Why Listening to Yourself is Mostly Good (and Sometimes Not So Much)

On Labor Day weekend, 2015, I went on a hike (just as I had for the preceding 30 years). What made this hike different was that it got me into trouble.

I drove down to Pennsylvania by myself. It was the first stop of many in a quest to secure the “missing photos” for my book, Appalachian Odyssey: A 28-year hike on America’s Trail.

My dad had passed away in late August. My mom was in failing health. I had a short window to get the photos I needed, then return to Maine, so I could be present for my mom’s final earthly journey.

As those close to me already know, my past was already brimming with adventures in which “pushing myself” was a core theme. Going into this trip, I had made some decent progress toward doing trips that were more sane — slowing down to take in my surroundings at a more contemplative pace.

That changed in the Danbury, Connecticut Walmart parking lot.

I had left Maine in the early evening (after having a leisurely afternoon and dinner with Mom that I knew I would be forever grateful for) and turned my 1985 VW Westfalia south toward Pennsylvania (and eventually, the southwest corner of Virginia).

Like many, I had heard tell of how Walmart lets people with RVs overnight at their parking lots. Mindful of my new resolution to keep it sane, I decided to catch some sleep in Danbury, then get up early for my drive to PA.

I pulled into the lot, parked my van next to the store, pulled the curtains, turned my van’s bench seat into a bed and instantly nodded off. One hour later, all hell broke loose. Saturday night was “parking lot sweeping night”. The roar of leaf blowers and street sweepers was crazy! I gave up after an hour and decided to drive some more.

As nutty as it sounds, back on the interstate, I regained a semblance of calm. It was just me and the long distance truckers. About a half hour out, I was settling into a nice pace in the right lane, when a car crested the hill in front of me coming directly at me! Whoever was driving was driving north in the southbound lanes. I was just about to steer into the breakdown lane when a cop’s red lights flashed from behind the driver and safely pulled them over. The crisis was averted, but the close call had my heart pounding for a while.

By the time I hit Scranton, PA, I decided I’d better get some sleep. I found a Park & Ride lot (a great idea on a Saturday night – no commuters coming and going) and slept about three hours.

Waterville Bridge, PAFueled by caffeine (another popular Jeff Ryan theme), I got to my first major stop, the Waterville Bridge, built in 1898 by the Berlin Bridge Company of Connecticut to serve vehicle traffic in Pennsylvania and now re-purposed as a footbridge on the Appalachian Trail. Like a few other spots on the trail, I took a photo when we passed it the first time, but the film was nowhere to be found. This was actually a good thing in its own way. The photo technology was so much better now and I could focus on the composition of my shots instead of pulling a point and shoot camera out of my waist belt holster, grabbing a shot or two and continuing down the trail. Back then, I was there for the hike. The photos were the bonus. This time, it was the other way around.

I got out of the van, took photos of the bridge from various angles, chatted with a group of three college students that were just starting an overnight hike, then jumped back in the van to find more adventure.

I checked the time when I pulled away from the bridge. It was 9:47 a.m. on a gorgeous September day. I wanted to get to The Pinnacle next.

The Pinnacle

The Pinnacle was one of the high points of our 28-year Appalachian Odyssey, not because of its height, 1634’, but for the amazing views it offers of the Pennsylvania countryside as its reward. The first time I stood on the summit cliffs was in October 1995. Two decades later, I was less than 100 miles away from the trail that would get me back there again.

In addition to the views, The Pinnacle offers something equally beautiful – the aerial displays of hawks, eagles, and falcons riding the thermals above. People come from all over the world to visit Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, a 2,600-acre preserve dedicated to the protection and observation of birds of prey, located on the mountain. With over 20,000 birds migrating past the viewpoints each autumn, it’s one of the best places to view them in North America.

I made a brief stop at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary (long enough to get directions to a nearby trailhead and to affirm that I wanted to come back when I had time to dedicate to their educational programs), but I needed to get going if I was going to get to The Pinnacle.

I pulled into the large gravel parking area, parked near a kiosk with a hand-painted trail map on it and quickly changed into my hiking clothes. My goal was to get to the summit, take some panoramic shots, then scoot back down to the lot well before dark.

The excitement of being on the trail and getting to the summit again gave me a surge of energy that minimized the fact that I was already tired from driving at all hours and sleeping but a few. But three rewards beckoned – the summit view I’d been waiting twenty years to gain again, the prospect of seeing lots of hawks and, eventually, the ultimate prize, a block of solid sleep, far away from the leaf blowers and street sweepers.

I wanted to travel as lightly as possible, so I only stashed only my iPad, my digital camera, my phone, my full 48 oz. water bottle, a few granola bars, a ham and cheese sandwich, a wind shell, a guidebook and a map in my day pack. I didn’t even look at the guidebook or map. They were more than 20 years old. Instead, I stopped for a quick overview from the kiosk map before I dashed up the trail.

“Surely I’ll remember landmarks along the way from when we hiked across the range many years before”, I thought as I climbed the side trail up toward its junction with the AT. One thing I clearly remembered was how the trail came down off the ridge to arrive in the town of Port Clinton. The trail passed a defunct fish hatchery just before it arrived at a busy highway in the center of town.

I have always trusted my memory, because it has been remarkably worthy of my faith in it. To this day, I get phone calls and emails from people asking me about details from childhood events that they’ve mostly forgotten until I summon them back again.

So, on the spectacular fall day, I took note of a few landmarks on my way up the side trail that would soon junction with the white-blazed Appalachian Trail, certain trees and the general lay of the land would be my clues that I was nearing the parking lot on the way down.

Sure enough, I merged onto the AT not far into my hike. It brought a smile. “So far, so good”, I thought. I paused only long enough to check the time (11:30 a.m.) and confirm that I didn’t remember this particular spot from 20 years ago. “No worries. Those would come in due time”, I said out loud.

They did come, but it wasn’t along the trail. And when they did come back, they were hazy recollections at best.

In 1995, I had written at length in my journal about the stunning panorama stretched out before us from the summit of the Pinnacle. That hadn’t changed. It was still impressive and was still drawing large numbers of folks to climb up to indulge in contemplation and the chance to watch hawks put on their stunning aerial displays.

The last several hundred yards of trail meandered through the woods, passing an enormous man-made rock pile just before it emerged onto the cliffs. I barely slowed down to look at it because I was so fired up to get to the viewpoint ahead.

Walking out onto the cliffs was, quite appropriately, like walking into a holiday party. It was a glorious day to be outside, almost everyone had the day off because it was Labor Day weekend and the Pinnacle was the place to be. I guessed there were more than 40 people perched on the rocks, mostly in groups of three to five hikers each.

I checked the time. It was 1:16 p.m. I claimed a spot on the cliff and took in the view for a while, then walked about, taking pictures and chatting with a few groups. After an hour, I started making my way back toward my van … or so I thought.

When listening to yourself fails…

In my excitement to get to the cliffs, I hadn’t noticed that the trail came to an apex near the rock pile. Here the trail from the north and the trail from the south met like the top of a triangle. It would be really easy for someone to get on the wrong trail on their way down if they weren’t paying attention. The latest “someone” to do it would be me.

For a while, it felt like I was on the same trail I had taken to reach the cliffs. By the time I realized I wasn’t, I had descended enough to talk myself out of climbing back up again. It was only around 3:00 p.m. I was sure I would drop down to Port Clinton, then walk the long way back to the van via the road.

As the trail descended farther off the ridge, I met up with another hiker that was cruising along at my same pace. As we started chatting, I learned he was parked at the trailhead about two miles from where we were. I made small talk with him the whole way, making sure that I emphasized that I had taken the wrong trail and needed to get back to my van. I was hopeful that this approach would result in his giving me a much-needed ride, even though it was out of his way.

As the trail left the ridge for good, we emerged from the forest into the bright sun and onto a road. There were a few buildings to our left behind a chain link fence. The signs on the fence indicated that the buildings were part of a water treatment facility.

“Must be the old fish hatchery”, I thought.

There were several cars parked along the road. They all belonged to the hikers I had seen up on the cliff.

“Well, this one is mine”, said my newfound hiking buddy, as we arrived at a brown Subaru. “It was nice meeting you.”, he said as he unlocked the door.

I briefly pondered asking him for a ride outright but rejected the thought. He would have offered if he was willing to do it. Besides, the fish hatchery sighting meant I wasn’t far from Port Clinton.

I continued walking down the road, now baking under the sun. It was 80 degrees and there was no shade. I heard the man’s car coming down the road behind me. I hoped he had reconsidered giving me a ride. Nope. All I received was a parting beep and wave of the hand.

I came to an intersection in the farmscape and pulled out my phone to see if I could figure out where I was using GPS. My phone had been giving me battery problems. At any time, it could go from 38% charged to zero. It was now reading 38% — the telltale number. I was afraid I’d need the phone later, so I took note of the time (4:15 p.m.), shut it off and started walking.

I was convinced that I was close to Port Clinton because I had recently passed the old fish hatchery. I just needed to keep walking. I could see the ridge that my van was parked behind in the distance. I just had to get there before dark. But first things first. I was sweating like crazy and needed water.

Barn, PAAs I passed a large farm, I heard a human voice coming from the nearest barn. I walked through the giant open door and yelled inside, “Anyone here?”

Off in one of the side rooms, I heard a man’s voice saying, “I’ll call you back. There’s someone here.” Soon I was greeted by a 30-ish aged man rolling into the main part of the barn in a wheelchair.

“Can I help you with something?”, he asked.

“If it’s not much of a problem, I’m wondering if I can grab some water”, I said.

“No problem. Right over here.”

He led me to a faucet on the wall, where he filled up my 48 oz. bottle. I immediately chugged down a quart and asked for a refill. I didn’t know when the next watering hole would be available. So he didn’t think I was a completely crazy person, I told him I’d gotten turned around on the trail and was making my way back to my van.

I wanted to honor the man’s time and let him get back to his chores. I’d worked on two farms. I knew it was a full time job trying to stay even with everything that needed to be done. At the same time, I was curious about what it was like to run a large farm in Pennsylvania. What the pressures were, financial and otherwise. How he came to work here. Whether he was part of a family run operation or whether he was a hired hand. I couldn’t just stand there without learning something. I broke the silence.

“How long have you owned the farm?” I asked.

“My grandparents bought it.”, he said.

“That’s awesome.”, I said, extending my hand. “My name’s Jeff by the way.”

“I’m Ryan.”, he said.

“I’m Jeff Ryan.”, I said.

He got a good chuckle out of that. “Well, I’ll let you get back to work. Thanks for the water. It was a godsend.”

A nomad wandering the PA countryside

Back on the road, I walked, and walked and walked some more. It dawned on me that what I wished was the old fish hatchery was never a fish hatchery at all and that I was seriously off course. I was a nomad wandering the PA countryside in a race against the light to get back to my van.

Road, PAMy predicament got even worse when I took a wrong turn and walked two miles in the wrong direction to arrive in the town of Hamburg. It was 5:30 p.m. and I was even farther away from my van. It was two hours until sunset. I turned on my phone and it predictably dove down to near zero power. I didn’t have any means of charging it, as I had left the power cord in the van. There was nothing to do but walk.

I had gone about a mile toward Port Clinton (now I was certain I was heading in the right direction), when a Hamburg Police car approached. I waved the officer down and asked him for a ride to Port Clinton. Thankfully, he gave me a ride to the town line, which cut a few miles from my walk.

Now I was finally in familiar territory, walking among places I had definitely seen before and remembered. I sat on a bench in front of the Port Clinton Hotel. It was 6:00. I had at least 7 more miles to walk. I had already covered almost seventeen—way more than I had anticipated when I slung my day pack over my shoulders for a quick scamper to The Pinnacle and back.

I briefly considered going into the barroom at the Port Clinton Hotel and hailing a cab or asking a patron for a ride, but something made me get up and start walking instead.

It was a terrifying decision. The first 2-mile leg was on busy highway 61. I walked against the traffic and as far to the edge of the shoulder as I could. The noise was incessant.

By the time I turned onto Rt 895, the traffic was less frequent but even more dangerous. It was nearing dusk, there was hardly any shoulder (in some places, like where guardrails were involved) it was less than two feet wide and the drivers were driving as if they were in a car chase scene. There was a grooved center line engineered into the road designed to alert drivers if they drifted into the opposite lane. But what was good for drivers was dangerous for pedestrians. Rather than moving over to give me extra room, the drivers stayed tightly in their lane, to avoid the bumpy warning strip in the center. I was certain I was going to die from getting hit with a pick-up truck’s side view mirror, so when cars approached, I scurried off the pavement and turned away.

It was almost dark when I turned onto Rt. 2018 for the last four miles of my walk. I was gassed. I had walked 21 miles powered by two granola bars, a ham and cheese sandwich and 80 ounces of water. I tried hitching a ride with two pick-up trucks that went by. No luck.

Now it was dark. One mile in, a station wagon stopped on the other side of the road. The window powered down and a man asked, “Do you need a ride?”

Thank god. “Yes. please.”

His wife moved from the passenger’s side into the back with their two small children and I hopped in. There haven’t been many times when I was so happy to sit down and let the miles go by.

“I bet I know what you did.”, said the driver. “Don’t feel bad. EVERYONE misses that turn on the trail. We’ve done it, too.”

I shook my head. “Yup. The trail kind of goes back on itself.”

In what seemed like no time, we pulled into the lot with my van in it.

“Wow. Maine.”, said the driver when he saw my license plate. “We just got back from a vacation trip to Great Wass Island.”

“Small world.”, I said. As I got out of the car, I couldn’t thank them enough for coming to my aid. Then, just like that, they were gone and I was back in the silence at the edge of the forest.

I slid the van door open, stepped in and plopped down on the back seat. My mind was still in overdrive, traumatized by the harrowing roadside walk and all that had happened since the last time I was sitting in this same spot more than ten hours ago. My legs weren’t having a hard time slowing down, though. They’d been ready to stop moving for quite a while, but I’d kept them working hard.

I was too tired to eat more than a few crackers and some cheese. I’d make something more substantial in the morning. For now, I just wanted to lay down and treat my body and mind to a joyful state of nothingness.

The next day, I didn’t go more than 100 feet away from the van. I spent the whole day writing, eating and relaxing. A labor-free Labor Day was the best gift I could offer myself. I wasn’t going to let my mind start convincing me otherwise. If I started driving somewhere, I was in danger of succumbing to the idea of continuing my drive to Virginia. Listening to the voice compelling me to make progress every day would be like the alcoholic taking his first drink. The intoxicating urge to push myself would kick in. Instead, I needed to make a better, less exciting choice – to lay low and make recovery from my 22-mile walk my priority.

In the late afternoon, I spread out my road maps, opened my journal and revised the list of photos I needed to get to complete my book based on how much driving and hiking would be required to both do the job well and retain my sanity. Yesterday was enough to make me stop winging it. A more scripted plan with a little wiggle room for the unexpected was my new mandate. It would be a far better way to live than the other way around.