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Lessons Learned on the Appalachian Trail

Bosma Enterprises - 10/20/2020 3:25:25 PM

Jeff Mittman and a longtime friend recently hiked on the Appalachian Trail. He gives his account of the adventure and the lessons he took away.

Our president and CEO recently spent time hiking the Appalachian Trail

You need somebody to push you!

Wray and Jeff hiking the trailWray and I have been best friends for more than 20 years. We met as drill sergeants at Ft. Benning, GA. I imagine, unlike most people meeting for the first time, we immediately went on a five-mile run after being introduced. While we did exchange some small talk as we took off, it was clear within a hundred yards we were in a race to see who was the best runner in the company—and to establish authority. Today, if you asked either one of us who won our first competition, thus claiming the title of the "fastest drill sergeant," we would each proudly state that we were the victor. This is usually met with eye rolls by our wives and kids who have endured decades of banter about who won our very first race.

As drill sergeants, we spent two years "on the trail," making every aspect of our job a competition. We pushed our soldiers and ourselves not to win but to push the other to be sharper, better and stronger. This drive to improve each other continued throughout our military careers. Whether on the rifle range, on a 25-mile road march or in combat, we measured our success not just against the Army standards but against each other.

Throughout my life, I have sought out people who will push me, not just physically but in every facet of my life. Whether in school, business, or personal life, I surround myself with people who challenge my thoughts and encourage me to strive for excellence. You will achieve more in life with a "trusted partner" than you ever will on your own. 

Teamwork will get you through!

Wray and Jeff at the shelter.jpgThrough years of working together and demanding each other's best, Wray and I built a level of trust. The foundation we had proved to be the confidence we needed to believe we could be a successful hiking part of the Appalachian Trail. Just in case there were any lingering doubts, we completed two virtual competitions covering almost 600 miles together this summer.

We had been planning this trip for years, but backpacking on the Appalachian Trail can present many challenges. You have to consider the amount of weight you will carry, the terrain, weather, time of year, food and water, bears and even your age and physical condition. Let's face it; we were not 25 anymore. On top of all this, we met the added challenge of my limited vision. We knew we could do it, but we had to figure out how.

After making our packing list, mapping our route and timeline, we began to discuss how Wray would lead me through the rough terrain in the Smoky Mountains. We were not concerned with the elevation, but the trail's actual condition would be tricky. It is incredibly rocky, wet and covered with roots and fallen trees. Also, steep drop-offs that run alongside the trail in many locations make it extremely treacherous. It is against our nature, but we decided that caution was the better part of valor, so we agreed we would move as slowly as we needed to arrive at our destination safely.

A picture of a sign that reads: North Carolina Tennessee State Line Elevations 5046 Great Smoky Mountains National ParkOn the first day, we started at 1:30 p.m. and quickly found out the terrain was rougher, and the canopy from the trees caused the trail to be darker than we anticipated. I could not see much of the landscape because the forest blocked out so much of the sun's light. The darkness and my lack of depth perception prevented me from seeing any of the rises or falls along the trail. As a result, Wray literally had to tell me where to place my foot for every step I took. Much like a sighted guide, he would describe the obstacles we faced and instruct me in navigating through them. This arduous process turned a planned three-hour hike into a 7 ½ hour journey. We moved so slowly and cautiously that we didn't complete the first leg until an hour after nightfall.

Shelter.jpgAbout 15 minutes after reaching our shelter the first night, a torrential rain complete with thunder settled over the area. It proceeded to rain for the next 20 hours as the temperature dropped into the upper 30s. Normally, the rain and the temperature would not hinder us from completing our mission, but the previous day's experience made it clear--it would be hazardous to try to descend during the thunderstorm. So, we decided to stay an extra day at the shelter.

For the next 24 hours, we met several hikers as they passed through the shelter. They came from places like Chicago, Fort Worth, South Carolina and Baltimore. Each had an interesting story about how they got there. Every one of them was walking the trail because of a pandemic-related reason. One gentleman had just lost his job and was taking advantage of this time away from work to walk through the Smoky Mountains. A young couple had recently graduated from college and since they hadn't found jobs yet decided to hike the trail. They seemed less than prepared--soaking wet and their feet covered in blisters. I guess you learn something from all experiences. There were also two gentlemen who played in the Fort Worth Symphony. The pandemic had reduced their schedule, so they were also taking advantage of their time off. All of these people were very nice, and it was interesting to hear their stories. It made it well worth staying the extra day at the shelter.Section-of-AT.jpg

By the morning of the third day, the rain stopped, and we began the second leg of our trip. We had evaluated how the first day went and adjusted our technique as we moved down the trail. While still slow, we covered the same distance as the first day, but we did it an hour-and-a-half faster. Looking at this adventure, it is clear it took a lot of courage for Wray to lead me on the trail through countless obstacles and difficult situations. He guided me step-by-step along the edge of extreme drop-offs that I could not see and around downed trees that blocked the path. On the other hand, I had to have the courage to trust him. We worked together. And, it was teamwork that got us through.

Continuous improvement is always my goal

We returned home on the fourth day, but we weren't done yet. We were both a little disappointed by the slow pace of our movement on the trail. We had fallen short of our goal due to the challenges we faced but the week wasn't over yet, and we still had time to cover more ground. The only thing to do was to hike more miles. So, we decided to road march around Wray's neighborhood in Clarksville, Tennessee, to make up for our shortfall. As always, we adjusted and continued to improve, progressing ever closer to our goal.

Like all old soldiers, we conducted an after-action review of our trip. Without a trusted partner there to push me and teamwork, we would have never taken on this challenge. While not meeting our goal, we plan our next trip and will take the lessons learned from the Smoky Mountains to improve our performance.