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Matt Haines, Part 9: In Pursuit of Happiness

“You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” – Albert Camus, French philosopher, author, and journalist

Day 120: The beard is growing me now.

For part one of Matt’s Appalachian Trail adventure, click here. For part two, click here. For part three, click here. For part four, click here. For part five, click here. For part six, click here. For part seven, click here. For part eight, click here.

Decision Paralysis

Bagels. Cream cheese. Egg casserole. Smoked chicken. Pulled pork tacos. Bags of my favorite chocolate-peanut butter candies. Chips. Water. Gatorade. And coolers full of famously cheap beer from upstate New York: Genesee Cream Ale and its healthier sister, Genny Light.

The original plan was to hike 28 miles today to Bear Mountain, where I’d meet my friend — her trail name is “Pleasure House” — and catch the bus the next morning to New York City for a few days off. But I created that plan before I walked into a smorgasbord on the Appalachian Trail.

I had gotten up early and started hiking before 6am. I was cruising along until I saw signs posted on trees. “Trail Magic with pinata around Mile 1375!” it said.

Trail magic is just about the luckiest thing you can hope for outside of 150 consecutive days of sunshine. I remember, during my third week on the trail, back in Tennessee, the trail was approaching a dirt road, and I smelled something delicious I couldn’t quite place. Something from a past life. Something that wasn’t peanut butter, tuna fish, or Pop Tarts.

It was a man in a chef’s hat sitting on the side of the road, grilling hamburgers and hot dogs for hikers. He was a hiker, himself, and was repaying the generosity others had shown him during his thru-hike.

From that moment forward, every time I heard cars and knew I was approaching a road, I imagined I smelled hot dogs. “Is there a tree that smells like hot dogs?” is one of my weirder google searches.

I didn’t think they’d be set up until the afternoon, so I figured I’d miss it, but somewhere around Mile 1779, I saw signs, written on the back of PBR boxes, leading me down a narrow path cut through a field, overgrown with grass taller than me. “Trail magic this way!” “You’re almost there!” “Keep following, and prepare to take the rest of the day off.”

The trail magic sign kind of feels like I’m being led into a trap.

The trail lead across the field and back into the forest. Once under the trees, it opened up, and there it was: about 10 people sitting around a table overflowing with drinks and food. And, exactly as advertised, a pinata hanging from a tree.

“Heyyyy! Hikkkkeerrr!” they cheered. I knew the chances of me getting to Bear Mountain had just decreased considerably.

“Go ahead, take a swing,” a thin, tall man in his 40s said. He looked like a surfer, dressed younger than he probably was, with seashell beads around his neck, but a face weathered from overexposure to the sun. “You’re only the second guy here this morning, though, so try not to break it open just yet.”

I took a swing. My best shot glanced off the unicorn who remained unphased.

“It’s all for you, dude,” a guy, my age, long brown hair and blue eyes, in jeans and a button-up gestured from his seat. “We all met each other on the AT last year and are just trying to give back a little bit. Help yourself to everything you want, let us know if there’s anything else you need, and set up your tent. No one’s hiking on today — this party’s going all day and night!”

“Thanks so much!” I looked around the fold-out table to everyone sitting in their camp chairs. There were mostly guys, but a couple of women. All in their 20s or 30s, except for the guy with the seashell necklace who initially greeted me, and who I learned had the trail name, “The Dude,” which seemed fitting. “I’d love to stay the night,” I said, noting the handful of tents already set up, “but I’m heading into New York City in the morning, and have to catch a bus 25 miles from here.”

“Well,” one of the women, named Heisenberg, said, “at least stay for a little bit, and then — when we convince you to stay — we’ll drive you to the city in the morning. We’re all going in tomorrow for the Phish concert anyway.”

I was torn. On the one hand, I had come on the trail excited to be able to take advantage of these really fun moments life throws at us from time to time. I could chill out, listen to stories, make new friends for the day, and have a unique AT experience.

On the other hand, I had told Pleasure House I’d meet her at Bear Mountain. With most of my friends from earlier in the hike either off the trail or a week or more behind, hers was the friendship I was most likely to sustain once this was all done. I was looking forward to camping out with her tonight.

Which choice would make me happiest? Would I regret not choosing one over the other?

Ninety minutes later, I hiked out of the party drunk enough to feel extra angsty about my decisions, but sober enough to know the booze was making me extra angsty.

I had done what I always do. Because I put too much pressure on myself to make the perfect choice, I hesitate to make any choice at all. I try to split the difference. Now I wasn’t going to be able to enjoy the party, or make it to Bear Mountain in time to hang out with Pleasure House.

The 90+ degree heat was forcing sweat from my pours, alcoholic enough to intoxicate the incessant swarm of flies landing on me. It was humid and the terrain was rough. Rocky, with constant climbs and descents. At one point I had to take my pack off and throw it up on top of a ledge I couldn’t scale with it on.

All this while berating myself. My phone was dead, I had made the wrong choice, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to get to New York City.

Which is how I was feeling when I got to Island Pond in Harriman State Park and my mood was changed.

The Wilderness?

At the start of the trail, a hiker could go days without crossing a road. One could go four or five days without finding a place to resupply food, and many times that wouldn’t be a town, but a hostel near the trail. Towns accessible from the trail could be as much as a week apart. As we moved up through, Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, roads became more common and towns more frequent, and now in the states closest to New York City — as the trail cuts through New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, it feels like I’m seeing more towns than animals. More roads than streams. More houses than…well, you get it.

Here’s a picture of the trail when I first walk into beautiful New Jersey. Not an inspiring start, but it got better!

The trail gets as close as 33 miles to New York City, within view of its towering skyline. It wraps around the outside of a corridor housing tens of millions of people. It’s hard to remember a time during those states in which I didn’t have cell service, or — because I lived in New York for so long — where I didn’t have a childhood or college friend at least somewhere near where I was hiking.

There were the two Andys who I met with for lunch on two consecutive days in Pennsylvania. There was Jessica in Pennsylvania who hiked with me for the day, and there was Jessica in New Jersey whose mother made me an incredible dinner and who let me stay at their house for the night. There were Christen and Kyle — who I knew from my marching band days — who came out with their super cute son to meet me for lunch, and there were Jeanne and John, who read one of my articles and invited to take me out for the night, make me dinner, and let me sleep at their house.

There were the Deppens, who lived on the trail (the sidewalk in front of their house is actually the Appalachian Trail!) who showed me around Duncannon, Pennsylvania, made me steak, and let me eat a dent in their zucchini surplus: zucchini pancakes, zucchini bread, zucchini muffins, and zucchini cupcakes with zucchini/cream cheese icing were just some of what they had around the house.

Tom Deppen and I, probably sitting down to eat something delicious with zucchini in it.

And all of this doesn’t even count the friends who housed me and spent time with me in and around New York City. Over a three week period it felt like I was seeing friends an average of every other day. Don’t get me wrong — I was looking forward to seeing each of them. And I had fun with all of them. But planning the logistics of meeting up was challenging, and I also started to feel weird about how much time I was spending off the trail. Meeting up with friends — new and old — was the highlight of this section of the trail, but at the same time I was looking forward to sleeping outside on a regular basis again.

It wouldn’t be fair to give the impression that New Jersey, New York and Connecticut weren’t beautiful, though. In between those highways were incredible views of the Delaware and Hudson rivers, and mountains towering over towns and military forts.

New Jersey has a surprisingly large population of black bears, because they were the one state that didn’t allow them to be hunted as other states tries to control their budding populations. That also made it so New Jersey bears didn’t fear humans the way bears in other states do.

I can see you, bear, but you don’t seem to mind. I think I’ll just leave.

And I saw a bobcat prowling in a field beside a farm. Or at least I thought I did. When my friend said she didn’t even know what a bobcat looked like, I realized I didn’t either. But I know for sure it was a giant cat-like thing too big to use a litter box.

The trail wound through state parks, a zoo, and around some of the most gorgeous lakes and ponds on the trail.

Island Pond in New York’s Harriman State Park was one of these — and, even though I was running hours behind schedule, and even though I was totally out of phone battery with no way to contact anyone about getting into the city, I had to stop and sit. The pond reached miles back and around a jutting outcrop of trees, which climbed a mile or more up on each side of the pond, painted in what looked like infinite shades of green.

My range of sight was too narrow to take it all in. I read that flounder, with their eyes placed on the sides of their head, have a much larger sight range. I wished I was a flounder.

As the evening sun continued to drop, it turned a bright red that reflected off the trees coloring them red, orange, and yellow, giving the illusion of a mid-Autumn day.

At first I couldn’t spot another human for the miles I could see, but then, to the side of the lake, I noticed smoke from a fire, and a small boat, with two tiny dots rowing. They were racing the setting pink sun to get back to camp while they could still see.

The sky was now awash in reds, yellows, and every shade in between. I couldn’t look away, it felt like I was quenching my heart’s thirst.

I could have sat there forever. But instead I stayed just long enough to figure out my back-up plan to New York City and then hiked on into the night.

Island Pond in Harriman State Park.

Lions

“Every day I wake up and say, ‘I’m thankful for being here.'” This was Tobaggon, a thru-hiker I had met a couple of times over the months, but hadn’t talked with much. “It’s tough to feel anything negative when you’re expressing gratitude. Try it!”

“I’m thankful,” I gave it a whirl.

“For what?”

“For being here.”

“Cool, now say the whole thing together.”

We were walking down an old, tree-covered fire road in Pennsylvania. It’s rare, but occasionally the AT will follow a road for awhile. Sometimes a highway. Sometimes a side street through a neighborhood. Sometimes a gravel road that hasn’t yet been paved. And sometimes old dirt roads like this one. My pace always picked up on roads. Easy walking.

Tobaggon and I were flying down this one, talking about what challenges brought us to the trail in the first place, and how we were dealing with those.

“Ok, say the whole thing,” he encouraged.

“I’m thankful for being here,” I said.

“Doesn’t that feel good?”

Actually, it did. It made me feel like, regardless of the choices I made yesterday, I was still in a really good place.

Tobaggon has some hippy-esque characteristics. He’s really into mindfulness and the “Power of Now,” but most hikers tend to look and smell a little hippy-esque on the trail, so It’s hard to say for sure. Not that there’s anything wrong with hippy-esque.

The bugs are brutal today in hot and humid Pennsylvania. I’m constantly swatting at flies and stop to put my bug net on.

“I’m working on this thing,” Tobaggon begins as he waits for me to put the net on, “where I don’t swat at them. They don’t want to bite us, so I try to just let them be.”

The Shenandoah River and a highway wind through a valley in the Mid-Atlantic states.

I try this and bugs immediately begin landing on my eyelashes. I last about six seconds before swatting at my face. I zip up the netting and continue hiking. The gratitude advice resonated with me more.

The “Why Did You Leave Your Friends And Family For Five Months To Walk All Day?” conversation doesn’t happen as often as one might think, but Tobaggon and I jumped right into it. He told me about past relationships, a difficult marriage ending in divorce, and how his new relationship has progressed into something healthier.

“It was so weird — I’d imagine these conversations in which she’d tell me she was cheating on me while I was on the trail,” he said, “and it would get me really bummed. I’d remember it wasn’t real — that I was making it up — but it was too late, I was already in a sad mood. Has anything like that happened to you?”

“Oh, definitely.” It was nice to know that if the trail was making me crazy, at least I wasn’t crazy by myself.

I told Tobaggon about how, particularly during the first month on the trail, I’d imagine conversations with people in my life I’d been hurt by, about how the conversations would go terribly, and about how sad that would make me. I told him about nightmares I’d have early on that would put me in a funk I struggled to get out of. I told him how, even when I’d remember the discussion I was simulating in my head had never occurred, the damage was done. The sadness would last for the whole day. Maybe multiple days.

“Yeah, that sounds familiar. Do you still have those conversations and nightmares?”

“Not so much anymore. Do you remember that part of the trail in Tennessee that was destroyed by fires?”

“Yup, for sure.”

“This might sound stupid, but when I hiked through there, of course it was depressing at first. It looked like everything was dead. But then I noticed, if you look hard enough in any one spot, you could see signs that the forest was regenerating itself. Moss growing on dead logs. Tiny plants sprouting from mounds of ash. And, I thought, if it could do it, so could I.”

Tobaggon smiled. “That’s an optimistic way to look at a forest fire.”

I slowed to take a sip of water from my camel pack. “Yeah, but I still imagine conversations. Now they’re mostly with people I’ve hurt.”

“Is that less sad?”

“Not really. Most of the time the conversations don’t heal the rift. It gets me thinking about what I might do next time, though.”

“I guess that’s a positive, then.”

I tuck the nozzle on my water bag away. The trail narrows so I fall in behind Tobaggon. “Yeah, but it still leaves me feeling sad. Why do our brains do this to us?”

We’re silent for a minute or two. I sneak a peak at my walking companion, wondering if he’s going to respond. It looks like he’s thinking. Eventually, he exhales a sigh and answers, “I’ve read that our brains protect us by nudging us to think about the things that could harm us — physically or emotionally — and whether the threat is likely to happen or not.” He pauses, probably to let me answer, but I’m trying to think of an example. He jumps back in, “It’s like how most of us have imagined being attacked by a lion, and how we would respond if we were.”

I’ve definitely done things like that. I think back to the two years I was teaching a marching band in Thailand. I’m terrified of heights, and every day I had to climb up on this four story-tall scaffolding that would rock in the wind. I’d get up there before rehearsal and imagine how I would survive the tower falling over. (For those interested, it involved me grabbing onto one of the side poles that would become parrallel to the ground when scaffolding met ground, and placing my feet on it. A split second before impact, I would jump up from the scaffolding, and walk away unscathed.)

Yelling at some marching band students in Singapore. This is much sturdier than the scaffolding I got in Thailand.

“We’re smart enough to know what our brain’s doing,” Tobaggon cut into my daydream just as the Thais were running over to lift me on their shoulders and celebrate my spectacular escape. “So we can override it.”

“But why would we override it?” I asked. “Doesn’t this prepare us for the worst?”

“It did,” he turned to me. “Except we don’t live with lions anymore.”

Karol and Bern

I sat at the pond and came up with my new plan to New York City. Nine miles before the Bear Mountain Inn, where I was originally going to catch the bus, was the six-lane Palisades Parkway and — in the median — a Visitor Center. A bus for the city departed at 11:15am, so I aimed to get to the Visitor Center by 9am and either a) find a hitch to the Inn; or b) walk down the Palisades Parkway the four miles until I got there.

Even to get to the Visitor Center, I had to walk a half-mile down the extremely busy Parkway, which had no shoulder and — during rush hour — was a steady stream of commuters racing to start their days. Walking down the Palisades Parkway to the Bear Mountain Inn would be the equivalent of walking down Veterans Highway from the airport to New Orleans. I needed to find a hitch.

The next morning I was at the Visitor Center, doing my best to trick someone into giving me a ride. “Oh, I was looking at that before!” I lied to an older gentleman flipping through a book about Robert Moses and the history of the New York highway system. “Robert Moses was such a polarizing figure,” I recalled something I learned in grad school, “built the highways we all use, but displaced so many communities to do it.”

He looked up from the book and smiled. “I’m from the other coast, so not very familiar with him.”

“Ah, what brings you into town?” I tried to engage him in the small talk that would get me a ride. “Out here for a hike? The trails are beautiful.”

“Maybe just a walk — nothing like what you’re doing,” he gestured toward my bag.

“Ready to go, old man?” his wife, coming out of the bathroom dressed in stylish hiking leggings, touched my victim on the shoulder as she walked out the Visitor Center door.

“Well, I guess that’s my cue,” he shrugged, as he walked toward the exit. “Enjoy your hike.”

Kind of wish I would have taken at least one pic of this without the bagel (which, for the record, was delicious).

My smile turned into a frown as soon as he walked out the door. I looked at my watch. 10:02am. A little more than an hour before the bus left.

“I thought you had ’em!” the building’s attendant said from behind her desk. She was in her 50s, glasses, curly red hair, and wearing the official green Palisades Parkway Visitor Center staff polo shirt. We were the only two people in the building. “I’d give you a ride myself if I wasn’t the only one working today.”

“I thought I had him, too! How long of a walk w –” but before I could finish my question, the door slammed open and a woman, also in her 50s, I’d guess, but wearing tight jeans and a tube top, burst into the building like a hurricane, unlit cigarette dangling from her mouth.

“Karol! You’ll never believe what that fuckhead, Frank, did to me!”

“I told you, Bernice, we have visitors in the Visitor Center,” Karol gestured toward me.

Bernice turned in my direction and silently looked me up and down. She pulled the cigarette out of her mouth and put her hand on her hip. “This turd?”

Karol shook her head, “I’m sorry,” she said to me. She turned to Bernice, “Hey Bern, why don’t you give this young hiker a ride into Bear Mountain?”

“You going to kill me?” she asked.

“No, ma’am.”

“You smoke?”

“I don’t.”

“I smoke in the car. You gonna whine about that?”

“Nope!”

“Ok. Warning: some people get road rage when they drive. I get racist.”

She wasn’t lying.

King Cake In The Big Apple

Against all odds, Bern delivered me safely to the bus and I made it to New York City.

I estimate I see one hiker every 90 minutes on the trail. It’s estimated that the relatively tiny island of Manhattan has 3.1 million humans on it on any given weekday. This was a big change.

Lost the trail somewhere right arounnnd…here?

Overwhelming at times, yeah, but also a lot of fun. Boozy brunch, karaoke, and wine in Hells Kitchen plazas with old friends; and Jewish delis, Jewish bakeries, and Jewish candy shops with my family. These were just a few of what felt like a trip of highlights.

Me and the Two Jeffs (one from NOLA and one from NYC).

One afternoon I met a few high school friends for beers and food during their lunch break. Mike and Randi showed impressive self-restraint. Jeff and I did not, and our one hour lunch turned into a five hour daytime drinking exhibition on a rooftop in midtown. Two drunk friends who haven’t seen each other in a year can cover a lot of ground in five hours, as the scene around us changed from the shirt and ties of business lunch, to the shorts and flip flops of mid-afteenoon tourists, to the rolled up sleeves and loosened ties of that earlier business crowd returned.

The conversation was wide-ranging, but eventually got to talking about hiking. “You’re obviously having fun on the trail,” Jeff said, “but is there anything that frustrates you or makes you unhappy?”

“Well, here’s an example!” I told him about the choice I struggled with a few days earlier. Stay at the trail magic pinata party or meet Pleasure House in Bear Mountain. I told him about how my indecision resulted in me not doing either of those things. “And that happens a bunch,” I moan. “I’m trying to make the most out of this trip, to the point that sometimes I feel paralyzed by choice. I want to make sure I’m getting it right.”

“Man,” Jeff laughed, “do you think your friendship was compromised because you didn’t make it to Bear Mountain in time?”

I thought. “No. She sang karaoke with me and my friends the day we got into the city.”

“Right. And do you think you hanging out at that trail party is going to make or break your hike?”

Jeff was making sense. “Nooo…” I sighed.

“So then it doesn’t matter! Just do what’s going to make you happy. Choices can be frustrating, but recognize when you have a choice between only good options.” Jeff married his high school sweetheart. He told me he has professional goals, of course, but the big choice he will always make is a job that lets him get home in time to eat dinner with his wife and two daughters. “Make a choice, embrace it, and live with it.”

And so I made the choice to stay in New York City an extra day. My hiking friends all left a day or two earlier, which meant I was going to be trying to catch up to them on the trail, but it also meant I wasn’t going to be so rushed to see friends and family while in the city.

New York City also has nice sunsets!

Another afternoon, my mom, grandma and sister came into the city to see me. “My son Matthew’s hiking the Adirondack Trail,” my mom said to everyone she encountered. The knish shop employee smiled politely.

“Mom, he doesn’t care,” I pleaded for her to stop.

“I think he cares, Matthew. He asked me how long it would take.”

“He was being nice.”

“Well, I don’t think so.”

“Ok. Also, for the tenth time, it’s the Appalachian Trail, not the Adirondack Trail.”

“Oh. Well, he knew what I meant.”

“Ok, Mom…”

In addition to bragging about my imagined Adirondack adventures, we engaged in the timeless Haines family tradition of eating at a restaurant with absurd portion sizes while my mom gets mad at my grandma because her hearing aid doesn’t appear to be aiding anything. I wanted this meet-up to be different, though, so — after stopping at our third specialty Jewish food store — I suggested we stop in at a hopefully-secular bar nearby and talk over drinks.

I think this is something New Orleans does better than most anywhere else: using the neighborhood bar as a place to gather, slow time to a crawl, and enjoy the people with which you’re drinking.

“Do you have a Miami Vice?” My mom asked the host at this trendy Lower East Side bar if they had the frozen beach drink she had learned about on her vacation to Cancun a week earlier. There was a 0% chance they even know what a Miami Vice is, let alone serve it.

“I don’t think so, but I’ll be sure to ask,” the host dutifully replied.

After our first round of drinks, I suggested we play my favorite drinking game, Pass The Beer, which I described in detail in Part 8 of this series. As a review, each participant gets a different beer. One person make a toast, everyone drinks a sip from their glass, and passes it to the person to their left. Now the next person makes a toast, and the same toast-drink-pass sequence repeats itself until the beer is done. It’s more fun than it sounds, and everyone’s a winner!

I should start by acknowledging our game was altered slightly. The Haines family women are not big drinkers, so in order to get them to play, I had to agree that we’d only pass one beer around instead of one for each of us.

The toasts tend to be lighter to start. “I’d like to make a toast,” I begin in the traditional manner as I raised my glass. “To Mom one day finding a bar that will serve her a Miami Vice.”

I take a sip of the beer and pass it to my sister who makes a toast to my sister, Jami, who we don’t get to see as much because she lives out in southern California.

My Grandma, who is one of my most ardent Appalachian Trail supporters, was up next. She sometimes takes her support to an aggressive level, as was the case recently when one of my friends, Stephen, said something pretty standard on Facebook like, “You’re doing great! Keep it up!”

My Grandma, not up to speed with proper social media etiquette, tends to post wherever she wants. Stephen was the unlucky victim. “When Matthew gets back, you had better throw him the biggest party New Orleans has ever seen!” she demanded in a reply to his encouraging comment. “A parade and music! Oh, it will be so wonderful.”

“Grandma,” I tried to calm her down, “it’s not V-Day in Europe. I’m just voluntarily walking.”

“It doesn’t matter, I hope they’ll celebrate.” she wrote back.

“Don’t worry, Grandma,” Stephen appeased her, “we’ll make sure to throw him a great party.”

It was now her turn to toast, and my Grandma lifted her glass. “To many more moments in our lives as joyful as this one.”

I love that I have an 88-year old Grandma who makes that toast without the slightest hint of irony. I love it less that I have a Grandma who thinks she is above the rules. She proceeded to say the exact same thing every time it was her turn to lead the cheers.

As we make our way through the rounds, the toasts get heftier. (Besides my Grandma’s, of course, which — despite mine and my sister’s pleas — remain the same.)

“I’ll make a toast to your Dad,” my mom takes the glass with one hand and wipes her eye with the other, as she addresses the giant elephant that has taken over every room since he died seven years ago. “I know he’d be so proud of you, Matt, and that he’d enjoy being here for this moment so much.” We all smile and look down at the ground as my Mom wipes a few more tears from her face.

It was my turn, and my Mom’s toast was impossible to follow-up. I thought back a few weeks to when my friend, Jessica from Pennsylvania, came to hike with me for a couple of days. We were passing the time on a long hike by asking each other questions.

“If you could tell a family member one thing, who would it be and what would you tell them?”

This was an easy one — I’d thought about it a lot on the trail — and so I fired my answer back at Jess immediately. “I’d tell my Mother she’s a good Mom.”

“Wow,” Jess said, “that’s a good one. Why haven’t you told her?”

“That’s a good question,” I sigh. “I think it’s because we argue a bunch, and I am always thinking of how to make our relationship better.” I step over a downed tree stretched over the trail. “I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but I do think I should make sure to take the time to remember the selfless things she’s done for me.”

“Yeah, that makes sense.” Jess turns her head to make eye contact with me to make sure I get the point. “But you should tell her.”

Back at the bar, my glass is raised. “I’d like to make a toast,” I begin, but then I balk. “To my Mom, the only person who has ever cried during Pass The Beer.”

We all laugh, and she hits me on the shoulder, “I’m not crying, Matthew!” she yells as she puts her sunglasses on and takes her napkin to dab underneath them. It was a really nice hour for all of us, but I wish I would have taken the chance to tell her how good I think she is.

She reads these (I hope!), so now she knows.

Drinks with the fam. Please note Grandma double-fisting.

It’s my Grandma’s turn, who raises both the beer glass and her water glass for some reason known only to her. “To many more moments in our lives as joyful as this one.”

I look across the table at my sister who is shaking her head in disbelief.

Catch Them If I Can

After four days off, it was time to get back on the trail. As I began to hike, I thought about a movie, Brigsby Bear, I caught while in the city. I love movies, and watching them is one of the things I’ve missed the most during the last four months. Brigsby Bear was a funny and touching movie about friendship, and the director made himself available for a Q&A after the film.

Several members of the cast and crew work on Saturday Night Live, as well, and an audience member asked the director about the challenges of working with so many of the same people on so many different projects.

“Challenges?” he smiled. “It’s what gives me the courage to do this stuff. You know you might fail, but you also know that it’s okay because your ‘job’ is to play with your friends every day.”

But I’m not with my friends. Because I stayed in the city an extra day, they’re all a day ahead of me now. I know I’ll catch up, but I’m also determined not to rush. Jeff’s words are fresh in my mind: “Make a choice. Embrace it. Live with it.”

During the weeks heading into New York City, I think I was getting too focused on the destination. I have to get to x place by y date. But that comes at the expense of the journey. Earlier in the trail I was really good about asking myself questions like, “Was the last hour fun?” If it wasn’t, I would figure out why. Maybe I needed more water? Maybe I needed to slow down? Maybe I needed to tape up a blister?

I want to take that approach again. I want to catch my friends, but I also don’t want to sacrifice the joy of the moment.

I didn’t get off to a great start. I had to start my hike south of Bear Mountain, back at the Palisades Parkway Visitor Center, which means I didn’t get to the Bear Mountain Inn until the early evening, in the middle of a thunderstorm. I ate at the Inn while I waited for the storm to soften, and then crossed the bridge over the Hudson River. It was beautiful, which means I took a thousand pictures, which means — by the time I reached the other side of the river — it was already dark.

Well rested from four days off, I decided to night hike up the next mountain and camp there. The Appalachian Trail is typically marked with white blazes like the one in the picture, above. I noticed this one had white blazes on top of blue blazes. But sometimes the blue blazes were on top of white blazes.

There are approximately 165,000 of these white blazes marking the Appalachian Trail. Getting lost is a talent. I have it.

An hour past sunset, and halfway up the mountain, it had become pretty obvious I had gone the wrong way. I had to put my poles in my bag and use my hands to scramble up rocks. This was much steeper than my guidebook was saying, but I was already too far committed to accept how much of an idiot I am.

When I woke up the next morning, I had incredible views of the Hudson River, but I also had no idea where I was. So I followed the not-trail back down to the base, and had to do it again the right way, which was much more apparent in daylight.

New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut don’t have a single peak on the Appalachian Trail over 3,000 feet, but — just because the peaks aren’t high — that doesn’t mean the trail doesn’t have challenging moments. New York has lots of short-but-frequent ups and downs. As another hiker complained, “If there’s a pile of rocks within a mile of where you’re standing, New York is going to send you over it.”

When I got lost after crossing the Hudson River, I ended up here. It’s called Anthony’s Nose, which makes for funny things to say like, “Sweet Anthony’s Nose pic.”

So the rock piles slowed me down, but not as much as the pile of delis New York puts in your way. I tried to time my dinners so I passed through them when it was time to eat, but sometimes they were so frequent I could catch one in the morning for breakfast, and another in the evening. Some delis even let you set up your tent behind the store. As I made my way through New York, I was catching up to my friends, but not with inspiring speed.

I was about 10 miles outside of Pawling one afternoon when I got a text message from Pleasure House, who was in the group ahead of me. “Get to Pawling now. Free dinner. Town fair. $2 beers. Whatever it takes.”

I love all those things.

I was sitting in a state park, eating my lunch, watching New Yorkers swim in a public-use beach alongside a lake. I called Pleasure House and learned they had gotten to Pawling the day before and, when they were trying to get a hitch into town, a woman pulled over and said she wanted to invite them all over for dinner. The town also happened to be hosting the Putnam County Fair, which — as we learned from her text message — had cheap beers.

Any one of the items in that message would be irresistible to me, so this was a no-brainer. I hiked another six miles to a busier road crossing and called an Uber to take me into Pawling. While I was waiting for the Uber, I was talking to a trail maintenance volunteer who said he could give me a ride back in the morning. “I’d give you ride to Pawling right now, but then I’d miss my little girl’s summer music camp concert, and God knows I’ve disappointed her enough already in her short life.”

Ouch.

I pulled up to dinner just in time to grab a beer, claim the last of the homemade ribs and pizza, and listen to our host try to dole out jobs at her company to all of the women hikers at the table. “You will have just hiked 2,200 miles! Of course you can sell pharmaceuticals!” she fired back when one of the women doubted their qualifications.

After dinner, we walked over to the fairgrounds and went straight to the $2 beer tent. The tent was crowded, shoulder to shoulder, and all of the townspeople had showered, because, well, normal people shower. Even my hiker friends had showered at our host/future employer’s house. ‘Ol King Cake, however was as dirty as they come. I did my best to avoid the crowds.

A group of 10 hikers sat at a table, drinking cheap beers and recounting stories from New York City. At 9pm the beers dropped to $1 each, and we picked up our pace. We argued about manly hiker things like, “Who has the best beard?” or “Who has the most Instagram followers?” and passed around pictures of what we looked like before we got on the trail. The colored lights and sounds of games and rides were all around, but we just sat in the beer tent and laughed.

Gainz enjoying the Putnam County Fair with a cold beer or infinite.

Actually, I only remember leaving the beer tent twice. Once when I walked 20 feet to ask one fair employee if I could give her $5 for all the remaining deep fried oreos.

“All of them?”

“Yes. The fair closes in 30 minutes,” I probably slurred. “You’re going to throw them out. We’re hikers and we’re starving to death, please.”

“Ok, well how about I just fill up a bag for you?”

“Deal!”

And the second time I left was because the fair was closed.

Bars in southern trail towns close at 9pm. Bars in New York close at 4am. One 80s night later, and after two hours of sleep at the town pavilion — which Pawling makes available for hikers to camp — I was in the car on my way back to the trail. But not without stopping at a deli first, obviously.

I’ll…I’ll just explain in Part 10.

Notes Concerning Defecating On the Appalachian Trail.

In each installment, I try to dedicate a section to the explanation of something about hiking the AT that might feel unique or interesting to the casual- or non-hiker. When possible, I take suggestions from readers for future articles. In the past I’ve written about the variety of sleeping accommodations on the trail, the lack in variety of trail food, techniques in water filtration, and a host of other topics.

But, from the moment I started asking for questions, one query repeatedly floated to the top: how do you poop?

To clarify, By how do you poop, I think the question’s architects mean where do you poop. If this assumption is incorrect, please let me know and I’ll answer the how in great detail Part 10.

I have a routine I follow at night. Set up my camp. Eat dinner. Hang my bear bag from a tree branch so bears or mice can’t get to my food. Write in my journal. Write part of one of these articles or work on a short story. Read. Then, just before I go to bed, I have one final part of my routine.

And it isn’t pooping.

But it does involve thinking about pooping. I take my AT guidebook and scan the miles I’ll be hiking the next day. I look at what kind of elevation climbs and descents I’ll encounter, but I also look for places to a) get free, filtered water (because, as I noted in Part 8, filtering my own water can take significant time); and b) if I pass by a clean, flushable toilet. Fortunately, I can usually find filtered water and a flushable toilet in the same place. Maybe it’s a town the trail passes through. Or maybe I’m spending the night at a hostel to do laundry. In states like New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, it might be a deli I hike by. Or sometimes the trail is cut through state parks with bathroom facilities.

But most of the time, these modern conveniences are wishful thinking. I once met a hiker who bragged that he only does his business on porcelain. “I once held it for six days!” he told a crowd of hikers as awestruck as if they had just watched water turned to wine.

I’m impressed. But that is not who King Cake is. King Cake is the picture of consistency.

Okay, so on most days, when a hiker will not be winning the Game of Thrones, what will s/he do? Most shelters — which, if you remember from previous installments, are usually somewhere in the range of 5 – 10 miles apart from one another — have a privy a tenth of a mile or so away from it. A privy is like an outhouse. It’s usually a wooden box you walk into that has a toilet seat sitting atop a hole. It feels kind of like the toilet in your childhood home, except it smells like you’re sitting atop each of the thousand shits you took as a kid. In many privies, you’re also being harassed by flies and spiders while you attempt to do the unmentionable.

Standard privy. The nasty towers up in that bottom compartment.

Most privies rely on aerobic composting techniques to break down the poopoo, which basically means the pile of shit must be reachable by oxygen. To do its best work, a trail maintenance volunteer must visit the pile from time to time and turn it with a shovel. I imagine being the volunteer who has to turn hundreds of hikers worth of waste. The smell. I spit. Any time I encounter something gross — a dead animal, rotten food, etc. — I feel the urge to give a good spit. (In fact, I just spat when I proofread this. Go ahead. Try it. It works.)

Some privies don’t even have walls. These are usually my favorites because of the spectacle of them. You walk down a path near a shelter and there it is, sitting on top of a hill, a tiny wooden box with a hole in it and a toilet seat screwed on top of the hole. You wave to the man or the woman currently occupying the seat, politely avert your eyes, and wait your turn. “My favorites are the ones with the views!” Pleasure House announced to a few of us one day. She’s right. I could sit there for hours.

“I like a good wall-less toilet, too,” one of our friends you’ll meet in Part 10, named Island Time, agreed. “Once, I held it for 17 miles to get to a privy I heard was a must.”

“17 miles? That’s absurd,” Maverick, another friend you’ll meet, shook her head, her curly hair bobbing in disbelief.

“No,” Island Time responded to her, “what’s absurd is that I hiked 17 miles in the pouring rain to get to a privy that didn’t even have a roof. That’s not a good poop.”

And then, sadly, there are the times you can’t make it the 17 miles. Especially in this dangerous land of non-stop deli sandwiches and chocolate milk, sometimes your body says enough is enough. And sometimes there isn’t a privy anywhere to be found. So what does one do?

First and foremost, it’s important to stay calm. Panicking will do nothing but accelerate the process.

Second, the tested hiker must find their tools. I keep my trowel — used to dig small holes — in the side pouch of my pack for easy reach. I keep my toilet paper in the top of my pack for quick access.

Third, go deep into the woods. I once was hiking down the trail when I encountered my friend, Screech, no more than 10 feet from the trail, squatting over a freshly dug hole. “Howdy, King Cake!” he waved. “Haven’t seen you in a few days.” Screech is a good example of not going deep enough into the woods.

The fourth step is to dig a hole at least six inches deep. Trowels often come with a measuring stick built in. Very handy.

Step five is…just do what comes naturally.

Then one must cover the hole with dirt, and never speak of it again.

After one particularly heavy deli sandwich, an unmentionable was upon me, and I was nowhere near anything that resembled a toilet seat. My stomach cramped and the pain left me dizzy, barely able to walk. The cramping would subside and the need to evacuate would attempt to overcome me. I scanned the forest and saw only rocks — nowhere a trowel could dig a six-inch hole. After what felt like an hour of panic — but was probably more like five grueling minutes — the panic would retreat from the edge of my overworked sphincter. I would begin hiking again, hopeful I could ride my new lease on life to a privy.

But, after a few minutes of hiking, the cycle would start again. Pain. Pucker. Temporary relief.

Until the pain was too much. I was at a vista, looking down at a town. I was too high up to see people, but I imagined a community enjoying the end of their summer. A woman walking her dog. Children laughing, splashing each other in the community pool. A young couple making daytime love under their covers. But 1500 feet above them, I yelled to the skies in agony, threw down my pack, grabbed my trowel and toilet paper, held my ass, and began jogging through the forest, searching for any place to do the opposite of daytime love.

As I jogged through the woods, one hand holding my butt cheeks together, I looked for a place to dig a hole, but only found rocks and roots. The pressure built. The wall was crumbling.

Unable to go any farther, I dropped to the ground and thrust my trowel into the earth. Clang. Rocks!

Ahhhhhhhhh! I was sweating. I looked around, eyes wide with desperation. There was no other option.

Fuck it. I threw the trowel and toilet paper to the ground. Dropped my pants. Grabbed onto a tree. Squatted. And

[The next 3,000 words were omitted due to graphic content. Please enjoy the remainder of this installment.]

Ah, much better. But I stared at the mess I made and was unsure what to do. I tried to kick a few leaves on it, but imagined a child on her first hike. So innocent. So unsuspecting. Stepping on this hastily built pile of leaves, bursting into tears, and vowing never to go outside again.

Walls are for wusses.

So I collected large flat stones and dropped them on top of the poo. Plop. Poop. Plop. Shame hidden from the world, I silently prayed to a God I’m not sure I believe in for those rocks to remain untouched for the rest of time.

And then I continued to hike.

The Gateway to New England.

The quest to catch my friends continued North, out of New York and into Connecticut. I hadn’t caught them yet, but by the time I hit the state line I had closed the gap to about 12 miles, or half a day’s hike.

Connecticut housed about 55 miles of the AT, most of it pleasant. The intense summer heat was breaking, elevation changes were moderate, and the trail was smooth and well-maintained. The occasional swarm of bugs were the worst part — gnats floating around my eyelids and black flies buzzing in my ears — but I could throw on my bug net and enjoy the long stretches of trail that would meander alongside streams and rivers.

With Massachusetts only a few days away, it occurred to me I could go all of Connecticut without checking out a single town, and I obviously couldn’t let that happen.

One afternoon, now only eight miles behind the herd, I saw that I could end the day around the town of Kent. According to my guidebook it seemed worth exploring, so I messaged the group to see if anyone wanted to join me. Pleasure House, a master hitchhiker and always down for a craft beer, said she was near a road crossing and could catch a ride back as long as we found a way to watch the Game of Thrones episode airing that night. Deal.

The sun was going down a lot sooner now, which meant I had to turn my head lamp on and night hike the last three miles into Kent while listening to a podcast about innovative magicians and the North Korea crisis.

I walked the 0.8 miles from the trail to Kent, which seemed like, during the day, at least when stores were open, the quintessential New England downtown. Breakfast shops, ice cream shops, a shop selling gifts, and just about every other kind of shop you could imagine — each building’s exterior adhering to a uniform construction design.

At the far end of Main Street was the pizza place/ taproom at which we were meeting, music overflowing from inside every time someone walked out to smoke a cigarette or make a phone call.

Pleasure House (or “PH” since we’ve all started using nicknames for trail names now — mine is “KK” which isn’t how you spell King Cake, but nobody seems to think that complaint is valid) was sitting at the bar with enough pizza and jalapeno poppers for two.

I walked over and dunked a popper in blue cheese before tossing it into my mouth and slid into the bar where a guy in his 30s was talking to her about something serious sounding. “It’s got to be fear,” he said. “It motivates us. For example, we get a job because we’re afraid of not being able to afford food, or a place to live.” PH, who seems to have missed a lesson on small talk, likes to ask people what they think the single most important emotion is. I assumed that’s what was happening here.

AT follows a boardwalk through the swamp for a few miles.

He broke his eye contact with PH and looked up toward me, “Hey! You must be the friend!”

“I am,” I smiled, recovering from 13 hours of hiking.

“King Cake!” PH whirled around in her barstool, “The slowest hiker in the world! Meet Dusty.” She turned to Dusty, “Dusty, meet King Cake, or KK, or Matt. Whichever you want.”

“Good to meet you,” we shook hands.

“So what’s your favorite emotion, King Cake?” Dusty laughed. “I’m sure you’ve been asked this before?”

“Most important emotion, not favorite,” Pleasure House corrected.

“Well, I said, ’empathy.'”

“Same as PH!” Dusty cut in.

“Yup, but I think I want to change it to happiness.”

“Uck,” Pleasure House groaned, “everyone says happiness.”

“There’s probably a reason for that,” I said. I’d been thinking about this for a few days. “I think it’s what motivates all the other emotions. If fear is what encourages us to get that job so we aren’t homeless, I’d say it’s a desire for happiness that pushes us to find a place to live that we enjoy. If we aspire to be empathetic, I think it’s because it makes us happy to be able to relate to other people.”

We debated this for awhile at the bar, and then Dusty — when he heard we were planning on walking back to the woods tonight — invited us to sleep on his friend’s farm. The friend also happened to be the bartender’s boyfriend. And they offered to let us shower, and use their WIFI to watch Game of Thrones, so we really had no choice.

Slayer Of Happiness.

Two hours into my hike the next day, it poured. Not just a summertime rain shower, but hours and hours of torrential rainstorm.

Dog harassing a fisherman that is not his owner and doesn’t really like dogs.

When it rains like that, I worry about my phone getting soaked, but so far, more than 1400 miles into the hike, I’ve managed to keep it dry. At the first sign of rain, I throw my cover over the pack, and then I put my rain pants and coat on. The phone sits in a pocket in my regular pants — kept dry by the rain pants — so it’s safe and sound.

That is, until I get the idiotic idea to take my phone out and take a picture of the rain. Apparently water destroys charging ports. So my phone wasn’t broken, per say, but a phone that can’t charge isn’t especially useful. By the end of the night, the phone was dead.

I tried my best to control my emotions. At first I was furious at my own stupidity. Why would I take my phone out in the rain? How would I finish my article without a working phone? How much money was this dumbass move going to cost me? How would I catch my friends without knowing where they were?

Fury eventually gave way to the sense of possibility. Okay, this could be nice. I’ve been saying for months I’ve wanted to turn my phone off for a few days. Here’s my chance.

A sense of possibility eventually gave way to a hunt for solutions. Where can I get my phone fixed? Do I even really know what’s wrong with it? How do I contact my hiking friends? I saw there was a town, Falls Village, that the trail would get within 0.3 miles of tomorrow. That’s where I’d figure this out.

As far as I could tell, Falls Village had a population of seven. Six, if you don’t count the dog. Never was there a community more suited to be a ghost town. There was an inn that opens at 6pm, a cafe that is closed half the week, and a senior activity center strangely devoid of, both, seniors and activity.

But, to give Falls Village credit, it was still kicking. There was a library open so I could notify the world of my phone misfortune / stupidity, a large power plant that harnesses the waterfalls for which the town was named, and a two-person construction crew (one member appeared to be on the young end of puberty) renovating a beautiful old home on a street of about a half dozen beautiful old homes.

I walked around downtown, which took about as long as it took you to read that half-sentence, and noticed one building — “The Package Store” — was actually open. There were two older women sitting on a bench outside the shop — one smoking a cigarette and one wearing a bicycle helmet — talking to a middle-aged man with an eye patch over one lens of his glasses, still sitting in the red pick-up truck in which he pulled up.

A stream meandering through New York.

I walked by the crowd into the store and realized “Package Store” is code for “Booze Store,” as that seemed to be all they sold inside. There was no one in the store except a very tiny bulldog. I wondered if miniature bulldogs were a thing. I grabbed an orange cream soda and looked at the dog sitting behind the register. I placed the cream soda on the counter, looked the dog in the eyes, and waited to see what would happen next.

The lady with the cigarette walked into the store, cigarette still lit, and asked how she could help me. As she rang up my soda I pulled out my busted phone and asked, “Is there a place in town I could get my phone fixed?”

She examined my face, took the cigarette out of her mouth and burst into a fit of laughter. She laughed so loud, for so long, and with such intensity, that the lady with the bicycle helmet and the man with the eye patch over one lens of his glasses walked inside to see what was so funny.

“He asked,” the smoker tried to say between weezes, “if there was a place,” she threw her arms up, shook her head, and took a deep breath before rattling off, “iftherewasaplacehecouldgethisphonefixed!” She lost it again at the words, “phone fixed.” The other two looked at each other, and then began laughing uncontrollably, as well.

Okay, I get it now. There’s no Verizon store in shitty ass Falls Village, but c’mon, this reaction seemed excessive.

“You can’t even buy a gosh darn loaf of bread in this town,” the man with the eye patch over one lens of his glasses blurted, ” and you want to get your phone fixed?!”

The crew doubled down on their laughter. The miniature bulldog started barking, which I assumed was laughter.

When the laughter subsided — which was much longer than I can figure out how to draw out in this article — I asked where the nearest town with a Verizon store might be. The lady wearing a bicycle helmet inside a store who, mind you, is making fun of me, wiped a tear from her eye. “Great Barrington, Massachusetts,” she said while catching her breath. “You should be there in a few days.”

King Cake made it there the next day. And he got his phone fixed. And he caught his friends. And he ate some chocolate cake, which is irrelevant, but delicious.

A Brief Case Against Technology and Town Visits

I was on the phone with my New Orleans friend, Alex, recently, recounting stories of hiking, phone failures, delis, and county fairs. Alex has been a very engaged friend throughout the hike, and we’ve chatted regularly by phone or text since I left. From the first time I called him on the trip, back in Franklin, North Carolina, I’ve gotten the sense he’s been surprised by the relatively frequent access to technology and civilization I have had on the trail. That was evident again in his question this night: “Do you feel like, at some point, this kind of stuff — whether it be internet access, frequent visits to towns, or anything else like that — stops this from being a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail? Because it’s certainly not the same experience someone who hiked it 60 years ago had, right?”

I think it’s a really good question. And I agree that technology has made hiking the Appalachian Trail a somewhat different experience than it was for previous generations of hikers.

I also feel strongly that more access to technology isn’t always a positive. Tech problems have been, by far, the biggest stressor on my trip. Phones not working, external batteries shedding charge in cold weather, and Google Photos mysteriously no longer backing up my pictures are examples of the only things that really get me mad out here. It’s infrequent, but it always has something to do with technology. It’s never, “AHHHH, this deer is too cute” or “ARGH, this view is too beautiful!” It’s always somehow connected to my phone.

And the nearly three days I went without a working phone — walking through the woods, disconnected from news not happening within a mile from myself — were the three most relaxing days on the trail.

But…

A Brief Case For Technology and Town Visits.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy defines a thru-hiker as someone who has made an honest attempt to walk the entirety of the trail (meaning not catching a ride to skip part of it), and completing it within one year from the day you began.

The definition includes nothing of shunning technology or civilization. In fact, when Benton MacKaye first envisioned the Appalachian Trail in 1921, he spoke of a trail that, both, benefited and benefited from nearby communities. Those communities, he said, could support hikers by providing the goods and services they needed to complete their trek; and hikers could support those communities with their business.

Every day I get to walk through dense forests, over mountains with incredible views, and around stunning lakes. But exploring towns, and especially the differences and similarities between them as I make my way North, has been one of the great joys of my trip. If the Appalachian Trail is about discovering a part of this country I didn’t know, then that also includes small-town America.

One of the best ways to see how technology has changed the Appalachian Trail is through the navigation systems hikers use. I use an extremely popular book called AWOL (which is the trailname of the guy who has been creating it since the early 2000s). It is a small guidebook that shows my elevation changes, water sources, viewpoints, campsites, shelters, landmarks, road crossings, information about towns, and just about anything else you could need throughout the entire trail.

Before guidebooks like AWOL, hikers relied exclusively on trail markings, their map, and their compass. One of my favorite stories about Grandma Gatewood, the grandmother who became the first female to ever thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, is that on her first attempt to hike the trail in the 1950s, she got lost on her first day and had to be rescued by rangers who insisted she leave the trail. Today, with trail markings occuring constantly, getting lost might be more difficult than actually completing the hike.

A page of the AWOL guide that focuses on hiking.

Today, many hikers are downloading an app, only a few years old, called Guthook (also named after the hiker who invented it). The amazing thing about Guthook is that it uses GPS to identify your exact location, and doesn’t require phone service or WIFI to function. At any time, you can see exactly how far you are from the next water source, or exactly how steep the remainder of your climb is.

But the best part of the app is that users can submit comments on just about anything. If a water source dries up later in the summer, a hiker has almost certainly left a comment, date included, advising that this water is no longer available. Now all subsequent hikers have that information when planning where to replenish their supply. And, if no one has left that comment, you can leave the comment.

A page of the AWOL guide that focuses on towns.

I haven’t downloaded Guthook, because I tell myself I don’t want all this information about the trail in front of me. I like the idea of being surprised. But, to be fair, I have definitely benefited from friends having the app. Here are a few of the user-submitted comments I’ve taken advantage of recently:

“This road crossing has a few flat spots for tents 100 feet north of the road.”

“When it rains, water gets inside the shelter, so set up away from the front.”

“This section is steep, so ditch the poles and use your hands.”

“This privy has to be a health code violation. Wait until the next one if you can hold it.”

A screenshot of Guthook.

Is hiking with all this information cheating? Pleasure House made a strong case against that when she said, “It’s not like we’re getting any information previous hikers didn’t have. They just had to ask locals on the trail or in town, while we have the option to find many of our answers in an app or guidebook.”

Does that mean we’re less likely to talk to locals, or exchange information with other hikers? I don’t know if we’re doing it less often, but I promise we are still doing it all the time. I hitchhike multiple times a week and always get my hitch’s opinion on stuff to do in town. And I exchange some information — whether it be about a water source, or ease of getting a hitch at a road crossing, or some upcoming trail magic — just about every time I pass a hiker.

And, for the record, even Grandma Gatewood was the beneficiary of trail magic in the form of rides to town, places to sleep, and delicious snacks!

Just Shut Up!

In Part 10, which I’m hoping will be posted a week from Friday, I’ll get to write about hiking through the southern part of New England with a trail family (also known as a tramily) for the first time on my hike. I’ll save that experience for Part 10 except to say that it’s really nice to have conversations that are ongoing for longer than a day or two. We’ve gotten a chance to talk about a lot, including the use of technology on the trail, and a weeks-long conversation on happiness that began with PH’s most-important-emotion question in Kent, Connecticut that might now be venturing into overkill territory.

I was reading my book, Here I Am, by Jonathan Safran Foer, in Bennington, Vermont, when I came across this quote, about a week into our heated debate on whether happiness was the most important emotion: “While we pursue happiness, we flee from contentment.”

Shit. Contentment.

“Maybe we’ve been spending all this time talking about happiness when we actually should be talking about contentment,” I suggested at camp one night, triggering a new debate that would last the next week plus. It’s gotten more out there the longer it’s gone.

“I think being happy is like when everyone yells surprise at your birthday party, but being content is when it’s cold outside and you’re under a warm blanket,” Island Time suggested one day while hiking by me.

A few days later, while eating lunch on a rock, Pleasure House made it a battle against ways of life. “I think Eastern cultures focus on being content, while in the West, we insist on the constant, ‘pursuit of happiness.'”

A week later in a hotel room, Gainz asked, “Am I the only one confused by this stupid conversation?”, voicing what we were all thinking.

All this to say we were thinking about it a lot, and — as you’ve probably gathered from this article — I was not the exception.

The mountains are getting higher again as we make our way through Connecticut toward New England.

One evening recently in Vermont, I was walking along a lake by myself. I sat down on a log and batted around question after question. Should I be content or happy? Should I try hiking for a week without taking a picture? Why won’t Google Photos sync with my new phone? Should I hike to where my friends are or camp here for the night?

I looked up from my thoughts and out on the lake for a moment and noticed the first signs of Fall: a few pockets of red leaves in a sea of green; a chilly breeze hitting my face; the smoke from my breath when I exhale. Just shut up.

I left New Orleans and came on this hike to “find my 10s.” To find the things that made me happy. The kind of happiness that didn’t depend on another person. That I could create myself. That could be all my own.

Quality friends. Learning. Reading. Exploring. Writing. Being outside.

I haven’t actively thought about it in months, but the list was right there. Months of walking and thinking and experiencing had created it for me. And they are all things I get to do every day out here.

Just shut up, I told my brain. I’m happy…or content? It doesn’t matter. As I zipped up my puffy, blue winter coat and looked out at the evening sun’s reflection in the clear, blue lake, I felt good. I don’t want this feeling to end, and — as long as there are moments like this in the world — it doesn’t have to. I thought about my Grandma’s toast.

To many more moments in our lives as joyful as this one.

Moving On.

I’m now at Mile 1809, and finished my first peak of the notoriously challenging White Mountains in New Hampshire yesterday. Everything in New England has felt like it has been building toward this. We’re back to almost 5,000 feet and the temperature is dropping into the 40s at night. It’s really hard, but I also love the challenge. More on all this next Friday!

My progress as of a few days ago. Getting close! Thanks Aaron Luther for making the map!

In the meantime, as you might know, I’m raising money for the Live Oak Wilderness Camp. It’s a nonprofit summer camp which teaches campers — all students from the greater New Orleans area — leadership skills, as well as an appreciation for the outdoors. It’s an incredible organization, and so far we have raised more than $4,103 from 91 donors. (Holy cow!) My goal is a donation of $4,380 — $2 for every mile I’m hiking. So close!

Donations of every amount are so helpful, and you can make the donation here.

Thanks so much for your support on this, and in every other way, whether it be reading, sharing, commenting, or anything else. I appreciate it a ton.

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Campers at the Live Oak Wilderness Camp!

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 which meets at Treo every other week and, since leaving his job in education last month, spends his days writing, running, and preparing to hike hiking the Appalachian Trail.

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