June 28, 2017
We have a mile monkey riding Jay’s shoulder. Dressed in jockey attire, this little guy constantly urges Jay forward, ready to ignore all distractions such as gorgeous views, side trips to ice cream, bird songs, beautiful flowers, or even intimidating thunderheads. A mile monkey has tunnel vision, choosing the straight and narrow of the trail over all diversions. At the end of the day, his only interest is the number of miles completed.
My job is to frustrate this mile monkey. I’m pretty good at this duty! I’ve had many tiny imaginary monkey expletives hurled at my head during the past four months, as we stopped to swing on a vine, climb a boulder, take in a view, or … go off trail to attend a family reunion!
From Pine Grove Furnace State Park, near the halfway point of the AT, Jay and I rented a car and drove to Tennessee for a yearly gathering of parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I’m afraid my motives for this trip were not purely based on family loyalty. After hiking 1,102 miles, the thought of clean sheets and daily showers for a week were nearly as big an attraction to me as seeing loved kinfolk!
“No!” the mile monkey howled. “How can you do this? What kind of a thru-hiker are you? Stop! Go back! Stay on the trail!”
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy defines a thru-hike as completion of the whole 2,196 miles of trail within one year. Traditionally, hikers head either northbound from Georgia or southbound from Maine. However, a hiker’s itinerary can begin anywhere along the trail. Whether one “flip-flops”, “leapfrogs”, or does a “wrap-around”, the thru-hike challenge is to finish within a year.
“That’s not good enough!” the mile monkey chittered as it jumped up and down upon Jay’s shoulder. “You started out northbound! You’ve got to keep going! You’ll never get to Mt. Katahdin at this rate!”
“Perhaps you’re right,” I addressed the mile monkey seriously. “I began this hike as a bit of a pilgrimage, walking through spring like Earl Schaffer (first AT thru-hiker). But with all our delays, most notably the month on and off trail, healing my broken collarbone, I’m not sure we can get to the end before Baxter State Park closes Mt. Katahdin on October 15.”
“Do you want to quit?” Jay entered the conversation.
“No way!” My response was immediate, from my gut. “We committed to a thru-hike! I want to complete it!”
“What if we do a flip-flop?” Jay mused. “We could use the family reunion as a natural break. Instead of getting back on the trail in Pennsylvania, we could drive to Maine, climb Katahdin, then hike south!”
“That’s it!” I hugged Jay ecstatically. “We hiked Georgia in winter, walked in awe through spring in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, now we can have summer in the north woods! There will be no time limit on our finish as we hike south through the fall!” I eyed the monkey triumphantly. “Oh boy, mile monkey, you’re gonna have a tough time, now!”
“Agh!” the mile monkey stomped in frustration. “You haven’t heard the last from me! I’ll find some way to keep nagging you!”