I was going to write about each day of the Appalachian Trail trip this summer as a single day’s adventure. I was going to count the Appalachian Trail trip as a single adventure. I was going to do a lot of things.
But one thing I wasn’t ready for was the humbling experiences of the Appalachian Trail, a forcible sense of self-analysis, self-awareness. A reconciliation that I was thought was long done but was apparently long overdue.
As a child, when my family lived in Germany, we spent every possible weekend hiking. Therefore, as an adult, I thought I was a fairly intelligent, experienced hiker. Even last year, I thought that the 20 or so miles of the Appalachian Trail that I had hiked was fairly easy. I was so able to do everything I put my mind to.
When I was a child, though, my hiking experiences taught me that intelligent choices weren’t always being made. For a family of four, we carried….four cans of soda. Not water. Soda. I drink A LOT of water, enough that I have been called a camel. I consume almost two to three times the water that can keep the average person hydrated and satiated. And, no, I am not diabetic or pre-diabetic. I am a camel.
Additionally, the snacks my family carried when I was a child and hiking were…cookies, candy. Not healthy snacks. No fruit. No vegetables.
Yeah…not high on the healthy list.
So when I started picking up hiking as an adult, I started making better choices because I learned that hiking with soda and cookies was not great for having a great experience.
Therefore, when I was prepping for my hike this summer, I drew on all the mistakes I made earlier in my life and decided that I WOULD NOT duplicate any of them.
And that was my first mistake.
I did all the right things. My hiking partner and I scouted out the trail. We found water resources, camp grounds, the ranger stations (we were hiking in Shenandoah National Park). I read all the warnings about nuisance bears and bought bear spray. I packed special bags that I could use as bear bags. I made thoughtful choices with my clothing, boots, everything.
I bought the maps, circled the springs, wrote down the mileage between huts. I had two compasses. I had the bear spray (yes, it does exist and, yes, I do own a can). I was ready.
My partner’s husband drove us to the drop off point and we smiled for pictures, the triumphant pair of women about to embark on a journey that would forever change us…an experience that would be a story of victory and proud accomplishment.
And then we started hiking….
I hadn’t trained as hard as I did last year. I had done a lot of walking, especially on the treadmill at an incline. I had gone on a practice hike with my pack (at least six miles). I thought I was ready.
But, sadly, I wasn’t. And it showed quickly. I was painfully slow. Embarrassingly and painfully slow. And, my blessed hiking partner was wonderfully and compassionately patient and encouraging.
Day One….the ultimate mistake I made was becoming dehydrated. I bought three 32-ounce bottles filled with water/Gatorade. I figured this would be enough. But after 14 miles, I was miserable. Everything hurt, especially my feet and my knees. By the time we arrived at the campground (brilliant decision by the way), I was ready to call my husband. The pain was just too terrible.
But the thing is, the trail constantly calls to me. I was inclined to keep my head bent and stare at each step I took to make sure that I didn’t lose my balance (the amount of non-flat rocks on the trail is ridiculous). Going downhill, especially, I fretted about my balance, about my feet placement, about doing the squaddle which is squatting and waddling at the same time to take some of the shock and weight off my knees. I should wear glasses but hate wearing them on the trail because sweat will drip on the lenses (gross, I know, but that is the truth) and I am too clumsy to wear contacts.
So when the trail leveled out or I remembered that I was supposed to be looking at the beauty, I lifted my head and stared out over a panorama of mountains, or a tree and fern-lined horizon. I was walking in a solitude that is impossible to find in my world of city and suburbia. And when I would finally remember to stop and look around, the pain contorted into its shell and I could forget for a while that I was aching.
So I didn’t call my husband at the end of Day One. Instead, I took pain killers and ate “Camp Comfort Food” and slept fitfully.
Day Two, I learned that no matter how much water health professionals think is enough, I really do have to drink more. Therefore, I bought a souvenir water bottle (a collapsible kind complete with a cheap plastic carabiner) which was promptly dubbed “Clark Griswald” because it looked like something Clark Griswald from the Vacation movies would have strapped across his chest.
I was ready. I was going to be hydrated. I was going to be great. Reality….I crested one hill almost in tears, breathing out the words “Why am I so weak?” Ooopppss…front-ending the calories I would need for hiking uphill while carrying a 35 pound pack is a good thing.
Being overweight, I hoped that the AT hike would serve as a good catalyst for losing unwanted pounds. So I thought that eating three healthy meals a day would be sufficient. Yeah…that was my next mistake.
My hiking partner and I arrived at Pass Mountain Hut at 3:30 in the afternoon. We could have hiked another four miles to Byrd’s Nest Shelter 3, but I was done. I was frazzled and hurting and hating myself.
This was supposed to be a vacation and I was just screwing everything up.
But, you see, even on a vacation, God will still want me to learn a few things about myself. Or at least see a bit deeper into the muddled, muddied surface that is deep within me and just stir the reflection a little. Find another point that I need to see and need to go.
Pass Mountain Shelter was an oasis for me. From its setting on the side of the mountain to how the hut was situated next to a spring and between two large tent-pad sites to the fact that the pad my partner and I selected was across the spring and located in a small clearing studded with trees…I found a place that still echoes peacefully in my mind.
That night, I found my peace. I made my peace with the trail, with myself and my limitations. I don’t even remember what we ate for dinner that night. What I remember was us failing to make a fire.
What I remember is the arch of my partner’s shoulders as she tilted her head back and sang out the staccato notes of two cooks for you, the Barred Owl song.
And then, an owl sang back to her.
She called again and the owl was silent. But, later that night, the owl sang and she sang back and the owl sang back to her.
On the Appalachian Trail, a person earns a nickname, a trail name. And my partner became the Owl Singer. That night, the owls sang across the ridgeline. For a minute, possibly more, they sang and I stopped counting after ten consecutive sets of calls. I didn’t need to count. I needed to listen. I needed to just….be.
On Day 3, Owl Singer and I awoke to the knowledge that we had been joined by a third hiker, a delightful young man named Mark. He earnestly told us about his hiking experiences, and, in the end, I was reassured. This gentleman is in incredible good shape and talked about how he could barely hike eight miles a day at the beginning. Owl Singer and I had hiked 14 on day 1 and at least another 10 or 11 on day 2.
Mark said that no matter how much he had trained, nothing could prepare him for the trail, for the pain of walking on so many rocks that weren’t flat but seemed to be determined to be on their edges so that every step was on a corner or a side, a hard ridge that dug into the softest parts of the feet.
So on Day 3, Owl Singer and I hit the trail with a new sense of energy, a renewed sense for the need to explore and see the world in which we had immersed ourselves. As we walked to the valley, we encountered a muddy stretch filled with animal tracks. Within a three foot span, we found bear, deer, raccoon, squirrel, and mouse tracks. In this tiny, perfect microchosm, we stared at the shadows of a habitat, of a world that was tiny….a world that was everywhere….
Day 3, I found myself, I found my strength. I found the routine I needed to follow in order to make the hike successful. We hit some of the highest summits, some of the toughest terrain. We hiked up steep topography and literally walked through the clouds and along the spine of the Earth.