The Appalachian Trail. Ah, my trail. The dirt, the roots, the rocks, the climb, the mindfulness of the walking. It’s a second home. It’s my trail.
I journaled on my phone, having learned on the last solo trip that I don’t want to take off my pack to journal in a book. A dreamy thought, I had. Turns out the pack forms into your pack, becomes your skin, runs into your bones. You can’t just pull off a pack that easy.
I wrote about the trip. A long trip down. A car ride, a bus, a plane, a late plane, 24 hours in Atlanta, a shitty motel, a bus ride, a hostel stay, an uber ride, and back on the trail.
I started in Hot Springs. A hiker town, it has a population of 500, and boasts its natural springs that feed into the pipes that they filter into hot tubs. Having learned their lesson for time and time again they built the hot springs spa area on top of the springs themselves, and each time the buildings would burn to the ground. Scattered remains of each of these attempts litter the area, foundations of buildings lie among the weeds, and walls are covered with vines and wildflowers. Each dream of a business lost to nature. But this last attempt has been successful and hikers with weary bodies can rest near the river.
The first day was hard, high elevation and switch backs led my body to swear to itself. My mouth hardly having to form the words, it swore and cursed at me with each root and each turn where I thought, finally it is the end. But the trail has a funny way of bringing you reasons why you remain on the trail.
To the top of the mountain. To the top where the legend says an Indian Princess loved an Indian warrior, but she was promised to another man. She was devastated when the warrior she loved was sent to battle, the front lines, and was killed. When she found out the news of this, she ran to the top of this space and jumped to her death. Legend says that if you camp here, you can sometimes see her walking around, still looking for her love. Hence the name Lover’s Leap.
It was only 5 more miles after that.
When I reached my camp spot, I set up my tent, cooked a big meal, hung my food, boiled water for the next day, and slept harder than I had in months.
I woke up and I realized I had forgetten what hiker body is like. Sore all over, my hips and back worn with forgotten muscles and new aches. It’s good, though. I felt alive. I felt like my body was hardening, not yet done cursing at me for this decision, but realizing that we are doing this.
Waking up and walking for eight hours a day does a couple of things to a person. The wonder of nature is there, sure, the wonder of the hike and the dreamy romanticized version I get of the trail and lifestyle. Walking for eight hours brings incredible mindfulness, no phone with notifications, just quiet. Walking for eight hours a day makes you realize that the quiet can be a transition when you are used to the buzz of cars or the hum of electricity. Walking for eight hours a day makes you realize that yes, in fact, you do know a lot more Taylor Swift songs than you realize, and yes, you will sing them at the top of your lungs as you walk on and on through the mountains.
The trail changes so often. A white blaze is all you have, a lifeline sometimes, between the fall of the ridge along a sliver of brown, and the rocks that guide you over it. It makes me wish I knew more about geography.
It only rained once, but it was cold at night. I wrapped an emergency blanket around myself in my tent and bundled my sleeping bag over my head. Breathing deep to warm myself again. You learn a lot of things fast – when you’re warm for a while at dinner, get into warmth and stay there. You fall asleep at 7pm, it’s the hiker midnight, when all people crash. You love the food you have, and eat ramen noodles and tuna like you’ve never inhaled food in your life. Because damn, do you inhale it fast. You dream of sushi, you dream of hamburgers, you dream of a beer, you dream of glamping and the car camping luxuries that accompany it. You dream because you have stripped away all these luxuries, and what you have is the sound of your footsteps in the mountains,the occasional sound of a spring running long your feet, and the sound of your thoughts as they echo through your head.
Course this is not to say you don’t see people. I met amazing people, only by their trail names. The hiking culture leads to this amazing anonymity, where people are all on their own journeys. I met a woman who had a plan for her life – wedding, job, stability, illness, divorce, homelessness, then job, stability, and now in her forties, she was finding a new plan for her life. I met a man who was in his 70’s, had traveled all over the world teaching, came home, got married, raised five children, taught at a school for forty years, and was fulfilling his dream of finally doing the trail. I met Wrong Way, Lost, Skittles, Green, Lando, and so many more.
Stories spread like a game of telephone on the trail, but one stuck with me, however true it may be. Of all the people, of all the stories, I heard of a person that reminds me to keep doing this. One was a man who had wanted to do the trail his whole life, was obsessed with it, would work his job and study maps of the trail when he got home. Got married, raised their children, studied the maps. Retired, studied the maps. Played with his grandchildren, studied the maps. He studied when he finally bought his gear, and he studied as he put his backpack on, ready to go. And on the Amicalola Approach Trail, he fell, suffered a heart attack, and died.
You have to take life by the horns, take those things you want to do, and find a way to make them happen before it’s too late.
I am glad for this man, for he passed away where he loved and it seemed that he lived a great life before his end, but he was just starting on an adventure that he dreamed of for so long. And it serves us all to learn from him.
I stayed on the trail, earning my legs through hard work and a lot of swear words.
You have these moments on the trail, much like life, where you think that you can’t do it. No way, beyond a shadow of a doubt, can you get where you need to be. No way can you stop because you don’t want to sleep in the middle of the woods – a single female hiker has safety to consider, so you have to move on. Stepping, walking, taking breaks, eating food like you’ve never eaten before in your life. Hurting, overextending your knees, bumping into fellow hikers that move faster than you because they have already earned their hiking legs, and finding yourself alone.
And then you see what you came for. The top of the mountain or the shelter for your rest for the night. And you’ve made it. You’ve earned it. It’s the best metaphor for life that I can imagine. And it’s also the most rewarding experience I can imagine.
The trail varies so much on your steps. Sometimes walking on pebbles that ache and set you off balance in your big hiking boots. Sometimes it’s dirt, hard and cool. Sometimes it’s climbing up boulders the size of our house, using your hands to pull you and your pack up. Lines painted into nature to remind you were you’re going.
And at the end of the day, at the end of the trip, you find yourself. It’s not just that you find yourself stronger, and you do, but you find yourself quiet, you find yourself singing Taylor Swift at the top of your lungs (because it’s the fastest, albeit most embarrassing, song that you can think of) when you hear bears nearby, you find yourself dancing along the trail by yourself with nothing but the wind to accompany you. You find yourself loving the pack and the shoes that have become like your skin and your bones, and it is unfamiliar when you finally do take them off at the end of the day.
The trail is a home to me. It calls to me and I love everything about it, even the moments where I feel like I will surely collapse. The people and their stories, the sticks and how they snap under my foot and that is the only sound I hear, how there are flowers and trees that I have only seen on these long winding paths. I love my legs and mind, and how strong they get after walking for eight hours a day.
I love the recharge and I love the adventure.
It was good and strange to come home, as it always is. While it took two days to come into the mountains, it was a cab ride, another cab ride, a plane ride, a bus ride, a car ride, and then I was back in civilization. Back in Madison, with the people and the cars and the lights, and the RUNNING FAUCETS. It’s always a strange period of time where I readjust to life – running errands and having more than your own backpack to tend to, but I am ultimately grateful for the homes I have. I know that both call to me, and I know that I can return to both when the moment is right.
I missed my boys a lot this time, and I am glad to be back.
I’ll be taking a year off the trail next year, as we have the wedding and it will be a busy year. But when I return the following year, I’ll go back with Liam and together we will eat cliff bars and filter our water, adventure in the mountains, and I’ll teach him what his other home can be.