Mary's Adventures in Wonderland

It wasn’t what I expected.

Ever since Mike started planning to thru-hike the almost-2200-mile Appalachian Trail, he’s been reading books and trail journals about the experience. On many occasions he’s mentioned to me that only about 25% of those who start the hike actually finish it. One day I asked him what reason most people give for quitting. “Well,” he said, “some of them have specific reasons, like they are injured or sick or they’re needed back home. But the rest mostly say ‘It wasn’t what I expected.'”

Just since Mike started the hike yesterday, we’ve heard stories. The day before we arrived, a guy started hiking the Approach Trail, which is a tough eight-and-a-half mile route up Springer Mountain to where the Appalachian Trail begins. It’s not actually part of the Appalachian Trail. Partway up, he quit. He turned around and called a shuttle to take him to the local hiker hostel. He gave up without even actually starting the Appalachian Trail. We’ve been told he was far from the first to do this.

However, to his credit, the next day this same guy decided to start the Appalachian Trail from a different direction (the same way Mike started it). You drive a long, winding Forest Service road to a parking lot located less than a mile from the top of the mountain, hike to the top, sign the log book and then reverse direction. You officially start the Appalachian Trail when you go back down. Most people do this and continue for many miles the first day. A common stopping point is Hightower Gap, another 8 miles along the trail.

Not this guy. He hiked the 9/10s of a mile to the top and decided to camp there. Halfway through the night, he announced to the other sleeping hikers that it was too cold. One of them offered him some warm bedding, but he said no, he was done. From the top of the mountain, he called the hiker hostel and begged them to meet him at the parking lot, which they did. His hike was, once again, over before it started, though I guess technically he did the first 9/10s of a mile of the Appalachian Trail when he walked down Springer Mountain to meet the shuttle.

Now, as a veteran of quitting things that didn’t turn out to be quite what I anticipated, I have some sympathy for those who find themselves in that situation. Heck, I quit my college year abroad at the University of Edinburgh. I was depressed, the winter weather had been much worse than I’d expected, and my flat had no heat. I was miserable, so I went back to California.

I also dropped out of grad school, twice. In between grad school stints, I quit a full-time job because my bosses were insane. They were brothers who had inherited a rug import business started by their father, and they hated each other. In fact, they didn’t speak to each other. One would come to me and yell, “you tell him to make a better price for that customer!” The other brother, standing six feet away, would yell at me, “you tell him he’ll ruin us with all this discounting!” And so on, all day long. One day, as they were shouting at each other through me, I stood up, picked up my purse, said “you know where to send the check,” and walked out.

So obviously when things are going really badly, I believe in cutting your losses. (I’ve also toughed out bad situations — sometimes for years — because I thought things would improve, or because I needed the money, or because other people were relying on me.) I can say, with the benefit of age and hindsight, that despite my worst fears, everything has worked out just fine in the end, even — and sometimes especially — when I have quit.

I thought about sharing that insight with a young man, earlier today. I dropped Mike off at the trailhead, in the pouring rain. As I started to put my rented Jeep in gear, a drowned rat knocked on my car window. This poor kid had hiked the Approach Trail yesterday and reached the top of Springer Mountain feeling triumphant. He turned on his cell phone and got a text from his girlfriend, saying her mother had just been killed in a car accident.

He felt he had to go home, so he packed up and started hiking down the mountain in the dark. He got lost. It started raining. He tried to set up his tent to get warm, but he was already wet through. He decided to keep moving so he could stay warm. He wandered around in the woods all night. In the morning he found the road and happened onto us. He asked how to get to the nearest town. When we told him it was over 20 miles by road, I thought he was going to cry.

So Mike set off on the trail and I drove the kid 40 miles to the nearest town with a train station. On the way, he spilled out his conflicting emotions: frustration that his hike was already over, sadness for his girlfriend, exhaustion, worry. I just listened. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that someday he would look back on this day and know he did the right thing. His Appalachian Trail experience was not what he expected, but he’ll never forget it.