Balance Through Extremes: The 42 Miler

It had only been a few weeks since my friend Achilles passed away.  Only weeks before I had been sitting in his living room, telling him of my plans for the roadtrip.  And then, mid-roadtrip, I got the text telling me that Achilles had died.  It still didn’t seem real. 

But of course I stumbled across this quote right when a ridiculous idea had popped in my head.  Something so absurd that I simply only chuckled at the idea at first. And then I read this and realized I had to do it.

“In life it’s good to try things that challenge and test our limits from time to time…. Feeling a little scared reminds us that we’re alive and in those moments you have 2 options… You can give in or you can conquer the moment!” 

                                                 -  Achilles Williams

I wanted to see how far I was capable of hiking in a 24 hour period.  My previous record was 40 miles, accomplished on a whim while thru-hiking the AT (we hadn’t even done a 20 mile day up to that point, then we busted out a 40).

The forecast for the next day was calling for 70% chance of thunderstorms.  Not only was I going to beat my previous record, but I was going to do it in the worst weather possible.

I woke up around 4:30, crammed a few extra snickers in my pack, filled my largest coffee mug, and hit the road.   I planned on starting at Woody Gap and hiking south along the AT until I hit Springer Mountain (southern terminus of the AT), then turning around and hiking back – it would be at least 41 miles.  Truth be told, I wanted to hike those 41 miles, grab a few more snacks out of my car, and try to make it to 50 by days-end. I wanted 50. I craved it.

The morning flew by with a couple decent climbs (Sassafras kicked my ass) and before long I was already at Springer Mountain. I was feeling pretty good and I still had 4 or 5 hours of daylight(ish) ahead before darkness set in.   I kept doing calculations in my head, trying to figure out how many miles I ‘d be able to fit. 

My mental math got noticeably slower at the midpoint, as delirium started to set in. By my math, I figured I could definitely hit 50, and possibly 60 if I really went balls deep. 

I met multiple fresh thru-hikers throughout the day and I promised them the journey would be the best experience of their lives. I saw a hiker quit on Day 1. It was so frustrating – a young kid, fresh out of high school, who had been looking forward to the hike for years. He simply said that it wasn’t what he expected and threw out an excuse of some nagging shoulder injury.  I gave him the sage wisdom to never quit on a rainy day. There was no convincing.

But for every story of disappointment, there is one of hope.  I met a man from New Hampshire whose wife had passed from colon cancer only a couple months before. He was hiking to heal.  A story I know all too much about. I promised him that he would undoubtedly gain some sort of closure, some sort of clarity. I promised him that this was the best place for him to be.

I used to hate night hiking.  Really, I still do, but I’m trying to convince myself to love it.  Its one of the most terrifying and exhilarating experiences, especially while solo.  Especially in bear territory (the area north of Woody Gap requires bear canisters - a regulation you never hear of in the East, and a hiker told me he had spotted a mama bear the night before). Its truly a rad experience, something so few people ever get to experience.  Illumination for a few strides, darkness elsewhere. 

You try to calm yourself with each breath, but every little crackle in the unknown makes your hair stand on end, makes you hike a little faster. 

I held off putting on my headlamp for as long as possible, until around 8:30 I had to break the seal.  My visibility immediately went from a foggy 30 yards, to white out conditions, allowing me to see only a few feet ahead.

I stumbled along for a few more hours, constantly pushing to lift my legs with each step, to peer through the mist, to tell myself that I could keep going. I thought Sassafras kicked my ass in the day, but it really kicked my ass at night, already 30 miles deep. I got to to my car at midnight, 41.5 miles down. I wanted to push on.  I still wanted 50.  And my legs still felt like they had some kick left. 

“I’m all for moderation but sometimes it seems moderation itself can be a kind of extreme.” - Andrew Bird

“I’m all for moderation but sometimes it seems moderation itself can be a kind of extreme.” - Andrew Bird

But I had to look at the situation realistically.  I had to be smart.  My legs were numb, my feet were blistered, and I was on the verge of losing multiple toenails. But I could endure more pain. I could only see 3 feet ahead of me and I was in the midst of the most bear-prone territory in the southeast. But bears are bitches and get scared easily. I was utterly delirious, had been hiking for over 16 hours, and I was having to really concentrate on where to put my feet.  I feared that I might slip up, my riddled mind miscalculating a step down, and crack my skull.

 I wanted to push on so bad, and the words of Achilles rang in my head, but sometimes you have to draw the line.  I had achieved what I wanted – I had hiked further than I ever had, in pretty shitty weather. I had pushed myself to the limit.

I passed out in the back seat of the Corolla, too tired to set up a tent, and slept hard. I woke up and drove back, weary and tired, but more mentally clear and rejuvenated than I had felt since Achilles’ passing. I may not have achieved my goal of 50, but I realized something more important. 

Maybe a life of moderation is overrated. Maybe we’re supposed to follow those crazy inklings the universe sends us.

Maybe sometimes you have to maintain balance through extremes.