Backpacking the Appalachian Trail

We woke before the sun and threw our stuff in the back of my buddy’s Dodge pickup. It was October, and the temperatures in Georgia were just starting to dip down into the 40s and 50s at night.

I came down to spend a week with my best friend and we had decided to get out for an impromptu three day backpack trip on the Appalachian Trail. The trees were turning bright orange, yellow, and red, what could be better than living on the trail and sitting around the fire for a few nights?

We planned our route to be a three day out and back hike. We didn’t have the logistics ability to do a through hike, and we weren’t familiar enough with the trail system to try to do a loop.

Mark had been in the military for four and a half years. Served as an army ranger with the 3rd battalion. While he was trained as an infantry soldier and sniper, he hadn’t done much backpacking. But it all translates. And while I had grown up camping multiple times a year with my family, I was used to throwing everything you could ever want in the van and camping with luxuries like bacon and eggs cooked over an open fire.

How hard could it be?

If we were going to make it three days on the trail we would need basic shelter, food, and water. Outside of that, a lighter for fire, sleeping bags for staying warm at night, and maybe a dry bag in case it decided to rain.

Besides our packs we had pretty much nothing. We decided we could make due with a 8’ x 10’ tarp for shelter. Confident we could rig up a shelter of some sort with a bit of cord. I picked up a cheap sleeping bag because there were some things you couldn’t do without.

For water, we could either spend the money on a water filter, use water purifying tablets and deal with the bad taste, or buy a case of water and haul it. Well, the case of water was $5.95, and it would get lighter as time went on. So we made the obvious choice.

For food, we’d get by without a stove and stick to a staple diet of tuna (in a pouch) cliff bars, and apples with peanut butter. We were backpacking after all, can’t expect to eat like kings on the trail.

As you can probably tell, we didn’t have a clue what we were doing. I’m sure the park ranger we asked for directions was a bit concerned as he saw us plunge off down the trail. Hoping he wouldn’t need to I.D. us later that week concluding a search and rescue party.

Regardless, with our bags packed full of water and a small bit of gear, we set out for our first day. My pack was slightly larger, so somehow Mark talked me in to carrying most of the water. I think I was pushing 60 pounds. The first segment of our hike was up springer mountain. For those concluding the Appalachian Trail through hike from the north, Springer Mountain marked the end of the line. For us, it was the beginning.


Being a mountain, it consisted of a lot of uphill sections of trail. Which normally wouldn’t have been too bad, but considering the load I was carrying, it was quite taxing. After a few hours of hiking, we made it to the top, where we would spend our first night. We had planned on staying in the temporary shelter that was set up by the national forest service, but upon arriving we discovered it was already full.

But, due to our resourcefulness, we had a tarp we could use as shelter. Only, it turned out that our 8’ x 10’ tarp was really only a 5’ x 7’. And I wish I was kidding. We were slightly confused and dismayed at our mistake. Somehow we had managed to grab the wrong tarp size.

Not to be discouraged by our lack of fortune, we still managed to rig something up. As you can see. Clearly a sufficient shelter. Notice the rocks holding down the bottom, very high speed.


We heard someone walk up, and as we turned to see who it was, we saw a small-framed-lady wielding a stick as a sword. “Oh, I thought you were a bear!” Tightly gripping her stick as if ready to strike. Mark and I looked at each other wondering, what were you going to do if we were?

In her defense, there were bear postings everywhere. This didn’t make us feel great about our poor excuse of a tent we had rigged up. And thinking back on it, I’m pretty sure we slept with the tuna packets tucked away inside our packs, right next to our heads. Not exactly the smartest backpackers you ever met.

We attempted to make a fire that night, which didn’t last long as everything was pretty damp. Eventually we gave up and decided to turn in. As I slipped into my sleeping bag for the first time, I discovered I had made another mistake. I’m about 6’1”. The sleeping bag was intended for someone about 5’8”. I stuck out of the sleeping bag from my shoulders up.

Early in the night it began to rain. All things considered our shelter held up pretty well. Until at 3am that is. My half of the tarp had come loose (i.e. the wind blew off the rock) and left me lying on the ground getting poured on. Turning on my headlamp, I discovered we were caught in the middle of a cloud, visibility was about 5 feet. I managed to secure my half of the tarp and dive back into my sleeping bag. If we didn’t get eaten by bears, we’d probably die of hypothermia.

When morning came, we were feeling pretty deflated. It wasn’t raining anymore, but the fog continued to hang in the air. We weren’t even 24 hours into our hike but we were miserable. Neither of us wanted to say what we were both thinking. It felt too lame to give up this early in our trip.

Finding solace in the fact that it had stopped raining, we broke camp and decided to stick it out.

Since we were doing an out and back hike, we would pass our camping spot early in the day. Like the original plan for the first night, we planned to stay at a constructed shelter the second night. An hour in to our hike we passed the shelter, it was a little sign of hope of what we had to look forward to that night. At least a dry place to sleep! *(I have no idea why we didn’t drop some of our gear since we’d be coming back, maybe we were concerned about someone stealing our water?)

Shortly after passing our campsite for the night it started to sprinkle. Nothing much, but just enough to know that it was raining. An hour or so passed and the rain steadily increased. We were getting close to our turnaround and we were anxious to get out of the rain. As we kept going we felt that we had for sure been hiking too long to have not hit our turnaround point. Coming to an unexpected shelter we consulted our map discovering we had overshot our turnaround by a couple of miles.

Now it was raining hard. Like, soak you to the bone kind of rain. Neither of us had rain gear, even if we did, I’m not sure it would have been much help. We were soaked, our packs were soaked, our feet were wet and squishy. We had been hiking in pants because of the cooler temps, but we decided to go down to shorts because we were so wet it didn’t matter.

I don’t have much memory of the hike back to our camp that night. Other than, if you’ve ever hiked with a x-army ranger you know they have two speeds. Standing and basically running. We didn’t just hike back to camp, we marched double time.

What was supposed to have been a 16 mile day, turned out to be a 20 mile march in the pouring rain. Pulling in to camp we were cold, soaked, and pretty miserable. And there would be no fire tonight and no hot food. The only solace I was able to maintain was the fact that I had for some strange reason packed a dry bag, in it I had put my camera, a set of clothes and wools socks, and my sleeping bag. So no matter how wet we were, I knew that I would at least sleep warm and dry that night.

As we rolled out our sleeping bags, a few other weary hikers trickled in. They fired up their camping stoves and cooked up some warm dinner. We picked away at our cold, bagged, tuna. And licked the peanut butter container clean.

But, we were dry, and we didn’t have to pull out our sorry tarp again. So that was good. Only, neither of us thought we would need sleeping pads. Ya know, the ground is soft, there’s giant beds of moss that will make a perfect spot to lie down. Unlucky for us, the temporary shelter didn’t get the memo about stretching out the moss futon. It was a nice elevated platform of 2 x 6’s.

Have you ever tried sleeping on a wooden floor? Before this trip, I had never given thought to it. And since this trip, I’ve never cared to try again. It was terrible. I lay awake in 15 minute increments. Laying on one side then rotating to another position for the whole night, every 15 minutes. I don’t remember sleeping. At one point I looked over and Mark had propped himself against the wall hoping to sleep sitting up because he was so miserable. I don’t think he had any luck.

As bad as our sorry-little-lean-to was the first night, at least we slept. Even while getting rained on we slept. Nature was slapping us around and getting a kick out of it.

Around a quarter to six, neither of us could stand it any longer. It wasn’t quite light out yet, but we didn’t care. We packed up our soaking gear, put on our wet boots, and hiked the hell outta there.


Nothing could be further from the vision of backpacking we had in our mind and what we experienced the last two days. We almost couldn’t believe how miserable we were.


Clearly we had no idea what we were doing which only added insult to injury. You could say our friendship was tested, but it ultimately was a shared experience that we’ve often laughed about. From carrying 20 pounds of water to buying the wrong size tarp. Sleeping on solid wood and hiking in torrential rain, it was a trip of a lifetime. Just not one we’d ever plan to repeat.

When we finally got off the trail, we drove straight to chick-fil-a and feasted. From there, we drove to lifetime fitness and sat in the hot tub for hours. It was the best part of our three day backpack.

North to Alaska

It was early spring of my freshman year in college when I received an exciting call from my older brother. He was attending college in another state and presented me with a thrilling proposition: let’s go to Alaska and work in the salmon industry for the summer. I imagined making piles of money and living like Lewis and Clark!

It was actually a much more rousing notion to me than my brother, as he had paved the way and spent the prior summer in an Alaskan bush village working at a fishery. But this year would be different. My brother hatched a plan whereby we would buy an old car, fix it up and drive 3,400 miles north to the Last Frontier. Just the thought of it made my blood surge! I already had a bad case of wanderlust that a few hitch-hiking trips around Wisconsin (at the expense of my classes) hadn’t begun to cure.

We found a 1968 Ford Fairlane and bought the car for around $400. It was a little-old-lady rig with faded paint and a bunch of miles on it, but we were confident she’d be up for the challenge. We spent a few days performing basic maintenance tasks like changing the oil, replacing brake pads and putting a couple new tires on the classic beauty. (current age and nostalgia leave me wishing I still owned that old Ford)

During preparations for the journey, we had an ongoing debate with our dad about whether we should insure the car or go without coverage. Dad was adamant about the issue in the days leading up to our departure. We were both broke from a year in college and a couple hundred bucks were critical at the time. We asked him why and he gave one of his typical, old school answers like “it’s just what you do” or “it’s the right thing to do.” He rarely gave lengthy explanations of his rationale, but in the end, we complied and bought a cheap policy to cover worst-case-scenarios.

We launched out early one morning in late May and I was more excited than perhaps any other moment in my young life! Moving away from home for my freshman year of college was a thrill. Heading out on my hitch-hiking trips around Wisconsin was exhilarating too. I played sports and had some huge games and moments in recent memory. But this! North to Alaska? I was taking a leap way beyond anything people in my circles were attempting at the time.

I recognize adventure and risk are relative to each person and that God makes all kinds of folks. Some people get psyched up to fly on an airplane or go to the dentist. Other’s will strap into a bungee harness and jump off a bridge without a second thought. Everyone grows up with such varied experiences, families, and models to follow. I’ve come to believe that people’s preferences and boundaries generally end up like the ones they’ve watched and learned through the childhood and adolescent years.


Not that our suburban family was particularly brave or daring by any stretch. But I can see now the patterns and markers that built an inner confidence and strong foundation in me and my siblings. A stable, consistent family life with two parents in a safe environment. An emphasis on faith and attending the same church each week for our entire pre-adult lives. If you missed the bus you walked to school. If you shot an arrow through the next-door-neighbor’s pool liner, you didn’t leave the house until you apologized. (my younger brother held out for two weeks!) We did chores, made our own money delivering newspapers, and walked or rode bikes to all our sporting events throughout the elementary and middle school years.

Maybe it doesn’t sound like much, but adult vision and a lifetime of experience lends itself to clearer hindsight and self-evaluation. I watch kids and families grow up in all kinds of circumstances that are extremely different from my upbringing. I’m not drawing better-or-worse lines mind you. Life can be difficult and we don’t get to choose the world or family we’re born into. But there’s no doubt in my mind that our childhood environment and experiences most certainly shape the adults we become. At least initially, in the tenuous years of late-teens and early twenty’s.

So anyway - off we went! The plains of the upper Midwest and Saskatchewan were grueling yet beautiful. Minot, North Dakota is a real place. The Canadian Rockies were exhilarating to this thrill-seeking flatlander! The week-long drive became an adventure in itself…and at times I lost sight of the fact that this was just the beginning of the real mission. We drove through the night a few times. We stopped and camped just any ole’ where we wanted on that lonely Alcan Highway.

The daylight hours lengthened as we trudged northward. Have you ever driven into the sunset at 10:30 or 11:00 at night? Have you ever baited a hook, without a flashlight, sometime around 11:30 PM? Have you ever heard the term “land of the midnight sun” and skimmed over it without notice?

It’s hard to describe the affects and sensation of the extended daylight. You don’t want to go to sleep for fear of missing something special. It emboldens you to go and do and try. Like spinach to Popeye. Suddenly, you only need 3 to 4 hours of sleep at night. (did I tell you about the time I worked on a fishing boat north of the Arctic Circle in the middle of summer? We worked such long hours that sometimes, especially with light cloud cover in the sky, I lost track of whether it was 10:00 AM or PM!)

It took us six full days to reach downtown Anchorage and cruise 4th Avenue in our dusty, war-torn Fairlane. The city is always bustling in early summer as tourists fill the downtown streets and vagabonds from all corners of the world roam this out-of-place metropolis. People with heavy laden backpacks and scruffy faces hike the pavement at a hurried pace, scanning maps and plotting their course.

A log-cabin-style building sits humbly next to a five-story glass business center. The mountains loom in the background and you get a peek here and there, depending on the angle and direction you’re facing. Cook Inlet brings a breeze and the light odor of salt air. Native Americans meander along, Asian tourists snap pictures of everything, while seniors stroll the shops, glancing at their watches to make sure they’re back to the bus on time.

We only had a day or two before flying out to a bush village in the southwest corner of the Great State. We were caught up in the collective excitement that can only be found in a transient city like Anchorage. We couldn’t bear to go to sleep and were fully enamored by the daylight that lingered and faded into the midnight hour. My brother was also scrambling to sell our faithful Ford or find a responsible place to store it. Our plan was to fly back home in late August, just in time to start the next year of college.

Our travels led to the legendary Spenard District on the south side of town, home to the fabled Chilkoot Charlie’s and Gwennie’s Old Alaska Restaurant. My head was on a swivel as we drove, trying to take in the sites of this urban frontier. The city clearly shares the same untamed spirit that wilderness Alaska is known for. As we were driving, I vaguely remember my brother trying to interrupt my tour and asking if it was “all clear” in the lane next to us. Apparently, I was distracted or uninterested, because just after I responded with an insincere “sure thing,” WHAMMO! He changed lanes and we took a direct hit in the rear quarter panel from an oncoming car! It was around 11:00 at night, clear as day and my brother was both hoppin’ mad and completely disgusted that he had trusted me. As you can imagine, the entire mood was dampened like a wet blanket. An hour-long fiasco ensued, information was exchanged, and we made our way to a cheap motel for the night.

Life’s greatest lessons are learned the hard way I suppose. The insurance issue was one of my first “father knows best” moments as a young adult. I was still at the know-it-all age in that season of life. Dad’s lack of explanation was quickly appended with all the reasons why. And if a picture’s worth a thousand words, then a car accident qualified for about ten thousand words in those formative years.

Winter 1984.jpg

My decision to “go north” was fateful and serendipitous to be sure. This was the start of a lifetime adventure, the annuls of which would require several volumes. I struggled and floundered, thrived and explored. I gained self-confidence and learned that I didn’t know much about anything at all. I met characters who just didn’t exist in the Midwest and learned that the hearts of men could be both good and evil, selfish and kind, ruthless and forgiving. And to make a really long story short, I also found a great job, a wife and a couple of kids. But that’s a tale for another day…

My Need for Adventure

When I was six years old my family built a home that backed up to the woods. For all I knew, it was endless, and it was the perfect playground.

Along with other neighborhood kids, we would spend hours exploring game trails, ruins that had been long abandoned, creeks and ravines became our pathways. About 200 yards through the thick brush there was a lake. Not one you would want to swim in, but all the same, it added an element of wilderness to the whole thing.

Summer days spent building forts, cutting in trails, climbing trees, playing war; we did it all. This was my escape, it was my happy place. And it came right natural.

Little did I know, “adulting” would leave behind endless hours of exploration.

Adulthood comes much more structured; We make appointments, reply to emails, make bill payments, submit paperwork for health insurance. It can be a drag.

Though the desire to explore never went away, I sort of just stopped answering its call. Not for lack of desire but over time it slowly got pushed to the back burner. Amidst a full life, spending hours in aimless play is hard to come by. Some would say extravagant or even irresponsible.

But why is it that joy is one of the first things to get cut out of our lives? The truth is, I need those endless hours of exploring and adventuring. My soul awakens in those empty spaces of wonder. Between smartphone notifications and an overflowing inbox, it should be one of the first places I turn to find solace.

Not long ago I had a realization. I would find myself wandering through the outdoor section of sporting goods store drooling over the latest gear. It would pull on my desires to be out there, in the wild. As I perused the sterile retail space I would feel my heart rising in my chest as if purchasing fancy new gear was the same thing as being out there.

Those marketing schemes are sneaky. “If you buy this overly expensive cooler, bear-proof and sure to keep ice for a week in the desert, you’ll be rugged and wild.”

“Yeah, that’d be cool!” My heart responds.

Having an expensive cooler doesn’t make me anymore an explorer than owning a pair of running shoes makes me a runner.

This sort of allure is everywhere. The other day flipping through a magazine I came across a rugged looking man out on a ranch sporting a $5,000 Louis Vuitton knitted overcoat. Really? That’s what ranchers wear?

Any poser can purchase the look of an explorer, but the real explorer is the one who actually ventures into the wild. And I would argue, the heart of adventure is an inward reality.

Adventure isn’t snapping an epic Instagram picture, or a highlight reel from your GoPro camera descending some crazy mountain line. I could travel to some of the most remote and spectacular landscapes on earth and be just as disconnected from adventure as the Louis Vuitton rancher.

So if the heart of adventure can’t be bought, and it’s not dependent on extreme sports, what is the stuff adventure is made of?

Adventure is that childlike wonder of getting lost in play, exploration, and not fully knowing where the road may lead. Adventure is planned and spontaneous. To be fully present, in the moment, living from your heart and senses.

It’s responding to that invitation you can’t bear to ignore any longer. Adventure can be found in cooking, writing, or an afternoon with the family. Maybe for you, it’s starting a business. Adventure is not reserved to the outdoors or the adrenaline junkies. You can experience a full dose of adventure right in your backyard.

Adventure is acting on core desires of your heart.

Therefore, adventure involves risk.

Embracing a core desire is a delicate endeavor. It can feel foolish, wasteful, or indulgent.

Why is it the things we most enjoy we also face the most resistance to experience?

Getting into the wild isn’t something I’ve been all that good about maintaining. But it is something absolutely makes my soul come alive. It’s much easier to spend money on gear than to take the time to plan an afternoon outing or overnight campout.

I want the experience of adventure without the risk. That’ll preach.

Following the trail in Rocky Mountain National Park, I took a solo hike up to Black Lake on my birthday.

I imagine artists face a similar fear every time they set out to create. “What if it doesn’t turn out the way I hoped?” Hope deferred is a lethal enemy.

Putting ourselves in a position to experience disappointment is risky. But to never risk disappointment in hopes of experiencing the bliss of doing what makes our heart come alive is a final death.

A couple of weeks ago, on my way to an early morning swim, my car started making a funny noise. “Oh crap,” I thought. “That doesn’t sound good.” After having a mechanic take a look, it turns out I would new wheel bearings that would cost me $900 for a car that’s not worth $1,000.

The noise is bad enough that I don’t really want to keep driving it for fear of a wheel flying off while driving down the highway.

So I’ve been riding my bike to work here and there to get by with one vehicle. Temperatures dipping down into the 30s the last few weeks, which has made for some chilly riding. It’s not exactly convenient. But you know what? It sure is an invigorating way to get to work on a Tuesday morning. The cold whipping me in the face, cars flying past, breathing hard as I work to crest the last hill.

Driving to work takes me 12 minutes. Riding my bike, 17. A five-minute difference that has an untold number of benefits. The inconvenience of car trouble has given me one more excuse to ride my bike. And I have 30 minutes of exercise built into my commute. No radio, no music, no podcasts, no phone calls, time for thinking and white space. And if I so choose it adds a little adventure to my day. If I choose to find it.

Experiencing adventure is a choice. And it usually feels like an inconvenience. But, there is an opportunity to touch something deeper if we choose to engage our heart. My car trouble is a drag, but it’s actually creating more than one adventure storyline in my life at the moment.

Where might life be initiating adventure for you?

And when you think about your ideal adventure, is there a scaled down version?

Like a 1/10th or even a 1/20th? Instead of a 4-day backpack trip to Colorado, what about an hour or two hike? Instead of writing your cookbook by the end of the year, what about just writing one new recipe this week? The opportunity to experience adventure is everywhere, I think I’ll start answering it’s beckon call again.