Extremities….yes, for it’s been a scorcher. Mostly, however, I want to talk about old friends and new family. The last week we’ve had heat index in the 100s and we are low in elevation since the Northern boundary of the Shenandoah ridge. In fact yesterday I walked through the Cumberland Farms area. I struggle with heat, so I’ve developed a strategy for the mid-Atlantic. Keep your head down and hike! I’m in a hurry to get to higher ground. Yet, I’m already questioning that theory with the memories of my beautiful trail family that I am now 5 days lonesome for.
It’s good to hike alone, and I’ve been meeting up with a lot of beautiful people on this journey, so this is my first big chunk setting out with the intention of keeping it solo. I’m not sure how long I’ll stick with the plan. I appreciated the company and I appreciate the freedom of doing things my own way. I camped alone each night and stopped when I felt like stopping. I thought instead of talked. Valuable things to do, I suppose, but I do like the question I find myself asking, “Freedom from what?”
Sara-Tide is such a fierce friend. A high level, that I have rarely seen, despite the frequent and overwhelming love I’ve received from the boisterous life I’ve had, and the incredible women that raised me. She is one of my favorite living people to walk with and I count myself deeply lucky for her company on this journey. It feels so appropriate that, if I’m going to have a family on this thru-hike, she would be part of it. She is now working as a ridge runner in the Shenandoah stretch. Getting her perspective and meeting her people was insightful and straight-up luxurious. Ridge runners are such a valued part of how this trail is so well-cared for. Sara-Tide also happens to be an adventure-saurus. I know that we will keep getting after it together, for years to come, and I know no other woman more experienced with the great, wide out-there. She has a brilliant website and you tube channel. Look up Sara Tide Walker for all kinds of journeys.
Bard and Seeker and I aren’t done walking together, I know that. In fact, we’re meeting up in a few days to take a zero. It’s been wonderful talking to them and making music. I don’t think I could have asked for two more thoughtful, kind men. It’s amazing how all the same themes seem to be on our minds. I feel like we’re taking the same master class in life and formed a study group. It’s like we’re comparing notes. We talk about relationships, family, spirituality, death, and what we’re learning about ourselves and every conversation is real. We don’t hide or edit, we share. I’m so glad to call them friends.
When I was in 10th grade, I had an exceptional English teacher named David Devine. He was the right combination of loving and harsh, bringing life messages that were what I needed at the time. “Think of the world” was one of them. “Only boring people get bored” was another. There was also a charming anecdote about his toddler working hard to produce the content of a full diaper, to illustrate well, to a high-schooler-brain, that you may have put in a lot of effort, but if the result was shit, then it’s going to be treated as such. He knew how to get through to us.
There was a project with Julius Caesar, in which we were meant to make a bottom-line statement. A set of words strung together that can’t be broken down any further. “Julius Caesar is a tragedy because of __________.” That may have been one of my first experiences with brutal reasoning. Strip down a layer, not there yet. Another, still not the bottom. Strip again. “Julius Caesar is a tragedy because of the death of the conspirators” ‘There, I said it. No….too vague. Try again.’ “Julius Caesar is a tragedy because of the death of Cassius and Brutus.” I take a step back and look at my work. Something is nagging me. ‘Let’s be honest, Cassius kind of deserved it.’ There it is, “Julius Caesar is a tragedy because of the death of Brutus.” I stood tall. Mr. Devine gave me a paternal smile with his eyes. He was giving me coping tools, teaching me to weed out the bullshit, and it was working.
So I ask myself, what is this about. “I am writing this book because _________” This past week, I’ve been walking with the question. What is my bottom line.
Yesterday I was walking with a trail friend, Bard. We were inspired, after 24 hours of being a trail family of four. Sara-Tide, Seeker, Bard, and I had been weaving together for a day. This is something I have not done on trail so far. I told Bard that I might do well to listen, rather than speak right now. I know the earth is calling me to say something, but who am I to say it. He got fiery and challenged that doubt that’s holding me back. It was just the smack that I needed. “Who, then, is entitled to say it? Someone who’s spent more time with nature than you?” He coaxed. “If the trees told you something, say it!” There was frustration in his voice. I felt touched.
It’s time to strip away the bullshit. I came here to be a love activist. I’m acting out because I’m sick of this. We’re a family. There is no them. There is no someday. We are here. If we strip away every layer, what’s left is love. Love is the bottom. I’m sure of it and I’m not apologizing for it. It is the rock that I stand on and I am not backing down. I came here to love everybody and to tell the truth.
Last night, the four of us had our dinner together on a rock outcropping. We enjoyed the sunset and talked about the animals we all are. An owl, a bear, a dog, and a kitty. We wrote an improv song about it and knew it didn’t have to rhyme or make sense. We were as family as it gets. We marveled at the truth, we got so close so fast. Then closed out a beautiful day singing “This Little Light of Mine” with all our hearts, in three-part harmony. I felt alive in the deepest, truest way. I felt love for those three, love for myself, love for life. We were love. I know that was a moment for the books that I will revisit often. The four of us, in the new darkness, letting our light shine to the Shenandoah Valley. I believe we are coming together. I believe we are ready to rise up.
The heat is here, and fair enough, when it comes to Spring in Appalachia, I’ve gotten off easier than the norm. For the first 5 weeks, I enjoyed cooler temperatures and bug-less nights. The heat started poking its head into my long hiking days about two weeks ago, and, naturally, the bugs followed. It’s fascinating how Montanans melt in the heat. I went from rested and thriving to sleepless tossing and turning, overnight. Mostly it’s the bug bites that keep me up, they seem to speak to me when I’m trying to sleep, but the warmth has contributed. I am a cold-weather creature. I would rather sleep in 40 degrees than 70. Meanwhile, I know I would feel better if I stopped scratching. Which is a metaphor for what I’m processing in life right now. I give in to the itch, and then I make it bleed. If I could just stay cool and let it be, it would be over a lot sooner. I’m at the age, I think, where I’m old enough to know better, but still too young to care. Or, I decide it’s worth the bleeding, anyway.
Everything is part of it. Watching the season transition and unfold has been a gift. One month ago, all the trail was mayapples, trillium, and magnolia pedals, now its blackberries, cow parsnip, and wild roses. There were cold rainy days, now there are warm, vibrant thunderstorms that follow the sweltering afternoon. I jump in every body of water that I can fit into, and even some that I don’t, flipping myself from stomach to back, like some sort of hot cake on a griddle. I am eternally grateful that cool water runs down mountain sides. I owe it all to that. I’m also grateful that the Appalachian Trail is a place where a person can walk all day, most days, in the shade.
Lately, a lot of my hiking brothers and sisters have been asking me about quitting. They talk about having the Virginia Blues, and ask what I did to get through it last time. I tell them that last time, I had great friends to goof off with through all of Virginia and it was the New York Blues that got me. I also tell them that I tricked myself in the mid-Atlantic. When I was focusing on how much I wanted it to be over, I was looking at gifts as though they were curses. I can remind myself of that, here and now. Heat grows tomatoes. It hatches bugs, yes, and bugs pollinate plants. Plants feed us. Rain keeps us alive. Now that I’ve lived through the kind of wildfire seasons we’ve been seeing out west, I hope to never say anything bad about rain as long as my mouth makes words. Acceptance is the best adaptation nature ever gave me. I can whine about my itchy shins all I want, but then I’m just as small as the no-see-ums. Walking up hill doesn’t hurt. Cancer hurts. Human apathy hurts. Missing out on being alive hurts. Still, focusing on what hurts never healed anything. Gratitude heals.
I know there is no way to fully appreciate privilege, while you have it, but I want to try with all my might. My legs walk and my heart beats, and water falls from the sky. I have everything and I hope it shows that I am deeply grateful for it. So thanks to the summer heat for kicking my ass. I look forward to the next couple months being a brat about it and hope to get smacked out of it as often as possible. Thanks to my friends and family who put up with me. May we welcome summer with itchy arms and aching feet.
I have to ask myself, who do I want to be when a gift arrives? Do I pause, do I give it honor, do I tell it thank you? Or do I treat it like something I don’t have time for? Do I behave like it’s a road-block, or do I appreciate the twist in the path? If two cats are sitting on the freezer, and I’m supposed to get out the chocolate chips, then what? Then I giggle, and step back to take a photo, and nuzzle both of their fluffy faces, and think to myself, ‘what a wonderful world.’
Last Friday, I strolled into Woods Hole Hostel. I had beautiful memories of this place from 10 years ago, and a bit of a woman-crush on it’s owner, Neville Harris. So when she walked up to me with an asking grin the next morning, I felt the ‘yes’ before I heard the question. “Would you be interested in a one week work-for-stay?” she said, with her arms holding themselves across her chest. She saw my eyes light up, and I laughed about impulse, and how I should think about it before jumping. She said, “Wow, good job. Teach me to do that.” And we agreed that I would walk on it. I hiked 13 miles that day and returned back to Woods Hole. I knew I was going to do it. It was the gift that I needed. The chance to pause and sink in a bit, while I was starting to get a bit competitive with….well, I’d say myself, but honestly, with no one. I was falling into something false, or imaginary, even. Miles, just because.
The day that I walked in, I abruptly stopped myself trail-side to write one paragraph. I was doing that thing I do, where I tell myself there’s no time and wish that things could be different. “What the hell are you talking about?” I said to myself out loud. “Sit down! Write!” And then I wrote this: There is a rushed, separateness that I’m creating. I would like to make more effort to pause and feel and be. I wasn’t sure where it was coming from, I just knew it was. Then came a garden and a smile and beautiful souls that wanted me to stay.
Then life happened. I opened up my heart again. There were tears and animal cuddles. There was laughter and fresh lettuce. There was music. I remembered the truth under it all. Here we are, being us, together, and that’s the good stuff. I met over 100 hikers, and had time to see them. I didn’t realize I had been poisoning myself with a thought pattern. On the trail, just days ago, I would try to avoid other hikers. To the extent of skipping a water source if there were people at it. As though spending time with them would knock me off of my cloud and my connection to the earth was something to be protective of. Here we all were, at Woods Hole, sharing it, with sing-alongs in the shower house, tooth-brushing parties, and even a family illness that ripped through us like wildfire and then made us appreciate our solidarity.
And my, my, my! How gorgeous it is to be alive. To do it with gladness for the nourishment. Gratitude circles, before each meal, brought so many gems on the faces of hikers in awe. Beautiful human beings walked in to stay with us. Like Mountain Sage, a veteran who struggles with Parkinson’s and shares his story with wisdom and humility, through tears. Nimblewill Nomad, the 82-year-old record-breaking hiker, knocked me out, when he was so grateful for the room that was donated to him, that he had to brace himself against the wall to stand upright, while his chest heaved and gratitude spilled out of his eyes. A mother, carrying her 8-month-old strapped to her chest, thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, overwhelmed me with her visible beauty, radiating like a spotlight in the dark. Neville taught me how to make bread and encouraged us to stay kind in the face of apathy. We felt like siblings, and cooked together singing along to Stevie Wonder tunes, all the while dancing the magic dance of a crowded kitchen. A place where food turns into a currency of love that can be passed around. Which is the only real kind.
I’m so grateful for Woods Hole, and Neville, and the beautiful people I was family with for one grounding week of my life. There’s a saying in the thru-hiking world; “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Sure, this endeavor is physical. That’s the part we answer the most questions about. The mileage, the temperatures, the states, the stress injuries, the animal encounters…measurable details which most hikers were already reciting, on constant reel, in their heads anyway. Therefore, we can answer those questions readily. Now, I finally have the space and the time to really sit with my thoughts and I find words difficult. I hope to honor the immeasurable.
I was walking along, minding my business, which happened to be hunger. It’s here. I was thinking about 10 years ago, as a hiker on the AT, and the kind of things I thought were delicious. I almost don’t want to admit it, but I was thinking about junk food. The kind that really didn’t appetize me at all a month ago, cherry pie, to be precise. You know the ones that come in a little paper box, 390 calories and acquired, generally, at a dollar store or gas station. “I could really go for one of those right about now” I said out loud. Then laughed at myself. “Welcome back, Kiddo.” Fair enough, I was on a hearty itinerary that day. 34 miles through the Roan Highlands. I knew I was somewhere in the teens and approaching lunchtime, which meant over 20 miles to go and the climb was just after this next road crossing. Well, one of the climbs, at least.
I caught sight of the road, and was debating whether I should hold out for lunch on top or stop to fuel up for the climb, when I noticed the white van waiting at the bottom. It had an AT license plate and some hiker friendly symbols on it’s side doors. I tried to cool my passions. As a vegan, I find I do a lot better if I accept that I’m un-feed-able (in life and on the trail) and then if there happens to be something I can eat, it’s a pleasant surprise. A man popped out of the driver door. “Hello. Got some trail magic for you.” He made his way to the back where I had just arrived. He swung open the back doors to reveal a hiker’s lounge. He had removed his back rows of seating and replaced them with a sideways futon. On the floor near the boot, where a cooler and a plastic bin full of snacks. And guess what…..cherry pie! “I have plant-based jerky left over from trail days, if you would like some. There’s cold beverages, just give it a good pull to get it open.”
I had to pinch myself before I could respond. “Wow,” came out weakly, “thank you. I’m a vegan, actually.”
“Well, there you go. Take as much as you want. And take a load off.” He patted the floor of the van. I obeyed, pack off, butt down. Then reached for an orange soda and that cherry pie, which was lovely, and vegan. This man was all kinds of magic, a trail legend, named Robert Bird. Known for his generosity far and wide. He had a hostel in Massachusetts for years, called the Birdcage. Where he charged every hiker no dollars and declared that he feels moved to pay it forward and hopes we continue the gesture. He’s also fostered 6 teenage boys in his lifetime. People like this give me more than hope, they give me peace and gratitude. Here is a link to a documentary about this amazing human. https://thetrek.co/appalachian-trail/watch-trail-angel-documentary-one-wing-fire/
“When you get to The Station, ask if there are any hiker-donation rooms available. Dave wouldn’t advertise it, but there are a lot of rooms already paid for by generous strangers. You just have to ask.” He smiled. He didn’t treat me like I was crazy or stupid to think I would make it there tonight, even though we were 21 trail-miles from it. He was right, too. When I arrived at 8pm, after a glorious walk through some vast highlands that reminded me of certain tunes about certain hills being alive, some nice people I will never know the names of bought me my stay. I wrote and played the guitar and ate fries, thinking about humanity.
The next day was the whole reason I was making crazy miles, Bob Peoples. One of my biggest regrets from my 2011 hike was not making time to meet this man. He has a bust in the AT Hall of Fame for his dedication to helping hikers. He has put in thousands of hours doing trail maintenance and leading groups of volunteer trail crew. His hostel, Kincora, is tucked into the woods, all but swallowed by plants and animals, and feels like home. He only charges 5 dollars, and you get whatever space is available. I got a hut out back. He drives hikers down the switchback mountain road to the grocery store every evening and insists on doing your laundry. The most special thing about Bob, is that he'll make you laugh. He sits with you on his patio like you're as family to him as anyone ever was.
As if that wouldn’t have been enough, a man I was told to look out for as trail royalty was there at Bob’s hostel, Nimblewill Nomad. Going for a record to be the oldest man, at age 82, to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Or maybe not even, I’m not sure how much the record means to him, he simply keeps walking. He speaks with tears in his eyes about the blessed life he’s lived and recalls funny moments with Bob over the decades. He’s quick-witted and kind. Making his acquaintance was both inspiring and comforting. You can see his hiking bio on his website, which is nimblewillnomad.com. I would list some of them, but it will hurt my wrists. He has more miles than anyone I’ve heard of.
There’s so much love out here on the Appalachian Trail. I’m in Damascus, VA for my 7th zero day. Last time I hiked this trial, I took 9 days off for the whole summer. Now, it’s been a month, and I’m already at 7. I’m glad. Also, I’ve gained a pound. That feels like winning. But none of that matters. What matters is that we’re all here, being together, while we’ve got the chance. Long May We Walk!
The animal I am now is something else. My wild is wilder. My free is freer. My happy is all but offensive. My favorite song writer says, “If you’re not getting happier when you get older, than you’re f@&*ing up.”
I feel strong and adapted. I feel ready, in so many ways. Or more so, shaped for this. I’m getting to a higher skill level, as this turns out to be my life’s work. I’ve been walking.
I’m not talking about my body, either. I mean my tolerance and the power that my brain has to process things. Cold…yes. Rain…yes. Mud…yes. What else is there? When I set out in the morning to walk certain miles, I set out with hope. Maybe that’s the back side of doubt; heads hope, tails doubt. But I don’t toss the coin anymore. I hold it up to my heart like a compass, heads up. I choose hope. That’s my red Fred in the shed. That’s the animal I’m committed to being.
Last Monday, I was having lunch with a friend in Hot Springs. Hikers across the patio said, “Hey Kiddo, is it true that you’re going to be in Erwin by Wednesday? We’re planning on doing that in a week.” They laughed.
“In theory.” I laughed back. “Yet, you may have noticed that it’s one pm and I’m still not walking toward Erwin.” I looked in the direction of the French Broad River. 69 miles by 4pm, the day after tomorrow. I nodded. “Yeah, I’ll make it.”
I was there by 1:30pm on Wednesday and Tuesday was an effort, I’m not saying otherwise, but it worked out. The key is believing. I finally understand that.
It’s not circumstances. It’s not money, time, age, gear…it’s my brain. You always were the only thing in your way.
Here we are. Lunch. On a Sunday afternoon. I picked a spot next to two headstones. Two dead people. Why? Because I’m like that. I thought that would be the right kind of company and I wanted to process some things that are. They are a couple, I’m pretty sure. George and Eva Gragg. She died on November 3, 1940 but her headstone says, ‘absent, not dead’ which is why I knew I could talk to her.
I don’t mean to be intense, but I know I put that out there. My German blood, my convicted tone, my desire to be alone. I could see how people on this same journey could perceive me to be a certain kind of asshole. I want my space. I want to camp alone and walk alone. Yet, it’s not because of a negative response to togetherness. I believe in community, I know that we need each other, and I came here to celebrate the animal that I am.
Yesterday evening I came to a lovely picnic table full of sweet people dining together, in front of a shelter. It was 6pm. “Just in time for dinner” a familiar hiker on the corner of the bench said. I ate my Luna bar standing at the head of the table in solidarity, but I told them I was moving on. Sometimes, it feels like choosing to be alone can land like rejection on listening ears. That’s not what I mean, but it’s also not mine. I’m not responsible for how anyone else feels, and I’ve come too far not to be myself. I do have some sharp edges and I don’t want to hurt anyone with them, but I have soft ones, too. And I’m doing the best I can.
Just around the bend, after saying goodbye to that group of hikers, I found a woman on the ground. Her pack was below her, splayed on a steep angle, with gear scattered. She had her shoes off and a smile on, glancing back at me over her shoulder with her feet on her pack.
I’ve been trained for this. I heard my teachers voice “Don’t just do something, stand there” and I recited that in my head to access the head space. “Hi” I said, in the calm tone I’ve learned from wilderness emergency medicine. “Are you ok?”
“I’m fine.” She was chipper, if anything, “I’m just waiting for the pain meds to kick in and then I’ll walk on.” She told me the story of the ankle injury, well, me, and the man behind me, who came to her almost immediately after I did. He knew how to offer up the same kind of support. I don’t think I’ll ever see him again, but we made a good care provider team.
I tested her sensory and motion in her injured ankle, he asked smart questions, and we both offered care. Care actually. Where we listen and we comfort and we ignore her refusal for the help she could use. I got her up on the trail, and put all of her things together next to her. We practice-walked a bit and she could do it, it had only been 15 minutes since she popped 4 ibuprofen.
Now, while dining with the dead (or absent, rather), there are two things that stuck with me. My shift is the first one. I do want myself, I do protect my journey of much-needed time alone, but I am deeply glad to give people what I’ve got when it’s needed. Perhaps there is this hard-working jerk in me, that’s proud to be lonely, and maybe I run with that a bit excessively. It’s good to see that I can access true patience and care when the situation calls for it.
The second thing that stuck with me, is how underserving we can convince ourselves that we are. That woman insisted that she needed to walk herself out of there, on her own. I saw that she could, and gave in because I wasn’t going to insist a fourth time, but still, the next day, I’m processing some gravity. If I could do it over, I would look that woman deep in the eyes and say, “You’re worth it.” That might have made the difference.
Sara-Tide and I are up to the same shenanigans as always. She came to give me road support and then I rushed along, true to form, to meet her at road crossings for a beer and a lot of laughs. We got to spend a night in Gatlinburg with Jessie, and a night singing by the campfire and making friends at Standing Bear Farm.
We met in Georgia on the A.T. 10 years ago, and ended up hiking together from just north of Erwin, TN all the way to central Maine. Our friendship means a lot to me. The bond between us was automatic then. It felt special to meet another young woman who wants to travel the world and walk across the country. 10 years later, it still feels special, to have a friend who’s crazy like me. We had a beer together at Clingman’s Dome (the highest point on the A.T.), then another the next day at Davenport Gap, then again the next day on top of Max Patch. We sat there and dreamed together about where we want our lives to go from here, much the same way we once walked this trail together.
I wish I could send a post card to my 10-year-ago self. I’d love to show her a picture of Sara-Tide and I on top of Max Patch, working on our secret hand shake and planning our future walk across Scotland together. Still in love with adventure, still not sure where the next walk of life is going to take us.
We had a group called Dumbledore’s Army back in 2011 and we dearly miss the other member, Stephen. I’ll get to see Stephen and meet his partner and dog up in Vermont and can’t wait. Being young and alive is a gift. Sticking together through the years is, even more so. Sara-Tide (Tide Walker is her trail name) and I will be hiking together again in the Shenandoah’s. No pressure Stephen, but the D.A. should reunite! Thanks for growing me a trail-beard:)
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.