So why the AT?

As some of you may know, I spent 139 days in the Ranger School as a newly minted 2LT, and my favorite of the three phases, if one can have a favorite level of hell, is the mountain phase. The mountain phase is based in Dahlonega, GA, and is chock full of ropes, knots, belays, rappels, and beautiful vistas – my kind of place. In my time, it even had leadership that I admired. Consequently, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail lies deep in Ranger country. I discovered this quite by accident when my bewildered patrol bumped into a group of amused locals sitting quite near to one of those famous AT blazes – we were humping 100 pounds on our backs, and they were sitting in camp chairs, drinking beers. Hmm.

Fast forward three years, and I’m sitting in a field in Bavaria in May, a month out of my most recent deployment, accomplishing absolutely nothing for the Army  as my unit’s night liaison to their headquarters element. The promotion board is in deliberation; I’ve already been passed over once and am awaiting the results of round two, due in July. For reasons unfathomable to me, I certified my board file, as if to show sincere interest in giving the army a second shot. But truth be told, when I was honest with myself, I most wanted to be passed over a second time and granted a clean break – and an involuntary separation is the cleanest of clean breaks.

Given a fair degree of waffling over my uncertain future (it would be another three months until I met Loc), I decided then and there that my one certainty for the following spring was the Appalachian Trail. I figured that if Jennifer Pharr Davis and Scott Jurek can do it in less than 60 days, surely I can do it in 139 days. In my melodramatic mind, I’d envisioned  an ascent from darkness into light, a battery gradually charging, paralleling in reverse my journey from light into darkness back in 2011/12. I would start in the heart of Ranger country and walk 2,200 purifying miles north, releasing my pent up negativity and replacing it with optimism for the future. Detox complete, I’d be able to reenter the world as a well adjusted veteran, ready to jump into the work force. I spent that month of night shifts in the field researching and, with an eye toward the ultralight, purchasing my gear.

Instead of a July release, the Army published board results in October, pushing my earliest anticipated release from February  to May. I was not surprised, and actually quite appreciated the additional preparation time afforded me. My boss at this time, a good man through and through, asked that I see the unit through the deployment in early January in exchange for four months to pursue my own ends. I fulfilled my end of the deal, and he’s kept his – there’s at least one trustworthy soul in senior leadership.

In order to keep with my desire to be in New York in June, I’d have to re-tinker my plans, and accordingly, I opted for a flip-flop hike: I would start in Harper’s Ferry, the spiritual halfway point of the Trail, and walk north to reunite with my high school friend Sarah, then fly back to DC to hitch back to Harper’s Ferry to commence my southbound hike down into Ranger country. My coworkers figured I would do something like that. I figured that I preferred walking with spring while I could, rather than walking with summer for the duration. I’m of English/Scandinavian descent, after all – the sun does not favor my people. While the flip flop hike is not what I had originally intended, a linear progression away from what I resent most,  it is a fun twist on a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

So, my primary reason for my hike is to walk the Army out of my system. Earl Shaffer, the original thru hiker, stated the same as his motivation, after he had served a three year assignment in the Pacific Theater of World War Two. It is a multidimensional break between where I’ve been and where I’m going, and I am honored to walk in his footsteps.

But, of course, I wouldn’t be hiking this hike if I hadn’t long wanted to do it. I spent the preponderance of my life through my commissioning in New York State, and between my time in the Boy Scouts and my time at West Point, I gained a deep appreciation for the great outdoors, and a specific appreciation for that trail that cuts right across the Bear Mountain Bridge, six miles south of my rocky highland home. I even hiked the section from Cold Spring to the NY/CT border in an erstwhile effort with friends, and shattered my big toe in the process. Miraculously, we emerged from the forest battered but intact to find a platform serving the Harlem line of the MTA – it stops three times on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, and we caught one of those trains straight into Grand Central Station, where my friend’s father met us and drove us back to a feast at his Staten Island home. It was glorious. With much indignity and time, I got better, and my hunger for the trail grew. Auspiciously, I had learned the dramatic consequences of  inexperience and an overloaded pack – a lesson one need learn but once.

Back to Germany. I’ve been working in my unit’s plans and operations cell since April 2013. I started as the land and ammunition manager, and ended juggling more titles and responsibilities than I care to name, chief among them the responsibility for orchestrating unit deployments. For the uninitiated, that’s an umbrella term for a whole lot of frenetic activity, a duty from which people run. I finished coordinating my last deployment in January this year, two months after I had been handed my second non-promotion. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve woken up dreaming of shipping containers or HAZMAT labels in the past three years.

Of things I missed most in that period, the chief among them was a chance to think, to reflect, to meditate, to savor small moments of beauty slowly. See Trail, Appalachian. Of note, Dick Winters also sought meditative recuperation after his service in the war. He’s another man in whose footsteps I don’t mind treading, in spirit if nothing else.

Speaking of walking in the spirit of another, I happened upon a podcast called Paul’s Boots in my planning phase. I was immediately struck by the beauty of the message – a woman wished to give her recently deceased husband a fulfillment of his last desire, to walk the Appalachian Trail. She had three pairs of highly polish boots he had left behind for his own journey and asked that any willing bodies take them for however long they felt they could. The team at the Dirtbag Diaries received an enormous outpouring of support; REI picked up the cause;  and a plan was hatched to have those boots traverse the trail in its entirety. Of hundreds of applicants, I’ve been given the great privilege of carrying that beautiful gift to a grieving woman on my homecoming journey through my home state.

And last, I’ve been living abroad since September 2012; this hike is indeed a homecoming. I chose to live an international life when I elected to study Arabic and French at West Point. I branched infantry because I bought into the party line just enough to believe that that was the best way to affect change in a system sorely needing change, and branching infantry afforded me an opportunity to post to Germany. Choosing Germany was the fulfillment of years of ambition, and I have been privileged to live here. Today, however, I do feel estranged from my roots – I feel like I don’t know the country that America has become. For a while, I seriously contemplated seeking permanent residency abroad, even new citizenship, but I feel a loyalty to my country, if for nothing else, to improve it in whatever way I can. The Appalachian Trail is a chance to reconnect with my roots, and come to know the people and landscapes of contemporary America firsthand. It is, after all, my homeland.

Oh, and the Trail gave me a hell of a chance to synthesize a wide array of my skills and predilections into a coherent whole. I’ve spent the past four months refining my gear list, honing in on select excursions beyond the trail, and building an entire arsenal of weekly resupply boxes, replete with the food that I actually enjoy eating. It’s been a complex and invigorating challenge, and one that is just coming to a close; I’ll ship my first box tomorrow.

Release, renew, recharge, rejoice – that is the path laid ahead.

I relish the opportunity.

 

 

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One thought on “So why the AT?

  1. Great post James. You have quite the homecoming planned. I am so looking forward to the next time we both gather around the campfire on Hubbard lane to exchange tales of our adventures. Bon Voyage!!

    Liked by 1 person

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