“Life is full of adventure. There’s no such thing as a clear pathway.”
This is Me
My name is Matt Haines. I’m 34 years old, originally from New York, and moved to New Orleans in 2009. Here’s a brief list of things I’m afraid of on the Appalachian Trail:
-Being attacked in the woods by a bear
-Being attacked in the woods by a human
-Being struck by lightening
-Dying of thirst
-Dying of hypothermia
-Starving to death
-Just being a little bit hungry for what should be a manageable amount of time
-Getting my arm caught under a rock and having to chew it off
-Missing the New York Mets have a good season
-Missing Red Dress Run, White Linen Night, and Running of the Bulls
–Mt. Washington because it almost killed me once
-Wild boars because they actually killed Robert Baratheon once
-Not being able to pick up a hitchhike when I need to get into town for more food or gear
-Being able to pick up a hitchhike, but by a nefarious driver
And other things I probably haven’t thought of yet.
If I’m a coward, I’m the worst kind – a persistent coward. As in, I keep challenging my fears, thinking I can overcome them, but never do. I went to college in Ithaca, New York, and – to get over my fear of heights – I once scrambled up the side of a gorge. But when I looked down to see how high I’d gotten, I panicked and then froze. My buddy, Will, had to prop himself up below me and use his hands to forcibly move my feet back down the rock face. I don’t remember most of this, because I guess I blacked out, but he said I kept repeating, “Call for an airlift, call for an airlift, call for an airlift…” weakly under my breath.
I have a lot of stories like this. The time, as a 30-year-old, I hiked in Tennessee with a hatchet in my hand because I thought I’d heard a wild turkey. (Even though I don’t, and never have, known what a wild turkey sounds like. “Gobble gobble?”)
The time, in my twenties, I couldn’t finish a bike ride in England because I saw a herd of sheep and thought I’d read they attack humans. (Apparently this is a thing.)
The time, as a teenager, I waited in line for 90 minutes at Splish Splash Waterpark to ride “Cliff Diver” (drops eight stories in three seconds, Jesus Christ!) only to chicken out when it was my turn and take my first Walk-of-Shame back down the line past hundreds of curious and brave eight year olds.
“Why is he going the wrong way, daddy?”
“Because he’s a coward, son.”
A persistent coward.
So why in the world am I about to hike 2,200 miles? From Mt. Springer to Mt. Katahdin? From the rolling, green hills of Georgia to the rugged, snowy peaks of Maine? That’s approximately 165 days of hiking. Through 14 States. More than a million calories burned. About 5 Million steps from start to finish.
It’s blisters and bears, snow and sweat, and pain and peanut butter. (From what I’m reading, it will be so much peanut butter! I love peanut butter, but I don’t know if it’s a five-month kind of love.)
Is it to overcome a physical and mental challenge that only a relative few have? Not so much. That kind of thing doesn’t give me a rush.
Is it to watch the landscape change, step-by-step as I wind my way up the eastern United States? I do get a rush from that kind of thing, but it’s not really the reason I chose to hike now.
Is it to slow down life and be alone in nature for a while? We’re getting closer, but – while I can’t wait to sleep under the stars for half a year – it’s only part of the story.
I’m hiking now because of a text message.
A Pattern Exposed
“I think I’m less into this than I used to be, and I don’t know if it’s because of you or because of how busy work is.”
That was the text that sent my happiness from a 10 out of 10, to not even registering on the scale.
I know this runs the risk of coming off as overdramatic, and I know most of us have experienced being dumped. It wasn’t a long relationship. Four months or so, not including a 10-week lead-up that – because of how much I was out of town – was a near-daily online conversation, romantic in the way it evolved so slowly and unintentionally from strangers trying to impress one another, to friends getting to know one another, to a couple caring about each other.
I know it’s weird I fell so hard for someone I didn’t know very long. But I did. And, while I am feeling better, typing that text here and re-reading those particular words in that particular order still rips off a scar on wounds that are just starting to heal.
Did I leave my job because a woman broke up with me? Oh, I forgot to mention I left my job of six-and-a-half years about the same time the relationship ended. Am I running off into the woods because I got dumped? I think enrolling in a cooking class, or a tapdancing class, or something, would be a healthier response.
I don’t think it’s true to say I’m doing this because of the breakup, but the breakup did expose a pattern.
Finding My Own 10s
I remember being in my early-to-mid 20s – usually single, sometimes dating – and just being happy. Living life was fun by itself, and an activity’s degree of enjoyment wasn’t dependent on sharing it with someone else.
But something’s different in my 30s. It’s true that the feelings were more intense for me in this most recent relationship, but it’s part of the same cycle: I’m happiest in a good relationship, and – when it ends – my happiness plummets. That’s probably normal, but what feels less normal is how much longer it’s taking me to find that same level of contentment I found in my 20s – and I’m worried each rebound’s peak is lower than it used to be.
But here’s the exciting news:
It was nice being a 10 out of 10 with her, but this experience has reminded me I need to find other 10s in my life. I had a friend try to comfort me last month by saying, “My Grandma used to say that the best way to get over a woman is to find another woman.”
That’s some edgy guidance from Grandma, and it’s tempting, but I also think it might be bad advice.
If someone can giveth, they can also taketh away – and that might especially go for happiness. I need to find 10s that are all my own. That don’t rely on someone else.
I think a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail can be a 10 for me. But I’m also looking forward to having the five or six months to think about what else in my life can be. Where else can I upgrade? There was so much about my job I liked. But, for me, it wasn’t going to be a 10. Can I find one that will be?
So, loveless and jobless, this hike is happening! What’s next?
The Appalachian Trail is Next, Duh
Thru-hikers on a northbound hike typically start between late-February and the end of April. Since February saw me watching rom coms and sad-eating ice cream on my couch by day, and being Mardi Gras crazy by night, a February departure was out of the question. Nothing productive happened in February.
The earlier in the window you leave, the less likely you’ll freeze to death as you finish the trail in the mountains of New England, but the more likely you’ll be slowed by bad weather through Georgia and the Smokey Mountains. The later you start, the more pleasant the beginning of the journey will be, but the more likely you are to be hiking through snow up north.
Weather is part of it, but honestly, I just needed time to research. What gear should I have? How do I eat? How do I get clean water that isn’t going to give me tape worm? How do I do a 2 (not out of 10…just a 2)? How do I get to the trailhead in Georgia to start hiking? How do I clean myself without a shower?
Great questions! I. Have. No. Idea.
Well, that’s what I would have said on March 1, but March was more productive than February, and I’m learning fast. My plan is to leave New Orleans this Saturday, April 22, at 7am, via Amtrak, and to begin hiking in Georgia the next day. I’m hoping that would put me in Maine by the end of September. They don’t let you climb Mt. Katahdin after October 15, but if I’m averaging 16 miles a day (my current plan), I should have some wiggle room. Can I hike 16 miles a day with 35-40 pounds on my back?
I think so?
I’ll know soon enough.
The plan is to write every two weeks, but I’m shooting for another entry next Friday. If you take this journey with me, and I hope you will, I’m committed to being an honest, open and reliable narrator. I feel nervous about writing so openly to people I don’t know, but we’re all weird in our unique ways, we’re all figuring things out, and I think life might be more enjoyable when we share it and our experiences with each other.
And hopefully this journey will be worth sharing! The people (and animals) I meet on the trail. The experiences I have in the towns through which I pass. And learning to live with myself, and in nature. (Seriously, how do I wash myself?). I’ll post it all here.
So tune in. In the last days before I leave, I need to rent out of my house, say goodbye to friends, and finish buying gear. As someone who doesn’t like to shop, this might be the worst part of the entire trip, and possibly my life. One of the things I did enjoy buying was mace for bears, which is a real thing.
I’ll also be doing a 16-mile practice hike around New Orleans. If you see a guy with hiking poles walking through your neighborhood, or filtering water out of Bayou St. John, it’s probably me. Say hello!
Feel free to post any questions or suggestions in the comments section, and I’ll do my best to keep an eye there.
Matt Haines is a true stereotype of modern New Orleans, moving to the Bywater from New York eight years ago to take part in disaster relief efforts. Matt is a member of the Rotary Club of Mid-City and, since leaving his job in education last month, spends his days writing, running, and preparing to hike the Appalachian Trail.