An Excerpt from Appalachian Odyssey: A 28-year hike on America’s trail

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Appalachian Odyssey on AmazonIt’s inevitable that you will hit low points in your career — days where you wonder if getting out of bed and getting your butt back into the chair to write yet another proposal or into the driver’s seat to initiate a new round of client meetings is ever going to lead anywhere.

I’ve certainly had my share of those days. I always felt that one cure was simply to get a different job. But geographical cures are temporary by definition. (Your mindset travels with you after all.)

Oddly, I had never experienced prolonged low points when I hiked. If I hit a rough mental patch, I simply kept walking and the negative self talk would evaporate. That all changed in 2005, as I wrote in my book Appalachian Odyssey:

“I reached the emotional low point of my entire hiking career at a place called Cherry Gap Shelter at 3:00 p.m. on December 7, 2005. Wayne had arrived 15 minutes before me – one more indication that I was laboring. I am usually the one out front by 15-20 minutes. I had hiked with him enough to know that taking the lead was his way of trying to encourage me through.

I sat in the front of the shelter with my legs dangling over the edge of the floorboards, unbuckled my waist belt, slipped out of the shoulder straps and let the pack fall to the shelter floor behind me. I was spent. I stared at the fire ring in front of the shelter. I didn’t want Wayne to see that I was tearing up, but it didn’t matter. He heard the frustration in my voice.

“What do you think about staying here and walking out by the nearby dirt road tomorrow?”, I asked. “I’m toasted.”

“I’d rather climb up Unaka Mountain and call it a day.”, he said.

I pulled the guidebook and map out of my waist belt holster. 2.4 miles away and 1200’ up.

“If we’re going to go for it, we’d better get going”, he said.

I thought about it for a few seconds, for I didn’t have minutes. If we went for the summit, every one of them would count. If we stayed here, near the shelter, I wondered if I would start having regrets about it as soon as I got warm again. It’s easier to start or end a trip at a well defined place (say a paved road crossing) than an obscure dirt road. And it sure would be nice to walk right into the campground hostel we had reserved at the end of the section, rather than trying to walk or thumb our way in from the outskirts of town.

Given all that and the benefit of a 10 minute rest without my pack on, I decided that the climb was worth a try. “OK. I’m game. I may be a bit behind you, but I can do it.”

Wayne took the lead and we began the ascent via long switchbacks – just when I needed them most. We passed a piped spring and the climb got steeper. We were racing the dark yet again and there weren’t any good camping spots. We scoped out one, but it wasn’t nearly flat enough. That cost us at least 10 minutes.

Miraculously, I now found a hidden reserve – enough to drive me to the summit anyway. I took the lead up through the rhododendrons and into evergreen stands. When I really needed that final boost, it was there after all. I’m not sure where that energy boost was hiding out earlier, but I was sure happy to feel my body kicking into gear and powering me toward the top. We might beat the darkness yet. 

At 5:15, we topped a flat plateau just short of the summit and above 5,000’, complete with a perfectly flat campsite below the pines. My mind hadn’t been willing, but my body carried me there.

This was one of those times that setting up a tent hundreds of times together really payed off. We have the routine down so well, that it only takes 2 minutes. We dove inside and into the warmth of dry clothes and our zero degree bags. We were so exhausted that we just piled up the last of the crackers, pepperoni and cheese in a humungous heap and ate them for dinner. Even though we had soup and noodle dinners, we didn’t have the will to stay awake long enough to cook and eat them. But I did stay awake long enough to think about the decision I made in the shelter a few hours ago. It was the right one. And a defining moment in this 12-day lesson in attitude and perseverance.”

It seems to me that this experience in the Tennessee mountains is an apt analogy for any rough patch we encounter in our business or personal lives. That we are always capable of reaching heights that are beyond our imaginations. We just need to be willing to accept help and keep moving toward the summits.

Jeff Ryan’s critically acclaimed book, Appalachian Odyssey was recently ranked “#1 new release” in Amazon’s Outdoors and Nature Reference category. It can be ordered online from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million and purchased at local bookstores nationwide. Jeff will also be on a nationwide book tour this summer with stops at the Smithsonian Institution and more than 30 L.L. Bean stores. Visit www.JeffRyanAuthor.com for details.