No Room For Elephants; Why I Hike and Keep Hiking
Words and Photos by Zac Boston
After encountering countless people on the Appalachian Trail, it's easy to see that something obviously causes a shift in life, leading us all to devote a sizable chunk of time to walk in the woods. Often, thru hiking a long-distance trail requires one to quit their employment, leave behind everyday routines, and subject the body to an endurance challenge that lasts for months on end. My road to the AT was paved over multiple years with many differing stones.
Tracing back the breadcrumbs to my youth, the trajectory of this current journey becomes more apparent. My family moved to Maine from Alabama when I was eight years old. Entering a New England school with a southern accent was a culture shock. It was clear even then those social bubbles were well-formed, and I quickly learned my place as the eccentric loaner. Lacking many close friends, television and food became my extracurricular activities of choice.
Hours snacking in front of the TV gradually ballooned my body to the point where I joined Weight Watchers in seventh grade. Out of solidarity more than necessity, my mother attended the weekly meetings with me in a local church basement. The only male and youngest member easily by two decades, I was obviously facing my overweight burden without cohorts. Determined to improve my self-confidence, I carefully followed the principles of the "points system," and over time, the weight slowly but steadily disappeared.
My weight would be something that required constant maintenance to stave off further gains. It was an ebb and flow of extra pounds that seemed to track with my happiness in life. After college, taking a desk job, and slipping into the creature comforts of regular employment, my waistline began expanding again in my mid 20's. Three separate moments brought the problem into clear focus.
First, in a friendly conversation at work, I joked with a coworker about being strong. I raised my arm in a typical manner to flex and show off my bicep, except this time, my squeezed fingers pushed right through the weakened muscles hitting just the bone. I was briefly stunned, I reflexed my arm, but with no noticeable bulging occurring, I quickly changed the subject in embarrassment.
The second eye-opener was after an autumn hike with my girlfriend at the time, and we looked through the photos from the outing. Day to day, we see our bodies briefly in the mirror, and we can overlook subtle changes in our appearance, but pictures seem to enhance the mental image we carry of ourselves. That evening I could barely recognize the person looking back at me. My bloated smiling face seemed foreign, and the extra body weight I carried up that mountain was masking the sadness I felt inside.
But the biggest shock to my system occurred at a yearly physical. After stepping on the scale, the doctor informed me that my BMI meant that technically, I fell into the morbidly obese category with a bodyweight of 250 pounds. Shocked and ashamed at my deteriorating health, I blushingly listened to his recommendations, knowing why I had reached this point.
In the following weeks and months, determined to shift the scales, I began counting my calories, cutting back on extra snacking, reducing my portion sizes, drinking plenty of water, and of course, getting more exercise. Of course, it wasn't overnight, but slowly throughout a couple of years, the weight came off, and with time spent at the gym, my muscles began to reappear.
Around this time, I started using social media apps more frequently. Since childhood, I have always been intrigued by the people who hike the Appalachian Trail. Then, with the world wide web at my fingertips, I started to follow thru hikers on their journey on Instagram and found helpful YouTube channels devoted to the hiker lifestyle. Sharing in others' experiences vicariously, I picked up the lingo, researched all the gear options for hours, and picked up the skills needed to be successful when spending large amounts of time in the wilderness.
Now, although my stomach was shrinking, I was growing increasingly dissatisfied with life. I had a secure job and long-time girlfriend, and it felt like the right time to get married and start saving for a house. But, while many checkboxes were getting filled, the emptiness I felt each day didn't seem to go away.
After a few years of marriage, we bought a house together, and our conversations then shifted to starting a family. But as time went on and more years passed, those talks stopped occurring, and I sensed a shift in our relationship. After twelve years spent together, you tend to pick up on the subtle changes in your partner's behavior, and I could tell something was different. Dreading the answer, I still wanted to know why, and the truth was that she no longer felt love for me.
My marriage entered purgatory at the same time as our country, and the world went into pandemic lockdown. Isolated from friends, family, and now my wife, I reconnected with the eccentric loaner of my youth. During Friday nights alone at home, my mind began to think of ways to break out from this imposed confinement. In science, a catalyst speeds up the reaction time of a solution. Covid and the looming divorce (which sounds like a horrible name for a punk band) helped to catalyze my hiking passions.
Lacking control of many aspects affecting my life, I found comfort in working to complete the AMC 4,000-footer lists for Maine and then New Hampshire. These lists offered a guide to help plan out my free time and devote it towards a worthwhile goal that I had pushed aside. Last year, with no party planned, I instead started working on bagging peaks last for my 32nd birthday. It was a dreary rain-filled day, but I tackled two summits on that Sunday and drove the two hours back home feeling a new sense of pride in myself.
Once home, I expeditiously began planning out my next couple of weeks, allotting weekend days to particular summits. In a slightly fortuitous twist of fate, thanks to new covid restrictions, I was able to make reservations at Baxter State Park, which usually would have been fully booked solid by that time of year. Starting in July, I spent the following weeks speedily completing the 14 high peaks in Maine by Labor Day, and afterward, I turned my sights on the New Hampshire 48.
Hiking quickly became the main passion filling my free time. I made a spreadsheet to track my progress and would spend hours planning and researching the different trails to choose the best route up each summit. All week at work, I looked forward to the weekend when I could devote my two free days to the next outdoor endeavor.
Through the winter, I continued to check off the high peaks of New Hampshire. As spring rounded the corner, I set a one-year deadline for myself to complete the remaining summits on the list. Looking at the calendar with an end date in mind, the only way I saw to finish in time was to double up on my day hikes. This meant driving to one mountain, hiking it, then driving to another mountain miles away and hiking it later in that same day. On these trips, I was doing 17 miles of hiking with 4,500 feet of elevation gain on average.
I saw the light at the end of the tunnel and began toying with the thought of hiking the AT one day. I wanted to test out my ability to carry more than just a light day pack while on trail. I filled my overnight pack with around 27 pounds of gear for three of my bigger distance hikes to give my body a true taste of thru hiking. What was meant as a challenge to maybe scare me away from a long distance thru hike actually had the opposite effect and proved that I was now physically ready.
Knowing I missed the common and more popular early spring start as summer approached, I began focusing on a southbound course to Springer Mountain in Georgia. I chose to do a SOBO thru hike because it's my style to get the hard stuff out of the way first and being from Maine, I felt a sense of comfort starting the trail near friends and family in case things went wrong. Also, after completing the Maine and New Hampshire 4,000 footers, I had a familiarity with the terrain and sort of knew what to expect during the first few weeks of my journey.
Another factor that played into my SOBO decision was the desire to hike the majority of the 2,193 miles from Maine to Georgia through the fall season. Hearing stories of swarming black flies, long hot, humid days, and heavy summer rains, I picked early August for my start date, hoping to miss the bulk of the annoying biting insects and hike in more moderate weather. With planning underway and a date in mind, I drafted my letter of resignation and started securing the gear I would need for a four to five month southward trek on the Appalachian Trail.
Heartache, boredom, improved fitness, and the desire to rewrite my narrative all led to my decision to hike the AT. A childhood dream that, over many years, has gradually morphed into a reality. Right now, I'm writing this all out on my cellphone while lying in my tent. The sun is slowly rising above the trees as I get ready for another long day on trail. We never know where life will take us, but if we don't give up hope and set forth a worthwhile goal, we give ourselves a way forward. You are capable of many great things. All it takes is one step at a time, and you will get there. Trust me.
One last thing. I came across a quote from a quite unlikely source that has resonated with me, filled my life journey with new meaning, and become a mantra of sorts that I repeat to myself often when times are tough:
"It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique. It's not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can become a catalyst for profound re-invention." – Conan O'Brien
Zac Boston is a designer, photographer, writer, and avid hiker who calls Maine home. Inspired by nature, he spends free time kayaking the shores of local rivers, biking twisty singletrack trails, and hiking the higher summits sharing his adventures along the way in hopes of inspiring others to explore the wild outdoors. After completing the AMC 4,000-footer lists for Maine and New Hampshire in 2021, he set out on a southbound thru hike of the Appalachian Trail. You can follow more of his hiking on his Instagram, website, and YouTube channel.