Lessons in Metaphoric Blankets Learned Hiking the AT

While hiking the Appalachian Trail I was told a story from a friend and fellow hiker, Arlo.  We referred to the story as the “Blanket Story”. It was about Arlo’s friend who had thru-hiked the year before us.  As I do not recall his friend’s name, lets call him Tom.  As Tom hiked north from Springer Mtn. in Georgia towards Mt. Katahdin in Maine he grew.  Not only physically but emotionally and mentally as well.  By the time Tom finished he felt free and looked at the world differently.

As the months went past after finishing his thru-hike Tom slowly slipped back into society and started to lived as he had before.  Old habits, routines and traits took hold.  Then one day he realized what had happened.  As Tom hiked northward to Katahdin he stripped away layer after layer.

These of course were metaphoric layers.  These layers were a combination of beliefs, thoughts, misconceptions and pressures of everyday society.  Things like feeling like you always have to have more, the need to conform to what others think or say, feeling like you can’t do something because others say you can’t, the need to share everything online, among others.  He no longer felt free.  The shackles of society had been put back on, right under his nose.

When Alro told Tom he was going to hike the AT, Tom told him this story.  He said the hardest part of Arlo’s hike would be not letting himself or others pull those layers, or blankets as Tom starting to call them, back over himself when he was done.  If he could do this, Tom felt he would be better for it.

Twice now I have watched myself pull those blankets back over myself.  The result of doing it the first time was it taking me six years to hike the Pacific Crest Trail after my Appalachian Trail hike.  It’s been seven years since the PCT and I haven’t hiked the Continental Divide Trail yet [Update: completed in 201].

Craig Fowler Appalachian trail thru-hike finish - Mt. Katahdin Maine

I’ve signed rental agreements, bought a new car, racked up debt, and become another sheep—a number in the system, a cog in the machine—all things I learned I didn’t want after the AT. More recently I have identified another blanket, that being the belief  that some of my goals are too big or unattainable.  Self doubt.  I know that if I believe that they will remain unattainable.

It’s very hard to not be distracted by all that life has to throw at us.  After I finished the AT there wasn’t social media.  In today’s world we are constantly bombarded both online and off.  It is so much harder now to keep those distractions from becoming another blanket.

There’s also the integration of technology in sports now, not just in our everyday life.  One of my biggest dilemmas at the moment is figuring out what technology I want to bring on the CDT.  The list is long believe it or not.  Phone, iPod, camera, GPS, Spot tracker, battery pack or solar panel?  I only carried a camera on the AT.  Is the rest necessary?  Who am I carrying all that for, myself or others?  Is the Spot Tracker for safety reasons or to show others how bad ass I am?  Do I need to have my journal posted and up to date as soon as possible?

Social media is supposed to be for networking with others but it’s hard not to think it’s being used to one up everyone else.  I know I’m guilty of it.  It’s a blanket that didn’t exist with my other hikes.  Do I want my CDT hike to be for me or others?  I keep a journal on my adventures because I want to share my experience with friends and family.  I just think there’s a point where we all get into a grey area.

In my opinion social media has done so well because it targets the basic human need for acceptance.  We post things hoping to get likes, or in reality, acceptance from others.  As you can see, blankets come in many forms, some are physical, others are ideas or systems. Sorry I digress.

As you pull each one of these blankets over yourself the pressure drags you down.  At first you don’t notice it but one day you will and most likely you won’t like what it feels like.  Personally I find this the hardest part.  Those pressures can really dampen my mood and outlook if I don’t keep myself in check.  The truth is the the hardest part is recognizing the blankets.  If you can do this, you can avoid pulling them over yourself, but I speak from experience, it’s not as easy as you would think.