Jeff Ryan, Author & Speaker

Appalachian Trail ©2019 www.JeffRyanAuthor.com

Thoreau and Life at 3 mph

“What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?” 

Henry David Thoreau

I’ve always felt that one of the greatest gifts of hiking is its ability to make us slow down to ponder the world. When I step onto a trail, any trail, I feel the pressure of day-to-day living begin to evaporate into the mountain or forest air. What I know, before I even get a few feet down the path, is that I’ve been granted a temporary visa to a place where I can live squarely in the present — a world free from incessant noise, rush hour traffic, the manmade crisis of the day and work stress. 

Of course, those pressure-filled thoughts don’t always get banished without a good shove. There have been plenty of hikes when it took a day or two to get those uninvited companions to leave, but once they did, my trips inevitably got better. I was freer to get more out of the adventures that were unfolding at my feet. Freer to tune into the present without worrying about what had happened before I left and what might happen after I got back.

Keeping it Real

With those incentives as my guide, I began focusing on the few things I needed to be aware of to hike safely while jettisoning the things I couldn’t do anything about (at least until I was back where I could do anything about them). What I found is that I’m most aware and content on the trail when I am keeping tabs on six things: 

  1. My mental state — Am I alert? Happy? Capable of making good decisions? Do I need to change my daily plan?  
  2. My physical state — Am I tired? Do I need a break? How are my muscles and joints? What can I do to ensure I arrive safely at camp (do I need to speed up or slow down or is my current pace ok)?
  3. My hiking companion(s) (if applicable) — Where are they? When is the last time I saw them? How are they doing physically and mentally? 
  4. Food/water — When is the last time I (we) ate/drank? Where is the next water source? When is the next meal and what is it? How much food/stove fuel do I (we) have left?
  5. Weather – What are the current conditions? Have they changed? How might we need to change our itinerary to accommodate current and upcoming conditions?
  6. Gear — I do a thorough gear/clothing condition assessment before each trip. Nonetheless, I do keep an eye on how things are performing in the field. While only two trips in forty years have required detours for replacements or repairs, I feel it’s worth noting.
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All of these things rely on gauging current and near current conditions and adapting to them. But not all of them require constant attention, simply awareness. I find that if I am touching base with the first five things throughout the day, it helps me do my part keep the adventure on course. The benefits of this approach are being able to fully enjoy the day and gaining insights into myself and my surroundings — things I’d miss if my head was full of unimportant thoughts and distractions.

Living in the Present — an Idea from the Past

“Living in the present” is, of course, the holy grail of our age. It’s hard to move about in society without someone extolling the benefits of shedding the regrets of our past and the uncertainties of our futures from an ad, book or YouTube post. But it’s easier said than done, particularly when you are caught in the spin cycle of daily commutes and endless “to do” lists.

Maybe stepping off the Merry-Go-Round in favor of the linear path is just what we need after all. It’s not a new concept. I was just lucky enough to find the trail blazed by a famous New England wanderer almost 200 years ago and followed his lead.

“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.”

Henry David Thoreau

Jeffrey H Ryan is an author, adventurer, photographer and historian. He has written several books about his outdoor exploits, his fascination with hiking trails and the people and places found just off the beaten path. His debut book, Appalachian Odyssey: A 28-year hike on America's trail was hailed by the former Executive Editor of National Geographic as "a classic of nature and travel writing" and set off a national tour (in a 1985 VW camper, no less). His books are known for weaving a deep appreciation for history into walks across contemporary landscapes that give readers the feeling they are hiking right alongside. When Jeff isn't trekking, chasing down a great story or spinning yarns from his keyboard, he enjoys sharing his adventures with audiences who love the outdoors. He spends much of his time in his beloved native state of Maine.

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