Trail Days is here. Since my Facebook newsfeed is almost exclusively hiking porn and family updates, I’ve been inundated with excitement from hikers arriving in Damascus to kick off another multi-day tribute to all things Hiker Trash.
Blended with the excitement are lots of questions. Good questions like: “Is it safe to hike the AT solo?” (Absolutely- leave your guns at home too); and, “If you could choose a super hiking power, what would it be?” (Since the ability to eat as much sugary/salty crap as I want while still losing weight comes standard with all hiker packages… scaling the White Mountains like a mountain goat sounds like a handy alternative). These are great questions. And this is “just the tip.” I can already tell, it’s gonna be a great year.
However, there is one question I haven’t seen yet, one that nearly every hiker will ask themselves at least once during their hike (and probably in our “regular” lives as well).
Should I Quit?
I get it. Saying “fuck” and “shit” is cool, but “quit” is one of those 4-letter words that we pretend doesn’t exist, especially when we’re talking about inspirational challenges like completing long distance hikes or losing 25% of our body mass by February. However, I haven’t been cool for a really long time, so my downside for picking up this torch is low.
After being a LASHer in 2014 and 2015, I finally completed a thru-hike in 2016. I knew what the raised eyebrows of disappointed fans felt like. (“So, you didn’t make it all the way to Katahdin on either of your first 2 attempts. And now you’re trying it again?”) I understood why I quit hiking the first 2 years, and was all the better for it, but I didn’t fully appreciate how miserable quitting looked from the outside until a good friend named Hollywood showed me.
(Insert psychedelic Scooby Doo flashback moment here)
Somewhere on the Appalachian Trail in Central Virginia…
“Sketch, hold up a sec,” Hollywood called out from behind me. The moment I stopped hiking the heat doubled down on its assault. Blinding sunlight joined in on what was becoming a massacre. Theoretically, my body was producing a cooling sweat. All I got was a crusty maze of salt lines on my t-shirt.
“C’mon Hollywood, I’m dying here,” I said as he trudged towards me. We were climbing up the exposed face of yet another mountain deep in Virginia. We were several miles from the next shelter, but after rounding this ridgeline, my guidebook promised a gradual descent. The stream better not be dry again.
Hollywood moved with the reluctance and fatigue of a child at Disney World, forced to endure one too many days of rides and exploring. I could see defeat behind a pair of deeply tinted American flag sunglasses that were almost as gaudy as my pink plastic ones. He went straight for the tube leading to my CamelBak, staring at me as he sucked down my water.
“You out again?” I asked. He kept my tube in his mouth as he waggled his empty SmartWater bottle at me. I could feel my pack getting lighter as he drained water out of my bladder.
“Dude,” he said when he stopped to catch his breath, “this sucks.”
“Let’s just get to the next shelter. Take a break in the shade.”
Hollywood, 19 and from Florida, should be used to this kind of heat. And he spent his summers in construction! Nonetheless, I’d outpaced him again after a few minutes, trying to generate a wisp of breeze to fend off the heat.
When we reached the shelter, he threw his flimsy pack angrily at the back of the shelter and crawled into the shade. I wondered who this guy was. The Hollywood I knew was giddy and playful, full of that contagious first-day-of-summer-vacation excitement. When he saw me gathering up my water bottle, bladder and water filter, he simply said “could you?” and tossed his water bottle towards me.
Maybe the real Hollywood would make a re-appearance once he got rehydrated, rested, and re-caloried.
I understood the change in Hollywood’s attitude, but it was still draining. He’d begun to shed weight in his quest to become an ultralight hiker after picking up a Cuben Fiber pack in Damascus. The goal: a pack that weighed less than 15lbs with food and water. He mailed his tent, sleeping bag, and all his clothes aside from the ones he wore back home. He downloaded a PDF version of the AWOL guide for his phone. He borrowed a spoon or knife from his Trail family if he needed one. He took the minimalist strategy to the extreme. It apparently worked well enough, at least until he got separated from his Trail family. Then he learned how much he depended on their support for the “little” things. There were lots of last straws and broken CamelBaks, but when he lost his phone, he also lost his will to hike. Hard to be an ultralight hiker while hauling around a full load of quit in his ultralight pack…
In the movies, there would be an inspiring soundtrack, hopefully some clever dialogue, and Hollywood would find the inner strength to keep hiking towards Katahdin. Instead, when we reached the next town, the muzak piped into the Wendy’s lobby was something by Ed Sheeran and the last words I said to him were, “Dude, don’t quit.” He didn’t look up at me as I left. He just kept staring at the mound of Wendy’s burgers on his tray.
(Do the squiggly Scoobie Doo flashback thing again)
So, does Hollywood quit?
Sure, this scene is dramatized to make me look more heroic, but still. Poor Hollywood right? This guy was obviously miserable in the midst of what should have been the time of his life. Maybe you think that you would have avoided his missteps, or even, if he were just a little bit stronger, a little bit more resourceful, or more flexible, he would find a way to stick with it.
What sticks with me, months later, isn’t whether he quit. Instead, what I remember best (aside from how hot and thirsty and tired and hungry we were) is asking myself “SHOULD he quit?”
Hiking should be rewarding, and inspiring, and fun. Challenging and occasionally repetitive, sure. But when we make the mental transition from I “wanna” to I “gotta,” it’s not hiking anymore, it’s just a really bad way to commute between two points.
My advice to those buried under by a heavy load of gotta: QUIT.
“Quit early, quit often”
I’m not the first to advocate the benefits of quitting. Google tells me that Prof. Deepak Malhotra popularized this philosophy during his commencement speech for the Harvard MBA class of 2012. The duo that brought us Freakonomics, SuperFreakonomics, and Think Like a Freak (clearly these are my people) quantified a seemingly contradictory relationship between quitting and success. No Brownie Points to me for coming up with a new LifeHack, but it’s probably more meaningful for you that this advice is backed by some really smart people.
There is a set of metal steps that crisscross up the Amicalola Falls on the approach trail to the AT. It’s a beautiful and majestic hike. If you’re contemplating an AT hike and wonder whether to include this “unofficial” section, you’ll be tired, but not disappointed.
Two years ago, I was huffing my way up these steps, wondering what the hell I got myself into, when I saw another similarly overburdened and out-of-shape hiker heading back down. As we passed, I caught his eyes for a second and heard him mumble “screw this” before heading back to the visitor’s center. At the time, I thought he was weak-willed, or crazy. Why would anyone quit their hike before it even begins? But now, I admire his foresight. He knew that he wasn’t ready for the challenges of the hike. Instead of slogging along a path of misery until he couldn’t take it anymore, he was free to reclaim those days, and dollars, and drive to use towards something he wanted to do, was more likely to succeed at. Good for him.
Your time and resources are way too valuable to waste on projects that you can’t or don’t want to complete.
I returned to Amicalola Falls for each of the past 3 years. Despite quitting twice, I kept coming back. Every April, I was little bit more prepared (mentally and spiritually at least) to tackle a 6-month hike. Becoming a repeat offender helped me to adopt the quitter’s mentality. That pressure to reach the end no-matter-what wasn’t as powerful. I didn’t look at the first 2,000 miles of Trail I had previously hiked as wasted time on my quest to conquer Katahdin (spoiler: nobody conquers Mt Katahdin; we just get to bask in its presence briefly). Quitting often helped me to get a firm grip on the “wanna.” I know now that I hike because I love it. Love the community, and love living in the outside.
The cost of quitting
Quitting isn’t for the weak. It takes guts to stop chasing a goal you were once really excited to pursue, to meet the concerned questions from family and friends when you return to civilization months early, and to look yourself in the mirror after you’ve shaved off the scruffy beard and ask yourself “What’s next?”
If your ego, like mine, is an oversized, easily punctured, hot-air balloon, then I can sympathize with the urge to create fantastic stories about bear attacks, stolen gear, and broken bones that forced you off the Trail. For what it’s worth, Jack Daniel’s helps. But I think an even more grown-up approach would be to seriously answer the “What’s Next” question. After all, you didn’t quit the Trail because it was too hard, you quit because there are other things that need your attention more right now. Take the time to save up more money, get that tent that actually keeps the rain out. Process what went wrong on this hike, and if the “wanna” is still there next winter, the Trail will be there waiting for you.
“But I’ve already hiked hundreds of miles!”
Somewhere along the way, this adventure takes on a life of its own. Momentum pushes us forward. All 5 toes are poking out of your shoes. Time to buy another pair. Your support system back home has figured out how to track your progress after you’ve hiked 700 miles. Now they are sending out care packages that will be waiting for you up ahead. Your Tramily is planning to take a detour into Washington D.C. to see how a pack of bearded, smelly hoodlums are received in civilized society. You’ve already spent more than you thought you would spend on the whole hike and you’re not even halfway through yet. How can you quit after investing so much!
If you find yourself facing these wonderful dilemmas and that little voice telling you to quit is getting louder, maybe it’s time to listen.
The investment you’ve already made, called “sunk costs” by business types, is painful to write-off. But imagine how much more time and energy and money you will need to invest if you continue. I don’t know if this is the true origin, but I imagine “sunk costs” as a buried treasure that will take more effort to retrieve than it’s worth. Sometimes it’s better to go searching for another prize than to keep wasting time trying to recover that which is already lost.
The Wrap Up
This has been a lot of talk about hiking and quitting, two words that don’t normally hang out together. Hiking is majestic and glorious and popular; quitting, the ugly step-brother that needs to take out the trash before the smell funks up the kitchen.
Hiking is still all those things (and more), but quitting, quitting is actually a conscious choice to stop doing something we won’t (or don’t want to) complete. Once we give ourselves permission to quit, we take a little more control over ourselves. Imagine how much you can do this year if you choose to quit those projects that are bogging you down.
Hollywood briefly returned to the Trail after our last conversation in Wendy’s, but ultimately recognized that the hike was making him miserable.
He quit, and I couldn’t be happier for him.
This year, rather than a resolution, I’m going to try lots of new things, as many as possible, but I’ll be on the lookout for any opportunities to quit. And when one of those opportunities presents itself, I hope I’ll have the courage to proudly stand up and sound my barbaric yawp from whichever mountaintop I happen to be on and say…