Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Trail is...Mental

Written by: Brandon "Monkey" Imp

First of all, we would like to apologize for our recent lack of posts. While we did get into the NOC and Fontana Dam, there were no computers that would allow us to update the blog! Very frustrating. However, we took a zero in Gatlinburg, TN today and have a valid internet source. So, without further hesitation, a wild account of some very tough days:

For me, the past week was rough. It is week three on the trail and we just hit the 200 mile mark. I have been nurturing a busted heel but it is getting better - we think my shoes made the joint swell and then it subsequently calcified. Kind of like an extra small bone on the back of my heel - a bone spur. It's not fun, and not pretty, but the pain has lessened so I'm not complaining (anymore). We have all suffered scrapes and bruises and cuts and blisters. Lightning came down with a rash the other day and Ring Leader literally rammed her head into a tree. Looking back on it all, most of our physical maladies are pretty entertaining.

But what's bugged me the past few days has been mental. Preparing for the trail, the records always indicated that the trail is mostly a mental challenge rather than a physical challenge. I agree with the statement. It is not mentally draining by any means - it is the exact opposite. The minimal amount of thought you must put into the day blows every detail into a huge disproportion. I tend to plan out my snack and bathroom breaks just to have something to think about - "In 2.2 miles is a trail head for such and such, so that will be in an hour...I'm a little hungry now, so a snack will be great in an hour." And I will think like that...for an hour. Absolutely trivial.

About five days ago I made a big decision. The major mental problem I wanted to overcome during the hike was to successfully apply to medical school. After consulting with tons of people, advisors, and medical school admissions officers, I have decided to wait one more year before I apply to medical school. The school I enroll in will determine the course of my career life, and I do not want to mess up the application. Hiking the trail and being removed from society severely limited my access to information on the schools (like specialty programs, student life, rankings, etc) and my ability to apply without depending on others to send such and such forms to such and such an address. Plus, I am unemployed. Applying to 15-20 schools is not cheap.

So, about five days ago, I came to terms with this fact. Since I had very little else to think about (snack break?), my inadequacy was primarily all I thought about for the entire day. NOT good when you are busting your butt to get up a few mountains and a dozen miles.

There were two more recent days that were very challenging. Entering the Great Smoky Mountains from Fontana Dam, we planned to reach Gatlinburg in three days: 15 miles, 15 miles, and 10 miles. The first day was rain and the second day was rain/hail. Yes, we have a pack cover, a rain jacket, and rain pants. But when the rain is more like a fire hose blasting you for 8 hours straight, and the trail has magically transformed to a stream and/or mudslide, there is no way you will stay dry. On top of it all, high elevation leads to freezing temperatures and winds up to 60 mph. We hiked it. Miserably and fast. The challenge of such a situation is to keep your mental drive alive. It would be wonderful to stop, sit down, and let the misery pass (maybe walk into the house and turn on the heat?) Unfortunately, the option does not exist in the mountains, and the shelters are far apart. You must walk or you will die. The first day was the worst rain and for the last two hours I was in "survival mode." I thought of nothing except the word "walk." For two hours I did not look ahead or have a song on repeat in my head. I thought "walk." When I got to the shelter and unwound, I was exhausted. It was as if I just studied for three finals issued in a 24-hour time period. I was comatose. When I woke up the next day and saw it was still terrible (20% chance of rain is a lie in the mountains), it took a lot of mental energy and courage to slap on the wet clothes and do it all again.

When days like these happen on the trail, the thru-hikers try to reason with them. Many called the two days of rain a "test" - can you endure the isolation and wrath of the trail? If it was a test, I hung on by a thread. Fortunately for me, a thread is all I needed.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail is not an easy endeavor. We have been hit with a couple hard days and are still breathing. I know nice weather will come soon and the mountains will be behind us. Thank goodness, and thank goodness I love the challenge.


  1. Hi Brandon, good going, stick with it! Think of the Smokies as prep for New Hampshire and Maine! Keep hiking!

  2. Brandon, you really painted the picture with this one. Better days ahead! Stay TOUGH, until then.

  3. keep those chins up! you guys can do this! here's a lot of people around the globe pulling for you! keep that spirit alive!

  4. Hang in there, Bran. You've got a great attitude. One step at a time. You were never one of the complainers in Boy Scouts, and I see that you still aren't one. Proud to be your mom!