Thursday, March 5th, 2015

Journaling while Hiking the A.T. “I wish I’d written more”

Stephanie

PJ Day 1

PJ Roduta is a professional musician from Pittsburgh who is hiking the Appalachian Trail in 3 sections. PJ first hiked 530 miles of the southern portion of the trail (from Georgia to Virginia) in 2013, then another 720 miles (Virginia to Pennsylvania) in 2014, and plans on finishing the last 950 miles of the trail (Pennsylvania to Maine) this summer. During this phone interview, the theme that PJ kept touching on was that he was writing to remember

RD: Before the hike did you know that you were going to pack a journal?

I did, and I made one. I took little pieces of paper exactly the size I wanted (3×5”) and stapled them together. I brought the smallest, most lightweight pen I could find, and set out to accommodate about two pages per day.

On leftover pages I’d write reminders, lists of questions and things to research, like “What is shale?” I also wrote about things I learned while hiking, like the need for different walking techniques depending on the circumstances at hand. For example, Ninja Down: a downhill, leg heavy, crouching walk. After initially describing these techniques, I’d find myself referencing them in later entries – “Ninja down technique really helped me today.”

There’s a lot to be said for noting these little ideas about how to walk. As small as they are, it’s profound because I’m walking. I’m walking the entire time and of course, one is going to learn how to walk correctly and efficiently in that kind of setting. It’s not a sidewalk, it’s not a floor, it’s not flat, it’s not steps, it’s not stairs, it’s all kind of strange angles that you have to get your foot to fit, and you have to watch your footfalls.

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RD: In what other ways did you use your journal? 

I wrote down lyrics to a few songs, simple, yet poignant and in the moment.

I’d also use it as a tool to write myself to sleep sometimes – not even to remember what I was doing, but just to have this ritual. I think for a lot of people, a journal is a ritual. It gives them an opportunity to come back and take a breath, to just be with their thoughts and collect themselves – a type of yoga, a mental clarity. Yoga with paper and pen instead of a mat.

I’d also find myself making up stories inspired by the magical qualities of nature, and as a result of my journaling process, I discovered that I want to write children’s books. Completed and currently in the in the process of being illustrated, is “Only Oswald” a story about a frog who starts out as an outcast, and ends up a hero.

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“When I keep a journal, I’m documenting memories and recording things I might not consider in the future. Writing allows me to  look back to see what is still true for me – how and if I’ve changed. It offers perspective of who I was then and who I am now.”

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RD: Did your writing style change from year to year on the trail?

My first year, I was very brief. I kept bullet pointed little snippets, such as Day 1: “A white blaze is all I need to keep forging ahead.” “Knowing you are not the only one makes your ego vanish” “Breath is key” “Mind your footfalls”

In my 2nd year, my journal was triple the size of the first because I learned that I have a lot to say and remember. I wanted to give myself space to write a little bit more than I had the first year. By now, I’d had more experience with hiking – I knew a little bit more in terms of going forward and finding my way, so I knew I’d have more time to write.

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RD: What inspired you to take a journal?

While performing my initial research, I kept seeing that other people were including a journal and a pen on their packing lists – it just seemed like it was a compulsory thing. You go out in the woods, you have a great experience, but you need to remember, a lot.

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RD: What if you never wrote things down? What would you be missing?

The details. Relying on memory, only the big experiences make it through. One of the assets to writing is remembering your little thoughts. That’s one reason I go out on the trail is to study myself. There’a a great deal of self reflection, of turning the eye inward when I am alone and in a foreign environment. The point for me is to go out and have a good time while learning about myself. Not having the journal would mean that I would forget these little things.

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“The trail makes its mark on you somehow, and you gotta walk, you gotta hike- to learn those lessons and better your entire life. You gotta walk towards enlightenment. That was the primary purpose of hiking, the secondary purpose was to document just a little bit. “

2014 Tue Jun 24th, Day 14. I was just getting out of Rocky Road Trail campsite and heading toward Buena Vista: “The zoning out is getting more frequent. I often remember completely random things, like how Uma Thurman orders her Kirby Burger “bloody as hell” to Steve Buscemi in Pulp Fiction. Or a trailer I saw on TV for a Kim Basinger movie called Real World about a cartoon coming alive. I never saw the movie, just the trailer commercial on TV. Right now, a beautiful guitar lick off the opening track of Layla Sessions is looping through my head – it has been, for roughly three hours, non-stop.

Time seems to slow down out here. Maybe because I get up early, maybe because I cover so much ground in the morning. In any case, I feel like each day is honestly two days long. All I do is walk. In generally the same northerly direction, but so much happens. I walked up a creekside in an abandoned slave community today, AND, I ate a Cowboy Joe burger at the Blue Dog Arts Cafe, AND resupplied food at Family Dollar, AND got a ride back to the trail from Robbie and his wife Linda who offered the ride without me even asking, gave me his number to call whenever I was ready, and refused my cash but gave me water and Lipton Green Tea to take with me.”  

I couldn’t have ever remembered even that short list of things had I not written it down. A lot happens out there.

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RD: Have you gone back and read through your journals? 

Yes. The experience from this past summer is still pretty recent, still fresh. I think I’m going to be very thankful that I wrote this stuff down in 5-10 years. I’ve thought about filling in the bullet points from the 1st year – I tried it and discovered it will be a massive undertaking. I’ve thought about publishing… who knows.

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RD: Is there anything that you didn’t do with your journal that you wish you would have? 

You know, I wish I’d written more. I wish I had described these people down to their eye color and height and brand of backpack they were carrying. I wish I would have asked everybody what kind of gear they were using so that I could be really well informed for my subsequent year. “Oh, I tallied up everybody I met and they all had Kelty backpacks and nobody had North Face coats – Why? Maybe I should research why nobody has North Face coats when they are hiking outdoors – because I thought that’s what they were for.”

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RD: Any ideas on how you will be journaling in year three?

Having already documented much of the technical and logistical aspects of hiking the A.T. in years one and two, with 950 miles of the trail to go in year three, I could go out this year with a big, huge journal with a lot of pages to fill up. I could leave myself a lot of time to write. With bruises on my feet and long hair to show for my time out on the trail, maybe now, during the last leg of this trip I can flesh out some of the things I’ve learned. 

RD: What do you suppose it will be like to document the end of your hike?

To document things at the very end? It’s going to be really, really meaningful for me to write down the end of a journey like this, and to think about what it’s like to go into the NEXT journey, whatever that is.

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RD: Final thoughts? Any writing tips for future hikers? 

I think I’ve learned in the last two years of hiking that I should bring more paper.

Want to learn more about the Appalachian Trail?

The Appalachian Trail is one of the longest continuously marked footpaths in the world, measuring roughly 2,180 miles in length. The Trail goes through fourteen states along the crests and valleys of the Appalachian mountain range from the southern terminus at Springer Mountain, Georgia, to the Trail’s northern terminus at Katahdin, Maine.

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Rhodia Drive Blogger Stephanie Smith with PJ Roduta in 2013, not long after he had completed hiking the first 530 miles of the trail.

One thought on “Journaling while Hiking the A.T. “I wish I’d written more”

  1. When I was learning to backpack, I wrote copiously in my journals. Every evening, every morning. There was so much to obeserve and to remember. FAscinated by the apparutus, habits, furniture, and failures of my companions, I felt compelled, I had to capture everything. Later, my journals were less observational and more emotive, creative. My pencils started wandering off to sketch, craft poems, make up stories. After each major trip, though, I made a list of ten things I either learned or laughed about.
    When I started doing (fully supported) tours on my bicycle, I brought along my journal bcause it’s always with me anyway. But it turns out there’s precious little down time on these events. Hardly any opporunity to relax and read or write. Bike tour events like Cycle Oregon are crowded and noisy and there’s always too many things to get done or to do or to look at and even though it’s a vacation, you can’t stand still. If I get out my writing tools, someone wants to talk about notebooks or iPads or, get this, wants to know what I write about. Can you imagine?! I would never ask anyone elese what they are doing in their notebook. I tried recording one trip on facebook. That was sad. I have seen folks journaling on their iPads and phones. That activity, all by itself, just feels hectic.
    People take hundreds of snapshots with their phones on these trips. I’m a professional photographer and I come back with maybe ten ro twenty interesting shots from a week’s trip. I’ve asked people what they do with all their pictures. They email a couple but they say they may never look at the rest of them. They won’t throw any away but they’ll never be shared or reviewed or edited or culled or sorted into events and albums or backed up for posterity. They certainly will never be printed. Do they take enough photos? Is that the new journaling?
    So I have my webbie or my molie and a mechanical pencil and a felt tip with me at all times. When I get a chance, I write. No, I never write enough.

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