I'm not familiar with the North Country National Scenic Trail, although I may have unknowingly walked portions of its route through Ohio. I'm more acquainted with its better-known relative, the Appalachian Trail, having hiked about 175 miles of it in Virginia and West Virginia.
The introduction came in June 2011, while backpacking the stretch from Rockfish Gap northward into Shenandoah National Park, stopping days later at Skyland Ranch. This year, the journey resumed at Skyland and continued in a northerly direction to Harper's Ferry, W.Va. (and across a bridge into Maryland).
The initial stint resulted in the impression that hiking the trail end-to-end, between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine - usually a 4-6 month undertaking - is rather self-indulgent. An ordeal, to be sure, but not a self-sacrifice; the person enduring the hardships of the trail also is the person enjoying the rewards.
The return visit this year brought a revised view.
For some trekkers, such as those with children, spouses, jobs or other responsibilities, a thru-hike may be an indulgence (despite carrying a 30- to 50-pound pack up and down mountains and foregoing showers for days on end). But the majority of thru-hikers, as those who trek the entire trail in one season are called, are college-aged, typically recent graduates on hiatus before beginning grad school or a career. For them, the trek is highly recommended.
Valuable life lessons are distilled, refined, focused and concentrated on those who endure the 2,100-mile hike that traverses 14 states and often encompasses four seasons. Life on the trail can reset a backpacker's comfort zone. A long-distance hike can cause a person to rethink what is necessary in terms of food, shelter and entertainment, and the journey can bring a new appreciation for fellow hikers, regardless of their political beliefs and socio-economic background.
That recent college grad can discover how little is necessary to survive, that life can be enjoyed without the appurtenances deemed essential by consumerism. A backpacker has to carry everything needed to live - food, shelter, clothing, stove, fuel - which results in a different sort of economy, one not governed by money.
When weight and bulk are key concerns, any item carted 2,100 miles is pondered carefully.
In a world were portability is essential, less, quite often, is more.
These young adults on the trail also learn perseverance and the importance of long-term planning. A 2,100-mile hike beginning in April and ending in September of October is a daunting goal, and it is accomplished daily, step by step.
It also requires careful budgeting and planning for resupplying along the way. Water faucets are a rarity on the trail. Spring water often must be purified; some sources require water to be filtered. This can be a concern several times a day. Food must be light, calorie-dense and easy to prepare. Proper nutrition can be a challenge on a long-distance trek.
And, while such a long-distance trek provides a hiker with abundant solitude, time spent enjoying the scenery or in contemplation, those partaking of the journey share more than the experience. Advice, encouragement, gear, food, supplies, water - all and more are given, and accepted, freely along the way.
This is not to discourage those who have commitments from hitting the trail. The experience can be uplifting, the privations can recalibrate anyone's views of luxury, and everyone could benefit from learning the principles of Leave No Trace and attempting to apply them to life off the trail.
But for young folks, the experience of a long-distance hike can have a lasting, and positive, impact on the subsequent journey through life.