Ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to live in the woods. Even thinking about it now excites me. Having been liberated from the forced domesticity of childhood for almost ten years now, I’ve had the chance to experiment on my desire.
It was almost as immediate as I could make it happen. Getting the magical high school diploma a year early enabled me to expedite the process to actualize my idyllic pastoral imaginings. I left to hike the Appalachian Trail.
Now now, those of you in the know of course realize that the AT is hardly a wilderness. I wanted to hike the Pacific Crest Trail initially, but was somewhat hesitant to be days away from a road at the age of seventeen. I wanted desperately to be alone, pitted against nature, but doubted my survival skills. Looking back, I probably could have managed the physical needs of wilderness survival just fine, but would not have handled the loneliness well at all.
Luckily, I never spent a day alone on the AT. There was always some new curious individual with questions and stories. Every night I slept at the three-sided lean-to structures built up and down the trail from Maine to Georgia and every night I was accompanied by at least one other person who quickly became a friend.
When I set out to thru hike the whole AT (which I failed to do), I was dead set on going it alone. My best friend who also graduated early with me even wanted to go along and I said no. Politely, I hope. I can’t really remember. We’re still friends at least. Anyways, that’s how desperately I wanted to be alone.
I was never an angry kid. I had my tantrums, and perhaps still do. I certainly was tired of school. All the cliques and formulas and schedules. Blegh. It was like being an unpaid entry-level accountant in a corporate maze. So I sought the woods to unschool my mind as quickly as possible.
A quick bit of background, I was no stranger to the ways of the woods. I grew up part-time at my father’s ten acres outside of Austin. About half the property was forested with elms, pecans, oaks, hickory, and the occasional loblolly pine, which we called: the woods. My early childhood summers were spent exploring the woods, falling in love with dirt and nature, and making up stories all the while.
As I got older, I joined a boy scout troop that went camping once a month and for a full week in the summer. It was exactly what I wanted to spend my time doing, minus all the merit badge crap which felt like school. I got to hang out with my friends and explore 13,000 foot mountains and learn what a true wilderness was.
Walking into a road-less wilderness for a week, before cell phones, where phones don’t have service still, with only the supplies on your back is one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever had. Not only do you learn the practical skills of the basics of living, you gain an unshakeable confidence.
Walking with frozen boots until they thaw, surviving an alpine lightning storm, fording a river with a 40 pound pack, covering 15 miles, cooking your own dinner under the stars, and setting up your shelter, all in one day, make the rest of life’s problems seem inconsequential. Not to mention the unspeakable beauty of the landscapes witnessed by few and the harmony of coexisting with the wildlife. I know, it’s an old romantic trope.
Thoreau, Emerson, Crockett and countless before have had the same romantic notions and put it down on paper far better than I can hope to. But, that doesn’t stop me from having the desire.
I left the AT after four months when my cash reserves were dwindling and I became allergic to sunlight from taking Amoxicillin horse pills to combat Lyme’s disease. But really, I left my dream of the AT after the first day.
The only night I slept alone on the trail was my first night at Amicalola Falls State Park in Northern Georgia where the trail more or less starts. There was one lonely shelter at the bottom of the approach trail to the AT and I shacked up there. There were probably other people in the state park so it’s debatable to even say I was alone. The next day was a bitter cold and breezy February day of steep roller coaster trail grades. I didn’t see anybody. I was not used to backpacking alone. In the scouts we were always talking about dumb stuff and laughing or farting, then laughing more as we trekked along. After about five hours of solitude, as I shivered and put on another coat, I was wondering if I’d made a huge mistake. It would never have been easier to turn around and call it quits and it would never have been more lame to quit after five hours, so I went on. I got to the shelter that night and met my first trail friend, Lunchbox from New Jersey. Even though he wasn’t thru-hiking, he seemed to know a lot and we had a good time making merriment around the fire.
I woke up in the morning in good spirits and walked on with renewed purpose. My illusions of being a stoic woodsman dissolved that day. From then on I always had a hiking partner, a gang, or even a tribe. We had a raucous good time which may have accounted for my premature bankruptcy, but I regret none of it. I still often hiked alone, but with the assurance that a reunion was inevitable. It was the best of all worlds. The isolation and beauty of nature with the camaraderie of like-minded friends.
Then I forgot everything I learned about my relationship with isolation and went to Alaska, but that’s another story.
I still plan on living in the woods somewhere, but not in a tent. 10-20 acres, a modest house, a few dogs, and a family if I’m lucky. All within a couple hours of an airport.
I’ve had to re-frame what the woods mean to me based on who I actually am, if I’m being honest with myself. I like solitude, but I also like people. I like laughing and not feeling crazy like a hermit in a cave. I enjoy the security of a community and all the opportunities one presents. A mate, friends, collaboration, and fresh ideas.
Isolation is no longer my goal. Peace of mind is. And it only took me about twenty years to figure that out.