I didn’t attend MIT this spring. I flew to Georgia on February 28th and hiked to central Maine, traversing over 2,181 miles in four months. I finished just in time to cruise back to Boston for 4th of July celebrations and fireworks. I kept a blog (which you can read at gabehikestheat.tumblr.com if you’re interested), and raised over $11,100 for Juvenile Diabetes Research using per-mile sponsorship.
I’m blessed to have been in a position to take the semester off, to have supportive family and friends, and to have gotten exposure through the Boston Globe and various other news outlets, all of which contributed greatly to the fundraising. The hike (called the Appalachian Trail, or AT) itself was challenging. I clambered over rocks, roots, hills and mountains for 20-30 miles every day. It rained, well, probably just as often as in other parts of the country. But I was outside for every drop. For more of the nitty-gritty details and hundreds of cool pictures, check out my hiking blog. I’m going to take this space to connect what happened out there to my future at MIT.
My three main takeaways from this experience:
1) Materials and money do not equal happiness
So long as you have a certain amount of each, you don’t need more. Give it away. Living out of a 38-liter backpack taught me exactly what I need and what I don’t. Much how extra stuff weighs my backpack down on the Trail, extra stuff weighs us down emotionally and physically through life. Now I’m not a fanatic about this. As soon as I got back after the hike I thoroughly enjoyed texting my friends, browsing Facebook, sitting in my comfy desk chair and even splurging a bit at Max Brenner (a must-have dessert stop on Boylston Street). But I no longer aspire to drive a Porsche Carrera or live in a multimillion dollar home. Although money can help place you in experiences that will enrich your life, money can’t buy happiness.
This will translate to my life at MIT by allowing me to focus less on money and materials and spend more time doing cool things with interesting people—I will splurge less on food (ramen noodles and pasta sides should suffice most evenings), I will make do with what clothing and materials I already own, and I will recognize that my smile is independent of my bank account or the label on my shirt. Some things just don’t matter to me anymore. Go hike for 4 months and you’ll find out what simply doesn’t matter to you too.
2) Experiences are best shared
Except for certain reflective outings, I want the people in my life who I care about to share future experiences and adventures with me. With time alone, enough is enough, and hiking all of June void of companionship taught me that. At MIT, I rarely do things alone. Although I am determined not to write much on the subject of MIT’s difficulty (I’ll leave that to the other bloggers), P-sets are often challenging. Collaboration is encouraged, and my hike made me internalize that even if it’s possible to ‘solo’ something, engaging others is fun and can usually be more productive. Going through MIT alone would not be enjoyable, if even possible. Luckily, nobody has to. I plan to collaborate even more this coming year.
3) Hike your own hike, and enjoy it
That’s what Hot Rock (the shuttle driver who whisked me to the start of the AT in Georgia) told me. And he was right. Perhaps this is part of any young man’s coming of age, but I started to trust my own judgment while making decisions on the Trail. Mom wasn’t around to tell me when to shower, when to eat, when I should go to sleep. I guess she wasn’t around for my first two years at MIT either, but there were certainly other people (in MacGregor and in Sigma Chi) who influenced my decisions on clothing and eating/sleeping habits. With nobody telling me how I should behave, or role modeling ‘typical’ behavior, I was on my own clock. I tried many different routines; sometimes I would start walking early in the morning and sometimes I would sleep in and walk late into the night, using my headlamp to navigate around trees and over rocks. Sometimes I would just walk all night and take a long lunch nap. I was on my own schedule and made decisions completely uninfluenced by societal norms or matriarchal instincts.
This rebellious and at times unhelpful attitude isn’t completely sticking with me, and that’s probably for the best. My roommates wouldn’t appreciate it much if I did exactly what I wanted all the time. ACDC blaring at four in the morning? I don’t think so. Many social norms are rooted in science. For example, sleeping 8-9 hours at a regular time each night is healthy. Harder to believe still is that some of my parent’s orders in my younger years were somewhat conducive to a better life– brushing every night before bed will actually keep the Dentist at bay. So ultimately, I have many routines that are identical to the ones I had before the hike. But now I understand why I do these things. The ‘MIT experience’ is different for every one of the 4,000+ undergrads. Even if you take the cross section of student bloggers on this site, ‘normal’ for MIT becomes a confusing concept. The vastly different strengths and interests in the student body enrich the experience for all. Everybody hikes their own hike here, hopefully straight up onto the graduation stage.
Summed up, I learned to:
Do what makes me happy* with the people I like**, when and how I want to***.
*regardless of material possessions or money
**whether I could do it alone or not
***with regard to precedent and norms
Although it doesn’t fit well into my three ‘lessons’, the low levels of external stimulation while hiking deserve mention. While walking, my thoughts were often focused on the simple tasks at hand—when to eat, where to sleep, etc and, occasionally, on NPR blaring through a $6 radio. At MIT, the pace of life is much quicker and my brain is stimulated by all sort of unique people, situations and information. While sometimes overwhelming, stimulation envelops us all here. We like it like that, that’s why we’re here (you probably like it like this too, and that’s why you’re reading). Sometimes it’s good, and necessary, to get away for short breaks. But four months is a long time, and I’m ready to be challenged again!
I’m amped about this coming year. In accordance with my newfound wisdom, I’m doing something that makes me extremely happy—learning and playing at the coolest school in the world. I’m interacting constantly with people who inspire me. And I’m doing it now. Life couldn’t be better.
As for the hike– that’s it. That’s all. I will forever be an AT thru-hiker. I’ll never forget my encounters with bears, moose and falling trees. I’ll always hold memories with Dr. Bundy, WhiteFang, Renaissance and Gadget (friends who I met on the Trail) close to my heart. I will endeavor never to forget the misery of frozen socks, sore knees and buggy swamps. This last one will be hard, because I already look back and laugh. It wasn’t so bad, I tell myself. Even in the moments of misery, I knew I’d come to feel this way. But man, was I miserable at times. The journey was hard, and very long. But I recommend it to anyone who seeks to experience the Appalachian mountains, challenge themselves, and meet some of the neatest people in the world at the pace life used to be:
Two miles per hour.
Until next time,
Gabe (3Stove if you want my ‘Trailname’)