Homelessness is often equated with despair, and misery, and hopelessness. But maybe there is another side to this issue. Maybe, as crazy as it sounds, choosing to leave the comforts of home can be a liberating adventure.
An unusual group of people, including perpetual travelers, digital nomads, and long-distance hikers, often make the conscious decision to become “homeless.” This means giving up certainty about where they are going to sleep each night. Far from family and friends. Going to a favorite restaurant to order the usual isn’t an option. The job that provides regular income is long gone. They see these challenges, and rather than follow the logical path, decide to plunge into the unknown.
I became one of these intentionally “homeless” people last year. I wanted (needed?) to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. For nearly 6 months, I lived off what I carried on my back and the generosity of others, many of whom I had never met before. In this new world, shaving was discouraged, every day was casual Friday, and the only rush-hour was a frenzied race to reach the All-You-Can-Eat before they switched to dinner prices. It was glorious.
The experience provided countless life lessons and other perks, many of which I didn’t appreciate until months after completing the hike. Perhaps I didn’t fully appreciate these life lessons from nature at the time because I was too close to the experience to have the right perspective. Either that, or I was too busy complaining about bugs, or an insatiable hunger, or an elusive mountain summit, or bugs.
I’m gonna blame the bugs.
However, now that I’m comfortably settled in my writing chair with a whiskey in arms reach and the A/C humming in the background, the lessons learned while hiking the Appalachian Trail waft around me with the undeniable clarity of well-crafted memes. I consider these lessons gifts. And I’d like to share a few with you.
I’m flexible, so long as everything is exactly the way I want it.
Before joining the ranks of homeless hikers, my need for control bordered on compulsive. As a surgeon, this was a valuable trait. I strived for absolute control in the operating room. All pertinent data about my patient was collected and memorized. Room temperature and lighting were carefully calibrated before each procedure. My team knew which instrument to deliver based on rehearsed gestures. EVERYTHING and everyone was sterile. There was even a specific playlist depending on the procedure I would be performing. This sampling of practices ensured optimal outcomes for the patient, and maximal stress for me (along with my poor team who had to endure hours of George Winston at a time).
That all changed once I hit the Trail.
When it rained, I got wet. When it snowed, I got wet, and cold. And when the stream I hiked 6 miles to reach was dry, I dehydrated. However, each mountain peak that cost so much sweat to reach was cause for celebration (maybe not the dozen false summits I passed on the way there). The bears and squirrels and wild flowers and the crisp breeze were wonderful demonstrations of life’s power and beauty. I found some of the best sleep I’ve had in years on wooden platforms mushed between a dozen snoring, farting, smelly hikers I didn’t know but would quickly become friends.
I had no control over any of this. For the first several weeks, it was infuriating. Once I recognized the futility of trying to control the uncontrollable, I began to relax. I hiked towards the unknown. And left the stress of trying to manage all of life’s variables behind.
I don’t know where I learned it, but “you don’t get something for nothing” was a maxim that stuck. I looked for the ulterior motive before accepting help from a friend, and I tried to avoid any situation that would force me to depend on anyone for anything.
This isn’t possible for the homeless hiker. Whether it’s a ride from the Trailhead into town for resupply and a much-needed shower, borrowing another hiker’s water filter, or countless other circumstances beyond my control, I quickly realized that I couldn’t make it without lots of help.
I could wrap my head around situations where I either reimbursed or bartered for the things I needed. But generosity from others, particularly strangers, who expected nothing in return amazed me. We call it Trail Magic and it’s real. I recently wrote about childlike wonder and creativity as a kind of magic I wanted to believe in again but this is different.
Imagine piles of food and cold drinks left on the side of the Trail for hikers to enjoy. There’s also a note asking us to call if supplies run low so it can be replaced. Or imagine a couple loading several mangy hikers into their new Mercedes for a ride to town. Instead of taking our donation, they pay for our meals after wishing us a great hike. Random acts of kindness like these and countless others eventually blunted my skepticism. In time, I hardly paused when a stranger offered to let a friend and I stay in their home for a few days, and handed us the keys to one of their cars so we could run our errands.
I now believe that people are capable of altruism. And that we are worthy of this gift.
Obstacles do not block the path, they are the path (Zen proverb)
The tendency is to follow the easy path, or the straightest path, especially when tired or rushed. Towards the end of the day, my brain is busy visualizing how delicious my dehydrated mash potatoes will taste, and my body wants to explore horizontal positions for several hours. On really long days, when the Hangry is strong in me, I stop paying attention to trail markings. That’s usually when I realize things aren’t quite right, that I’m not on the Trail anymore. I’m lost. Backtracking means doubling the “extra” time I have to hike to reach my destination for the night, but wandering blindly through the woods in search of a shortcut is the surest path to becoming even more lost.
Inevitably, when I backtrack to the last trail blaze, the Trail leads me up a steep rock face, down into a ravine, or across a stream, whichever represents the most difficult end-of-the-day obstacle. I feel like there might be a life lesson here. Regardless, the Trail lesson is: when in doubt about the direction to go, look for the most challenging path first.
Get rid of the unnecessary stuff
- Gear: Every “extra” lb. carried in my pack for the whole AT requires the same work as trying to carry 2,189lbs for one mile.
- Hygiene: Showers are optional. Shaving is heretical. But still gotta brush the Skittles and Snickers out of our teeth regularly.
- Distractions: It’s ok to miss Game of Thrones (although one hiker would plan his hikes to reach town in time to catch the latest episode). Social media is a great way to stay in touch, but posting to Facebook while hiking over slick rock in the rain is an embarrassing way to shatter an iPhone, and an ego.
Growth doesn’t stop at the end of the Trail
9 months passed since completing the Trail, enough time for a pregnancy. While I’ve regained more than half of the 53 lbs. I lost during this hike, pretty sure it’s mostly Snickers, Pepsi and pizza.
I’ve grown in other ways as well:
- I shower semi-regularly
- My wife is suspicious of my budding romance with our air conditioner. (It’s purely platonic)
- We waste very little food.
- I pay more attention to the real-world corollaries for Trail markings to confirm I’m still on the right path in life.
- I recognize the value in connecting with others, even when I’m wandering around alone in the woods.
This list of lessons learned as a homeless hiker is far from complete. What began as an adventure and a much-needed retreat from civilization also became one of the most educational experiences of an already academically rich life. (Yay learning!)
What have you learned during your travels?