trail stories

Pivotal Path

Contemplation on big life transitions
and sweet simplicity

By Niki DiGaetano

From top: The perfect stop for lunch overlooking the Cheshire Reservoir; Sunny fields and a gradual climb made for an easy start to the hike up Mount Greylock

Three miles into an 80-mile hike

through Massachusetts, I lost my map. Dumbfounded, I sat on a gravel road in the middle of a field, taking a break after those mighty three miles I’d walked past my starting point at Shay’s Rebellion. Tired already, there was no way I was going to go back to search for the map. For a few long minutes, anxiety threatened to swamp me like a tide; I didn’t have the names of the shelters where I was stopping written anywhere but on the map, nor I did I have a way to measure mileage or the elevation profile. I did have a guidebook, which at least contained some of the aforementioned information. Berating myself, I stood and continued walking, resigned to my mapless fate. Surely this was a practical joke: me, ever goal-oriented, always wanting to know what was coming next, being forced to continue without any indication of what lay ahead.

Like many things recently, walking onto the Trail seemed surreal. I’d just graduated college, signed on for a full-time job, and completed a cross-country road trip, all in the span of a month. Now I proposed to walk 80 miles on the Appalachian Trail, hoping a week-long stroll would help me refocus and think. But I underestimated the difficulty and should have known better. After all, what part of the Appalachian Trail is in any way, “an easy stroll?” Many such portions do exist of course, but not for 80 consecutive miles through the Berkshire Mountains.

After the map incident, the next few miles were through deceptively easy, flat fields, where I came across a miracle: a hiker approached and asked if I’d lost a map. After returning it, he asked my Trail name. On impulse, I committed to the name I’d been toying with for several days: “80.” Originally, this hike was to be a hundred miles, but I’d shortened it due to spending the previous week in upstate New York, supporting a friend through a death in the family. I’ve always been goal-driven, so giving up the hundred was a big deal. I picked 80 to remind myself of the twenty miles I’d cut off, that sometimes, priorities can shift, and that’s okay.

Through the duration of my hike, I went through the typical aches and pains of my body adjusting to the demanding physical toll I was asking of it. I could have saved myself even more pain by using hiking poles, but I didn’t pick those up until my fifth day, when my knees were screaming. I also went through something in the first few days that surprised me: I missed my family and friends with a fierce longing; something I’d also underestimated. This was eased somewhat by the hikers I met along the way, people I camped with, and who swapped stories, advice, and good laughs over meals and campfires. The kindness, company, and conversation with these authentic people rejuvenated my body and spirit each night at camp. Whenever I would share a meal with fellow hikers, it felt like being a part of something bigger than myself, something gentler and slower than the rest of society, which seems to move at a hundred miles an hour. I wondered if perhaps there was more truth to the phrase, “happiness is only real when shared,” after all. Perhaps it wasn’t an all-encompassing maxim — time alone is still good and necessary — but it was something monumental that I took with me.

Niki at the top of Mount Greylock just before her decent down the other side of the mountain

I was elated to have reached the border, to have reached my goal, to be going to a warm hotel that night, to come at last to the end of so many things, arriving at the beginning of many others.

On my second-to-last night on the Trail, three-quarters of the way up Mount Greylock, I contemplated making tomorrow my last day. If I did, it would mean a nineteen-mile day, but it would save me from rising early the following morning and hiking an additional three hours to catch a bus to Williamstown in time for my father’s birthday dinner. Early the next morning, something in me said “go.” I knew with certainty that I wanted to complete my hike a day early. I thought it would be momentous, that I’d approach the border with mixed emotions — elation and sadness in equal measure. While I did still feel an extreme drive and determination that propelled me up the rest of Greylock, the determination wasn’t stressful. I lapsed into “hiker’s pace” when I was able to, but cursed the north face of Greylock and its three unrelenting miles of steep downhill switchbacks. Before I reached the Vermont border, I climbed the steepest stretch of terrain I’d encountered on the Trail, and the most challenging, despite not even being a half mile. When the sign for Vermont and the Long Trail appeared, it felt surreal. I touched it, read the words welcoming hikers to the Long Trail, and plopped onto a rock for a celebratory bag of peanut M&Ms. I floated on an adrenaline rush back to the side trail, Pine Cobble, that I would take back to Williamstown. I was elated to have reached the border, to have reached my goal, to be going to a warm hotel that night, to come at last to the end of so many things, arriving at the beginning of many others.

When I reached the road, I looked up the closest lodging, the Maple Inn Motel, and was relieved to hear they had a room, despite the mile and a half walk into town. All told, I did 19-and-a-half miles my final day. Not a big deal to thru-hikers by any means, but a big deal and a milestone to me. If I was this ecstatic, I wondered what my fellow hikers would experience when they summited Katahdin. I wondered what it would be like to have done the whole Appalachian Trail, to experience all that I had in seven short days over the period of six months. I had already been given so much: the gift of the Trail community, the enhanced joy of genuine interaction, and the slowed-down pace of covering ground at two miles per hour. Even though my body was beaten up — mostly due to my own stupidity — my mind was refreshed. Plus, my “Trail legs” and my hard-won endurance are still with me. It was only seven days and 80 miles, but it was enough time on the Trail to solidify my understanding of the profundity of things that are so easy to take for granted: people who love you, time, and of course, warm meals and the comforts of home.