differences in energy level and mood) that they look more like doodles in a high schooler’s math notebook. So be it. Maybe one day they will be the basis of a book, or at least will trigger memories of this adventure.
Speaking of which, what is missing from this list is exactly what makes hiking memorable: the small and large variances along the trail that occur every day. The tree burl shaped like a teddy bear or a set of genitalia, the creepy remnants of a plane wreck, the cascades that brought a cool breeze to our necks, the bag of apples left hanging from a turnstile for hungry passerby, the old Confederate graves… we have come to expect at least one unexpected sight every day; rehashing it and laughing or shaking our heads is also part of our ritual.
Then there is a little canoodling, some drowsy reading, and (non purists) maybe we will watch a sitcom episode on the smartphone. Around nine or ten, we fall asleep. The sounds of a brook or breeze or snoring hiker are the soundtrack to our nights. I dream of family and friends and strangers, foreign homes and foods and hubs of transportation, of movement, even as we are finally at rest.
And then it starts all over again.