My name is Phillip Moyer, although fellow travelers on the Appalachian Trail knew me as “Moses.” I received my philosophy degree from The Ohio State University in the spring of 2013.
Philosophy prepared me to handle many uncertainties in life, but after graduation I didn’t know what to do about my uncertainties about my philosophy degree itself. I decided that the best thing I could do was to go for a long walk, to allow myself a little more time to think.
So, despite having no backpacking experience, I set off on the 2187 mile hike from Georgia to Maine, along with two other Ohio State graduates: fellow philosophy major Kyrsten “Slayer” French, known for her ferocious murder of bears, mosquitoes and other animals; and biology major Bobby “Dad!” Jenrow, a wise old soul who often gave unwarranted fatherly advice. It took us nearly six months to complete the trail: we started together on March 22, 2014, and although we didn’t hike together every step of the way, we managed to summit together at Maine’s Mount Katahdin on September 17, 2014.
A question I am often asked is, “What are the best and worst parts of the trail?” In fact, when a trip spans a six-month period, it is hard to pinpoint a precise time that was the worst or best.
Life on the trail is rough. Trail life is completely alien, especially when neither you nor your hiking partners have any previous experience. There is no structure and no law, no one to reassure you that things will be okay. Everything is new and must be learned first-hand, from setting up your tent properly to figuring out where to put your food at night to keep it from animals.
Most of the time we hiked in groups, which was comforting at first, but quickly became tense. Our bodies were always sore from having to carry our houses on our backs, and we were always hungry. We usually hiked about 15 miles a day, sometimes 20 or 25. And, despite what you may hear, the trail is never flat. There was a question Professor Stewart Shapiro asked when illustrating the notion of vagueness: “Where does a mountain begin?” I often found myself asking, “Where does this mountain end?”
No physical strain, though, can compare to the mental mountains I had to surmount. It is incredibly difficult to retain a pleasant disposition when you are tired, hungry and smelly. All of these factors made retaining relationships difficult, but necessary. As unpleasant as other people can be to be around, hiking by yourself can be even worse. I spent countless hours by myself, going over problems in my own head, but I never gained an inch of ground until I had someone with whom to talk them through.
Philosophy seldom delivers the answers to questions, but it equips us with ways to approach them: we start with good foundations, develop logical systems, search for consistency, and test new or different approaches while still keeping our sight on the big picture and end goal. When hiking the Appalachian Trail, each mountain brought new questions. Philosophy couldn’t provide me answers or practical advice to navigate the trail, but thinking like a philosopher helped me come up with new frameworks to make it through each day and each mountain, all the while keeping my sights on reaching Mount Katahdin.
If I had to pick a best part of the trail, it might be the “magic.” “Magic,” as hikers call it, comes in all different forms at any time, but typically manifests in the form of food (which also typically happens to be what a hiker is thinking about at any given time). The people who deliver the magic are called “trail angels.” Angels feed you when you are hungry, give you shelter when you need respite and get you back on the trail when you feel like giving up.
An example of the kind of magic we experienced occurred in the final stretch of Virginia. I was with Slayer, Bobcat and Cowboy. (Bobcat was an Israeli guy who was as rare and mysterious as the elusive bobcat, and Cowboy was a German girl with a fondness for Marlboro Reds.) The four of us decided to float down the Shenandoah River instead of hiking the Shenandoah forest. Within a week, Slayer’s father obtained two canoes, drove them down from Toledo, Ohio, and helped us pack up and push off from the river. We took a magical week-long, 110-mile canoe trip down the Shenandoah River, into Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Along the way we shared beers with a few guys who were sitting in lawn chairs in the river, got a lift from a guy who caught us trespassing on his property, and camped out and ate ice cream with a five-star major general who also caught us trespassing.
After leaving Harper’s Ferry, a wonderful couple from Gettysburg invited us to stay at their home for a couple days, after only a chance meeting along the trail. They treated us to dinner, ice cream, a movie and a trip to the Gettysburg battlefield. On another occasion, B.J. Shabel, the wonderful mother of Professor Lisa Shabel, invited Slayer and me to stay at her house in Hanover, New Hampshire, where she hosted us with love, kindness and, of course, ice cream.
If a mountain was especially difficult, you would receive a beautiful view as your reward. If you were hungry and out of food, you would find a cooler with snacks and sodas around the next bend. If you hadn’t showered or washed your clothes in a week, someone would take you in and clean you up. There was never any reason for it; sometimes you just had to believe in magic. It's the kind of love that one might use as an argument for the existence of God.
If I could offer any advice for anyone who might be having doubts about pursuing philosophy, or following any other dream, it would be to not worry about where that road is going to take you. You owe it to yourself and those who believe in you to prove that there is something good in these so-called “crazy” ideas of yours. There will be people around you to help you along the way, so do your best with whatever the trail provides and be happy. As Bobcat would say, all you need is “faith and a smile.”