I know. Yes, I know.
“If you’re lucky enough to be hiking the Appalachian Trail, you’re lucky enough.”
But I’m not going to lie. There’s been a good bit of misery lately.
One recent night I slept barely two hours, never quite able to shield every square inch of my body from the damp chill. The shelter was full when we’d arrived after twenty miles of walking. The wind had blown all day, chapping our faces and hands, and the snow had begun falling in the afternoon, not to stop for days. By the next morning, there were five to seven inches on the ground and it was still coming down, blowing. Our tent sagged under the weight of it, and our breath condensed on every surface–the tent ceiling, our down bags, our clothes, our groundsheet. Everything was damp. We had dug ourselves out before going to bed, so as not to asphyxiate at night should the snow levels rise above the bottom edge of our tent.
Upon awakening, I felt dread of the impending process of repacking everything before using the frigid privy (which, at least, beat trying to dig a six-inch hole in the frozen ground). I felt oppressed, no way to pee without a half-hour double change of clothes from dry to wet to dry again, no space to turn over in my bag without an elaborately orchestrated series of moves to keep any surface from touching any other surface, and during the day, no place clear of snow and warm enough to take even a ten-minute break without my feet turning into ice blocks and my torso beginning to shiver. It has been an unusually cold and wet winter, we hear.
I did get out of the bag that morning. We ate our pemmican bars, poked the ice plugs from the necks of our water bottles, drank as much slushy water as we could bear in the cold (it was fifteen degrees), and started slogging though the deep snow. I kept thinking: I didn’t sign up for this. I have never winter-hiked or winter-camped before. I didn’t think I would like it. I was right. I was resentful as we pushed our way through knee-high drifts on the windblown ridges. I have to confess that several miles of climbing that morning also involved tears running down my face.
However, of course: gag me. I’m doing this voluntarily. I keep thinking about people without the option of getting to town someday, or buying different gear, or finding a warm bed someday. Thru-hikers are probably 95% male, and 99.5% white. What might that suggest about us as a group?
Plus, there has been a lot of joy as well. Sometimes at the same time as the misery. We climbed out of Hot Springs given a forecast of maybe four or five more hours of decent weather, and it was beautiful. The clouds parted, and we rose above the wide blue river near which we had recently soaked in the town’s warm mineral baths, a little splurge in celebration of our ninth anniversary. Our energy levels were high, and we raced the gray cloud on the eastern horizon to the top of the mountain. We flew the eleven miles to the first shelter, and found it empty–all ours! Just as we made our bedrolls in the little enclosure and gathered a few liters of fresh water from the spring down the hill, the fog flowed in. We ate our hot dinner of instant mashed potatoes and Pepperidge Farm stuffing with fake bacon bits as the wind began to whip up. The fog was so thick we could see it from one end of the tiny shelter to the other. We tipped the picnic table up against the opening to keep the wind and, eventually, the rain and snow, out. Our sleeping bags zipped together, and we spooned all night, sleeping warm and peacefully.
The next day, there was a quarter inch of snow on the ground. The forecast called for lots of snow, but patches of blue kept opening up and the sun would shine through as the flakes fell on the green rhododendron leaves. Eight miles up, we climbed across the high, exposed ridge of Big Firescald Knob despite the inches of snow underfoot, and hooted with wonder and triumph upon glimpsing a vast view of the frosty, white hills around us, the dramatic clouds, and the sunny valleys far, far below. It was beyond beautiful.
So… what of this misery?
It feels like my body communicating its limits. I was pushed right up against them, and beyond. Maybe misery gives me more empathy for those less fortunate. It humbles me in my relationship with nature, and with my higher power, as I pray, God, please help me–the most selfish prayer of all. It brings me in touch with the First Noble Truth of Buddhism–the one about life being suffering. It reminds me again and again that everything is temporary: pleasure, pain, any human experience. And, I hope most of all, misery makes me look more deeply at what might be beyond the pain and the pleasure. What lasts, what endures?
Next time, I’ll tell you how I came to have the leisure time to type this all out. For now, I will just reassure you that we are warm and safe and out of the winter storm. Hope you all are staying warm, too!