A few weeks ago, I completed another section in my quest to hike the Appalachian Trail piece by piece.
In prior years, I’ve always been able to coax someone onto the trail with me and I’ve appreciated both the camaraderie and the sense of safety and security that a hiking buddy provides. But this year, I couldn’t get anyone I knew to agree to the journey, so I made my first solo trip.
In the months, weeks and days leading up to my hike I wavered between confidence, self-doubt and fear about my abilities as a solo hiker. And when my nerves kicked in, I looked for any plausible, defensible reason not to go.
I’ve been hiking this trail for years now and everyone from my boss to family members and close friends know it’s an annual event. Simply telling them I was too chicken to go without a partner this year seemed pathetic. I needed something better. So, as I planned, I worked through the grounds I’d use to build a case should I ultimately choose to bail.
It’s too long to be away. I’m being selfish. I shouldn’t go.
When I said this to my husband, he said, “No one likes a martyr. You work hard, this is important to you. You deserve a break. Go!”
When he refused to guilt me into canceling, I thought of other reasons. Like, the weather. It had been a particularly rainy spring in New England and I would be hiking into Vermont, or Vermud, as it is known for its especially soggy mud season.
I probably won’t enjoy having to slog through mile after mile of thick, oozy mud, I told myself. It’ll be miserable. I shouldn’t go.
When that made me sound more like a “glamper” than a hardcore backpacker, I considered the dangers of the trail.
What if I fall and sprain an ankle and can’t go on? I’d have no one who could go and get help. I could die out there….of exposure and starvation. I shouldn’t go.
As I pondered this hypothetical dilemma, I had to ultimately concede that the trail is fairly busy throughout the spring and summer months. Not only is it traveled extensively by other hikers, it’s also traveled by ridge runners and trail maintainers. In addition, I’ve rarely been in an area completely devoid of cell reception. Therefore, it would be highly unlikely that I would spend more than a few hours sprawled across the trail waiting for rescue.
But what if I get struck by lightening? What if a huge tree branch falls and kills me? It’s happened. True, it’s happened with less frequency than planes crash, but it has happened. I shouldn’t go.
And what about bears?
This threat took on the feel of an omen, when someone posted to a discussion board dedicated to the trail, that a bear had been hanging out at one of the campsites I planned to stay in.
Totally shouldn’t go.
This seemed my most reasonable out. It was a real threat, but at the same time, it’s always been a possibility. The presence of bears on the trail is something you always have to prepare for. And though I’ve never seen a bear on the Appalachian Trail, I did cross paths with a black bear in Yellowstone a few years ago.
I saw him as I rounded a corner on the Slough Creek Trail. I stopped my approach and stood there with one hand on my canister of bear spray, the other on my camera, instantly prepared to snap a selfie (kidding).
When he saw me, he sniffed at the air from his seat on a rock, but having smelled nothing of interest, he went back to whatever he’d been doing. I made a wide circle around him to pass. He made a few casual glances in my direction, but otherwise, he ignored me. I’ve told this story a million times while advocating / pontificating on the importance of proper food storage.
Why would I suggest now that the presence of a curious bear who had yet to show any signs of aggression was the reason I wouldn’t be hiking at all? Beyond always properly storing my food, both while hiking and while in camp, I wasn’t obligated to stay at that particular site. I could walk to the next. Or, I could camp almost anywhere I wanted, since that part of Vermont does not require hikers to camp only at designated campsites.
Still, I continued to invent, consider and eventually talk myself out of various scenario’s and risks and reasons for not going. Including, the hypothetical presence of a serial killer and the recent uptick of bear mauling’s in Alaska….as if the bears in Alaska had somehow issued a call to arms for bears across the country to revolt.
I did this right up until the morning I was due to set foot on the trail, when I awoke to torrential downpours. It’s a sign! I shouldn’t go!
But when I checked the weather forecast and learned that the storm would pass at almost the exact time I’d planned to head out. I had to accept that perhaps this was a good sign and I should definitely go.
I’m glad I didn’t let my nerves get the better of me. I loved my solo hike. The moment I stepped into the green tunnel of the woods, I felt the apprehension and fear melt away. All those reasons I’d been debating over the proceeding months, seemed foolish now that I was on the trail.
My hike wasn’t without its challenges though. On my third day, I miscalculated the distance between water sources. A mistake I’ve never made before. I dehydrate easily, so understanding where I can find water along the trail is a top priority in my pre-hike planning.
The day I made the mistake, it was incredibly hot and humid and I ran out of water with seven difficult miles to go. I’ve passed out from dehydration, more than once, so my lack of water caused me to panic.
As the day wore on, I had no appetite and no need to go to the bathroom. I was exhausted, depleted. Then, with about a mile to go before my next campsite and water source, I thought I could hear the sound of water on the trail up ahead. I hoped, but wouldn’t allow myself to believe it was true. I had checked the map and my guide at least a dozen times for water references since I’d run out and I knew there were none.
But as I reached the top of a small hill, the sound became louder. Then, I saw it. It was a narrow mountain stream that had likely formed due to the heavy rains the region had experienced throughout the spring months. For a second, I just stood there and stared at it, still not convinced it was real. Then I dropped my pack and cheered. I knew this was a rare gift though. The trail does not reward stupidity.
Despite the rehydration, I dragged myself into camp feeling like my feet weighed a million pounds a piece. I slowly set up my tent, organized my things and hung my food bag. I still didn’t have much of an appetite, but I forced myself to eat dinner and then I crawled into my tent for a restless night’s sleep. My stomach churned and I was alternately too warm and then too cold. When I awoke the next morning, I still felt terrible.
The next day was supposed to be a relatively easy, eight mile hike. I headed out early, planning to take my time and hoping I could walk off whatever was ailing me. It didn’t work. I had plenty of water, but still no appetite. My stomach seemed to revolt at even the thought of eating. Then, about two miles from my campsite, it started to rain. I’d known it was in the forecast, but I didn’t expect the significant drop in temperature, or the golfball sized hail that accompanied it.
That afternoon, I drug into the campsite once more. Only this time, instead of just feeling depleted, I was soaked to the bone and freezing. Worse, in addition to an upset stomach, I also had an inconvenient case of the trail trots. I’ll spare you the details. You’re welcome.
I rode out the storm in the shelter, along with some other hikers I’d met and camped with each night I’d been out. When the storm passed, I decided against setting up my tent and chose to sleep in the shelter instead. Beyond the fact that I just didn’t have the energy to set everything up, sleeping in the shelter seemed an especially good idea since this was the campsite with the bear.
For the rest of the day and into the evening, I went back and forth between staying on the trail to finish out my hike and asking my husband to pick me up at the next road crossing, which was about four miles north of the campsite, the next morning. My stomach ultimately made the decision. At that point, I could keep nothing in and I knew that trying to tough it out for three more days wouldn’t make for an enjoyable experience.
I never did see the bear, but we all heard what sounded like something large moving around in the woods near the shelter that night. The next morning, I saw large bear tracks at various intervals in the mud along the trail. I intermittently tweeted the whistle on my packs chest strap as I walked while shouting, “You don’t want to eat me bear! I probably taste like poop! Literally!”
When I exited the trail, I was upset at not finishing the section I’d planned, but I needed indoor plumbing and eventually a trip to the ER, so disappointed or not, I know I made the right call.
Despite the way it ended, I’m still so glad I went. I’ve yet to complete a section without learning something about the trail, about backpacking and about myself.
To quote Thoreau, “I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees.”
See you next year Vermont.
Next week, I’ll be heading out for my annual trek on the Appalachian Trail. If you’ve never heard of it, the Appalachian Trail (AT) is a continuous footpath that runs from Springer Mountain, Georgia to the top of Mount Katahdin in Maine. The trail is approximately 2,180 miles long and travels through 14 states and some of the most beautiful landscapes in the US.
There are a number of ways one can endeavor to hike the trail. Some people go the entire length in one trip; thru-hike. They begin at either the southern or the northern point and they finish when they finish.
I’m a section hiker. I go back to the trail at least once a year, picking up where I left off and hiking the next stretch. I would like to someday thru-hike. But for now, section hiking suits me. I get to return to the adventure every year.
One of my favorite things about the trail, is meeting other hikers. I love to hear their stories and everyone has a story. I’ve met people from all walks of life.
Last year, I met a woman whose trail name was Orange Crush. She was a retired school teacher who had dreamed of hiking the trail ever since she was a little girl. After satisfying the responsibilities of work and family, her husband turned to her in their retirement and said, “It’s now or never. You’ve got to do this.”
And she did. She got her trail name when she was walking through Pennsylvania and two men spotted her from their place atop a ridge. She was wearing a bright orange top and they could see her clearly as she made her way toward them, down into a valley and back up again. She was moving so quickly through the states notoriously rocky landscape, that they decided to wait and see who this person was. When she approached, they were shocked, expecting a much younger hiker. One of the men apparently exclaimed, “You’re crushing it!” And so she was given the trail name, Orange Crush.
A few years ago, I met a group of friends who had been section hiking the trail together for twenty-years. They’d all had careers and kids, but every year, they made the commitment to get together and go. No matter what.
I also met a couple in their 70’s. I met them in Connecticut, but they had been hiking since Georgia. They passed me quickly and left me in their dust.
I’ve met people who are hiking alone, or in small groups, or with others they met and clicked with at some point along the trail. In years prior, I’ve always hiked with a partner. But this year, I’m hiking solo for the first time.
Any time it comes up, the first question I’m asked is, “Aren’t you afraid?”
I know what they mean. They aren’t asking me if I’m afraid I’ll encounter a wild animal hungry for a hiker. Or, if I’m afraid I’ll lose my way. They are asking if I’m afraid of who I might meet on the trail.
I give them the answer I know to be true. I say that I am safer on the trail than I would be walking alone on a city street. Then I think what I also know to be true. I am safer, but I am not exactly safe.
It’s a deflating conversation. But, it’s a conversation I think every woman is accustomed to having in some form or fashion. Because we are taught and we know, that sometimes bad things happen to women who walk alone.
And when those bad things happen, there is always someone who reads the story and says, “Why would she do that, be there, take that risk, alone? She should have known better.”
I hate it.
I hate that alone is considered a risk, because someone else might consider it an invitation.
I hate that when I say, “I’m not afraid” someone says, “You’re so brave.”
I shouldn’t have to muster up bravery and courage to simply walk alone.
I hate that this is my world too, but it’s a world in which I’m often the punchline of a dirty joke. Where my choices and my rights are up for debate and can be snatched away without my say.
I hate that I have, at times, accepted negative attention, because my intuition told me it was safer than standing my ground.
I hate when I say any of these things, there is someone who hears it and thinks I’m being too dramatic, too sensitive. I hate that the statistics say otherwise.
I hate that I am a little bit afraid.
I love that I’m going to walk alone anyway.
When I was in my mid-twenties, I decided to get a tattoo. The decision making process for this permanent implementation of art onto my skin, went something like this:
Friend: I’m going to get my tattoo today. The one I’ve been talking about and planning and thinking long and hard about for months. The one I’ve drawn and redrawn and gone over with my tattoo artist again and again. The one that has deep, personal meaning. The one I’m not likely to regret ten minutes later.
Me: Oooh, fun! I’ll come too!
Change scene to tattoo parlor.
Me: (staring at a wall of generic tattoo selections as though deciding between the cheeseburger or the chicken mcnuggets on the extra value menu at McDonald’s) I’ll take that one! (points finger at a butterfly, because….obviously).
Tattoo Artist: (likely chuckling on the inside) Where would you like it?
Me: Fluttering out of the crack of my ass, duh!
This is how I ended up with a tramp stamp.
The impulsiveness of this decision was a definite departure of type for me. I’m the kind of person who will spend days researching toasters before I buy one. But at the time, my life was particularly complicated and messy. I was in the process of ending a long term romantic relationship and the situation with my mother had reached a pivotal impasse. One of us had to die. Or, one of us needed to walk away….forever.
So what better time to do something rash and permanent, am I right?
Needless to say, I regretted it pretty instantly. It wasn’t because I have anything against tattoo’s. I regretted it, because my choice and its placement didn’t fit me. The tattoo had no meaning….although, for a long time, I told people I’d chosen it because butterflies symbolize change, hope and life….which was a total crock.
For years, anytime I looked at it, which typically required a deliberate act, I felt like I was walking around in a used car I’d purchased with a bumper sticker that said something like, “Back Off! I’m going to Fart” and I couldn’t scrape it off. I didn’t have the money to do anything about it though. They go on far cheaper than they come off. So I just tried to keep it covered.
Recently though, I decided it was time to have the tattoo removed. There was no real catalyst for the decision, I just saw it one day while trying on a bathing suit with a low cut back. It brought back bad memories.
I sought out the best laser removal specialist I could find and booked my first consultation / removal session. I knew from my research that the procedure would hurt, but I gave birth to my son au natural. I figured, if I could survive ejecting a human from my hooha, how bad could laser tattoo removal be? Really, uncomfortably bad….that’s how bad it could be.
As I laid there sweating, grimacing and squeezing down hard on a stress ball, I tried to divert my thoughts. Mind over matter. It was a skill I honed as a kid.
When my mother would launch into an attack, I would do my best to take it without emotion. Instead of being in that moment, I would concentrate instead on trying to make certain muscles move. Can I make my ears move? How about my knee caps? What about a chest muscle? Can I do it to the beat of a particular song? Eventually, the sound of her voice would become nothing more than a fuzzy buzz in the background of my mind.
The ability to remove myself mentally from situations I don’t want to be in, continues to be a tactic I employ, though it’s not always to my benefit. The word that has been most commonly used to describe me is “stoic,” followed by “aloof.” To quote Popeye, “I am what I am,” but I’m working on being a bit more emotionally accessible.
So as I tried to ignore the pain of the procedure, I also tried not to let my mind wander too far from the situation at hand. Instead, I thought about how I got there in the first place. I decided that maybe the tattoo had been symbolic of something after all.
For years, I’d felt as though my feelings and my body were a literal punching bag and dumping ground for other people’s stuff. Maybe the act had been my way of staking a claim. Or, maybe it was my way of grabbing onto something I could control in the midst of a life that felt totally out of control. Maybe it was none of those things and I’m simply grasping at straws to apply meaning to something that might have just been meaningless. Maybe that means something.
Regardless, I do feel as though the removal is significant. When I look back on my life, I can see a very definitive before and after. The tattoo is the marker that separates the years. In those that proceeded it, a lot of my life had been chaotic and messy. All I wanted was to survive it and then escape it.
In the years that followed the tattoo, I did the work of stripping away all the layers of dysfunction and self-doubt that had been piled on for so many years and replacing those layers with healthy layers. I’ve built a good life for myself. The memories the tattoo evokes are not happy memories. I don’t need that symbol of where I’ve been to be appreciative of where I am and where I’m going.
The tattoo removal process will also happen in layers. It’s a bit poetic all things considered. At each session, the laser will target the tattoo pigment and the energy from the beam will be transferred to the ink, breaking it up into small particles. Then my body will let it go. To quote the laser removal specialist, “you’ll basically poop out your tattoo.” That seemed a bit poetic as well.