Failing to Grow: One Middle-aged Man's Hike Along the Appalachian Trail

A few years ago I made a decision to do something I’ve wanted to do for a while now. I took a two-day hike on the Connecticut section of the Appalachian Trail. It wasn’t on my bucket list or anything, although there were a few times I felt like I was going to “kick the bucket” along the way. It was just one of those things I wanted to try a) to find out what all the excitement was about and b) to see if I could actually make it. Well, I did make it – just barely – and ended up with a few blisters, some sore muscles and a better appreciation for those who actually travel the entire grueling sixth-month journey from Georgia to Maine. In many ways I feel that I failed at the challenge I’d set for myself. While I expected to make a few mistakes along the way, I thought I would have fared better overall. I decided then that I needed to find the meaning within my not-so-successful adventure; otherwise, I’d just be adding insult to injury – literally – to my otherwise mediocre mid-life crisis. What follows are the life lessons – the growth and insights – that have come from my “failure” on the Appalachian Trail.

I was certainly prepared for the rigors of the hike. I was biking 15-20 miles, 5 times a week, to build up my legs and my stamina. I took a few short practice hikes with a smaller pack in order to get used to the pace of hiking. I did all the research on proper trail camping techniques from bear bagging to water treatment. I found a nifty free GPS app for my phone to keep me from getting lost and I bought some new hiking gear – not the best, but enough to get the job done. And so, after planning a reasonable route and filling my pack, I decided finally to just go ahead and do it. But, as with any good adventure, no matter how much I might prepare for every contingency, I knew there would be challenges to face along the way.

I was a little overweight for the hike – and by that, I mean my gear. I like to sleep comfortably and bug-free, so I brought along a tent, a sleeping bag and a pad. My “sleep system” alone weighed about 8 pounds, the result of purchasing less expensive, more multi-use equipment. With my food, clothing and other gear, I was sporting about 27 pounds of weight on my back, awkwardly arranged and bungeed together as best I could. My one really poor choice was not investing in a new pair of hiking shoes. I went instead with the trusty 20-year-old clunky, indestructible hiking boots I had acquired when I was first married. While my ankles felt loved and supported, my feet definitely did not.  

I arrived at my starting point in the early afternoon – the time my ride was available to take me – and began the hike. My chauffer, my lovely bride, was not entirely happy to see me go. She had visions of her husband being eaten by ravenous bear or falling down into a bottomless ravine with no one around to help. Though her lack of confidence in my hiking abilities should have diminished my enthusiasm, I reminded myself that her anxiety came from her love. Knowing that she cared gave me inner strength to see the journey through. With that love to carry me – I had to carry everything else – I began my solo trek on the road toward the trail. At first, the way was smooth and level. This was easy enough, I thought. In no time at all, I arrived at my first shelter, took some time to explore it and then decided that it was way too early in the day to stay there. I set my sights on the next shelter on the trail, a “mere” 10 miles away (It looked so much closer on the map!), and moved on.

Okay, I’ll admit that was poor choice number 2! My lively, 2-3 mile-per-hour sprint began quickly to slow to more of a careful stroll as the trail took a turn upward in elevation over more rocky terrain. It was there I met my first experienced thru-hiker, a man who knew how to pace himself and who was kind enough not to laugh at the arrangement of my gear. He shared some tips and tales from his hike along the trail. He was wise enough to stop at a campsite along the way; I kept on going, determined to make it to the next “official” shelter. However, at 8:30 in the evening, I finally resigned myself to the fact that my goal was unattainable, found a flat spot on the trail and set up my tent for the night. I admit, while it was exciting (It was as close to meeting Bear Grylls as I’ll ever come!), it was still a little unnerving to be out in the middle of the woods all alone at night. On several occasions, I felt I needed to make some noise to scare away whatever real or imagined creatures were scurrying around my thin taffeta sanctuary. I made it through the night, laughing at my pride-induced predicament while convincing myself that my solar phone charger was in no way the equivalent of a night light. Then at 5:00 am, I packed up and began once more to make my way north toward that elusive shelter. Which way was north again? Thank God for that trusty GPS app!

This time when I arrived at the shelter, even though again it was somewhat early, I decided that my blistered feet had had enough and decided to stay put. I set up my tent on the only 7 feet of non-rocky soil I could find, replenished my water supply and prepared a reconstituted meal in my stainless steel cooking pot. My hiking companion from the previous day showed up a little later and graciously refrained from commenting on my lack of stamina and common sense. He ate a meal and moved on. I met a few other hikers who came to the shelter and listened to their stories while sharing my “trapped in the wilderness with blistered feet” story with as much manliness as I could manage. Afterward, I retied to my tent for the night. This time, after some tossing and turning, I got a little bit better sleep.

When morning came the next day, my feet decided they had had enough. I bandaged my blisters, which by now were quite painful, phoned my wife, and arranged for an alternate pickup time and location. I packed up quietly and again set off on the trail, walking briskly once more; well, at least I thought so until a professional hiking tour guide came zipping along. He slowed down to engage in polite hiker conversation, looking back every once in a while, apparently to make sure I was still within range to hear him. Right when I was about to suggest that I might be slowing him down, he decided to move on, bid me farewell, and within a minute was out of site, allowing me to concentrate once again on the pain in my feet and my desire to finish the hike. I knew I needed to get to the meeting place soon (I had already told my wife to leave, thinking I would beat her there – when would I learn my lesson?) and so I pressed on with determination and hope.

The next person to pass me on the trail could have been mistaken for a young, male, shirtless Abercrombie & Fitch model, on his way to his next photo shoot. He smiled as he flew by and I was happy he had no time to stop and snicker at this sweaty, blister-footed man with clunky shoes hobbling along and considering the surprising lack of automated defibrillators out on the Appalachian Trail. It was then I began to hear voices – strange, melodious, echoey voices – in the distance. At first, I feared it was the voice of God telling me my time had come; but to my relief I realized it was an announcer over a loudspeaker at an auto racetrack somewhere nearby. As I walked on, I met a man a little closer to my age who had stopped to take some pictures of the area overlooking that racetrack. He was out for a little exercise and was wisely pacing himself, so I was able to pass him off. I was annoyed at the noise from the racetrack, though now I see it as a good thing because it drowned out my grunts and groans as I pushed myself forward to my final destination.

I continued along the trail, thinking about those fast hikers, that loud racetrack and the other man I had met at the overlook. I realized that on the journey of life, it’s good to have goals and to pursue them with all our strength and determination; but it’s also good to take time to stop and notice the little miracles along the way. I marveled at how quickly the fog rose and dissipated over the land by that overlook, delighted in the display of color and diversity within the woods, and contemplated the wonder of life in everything from the moss growing on the rocks by a dried up stream to a bright orange newt warming itself on a log in the morning sun. I came to see that it’s a blessing to accept who we are and where we are on the journey, even when it seems that the world may be passing us by. I also remembered that although pain and struggle can take its toll, it can also push us to test the limits of our abilities and to reach for more.

After another hour or so of hiking, I saw on my map that I was in the home stretch. It was then that I began to experience my greatest pain, as each jagged rock and twisted root dug mercilessly into those blisters. I stubbed my toes more times than I care to count (Curse you natural leafy ground cover!) and experienced new levels of discomfort in my back and knees. As I came to what I thought was the last descent, suddenly ahead of me was one last hill. At that point, my strength began to falter and my discouragement mounted. But I knew my wife was waiting and decided to summon that last once of energy and press on until at last I saw the road near the place we were to meet. With a phone call or two and some quick coordination, we finally found each other

At last the journey had come to an end. We packed up my gear and headed for home. As we were driving, I came to see how much of a sacrifice this short trip had been for my wife – not only in the driving she had done, but in the worry as well. I’m sure she had wondered if the whole thing had been worth it; I know I had certainly pondered that myself. But, in the end, I was glad I’d gone and learned from my mistakes, and pleased that this intense little undertaking had led me to a new appreciation of my own frailty and a new awareness that it really is okay to be human. No matter what blunders I’d made along the way, I know that I’d grown because of them.

As we pulled into our driveway, I was happy to be home, happier to see my children and perhaps happiest to be able to take a shower! Later, I soaked my aching feet, finished off some leftover trail mix and collapsed on the family room couch. By this point I was just too tired to try to come up with a convincing story as to why I had ended my expedition a little earlier than expected. I also knew that any sense of failure I was feeling was giving way to a new determination to accept my limitations with humor and to celebrate my strengths with joy. No matter what I went through, I could now say that I had traveled on the Appalachian Trail and was all the better for it. I knew that my next trip would be a much more rewarding experience, simply because I’d make the changes necessary to have it turn out that way (Sorry, old hiking boots – you’re out!).

Life is about growing, and the truth is, sometimes we need to fail in order to grow. Failure is transformed into grace when we understand how we can use it to become better people, people who learn from mistakes and people who can see ourselves as we really are: struggling but strong, dependent yet determined, curious and courageous! I hope these few simple life lessons will inspire you to strike out on some new unknown trail to find out just what you can do, who you need to rely on and where in your life you’re heading – and I hope you can do it all with a humorous and happy heart!