Phil Gulley: The Appalachian Trail

Millennials could learn a thing or two from my heroic hike of it—the first few hundred feet, anyway.
Not long ago, my nephew stopped by our home, flopped down at the kitchen table, and began lamenting his lot in life. He had landed a job the month before, but was already talking of moving on. “I just can’t see myself doing this another 40 years,” he said.I love my nephew, but no one group of people has disappointed me so keenly as today’s Millennials. Just when our nation faces great challenges, they seem unable to endure even the slightest hardship.

When I was my nephew’s age, I had, for all intents and purposes, nearly hiked the Appalachian Trail, all 2,190 miles of it, from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine, an endeavor that had claimed the lives of men far stronger than I.

My multi-state expedition was inspired by the book The Complete Walker, written by Colin Fletcher, an Englishman and expert backpacker, judging from the picture on the cover. Unlike today’s hikers, Colin didn’t put much stock in conditioning one’s body or wasting money on high-tech equipment. He believed the best course of action was to jump headlong into the journey, that the trail itself would prepare one quickly enough. He possessed that gung-ho, can-do spirit I so admire in the British. Encouraged by his enthusiasm, I threw some items in my backpack, bid goodbye to my family and friends, and drove 425 miles to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the closest trail junction to my home. I arrived after sunset and found a vacant hotel room where I stretched out on the bed, happily anticipating my adventure.

It was May, monsoon season in the Appalachians, and I awoke early the next morning to a torrential downpour. I pulled on my hiking clothes, laced my boots, ate a hearty breakfast per Colin’s instructions, then drove through a deluge to the trailhead at Newfound Gap, inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I remained in the car, reading about rain and its attendant glories in The Complete Walker. Colin believed the true hiker was not to let anything come between him and the environment, including, as it turns out, a raincoat or poncho, neither of which I had bothered to pack. When the odds are stacked against us, we must rise and face the challenge. It is the moment of our test, to see what we’re made of, and whether we’ll meet our problems with bravery or cowardice. I stepped out of the car, pulled on my backpack, and set off down the trail through the rain.

Backpacks are an interesting development in the long history of conveyance. Our ancestors moved large items by going to war, capturing prisoners, pressing them into slavery, and forcing them to carry cumbersome loads—pyramid stones, for instance—for great distances. Then the suitcase was invented and we could transport our own things, albeit awkwardly and with some difficulty. Later, in the early 1900s, an enterprising Boy Scout discovered that belongings could be placed in a canvas sack strapped to one’s back, with the weight evenly distributed across one’s hips and shoulders. Colin was quite specific about the amount of weight one should carry in a backpack: no more than one-third of the backpacker’s body weight, a goal I achieved by not bringing a tent, opting to sleep under the stars, another course of action enthusiastically supported by my mentor.

Wishing to conserve my energy, I stopped to set up camp after hiking a quarter-mile or so. It was still raining, but I had had the foresight to pack a garbage bag—another handy little tip from Colin—and wiggled into it to conserve my body heat and rest for the next day’s journey. Not to boast, but I’ve always been good at math, and while cocooned in my garbage bag, I deduced that at my present rate of progress it would take 24 years to hike the Appalachian Trail in its entirety, by which time I would be 45 and ready to settle down.

The night passed slowly, the rain pummeling my garbage bag like shrapnel on Flanders Fields. I forced myself to sleep, knowing the next day would require all the strength I could muster. I took courage from the example of other intrepid explorers—Columbus, Magellan, Lewis and Clark—and I prayed God might grant me the same tenacity of spirit they had possessed.

My second day on the trail dawned rainy, cold, and somewhat ominous. While lashing my sleeping bag to my backpack, I noticed black splotches on my arms. Thankfully, The Complete Walker had a chapter on emergency medicine, and after a careful reading, I diagnosed myself with a case of mildew. Undeterred, I pushed forward, determined to make progress, and was zipping along at a fast clip when I came upon a flooded creek 50 yards down the trail. I consulted my hiker’s Bible, which advised against wearing a backpack while crossing moving water, lest I be swept off my feet and held underwater by the weight of the pack. Instead, Colin suggested that I wrap my backpack in my inflatable air mattress and push it along in front of me as I swam across the creek. This seemed reasonable to me and indeed worked beautifully the first half of the crossing, until the current tore the backpack from my grip and swept it downstream. Gone in an instant, as quick as a wink—my food, water, hiker’s Bible, and garbage bag.

There are few feelings so bleak as being stranded in the wilderness without the means to survive, hundreds of yards from your car. I confess that I panicked and remember little of my return to civilization. All these years later, I recall it only in sepia flashbacks—the mud, the fevered thirst and hunger, the descending darkness. Under circumstances a less modest hiker might call heroic, I eventually reached my car, returned to Gatlinburg, and eventually home to Danville, where I was warmly welcomed into the bosom of my family who had given me up for dead.

This is all to say that I, like so many others of my generation, have been forged in the fires of adversity. Of course, I’m grateful the Millennials haven’t had to endure the same hardships. But as a consequence, they lack the resilience needed to negotiate life’s ups and downs. I tell my nephew and his friends the story of My Great Hike often, hoping they might be moved by my dogged determination. Truth be told, though, I sense in them a disdain for my story, as if it were made up. Despite their indifference, I pray they might have their own story one day, that our legacy of bravery might be continued by another generation of Americans.