What We Carry

A journey is alive in every moment. Each step. Katahdin was not a place to reach for, it is a place to be, among many. What matters to me is what’s been here, alongside me. This hike has been a celebration of what I’ve got.

I love my body so much, it makes me cry. A little of that’s sadness, for how I used to treat it, but mostly, it’s gratitude. I get to walk. That’s my honor in this human experience.

I carry a heavy heart, only because it’s so freakin’ big, and there’s room for everyone in it. So my legs are strong. They have no choice.

I carry faith, that this is what’s real and what will always be; sunlight through the canopy and mud in our leg hair.

I carried an mp3 player this whole time, and only started listening to it in the 100 mile wilderness. My last three nights camping, in the dark, up against my dinner tree, I sang along and laughed at myself.

I carried a letter, from my Montana family. I asked them in January to write something magic on a piece of paper so I could keep it in my pocket. I finally read it, on Katahdin. “Sing your song” was in the center and statements about the love in my heart filled the rest of the page. This family is mostly composed of children, and it’s astounding how deeply seen I feel.

I carried a tacky, blue, screw-top container. Translucent, unceremonious, and precious. It holds ashes. This is my fifth time walking across a country, but the first without her voice. God! I miss her voice. It was especially loud. I feel distinctly quiet.

It feeds a sort of loop. It’s painful to think about these hardships, and then it wouldn’t hurt if we weren’t so alive. So I circle back to noticing and I say “thank you.”

Thank you heart.

Thank you feet.

Thank you Appalachian Trail.

Top 10 Reasons the A.T. is the BEST TRAIL EVER!

  • 10. Rain that is warm. I don’t get this luxury in the Rockies. When it rains and I am out there, I have to think about safety. Out here, I am wearing a dress and I would be stupid not to dance.
  • 9. White Blazes. Are you kidding me? Someone has done the work to make it so that I need zero maps or navigational tools to walk from Georgia to Maine.
  • 8. Towns. I never have to carry more than 2-3 days of food at a time!
  • 7. Culture. The Appalachian Trail world is full of jokes and lingo. Songs and tag-lines. History and stories. Festivals and challenges.
  • 6. Variety. When you glance back at your hiking season and realize you’ve come from Rhododendrons to Cedars, it’s quite amazing. Furthermore, when you look back to the dialects and roadside locations of Tennessee and find yourself next to Dartmouth, or being told to “Scram” in a Boston accent, it seems pretty hard to believe that this is all the same walk.
  • 5. Water. It’s everywhere and it’s life-giving.
  • 4. Hostels. Holy crap! There are hostels in every small town along the way and they are extremely thoughtful toward hikers and run by powerhouse humans who know and love the trail.
  • 3. Magic. They say the trail provides, but you wouldn’t believe it, until you see it. I’ve heard stories of hikers breaking a trekking pole, and then coming around the corner, deep in the woods, to find one fully in tact, sticking out of the ground like the sword in the stone. If you ask, you get what you need.
  • 2. Green Tunnel. I cannot stress this one enough. It is a luxury beyond measure to be able to recreate outdoors in the summertime, from sun up to sun down, without thinking about protecting yourself from the sun. Thank you trees!
  • 1. The People. From the tears of Nimblewill Nomad, to the supporting hands of Robert Bird or A.T. Gracie, this is the gold. Thousands of humans put forth energy, support, effort, protection and care to make this experience happen. There are individuals swinging pickaxes and hauling rocks so that you can have an easy step, without even thinking about it. There are beautiful women and men waiting at road crossings so that they can cook you a meal and offer you a cold drink. There are advocates and builders and believers doing what they do, for us, so that humanity can have a nice place to walk. I could have sworn that America is a hostile country in many ways, but that can’t be. Not if this is happening. This trail means so much to so many people, and they want to share it. They want to help. They want to be a family.

Truth

I told them everything, because they were four women with gray hair and strong bodies on a ridgeline in Maine. With the same satisfaction you get when you spot a recycling basket on the block and go directly to it, because that’s where the thing in your hand goes. I learned myself, as I told them.

“I’m so happy.” I said, in response to how I didn’t look like the average north-bounder. “I hiked this 10 years ago.”

“How does this feel the second time?” asked one of the loving women.

“Amazing!” and I mean it earnestly. This is not blowing smoke, and all five of us know it. These four women are watching me like the 11 o’clock number of a powerful musical.

“What is it about this time?” another one asks.

“It’s being 10 years older. I was rushed and unhappy; mad at the rain, grumpy about the mud, ticked at the rocks. I was taking it personally, like these obstacles were in my way, between me and what I wanted. Now I get it. This is the show. Now, I just…(I take a deep breath and they don’t try to fill it in for me) surrender.”

Like four mothers, they smile at me with their eyes. With warmth and gladness. With yes.

Misty Maine Morning

I’m here. Now. This time. I’m sorry about last time. Probably it’s all the same to you, but to me, it matters.

It matters that I smell you. That I have time to taste the blueberries and meet the locals. That I laugh and drink PBR with your wiley ones, and talk about your wiley ones with your maternal ones.

I rejoice when the loons call. I throw my head back to hoot at the thunder. I can’t stay dry and I don’t want to.

This grass is so green, I don’t think about what’s on the other side. There is no other side. Not this time.

I miss Mamma and Sara-Tide in every parking lot, but they walk with me anyway.

I miss Lu, but her ashes are in my front pocket.

I miss Montana, but that makes me glad. My family, gladder.

It’s bitter sweet, but I hope to miss all kinds of things and to never miss a thing. The magic comes when you begin to understand that all of this is possible.

We’re together when we’re apart. Though, they say no two things are ever truly touching. So I guess tonight, I drink to the space between. Turns out we’re always going to be there. It feels like somewhere.

If love isn’t walking with me, then somebody drugged me good!

The White Mountains

I approached the tough part of this journey with the best send-off possible; a hike with Stephen and Banner up Smarts Mountain. It felt good to be walking with him and it felt ridiculously true that the mountains were getting steeper and more technical. Here it comes. I know that I had a hard time accepting the difficulty of these mountains last time. I felt offended by the need to scramble often, using your hands to hold on to rebar or make three points of contact down short pitches with your heavy pack on. This time, I figured I could at least remind myself to laugh at it, rather than feel personally attacked. It’s not personal, these are just rough ranges.

TTFN Stephen

I made it to Moosilauke the next day, which is considered the southern-most mountain that will kick your ass. It was beautiful. So much of this experience has been made easier by mental preparation. It is hard, no doubt. It’s hard on the level that even though I remembered it as strenuous, I still felt like it was harder than I anticipated. Some things are just like that, like the cold in the mid-west or the mosquitos in the Boundary Water Canoe Area. No matter how bad you think it’s going to be…it’s worse.

So, these are wet and slippery…yeah.

I settled in for lower milage days and signed up for a couple of slack-packing opportunities. I also saw a chiropractor, which helped a lot with some chronic hip pain that was plaguing me. I met a nice man who is traveling around without many deadlines, and he helped me out with a couple of rides to make the chiropractor visit possible. I made friends with the assistant at the clinic, who drove me the 45 miles back to Crawford Notch after my appointment and joked with me about anything else I might need, like a good man (she has a single son in Whitefish). I joked back, “I am in the market for one of those. Let’s talk.” It was fun to be in her presence and I deeply appreciated her support.

That night I caught back up to Seeker on top of Webster Peak, and watched the mystic moon sliver over the twilight glow, as the stars came out. With mountain-tops all around us and a cool breeze on our faces, it felt like the opportunity of a lifetime. So many of these moments do. We had a blast the next day summiting Mount Washington and a few other presidential peaks. We stopped along three different huts and had lemonade and coffee and warm soup. It was a tough day, and we did way more miles than I think I would advise, but we ended up at his friends’ house in North Conway that night, well-fed and sharing a converted bus, talking about our blessings. I cherish that feeling, when you’ve experienced a day that looks like a dream behind your closing eye-lids. It’s nice to have a friend to marvel at it with.

Now that the White’s are behind me, that means I’m on the home stretch. I’m in Maine. I’m still getting my butt whooped, but it’s beautiful. I’m trying to slow down and pay respect to this experience, this land, and this incredible journey.

Ay Mi Familia

Dumbledore’s Army 10 year reunion

With entering New England came some of the happiest times I’ve had so far. My mother picked me up from a nice woman’s yard in Salisbury, CT and stuck with me for 8 days. I love hiking with my mother, she is incredible road support and it feels like home to get to each road crossing where she waits for me. She followed along from Connecticut to southern Vermont, and it was marvelous. Seeker, who is pretty much my trail partner now, joined us for lots of comfy hotel sleeps and charming New England towns. The grand finale was a zero day in a condo with my trail family from 10 years ago, Dumbledore’s Army. For the first time in years, we were together again; eating ice cream (vegan in my case), making music, and fighting evil. Sara-Tide and Stephen both know my mom from hiking with me 10 years ago. We had a good sing along and a beautiful meal together. Stephen and I did a cover of a Tenacious D song that I could not get through very well without laughing my head off. I think it sounded good anyway.

This is multi-layered. 10 years ago, I remember the overwhelming joy I felt when my trail family was meeting my mother and two younger siblings. It was like a flood of comfort in my veins to see it all come together. Now, here we are, after a test of time, still in each other’s lives and older, meaning more to each other. Then you add in Seeker, my new trail family, and Bard, who was there in spirit, and two additions to the family to celebrate, Banner (the handsome pup) and Molly, Stephens fiancĂ©. Sara-Tide and I fell in love with her right away and felt big-sisterly to welcome her to the family. She fits like a glove, and I knew I was going to love her, just by the sound of Stephen’s voice when he speaks of her. I didn’t know that she would out-nerd me Harry Potter style or be so poised and graceful, but I found out immediately that Stephen struck gold.

Toast to Stephen and Molly

I was sad to say goodbye to my mother the next morning, but comforted to know I’ll be visiting her in a few weeks when I’m finished walking. I also had Sara-Tide, who sees me more than most and is always good to come to teary-eyed. She took Seeker and I to the trailhead where Stephen and Molly met us, and we got to goofing off some more. It was fitting, to hike that stretch with Stephen, for this was the spot where we spent our last night together in 2011, before he got off trail. I remembered how jealous I was of him, our last camp out, because it was his last meal and he would soon be burning his hiking shirt. Through the envy, I knew that I was going to make it to Katahdin, if only for my ability to resist jumping off with him then and there. I’m grateful for the memories, but mostly, I’m grateful that Stephen still rocks pink shorty shorts.

Stephen, Banner, and I went for a swim in Stratton Pond after a good hike through some of Vermont’s finest mud. Then Seeker and I bade them all farewell for now to hike to the next road crossing. We would be seeing Stephen and Molly in just a few days, walking upon their homeland, Norwich, VT. Sara-Tide would be meeting us at the next road crossing for a final campout. Of all the precious moments in my life, I found myself touched and inspired on parking lot gravel with Sara-Tide and Seeker that night. She lit a candle and laid out a spread, while we talked about music and dreams. It was beautiful.

The next morning, we had a similar scene for breakfast and a heart-felt goodbye. Sara-Tide had visited me trail-side for the last time, as she was off to work at the 2021 US Open in NYC (yeah, I know, she’s frickin’ cool). We both cried, for me it was mostly gratitude. She’s been a fierce friend and incredible to talk to. I believe in her wildness and I leave all of our encounters feeling understood. There are few people in this world that I can walk with like this incredible woman. From our matching kitty shirts to our experienced feet, I feel lucky beyond measure for this friendship.

A few short days later, Seeker and I got picked up in Woodstock, VT by Stephen to attend Molly’s beautiful yoga class. We both had moments of disbelief while looking around us at the beautiful hill side farm we were practicing on, with the confident yet soothing sound of Molly’s voice. I pinched myself a few times, but it turned out it wasn’t a dream. That was only the beginning, too. For the next 3 days, we got absolutely spoiled by the happy couple; slackpacks, family meals, Mario Cart night, dog cuddles, music, pints of Ben and Jerry’s, plant identifying endeavors, chipmunks that eat out of your hands…man! It was dreamy. More importantly, it was deep and real. These two are in my heart like family, and seeing their lives take the shape they have means a lot to me.

It’s crazy. 10 years ago, when I agreed to hike with two bright and shiny thru-hikers in Tennessee, I never would have guessed the warmth that could come with it down the road. How we’re still laughing, still stepping, and still believing in magic.

Long May We Walk.

8 Hours in Manhattan

My first step into the city, Upper West Side

The window of a train this time, my 3rd time, approaching New York City. Coming slowly in from the Appalachian Trail gave it gravity and a dreamy glow. That one could step out of the woods onto a platform, pay 22 bucks, then emerge in Manhattan. There is was, the empire state building making it undeniably identifiable from across the Hudson. The city that never sleeps. Here I am, digging up memories and accessing mental pathways set when I was a teenager, moving here to try a life in musical theater. I was surprised that 16 years later, it’s still part of my muscle memory, like riding a bike, and I stepped around port authority making a bee line for an A train, uptown, before even realizing where I was going.

The humidity and smells of the subway haven’t changed a bit. Nor has the sound of its metal wheels jugging against the seams along the screeching tracks, while people stand inches from it without looking up from their phone. I felt it more than I heard it, the rhythm thumping in my chest. This used to be every day. Now my everyday is foot patter and trickling water.

Yet, fresh air is always the same when you’re breaking into it from a place without. The breeze on your face, the understanding, without words, as you step out. This. Here I am. 72nd and Broadway, my school, my dorm, my neighborhood. Where 18-year-old me landed fresh off the boat from the mid-west with a dream and a suitcase, and a lump in her throat. Standing here now, in my hiking dress, I carry an empty stomach, a watchful eye, and a coyote smile. The animal that I am is equal parts enticed and peaceful. I look up at the Ansonia building, and say thank you, with lungs that I know how to use and soles that use me. The study of being human has never left my blood. This is where I got my training.

Ansonia Building

Then I find a falafel and go directly to the John Lennon memorial, pausing for reflection in front of the Dakota building. Imagine indeed. Now and always. I sit in Strawberry Fields next to the circle, and listen to Beatles covers while watching the other onlookers like myself. There’s something about a New Yorker. Not just the way they wear their hat or sip their tea, but the way they sit on a bench like it’s their living room. Sort of reminds me of the way thru-hikers sit on logs.

Chess Games in the park

This moment means a lot to me. I think of how I felt as a teenager trying to make it in this city on my own. I imagine her sitting beside me now, I wonder if I could get her shoulders out of her ears a bit. Maybe just by sitting next to her with all this peace in my heart. Recalling the things she would be running through her brain about what she has to do or who she has to be and seeing her inside her glazed eyes. I could just shake my head, “Nah.” I’d say, “We’re good.” Maybe she’d sink into that bench a bit. Maybe she’d close her eyes and feel the music vibrate. She’d smile. She’d hum. She’d be one of those specks in the wind, like other New Yorkers. I love that kid, for her hope and her drama. She did alright with what she had.

When I returned to the trail the next morning there was a group of thru-hikers sitting on the ground against their packs, right next to the road crossing. They reminded me of pigeons in Central Park. We talked about the city. I told them that, in a big way, it feels like moving to New York was my first thru-hike. I access the same wild animal, briskly walking to my destination, surviving, dancing with the obstacles. How the learning curve was similar in that it felt huge and impossible upon arrival, then a short time later, I looked up at myself to say, “Holy shit! I’m this now.” A couple of them chuckled and seemed to know what I meant.

We adapt. Perhaps I lose sight of that sometimes, being a bit set in my ways. It’s remarkable how normal can change, how we can roll with it. They say if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. I’m not sure what counts as making it, but I’m grateful to have started with Manhattan.

Real Danger

Suzanne the Wandering Dame, after a good fall.

I spend a pretty good amount of time on a soap box about actual danger. I think I get this tendency from two major platforms of my life; my love for walking alone and my love of predators. There’s so much fear in our culture, and I find the marketing of it to be rather askew. Statistically you are more likely to get crushed by a vending machine than killed by a grizzly bear. Yet, more often than not, people who don’t live in grizzly country are insisting that they know the dangers that I’m up against. And it’s best to take that as protective and caring concern, rather than misinformation. It bothers me how much the media loves a sexy story. It feels unrealistic when people mark me in their minds as some kind of badass for the experiences I’ve had hiking. It feels a bit hurtful when they accuse me of being less than smart for walking alone. I know what’s out there, from being out there.

The things that are actually dangerous are so much less glamourous. Like slipping on these rocks. I came around the corner to a woman sitting on a rock pile with blood dripping between her eyes. She was smiling and another hiker was tending to her, but still, a reminder that the edge is closer than you think. It’s kind of her to take one for the team and share that message with us. I sat with her and cleaned up some of her wounds, checked her for a head injury, laughed with her about our crazy lifestyle and after her wife came to get her (which is the best news possible in that scenario), I walked on, thinking about danger.

Pennsylvania rocks.

It would be wise to take my time on these rocks.

Then I came across one of the two critters on the Appalachian Trail that can actually end you. On a hot day near Palmerton, I reached a beauty of a water source and took off my pack beside it. This is gold, and I know it, having a piped spring coming right out of the mountain side in Pennsylvania. These ridges don’t run with brooks and streams and moss-covered rocks, as many AT ridges do. These are low, dry, rocky places. Meanwhile, there are warm rocks in the sun below me, and there’s shade here next to the water source. All of that adds up to an ideal place to stay a while. I began to unpack my overnight stuff, soaked from the night before, and spread it out on the rocks below me.

“Yard sale” I sang, to humor myself as I lined up my sleeping bag, silk liner, and tent along the slope. Then I took a seat next to the spring. I got out my book and looked ahead at the statistics of my day. It could be 18 miles until the next water source, if I didn’t want to go off trail a good amount. The next stretch was a super fund site, and came with a warning. Those were not the streams or berries one would do well not to consume, not high on my list of fun facts.

“Time to flip.” I said, as I pushed myself up toward my gear. I picked up my tent and gave it a bit of a shake, making a familiar rustling noise with it’s cuben fiber floor, and then a shot of adrenaline slithered through my spinal cord. A copper head snake crawled carefully around my sleeping bag liner. It was beautiful, I have to admit, her gold and tan patches spiraling around the royal blue cloth. She didn’t look at all aggressive, but it was unnerving. I shuttered, and made moves to get the hell out of there. Meanwhile, the entire next climb made me jumpy. I was walking up a pile of rocks in the sun and wanted to see every cranny before putting my foot down.

The other critter that counts the most out here is the black legged tick. The Lyme carrier. That doesn’t get news coverage like bear attacks or trail murders, but each year 30,000 Americans contract Lyme Disease. I was diagnosed with it in 2011, after this hike. It is a real and present danger.

This is how I feel about walking across farm land on a 90 degree day.

Then, perhaps, the most dangerous thing of all is the basket-full-of-crazy inside our heads. Things like time goals, attachment, and vanity. I don’t have any photos of the snake I saw the other day, because I don’t think like that. Just yesterday I was standing on the highest mountain around in a thunderstorm, and all I knew was that I needed to get down. The hiker behind me thought making a video was more of a priority. I disagree. The idea of showing off the danger we come close to, is a tremendous threat to our safety. Being attached to being somewhere at the time you thought you would is one of the leading causes of search and rescue parties. Adaptability is so much of wilderness survival. A gift to spend time with in such obvious examples, like many things in the woods. The metaphors for life are poignant. We do our best when we work with what’s there, rather than forcing what we want or have become attached to.

Danger looks so different than the things we worry about. A stranger can be easily made into a villain by a ridiculous movie scene in your head, while a person you’ve been trusting with your most vulnerable pieces, can turn out to be a wrecking ball. Your heart can say a quick prayer that mountain lions don’t eat you, while a mosquito is giving you malaria.

I give myself a shakedown for attachment, and try to shed some of it like extra weight in my pack. I check myself for stories like I check for ticks. There are some, every now and then. I’m sure I miss some, too. This is how I have come to rely on myself in the woods. Trust your gut and check in often. That’s the best I know how to do.

Empty Chairs

Though the trail has been good to me, and I’m grateful for the journey, I have to confess to the sadness. In the last week I’ve been heart sick for my family. I passed through a lot of AT landmarks that held memories from ten years ago. Places like the Mason-Dixon Line, where Sara-Tide and I shook hands as a northern and southern woman, or a road crossing out side of Boiling Springs, Pa, where my incredible family picked me up with my hiking buddies to join us for a few days. I recalled vividly the tall grass in which I hurled my backpack and hiking poles to run into a hug when I saw my little sister, Mackenzie. I laughed out loud, walking this week, at the memories of getting to introduce my hiking family to my real family and the ways we goofed off together.

I stopped in my tracks at the sight of some of it’s emptiness. Particularly the table that Stephen and Sara-Tide and I shared for the “Half Gallon Challenge” now vacated. And me, just passing through, with a bitter sweet smile. Walking into Duncannon alone felt heavy. I recalled the talk I had with Sara-Tide on the way in last time, about how grateful I am for my family, and here I was a bit melancally, missing all of them.

I got to meet up with Bard and Seeker in town later on. On my way out, I started to leak some of the emotions of missing my three closest companions, the memories flooded my eyes as I stepped out into the woods north of Duncannon. It was there that I experienced my only overnight camping trip with my mother and two younger siblings. I was missing them dearly. We’ve always been a tight-knit team, and having them join me for this journey meant the world to me. I came upon the spot I remembered taking this photo of them and sat for a good think.

My family has been through a lot since then, I think that’s where-in lies the sadness. For some reason, I couldn’t stop thinking back to the togetherness and the simplicity we had then. Before cancer and mental illness and such a divided political era, there was the four of us with lust and hope in our eyes. That’s not gone, I know, but for today, it’s missed.

A few days later, Seeker and I were invited to Bard’s mother’s house with him. It was beautiful. We went to Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, which I found fitting, as they are starting to feel like my trail brothers. I think I cried eight or nine times on our zero day, being touched by the love I was witnessing in that house and the music we filled it up with. We were five voices, singing with our hearts open wide and my, my, my…how we sang together. One would think there were 10 of us. Lucky doesn’t describe it. We celebrated Shabbat with Bard’s mother and step father, both of whom are Rabbis, and it was an absolute honor to be part of their tradition. The meal was unbelievable and the breaking of the bread and wine was full of joy and gratitude.

I have been walking alone this week, but something feels different. I feel cracked open and closer to the ground. I feel like I’m here. I’ve arrived. I’m here with some sadness and hopefully some healing, yes, but mostly I’m here with the heaps of love that got me this far.

Long May We Walk.