Sunday, October 21, 2012

The decision

It's been about two months since I left trail.

I'm sitting comfortably in my college's library, in the midst of my senior research, thinking about loans and my job and planning to clean the house when I get home.  I'm doing adult things.  I'm finishing school.  I'm figuring out what career will make me happy long-term.  I'm wondering when I'll get back on trail.

I miss it.  I miss the calmness I feel in the woods, the people I met, the time I had to think.  Never before have I felt as confident, competent, healthy, and happy as I did while on the AT.

And yet, leaving was exactly what I needed to do.

It was August 13th.  I walked alone through the wilderness and came to a dirt road.  I had heard about the trail magic that was there over the weekend, but since it was Monday, I considered moving on.  There would probably only be leftover, crushed Ho-Hos.  It wouldn't be worth the anticipation.

I walked by a tree that had a sign advertising trail magic, and Tommy had left me a note.  "Triscuit, you'd better not miss this!"  Maybe there were some other leftovers as well.  I walked across a bridge and into a small, dirt parking lot toward a man in a bug-tent.  Immediately I felt stupid.  There was no magic; just someone about to go hiking in the wilderness.  As I was about to ask about the magic, I recognized everything.  The black car.  The goofy grin.


Tommy stood and raised his hands in greeting.  "Want a beer?"

He had it all.  Hot dogs, cold water, and even neosporin and gauze for my ankles (which had been rubbed raw after walking in rain for four days straight.).  For the first time in a while, the sun was out.  I relaxed in a folding chair and reached in a bag for a soggy Ho-Hos and laughed with him inside the bug tent.  It was wonderful.  He told me that he had a park pass for the following day to climb Katahdin; after that he'd head back to New York.

After a few hours of rest and hot dogs, I laced up my boots and hoisted my pack on my back.  I left in good spirits, with only eight miles to the next shelter.  My hip felt good.  The sun was out.  I walked over pine needles and wove around lakes on relatively flat trail.  Four miles in, I came to a campsite on the edge of a lake and decided to walk on shore to look.  The water was still, and clear, and reflecting a few clouds on smooth blue.  I found myself holding my breath as a loon broke the silence, it's eloquent and lonely voice coming from some place I couldn't see.   

It was only a mile later that my hip flared up again.  Soon the elation of seeing Tommy again wore off, as did the Ibuprofen and the novelty of hearing a loon for the first time.  I stopped to rest every few minutes but still felt dizzying pain shooting from my hip to my torso.  With every other step my vision blurred and I had to brace against my sticks to stay standing.  I took a break by another lake to filter water, feeling discouraged.  I wanted to hike.  I wanted to make it to Katahdin.  I could push through this.  Still, I wondered if I was trapping myself in the wilderness by walking farther from the road and a potential ride home.    

As I stared at the ripples in the lake, something shiny caught my attention.  Using my sticks I dragged it towards me until it was within reach.  A coin.  I flipped it in my hands and saw it was a state quarter that read, "New York: Gateway to Freedom."

That was not the sign I wanted.

"Stupid quarter," I mumbled, as I stared at the Statue of Liberty on the back.  I decided that we create our own signs and attach our own meanings to things.  I decided that to take this as a sign that the trail was my freedom, and that I chose it over New York.  I would keep going. 

I could tell you about the next few miles to the shelter, or my resolution to keep hiking.  I could tell you about the people I passed and the first time I finally saw Katahdin.  I could tell you about the mosquitos and the bog boards and the beautiful views and my quick pace.  I could tell you how I ended up sitting by a river and campsite for hours the next day, in a good amount of pain.  But what it boils down to is that I seriously considered going home.  I was no longer treating myself well.  I wasn't eating.  I was using hiking as a way to be thinner and feel power over my body.  I was pushing through pain (maybe hurting myself permanently) to do something I no longer enjoyed.  Perhaps I felt I deserved it.  Or perhaps I felt that being strong meant doing the miles at whatever cost.  Perhaps I felt my hike would be a failure unless I hiked Katahdin.      

Yes, I could tell you a lot about the last 24 hours on trail.  I could write about my thought process while I made my decision.  But what matters is that I did make a decision.  I decided I would climb Katahdin not out of obligation, but with pride.  I would climb with a healthy body and mind.  I would climb with someone I cared about.  And I knew that in order to accomplish these things, I would have to climb in a different season. 

I hiked to the last place I had reception and called Tommy, who had just finished his climb (and eaten a Triscuit for me at the summit).  At the end of the day we were rolling in his car along dirt roads, headed home.  I was disappointed in myself, but grateful for Tommy and his willingness to get me.  I was grateful that I had been able to see at least 70 miles of gorgeous Maine.  And I was grateful that I was able to make a hard, but healthy decision to leave. 

I still have over 1400 miles to go before I finish the trail, just like I still have a long ways to go in my recovery.  But I also have to keep reminding myself that I hiked 700 miles.  I learned to communicate my fears and history with my family.  I was able to recognize what situations aggravated periods of restricting and binging.  I found a stronger sense of self.  So now, even as I'm off trail and struggling with food issues, I'm no longer afraid to move forward.  Because I know I'm 700 miles farther than where I started.  And next season I'll chip away another mile, and another, learning more each time.  So that by the time I finally climb Katahdin, I will feel confident that I deserve it. 

One step at a time, right?  

Thursday, September 6, 2012

100-mile wilderness

I want to say it is the most beautiful place I've ever been, but that wouldn't be entirely true.  The temperate rainforest of Southeast Alaska is still the most memorable landscape in my mind.  But the wilderness of central Maine comes damn close.

In fact, perhaps the reason I enjoyed the Maine woods so much was because they reminded me strongly of Alaska--deep, dark conifers and their fresh, intoxicating smell; gently sloped ground carpeted with lime green moss and ferns; undisturbed lakes, rimmed with rock and a few trees piercing the fog.  Being enveloped in a wild place.

Tommy and I drove from Western New York up to the southern end of the 100-mile wilderness, planning to hike up to the northernmost part of the trail at Mount Katahdin.  At that point, we would get a ride back to where we started; he would drive home while I would hike south.  We had a schedule.  Our minimum was 15 miles a day.

It was easy at first.  The terrain was rockier than Virginia, but the excitement of being in Maine carried me over uneven trail and a few rock scrambles with little effort.  By the end of the first day I was tired, and my right hip was a little sore, but my spirits were high.

Day two we ascended Barren Mountain.  Sometimes it was difficult to know exactly where the trail was, but it's usually safe to assume you'll be going over the awkward part of the trail, and up.  Always up.  So I continued hoisting my body and 40 pound pack over boulders, using my hands rather than my poles, and often looked back at what I had climbed over.  It gave me confidence.  With the elevation I gained an appreciation for the rock-strewn mountain, and was glad for the change from the flat south.  I kept my eye out for white blazes and continued up. 

Halfway up Barren Mountain, I saw Tommy's backpack and "Triscuit" spelled out with twigs.  I followed an arrow, left trail, and came to an overlook.  Tommy excitedly beckoned me to the side.
"Holy shit," I said. 

Apologies for the language, but imagine hiking through a quiet, rocky woods, thick and almost oppressive, for a day and a half, and all of a sudden the trees open and the world is laid out below you.  Mountains, blue and green and grey, rolling beneath the cliff you stand on, chains of smooth lakes spattered on the ground, and no sign of road or cement or chain stores to interrupt the view.  It was stunning.       

We continued on, over mountains that looked awful on our profile maps, but when taken one step at a time, weren't so bad.  It started to rain.  For three days we stepped carefully over slick roots, rocks, and bog boards.  When we ascended White Cap, the weather was nasty.  On the exposed peak the winds were high.  The sky was a solid sheet of grey.  Had it been clear we would have had our first view of Katahdin, but instead, we saw streaks of rain and small clutches of hardy lichen and rocks: bluish grey rocks; dull maroon rocks; acid green, lichen-encrusted rocks.  It was pretty in a miserable way.  And though I wouldn't have wanted to stay there for much longer, White Cap is one of my fondest memories of the wilderness.  Maybe I'm slightly masochistic, but I love awful weather.        

My hip continued to get worse every day.  I struggled to keep going, and wanted desperately to make our 15-mile-a-day goal so I could climb Katahdin with Tommy.  I was happy to push myself, but emotionally I broke down when the dull ache in my hip evolved into shooting pain.  As we filtered water one day, I tearfully said, "I feel like I'm hurting myself."  It sucked.  I was so grateful to be in the wilderness, and frustrated that I couldn't push through the pain without damaging my body.

Tommy was incredibly patient, and kind, and came up with a solution.  He would give me most of his food, jump off on the next dirt road, and find his way to Katahdin so he could get back to work on time.  That would allow me to take it easy through the last leg of the wilderness and climb Katahdin when I got there.

I hobbled up Little Boardman Mountain with Tommy behind.  Every step hurt, but we made it to a campsite and my morale improved when we got out of the rain.  This would be good.  The next day was an easy four or five miles.  We stopped at Cooper Brook Falls Lean-to, a shelter that sat on the bank of a vigorous and beautiful waterfall.  As I walked down the bank, I saw a huge fire reminiscent of the ones I had sat around in Virginia, and when I got closer I realized why.

"Shelter Stew?!"

A friend I had last seen in the south was dragging logs toward the fire.  He made huge fires at every shelter he stayed at, and I had enjoyed a few of them in Virginia.  Shelter Stew and his dog, Maya, had also flipped up to Maine after reaching Pearisburg.

It was reassuring to see a familiar face, and to get warm in the shelter, and have a place to dry out my clothes.  The water was inviting.  I soaked my hips in a calm part of the water.  This was where I'd stay, while Tommy walked on.  It was strange.  But good.  And with a plethora of food to get me through the wilderness, I began thinking about the journey ahead.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Part 2 -- Maine!

So far, I have done 629.8 miles. 
I have walked from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Pearisburg, Virginia.
I've been on trail for 64 days.

Now, after taking a break in my hometown, it's time to start part 2 of this crazy wonderful journey.
Tomorrow I leave for Maine!

I'm excited to walk with my friend Tommy.  I had told him I was going to hike the AT for a few weeks this summer, and he convinced me to hike for a few months.  I feel honored that he'll be climbing the legendary Mt Katahdin, the northernmost point of the trail, with me in a few days. 

Now the scenery will change.  I'm wondering, will my favorite brand of toilet paper, the striped maple, still grow in the north?  Will I hear the echoey songs of the thrush that have accompanied me in the south?  Will I cross anybody that I met earlier in the season, now that we are walking towards each other?

My focus is still the same.  To live well.  To gain confidence.  To treat myself better.

I'm glad to get back in a place where my torn up feet, awkward tan, and simple wardrobe will fit in.  Helloooo to the trail again.
I've missed it.

The kind of food we dream about

Hikers often fall into the same topics of conversation.  Perhaps we'll discuss gear, or the dried up water sources, or the weird and wonderful people on trail.  On particularly difficult days though, the topic comes back to the same thing.


Okay, so food is a tricky thing for me.  Part of the reason I'm on trail is to treat myself better and to eat better.  I didn't want to come home and get into old habits of overeating or not eating at all, but I knew a plethora of tempting food was waiting for me in civilization.  So, one day as I was hiking, I decided I would take ownership of the food I'd eat on my "vacation" by creating the menu.

Here are some of the things I've made!

Grilled curry zucchini wraps,
Recipe via Pinterest
with goat cheese and roasted red peppers

These were photogenic, but I think I need to soak the spices in oil next time--they tasted sandy.  The taste made up for the texture though.  And I learned that putting red peppers in a paper bag after you cook them helps loosen up the skin.  It pulled right off.  

Moroccan chicken with apricots, chick peas, and almonds
Recipe via

This dish was made with a delicious combination of cinnamon, cayenne pepper, and garlic.  Also swearing.  Made with lot of swearing. 

This week I also made a roasted red pepper sauce over store-bought ravioli, a lavender and white wine salmon, and peach lemonade.  Whew. 

Okay, so I still over-ate.  While I was home I ate too much cereal and white floured things and sugar just for the sake of sugar and felt out of control while doing it.  I hate dark chocolate but felt compelled to eat a whole bag.  I was frustrated that I went from eating well in the woods to eating mindlessly and ferociously in civilization.  Did I not make any progress while I was out there? 

At the very least I was able to confront my fear of the kitchen and try a few recipes.  For one meal a day I ate in the way that I hope to eat in the future: mindfully, in small quantities, with my family.

My recovery is long from over.  But perhaps this is a start.   

Trashing the trail

How do you picture wilderness?  Do you think of pristine old growth forests, or perhaps rock formations against magnificent vistas and a clear, azure sky?  Do you picture a landscape untouched by humans?  Do you picture... trash?

I hopped on trail in May, convinced I'd be in rugged territory, and excited to be in the wilderness.  I had heard so much about the trials and perils of the trail that I was surprised (and a little disappointed) when I started walking.  Granted, the climbs can be exhausting, the terrain uneven and occasionally dangerous, and hikers sometimes get sent home by twisted ankles, infections, or even bear attacks.  I remember the man we met who dislocated his hip and had to go home on day one.  And yet, the trail in Georgia seemed more benign than I had anticipated.  The AT was a very obvious, very clear, very worn one-foot-wide path going through the woods.  The water sources were plentiful and well marked.  The shelters, placed about every 8 miles, were clean and roomy and beautiful.  I couldn't help but feel cheated.  This wasn't hard.  This was, as my hiking partner and I liked to say, kush.   

And then there was the trash.  Sometimes I would hike along and almost be able to forget about civilization, when we'd pass a campsite or trodden patch along the side of the trail.  Scattered around the site would be tin foil, empty food packets, and bottles (that could have been recycled, by the way).  It seemed odd that someone who enjoyed being in the woods would so freely dump their garbage and wads of toilet paper in plain view.  Is this what a "wilderness experience" is really like? 

The trail itself had little trash as compared to the shelters and campsites, which were littered with it.  And whenever the trail crossed a road, I could have filled bags of it.  It seemed that the places that would have been the most convenient to pack out trash were the places that had the most.

Perhaps I was getting too worked up.  Maybe my expectations of the trail caused me to see more garbage than there really was.  I suppose the AT is really quite clean as compared to a lot of roadsides.  So I decided to do an experiment.  I decided to collect every piece of trash I found for 100 miles.  (This took me from the very end of North Carolina, through Tennessee, and up into the very southern bit of Virginia.)  I decided I wouldn't pick up toilet paper, broken glass, clothing, or items larger than my plastic grocery bags.  And still I collected bags and bags of it.   

Your daily dose.

My dad joined me near the end of my experiment, and though he thought I was strange for doing it, he helped me pick up wrappers and soda cans when we saw them.  And though he saw my garbage bag dangling from my pack as he walked, he was impressed with how little trash he saw on the trail.

"You know, sometimes I'll see something on the ground that I think is a wrapper, and then it turns out to be a flower or a leaf...  I also thought when I came out here that I wouldn't be able to find a good walking stick because I expected people to gather firewood all along the trail until it was sparse looking.  And I expected the trail to be a lot wider in places, more used.  No, this is nice.  I'm pleasantly surprised."

I find myself wishing, as I pass cell towers among the trees and hear lawn mowers in the distance, that the woods could exist without human interference.  But at least the small corridor around the AT offers a sliver of woods for those who seek it.

So now, this spoiled country girl is taking a cue from her dad.  Instead of looking for trash, maybe in the next state she'll start looking for good things in this world that we still have.
...Just don't let her see you drop that beer can on the ground.    

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A day in the life

My flowery writing has caused people to believe that I have grand adventures every day, that the trail is chock full of people, and that trail magic is around every corner.
To give you a better idea of what it’s really like, here’s a day in the life.

6:15--wake up and blink at the sun that’s knocking at my hammock.  Attempt to go back to sleep.

6:45--decide to stop ignoring my bladder and get up for the day.  Wiggle out of my bag and hammock.  Grab a striped maple leaf and pee.  Lower my bear bag and bring it over to the shelter where my pack is.  Yawn.  Stretch my stiff feet.  

7:00--lay everything out in the shelter.  Start packing.  Dump out my foodbag.  Set aside snacks and lunch for the day; put those in the front pocket of my pack.  Eat an obligatory carnation instant breakfast and granola bar.  Change into my damp hiking clothes.  Gather and treat water from near the shelter.  Finish packing.  At the very last minute possible, shove my feet into wet socks.  Shake out my boots and look for any brown recluse spiders that may have set up camp.  Put my feet into wet boots.   
7:30--start walking, following the white blazes of the AT. 

7:35--walk into a spider web.  Wipe it off my face.

7:37--walk into another web.  Wipe it off.

7:38--walk into a web again.  Ignore it.  Keep walking. 

8:00--think about my intention for the day. (One day, when I was alone, starting late, and attempting a long day, my word was “steady.”  Sometimes I focus on a story idea, some aspect of my future, or my relationship with food.  Some days I decide to look at shadows and color and try to be as present as possible.  Other days I try not to think at all.)  Walk.

9:30--come to a landmark (a road, a blue-blazed trail that probably leads to a water source, or maybe a labeled gap) and look at the guide.  Calculate my miles (at least 4 by now).  Take a water and snack break.  Walk some more.

9:38--trip over a root.  Keep walking.

10:02--take a picture of a colorful flower or fungus.  Continue walking.

10:28--pass a bunch of striped maple and take it as a sign to pee.  Check my guide again.  Start thinking about lunch.  Drink some water and eat a snack.  Walk more.

11:15--daydream about lunch.  Trip on a root on my way uphill.  Realize it's getting hot and I've sweat more than usual.  Drop my pack and gulp water.  Decide to stop at the next water source.  Walk more.

11:47--come to a stream.  Mix my chlorine water treatment drops and let them sit.  Fill my water bottles.  Dump in the treatment; shake.  Eat lunch.  Calculate my mileage (2 miles per hour is a good pace).  Decide to walk another 10 miles for the day, to the next shelter.  


12:53--meet a person headed the opposite direction.  Say hello, ask where they are headed.  Tell them about the water sources that have and haven't dried up and warn them about that fun rock scramble they're about to do.

12:54--keep walking.

2:00--walk, snack, drink, pee, walk.

3:00--walk more.

4:00--walk.  Trip over more roots and rocks as I get tired. 

4:12--check the guide and time every few minutes.  The shelter should be here soon.  Feel dehydrated and fatigued.  Walk anyway. 

4:46--come across a side trail that leads to the three-sided shelter.  Silently celebrate.  Introduce myself to people in the shelter.

4:47--drop the backpack and read the shelter logbook.  Look for entries my friends have written.  Write an entry of my own.  Give my feet a welcomed reprieve. 

5:00--unpack, decide to sleep in the shelter tonight rather than the hammock.  Lay a sleeping bag out on the wooden platform.  Swat at bugs and change into a long sleeve and pants to get them off my skin.  Find a rock and attach to paracord.  Throw it over a branch, 10 ft off the ground and 4 ft from the trunk, and leave it there for now.  Grab the mini stove and pasta and start dinner.  Chat with whoever else is there.

5:45--eat.  Rinse out pan, stuff in food bag.  Tie it to paracord and hoist it into the tree.  Tie a bear-proof knot at the base of the tree.  Relax.

6:00--start to feel bored.  Maybe I could take a walk?  (Just kidding)

6:05--chat more.  Check out the water source; treat water for the morning.  Grab some striped maple leaves and check out the privy. 

7:30--slip into dry socks.  Journal.  Work on a letter or poem. 

9:00--break out the headlamp and fight sleep, despite the person right next to my elbow trying to go to bed.
9:30--give in to sleep as the mice scurry along the rafter above my head.  

10:00--dream of walking.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

500 miles

When I was 12, we took a family vacation to Maine.  We had 5 people, suitcases crammed wherever they fit, a few blankets strewn across the back, and half-eaten snacks littered across the car.  We must have been eating Triscuits at the first state border we crossed.  Before the next border, I made sure everyone in the car had a Triscuit in their hand.  "Only three more miles!" my dad said from the front.  He was the one who was the most excited to meet the borders in snacking style. 

Ten years later, at the Georgia/North Carolina border, I was questioning why I was on the trail.  I had expected it to be more difficult, and I was surprised that I was having so much fun.  Was I just wasting time in the woods?  That morning I thought about my decision to hike the trail, and I remembered my lack of confidence, my bad eating habits, and my poor self image.  I remembered that I wanted to be more connected to the people in my life, especially my family.  And as I anticipated crossing into a new state, I thought about the Triscuits stashed in my backpack.  Before I reached the border it seemed right that my name should be Triscuit-- a tribute to my quirky way of celebrating, but also a reminder that both food and family can be positive things. 

I realized that day that I wasn't on trail to prove anything; rather, I was using hiking as a medium through which to trust myself again.  Thus Triscuit was born.

Over the first few weeks I slowly became less frustrated with bear hangs, cooking on my mini stove, and hiking through the rain.  I was proud of 11 mile days.  I tried not to think beyond the week ahead.  "One day at a time" was my mantra.  I was content to think only of the woods around me.  My journal entries contained plants I saw and detailed an occasional nasty smell (usually emminating from me).  Life was good.

When I hiked solo, the trail wore me down.  There were a few 20 mile days when I pushed myself more than I should have.  I walked in heat and occasionally got dehydrated and emotional.  These were the days that I had to push through in order to really think about body image and confidence and how I treat myself.  The handwriting in my journal became smaller and more scribbled as I tried to fit thought upon thought on those tiny pages.  On tough days I continued to tell myself, "one day at a time." 

Suddenly, "one day at a time" carried me to day 60.  I'm a quarter of the way through the trail and will reach 600 miles in the next day or two.  I don't mind hiking through the rain, or setting up my hammock, or sleeping among snoring men and hungry mice.  I can usually get my food bag hung in a tree on my first throw.  I can ration out my food and eat enough to fuel my climbs.  I can hike alone and keep a steady head.  At this point, the most difficult part of the trail is finding free internet...

I have to plan to a certain extent, but it's been freeing to think in the present.  When the thoughts in my head become too overwhelming, it is comforting just to walk.  I remember this quotation:

"Allow your judgements their own silent, undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened.  Everything is gestation and then birthing." 

Dad and I ate Triscuits at the Tennessee/Virginia border and again at my 500th mile.  I am thankful he is with me, sharing my recovery to health and helping me relive the tradition that we started, father and daughter, on our journey to Maine.