Adversity and the AT

Mike’s Hike

Mike Briggs

Mike Briggs

Editor’s note: In 2012, chemistry professor Mike Briggs, Ph.D., retired from IUP. On Jan. 6, Briggs, 66, a wounded Vietnam War platoon commander and former tire-manufacturing plant manager in Morocco, set out from Flagg Mountain, Ala., on a northbound hike along the Appalachian Trail His goal is to complete a 2,185-mile trek to the trail’s northern end in Baxter State Park, Maine, by Oct. 10 — a rate of 15 miles a day, by his reckoning.

During the hike, Briggs plans to file occasional reports and ruminations to The HawkEye, composing on a Google tablet and filing from Wi-Fi hotspots at accommodations along the trail.

This is his first installment.

By Mike Briggs

DALTON, Ga. — Why is it so hard to get something to work the first time you encounter it?  A change of place and perspective — hiking all 2,185 miles of the Appalachian Trail — prompts some thoughts during hours alone in the woods. 

Like most things in life, you can look at adversity from several perspectives. Readers can list the downsides. My purpose here is to list the benefits.

Adversity is hard in that it requires exercise of muscle, mind or tool in ways that are new or different.  For example, walking 15 miles should be easy. We know how to walk, and most of us walk some distance every day.   

But the trail — the AT, as hikers call it — dishes out ascents and descents that require extra energy and balance.  The trail is littered with roots, stones and leaves that hide sloping surfaces. Walking even a few miles takes much more energy and attention than walking along a sidewalk.  It is hard to walk a trail.  

Why do it, then?

Walking the trail requires strength in muscles you might not normally use.  But it is exactly that strengthening that allows you to hike a long distance and achieve a goal of completing a long trail.  It sharpens our attention to details of the tread way.

Where are the sharp rocks? Where is the edge of the tread way when it falls away sharply? How can I use my hiking poles to stay on top of rocks while hopping across a swollen creek?  It increases our own kinesthetic awareness of where to place each footstep. Adversity strengthens us and allows us to accomplish activities of which others can only dream.

Adversity presents uncertainty in which correct action is not obvious.  The introduction of uncertainty prompts exercise of problem-solving skills not normally needed.  For example, where does the trail go from here?  Which way is the correct one?   

Some problem-solving skills learned on the trail include looking back to find a trail marker. A marker behind you means you are still on the trail.  Step a few paces in a desired direction and see if a marker appears on a tree there.  Or backtrack to find a marker.  Consider all of the options.  Don’t just take the first that comes to mind. Adversity strengthens our problem-solving skills and makes us better decision-makers by allowing us to consider all options before we make our final call.

In uncertain situations we may have to seek help from other people.  This can be difficult. But it can but lead to finding unsung heroes.

For example, in a metropolitan area with night falling, knocking on a few doors and asking for permission to pitch a tent in a side yard for the night requires a great leap of trust by a homeowner. But when a hiker finds the right homeowner, you might get dinner and breakfast along with the trust. In this case adversity leads to kindness and trust from people you would otherwise never meet. 

Mike Briggs on an extension of the Appalachian Trail in Northeast Alabama, Jan. 6. Photo by Bob Burger.

Mike Briggs on an extension of the Appalachian Trail in Northeast Alabama, Jan. 6. Photo by Bob Burger.

Another example is walking three miles into town at 7:30 a.m. in the rain.  A couple in an SUV stops and offers a ride.  Without the rain, the couple would not have stopped; would not have taken a wet, dirty, smelly hiker to the post office;  would not have delivered him to a motel two miles away, and certainly would not have brought him a home-cooked meal delivered to his hotel room.

Daily details about Mike Briggs — aka Quakerland Forge, his trail name — and his hike can be accessed at www.postholer.com/quakerland

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