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Lessons from the Appalachian Trail

From March 8th to August 11th, I hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail. Along the way, a friend asked me to name three things I had learned. Bothered by my inability to come up with something at the time, I sat down and made this list.

Things that I learned on the Appalachian Trail:

  • Accomplishment has far more to do with a sense of purpose than it has to do with ability.
  • Fires are easier when you prepare piles of sticks in increasing sizes.
  • Birch bark is amazing kindling.
  • People are friendlier in the woods.
  • 40lbs and below is comfortable to carry in a decent backpack.
  • Berries grow in well-lit clearings, such as along the edges of farmland or at the top of a mountain around granite slabs.
  • I can live comfortably almost anywhere with food, water, and my gear, maybe even less.
  • 5,000 calories of food is difficult to put together.
  • Basic Japanese (I studied while hiking).
  • Only crazy bears are threats, and I’m more likely to encounter a crazy person.
  • Red efts are adorable.
  • Deer make frightening sounds at night.
  • I am so fortunate to have supportive family and friends.
  • How to identify ramps (the edible plant).
  • The difference between strawberries and mock strawberries.
  • The caloric values of a number of foods.
  • I love my family and friends.
  • Ramen + instant potatoes = ramen bomb = temporarily filling dinner.
  • Eggs in their carton are safe to carry in a pack for a few days.
  • Cheddar cheese lasts 2-3 days in the heat.
  • A soggy tent and backpack weighs considerably more than their dry counterparts.
  • Water weighs ~2.2lbs per liter.
  • Life is made up of a number of intertwined journeys.
  • Journeys are most successful when you have faith they are the right path, particularly when they seem not to be.
  • Sitting by a fire makes you smell better, relatively.
  • Water with a visible ground source (out of soil, not rocks) away from human structures is reasonably safe to drink unfiltered.
  • I respect my father very, very much.
  • A feeling of how cyclical nature is: rain -> sun -> rain, day -> night -> day, the trail fills with water -> the water disappears -> the trail fills with water.
  • Dramatic shifts in lifestyle do not phase me as they do some.
  • 500ft of elevation change per mile is comfortable, more than that is increasingly uncomfortable.
  • Awareness meditation is not about being aware of the senses, but about being aware of awareness.
  • Cooking pasta with exactly enough water to not strain it is not worth it—the starch is slimy and gross.
  • Use a rock plate when cooking on a fire so as to not get sticky boiled sap and ash on your pot.
  • There is always time to meditate.
  • There is always time to pick berries.
  • Being on an open mountaintop in a thunderstorm is, in fact, stressful and terrifying.
  • If you want to “go without” many amenities and niceties, it is not sufficient to decide to do so once; rather, one must continually and repeatedly make that decision with every road crossing every day.
  • It always gets better and it always gets worse.
  • A single person tent can be squeezed into small footprints; if you’re creative you can usually find flattish space.
  • 2 people can sleep in a single person tent; though it would be uncomfortable over many nights or on uneven ground.
  • Using permethrin on your pants and shirt does in fact keep the ticks away.
  • Lime disease is scary-common. Easily 25 percent of the thru-hikers I knew contracted it.
  • Someone could be 5 miles behind you for 2,000 miles and you wouldn’t know.
  • A 1lb pack of pasta is perfect for 2 large meals.
  • There are a lot of stuck-up people in New England and far fewer in the South, at least on the trail.
  • Merino wool shirts don’t stink. It’s amazing. Absolutely worth it.
  • Music is incredible after long periods of not listening to any.
  • When listening to music after a long time, it’s difficult to concentrate on anything but the music.
  • You should not eat blueberries from a Superfund site.
  • A single walking staff is better than hiking poles over technical terrain.
  • You don’t have to be an athlete to accomplish an amazing physical feet; athletes just do such things faster.
  • I get used to not showering very quickly; I am comfortable filthy (as long as there’s an occasional stream).
  • All you need to fish is a line and a hook.
  • Given the roads, it can take just as long to get a car to a point further down a trail as it takes for a person to walk.
  • Moose make loud chewing noises.
  • A mustache grown over my mouth is supremely annoying.
  • Time passes. But we choose where we are as it does.
  • Most things are pretty delusional compared to walking in the woods.

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