I sprinkled him with a few questions and the dam overflowed. How many pairs of shoes? (2) How many miles a day do you do? (20-30) When do you think you’ll get to the Canadian border? (November)
On my bike trips across America, folks were redundant with their predictable questions. How many flats you have? (6.) How many miles do you do in a day? (80.) Where do you sleep? (Almost anywhere.) Ever been robbed? (Nope.) Sometimes I got tired of repeating myself and once thought of having a pre-printed paper to hand them with all of the answers. Then I realized that it wasn't about my answers that was needed. It was the human connection.
As Will talked, his energized smile mouthed his stories.
I saw a lot of hikers right out of the gate, doing 30 miles a day, destroying their feet
Will Schmitt, with a degree in marketing, from Iowa, was focused and smart. "I benefitted from never really pushing my body hard. In the beginning, I saw a lot of hikers right out of the gate, doing 30 miles a day, destroying their feet, then having to get off of the trial. For me, I just eased into it, so I didn’t feel that pain of physical exertion. I feel a real sense of joy and freedom when I'm in an aerobic, blissful state that arrives when I'm moving for long distances. I haven’t even had to take any Ibuprofen."
one tiny mistake could have very different consequences.
Many people who had endured my stories of adventures through through the years, often glazed over hearing them. Many just couldn’t relate. I let Will go on uninterrupted. I got it, I understood. I wanted to hear every word. I imagined what hiking in the rain felt like, what encountering a bear might be like, or slowing to see a rattler slither across the path. My brain tried to connect some of my experiences with his. On a bicycle I felt somewhat connected to the rest of the planet by the highway and the many travelers rolling over it. But on a dusty mountain trail that wanders through the mountains and deserts from Mexico to Canada, one tiny mistake could have very different consequences. That kind of isolation takes on a meaning of its own.
I put my reading material down, no longer interested in any of it. I liked the guy. I liked his passion, the details in his stories and the metaphor of the smudged mirror he held up for me. After our enjoyable talk, I offered him a ride back up to the mountaintop trail. His 30 pound pack barely fit in the trunk of my fancy red sports car. He was impressed by the Audi TT and asked if he could snap a photo of it. There was a part of me that wanted to trade him my car keys for his backpack. I drove slowly, wanting to hear more of his stories of the trail.
I expected a story or two about infected blisters
I asked Will, "What was the worst thing that has happened to you on the trail? I expected a story or two about infected blisters or multiple bee stings. I imagined him looking out of his sleeping bag one morning only to see a hungry mountain lion staring into his face.
My question seemed odd to him and made him dig deep. After a long pause he offered, "I was sick with a cold for a week. Does that qualify?"
"Being alone, sick and having to constantly be on the move was a challenge - but at least it kept me from being congested."
Will's eyes narrowed as my question hung in the air. He stammered a bit, pondering and searching the journal entries in his mind.
Then he got quiet, finally coming up with an answer. "The sadness of knowing that you are not going to see friends that you met on the trail again - there is sadness involved in that."
I gave my last Snickers Bar to a couple of guys.
His mind quickly connected his thoughts. "All you have to do is share a moment with people and it seems that you are friends for life. One time on the trail, I gave my last Snickers Bar to a couple of guys. They had to split it in half to share it. The simplicity, the pure essence of life, is boiled down and distilled into a basic recipe of concern for your neighbor."
And connecting to another human being.
The hardest part of the mental game for me is yet to come.
He continued, ”The hardest part of the mental game for me is yet to come. That part is going to be when I return back home - to a life of walls and keys."