Arbor Wealth: Bryson, Blizzards and Bears on the Appalachian Trail

Staff Writer
The Destin Log
Margaret R. McDowell

“And now I know … it’s a long hard road.” — from “Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper’s Dream)” as performed by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

It is a rare occasion when I read the book before I see the movie. But I did enjoy Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” long before I watched Robert Redford and Nick Nolte attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail in the film by the same name. I spend most of my reading hours perusing investment and financial articles and books, and your reading habits may be focused on a particular business niche as well. But if you get a few moments, Bryson’s book is a wonderful, informative and light-hearted travelogue.

One movie scene faithful to the book portrays Redford and Nolte, hiking near Gatlinburg, Tenn., discovering a “to scale” map of the 2,150 mile trail, and realizing how little of the distance they have covered since they set out in north Georgia. And how far they’ve yet to journey to reach Maine’s Mount Katahdin. “Of the four feet of trail map before me,” writes Bryson, “reaching approximately from my knees to the top of my head, we had done the bottom two inches … all the effort and toil, the aches, the damp, the mountains, the horrible stodgy noodles, the blizzards … the endless, wearying, doggedly accumulated miles-all that came to two inches.”

Now imagine that your first job is Springer Mountain, the trailhead in northern Georgia that serves as the launch point for many thru-hikers. And picture the final trail destination, Mount Katahdin in Maine, as your retirement goal. Walking over 2,000 miles while carrying a 40-pound backpack is somewhat analogous to establishing, contributing to and maintaining a successful retirement account.

Compare snow, rain and freezing cold to market volatility; imagine that bears and snakes are capital gains taxes; and most importantly perhaps, think of market fluctuation as a metaphor for the ups and downs of the trail itself. Some days you relax on sunny, grassy balds; on others you trudge up a steep, narrow, rock-laden path. Similarly, some years investment returns are in the double digits; some years it’s a challenge to stay in the black. But forward progress is the goal. Investors who stick with their plan, make regular contributions, and live within their means, enjoy a better chance of reaching their retirement Katahdin.

In the book Bryson’s hiking buddy Katz wanders off the trail in the Maine Wilderness and becomes hopelessly disoriented. It’s frightening. Hikers experience misfortune and sometimes death when they leave the trail. Compare your financial plan to your trail map and stay rooted to it. Both are vital. Putting one front in front of the other repeatedly, and sticking to your path, will eventually get you there.

Margaret R. McDowell, ChFC, AIF, a syndicated economic columnist, is the founder of Arbor Wealth Management, LLC, (850-608-6121 — www.arborwealth.net), a “fee-only” registered investment advisory firm located near Sandestin. This column should not be considered personalized investment advice and provides no assurance that any specific strategy or investment will be suitable or profitable for an investor.