Saturday, November 13, 2010

Chapter 1: Day Zero

The Thru-Hiker's Handbook defines Day Zero as the day when a seemingly normal human being makes the insane decision to give up their life for several months to go hiking in the woods. Day Zero happened for me some eight or nine months before I actually began my hike. How did I arrive at such a momentous decision? I'll tell you, but first it might help if you understood some things about me.

If you have read any literature about the Appalachian Trail, you would know that the only people who ever attempt to thru-hike it are blind men, post-menopausal women, or snarky college professors from New Hampshire. I am none of those things. I am a perfectly normal, perfectly healthy, perfectly average young man. Or so I'd like to think. I have a college degree from a prestigious university, a beautiful girlfriend who only drives me crazy 60% of the time, and have held a series of nominally interesting to mildly degrading jobs. In short, I have everything anyone could ever want for or look to achieve in life.

Yet, in the fall of 2009, I found myself feeling oddly unfulfilled, as though I were doing a whole lot of nothing. Which maybe I was. I felt like I needed to do something. Naturally, I picked the hardest, least likely thing I could think of. Hiking the Appalachian Trail was it.

In retrospect, my decision wasn't as far fetched as it might seem. My family has always been outdoorsy. We used to go camping in the Adirondacks when I was a kid. My older sister is an outdoor educator, and has long-distance hiking aspirations herself. She and my dad, who actually is a blind man, were tentatively planning to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail back in 2002, but they had given up the idea after my dad hurt his knee on a practice hike. Maybe I was fulfilling a family ambition. Maybe it was destiny. Or maybe it was just a fanciful, five-month vacation meant to stave off the pain and tedium of the real world, or maybe to preserve my preferred, blissful state of perpetual adolescence. In any case, in January of 2010, I packed my bags and headed south.

My friend Elliot from high school runs an ostensibly organic chicken farm in rural Georgia, about an hour outside of Savannah. He invited me to visit and maybe work on the farm for a indefinite amount of time before I began the trail, and I took him up on the offer. Elliot and I were like brothers; we lived to make each other laugh, and always seemed to have a good time together. Plus, I figured that the manual labor of agricultural work would make for good practice, that it would be a good way to increase my stamina and physical constitution.

I arrived in Georgia on Martin Luther King Day. It was just about two months before I was to start my hike. I took to the work immediately, and found the environment and routines of the farm to be peaceful, practically zen. Unfortunately, I quickly found myself at odds with Elliot's business partner, a deeply neurotic and insecure young woman who took any sign of criticism to be not only a personal attack, but a potential invalidation of her every choice in life. One joke about the environmental sustainability of PVC piping was apparently one joke too many. I had dug myself a hole from which I would never fully emerge. Truthfully, I never meant to offend her, and eventually learned to find the charm in her constant antagonism. It had been a long time since I had gotten on with anyone so poorly. It was actually kind of fun.

My girlfriend, Megan, came to visit me in Georgia, the week before I was to begin my hike. Sadly, on her second day down we both contracted the stomach flu, and so much of our time together, which was to have been devoted to binge drinking and debauchery, was instead spent lying on the couch or perched in front of the toilet. We spent a couple days in Savannah, not in a effervescent romantic haze but in an agonizing torpor of sickness and calamity. Alas, and all too quickly, the week was over. It was time for her to leave.

It was a subdued Saturday afternoon when I dropped her off at the airport. When she smiled at me and said "Don't get murder raped by a hillbilly bear," I knew she really meant "I love you," and I kissed her. She was always better at saying goodbyes. She turned and ran to her plane. I turned and walked out alone.

The next day I would start my hike.

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