It’s possible I’m going through a midlife crisis.
I’m only 35, but I’ve always been precocious.
There’s this sense that I’ve missed my chance to do something grand, something a little bit crazy. Sure, I gave birth to my son in my dining room and that was amazing and transformative, but it was just a few hours. (Well, it was 27 hours, but who’s counting?) I want more of that kind of thing, but without adding children to my family. I want the challenge and the reward, I want the intangible benefits of testing myself nearly to breaking and coming through the other side changed.
Shenandoah National Park, June 1994
From the moment I heard about the Appalachian Trail when I was 13 years old, I wanted to hike it. I hiked bits and pieces in Shenandoah National Forest as a teenager. I went on one very memorable day-hike with some friends at the end of our senior year of high school. We hiked the Stony Man Trail in Skyland where it converged with the AT. I think we hiked maybe 5 miles and took salad as our trail food. The views were incredible.
A year or so later, I hiked the same section with my future husband. From the ledge, we watched a thunderstorm rolling in. On the next ledge up the trail, the storm engulfed us. My husband loved it. He stood there with his arms outstretched as the lightning flashed around him. When I finally got him to stop trying to be the highest point in a thunderstorm, we ran down the mountain, the backs of our necks and our bare legs pelted by hail most of the way.
Long Trail/AT, Gifford Woods State Forest, Vermont, September 2012
This weekend, my husband, the kids, and I hiked a wee tiny section of the Appalachian Trail as it ran through Gifford Woods State Forest in Vermont. We—the grownups, the 7-year-old, and the 3-year-old—hiked a steep, rocky, one-mile section out and back from the park visitors center.
I spent our return hike calculating distances and paces, trying to figure out a way, however unrealistic, that the kids and I could thru-hike (or at least section hike) the AT now.
Last night I watched the movie, Trek: a Journey on the Appalachian Trail, which is about a group of hikers who completed their thru-hike in October 2001. The film gave a more in-depth look at the hiking life than any other AT movie I’ve seen, including an exploration of the emotional aspects of the hike. There was a lot of discussion about how the hike and the hiker’s perception of it shifted as they got farther along on the trail and farther from the off-trail life back home.
The film included the “how did you get on the trail?” stories of several hikers. Many of them boiled down to, “If not now, when?” One hiker, a man with the trail name “Sheriff,” talked about how he’d thought for years about hiking the AT. Then one night he had a dream. In it, a guy pulled up next to him in a pickup truck loaded with camping gear.
“Going camping?” Sheriff asked. The man answered that no, he was going to hike the Appalachian Trail.
“I’ve always thought about doing that,” said Sheriff.
“Well, why don’t you come along?” the man asked.
And when he woke up, Sheriff started planning his trip.
I worry that I’ve been handed opportunities to do something bold multiple times in my life, and I’ve let them pass by unheeded.
I was at loose ends after college, and that may well have been a good time to go hiking, but I was deeply in debt with student loans and the credit card I’d used to buy food my last year of college. I compromised and worked at a conference resort south of Lake Tahoe for a season, which was awesome, but I was 20 and too self-conscious to allow myself to embrace the experience.
I picked up a backpacking book in a used book store in Asheville, North Carolina, in the late 90’s. The Backpacking Woman, it was called, by Lynn Thomas. It was written before the availability of tech fabrics and chances are the 20-year-old advice was fairly outdated, but it made long-distance hiking seem doable and fanned the AT flame in me. My husband was in grad school at the time, and I said, “Hey! When you’re done with grad school and have a post-doc lined up, we should take some extra time and hike the AT!” But when the time came, he was nervous about taking the time off and I let that be my excuse to give in to my own fears and doubts, and we made a bee-line from North Carolina to California, only stopping to sleep (and accidentally find a beer fest in Salt Lake City).
When my husband got laid off last year, I saw another opportunity to do something bold. With two young children in tow, I wasn’t really thinking that the AT would be a reasonable option, but the idea of selling everything and living in an RV took hold. (I’ve had an infatuation with RVs ever since kindergarten when the neighbors across the street bought a behemoth motor home and we neighborhood kids got to tour through it.) I thought it was the perfect solution. We knew we would have to move anyway. We could sell our stuff, sell our house, downsize into an RV and stretch the severance package even longer than we could in Salt Lake City. We’d be ready to move anywhere the right job presented itself, and in the meantime, we could travel the country. We could drive to Alaska if we wanted to, so long as the gas money held out and we were near enough to an airport that my husband could fly to interviews.
But we didn’t do that either.
And now here I am in the suburbs of Boston with a mortgage on a split-level home that’s bigger than I need or want in a neighborhood a sidewalk-less 2.5 miles from an inconsequential downtown that’s just barely walkable during the best weather (and just about impassable during the winter), watching movies about Appalachian Trail thru-hikers or dreaming of living in an RV with no fixed address.
This weekend, I listened to an interview with Tom Hayden, founder of Students for a Democratic Society, on the “To the Best of Our Knowledge.” He talked about how it was easier to be a radical and an activist in the 60’s than it is today because it was easier to step out of and back into the mainstream.
I could drop out of the university and nothing would happen. I could go to jail in Mississippi, nothing would happen. I could return, pay my hundred bucks and get back in. This is a treadmill that today’s students are on that we didn’t face. We thought our life, you know, the future, was a treadmill, the grey flannel suit and all that, but nothing compared to the pressure on this generation of students.
The treadmill image resonates with me, but I feel more like I’m caged. The door is open, but the cage offers protection and security, and that keeps me inside. I reassure myself that once the kids are older, I’ll step out of the cage. Once we retire. Once…I don’t even know what. But with all of the opportunities that I’ve already let pass me by, with all of the times when leaving the cage would have been relatively easy, will I really be ready to jump even when those future chances present themselves?
I know it’s not the right time for me to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail (Is there ever a “best” time to hike 2,168 miles?). My kids are great hikers, but they couldn’t carry much gear. The best we could do would be some short backpacking trips and even that would be a stretch, and it would be too great a sacrifice to be away from them for 5-6 months so I could do the trail without them.
But I want to do something big. I want to do something meaningful and life-expanding, and I want to do it now while I’m still young enough to have more adventures afterward and so I can be an inspiration to my children when they’re young and before my knees give out.
I don’t know what it is, but whatever it is, it’s big. It’s something that would cause people to say to me, “Man, you are totally crazy for doing that.” I want it to be something scary but exciting, something that I know is right in my heart, but that I still question. Like homeschooling or homebirth, but bigger.
Maybe it would suffice to give myself and the kids a long-term training plan for a thru-hike, get us all in shape for a long-distance hike by taking day hikes of increasing length until we’re ready to move on to backpacking trips. With enough experience and conditioning, we might be ready to thru-hike before I turn fifty.
Or maybe I can talk my husband into the lightweight-travel-trailer lifestyle after all. It would help if I could tackle one of my other deferred “bold plans” and become a working, money-earning writer.
That is, if I can avoid being paralyzed by fear for long enough to accomplish any of these things.
Maybe I should just listen to the messages the college radio station has been trying to send me: