The following article was just published in the Oct. 2012 issue of the Communiqué, the newspaper of the National Association of School Psychologists. Online access is limited to members, so I have listed the full article here.
I failed math but excel at backpacking.
Uncle Tom minus 33 pounds
While sitting in a presentation at the National Association of School Psychologists Annual Convention in Philadelphia last week, I learned that the foundation skills needed for student mathematics proficiency are “conceptual understanding, procedural fluency, strategic competence, adaptive reasoning, and productive disposition”. Hold on there! Those skills that are critical to long-distance backpacking, not math!
I have been an active communicant of the “Church of Two Heels” since 2007, when I completed my 2,160 mile thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, where I acquired my alter of Uncle Tom. Since “A Trail of a Lifetime: Getting a Midlife Jump-Start From the AT” was published in Volume 36, #8 of the NASP Communiqué, I have been back at it again.
In 2010 I spent 5 months completing another continuous hike, this time over the Pacific Crest Trail, where I left the Mexican border in April and walked some 2,650 miles thru California, Oregon, and Washington, eventually reaching Canada in mid-September just before the early snows. Luck, my own “productive disposition”, and“Polish Power”, got me there.
In August, I spent another month thru-hiking the 272 mile Long Trail in Vermont, where I dealt with the devastation of Hurricane Irene before I was able to again reach Canada.
Why would someone subject themselves to such madness?
I treasure the stripped-down experience of walking north, where I trade in my school psychology routines for unexpected adventures. In thru-hiking speak, I do enjoy my periodic lapses into the “hiker-trash” lifestyle. Long-distance backpacking embraces the best that America has to offer: freedom, initiative, creative planning, challenge, and total immersion in the healing powers of the natural world for vastly extended periods of time.
Walking forward happens within a framework of much simpler goals, framed by more expansive views (“ I have to get way up on that ridge today, then see where I might end up tonight”.). So much happens in a day when you wake up with the first light and move though the woods, desert, or fields and come across animals, insects, plant life, as well as others who are also moving about the countryside.
Long-distance backpacking demands a conceptual understanding of an array of survival skills. Life on the trail is easy when it’s pleasant and sunny out, but what about when things get downright dangerous? In the desert, it can range from a broiling 110 degrees to below freezing on the same day. How do you stay warm and what is more important not skid off a 13,000 foot ridge while walking over 400 hundred miles of continuous snow and ice in the High Sierra? How do you even find a trail when it is buried under 20 feet of snow, where you might be post-holing to your mustache in the melting afternoon footpath? How about avoiding hypothermia when you are walking in the Northern Cascades of Washington and it’s 40 degrees out, on the fifth day of continuous chilling rain, with a sodden taco of a sleeping bag to look forward to?
There is often no time in a thru-hike to adopt a reasonable, sloping learning curve. Procedural fluency is essential, so that daily tasks are completed promptly. Walking on unknown paths is a primal, universal experience that ties the ordinary adventurer to Odysseus, Daniel Boone, Shackleton, and other explorers who inspire us to go places. I consider myself fortunate to be on the short list of individuals who seek encounters with nature on a twenty-four hour-a-day, all-day, months-at-a-time period. Cooking meals, setting up a tent, avoiding bears, getting out of bed, and walking all day, day after day, is only possible when these actions are competed efficiently so that the 24 hours that are allotted each day are not squandered.
I learned to deal with adversity thru adaptive reasoning to move ahead, even if it sometimes meant walking in circles or even backwards. I strive to reduce the time I spend in tension, indecision, and even pain, all of which sap energy and diminish one’s capacity to fully embrace the astounding panoramic beauty that one meets with on these National Scenic Trails.
Here’s an example of an adaptive skill, termed the “Daily Inventory of Pain”, which has yet to appear on the VIneland-II, that I learned from “The Burglar”, my Canadian hiking pal. Backpackers generally wake up either at first light or even just before sunrise, climb out of their sleeping bags, unzip the mosquito netting on their tents, and eventually right themselves to standing. Every long distance hiker engages in some degree, conscious or not, of becoming aware of body pain centers. For me it was generally a some combination of sore lower left back, forefoot numbness, fissured heels, tenderness or actual sprain of one or both ankles, tender shins, inflammation of one or both shoulders, a dull head, thirst, digestive distress, chapped lips, minor lacerations, sore or cracked fingers, and downright fatigue. The Daily Inventory of Pain would be a conscious accounting of the cumulative effects of all these sensations, which may be unconsciously endorsed on a Likert Scale, and assigned a General Suffering Quotient which might be framed in the following manner: “I feel like crap. I am not going to be able to hike 30 miles over what’s coming, I‘ll cut it to 20, and pray for that.” I might add that it would be an additional advantage to foster some measure of a “productive disposition” at this later stage of a thru-hike.
Cognitive flexibility and shifting mindset allow the thru-hiker to reap benefits from the unexpected “open doors” that present themselves at intervals during a hike. It’s has been said that the weight of an individual hiker’s pack reflects their personal fears. I used to be a hiker who was locked into over preparation due to expecting a cascade of worst case scenarios, but have relaxed a great deal in my fretting about what could go wrong. See that bunch of local campers off the trail over there who might be having a good time? I used to put my head down and avoid them. I now walk over to them, smile, and ask, “Hey, what’s up, what’s going on?” When people learn that you have just spent several months walking thousands of miles from Mexico, most instantly warm up, and often become a welcoming committee. Good things can happen. I have reaped many a hamburger, hot dog, cold drink, and more from these encounters.
There are two major approaches to dealing with a long distance backpacking trip. The “be prepared” school of thought is exemplified by hikers like Terrapin Flyer and Granite, whom I consider paragons of executive functioning. They possessed the energy and forethought to cook, dehydrate, and pack 30 boxes of nutritious food for 175 days of walking, that were shipped to themselves along the Pacific Crest Trail. While I wouldn’t go so far to consider it strategic incompetence, a differing approach is one taken by Richard Wizard, who shuns mailing himself food and supplies, and instead prefers the challenge of making do with what he can sift thru along the way. His choice is one that requires cognitive flexibility, making do with what he can find in gas stations and out of the way, understocked convenience stores. One of Wizard’s most creative food adaptations was first observed along the western edge of the Mojave Desert, where he transferred canned chili to a used paper coffee cup that placed on the outside mesh pocket of his backpack where the sun’s intensity cooked his meals to perfection. No water to wash out the cup? No big deal, that sun will fry those germs!
Hiking is a hardware and software reset that restores my health and vitality. Most of America is on some sort of weight loss program, with over 50% of Americans now considered obese or overweight..Losing weight is easy if you backpack enough. A thru-hiker program is unique in that weight continues to drop despite consumption of vast volumes of food, up to some 6,000 calories a day. I have lost as little as 17 and as many as 33 pounds on my long hikes. I can remember times when I have felt like a superhuman, throwing down marathon length distances on a daily basis for weeks at a time. It just doesn’t seem like it could happen, but it does.
When we were in northern California and General Lee told Axilla, Wizard and I that we would not complete our hike unless we increased our daily average to 25 miles a day. I was crushed. I never conceived that I would eventually backpack thirty plus and more miles a day, on repeated days. It happened. Lee and I even teamed up around Mt. Hood to walk 41miles in one 24 hour period.
Lessons learned on the trail extend to life off the beaten path. Sayings that may ring hollow chime brilliant when you are walking all day long. “Momentum helps”, “Just get moving”, “Stop and smell the roses”, “Share”, “Hike your own hike”, “Early to bed and early to rise”- the list is endless. All of these aphorisms have deeper truths that reveal themselves with increased visibility under travel conditions. Every one of them also applies when off the trail.
People make the trail. I started the Appalachian Trail alone, on my birthday, on March 27. That night, at a campsite, I met several other hikers who eventually became my best friends. We reached the terminus of the AT on the Mt. Katahdin summit together on September 16, 2007. Three years later, General Lee, Richard Wizard, and I walked together to complete the 2,760 mile PCT. General Lee and I thru-hiked Vermont’s Long Trail this past August. My deepest memories are replays of scenes where there are other people present. My favorite AT photo is a blurry one taken into the setting sun in Virginia, with two men and a dog hiking in formation up a lushly planted hill. MeGaTex is what we call ourselves, and we are planning another big one for 2013. My conceptual understanding, procedural fluency, strategic competence, adaptive reasoning, and productive disposition will accompany me, along with my iPod and a bottle of Advil.
I continue to blog about the outdoors on http://tjamrog.wordpress.com/ .
Uncle Tom’s complete daily PCT Trail Journal can be accessed on the web at http://www.trailjournals.com/tjamrog/ .
-Tom has been the Maine Delegate to NASP, and is past President of the Maine Association of School Psychology.