When Good Friends Take a Hike
The Appalachian Trail shimmies some 2,175 miles up the eastern seaboard. It cuts through 14 states from its northern starting point, Maine’s Mount Katahdin, to its southern terminus ‘– Springer Mountain in Georgia. It’s the longest continuous footpath in America, one that requires an average of 5 million footsteps from start to finish.
For the past year or so, my friend Zach Mull has walked everywhere, from the back routes between his apartment in College Park and work at Edward McKay’s to the freshly paved roads leading downtown. He saved his paychecks, researched hiking gear and finally put in his notice at work. Later this week he’ll pack a couple changes of clothes, a tent, a sleeping bag and a week and a half’s supply of food into a car piloted by friends for the drive up to the northern trailhead.
I probably won’t see him for several months. His absence will require some adjustment. Zach and I have played music together as members of Dawn Chorus for more than three years. My friendship with Zach, ignited by my respect for his songwriting talent, has accreted over time through the chatter of weekly practices and conversations over the white-knuckle slalom of the Smokies at 4 a.m. Through three boyfriends, five jobs and innumerable living arrangements, Zach, Andrew and Will have been there, rocklike and ready to distract me from whatever stress I tote alongside my bass guitar.
My reaction to Zach’s decision to walk the Appalachian Trail has been a predictable blend of admiration and concern. The rational part of me knows that he’ll be safe and emerge from his adventure physically healthier, likely with a renewed focus and broader perspective. But then I imagine the bears, moose, snakes and other toothy dangers. And, even worse, the prospect of facing the city’s music scene, carved out as it is between the political and fashionable, without the company of my dependably misanthropic ally.
‘“You know me, I’m a man of grand gestures,’” Zach said over an Indian food lunch. ‘“I’m not a process kind of guy, I can’t lose weight over four years of diet and exercise like normal people.’”
It was almost a year ago when he decided to tackle the trail. Zach was hanging out at the old Gate City Noise last summer, reading a book about it when Andrew Dudek (Greensboro’s Rick Rubin) asked him if he planned to walk the Appalachian Trail.
He looked up and he said yes, even though he’d been on the fence about it until then. Six months later he turned 30. The morning of his birthday Zach and a few friends hiked up Pilot Mountain.
‘“This has been a big personal decision for me, but it’s fairly common,’” Zach said. ‘“About 300 to 400 people finish it every year.’”
As we ate he tilted his head to the side, the instinctual byproduct of a recent root canal. Even one of the dentists at the office where his tooth was pulled once walked the Appalachian Trail, he said.
But for someone who has to pump herself up for a walk out to the trash bin, his decision seems pretty momentous.
For five months or more Zach’s day will consist almost solely of walking. Given the opportunity to enjoy a swimming hole or a spectacular view, he’ll probably break from his one-track plan. Other than that, only eating and sleeping will halt his relentless march south.
His decision to start at Katahdin is anomalous among through hikers (those who walk the entire trail in one go), most of whom start in Georgia and trek northward.
‘“It just makes sense for me to walk toward home instead of away from it,’” he said.
Plus, his lease ran out this month, and the earlier start would have given him less time to save money (savings already depleted to the tune of $400 by a burglar). The extra time has allowed him to plan and strategize. He’ll send what are known as bounce boxes, containers filled with food and extra supplies, down the trail to where he might need them.
‘“Mostly what I’m worried about are homesickness and boredom,’” he said.
After the cover show, where he donned the flowing pirate shirt and platinum tresses of Spinal Tap’s David St. Hubbins, he felt a twinge of doubt. He worried about all the things he’ll miss while on the trail.
But you’re always missing something. I, for instance, have never been to Maine or any of the states north of New York City. So I’ll be relying on Zach to keep a blog, which he’ll do via cell phone calls to a Greensboro proxy, to tell me what it’s like.
As for Greensboro, I’m pretty sure things will stay the same. Perhaps the scene will become subtly more fashionable and maybe a hair more political.
As for Zach, I’ll be expecting big changes when he gets back. And I’ll be ready to start playing his songs again. So be careful Zach. Dawn Chorus needs those fingers almost as much as you do.
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