“What exactly is it,” I asked myself, “about finishing and carrying on to the end that is so important?” This question would preoccupy my thought life for miles before I’d conclude, with any satisfaction, its answer. And it was from an unlikely source that I drew upon to reach a conclusion about finishing something to completion, as well as the nature of winning and losing.
Coming upon the tee-junction where the Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT) terminates stands a weather-worn wood sign with the words APPALACHIAN TRAIL inscribed. As I came off the BMT, there was a commemorative plaque in honor of Benton MacKaye, the visionary who inspired the Appalachian Trail (AT) extending from Georgia to Maine. Then, just a few minutes walk south, I came upon the monument atop Springer Mountain, which marked the official southern terminus of the AT.
It had been raining in sheets, so I snapped a few quick photos and tagged the monument. Nearby was a sign for the Approach Trail, which I would hike up following a couple zero days. Embedded in the bedrock near the monument was a bronze plate with the inscription that read: APPALACHIAN TRAIL—GEORGIA to MAINE. Next to the embed was the first painted white blaze signifying the start of the AT. For some 2,200 miles, northbound (NOBO) thru-hikers would follow an estimated 165,000 white rectangular blazes through mountains, valleys, fields, and forests until reaching the northern terminus at the summit of Mt. Katahdin at Baxter State Park in Maine.
After tagging the monument at Springer, I zipped down nine-tenths of a mile north on the trail to the parking lot where I had arranged to meet with Dave (aka “Pitstop”), my good friend and trail angel from Colorado. The plan was to take a couple days off before commencing the AT—Part II of my ECT Trilogy (Part I: the South, Part II: the Appalachian Trail, and Part III: Canada).
Dave had reserved a camp spot at Amicalola Falls Campground. He had driven out early from Colorado in his pickup truck hauling a 17-foot camping trailer. This worked out marvelously as I was able to arrive within the hiking window the two of us had planned several weeks beforehand. Pitstop drove me to the campground, located just up the hill from the base of the falls. There was a shower and laundry facility, and the state park provided a wonderful location for a reset. Pitstop is an outstanding chef and cooked a hiker-portioned helping of penne arrabbiata. Feeling famished from doing big miles, my stomach growled for a plate of Italian cuisine. In the morning, he prepared a chili-pepper-seasoned omelette that had a pungent kick, which snapped me out of my slumber. Then, on the final night before getting back on trail, I was treated to two thick and juicy cuts of sirloin that had been sizzling on the trailer’s side-mounted grill. Satiating caveman-like hunger often involves depleting the shelves of a grocery mart. However, after ravenously eating some ten-thousand calories out of a camper kitchen, I felt full. One’s metabolism is irrespective of his physique. When the deep eat-a-horse hunger kicks in, you’d better look out! Everything remotely palatable will surely be consumed.
Now Dave, whom I have affectionately bestowed the trail name “Pitstop,” is a friend who has gone to such charitable lengths to assist me on my long-distance hike. Dave’s camping trailer is sort of my “mobile hotel room,” meeting me at various points on the trail all the way through to the end in Newfoundland. This 17-foot “trail magic machine” keeps me out of budget-busting hotels and provides a low-key space to rejuvenate and conduct my “packsplosion.” The trail name Pitstop was ascribed to Dave because he intercepts me on trail with his trailer. In so doing, he brings necessary resources to sustain my “race” in much the same way a pit crew would attend to the needs of a race car and its driver. He’s the crew chief and strategist, keeping intricate spreadsheet logs on my daily miles and making predictions about future arrivals. Also, the nickname is appropriate because Dave is a longtime race fanatic who has been involved in racing since being a sweeper boy at Englewood Speedway. Eventually, he raced street stocks, super stocks, econos, and enduros. He even drove so-called “trains,” which are three cars tied together with two drivers that run on a figure-eight circuit. The front car has an engine and steering but no brakes; the rear car has brakes and steering but no engine. Dave also became a graphics technician, designing and applying stock car lettering for a NASCAR team (Furniture Row Racing) headquartered in Denver.
Auto racing has long been associated with victory, hence “victory lap” and “victory lane.” Long-distance hiking shares an important feature of motorsport racing—a commitment to finish and end well. Indeed, winning is at the core of car racing, as depicted in the 1969 race film Winning, an action-drama about a driver named Frank Capua. Capua rises to the top of his motoring career such that he can compete in the Indianapolis 500, often referred to as the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. The role of Frank in the film was played by Paul Newman who himself had a later-in-life career in circuit racing. Driving cars, such as a Datsun 510 and 280ZX, Newman went on to win numerous SCCA titles. In 1979, Newman competed in what is perhaps the hardest endurance race in the world—the 24-hour Le Mans (24 Heures du Mans). The annual race held near Le Mans, France is a true test of persistence and is the oldest racing event of its kind. The actor-turned-driver, who started racing as a side job to Hollywood acting, would astonishingly bring his Porsche 935 (dubbed the “Moby Dick”) to the finish line, placing second and winning his class. Newman, to the amazement of the auto racing community, drove race cars until he was 82 years old.
In the camper, Dave had been watching a NASCAR Cup Series, eyeing his favorite stock car driver, Martin Truex. Whenever attending and spectating a race in person, Dave always takes along a scanner and headset to dial in NASCAR bandwidth frequencies so as to listen in on his much-loved driver and race team. While watching a race event by television, he uses the NASCAR app on his smartphone to play the audio from the driver and team to maximize his understanding and experience of the ongoing race. Overhearing the chatter from the in-car radio, I couldn’t help thinking broadly about motivation and the will to win. It’s something that really comes out in racing. The same triumphal spirit required to succeed in an auto contest is necessary for me to finish the 5,700-mile hike from Key West to Newfoundland.
At first light on the morning of February 28th, Pitstop and I set out on the eight-mile Approach Trail from the campground up to the monument. The two of us had already walked the trail to the falls and back down its 425-step stairway the previous day. The Approach Trail was more hilly and rocky than we had expected, but the weather cooperated and we had a pleasant walk. Dave saw me off at the parking lot, whereupon he arranged a shuttle driver to pick him up and take him back to the campground. Before continuing on, I had a brief conversation with the shuttle driver. It was a short but intriguing chat. The man told me that a surprising number of hikers, often scared and teary-eyed, throw in the towel right there in the parking lot, requesting a ride to get off trail to go home. “You mean to tell me,” I questioned with a doubting and dubious tone, “after walking just under a mile that there are hikers who quit the Appalachian Trail?” The shuttle driver replied without hesitation, “Oh yes, and it happens all the time.” I was dumbfounded! How could anybody work so hard, save so long, and spend hard-earned money on fancy new hiking gear to arrive at the starting line at Springer Mountain and then, only moments later, give in to the physical strain and emotional pressure? This, to me, seemed inconceivable.
A realization set in that a hiker has a choice to make. It’s one about winning versus losing, about persisting or quitting. Does one move on despite the discomfort or does one relinquish all commitment to hiking the trail? Upon getting over Sassafras Gap (4,283 ft.) and Blood Mountain (4,442 ft.), there is a bizarre scene to observe. On the other side of Blood Mountain at the bottom lies Neels Gap. Here, at Mountain Crossings, stands the strange site of a tree strewn with hundreds of hiker boots, hanging oddly from its branches, tossed there throughout the years. Interestingly enough, there is a long tradition for those who have completed a southbound thru-hike of the AT to throw or dangle their boots up in the tree. Although some hikers insist that the boot-decorated tree is the result of northbound hikers who prematurely quit at Neels Gap after the excruciating climb over Blood Mountain, that is not the case. In point of fact, the tree symbolizes the 2,200-mile accomplishment of those who journeyed from Maine to Georgia on a southbound hike of the trail. You see, the tree festooned with hiking footwear was not originally understood to be a “tree of shame” for those who gave up early; instead, it was and remains a “tree of victory” for those who endured and succeeded to the very end. The tree represents an extraordinary feat for the finishers, the completers—the victors. Shoes suspended by their laces and dangling like Christmas ornaments represent that of winning and victory—a triumph of the body, mind, and heart. Finishing matters, and this is a point that will always be discounted and underplayed by those who withdraw. Marathon runner Fred Lebow once remarked, “It doesn’t matter whether you come in first, in the middle of the pack, or last. You can say, I have finished.”
Unlike the parking lot quitters who couldn’t even celebrate their first northbound mile before shuttling off the trail, there is a unique breed of men and women who are dedicated to keep moving forward. The juxtaposition of “parking lot could-have-beens” with accomplished thru-hikers who made their epic finish is seen in stark contrast. The Appalachian shoe tree is speaking about the hikers of old. Mile upon mile, AT’ers push through cold, wind, and rain to conquer whole mountains. Just as racing is a test of endurance with the goal of triumphal victory, so it is with the personal winning of a thru-hiker. Stock car and Formula 1 racing events are far removed from the world of thru-hiking, yet there is peculiar common ground. With shoes as my rubber tires and friends as my crew, I will sally forth on this great trail into the fringes of Canada. Although there are no 12-second pitstops, stage points, or championship cup trophies, there is a lesson about indefatigable determination and firm commitment. Every micro-victory is incrementally celebrated and, at the very end, something important has been won—something that no one can ever take away. The voices are whispering, if only to the still and receptive ear, hike well and carry on to the last mile to trail’s end. It is a matter of the will.
The winner ain’t the one with the fastest car. It’s the one who refuses to lose. —Dale Earnhardt, Jr.