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.
I think, often in our struggle to become successful individuals, we become part of a herd. In our desire to become rich and famous, we simply fall into a state of complacency in which we discover monotony and monetary success, but no vibrancy or enthusiasm. We have found ourselves in a place where success is commonplace — we have all become ‘the best.’
And I think it starts when we are young. We struggle and strive to be the smartest in our class, and when we get straight A’s, we are proud of our accomplishment — but we fail to see all the other children who attained straight A’s as well. And then we go to college where we build up our resumes. In an effort to stand out on paper, we join a club that does good things, or maybe we even start one ourselves. And still, we fail to see all the others who have done the same. And when we go to our first interview, we stand up tall, sit up straight, answer questions confidently and professionally and leave with a firm hand shake. And still we remain ignorant of all the other qualified applicants who have done exactly the same. We have all become ‘successful’ and in so doing, we have all become the same.
I think we often fail to see the diverse individual gifts of each and every person that do not translate well to a resume. We shun the oddities and quirkiness of individuals as worthless and weird. We shun them instead of pulling them into the light and showing them for what they are — a break from the herd, a chasm of endless potential in the monotonous landscape of modern success.
Many of us learn to be successful — go to school, get good grades, create a good resume, and get a good job. But not enough of us learn to be different, to be odd, to be quirky, and to be our own selves. Those that do, need to have the courage to follow their whimsical dreams. Because when they do, they are the ones who alter the paradigms, change the future, and actively create a world of tangible imagination, all encompassing love, and sublime contentment.
Stay weird you stooges.
Sitting here at the window, I’ve been thinking of how odd it is the way we live. Currently, I look out of a piece of blown glass, some ten plus feet off the ground where trees once stood not so long ago. I look out at vertical containment walls surrounding the designated plots of owned land, some wood, some iron, some painted, some stained – but all barriers. The only living things I see are shoddily manicured trees and shrubs – all of which look like misplaced horrors, especially the naked ones. They stand where we want them to, in lines, once again to designate barriers, although this time not as blatantly as the fences. I see large boxes with slanted roofs atop them. All too big for the number of humans living in them. All nicely organized, all quite strange looking once you look at them for what they are. And the oddest objects catch my eye often when the sun glints off their shiny shells. Several cars are in my view, all black, all glistening, all quite odd. They patiently wait in driveways until they begin their churning of gears, moving us and our possessions at inhumanly high speeds.
And it’s Sunday. So we all sit indoors and hope that time passes slowly today. We drink and we dread tomorrow. And we watch football and hope we end the day happy – because we know we won’t be when we wake in the morning.
As some of you probably noticed, I failed to mention anything about the going away party at Jay’s in any of my earlier posts. No, I was not being forgetful. I just wanted to give that party, and the reason behind it, it’s proper place.
When I decided to do the Trail, aside from my parents, the only people that I initially told were my siblings, Matt, Paul, and D. My plan was going to be to tell a few people, and then kind of slip away into the foggy mountain dew. I didn’t want to make a big deal about leaving, or attempting the trip – not sure why. But anyway, that was what I thought was going to happen. Much to my surprise, my siblings threw an awesome going away party for me at Jay’s. Not only did they gather friends and family from around town, they got a bunch of UD guys to make the trip (thanks a ton for coming guys, that was awesome). I walked right into their sneaky trap – I had no idea what was going on!
So what I really want to say here is that having people like them around you for your whole life is really something invaluable. It’s really amazing to see the things good brothers and sisters will do for each other. Although they foiled my plan of a sneaky exit into the mountain fog :), I greatly appreciate them getting everyone together for my sending off. It’s difficult to articulate or write what it means to me, but know that it’s truly something special. To have people gather to send me off with a few beers, although a relatively small act, is truly something powerful. And it has stuck with me through this journey, and will continue to be one of my fondest memories no matter where I go from here.
Terrible Tang out here said something to me the other day that really resonated with me. We were talking about brothers and sisters and how growing up there was always a battle about something or other (he has 2 older sisters, and and older brother). He’s now about 35 or so, and like me, his siblings have become his best friends. He said something along the lines of “It takes time to realize what we truly have in siblings. You don’t just have brothers or sisters, you have people that you have literally shared your whole life with, from the very beginning, to the very end.” That is really something that is difficult to comprehend, but it’s something very special as well. So thanks for everything you’ve done, and everything you will do – I appreciate it with all my heart.
Before I started this journey, I was looking for reasons to not have to use trekking poles. They’re dorky and cheesey. I didn’t want to be stooging around the trail with two ski poles. I didn’t think I’d need them, and I didn’t want to use them. So I was going to go with a single pole, or staff, or whatever it is called. I went to REI to check them out, and that’s when I started to change my mind about the hiking world’s dorkiest, but possibly most important item.
The REI guy told me a bunch of interesting facts that he probably made up. They were something along the lines of going uphill you save 35% of your energy, and downhill you can save up to 50%. I didn’t believe the guy at the time, I thought he was just trying to sell the trekking poles. Anyway, he succeeded, and I purchased some poles for use in my adventure.
As I started my journey and I approached my first ascent, I realized just how much you can rely on these cheese tools. It really is amazing, even if you look like a full blown stooge. I thought my upper body would not get any work out on this trip, but I was dead wrong. Going uphill you can really drive with your back and shoulders through the poles. And coming downhill, you can control your descent and put some of the energy into the poles as opposed to your legs. That counts for something, especially now as I begin to feel the aches of walking many miles a day.
So next time you see some dork roaming around with trekking poles, don’t think he’s a loser – because he’s probably a pretty cool stooge.
Sorry to write another post so quickly on the heels of my last trail update, but I leave town tomorrow, and the library is closing here in an hour or so. What I wanted to write about quickly is what I refer to as Trail Gremlins. They go by different names as well – Trail Trolls, Pole Trolls, Dirt People, etc. Either way, these Trail Gremlins are little creatures that live right alongside the trail. They are highly mischevious, and at every opportunity they get, they’ll try to grab hold of your trekking pole and hold it fast. This obviously results in some annoyance for the hiker. It’s as if the earth is trying to swallow up the trekking pole as you’re trying to continually move along. Sometimes the Trail Gremlin gets a good hold of the poles, sometimes it’s not much at all. I shall explain below.
So there are a couple of techniques to counter the grasp of the Trail Gremlins. If their grasp is weak, you can just turn the wrist inward while the pole is still out in front of you. This normally frees the tip of the pole, and you continue on your trek, no harm at all. If the Trail Gremlin gets a pretty good hold of the pole, the inward twist may not work. Your constant forward momentum will cause the pole to wind up still in the Gremlin’s grasp, but now behind your body. So your arm is outstretched backwards, like a wing. When in this situation, the way to free the pole is to twist the wrist in an outward manner while pulling upward. That should free the pole tip. Lastly, there are some occasions when the Trail Gremlin will get such a good hold that your countering actions fail completely. The pole will come out of your grasp and dangle from the lanyard on your wrist. If this occurs, the Gremlin has succeeded in his act, and recedes into the earth, never to be seen. No one likes when the Trail Gremlin succeeds.
Now, I’m telling you all of this because I had a bit of a crazy event happen the other day. I actually got an image of a Trail Gremlin while in the Smokies. I was taking some first person type video of me just walking down the trail – so it was really just the trail and some trees in the video as I moved forward, just so I could show what walking along the trail looked like. Just then, a Trail Gremlin grabbed hold of my trekking pole. My inward and outward twisting failed, and I was spun around with devastaging force as the lanyard caught my wrist. By chance, my camera was at the proper angle so that I caught the Gremlin as he receded back into his smelly lair. I looked at the video over and over, but was unable to make out much of it – I could only see the blurry face of the creature. I sentthe video to the ATC (Appalachian Trail Conservancy) for their study and analysis with the hopes that this would shed some light on the Trail Gremlin issue.
To my amazement, this was the first Trail Gremlin ever caught on either video or any imaging device according to the ATC. Through the fancy work of their tech folks, they were able to extract a high resolution image of the Gremlin from my blurry video. Below is what they found. They requested that anyone with information regarding the below image contact them directly. It is crucial that your reach out to them immediately if you have any information whatsoever. I’ll warn you, the image is somewhat disturbing, so I’ll place it a little further down on the page.
So in my very lazy post from the end of my time spent at home, I told you guys I wanted to share some thoughts about the weekend I had at home. So I’ll try not to get too sentimental, although I admit, I have a couple of times before (and will do so in the future – so deal with it as you see fit, preferable by eating tons of mayonaise).
People sometimes ask me if it’s “ok” to take time off the trail for the things I’ve taken off for – Celli’s bachelor party, my parent’s anniversary party, Nat and Dan’s wedding, Meg and Bill’s baby [even though I wasn’t there] and in the future, Celli’s wedding). Honestly, I’m not sure if it’s frowned upon or not, but I don’t really care. There are much more important things in life than being able to walk 2,100 miles without taking a break from it. So I’ll gladly compromise my pristine walking record for the priviledge of being included in these celebrations.
It is an absolute honor for me to be a part of these things.
I never considered myself a person good at making friends, but looking at it all now, I must say, somehow I’ve done pretty damn well. I count all of you among my best friends. Somehow I’ve made your acquaintance, and you’ve liked me enough to let me stick around 🙂
So to everyone who has let me be a part of their lives, and to everyone who takes the time to read this blog (I can’t believe how many of there you are – you surely must have better things to do!), I just want to thank you for letting a stooge be part of all of your lives. These events of the past week are only a microcosm of the people I’m talking about.
My parent’s party was amazing – Dad, you killed ‘500 miles’. It was awesome to see everyone there, but it was especially awesome to see both of you so happy. You created something great.
Brothers and Sister – thanks for doing everything for Mom and Dad’s while I’ve been away. You did great! Thanks for letting me steal a little of the credit! 🙂
Dan and Nat – awesome party. I can’t thank you enough for having me, and I blame my antics on the lack of any social structure on the trail. Nat, you looked beautiful, and Dan – you looked somewhat decent, better than I would have thought I guess. Here’s a great article about the wedding, and some pics.
Meg and Bill – awesome baby. Can’t wait to see you guys when I get back. I’m going to come live with you for a few days, so just get ready. And I’m obviously inviting John as well.
Celli and Megan – I hope I ruin the dance floor at your wedding just as badly as I did at Nat and Dan’s.
Everyone – love you all with all my being. Can’t wait for many more years of simply living as part of your lives.
So a lot of people are kind of baffled, or weirded out when I tell them that I hike alone. They ask me how I do that – how I spend all that time by myself, utterly alone. My standard cookie cutter answer (you tend to have a lot of them in your back pocket when you hike the AT – it’s not a bad thing, you just get a lot of the same questions) is something like, “Well I’m not alone all the time. There’s people that kind of bounce in and out, and you see them here and there. And you hike a little bit with them. But yea, for the most part you are alone.” And that is completely true, even though it is a bit of a boxed answer.
But the deeper truth is something a bit more difficult to articulate in thirty seconds to the questioner. The deeper truth is much more difficult for me even to understand, even though I know it to be true.
I’ve struggled over writing this post for some time now. And I didn’t want to write it too early, because I wanted to make sure what I was thinking and feeling was not of a whim. So bear with me as I try to write this down. It may not come across as eloquently and clearly as I have thought it through in my head. But hopefully some sense, at least, comes through.
The deeper truth is that I am not alone. Yes, there are times when I do feel isolated. Not physical isolation – that I can deal with. I’m talking about platonic isolation. I feel, in effect, isolated and alone in my core. One of the most memorable times this happened was the day after Solitaire and Scuba Springsteen left. I missed home a bit, and I missed my friends and family, and I was a ways behind my trail friends. It was a rough day. So yes, there are definitely tough times at some points. But more importantly, these times are fleeting, and they are few. They are a rut in the mind to be broken out of. They are something to be thought on, understood, and then overcome.
I know there is a deeper knowledge and a deeper truth that I sometimes understand when I am out there. It is not often, and it is as fleeting as my sad times, but it is more true.
Even in physical loneliness, there is sometimes a frame of mind that I see through that shows me that I am never alone. It is difficult to explain in text, or articulate in words, but it is there. When you have a lot of time to think about the world, and the cosmos, and what every thing, every object, every piece of matter, is in the world, you come to see something deeper than these ‘things.’ There is something more, something that resembles more of nothingness, that is part of everything and not part of anything. But it is the one thing the whole of our beings, and the whole of the cosmos share in common. It is not love as we know it today, but it is an energy that we all share. An understanding of empathy that we, along with every other piece of creation, are all part of this experience that we understand as the unfolding universe.
So when I first started my journey, I took my Grandfather’s Yanks hat with me. It was kind of a memento – something to hold on to on tougher days. And it was a way to keep my Grandfather with me who passed a couple of years ago. But as I’ve thought of these things more, and the place of mere matter like a Yankees hat, I’ve come to understand that I don’t need the hat to have my Grandfather.
We always tend to focus on ‘some thing’ nowadays in order to be happy or find a solution. Initially for me, it was my Grandpa’s hat. But what I’ve found is that things are not the answer. There is this amazing ‘no thing’ that binds each and every piece of creation in the cosmos. A nothing that was there before the cosmos came into being, and will be there when it is over. And that great Nothingness is what we all share and what we all somehow experience, in one way or another. It’s an amazing duality that doesn’t make sense – I know it doesn’t make sense. But I love it for what it is. It’s a chance to experience what we have in front of us, to cherish every piece of matter, every object we come to know, but to also realize that all these things somehow sprung forth out of a nothingness. It’s a great feeling when I am able to wrap my mind around it – this connection that all things have. But like I said, I only see it sometimes, in beautifully fleeting moments.
So why do I hike alone? I don’t hike alone – nobody does. Nobody lives alone, nobody dies alone, nobody does anything alone. We’re all part of something amazing, the monumental journey of the universe itself. You can not walk alone in such an extraordinary event – it is impossible.
It’s pretty amazing how much we hear this line from people. A lot of times it’s dayhikers – “Ohhh, you’re at the end of the hikers. You’re not going to make it.” Yes, we’re toward the tail end of the thru hiking season. And yes, the trailhead to Kathadin closes on October 15 (sort of). But it is somewhat depressing when we meet people who really have no idea about us as hikers who immediately tell us we’re not going to make it in time. A lot of hikers get mad about it, I normally just walk away from it. It’s better not to deal with it.
The thing is though, they don’t see what thru-hikers put in every day. They don’t see the twenty mile days, they don’t see the twenty five mile days, and they normally can’t conceive of thirty mile days at all (let alone the maniacs who pull off 40 or 50 mile days sometimes – sickos). All they see at that point in time is a ragged, dirty hiker who is still hundreds of miles away from Katahdin with only a month and a half to go. Before I started this hike, I would have said there’s no way a person can travel by foot that far in that little time – there’s no way. And if you do it, you must be some kind of fool.
But after being out here, and meeting all the people who are pulling this off, and who will finish in time, the extraordinary has become somewhat ordinary for us. When people tell us we’re not going to make it, we take it as somewhat of an insult – because we can do it, and most of us will do it.
And you know what, sometimes stuff happens. And yes, we may not make it. I just heard of a guy who broke an ankle only 100 miles from Katahdin. One hundred miles!!! He was right there! And in a second, his thru hike was gone. So yea, we may not make it. And if we don’t, so be it. We can come back next year and finish it out. Or if we never finish it out, we’ve already accomplished something amazing. Some may consider it a failure to not reach the top, but I don’t see it that way at all. It’s a journey we’re on. We’re meeting new people, we’re seeing new things. We’re not out here to stand atop a mountain. We’re here to walk the country, to hit all the gaps and valleys, and then to climb up to all the high points as well. We’re here for the experience of months, not for the snapshot we get at the top (although I must say, that will be nice!!!).
So hey, if we make it, we make it. If we don’t, we don’t. It is not the end of the world if we don’t get to Katahdin. It’s just another page in all of our books. Everyone is out here for a different reason. The hike is not the reason, that’s just the way we make our personal reasons manifest.
Really all I really want to say is that it’s not anyone’s place but our own to say whether we’ll make it or not. Whether we summit at the end or not, most of us have already made it.
So next time I hear “You’re not going to make it,” I’m just going to turn to that person, raise my hand to shoo them away, and tell them, “Get out of here you weirdos.”
The Fourth Stooge
Check out “The Fourth Stooge” and Chris’ other published short stories, “Infrared,” and “Hell’s Heresiarch.”