What I know about love, is that it exists in surprising forms. Perhaps nature is the easiest one for me to access. It feels like all I have to do is breathe, or step. Yet, it turns out to be the thing on your mind, or the thing in your pocket, or the memories that walk with you. Then it picks you up on the side of the road or swells with joy when your voice comes through the tiny slots in your phone. Of all the things I’ve gained from adventure, it’s this appreciation that means the most to me.
Yesterday, I was getting ready to walk back into the woods in a raging storm, on the south boundary of the Smokies. If you’re an A.T. lover, you might have a bone to pick with that. The Smokies are the highest point on trail and they are unique and beautiful. Its a place to take your time and to properly take in. My plan was to move quickly in the rain to catch my cousin who is half a day ahead and then meet Sara-Tide at Newfound Gap the next day for some classic Gatlinburg fun (mini-golf and tacky museums, if we should be so lucky). I had taken the previous day off, because I found a beautiful distraction in Franklin, NC. Jess was ready to slow down a bit, too. No hard feelings, we both like being alone and we have different paces.
I called my family in Franklin and talked a lot about how much I love hiking with my cousin and how rich it is, for the laughter. I missed her, and was second guessing my decision to go faster. I do like to move, and it feels like celebrating who I am and what I know how to do. Still, a good cousin is worth their weight in gold. The built-in friendship, the context of a shared upbringing, the wiring that is genetically similar…these are things you can’t build. I had already felt a new calling to slow my shit down while I’ve got Jessie’s company. That’s why I came here, afterall. And there I was, standing on the side of the trail in the pouring rain, with my back turned to woods, saying goodbye to a man in the classic, beautifully consuming way, when I heard, “Hello” in a familiar voice behind me.
“Jess!” I squealed. I was equal parts concerned and thrilled. “Are you ok?” She was smiling and walking, so there was that much, but she was more than ok. She was chipper and laughing at life, with stories of getting rocked in the woods the night before. Her sleeping pad had become a lifeboat in her tent, filled with water, and a branch had landed close to her head and put a whole in the rain fly. She spent hours of the night holding the walls of her tent out while the wind whipped it around violently. And here she was, smiling and sharing the song she wrote about it with us.
“Let’s get lunch.” Zen said. And the three of us walked back across Fontana Dam with a gait of giddiness. Jess and I were laughing so hard that we keeled over and I had to work hard on not peeing myself. We played our family game of shanghai last night and made a non-plan plan, which we will kick off today. This means that Sara-Tide can’t meet us in the Smokies, and that’s a bummer, but it means we’re going to walk slowly and together through some beautiful stuff.
It’s funny, the ways we change as we get older. It’s equally funny, the ways we stay the same. I’m getting exactly what I came here for.
So far, things are as beautiful as ever. I noticed right away how different it feels. Walking past other hikers with a look of hope in their eyes, I stopped to talk to them about it, about that feeling. I remember it well. 10 years ago, I was hopeful… now I’m home, and both are beautiful. Still, I wanted to talk about it. To tell people that they are walking to Maine, that they are thru-hikers. I remember feeling like I was bluffing before, and adding a “hopefully” to the end of the declaration, or “if I can.” I’m glad to be here to say, “You can, of course you can. We will.” Which doesn’t mean I don’t expect a derail-er, it means that I believe in us. This time it feels like I’m flying, like I’m some kind of critter who was made for this. Honestly, I believe we all are. We are born to walk and our hearts know it, just as well as our feet.
I’ve met some great people already. My cousin, Jess, is crushing it! We played a game of cat and mouse where she started 40 miles ahead of me. It took me five days to catch her, and a good effort on all five of them. There was a keep-moving-or-die day (one of my favorite games) in which I had to laugh at myself for inviting the Appalachian Mountains to remind me that they can be cold, no matter what I’m used to. I saw a rattlesnake, fled from a place where I heard ATVs in the middle of the night, had a girls’ night in Hiawase with two amazing women, Titanium and Anita, declared Trevor, the first friend I made under the arch at the very start, with his his two dogs, to be my best buddy out here on the second day, played guitar and sang at a hostel….basically, the AT is already showing me many of it’s colors in the first week. I’m honored to be here.
I am having a hard time keeping on top of writing. I will be bouncing a computer from town to town to try to be on it, but this time, it’s lost in transit. I think that might be the universe telling me to just be here, in Franklin, experiencing the people and the music and the birds. I will try to write more soon. But for now, I feel lucky and alive and appreciate the path. Thank you for walking with me.
This is a bit surreal. I’m in Dahlonega, Georgia reflecting on what’s about to start tomorrow. Ten years ago, I hugged Jesse goodbye and left him my car, then flew to my cousin in Atlanta. Yesterday, I did the same. This time, I feel like there’s no reason to look out the car window on the way to the trailhead and wonder about myself.
I know myself. I know this road. It’s a walking road, step by step. It’s nothing unusual, just strolling, eating, and meeting people in their natural habitat. It’s rocks and dirt and water, and my brain telling itself stories. It’s listening to the sounds of the critters and making eye contact with strangers across the table. Listening, because we’re here together, and it’s now or never. Either this, or something else.
And so what. So I’m walking from Georgia to Maine. I could be raising a toddler or traveling with a rock band. I could have never left New Zealand. It happens to be this. I am a person who wants life to look this way, instead of that. I’m honored to be here and touched to be so well received. I’m ready to celebrate being alive.
10 years ago, I couldn’t sleep. I was with my friend and my cousin at a hostel, anticipating something big, something I doubted myself about, something that maybe wasn’t mine. Today I realize it’s all of ours. Or, more honestly, it’s none of ours. That’s a good feeling, underneath it all. We’re borrowing everything we’ve got, anyway. I remember climbing out of my bunk bed around 10pm last time, to go type up my expectations before I started the hike. That became a tradition on the other journeys. This time, I’m going to take inventory of what’s different.
I am less excited to eat all the Poptarts I want without gaining weight
I actually paid attention to how much my pack weighs (Base weight 12 lbs!)
I know that I have it in me to make it all the way to Maine, I also know that my people will still love me, if I don’t make it past Springer
I’m hiking in a dress! I like dresses, and if I’m going to wear the same thing for 5 months, I don’t see why it shouldn’t be something I like to have on.
I understand that the trail is for now, and now is what matters. 5 months does not feel like a long time.
I have come to understand that all guilt is self-inflicted, so it’s not walking with me.
I will not rush. I have time. If I move fast, it will be because it feels good.
I’m here to travel, and plan to take side trips like Ashville and NYC.
I’m going to play every guitar I come across.
I look forward to learning about the forest from the locals, as I pass through.
I’m not here to prove anything, I’m here to celebrate everything.
Then there are a few things which are very much the same.
I’m still supported by incredible friends and family
I’m still grateful for my health and choices
I still live and die for Harry Potter
I still look at thru-hiking as mostly an opportunity for eating
I’m still my mama’s daughter
Sara-Tide is here to send me off tomorrow. My amazing cousin, Jessie, picked me up from the airport and will be meeting me out on the trial in a few days to hike together. We are being hosted by my friends’ incredibly generous parents tonight in Dahlonega, and already, the trail magic is showering me. In the spirit of spontaneity, I decided at dinner tonight that I’m going to start the trail off as a run on the approach trail tomorrow. What the heck? When I was a teenager, a mentor of mine was running a restaurant that I waitressed at. We were busy as all get out, and I was suppose to leave to go sing with my choir. I told him I could miss it and stay, since we were packed. He said sternly. “You listen to me, Shayla. When life gives you opportunities, you grab them with your teeth! Get out of here, and go sing.” To which I said thank you and asked if there was anything I could do before I ran out the door. He said, “Just one thing, show me your teeth.”
This can be thought of as the fun part. It’s my job to put on weight, or at least that’s how I see it, and that endeavor has paired nicely with my longing to spend quality time with people I love….over ice cream. There has been many a beer-and-peanut-butter-cup sharing and I’m feeling honored and blessed for the incredible people in my life. I’m getting sentimental, if you can’t tell, for I will miss them all.
On the lighter side, I took my pack weight to the chopping block. I made big and small changes.
Boreas Lost Coast 60L Pack 52oz
Gregory Octal 45L Pack 36oz
Mountain Hardware 15 Bag 35oz
Sierra Designs 20 Bag 29.7oz
Cabela’s 2-Person Tent 50.8oz
Mountain Laurel Designs Cricket 18.2oz
Arcteryx Rain Shell 9.9oz
OR Rain Shell 5.9oz
Kovea Camp Stove 4oz
Olicamp Stove 1.7oz
Platypus 3L Bladder 6oz
Smart Water Bottles (2 1-Liters) 2.4oz
Black Diamond Headlamp 4.2oz
Nitecore Headlamp 1.9oz
Hodgepodge of Tent Stakes 3.9oz
Big Agnes Titanium Tent Stakes 2.7oz
I made a few style changes here. Like giving up my palace. My 2-person tent set up has always been an enjoyable luxury for me, but I’m going to try something different this time. Imagine a thru-hike where I actually pay attention to weight.
Like going from this…..
To This!!!! Carried so casually by Wren, the 8-year-old hiking boss.
This time, I’m thinking about how every ounce is every step. For some reason, that hasn’t been all that much of a thought in my first four thru-hikes. Appalachia grants me a few graces that the Rocky Mountains do not, like frequent town stops and warm nights. Plus, I have the two greatest gear sponsors I know of; Mountain Laurel Designs (the stud-muffin of the East) and Big Agnes (the boss of the rugged west). If ever there was a time to experience a light hike, this is it. Which leads me to making decisions like not bringing camp shoes and hoping my bare feet are all I need at the end of the day. So here’s how it all added up……
The no-camp-shoes decision
Portioning out small containers of sunscreen and water treatment
Cutting 2 feet of excess length off of my sleeping bag liner
This change shaved off 2.2oz, thanks Trenton Harper for the suggestions
I am shaving off a grand total of 5lbs 13oz! Which is comparable to removing one elephant off your back in thru-hiking terms.
I’ve come a long way since the time another hiker tried to name me “3 Books” on the AT in 2011. To which I responded, “It’s two books and a play.” This will be a different experience, though a couple of things will be the same. Come hell or high water, I’m still not getting a smart phone. I’ll take one book to read, probably not three, and I couldn’t give up my cooking style. I love cooking in the woods. I carry produce and take long meal breaks. I’m a mountain eater, mostly. That is why it seemed appropriate to take the kids I nanny out to the woods for my last day with them. We went to our spot, the foxes den, for a tea break. As I laid back to appreciate what we’ve got, I said to them, “This is the stuff. If you ever wonder what I’m up to out there, it’s probably something like this. Sitting in a ditch, drinking coffee, feeling lucky.” In my best moments, I remind myself of Baloo the Bear.
Last year, at this time, I was watching the birds. Mostly from my porch, with my partner, and the Sibley Guide. I was entranced.
“Eric, Eric! Did you know that American avocets put their wing around their mate while they walk side-by-side?”
“That’s beautiful.” he smiled.
“Oh! And blue-gray gnatcatchers build nests with spider webbing woven in. To give it elasticity. So that as the chicks grow, the nest expands.” I looked up from the book and beamed, “How cool is that?!”
He had a very satisfied look in his eyes, for they were lovingly saying, “I told you so.” Eric has been a bird nerd for years. He had been careful not to push it on me. In fact, there were times we’d hike together in Glacier National Park, where I would all but physically kick my foot into his behind to keep us moving, after the fortieth time he gets out his binoculars. My method of appreciating nature had always been moving through it.
Here we were in quarantine, not moving at all. For both of us, that had presented as a potential challenge. We are both movers, that was part of our bond. Furthermore, we were looking up, to find ourselves suddenly moved in together. Not because our partnership called for it, but because COVID had. If he lived with his roommate, in his apartment, we’d be taking exposure risks and the family I lived with would be at risk as well. So, Eric moved into the straw bale cottage I call home.
It’s an intimate space, hand-built by my dear friends who have since moved to a beautiful three-bedroom house in front of the property, also hand-built. The cottage is a loft, 311 square feet, tucked back among Douglas firs and towering larch trees with thicket in between. The kind that gets stuck in your hair and rips a run in your long skirt if you’re foolish enough to be bushwhacking around wearing one, which I am.
There’s a charming path to the steps of a large porch, which makes it dreamy to come home to. It also has no running water and a wood stove as its heat source. This, for me, is what it’s all about. Having walked over 15,000 miles in wild places, I feel a need to connect with nature this way. To have to work a bit for my comfort and see the give-and-get in a tangible way. Gathering my water helps me remember that I need it, and that it’s not a given. When I use it, I regard it as the most precious thing we’ve got, or at least, I try to, as often as I think to. Chopping firewood helps me feel prepared for cold. I welcome the nippy air for its crispness, because of the crackle I’ll hear in my wood stove, and the heaviness of the wool blanket on my lap.
At that time in our history, April 2020, we were being asked to stay put. Two nomads, who refer to this time of year as mud season. I like mud, so I think I utter that phrase a little differently than most, because the subtext reads, ‘Season-of-this-sucks’ the way that some recreational enthusiasts emphasize it. This was a gift for the two of us, and we realized that immediately. For the first time ever, I watched Spring unfold in my home. This off-season, I wouldn’t be visiting my family in the Midwest or taking an epic road trip through desert rocks or Coastal Redwoods. This time, I was watching the stalks of false Solomon’s seal pop up and stretch their limbs. Clematis flowered around us, as though it was crawling along its vines to reach its lavender arms in our direction. Chickadees were building a secret life together in the cavity of an expired birch tree. Watching them gather each little seed and twig to bring inside, was our entertainment during dinner, on the porch. There was much to notice.
The family that I live with is especially inspiring. Travis and Jami appreciate nature. It’s obvious in the things they’ve built, but even more so, in the two wild boys they’ve raised. These boys are extraordinary. They climb and run and crawl and ski and swim and paddle and do it all, with contagious joy. Wren, the 7-year-old, was giving me advice on what plants in our yard we could make into a nice tea. Ira, the 9-year-old, can skate-ski faster than me and identify sharp-shinned hawks and limestone before I can. I come to tremendous gratitude, repeatedly, for the allegiance we share, with one another, and increasingly, with the dirt we live on.
My dirt. That’s an ache I’ve voiced often. It’s an ongoing quest, “Until I find my dirt,” I say, “I will be a rolling wheel. When I find it, I will know, and I will care for it, and it will care for me. And it shall be my dirt.” I’m getting there, but I still don’t fully understand what I mean by that. I am learning dirt, from the ground up. It started between my toes, but I’m up to my fingertips now. When I plant seeds, my hands know the dirt and my lips say, “I honor and I thank you” as I pat down the ground. I mean it, too, as much as I can, when I say thank you, it comes from my heart. Gardening was alive in me that Spring. Jami and I put in hours and hours on our knees. The boys drove toy tractors through us and then got to work. Taking on challenges like Cottonwood roots, a worthy voyage for a boy with a pick axe. Our commitment to the garden was life-giving and not for the literal reason. It was something real and purposeful and un-messy in our brains; grow food equals ‘yes’. While so much of what our brains where processing with the pandemic and the political climate was ‘what is this?’
Eric and I went to numerous bird-watching hot spots. He brought me that world. The world, which I’d been walking through and not noticing. We squealed, delighted, when we saw our first American redstart. A pair of them were bouncing around a cluster of deciduous trees by the Swan River. Their big tails reminded me of the piwakawaka, or fantail, in New Zealand, which was a very special part of my walk across that beautiful country in 2018. The Redstart is a playful and inquisitive bird, who sounds like a rusty wheel, falling off a cart, and flicks its tail around to catch gnats and mosquitos. One can appreciate their activity level, like a frantic spaz who lost their car keys, which I like to laugh at myself about. We heard the unique squawk of a sora, traipsing through the swamp, and though we never laid eyes on it, the sight of the tall grass rocking, revealing its winding path, was more than enough. I nearly caused a wreck when I noticed the bright blue bill of a ruddy duck along the highway at Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge. We even saw an American avocet, no mate to put its arm around, but a gift of a sight, never-the-less.
One morning in May, I did the thing I pressure myself to do most mornings, which was to lace up my running shoes while I’m still waking up. That way, fifteen minutes later, I find myself coming to, in fascination, inspired by the morning light and the loud greenery around me. It worked, and after I experienced those feelings, I found myself gratefully returning to the gravel driveway. I glanced over at the orchard, which was lush with life and color. I’d come accustomed to admiring the spring green leaves and twisted gray bark with a blanket of yellow underneath, from the numerous dandelions.
‘But wait!’ I stopped in my tracks. ‘The blanket is green. Where did the dandelions go?’ They had been here yesterday afternoon, I had spent a yoga hour with them. The grass was not freshly cut. How could this be? I walked into the yard to investigate. The dandelions were still there, they had closed. One or two of them were beginning to open. I felt like a child who had just caught her mother hiding Easter eggs in the yard.
“They open and close with the sun.” Feeling amazed by my own ignorance. “How have I never noticed?” I threw my hands up and laughed.
For it’s truly extraordinary, what you can walk by without noticing.
I’m a thru-hiker. I walk by more than most and I’m heading out for a second go at the Appalachian Trail this Spring. Since my last walk, I’ve become a naturalist by trade; guiding hikes in Glacier National Park and teaching kids about ecosystems at the Grizzly Wolf Discovery Center. These callings have really opened my eyes to the wonder of the world that we live in. It feels powerful to be taking that with me, on this next journey.
I look forward to noticing the healthy forests when I’m in them, and understanding what a big deal that is. I look forward to recognizing a bird call or two. The first time I hiked the Appalachian Trail was in 2011, and I was in a hurry, it was my first thru-hike and proving to myself that I could do it, was consuming. I laugh at those concepts now. So what? There is always more, there is always faster, but if you don’t notice the beauty of what’s right in front of you, you’re going to miss out.
My spirit animal is the great gray owl. I’ve known that for a long time now, but what I’m learning more and more from her, is how to be stillness that moves. It starts with noticing.
It’s been 2 and a half weeks since I completed the journey. I’m having a really hard time putting into words how I feel. It’s been very strange to spend so much time in a vehicle. To watch the miles and states roll by. I somehow felt like this was erasing my hard work. Like I spent months winding up a ball of yarn, and all at once, it unraveled.
It was sad when I stopped noticing the sun going down. Losing that light was such a significant part of my day, and it certainly never went unnoticed. Sadder still, is how it all seems like a wild, fanciful dream. Thankfully, there are things I have gained from this experience that have deeply, though it may appear subtly, changed me. I’m such a feeler now. I feel closer to all of my loved ones, and in fact, closer to people I don’t even know. As though every exchange has become more significant.
On the road trip back from the A.T., I felt many things. Sore, for one, from my lack of butt padding (an issue I’ve never experienced before), and from sitting still, after many months of moving forward. I also felt sad to be driving away from New England, and the trail itself. It felt like the end of a good relationship. As if the trail was a friend of mine, that I may never see again. When I got to Pitsburg, to visit my brother, Mitch, I felt like I had never seen a big city before. I stood on the roof of his apartment, close to an impressive back drop of shiny buildings all lit up at night. I marveled, much in the same way I had in my aunt Lu and uncle Dave’s car the first time I got a good look at downtown Minneapolis. Thinking, “Wow, I can’t believe humans can make this!” And my brother pointed out how strange that was, since I’d lived in Manhattan before.
I went for a short morning walk and looked all around me. At the buildings, the people, the cars, the trees, and I felt in tune. Like my eyes were good and open. I noticed my heart beating in my chest and my tired feet, aching slightly against the pavement. And I started grinning at each person that walked by. A Mona Lisa smile, “I know something you don’t know.” Feeling like the luckiest person alive for my beating heart and own two feet. What a gift!
It’s hard to accept how quickly the A.T. has melted out of my life, though not completely. I was sad when my final scabs rubbed off my shins. And though the weight gain is a good thing, I’ll miss my bones. I’ve never been so well acquainted with them. Plus, that was the body of a thru-hiker. Direct proof that I had to give it all I’ve got. Representation of the struggle and commitment and longevity and sacrifice. I lost 18% of my body!
Driving back to Montana was almost too easy. I didn’t get bored or tired, and I think it’s because I’ve gotten so accustomed to being alone with my thoughts. Even as I write this, I feel so glad to have time again to be reminiscing and paying respect to my own achievement. Like my conscience is my best buddy, and I haven’t spent much time with her lately.
I learned so much. The biggest thing being about bravery. Which I think means having faith. It means believing that you can go on, even if you’re scared out of your mind. Even when you think you’ve got nothing left. It’s approaching the world with an open heart and wide-spread arms, not because you’re fearless, and not because you’re naive, but because you chose to believe that life is good. That people are good. And that you’ve got everything you need right there with you.
Things always work out in the end. And as my mom has taught me, “if it hasn’t worked out, then it’s not the end.”
On the morning of August 6th, at 8:45 am, I made it to the top of Katahdin. It was a gorgeous day, probably the best it gets up there. I felt like I was in the sky, and the air around me seemed a brilliant blue. I got a little scared by the sketchy rock climbing I had to do, mostly because I knew coming down was going to be really dangerous (not to mention that I’m a big scare-d-cat when it comes to heights). Regardless, I made it up there in great spirits, sat by the infamous Katahdin sign, ate my last hiking meal, and looked south, feeling peaceful and satisfied.
But that was all. I’d been thinking for months now that the summit of Katahdin was going to bring out emotions in me I didn’t even know I had. I thought it was more than possible that I would cry or scream or go weak in the knees. I didn’t though. I just thought to myself, ‘Wow, this is it…..pretty.’
On my hike down, I found myself getting more and more excited with each step. I passed others on their way up and was extremely overfriendly, “How you doing? I’m doing great! Isn’t it amazing up here?!” And the sketchy rocks weren’t as scary as I thought, especially after seeing people of all shapes and sizes coming up the mountain. Including small children. I figured, if they could do it, I could too.
It wasn’t until the very end, when I was about to get back to the campground, that I got a little sentimental. I stopped, looked around at the trees, and suddenly realized how much I was going to miss them. So I expressed my gratitude, thanking them for the shade, and the protection, and for wearing the blazes to show me the way, from Georgia to Maine. That’s when it hit me, and I knew that this is one of those moments in life that will always be with me. That no one could ever take away.
Never mind. No summit for me today. I was denied access to Baxter State Park today due to overflow. They have too much foot traffic up there and have closed the trail. I’m not going to lie, it’s a huge bummer, but I’ll be back tomorrow. They told us to be there around 4:30 am to ensure that we get a pass. So it looks like we’re sleeping in the car at the gate tonight. I’ll be darned if I’m not going up tomorrow!
So, it’s time! I’m at the Appalachian Trail Cafe in Millinocket, ME. Carbing up for my climb. I will summit Katahdin, and finish my thru-hike today around noon or 1pm. Wish me luck! Here’s to not breaking my leg on the A.T.’s last chance to strike me down. 🙂
Since my last post, my mom and I have been enjoying the company of The Monkey Tribe. The same group that we shared a marvelous cabin with in Rangely. It’s working out quite swimmingly. I really enjoy having other hikers to go through the same treacherous strides with, and it’s nice that Mom and Megan have each other to go antiquing with while we’re all on the trail.
Because of the support vehicles, we’ve been able to live the good life. Hiking with tiny packs, sometimes no packs at all, and always having the option to sleep at a hotel or hostel if we want to. There are five, sometimes six (with the new addition of a speedy, young hiker called Tiger) of us, so the price has been right! Yet the sweetest thing of all, is that we have been dominating this trail! Through some of the trickiest terrain yet, we’ve been doing 25-32 miles a day! It feels so good to be doing those kind of miles again. I even got to go for a trail run a couple days ago. It felt like flying! To go 5.4 miles in one hour, was my idea of magic.
We’re taking a zero today in Monson, the last stop before the 100 mile wilderness. Then hitting it hard again tomorrow morning. It’ll be a 30 mile day, and probably a tough one, with some hail and lightning to spice things up a bit. Sounds terrible, I know, but after today, it’s just 4 ½ days of hiking to the summit of Katahdin! So bring it on A.T!!!!! I can take it!
Narrowing down to my last few days to binge eat, I’ve decided that what I want most of all today, is to make a box of instant chocolate pudding, smothered in cool whip, and eat the entire thing with a spoon:)