The forecast is calling for snow with overnight temperatures in the teens. There are a number of variables that can knock us off stride — a rolled ankle, a bad stomach, a bear encounter. We also need to have a backup plan in case it all goes south.
While there are emergency bailout options along the route, we’ll make a decision whether to commit to the full 60 miles at the halfway point. That moment will require a heightened level of honesty and trust, not just with each other, but with ourselves.
Nagging injuries, mild discomfort, and mental fatigue will all need to be weighed against the pursuit of a goal both of us want to achieve. We made a promise that either of us can pull the plug without fear of judgment, but deep down, neither of us want to be the one who has to make that call.
Every year my best friend Brad and I organize a day out on the Appalachian Trail. Given our age — 45 — and grownup responsibilities — families, kids, jobs — simply carving out enough time to spend an entire day is half the battle and the only reward. It’s our version of a guys weekend, but with trekking poles and fastpacks instead of beers and whatever it is guys do on guys weekends.
Brad and I have been friends from the moment my family moved next door to his nearly 40 years ago, but what keeps our relationship vital is we don’t live in the past. While there’s certainly enough time on the trail to catch up and relive old stories, what we’re after is an opportunity to test ourselves physically and travel deep within our emotional core, past artifice and constructed walls, to forge new bonds in the present.
To get there, we need a goal that is both manageable and also slightly out of reach. This year we are going to challenge ourselves by traveling roughly 60 miles from Culvers Gap in Branchville, New Jersey, to the Delaware Water Gap on the border of Jersey and Pennsylvania, and back again.
Relationships like this are rare in any capacity, but especially among middle-aged men.
A few months before out first AT outing in November 2017, Billy Baker from the Boston Globe wrote a piece about the loneliness epidemic. One of the takeaways was that men do better at maintaining relationships when there is an activity involved.
It was during that first trip we made a conscious decision to not only work at maintaining our friendship, but to become brothers. That means actually calling each other on the phone and arranging to see each other as often as we can even though we live 300 miles apart.
The centerpiece of that effort is our day on the AT, which has become a sacred tradition. Our families recognize its importance, and go to great lengths to ensure we can do it annually. To pull this off, we need everyone from spouses and kids to parents and grandparents.
The plan is to hit the trail early, around 5 a.m. Ideally, we’ll return to our starting point within 20-24 hours if everything goes well, which it probably won’t. We’ll have to reckon with the reality of physical pain and exhaustion. There will be night miles and neither of us have as much nocturnal training as we’d like.
What will get us through the day, and night, will be our mental resolve. We’ll have to tap into resources beyond our normal capacities and rely on each other to carry some of the burden when the other starts to fade. By consciously pushing into the unknown, we aim to emerge from the experience stronger than when we began.
Neither of us knows for sure what we’ll find when we reach that place. The only thing we can be absolutely sure of is there will be a moment of vulnerability when we will have to consciously push through pain in a setting where there is no other realistic choice. Our goal is to find peace within the suffering in a place we both love.
Then we will consume a metric ton of pancakes and sleep until noon. There are worse ways to spend a weekend with an old friend.