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Thoughts on Adventures of a Trail Stooge

I wanted to share with everyone…
Just share a little bit about the way I wrote and thought about the compilation of Adventures of a Trail Stooge. The Mt Laurel Sun covered some of this in their excellent article that came out last week. You can find that here. But I wanted to lay it out in a little more detail in the hopes that it would better explain some of the thoughts and ideas that have come to be very important in my life. I wanted to pull back the curtain on the writing process and grant some insight into what the book attempts to do on a literary and philosophical level.

Of course, as with all things, these ideas need not be your own. They are mine, so I’ll split open my mind to you for a time in the hopes I can convey something worthwhile. But do not take them all—for you are your own-minded individual! Only take what you deem worthy of thought. Synthesize those ideas within your own mindframes as you see fit.

What is this story about?
The Appalachian Trail is the vessel that holds the stories of every thru-hiker. And each year, more hikers pour their stories into it, hopefully for the better. Adventures of a Trail Stooge is not about the vessel, it’s about the drop of experience that I call my own.

I have said this many times, and I will say it again: my journey was not about the Appalachian Trail. My journey was about a young man who needed to find himself, and in turn, find the courage to be himself. It is about meeting great people and learning how to live and love. The AT is an amazing place, but it is not the primary focus of this story. If I did not choose the AT, I would have chosen somewhere else. And if I did not do it in 2013, I would have done it sometime else.

This is not a travelogue or a guide on how to hike the AT. It does not involve advice on what towns to visit, or what gear to pack, or what shelters or sites to see. I felt those things unnecessary. The AT is a place that becomes your own when you walk it. What it is bleeds into you, and what you are bleeds into it. My thru-hike was unique, as all are. The relationships I formed and the thoughts I had, and which no individual can replicate, are the spirit of this story. I implore readers to look beyond the setting and to seek meaning in that spirit. This is a story about simplifying, struggling, making friends, and ultimately about finding comfort in one’s own life and mind.

What’s up with the bizarre format?
I chose a strange way to convey this story for a reason, although it may have been a reason that lived at the back of my mind until only recently. Many other trail memoirs are more traditional in their structure. Those hiker-authors will source their narrative from their journal entries, massaging them into a polished product, dramatizing some aspects, downplaying others, and leaving out inanities. That is one way to do it, and I don’t think it’s a bad way at all. I’ve read some good trail memoirs that do just that. But for me, that is not what I wanted to convey. I did not want to put makeup on my journal entries.

My trail experience was personal and present. Each moment, regardless of the circumstances surrounding it, was a moment that I was a part of. The natural tone, the raw journal entry, is what I wanted to convey. My greatest and most accurate relic of my trail experience is my journal. To mask the entries with flowery prose and a semi-fictitious facade would be a misrepresentation of what I went through. Admittedly, many of my journal entries are pretty poorly written. I write conversationally, using jargon and vocabulary that can be described as immature. I use forms of punctuation that are non-traditional. It is not lyrical prose. It is not perfect, nor was it ever intended to be.

With that said, I needed a perspective that tied together the journal entries into a coherent narrative. That is why I chose to include post-trail notes after each entry. This is the perspective that allows me to fill in the gaps, invigorate events that my tired mind could not record with an artist’s pen, and provide commentary on the thoughts that were going on within me.

I again implore each reader to seek something deeper within this format. Reading deeply and consciously is a challenge, I know. But when we push ourselves to the brink, when we meditate and think, we can see something that lies beneath the words and the format, beneath the setting, beneath the physical world. The journal entries are there to convey something raw and unmasked. I wrote them on my back in a sleeping bag with a headlamp on. I wrote them after a day of hiking in which my mind either raced with thoughts of the universe, or lay idle in a fog of fatigue. It is difficult to picture the AT, I know. Perhaps I could have done a better job filling in those blanks with descriptors and imagery. But I wanted the reader to struggle a bit with this. I wanted them to focus not too much on the place, but on the feeling and the spirit that underlies that place—I wanted you to put yourself not in my shoes, but in my mind. To alter my journal entries would be unfair to the experience. Those entries are the most perfect representation of my imperfect experience. They hold my struggles, boredoms, and inanities—but they are part of the totality of my trip—they are mine.

Oh man, this is going to get weird…
During my thru-hike, I came to embrace the idea of paradox not as a problem to be overcome, but as truth in its highest form. I found, at times, that I was capable of understanding myself innately as both an individual and a unity. This feeling was the subject of my blog post Alone. Over time, I learned to embrace paradox wherever I found it. I stepped back from reason, and I started to trust my spirit, or my intuition, or God, or Oneness, or whatever word you may use there.

The understanding of paradox was one of the reasons I think I subconsciously chose to include the raw journal entries in my book. Through the entries, I tried to show that what is mundane is also paradoxically transcendent. What is inane is also paradoxically sublime. As I say in the forward, I never had any blinding revelation, never had any transcendent glimpse of fiery wisdom. But what I did have was small moments in which the trail became something else, something higher and holy. And then it became the trail again, but without losing its sublimity, without becoming something less. The format is also a kind of paradox in itself—two perspectives (one on the trail, one after the trail) that are actually a single perspective.

Likewise, I began to see paradoxically on a grander scale. I came to understand myself as a small part of a universal expression: an individual consciousness alienated from all other consciouses, yet endowed with the miracle of existence, thought, and empathy. I saw myself as a manifestation of a greater consciousness. I came to see myself as a material Something—flesh and blood held together by mind—arising from nothing—a beautiful and pervasive void—an unknowable Nothingness. I began to feel as though I operated both within time and outside of it: a temporal and eternal being. Yet I did not feel contradictory. In fact, I felt most complete in those times.

There is also the nebulous idea of perspective and re-perspective—that one and all are both an experiencer and an experience. Where is the line between others and myself? Where is the line between a perspective on a cosmic scale and our perspective as human beings? Where is the line between my trail perspective and my post-trail perspective? What we perceive perceives us back, not only in the form of other individuals, but in the form of the totality of existence.

And then there is my name: The Esteemed Stooge Sir Charles Guilons, a playful paradox. How can I be a noble stooge? A fool with wisdom? Esteemed in my stooginess? How can an immature kid figure anything out? I don’t know. But maybe, just maybe I found a loophole in the way the world works.

All of these things are paradoxes—two contradictory concepts that are somehow held to be of one truth. A schism is opened in the mind, yet it is spanned by imagination and love. What if? Again, I implore the reader to look beyond the material world, beyond the words on the page and the inanity of the physical events. Instead, wrap yourself in a cosmic cloak and try to see the world from a different perspective: one that embraces unity despite the perception of plurality.

There’s no point in Nothingness, you stooge…
I have a friend who asked me about how I can believe in the thing I call Nothingness. He said it’s depressing—believing in nothing. But it is not just the Nothingness that I embrace. It is the Something as well. It is a mind-splitting act, schizophrenic in a sense, to see the world paradoxically as both a something and a nothing.  To do so requires both a divesting of all we know and an investing with something we don’t know.

Without both sides of the paradox—if all I believed in is the Nothingness, I would be a void myself, a pointless Nihilist who sees no connection between my material body and the material of the rest of existence. I could destroy without ramification, live without expression, imagination, or love. I could.

But, as the Buddha said (I just read a book that had this quote in it; it’s a great quote): “It is worse if you get caught in the non-self of a flower than if you believe in the self of a flower.” If we worship only the Nothingness, we forfeit the opportunity to be a part of the great gift that is the only experiential aspect of the Nothingness. I am not a Nihilist. I am far from one. Every moment, whether it be blessed by bliss or searing pain, is sacred. I am not perfect at always remembering that. I often fail. But I try.

A connection to life…
Perhaps I’m thinking too deeply. Maybe this story is just about some immature kid walking through the woods, writing bad entries, drinking and eating in town, being boring. At one point in my life, I would have agreed. Thinking this way reminds me of how I felt when I read a bunch of children’s stories about a year ago: Pinocchio, Peter Pan, Peter Rabbit. And at first, I thought, “Why can’t these stories just be about a wooden boy, or a strange flying boy fighting pirates, or a bad little rabbit?” I thought the stories were simple—I thought they were self-contained. But then I started to invest myself in them. In time, I saw something more: a connection to life itself.

Awareness of life demands deeper understanding. We may fail in the attempt at that understanding oftentimes, but at least we can try. So I want to thank you for trying. I want to thank you for reading this story.

These ideas may seem lofty, but that is the beauty of our ability to imagine. As you read this book, invest yourself and claim my journey as your own—as a reader, you will write this story just as much, if not more than I. Do not think that this story is self-contained. No story is. So take what you want from my words above. Synthesize what information you will. Once you take the time to read of my journey, it becomes your own. I just hope that in making it your own, you make it something good.

Adventures of a Trail Stooge Excerpt

Here’s a short excerpt from the upcoming Adventures of a Trail Stooge. Look for it July 28th!

My allergies are killing me. They won’t go away. Sleeping is a pain. During the day when I’m hiking it’s not too bad. But night time is not the right time.

Me, Munchies + Tangy all hiked together today. It was only 11 miles, but it felt like 20. My feet were pretty banged up, the blisters popped on the hike. But nothing too terrible. We took a lot of breaks today, too many, which made the day really too long.

I like those dudes, but not sure if I can stick with them, I won’t make Katahdin. Dude named Scott was with us today too, but he came into camp maybe an hour after.

I’m in my tent now and these birds are singing to each other. One sounds like he’s in a  tree right next to me, it’s cool. We’re at Low Gap Shelter tonight. Scott just posted up like 5 feet from my tent. Little weird, but he is.

I’ve been sleeping terribly. Getting into bed at a decent hour, but not really getting to sleep until like 2am. Then I sleep til 7 or whatever. It’s partially allergies and partially tent sleeping. Oh well, hopefully it gets better.

I talked to Mom + D last night. Mom did good. Started to cry just a little bit as we said goodbye. But she was excited for me. I liked that. And D sounded good too. I do miss everyone though. It’s a little weird being so dislocated. But this is what I wanted.

I may go into town in the next few days. So I may be able to update the blog then. I have a few good topics to write on as well as my trip’s summary so far. I’m going to sleep now. Ah, forgot one thing. I have the start of a trail name. It started as Barkley (Charles Barkley) because Tangy thought I said “terrible” a lot. Then it changed to Sir Charles Gouloins (your balls) because Tangy liked when I called balls gools. But now I want Stooge involved in it somewhere. So I’m trying for Sir Stooge Goulons. But Tangy still wants Charles involved in it somewhere. So we’ll see where it ends up tomorrow! Alright time for bed! Night.

May 10 Notes: All four of us had a rough couple days, Munchies especially. He wore big, heavy boots and he blistered up a lot. His knees were also giving him trouble. He was wetting handkerchiefs in streams and wrapping them around his legs in an attempt to alleviate the swelling and pain. Tangy, always the joker, reminded Munchies that a soggy handkerchief around a knee does little for the knee’s pain.

Scott took the name Nine Nails due to injuries sustained on the trail. One of his toe nails came off from trauma. Two days later, he would go by the name Eight Nails for obvious reasons.

I tended to my blistered feet, happy to be free from any serious injury, yet worried about the possibility of one. The threat of injury and pain was ever present on the trail: sometimes it was dark and overbearing, other times it was light and distant. But I was also worried about intangible injury: the weakness of my will to thru-hike. When I told people I was hiking the AT, they would almost always ask, The whole thing? I’d tell them that I was trying to thru-hike. With that statement, I insulated myself from the threat of bodily and moral injury. I was a ghost hiker, walking painful miles without resolve, afraid of looking like a fool if I went home early: so I just said I was trying. And at Low Gap Shelter, trying seemed pretty brutal. As Munchies struggled with his knees and Nine Nails lost toenails, I repressed the urge to stop walking. But deep in my mind I knew I could quit the trail and be done with it: a finality both freeing and devastating.

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