Wild Potato Chip Bags….

For the last few years, I’ve been hiking the Appalachian Trail.  Not continuously….obviously….but in sections.

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For those of you reading this who have never heard of the Appalachian Trail….the A.T. is a continuous footpath that runs from Springer Mountain, Georgia to the top of Mount Katahdin in Maine.  All told, the trail is approximately 2,180 miles long and travels through 14 states and some of the most beautiful landscapes in the United States.

There are a few ways one can endeavor to hike the trail.  You can thru-hike….which means you start at either the northern or southern end and go all the way….stopping at intervals to resupply, shower, wash clothes, eat food cooked in-doors and sleep in a bed you didn’t carry in a backpack….it takes approximately five months to complete a thru-hike.

You could slack pack….which is a thru-hike with a twist.  Slack packers carry a small backpack with a day’s worth of supplies….hike something like a bajillion miles from a designated starting point to a designated stop, where a car is waiting to transport the hiker to a meal and a bed….and then back to the trail and repeat….day after day….until completed.

Or, you can section-hike the trail….like me, completing chunks of the trail over a series of backpacking trips until you’ve pieced all the sections together and completed the whole thing….which can take years.

No matter how you experience it though, it’s an experience worth having.  I love the trail.

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I love the people you meet on the trail….fellow hikers and wanderers from all walks of life….the ridge runners, caretakers and the people who live along the trail and are often eager to provide a little trail magic to those who amble past.

I love that you can feel totally comfortable taking food from a stranger you meet on the trail….or bunking down next to one in a tent or a shelter.

I love snuggling up in my sleeping bag at night….cozy in the confines of my tent….reading by the light of my headlamp….or simply lying there and listening to the varied sounds of the woods at night.

I love how people are happy to connect and share a bit about themselves and their own journey’s around pots of trail food and campfires.

I love how, inevitably, the conversation almost always turns to gear and pack weight and how I learn something new from a fellow hiker every time I venture out.

I love the huge sense of accomplishment I feel after conquering a particularly difficult section of trail….and how grounded and centered and confident I feel from having lived for days in the wilderness carrying everything I needed to survive on my back.

I love that I miss it when I leave it.

I love the natural beauty of the trail, its history and the stories of the many unique individuals who have hiked it.  People like Emma “Grandma” Gatewood who was the first woman to thru-hike the trail solo in 1955….at the age of 67 and wearing a pair of Keds sneakers.  She hiked the trail again five years later at the age of 72….and again at the age of 75.

In 1990, Bill Irwin was the first blind person to hike the trail.  He relied solely on his guide dog, Orient, as he ascended mountains and forded rivers.  A recovering alcoholic who turned to religion in his sobriety, Mr. Irwin once said the first bible verse he learned was from Corinthians: “For we walk by faith, not by sight.”   Not long after, he decided that an A.T. hike would serve as a powerful example of living his faith.

Christian Thomas, trail name, “Buddy Backpacker,” is the youngest person to have completed the trail at the age of five….and last year….Scott Jurek….an ultra-marathoner….set a new A.T. trail record by completing the trail in 42 days….which required him to run an average of 50 miles a day.

I would love to thru-hike the trail some day and some day I will….but until then….I thoroughly enjoy and I’m grateful for the opportunities I have to explore the trail section by section.

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Last year, I had the opportunity to complete a section with my dad.  I’ve written, in prior posts, about the less than idyllic parts of my childhood….but it would be wrong of me to paint of picture of my life that omitted all of the really great, amazing people and experiences I had throughout that time of my life that largely shaped the person I am today…. and my dad is most definitely one of those people.

My parents divorced in the 80’s at a time when the parental rights of a mother weighed more heavily during divorce proceedings than those of the father.  It was largely believed….and may still be today….that with very few exceptions, children are always better off with the mother….to which I would like to offer a great big, one-fingered salute and a “THANKS FOR NOTHING!” to the family court and social services systems of my youth.

But….I digress.  My mother was awarded primary custody of my brother and me and our dad was awarded every other weekends, select holiday vacation weeks and a five-week stretch of time every summer.

Other than spending time with my grandparents, being with my dad was the only time I ever really felt safe and loved as a kid.  Actually….it was the only time I ever felt like a kid.  I could play and let my guard down without having to worry about dodging an unexpected back-hand.

I was never awoken at the crack of dawn by a rampaging adult armed with a bucket full of cleaning supplies screaming at me to get my “lazy, worthless, filthy ass out of bed to clean the house”….and then spend hour after hour dodging profanity laced insults and projectiles while said adult ripped through my bedroom, stuffing my toys into garbage bags….that would either get thrown out a window or locked away in the attic….until such time as I “learned to be less of a pig”….as though I’d been found passed out in a pool of my own vomit after a hard night of partying with my bitches from the Cabbage Patch….cigarette holes burned into My Little Pony and naked Barbie dolls fornicating with Ken and skinny dipping in the pool with a bunch of rogue G.I Joe’s…. instead of just the typical disarray caused by your average eight-year-old.

My dad never called me a mistake….or told me he wished I’d never been born….or that he wished I would die….or that I was a selfish, self-centered, little bitch.

You might believe then that the bar was, perhaps, set too low for there to be any real magic found in my childhood….simply because my father didn’t do any of those things might sound like magic enough in my case….but he did better than that.  My dad always made me feel like we were a nice family.

He filled a part of my childhood with memories of long hikes in state parks, canoe trips down winding rivers, bike rides along abandoned railroad beds, fishing from small, tucked away ponds only my dad seemed to know about, long drives on rural, country roads, camping and boating, ice skating and sledding.

It was from my dad that I developed a deep love, appreciation and respect for the outdoors.

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“Never do this.”  My dad would often to say to my brother and I as he stooped to pick up a discarded wrapper, bottle or can tossed along a trail.  “Never litter.”

“Why?” My brother and I would ask when we were young.

“Because….it turns wild.”  My dad would say.  “Have you ever come across a wild potato chip bag?”

“No!”  My brother and I would exclaim, wide-eyed.  “What do they do?”  

“Ooh, they are vicious!”  My dad would say.  “They could pop a tire on your bike….even a car!  You have to catch them and throw them in a trash can.”

“Won’t they eat us?”  My brother and I would ask.

“Don’t worry!” My dad would say.  Once you’ve grabbed them, they aren’t wild anymore.”

He had similar warnings against carving our initials into trees or rocks.  “It hurts it.”  He would tell us, pointing at damage inflicted upon a landscape with a shake of his head and a disappointed sigh….and I could feel he was right and so I learned to leave it as I found it.

Thanks to my dad, over the years, the outdoors became a peaceful sanctuary and a trusted friend, where I love to disappear as often as possible with a book in hand….or my husband and our little one in tow….to spend hours happily embraced by the woods or a mountain….exploring a new trail, rock-hopping across a stream, or just quietly sitting and watching as my son explores the abundance of rocks and trees and sticks and flowers.

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When I first began to section hike the A.T., my dad would often comment that someday he would join me on one of my hikes.  In recent years, he’s had some heart problems….and the remains of an old knee injury that required surgery many years ago, still gives him a bit of trouble here and there….but he’s always remained active and with a little push, I knew he could and would join me.

We set off on a Monday to complete an approximate 30 mile section of trail in the Berkshire’s of western, Massachusetts.  It was the first time in a very long time that my dad and I had the opportunity to spend time alone.  As we walked….over the mountains and through the woods….we alternated between contemplative silence and casual chatter about our lives as two adults.

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We talked about books we read, our jobs, the kids, our significant others and our extended family.  We talked about the trail, the campsites, our gear and pack weight….and we talked a little about the past….but the conversation remained light.

Mostly, we took in the experience in the comfortable, gentle silence I’ve always associated with my dad.

Throughout my life, I’ve always known my dad to be even-keeled, mild-mannered, laid back, quiet, reliable, steady and calm….but in many respects….his inner workings have always been a mystery to me.

Over the years, he’s rarely betrayed his emotions, or let slip, insights into his own difficult childhood….his complicated and volatile marriage to my mother, etc., without it being matter of fact….as though of little consequence or bother.

Growing up, I never saw him be particularly boisterous or gregarious….but I always knew I was loved and appreciated.

My dad taught me that the little things in life were actually the very biggest of things….and that simplicity was something to be valued.

He also taught me that sometimes, a person can say more in moments of peaceful silence than in the loudest and most eloquent of speeches….and it was nice to be reminded of that. It was a week I’ll carry with me always.

Thanks for taking that walk with me daddy.  I love you!

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Hike

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