you do not have to do the harder thing
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We get dropped off on the side of the road, at the place where the Appalachian Trail crosses Route 7.
It is 2pm. I stand there with my new friend, Meg. The plan is to hike 12 miles before dark today, and then hike 25 miles each of the next two days and 10 miles on the final morning. Ambitious, we say to each other. But doable.
An hour later, sitting in the dirt near a wooden bridge, watching as bright afternoon sun filters down through the leafy forest canopy, we abandon this plan.
This plan is stupid, we say.
This plan is not fun, we realize.
And so we slow down. We hike 6 miles instead of 12. We stop at 5pm. We pitch our tents. We cook our little pots of noodles. We walk to the edge of a rocky outcropping together and watch the sun as it begins to set, hazy pink light aglow across the treetops.
The next day we do not hike 25 miles. 25 miles feels too hard, too efforty, too much like work. We do not want to work; we want to meander through the day like little woodland witchlings.
So we hike 18.8 miles instead—still a big day with lots of walking, but much more manageable for us. We take plenty of breaks. Meg cooks ramen at 10am on the side of the trail. We lay in our tents for hours that evening, talking and laughing.
Tomorrow we will hike even fewer miles, we say. Tomorrow we will take even more breaks. Longer breaks. Breaks in which we lay on the ground and read books on our phones. Tomorrow we will make 11 miles last all day long.
In the end we hike a total of 38 miles, a little more than half of what we originally set out to do. A spectacular failure of our initial plan, surely, and yet also a strange sort of victory for two experienced long-distance hikers who are prone to the crush-crush-crush mentality of ‘how hard can I push myself?’
We do not always need to be pushing ourselves.
At 8am on the final morning we get picked up at a random road crossing, so close to where we started that the route home is virtually identical to the way we came in. This makes me laugh deeply—did we seriously have Gent drive us 2.5 hours each way so that we could hike for days only to wind up adjacent to where we began? Yes. Yes we did.
On the way home we stop for pastries at a local bakery. Then a little while later we stop at McDonald’s too, because of course we need road trip hash browns. Our shirts smell awful—our packs, too—but we do not care. We have become closer friends on this trip. Our camera rolls are filled with photos of the early fall leaves and the mossy trees and the tiny orange newts that skittered by us all along the trail.
We could have done the harder hike, but we didn’t.
We could have pushed ourselves, but we chose not to.
Sometimes the more easeful thing is exactly enough.