Chapter 1: Waking Up On the Appalachian Trail

“I’m saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: The Iraq war was largely about oil.” – Alan Greenspan, Chair of the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006

Forward Operating Base Falcon

Baghdad, Iraq

October 2007

First Sergeant’s voice wavered when he called Specialist Frank Steel’s name one final time. The booming echo, forever humbled, drifted down the hollow chamber of the makeshift chapel.

The pews emptied in a somber and orderly procession as the congregation paid their final respects, saying goodbye to a friend, a brother in arms. Stained and dusty combat fatigues were all we had occasion to wear, feeling fortunate enough just to attend the memorial during the brief quiet moments between missions. Assault rifles rested diagonally across our chests and backs, held loosely at the hips with our hands.

We filed past a shrine at the plywood altar: two boots and a rifle, dog tags hanging from the pistol grip. A framed picture showed Steel’s grin, a devious smirk that never let on to what he might be thinking. The grin seemed out of place in the dim glow of the chapel, an untimely echo from the past.

The American flag in the photo’s background reminded me of the innocent patriotism that led to Steel’s final seconds in the streets of Baghdad, his willingness for duty, and his eagerness to please his superiors. I hung my head, reaching out to touch the dog tags, and I began to cry. Tears turned to stifled sobs as I failed to find the language to cope. The desperate cries from my mouth weren’t me. They were the release of months of fatigue and grinding psychological stress. Months of witnessing the worst in humanity, of never letting my guard down or letting myself think of home. Months of being stretched to the point of collapse. I wiped my eyes and buried the grief, gathering my strength for the night’s missions.

I set a coin at the shrine’s base, adding the precious silver medallion to the pile of offerings. The collection of honorary medals and simple mementos of shared moments were scheduled for shipment to his mother in California, along with the folded American flag.

July 2nd, 2009

Day 0

Trail Mile 5

The orgiastic buzz of nocturnal life filled the forest air around me. Each hum and click betrayed an insectile fear or desire, a battle and victory, a yearning to play a round of Darwinian roulette. I slapped at a mosquito on my neck, balling the crushed carcass with my fingertips before flicking the remains to the ground—a Pixar tragedy deep within the heart of Maine’s Baxter State Park.

The beam of my headlamp lit trees and falling raindrops, and my upward gaze stopped at the perfect specimen to turn theoretical book knowledge into action. Potential energy to kinetic. “That’s the branch we’re looking for,” I declared.

I stood there, in front of my brother, as an outwardly confident but desperately insecure middle-class American youth, the typical ’80s kid with no sense of history and a public- education world view. The military should have made me a man, but I couldn’t tell you with any certainty if my time in Iraq had been honorable or if I’d been exploited by a pathologically greedy tribe of ivy leaguers, an oil dynasty waging war for oil. The TV commentary argued both sides.

I was the kid in high school who cheered when the armed forces initiated the Shock and Awe campaign on Iraq. If asked why, I said that the act was about justice and democracy. If probed deeper, I could only fall back on the assertion that America was the best country in the world, that we had moral obligations as the freest nation on earth.

Looking back on myself in those days—the way I wove my identity into that nationalistic pride—I would tell myself to look deeper. I’d tell myself to investigate behind the shiny facade I’d come to believe as objective truth, the one I learned about from the authority figures and media outlets entrusted to shape my mind. But I couldn’t.

And I was not a victim either. I only followed the same cultural currents, the swift and relentless torrent followed en masse by all the unthinking that led to so many of my peers going to college without any real clue as to their true calling, and that leads to middle-aged men asking, “what for?” after a life of corporate servitude and consumption. This rising current finds young wives crying silently next to sleeping husbands that they don’t really know or understand. It’s the same unfeeling current that finds struggling families drowning in credit-card debt and onerous mortgage obligations in their unconscious efforts to keep up with their friends and neighbors. I dictated my behavior and thoughts on the way in which I imagined those around me would condone or even admire. I swallowed the cultural Kool-Aid.

And I became even more intoxicated with patriotic arrogance nearing graduation. The sustained surge in patriotism following 9/11 made me feel as if my world view occupied the cultural moral high ground, that I was part of something larger than myself. I listened to vengeful country ballads on the radio and memorized the lyrics. Yes, I’d “put a boot in their ass.” I nodded as I sang along. Just hand me a rifle and point them out.

Like a character in a war film, I imagined myself operating “in the shit” and “outside the wire,” wondering what it would feel like to shoot someone, to maybe even get shot, to earn a purple heart. People would buy me drinks at the bar and give acknowledging head nods. They’d know my name. Their nods and approving gaze were the only rubric I had for success and self-worth. And in small town Middle West, I would come home from war a hero.

“Okay, Ben,” I said. “Tie this end to the food bag.” I flung the bundle of rope through the rainy forest air.

He rolled the line between his fingers, asking, “Is this even gonna hold the bear bag?”

“Of course, it will!” I replied, careful to project an impression of confidence. The cordage came from an outfitter just outside of Fort Riley, Kansas. He’d assured me of the rope’s all-purpose backpacking utility. Water from the forest floor soaked into my hiking pants, but the strain and fatigue of the day’s hike had me past caring about comfort. “It seems skinny,” I began, “but it’s rated at like, eight-hundred-pound test or something stupid like that. You could reel in a bull tuna with that stuff.”

“A bull tuna?” He brushed off the idiocy of my claim with an incredulous puff of air. He wanted to tell me that I had no idea what I’d gotten us into, that I’d started us on a poorly planned and pointless excursion along the Eastern Seaboard. He suspected that I’d made a 2,180 mile, continental-scale blunder.

“Just tie it,” I urged, grabbing the bag as he pulled a knot tight. I tied a stout branch to the rope’s free end and threw the rope up and over a horizontal tree branch overhead, smirking condescending fuck-yous at my brother when the branch landed at my feet, just as I’d planned. When it came time to lift the food bag, I drew up the slack and pulled tight to lift our provisions. But the waterproof sack seemed to have taken root, so inadequate the rope and my attempt at American muscle were for the job.

“Humph?” Ben snorted, looking me in the eye with an unimpressed look of inevitability. His gloating slowly faded into shades of uncertainty and almost-panic as he realized that the threat of a bear attack was a real possibility. With the dim Aha! expression of a Neolithic-order epiphany, he stooped and lifted the food bag high into the air, his frame toiling behind the unwieldy weight of eleven days’ worth of food. I drew up the slack, my confidence shaken by the set back. He lifted, I hoisted. “Again,” I commanded. I lifted, he hoisted. I jumped, pushing upward. Grunt, curse. Heave, ho.

Ben pushed at the bottom of the bag with outstretched fingers and on tiptoes, trembling like a quaking aspen in a mountain breeze, a cascade of sweat swept bits of moss and duff down the side of his face. My chronic incapacity to think critically had turned a “How to Hang a Bear Bag” magazine article into a folly, approaching cinematic proportions.

“Okay,” I said, delaying the command ever so slightly, quite possibly sadistically, as I watched him struggle. I gave him a nod while I tied the free end to a nearby stump.

“Backpacking is really awesome,” he said, looking up at the swaying bag overhead. He stood in a six-inch-deep pool of stagnant rainwater, shaking his head. Then he looked at me, pointed his thumb downward, and made a farting noise with his mouth. “I shoulda stayed in Oshkosh delivering pizzas,” he added, glancing down at his submerged feet. I couldn’t blame him. I had doubts, too, but I knew—deep inside—that time in the wilderness would help me, that I could find answers and clarity, even if I wasn’t yet sure of all the questions.

“Now can you find the way back to camp?” he jabbed, wringing rainwater from his beard. He bent down and stretched his right knee, wincing as the inflamed tendon pulled tight. I didn’t care that he’d been uncomfortable all day. He’d asked to join my hike. If backpacking wasn’t his idea of adventure, he could quit whenever he liked. So, I brushed off his insult, all of his snarky comments. He didn’t understand what the trail had come to represent for me.

Besides, he’d lost sight of the true irony of the moment: He had signed on to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail for the same reason I had. His worthless BA degree had given him the same flimsy sense of identity as my confusion over Iraq had given me. We both felt something was wrong, that certain social contracts had been broken. After all of our separate existential flailing, we’d found ourselves in the same spot—though, if you’d asked at the time, neither of us could have articulated why we decided to hike the trail. Ben might have said he tagged along because he had no real job prospects in the recession and maybe even that he looked forward for an opportunity to hang out with his combat veteran brother. And I’d have said that I intended to hike the Appalachian Trail for the adventure of it all.

Neither of us could imagine that in the months ahead, Ben would find his confidence and life’s calling, and I would find an unlikely and unconventional mentor to help sort out my confusion, leaving the Appalachian Trail with a completely new and lasting world view. All we knew, standing at the base of that tree, was that we didn’t know enough to be out there.

Day 0

Trail Mile 0

“Yeah, that should be enough,” I said, stepping forward from the weather-battered sign. I grabbed the camera, its metal frame cold to the touch. The wooden placard had been carried, many years prior and board by board, up the same trail I just struggled up with my brother. The fact that the sign existed in the first place and that a governing-agency committed resources to erect such a sturdy sign in such hostile terrain denoted the cultural import of its resting place. Generations of outdoors enthusiasts had revered the peak as the northernmost point of the Eastern Seaboard’s fabled Appalachian Trail.

“Are we good?” Ben yelled through the wind, looking toward me for guidance. He rubbed his hands together in front of exhaling, pursed lips. The mist of Alpine clouds collected into dewdrops on the scruff of his beard as he shifted weight from one foot to the other. I couldn’t be sure whether this was for warmth or to comfort his aching feet.

“Yeah,” I called out, stepping away from the iconic sign. “We can head back down.” I turned around for one last look at the lettering on the sign. I had seen pictures of thru-hikers, bowing down to kiss the jagged lettering on those boards. Their faces and clothing were as battered and beaten as the flaking brown paint and sun-bleached wood. I’d imagined the moment many times myself, except circumstance had determined those faded letters marked my beginning, not ending. But I was out there, and I was free. That’s all I cared about.

“Okay, well, let’s get going,” Ben insisted, attempting to coax me down the trail like a winged killdeer. “The weather really sucks up here.”

I turned around to follow. Walking south, I looked behind me one last time before the sign faded into the blowing mist. I’d walked into my daydream.

N. B. Hankes

N. B. Hankes

Founder and best selling author of "Waking Up On the Appalachian Trail."
Humboldt County, California