Needs

Goddamn it, we will have our wireless internet, even in our national parks.

Whenever the subject of a controversial development, potential fossil fuel exploration project or other exploitation of our natural resources is brought up in bureaucratic circles, inevitably the argument is made by one politician or another of the need for job creation, the satisfaction of our need for consumables, or the need for development in order for a wilderness to be enjoyed by all.

These needs, they say, are necessary to the continuation of life as we know it. We need jobs so we can pay for things. We need gas for our cars so we can drive to work. We need resorts with roads so everyone can see the view from atop every mountain in the comfort of an air-conditioned room while sipping champagne. These needs outweigh the value of the nature that must be destroyed in order to fulfill these needs, at least in the eyes of those who stand to profit most from them. To many, nature itself has value only in what resources it contains; the crude oil buried deep beneath its surface, the lumber standing uncut above it, the jobs and tourism dollars that could be created by a new ski lodge.

It’s true, these people are the ones who stand to gain the most from nature, just not in the way they see it. If only they could experience true wilderness without the aid of a helicopter, the rarity of a world without noise, the exhilarating and frightening feeling of knowing that they are completely and absolutely…alone. Aware, keenly and sharply in a way that’s unexplainable until experienced, they would know that they are not at the top of the food chain as they’ve always assumed. Maybe then, after being accompanied only by their own thoughts, forced to pare their existence down to food and shelter and stare into the mirror that is solitude, they would finally understand that there is far more value in the few untouched places that remain than they ever thought possible. A value that is not only easily attainable for all, but worth more than any object that has ever been created by man.

We’re all aware that we live in a world fueled by natural resources which cannot be replaced, yet we continue to demand the right to consume them, just as every generation before us. Let the next generation fix the problems we create for them, they'll surely invent some solution to pollution, global warming and dying oceans. After all, we've done nothing but progress for the last hundred years, surprising even ourselves by our inventiveness as humans. We need our five-thousand square foot homes, our V8 engines, our 4K Ultra HD televisions, and our touchscreen smart phones. Goddamn it, we will have our wireless internet, even in our national parks.

We've come to a point of dire misunderstanding of what it is we truly need, and lost touch with even the most basic comprehension of how life itself should be lived. We believe that we need to work 80-hour weeks away from our children so we can afford to give them all the things we think they need, when in fact all they need is our company. Show me a child who has grown up in the largest of houses, clothed in the most current of styles, and supervised only by the most expensive of televisions, and I'll show you a child with nothing but a stick, a bowl of rice and a pair of good parents who could teach your child more about the enjoyment and fulfillment of life than they ever thought possible.

In an effort to offer a solution to this problem rather than complaining only for the sake of a writer's self-satisfaction, I simply ask this: Rather than adding things to our lives in an attempt to simplify them (and thereby consuming more of our natural resources), doesn't it seem more intuitive that we would take things away? When you need less money to pay for less gas to arrive at a job that requires less of your time, and live in a home that requires less energy, what you end up with is more time and money to spend doing something that makes both you and your world happy.

Get back in line, hippie, consume!

Somehow, over the course of the last century or so, as we strove to create a faster, easier, better life for ourselves, we forgot about the whole life part and decided we just wanted faster, easier and better. We work overtime so we can both afford the things we want now, and save for the "dream life" we've planned in our heads for when we're finally able to retire. We forego life in the present in exchange for a hypothetical future life that may not even exist, rather than simply foregoing the objects that clutter our current lives in exchange for life in the present. We would rather spend the next 30 years in a cubicle so we can go home to watch adventures happen on television than actually have adventures now. When you boil it down to its purest essence, we would rather have easy than good.

The definition of need is a situation in which someone or something must do or have something. When it comes to needs, humans are fairly lucky. Our needs are a pretty short list. We need air. We need water. We need food of some kind. We need shelter. Essentially, we need a tree over a campfire near a water source and the knowledge of how to fish. As a species, we somehow survived thousands of years this way, but today the mere mention of attempting to live more simply can get you labeled as a socialist. Get back in line, hippie, consume!

The upside, however, is that more and more of us every day are coming to the realization that, at any point, we can simply step off the assembly line, remove ourselves from the conveyor belt, and simplify. We're selling our junk, downsizing to smaller homes, and living intentionally. The optimist in me wants to believe that this is the future, that the human race is moving toward a sudden, inevitable mass enlightenment, but the pessimist in me worries that we are doomed to destroy ourselves and our planet. Either way, I will choose to make the most of my time here on Earth. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that's the stuff life is made of.”

You're Never Going to Make it

After speaking to my parents, siblings and friends, it was clear that I would need a gun, a large canister of bear spray, and a satellite phone.

This spring, after moving to North Georgia from Florida and driving through the surrounding mountains, I came to the decision that I should attempt to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. It was an admittedly hasty decision for someone as unaccustomed to sleeping outside in inclement weather as I was, but as it was already March and the thru-hikers were assembling on Springer Mountain, I had no time to waste.

The first order of business, I determined, would be to quickly assemble the existing outdoor gear I had accumulated from the few times I had gone car camping, digging through dusty storage bins in my attic and pulling out anything deemed potentially helpful to outdoor survival. I had a 3-person Coleman tent (with rain fly, poles, stakes, and handy carrying bag), a small canvas backpack that I'd used in high school to carry my books, an assortment of various sizes and shapes of cast iron cookware, a telescopic hot dog or marshmallow cooking stick, a hatchet, a large knife with storage in the handle (filled with matches, a wire saw and some bandages for when I attempted to use said knife or wire saw), the flannel-lined sleeping bag I'd had since childhood, a five-gallon water jug, a battery-powered lantern, and a propane two-burner stove. Clothing wise, I had several flannel shirts, a felt hat and mittens, a wool-lined waxed canvas jacket for colder weather, several pairs of old jeans and my trusty pair of leather Danner hiking boots (with the ubiquitous red laces). Obviously, I was off to a great start.

The next day, I began calling loved ones to announce my intentions to embark on this brave and perilous journey. After speaking to my parents, siblings and friends, it was clear that I would need a gun, a large canister of bear spray, and a satellite phone. I was going to have run-ins with aggressive bears, and I had better be prepared to defend myself. In case of extensive injury obtained from multiple bear battles, I would also need the satellite phone to request air support.

As a greenhorn in the ways of long-distance hiking, I decided it couldn't hurt to do some research, just in case. Naturally, I took to my local sporting goods retailer to see if there was a general consensus amongst the more experienced sales staff as to what I should be carrying. I left with an inflatable boat for potential water crossings, a pair of two-way radios with rechargeable batteries, a handheld gps unit, a pair of small binoculars, a solar battery charger, a collapsible cot, a folding camp chair, hand and foot warmers, a comprehensive medical kit with carrying case, an emergency blanket, a snake bite kit, a whistle with built-in compass, a signal mirror, some road flares, and many different redundant means of starting fire. After all, better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it, am I right?

After returning home, I wondered how I could possibly carry all of this, so I began weighing the contents of my future pack. The grand total was 167 pounds. Clearly this was too much to carry in my high school book bag, so I purchased a proper hundred-liter backpack designed just for such loads. If it’s good enough for the guys climbing Everest, it’s good enough for me. Do people use Sherpas to carry their weight on the AT? A wagon of some sort might've been more efficient and comfortable, but as I'd just spent a small fortune on equipment, this was out of the question. I'd also have to postpone my start date for hiking by a month or two so I could get a second job and save more money.

I worked tirelessly for two months, saving every penny I could by eating ramen noodles, biking to work and canceling my cable television, internet and wireless phone services. After finally saving the money necessary to begin my hike, however, I realized that I hadn't even begun to think of what I would eat and how I could possibly bring enough food to nourish myself on a six-month adventure. I came to the conclusion that a wagon was indeed the only way to potentially carry all my gear and food. I resolved to settle the issue once and for all, so I purchased an all-terrain cart with inflatable tires and a harness designed for a pack animal of some kind, along with a veritable pantry’s worth of canned goods and several coolers for perishables. Finally I was ready. I'd just have to continue working two jobs, saving my money for another couple of months and there was no stopping me. Maine, here I come!

What would people have thought? I would’ve been laughed right off the trail, that’s what. Now I’ll be the one laughing at those posers.

Or so I thought. What a fool I was…A WAGON? How embarrassing, when, by chance, I stopped one day to peruse my local specialty outdoor outfitter and learned I was going about this all wrong. Light and fast, of course that was the way to go! I immediately held a yard sale to rid myself of all the dated, heavy equipment I'd accumulated over the past four months and scraped together enough to buy the most modern, lightweight cuben fiber backpack and shelter imaginable, together weighing less than three pounds! Pointed in the right direction at last, I was unstoppable. All I had to do was work for a couple more months so I could purchase an ultralight sleeping quilt, down jacket, sleeping pad, rain jacket, synthetic undergarments, hiking socks, trail running shoes, gaiters, water treatment system, headlamp and carbon-fiber trekking poles. I'm just glad I didn't show up on the trail with all that ridiculous gear. What would people have thought? I would've been laughed right off the trail, that's what. Now I’ll be the one laughing at those posers.

Two months later, having finally scraped together enough money to purchase the necessary remaining gear, I was the proud owner of the ultimate ultralight setup. I would now be able to put down lightning-quick miles with the best of them. My fellow hikers will be envious of my carefully assembled, fine-tuned, masterfully minimal setup. Just a couple more months of work to save money for food and incidentals I'll need along the way, and then just try and stop me world! Maybe I'll even go for the speed record, who knows? In the meantime, I'll cut my toothbrush in half, start removing fasteners and straps to further lighten my pack, and fashion an alcohol stove from a cat food can. I've accounted for everything this time.

Well, one thing I didn't account for was that all this preparation would lead me clear into the dead of winter. After becoming a gear expert throughout this whole process, I now know that winter demands an entirely different set of equipment. I'll obviously need a four-season tent, ice axe, crampons, and a water repellent down sleeping quilt, merino wool base layer, 900-fill-power down jacket and sleeping pad specially made for the sub-zero conditions I'm sure to endure. I should also look into climbing rope systems, helmets and harnesses as well. You can never be too safe! Just a couple more months of work and at last I'll be ready to hike for the first time ever! Stay tuned for future updates as I refine my gear...

The Longest Mile

Their stories are filled with the stuff of dramatic films; mine explosions, moonshine, large families, youthful adventures and unfortunately young deaths.

The ultimate goal, for many of us, is to live a life without regrets. Too often, we look back and say things like "I wish I would've taken a year after college to travel Europe", or "I wish I would've had the courage to leave that job and pursue my dream". In some cases, maybe we should've held onto that day job. We all have them, whether we want to admit it or not, we've done or said something we wish we could take back. In my case, I wish I would've taken more time and effort to truly get to know my grandparents.

My parents moved away from Pittsburgh just before I was born, mostly to avoid lives spent working in steel mills. I'm thankful they did, but one of the results of the move was that I would only see my aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents on major holidays once or twice a year. The things I hear from my parents point to inspiring stories and incredible lives lived by their elders. For example, my grandmother lived through the depression with immigrant parents that didn't speak English, raised two daughters by herself and worked two jobs while taking care of her developmentally disabled sister, all with crippling rheumatoid arthritis that bent her fingers into terribly deformed, nearly unusable shapes. She was apparently a very talented artist before her hands betrayed her, but even in old age her handwriting was incredibly elegant, her baked goods second to none. She was most famous, however, for having the police respond to her home after an attack on a neighbor with a gas-powered line trimmer because he was mowing too close to her yard. An interesting life makes for an interesting person, and she was definitely no exception in that department. These are all just stories though, and ones that will probably be lost forever among my generation. I made a halfhearted attempt to stay in touch with her before she passed away that was limited to the usual conversations. "How's school?" "It's fine, how's the weather up there?" Etcetera.

It's a common story, but one that I'm attempting to somewhat make up for while I can. While all my grandparents have long since passed away, my wife is lucky enough to have known even her great-grandparents very well. Her mother's parents (affectionately referred to as "Nana" and "Pop" by the rest of the family) live just down the road from us, and I've had the pleasure of getting to know them quite well over the fifteen years we've been together, so much so that I can easily say that I know them far better than any of my own relatives. Their lives are no exception to the rule that hardship creates remarkable human beings, having been born and raised in the coal mining towns of Southern Ohio during the depression. Their stories are filled with the stuff of dramatic films; mine explosions, moonshine, large families, youthful adventures and unfortunately young deaths. Theirs is a generation that found reward in hard work, God, and family.

My anxiety built as I tried to think of where I went wrong. Maybe that last left should’ve been a right? Spending the night in the woods wasn’t part of the plan.

One of the unfortunate results of a life spent hard at work, however, is a lack of frivolous things like recreation and free time. In Pop's words, "The problem with being too busy with work is that you can lose track of everything going on around you." He hadn't even heard of the Appalachian Trail until the 1990's after he finally retired, his life was busy spent providing for his family and attempting to ensure that poverty wasn't part of their life experience. I'm honored to have been accepted as part of this family, and no one loves to hear my stories of time spent on the trail more than Pop. I'm sure to take many pictures, because I know when I get home, the first thing Pop will ask for is a slide show with accompanying commentary on my many misadventures. He loves hearing my stories as much as I love hearing his, and I know he would love nothing more than to be able to experience them alongside me. I wish he could join me as well, but at eighty-two years of age and with good health that comes and goes, post-quadruple-bypass, his days of long-distance hiking and sleeping outside for weeks on end are most likely behind him. Just as I live through his life experiences, he lives through mine.

As I said, though, I'm attempting to right some of the wrongs of my past, so I devised a plan to get Pop on the trail he so longed to see. Living in North Georgia, Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, is only a matter of a short drive away. We could drive up to the parking lot, take the one-mile hike to the summit, and he could see firsthand one of the most important places in the United States long-trail system. He could sign the log book, see the first official white blaze of the A.T., and even check out the shelter where countless hikers spend their first anxious night on the trail. We packed our lunches and hit the road, at last I was taking the initiative to make my plan a reality. As always though, the plan and the reality are two very different things.

"Pop" - c.1956, Japan

In this age of budget cuts for our outdoor resources, finding the Springer Mountain parking lot among an unsigned web of forest roads is a bit more difficult than it should be. After a solid month of rain, the added challenge of traversing muddy wilderness roads that end in impassable river crossings only added to the difficulty. We finally found our way to the parking lot after an hour-long detour around the mountain, and wasted no time getting on the trail. We spent the day at the summit taking in what we could of the Appalachian Trail experience, even watching a pair of Southbound thru-hikers finish the trail amongst celebratory family and friends. Pop signed the log book to make it official before we apprehensively made our way back to the truck, hoping to have better luck finding our way home. After another hour of erroneous navigation, lost again and losing faith that we would ever find another paved road, Pop voiced his concern that daylight was quickly fading. My anxiety built as I tried to think of where I went wrong. Maybe that last left should've been a right? Spending the night in the woods wasn't part of the plan. Thankfully we received directions from a local resident who was busy helping a group of disoriented Army Rangers find their way, and escaped the woods just before darkness set in. I continually apologized for my bumbling navigation, and promised that any future trips would include nothing but paved roads and GPS directions. I worried, though, that in my hurry to create a memorable experience, I had instead spent a day distressing my wife's grandfather.

The next day, I received a text from my wife's mother. Pop had spent the morning telling everyone how much fun he had, and what a great adventure it was getting lost in the woods. I went through the pictures I hastily snapped throughout our day together and found one of Pop signing the trail register. Zooming in on his writing revealed the quote: "First time on the Appalachian Trail, great walk. Be back soon, maybe in another lifetime."

Perceived Hardship

It must be poor life that achieves freedom from fear. - Aldo Leopold

Ask anyone today about their definition of "success" or "happiness", and most likely their answer will amount to the mitigation of fear, doubt and difficulty in their daily life. Accumulating enough money would surely contribute to a less stressful existence, as would the modern gadgets, services and easy schedule that accompany such wealth. Even if their answer has nothing to do with monetary stability, but instead with the assured happiness and health of their family, the end goal is relative safety, freedom from complication, and lack of challenge. The evolution of technological advancement corresponds directly with the common obstacles faced in daily life. Everything must be faster, easier, and less complicated. Physical challenge itself is diminished by 6-minute workouts, magic therapies and miracle diets that promise an effortless path to perfection.

As long-distance hikers, we fancy ourselves immune to such thinking. We send ourselves into the wilderness with nothing but what we can carry on our backs, don't we? We endure all types of weather conditions and use nothing but our feet to propel us to distant peaks in search of solitude, do we not?

We do so, however, with the aid of global positioning systems, nearly weightless cuben fiber packs, and space-tested synthetic materials woven into modern solutions for the cold, wet and steep. Big-box outdoor retailer REI reported a record revenue of 2.2 billion dollars for 2014, up 9.9 percent from 2013. I think we can all agree that the more people are empowered to enjoy the outdoors, the better. These are the future voters who ultimately ensure the protection of wilderness areas and funding of parks and trails. But to paraphrase the words of the inimitable Aldo Leopold, what we like to think of as aids to self-reliance and adventure are more often than not replacements for them. It would seem that the easiest possible route to attaining the perfect Instagram shot of perceived hardship is preferable to actual hardship. It's a thin line, the one between using our beloved gear and being used by it.

Before my critique is mistaken for ideology, I must first admit that I don't carry a bear skin and a Bowie knife into the woods to survive on rations of salt pork and tree bark. I too enjoy the fruits of the labor of our NASA scientist friends, carrying the least amount of weight possible while still remaining fairly comfortable, if not luxurious in camp, at least compared to a 19th-century fur trapper's standards. Who am I to belittle another hiker's achievement because they summited their mountain with a lightened load? I don't pretend to have all the answers, unless of course I'm busy pretending to have all the answers. I can't claim to be the sole inhabitant of Earth who fails to exist in hypocrisy. All I can tell you is that if something detracts from the wilderness experience rather than adding to it, I would rather avoid it altogether if possible. Which is why I maintain a fairly strong, if also fairly unpopular stance against "Trail Angels".

Especially along the Appalachian Trail, the trail angel is a frequent, if not nearly constant sight. Arrive to any road crossing of the Southern AT in spring, and you are sure to be greeted by a hot chocolate, breakfast pastry and covered chair in a free-of-charge, mobile restaurant. The trail angel is so prevalent that you could practically spend weeks hiking from free coffee in the morning, to free sandwiches and fruit at midday, to free hamburgers, beer and dessert for dinner without carrying a single bite of food yourself. In many cases, they are accompanied in the parking lot by a shuttle service to the nearest hostel or motel to eliminate a walk or hitch into town. Hikers congregate around such spots, creating a social atmosphere that, at times, begins to take on the traits of a traveling music festival rather than a simple rural road crossing. The effect of "bottlenecks" created by some of the more popular trail angels and hostels have been well documented and talked about as well, resulting in the closure of popular hiker destinations like the Saufleys' "Hiker Heaven" in order to mitigate the effects of large packs of backpackers on the trail itself.

Would the trail be better represented by seemingly insurmountable physical and mental challenge, or by free hamburgers in a parking lot?

My critique is not of the generosity of the trail angel, their intention is only to make hikers happy and share in the experience of the trail, after all. Nor is it an admonition of the hiker who enjoys such things, I don't expect everyone to share my borderline-disorder-level introversion or rejection of social events. My problem is that the choice is made for me. Those of us who retreat to the woods for actual solitude no longer have to make a special trip into town to find crowds, blaring radios or loud drunks. If silence and introspection can no longer be found in our few designated wilderness areas, then where is it to be found? Benton Mackaye, the man who dreamed up America’s first long trail, envisioned the Appalachian Trail not as "a footpath through the wilderness but a footpath of the wilderness".

I fully understand that I'm being a bit dramatic. Solitude can still be found if you are willing to work for it, but it is becoming increasingly more difficult as each year passes. What was once an ultimate test of one's mental and physical endurance is quickly becoming a glorified spring-break vacation, pre-packaged and ready for social media prestige. Why spend another night in a damp tent when a warm bed, hot food and like-minded company can be found a short shuttle away?

In recent conversation with another hiker, the subject of "Fastest-known-times", or "FKT's" as they are known, was brought up. The subject is a frequent one of conversations in trail circles, what with the recent controversy of Scott Jurek's triumph over the previous record for fastest supported hike of the AT, and Baxter State Park Authority's swift and strict demand for compensation in light of Jurek's celebratory champagne toast atop Katahdin. He held the fairly popular opinion among hikers that FKT's are a waste of time, that the trail is there not to be "conquered", but instead to be enjoyed and slowly savored. I held the opposing opinion that the very meaning of life is self-improvement, and that while it is possible to challenge oneself without timing the event, against what should we measure improvement? Do we simply stop attempting to improve ourselves once a general consensus is reached that our achievements are "good enough"?

Mr. Jurek, however, admittedly did so with the aid of a traveling van complete with support staff, sponsorship from a major corporation, and real-time maps online charting his progress. Isn't it a bit hypocritical of me to extol the virtues of the trail runner while simultaneously criticizing those of the trail angel? My only reasonable defense can be found in the idea of "cultural value". What value does each add to the culture of the hiking community, to the importance of the trail itself, to the very idea that living and being alive are two very different things? No one can argue that even with logistical help from others, running an average of 50 miles a day over the course of 46 days isn't a feat worthy of aspiring to. Would the trail be better represented by seemingly insurmountable physical and mental challenge, or by free hamburgers in a parking lot? Are we using modern technology and materials as an aid to finding ourselves, or as a solution to avoid the problems in which we might do so?

Whether you share my opinions or not, whether you think I'm a childish fool or an insufferably outdated dinosaur, the most important thing, in the end, is that we ask these questions of ourselves in the first place. Now please, pass the champagne.

Scared to Death

I can only imagine if a stumbling giant suddenly appeared in my peripheral vision while alone in the woods, I might be relieved by the fact that I pack a full change of clothing.

I've given it some thought, and come to the conclusion that if somehow I were to end up in prison one day, it would most likely be the result of scaring someone literally to death. It's not that I would take any enjoyment at all from ending someone's life, in fact it would be the exact opposite. I do, however, find it extremely difficult to resist an opportunity that presents itself to frighten the living bejeezus out of an unwitting friend or family member. I don't know what it is about the environment in which I was raised or content of my character that gives me such great pleasure from doing so, but the more extreme a reaction I receive from a perfectly-timed scaring, the longer my happiness and overall positive attitude are sustained. Like running from a bear with pockets full of salmon, a victim who reacts with a satisfying, over-the-top, high-pitched squeal is much more likely to be terrorized on a regular basis. I am a child...a giant, demented little boy.

Intentionally scaring senior citizens, though, is where I draw the line. Like I said, I have no plans of killing anyone, especially not a diminutive grandmother with a heart condition. Even so, I'm certain I've nearly ended the lives of several of our senior hiker friends while on the trail. In fact, I've inadvertently startled one older hiker twice in the space of an hour so badly that I'm sure if he thought himself physically capable, he might've beaten me to death with his walking stick on the spot.

Both instances occurred on the Appalachian Trail, somewhere in Georgia on a clear spring day. I was out for a section hike, attempting to cover a little over a hundred miles in a week, so I was pushing myself to maintain a fairly fast pace (for me, anyway). When I first spotted the hiker in question (we'll call him The Plaintiff in this case), I was making my way over a hill and noticed him walking the same direction about a hundred yards ahead. I was clearly going to catch up to him soon, so as I always do, I made some extra noise by rustling leaves with my feet and striking rocks with my trekking poles as I approached. I find this the least offensive way of letting another hiker know that I'm closing in on them, without potentially alarming the poor soul with a voice that suddenly appears out of nowhere.

As I drew nearer, The Plaintiff came to a complete stop in the middle of the trail, I assumed in order to allow me to pass. It was just as I came up next to him, shoulder to shoulder, that he nearly jumped out of his skin and screamed "JESUS FUCKING CHRIST! GIVE AN OLD MAN A WARNING, WOULD YOU?" Apparently my sudden appearance moved him to religion. Granted, my height and overall appearance have earned me the trail name "Lurch", after the Frankenstein's-monster butler of the popular 1960's television show "The Addams Family". I can only imagine if a stumbling giant suddenly appeared in my peripheral vision while alone in the woods, I might be relieved by the fact that I pack a full change of clothing.

In all honesty, I think I was just as startled by his reaction as he was by my unforeseen arrival. I quickly apologized and continued forward as I was berated from behind. "FUCK! WHO DOES THAT? SCARING THE SHIT OUT OF AN OLD MAN, I COULD'VE HAD A HEART ATTACK!" Clearly he was a bit of a character himself, his vulgar reaction making it all the more tempting for my inner child to go for round two, if only to seize the opportunity to learn some new profanity.

Over the next hill, I took a side trail to a shelter to sit down, calm my nerves and eat some lunch. After a brief recovery, I made my way back to the main trail where I soon encountered The Plaintiff once again. This time, I would be sure to let him know I was coming up behind him, now armed with the knowledge that he was clearly hard of hearing and probably still cursing my name. I barely began with an innocent "Hello there..." when once again, he instantly found inspiration in his creator. "GODDAMN IT! YOU AGAIN? WHAT THE HELL IS YOUR PROBLEM?" I stammered as I tried, unsuccessfully, to explain how I meant to alert him to my presence in order to avoid another confrontation, but was quickly cut off. "YOU'RE TRYING TO KILL ME, AREN'T YOU?" Realizing that I couldn't win, I pushed on once again, this time at the fastest pace I could reasonably muster, hoping to ensure my innocence in the case of Georgia vs. Murderer of the Elderly.

If, one day, my mugshot appears on the nightly news with the heading "LOCAL HIKER SCARED TO DEATH ON TRAIL", please know that unless the victim was a beanie-clad hipster hiking with an obnoxiously loud radio while nonchalantly dropping trash in his wake, I didn't mean it.

White Lies

The way I saw it, I hadn’t yet purchased a yellow Corvette or left my wife for a 23-year-old exotic dancer, so they were just being ridiculous.

"Today will be an easy day, huh?", Steve said sarcastically.

The previous night, I'd made the rookie mistake of telling my brother, a first-time backpacker, that one of the more strenuous climbs in an area known for being perhaps the most difficult stretch of the Appalachian Trail was going to be "easy". His shirt now drenched in sweat and streaked with dirt as he dragged himself over what seemed like the 1,000th boulder of the day, he was clearly contemplating nudging me off the mountain and telling our loved ones that I was involved in a terrible accident. "I don't know what happened," he'd say, "He was there one minute, and the next he was just gone. So sad, he was too young. Anyway, what's for dinner?"

The stretch of trail I refer to is located in New Hampshire's White Mountains. The specific mountain I was perilously close to being flung from, South Twin. The climb from the Appalachian Mountain Club's Galehead Hut up and over South Twin is a fairly arduous ascent over large, slick rocks, covering over a thousand vertical feet in well under a mile. This, after I had mistakenly taken us to the summit of Galehead Mountain, one-half-mile in the exact opposite direction of our intended route, a novice error in map reading that I was hoping my brother would soon forget before hurling me to my violent and painful death on the rocks below.

The problem was, not only did I want him to like this, I needed him to love this. Over the course of the past two years, I'd become not just interested, but hopelessly obsessed with backpacking. So much so, that I'd been accused by my own family of potentially being in the midst of a full-blown midlife crisis. The way I saw it, I hadn't yet purchased a yellow Corvette or left my wife for a 23-year-old exotic dancer, so they were just being ridiculous. I had, however, spent every waking moment watching vloggers' accounts of long trail hikes on YouTube, pored over endless topographic maps in search of new and exciting trails, and blown through what seemed to be an entire life's savings while noting the weight, down to the gram, of rain jackets, sleeping pads and even toothbrushes in an attempt to make my pack officially "ultralight". At any moment, I expected to be unwittingly led into a room full of friends and family and told by a stranger to take a seat. "We love you, but there are some things we need to say. Your actions have negatively affected us in the following ways..."

I felt like a crack dealer in merino wool tights.

All of my backpacking, however, had been done alone. My wife enjoyed our shorter day hikes, but only if there were bathrooms at the trailhead. The idea of squatting in the forest to relieve herself was akin to killing and eating a rabbit for dinner with her bare hands, rather than simply driving to the grocery store. Toilets had been invented, and did they not exist? Spending the night in a tent was completely out of the question, unless we would be in a campground equipped with showers, and only for a night or two. We had recently moved to North Georgia from Florida to be near her family, and the few friends that I had in the area were more interested in spending time on manicured golf courses than sleeping in the woods. My one shot at a potential hiking partner was my brother Steve. We'd both grown up in the Ohio countryside and spent much of our time outdoors. Hunting and fishing with our father in the Southern Ohio forests and Northern Pennsylvania mountains, we'd been taught to appreciate the solitude of the wilderness. But we'd both gone away to college, acquired jobs, and never looked back. Vacations were spent at the beach, and relaxation now took the form of a Corona and a sun umbrella rather than a pair of hiking boots and a tent. Like me though, the mountains were in his DNA. He just needed them to be awakened and released, only then would my plan be fully realized. I felt like a crack dealer in merino wool tights.

In order for my scheme to work, I had to go big. There had to be breathtaking summit views and stunning waterfalls. It had to be something very different than he'd seen in his current home state of North Carolina, it had to be a place that would inspire awe. He had to test himself physically to feel the sense of accomplishment and pride that comes with knowing just how much his body was capable of. It had to be the Whites.

East of the Rockies, and perhaps even further, you're not going to find grander vistas or more difficult climbs than the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The alpine views and ridge walks above treeline are a rare thing for the east, but the weather is notoriously terrible. The worst in the country, or at least that's what the famous sign reads on Mount Washington. For this reason, in 1888 construction of the White Mountain Huts was begun by the Appalachian Mountain Club. Over the course of the next 125 years, eight huts were built, each approximately a day's hike from the next. Warm beds and hot food are provided by crews manning the simple cabins. We could lighten our packs by leaving tents, food and stoves at home if we slept in the huts. There would also be the relative assurance of safety, knowing that no matter what happened over the course of each day, we would arrive to a warm, safe, dry bed. This would be the proverbial "first taste" that would create an addict.

The most worrisome hurdles in my plot to make Steve a backpacker were the 3,300 feet of elevation that lie between the Gale River trailhead and the summit of South Twin. Our weeklong adventure would take us between huts from Galehead to Madison Spring on the other end of the Presidential Range, but I knew the first two days would make or break him. So, I might've told him that they would be easy. I didn't want him to lose sleep wondering if he could make it, after all. He'd need his rest if he were going to have the energy to shove me to my death and make it look like a convincing accident. I don't know if this was the correct strategy or not, downright lying to my brother, but I knew that by the third or fourth day his soreness would begin subsiding, his pack feeling less weighty, his gaze slowly lifting from his feet to the scenery unfolding around him as each step became less imposing. Eventually, he would forgive me.

By the time we reached the alpine zone around Mount Pierce, he was an animal. Where I was previously leading the way and offering encouragement, he was pushing the pace and forcing me to play catch-up. He had taken to the mountains like a fish returned to water after being suddenly pulled from his home by an unknown but unstoppable force, held up for pictures, inspected, measured, weighed, until, finally...freedom! His exuberance was visibly evident. We sang "Happy Birthday" to Lake of the Clouds Hut on its 100th anniversary, followed by a dramatic sunset and even more dramatic night sky; a visible Milky Way and the Perseid meteor shower. The next day, we spent his birthday summiting Mount Washington under a bluebird sky, a rarity even in the summer. In the chilly morning air, we watched the first engine of the day bring the tourists up the cog railroad from below, a coal-fed steamer that immediately transported us to the 19th century, a time when the huts were reached by only the most intrepid of wanderers. We stood, alone, atop Mount Jefferson as we watched a hawk catch the updrafts from the valley 3,000 feet below. We felt a certain kinship with all those who had come before and would come after, other hearty souls who seek the invigorating, restorative power of the mountains.

On the bus ride back to the airport in Boston, we sat in silence, once again confronted by the reality of the modern world. Traffic, noise, crowds, the incessant hum and blur of technology and advancement all around us, when suddenly Steve uttered the words I'd been waiting years to hear, "So, where are we going next?"