By Scotty Bowman
The first time I lugged a gear and tool laden pack onto my back, I felt like I would collapse from the weight of it. Little did I realize that that was not the only weight I was carrying with me that day. The weight of that pack compared in no way to the burden that I carried within myself (doubt, resentment, anger, and self-sabotaging behaviors) and the weight I carried on my body as a result. It took half a lifetime to realize that I am not powerless and that true change can only come from within.
And so my journey began. The Physical: bone and muscle working as the engine to propel me along the trail, burning up what little bit of reserve energy I had; the pain of every step reverberating through my body. And the Psychological: Doubt slowly creeping in and asking, “What are you doing? What makes you think you can do this?” Then the twins, Anger and Resentment, would arrive and grab hold of me. I would sit there, slumped on the ground, pack off, filled with pain and emotion. I felt broken. That is how every hike in and out for a hitch would be. It was an intense struggle. Every step filled with anxiety. Counting the minutes, the hours, and the miles as each one slowly and painfully ticked by waiting for the next breakdown. Those days are now behind me, but it took a lot of work to get to this moment. Yet there is still more to do.
In one of the areas that I patrol, Big Laurel Branch Wilderness, which was designated in 1986 and consists of 6,365acres plus a proposed addition of 4,446 acres, I walk past the many spots where I have buckled after hitting an emotional and physical wall. These days I stride past those reminders of the old me slumped and broken on the side of the trail. I give myself an empathetic nod as I hike by. It is those memories that help drive me to keep focused and working towards change. I now travel at a much faster pace than ever before. I know how to fuel properly and stay hydrated. I have lost most of the weight that I carried back then. I no longer feel the need to prove that I can carry heavy loads. I learned my limitations and have accepted them. I have learned what some of my triggers are and how to manage them. I can now let my mind wander in ways that I had been unable to in the past. There are times when all thoughts leave and I find a quiet mind. It is in these moments that I am fully able to inhale all that is around me. The soft, muffled crackling sound of leaves in a gentle breeze, the tenderness of the sun warming my face with the “sweet-sweet chew-chew sweet-sweet”, call of a male Indigo Bunting warning others of his territory.
I can sincerely say that I am not the same person I was those few short years ago. As the Buddha is quoted as saying “What you think, you become, what you feel, you attract, what you imagine, you create.” So I will continue placing one foot in front of the other. Occasionally looking back over my shoulder bearing witness to whom I once was. My journey continues. “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” (Søren Kierkegaard)
I have been an eyewitness to various people from different walks of life attempting a journey of their own; a journey of 4,625,280 steps across 14 states, 25 Wilderness Areas that cover a distance of 2,190 miles. Each one of them has chosen to hike the Appalachian Trail for very different reasons at different times in their lives. They too will bear witness to the ebb and flow of citizens, creatures, and climes. With every step, they take they will learn more about themselves than they ever thought they could. The amount of suffering one can endure and the moments of pure joy, the intense loneliness, and desire to connect with others. As I have, they too will dig deep into their psyche and find the strength to change, to grow, and to continue to place one foot in front of the other. “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” (Lao Tzu)
I now stand at the beginning of a journey on a new trail, taking that very first step of many. I look forward with wonder at the possibilities of what is waiting for me around the next bend, on the next rise or at the other end. Gazing ahead I know that I will find a connection to people, to place, and to the past. Moving along I will share the past of a place with the people that I encounter along the way. I will weave the story of this place and the thousands of steps that have come before and thousands more yet to come. The hope is that they will have a new understanding of their connection to this place, to this Wilderness.