AT 2014

On Nature and Spirituality

Since I am currently stuck in bed and far too sick and sleepy to compose a coherent sentence, let alone a coherent blog post, I thought that I’d share the text of a speech I gave a couple weeks ago at a local Methodist church.


Katahdin's alpine zone

Katahdin’s alpine zone

Henry David Thoreau, arguably the most famous hiker and naturalist, once declared, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.”  The various truths that can be extrapolated from this quote were nowhere more evident to me than when I was atop Mount Katahdin, which, incidentally, Thoreau had climbed as well.

In recollecting his time on that magnificent, mile-high mountain, Thoreau wrote,

“It is difficult to conceive of a region uninhabited by man. We habitually presume his presence and influence everywhere. And yet we have not seen pure Nature, unless we have seen her thus vast and dread and inhuman…Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful. I looked with awe at the ground I trod on, to see what the Powers had made there, the form and fashion and material of their work. This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man’s garden, but the unhandselled globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor waste-land. It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth, as it was made forever and ever.”

The Tableland

The Tableland

During my own climb of Katahdin, I, too, was awestruck by the wildness of my surroundings.  Located hundreds of miles north of the Maine-New Hampshire border, Mount Katahdin has seen snow every month of the year.  A monadnock, it rises, alone, far above the surrounding landscape.  Its treeline is crossed before a hiker begins her ascent in earnest, and, from there, the rest of the climb is a steep scramble over boulders.  The steepest portion of the ascent is from treeline to the aptly named Tableland, but one’s hike is by no means over after she’s climbed onto the Tableland.  From there, it’s another mile to the summit, a mile during which one is, inevitably, nearly knocked over by gale-force winds onto the rime-ice-covered rocks and alpine plants that comprise the treadway.

The climb up Katahdin is, indisputably, the hardest climb on the Appalachian Trail.  (And, that’s saying something; in the White Mountains, the climbs up Moosilauke and Wildcat are so steep that a misstep is certain to have dire consequences.) But, as challenging as the climb up Katahdin is, most thru-hikers barely notice it.

Instead, as I was, they’re likely lost somewhere between being entirely present to deal with the task at hand and in a reverie. For my part, my reverie began with memories of the days when I was learning to love hiking, when I spent a summer in the White Mountains of New Hampshire as part of a Research Experience for Undergraduates affiliated with the National Science Foundation. Thirteen aspiring young scientists and I lived in a little farmhouse in the middle of the woods, and, while we spent all week hiking for our research, we found nothing to do on the weekends except to hike some more. And I loved every minute of it. My reverie continued as I thought about what the Appalachian Trail meant to me, about the big questions I set out on a 2200-mile hike to answer and the answers I’d come up with. I thought about how the trail had seen me come of age, so to speak, and become, to quote Broadway’s The Secret Garden, “the girl I mean to be.” Perhaps most of all, on my second climb up Katahdin last September, my thoughts centered on my battle with Lyme Disease, on the ten months I spent in bed and on doctors’ visits and ambulance rides and panic attacks and relapses and abdominal surgery and lots of medicine…and my eventual recovery. I thought about how, just a few months earlier, after surgery in May, I was so proud to walk down my family’s driveway in June. I was even prouder to go for walks on the road in July, thrilled to begin hiking again in August, and ecstatic to shoulder my pack and set off into the Maine woods in September.

It was these recollections that brought hot tears to my eyes as I neared the wooden sign atop Katahdin, tears that I quickly wiped away for fear they’d freeze—until they came too quickly that my efforts were pointless. I took the summit photo of another Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, whose trail name was Not Worthy. My sentiments exactly.

Katahdin makes a great many “thru-hikers”—hikers who walk the entire length of the Appalachian Trail (which stretches from Georgia to Maine) in a year—feel not worthy. The mountain serves as the northern terminus for the AT, and, as a result, serves as a receptacle for hikers’ hopes and dreams as they make their northward journeys. Sometimes, the enormity of the task of walking a couple thousand miles forces us to take it a day at a time, particularly when we’re trudging through snow in the Smokies, wading down a rain-drenched trail for the fifth day in a row, being eaten alive by mosquitoes, or being burnt to crisps atop Pennsylvania ridges. But, sometimes, on crystal clear nights, when we’re camped atop ledges and looking heavenward, we let ourselves imagine reaching the monolith in Maine that marks the end of our journey.

Katahdin's Knife's Edge

Katahdin’s Knife’s Edge

How, exactly, can one end what for many has been a life-changing journey? Generally, hikers come out to the trail at a transition time in life, between, say, high school and college, college and career, family and empty nest, or career and retirement. Setting out on the trail often means giving up an apartment or even selling a home. It means paying off bills and getting rid of unnecessary possessions. It means quitting a job. It means saying goodbye, at least temporarily to loved ones and patterns of living. And, thus, the logistics alone of getting off trail pose challenges.

But, most hikers agree that the far more challenging aspect of ending a thru-hike is emotional and mental. It is difficult to describe the spiritual connection many hikers feel with the trail; I find it difficult to describe my own experience, as so many of my feelings are contradictory and counterintuitive. Crossing mountain creeks and standing atop the eastern peaks with nothing but what I carried on my back made me feel both infinite and infinitesimal, remarkably powerful and remarkably powerless, and completely independent and connected to something greater than myself.

It’s only fair to point out that backpacking 15-25 miles every day seems to tinker with hikers’ brain chemistry. I’ve talked at length with many backpackers—male and female, young and old alike—who all describe heightened emotional experiences in the wilderness. The highs I experienced on the trail were the highest of my life; similarly, the lows I felt were unparalleled. On the AT, I was miserably sad, crippling lonely, and euphorically happy. Perhaps it is the endorphins of hours and hours of exercise every day…or the hunger…or the tiredness. Or perhaps it’s something more.

In the wilderness, life is simple. Days consist of walking, eating, and sleeping—and walking, eating, and sleeping some more. When all of your belongings have to be carried on your back, you’re likely to have few possessions, many of which serve several functions and all of which are as light as they possibly can be. It’s almost as though the trail forces hikers to exist at the base levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—we’re concerned with our physiological needs and, perhaps, with basic social needs such as safety and community.

Complimenting this simplicity is a deepening of interpersonal interactions. They say that the trail dissolves friendships made at home, while friendships forged on the trail endure the test of time. I’ve found this to be true in my own life, as hiking nearly disintegrated the friendship I had with a college buddy who’d accompanied me on part of my first foray on the Appalachian Trail in 2011, whereas a hiking partner I found on trail for part of my thru-hike remains a very close friend. On trail, there’s virtually none of the schmoozing and one-upsmanship that seem far too common in interactions in civilization. It’s not about what job you held or what car you drove or what organizations you’re part of or where you went to school or how talented your spouse is or how successful your children are. There’s no need for any of that when everyone is wearing the same filthy synthetic T-shirt he or she has worn since Georgia, and there’s no time for it when there are miles to be hiked, dinner to be cooked, and water to be gathered.

We say that the trail may be long, but it is very narrow. Time and again, when I’m hiking in the eastern woods, I run into other hikers that I know. Atop a peak in Massachusetts a few summers ago, I ran into the first hiker that I’d met; in Maine last summer, I had lunch with a fellow 2012 thru-hiker I’d stayed at a shelter with; a few weekends ago, I hiked in North Carolina and ran into the guy who had taken my summit picture atop Katahdin. And, whenever we meet again, like old friends, we pick up where we left off.

It’s not just the other hikers who add to the sense of community on the trail. Perhaps even more important to the cultivation of the spiritual connection to the trail that many hikers describe are people we call trail angels. A trail angel is simply a generous human being who is kind to hikers. Trail angels, and the “trail magic” they provide, can take many different forms. A trail angel might offer up his backyard for hikers wishing to camp in a trailside town while resupplying, or she might shuttle hikers to and from the trail, if a road crossing the Appalachian Trail is too quiet or too dangerous to facilitate thumbing a ride. Trail magic might be a cooler full of brownies or tomatoes left in the middle of the woods, a pack loaned to a thru-hiker after the shoulder strap of his gave out, or a trailside barbeque.

The most memorable trail magic I had the privilege to receive came to me in Massachusetts. At that point, I’d hiked 1500 miles through sun and rain and snow and hail, climbed over Everett and Race (two mountains marking the end of the mid-Atlantic and the return to actual mountains), came down to a road crossing, stepped onto the road, and promptly tripped over a branch and fell. Now, I generally don’t think of myself as a pansy. I spent my teenage years on a farm and have seen my share of animal and human emergencies; I tend to pride myself in keeping my cool in such situations. That wasn’t the case on that summer day in Massachusetts. I sat to examine my knee, from which a sizeable amount of flesh had just been removed—I came to call the resulting area the Barrington Crater, after the town whose road I’d fallen on—and realized that the liquid running down my bent leg and pooling in my shorts was my blood. Instantly, I got incredibly lightheaded and lay backward on the road. At that moment, an SUV came rumbling toward me and quickly pulled to the side of the road. Out jumped Mary Kate, a middle-aged nurse who was on her way home from her shift. Without pause, she rushed to my side and began examining and treating my wound. Once I was bandaged up, she invited me home to her family’s house for a few days to recover.

What Mary Kate probably didn’t know was that she gave me a tremendous gift when she helped me on my northward journey. Unitarian Universalists describe a virtue that they call “sacred hospitality,” an altruism and caring for others from a place of love, and any description of that virtue brings to mind the generosity and thoughtfulness of Mary Kate. I know so many hikers who have been on the receiving ends of such kindness—some who have found ways to pass it on and some who are anxious for such opportunities—that I’ve come to think this hospitality is fundamental to the formation of the spiritual and emotional connection most hikers have with the trail. As much as backpacking is an inherently independent endeavor, it also leads to the creation of community. When you’re facing a cold night in Vermont and haven’t received the mail drop containing your winter gear, no one hesitates to offer to let you share their tent; if your water filter has broken, it’s assumed that you’ll be able to tag along with another hiker and use theirs. With its love of independence, the American culture tends to ignore the healing and freeing power of interdependence, and I believe it’s this interdependence that we get to experience when we are more vulnerable, as nomadic travelers.

Katahdin's tranquil Chimney Pond

Katahdin’s tranquil Chimney Pond

Trail angels and interdependence and an adherence to the principle of reciprocity—if not directly to the giver, then to the community in a larger sense—might be part of the reason that there’s a saying up and down the trail: “The trail will provide.” I think that this was a sense that was born of necessity: It was no use to stress and worry about something hundreds of miles away because other things need to be dealt with immediately; moreover, by the time you’ve walked hundreds of miles, other things are likely to happen that will, seemingly serendipitously, make whatever you were stressing about inconsequential in one way or another. A byproduct of the notion that the trail will take care of its own is a beautiful surrendering to experience, a trusting that all will work out, a profound presence in the here and now, a peace with the way things are. And, this is deeply spiritual.

As he was marveling at the beauty of a summer day, Ralph Waldo Emerson once described the globe as a toy, given by God to His human children. Turning on the news or reading a newspaper today, it’s readily apparent that we have broken our toy. We’re warming the planet, killing off entire species, poisoning our water, and blasting the tops off mountains. It seems that we, as a species, have lost our spiritual connection with the Earth.

And, this brings us back to Thoreau’s declaration that the wilderness holds the secret to the world’s preservation. In my mind, there are a few ways to think about that quote. Perhaps, in spending more time in—in knowing and understanding—the wilderness, we can come to care for it, to preserve and protect it. Familiarity leads to appreciation and love, and knowing more of the world might well be the best way to preserve it.

Or, perhaps, we can think about the great many scientific and medicinal gains that can be made from further study of the natural world. Thus, in the wilderness, we can find means to preserve the lives of those who inhabit the world.

Or—and this is my favorite conceptualization of Thoreau’s statement—perhaps we can take the deep ecology approach. Perhaps, in some intrinsic way, we are part of the wilderness, and the wilderness is part of us. I don’t mean this to sound New Agey; I’m just suggesting that time in the wilderness may enable us to be somehow more human. The naturalists of the past have romanticized the natural world, have held it up as something essential for the soul of man, as a way for him to recover that which he loses in the hustle and bustle of daily living. This sounds overly sentimental until you see people actually discover the essentiality of time in the wilderness—and until you discover it for yourself.

At Katahdin's summit

At Katahdin’s summit

In our shared cultural heritage, we have a recurring theme of clarity gained in nature. Moses climbs a mountain, sees the face of God, and is forever changed. Buddha experiences enlightenment beside a river. In Disney’s The Lion King, Rafiki gives Simba an important lesson under the stars, and Pocahontas seeks guidance in the presence of a willow tree. Furthermore, Heidi grows strong in the Alps, and Mary Lennox and Colin Craven are emotionally and physically healed in their secret garden.

I think of these moments of peace and lucidity as mountaintop moments. From the top of a mountain, the thin air enables the stars to appear brighter and the sky to appear bluer. Similarly, “getting away from it all” in the wilderness allows our thoughts and actions to come into better focus, to be seen with greater detail. The key, it seems, is to hold tight to mountaintop moments and create some of our own when we return to the valley, so to speak. In this way, we might regain our spiritual connection with the rest of God’s Creation, might act as the faithful Stewards of Earth that we ought to be, and might, in protecting and nurturing the wilderness inside us, aid in the preservation of the world.

Every White Blaze, Part Two

A few days ago, before the local cell phone tower went down and plunged my work-life (at a wireless service provider’s store) into chaos, I wrote about why I missed 20.7 miles of the Appalachian Trail during my thru-hike in 2012.  This past Sunday and Monday, I returned to North Carolina to hike those miles I’d skipped.DSCF7670

Being the early bird that I am, I was too tired after my shift ended on Saturday evening to drive all the way to the trail.  Instead, I pulled up to a trailhead in southern Kentucky, where I slept in the back of my wagon.  (My first car was a tiny two-door convertible.  My 1992 Honda wagon makes a much better mobile home.)  The sun hadn’t broken the darkness the next morning before I was up and driving south again.

I pulled up to the parking lot at Winding Stair Gap near Franklin, NC, around noon.  As I needed to get to Deep Gap, I gathered my belongings, stood next to the road, and stuck out my thumb.  Almost immediately, I was picked up by an Episcopalian minister in a muffler-less truck.  He’d only been planning to drive one mile up the road, but he offered to take me all the way to the intersection of US 64 and USFS 71, the 6.2-mile, uninhabited gravel road leading to the Deep Gap trailhead.  Along the way, he told me about a 60-year-old female southbound thru-hiker who attended church service that morning with her section-hiking friend.

I took stock of my utter contentment as I got out of the minister’s pickup and began walking down USFS 71.  While the temperature was only hovering around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the sunlight shone on the corridor of the road, making the day feel pleasant.  All around me, yellow birches and rhododendrons stood magnificently, and a roadside stream quietly gurgled.  It was picturesque, and I was completely satisfied to be in the woods once more.

DSCF7680After I’d walked maybe 3.5 miles down the road, a Toyota came rumbling up behind me, the first car I’d seen heading toward the trailhead.  I smiled wryly and stuck out my thumb, and I was soon riding toward Deep Gap with a middle-aged man and his chocolate lab, Jenny.  Jenny got the front seat.

As we pulled into Deep Gap, I felt as though I was transported back in time to the spring of 2012.  The parking area and the trashcans in it were smaller than I’d remembered them, but all of the thoughts I’d had and emotions I’d felt when I’d arrived at the gap after my night at Muskrat Creek Shelter came rushing back to me.

I thanked my ride and hit the trail, taking far too many pictures in the first several miles of my hike, as I marveled at the beauty around me and the well-constructed (and so very not-New-England-style) trail.  Before I knew it, I’d climbed to the top of Standing Indian Mountain, where I enjoyed feeling the sun on my face in a grassy clearing that offered views to the distant mountains and undulating valleys below.  It was undisturbed, unadulterated, quiet, and perfect.  I walked on.

DSCF7714That night, after gathering water from a cold little stream, I made camp in a rhododendron glen at 4200 feet, one of the lowest elevations I would descend to during my hike.  I was sheltered from the wind, but the night was still frigidly cold — and exceptionally long, given that the solstice is fast approaching.  But, I think I’m tougher than I was at the start of my thru-hike, and I didn’t have a problem toughing it out until morning.

Still, as soon as the sky began to lighten, my bag was packed and I was hiking, hoping to warm up under all of the clothing I’d brought with me.DSCF7707

That morning, my solitary hike became social, as I met southbounder after southbounder.  I think I might have freaked out a certain pair of older hikers when I mentioned the Episcopal church they’d attended the day before.  And, then, I surprised myself when I stepped aside to let a southbounder pass and then realized that the hiker I was looking at was the man who’d taken my picture atop Katahdin in August.  The trail is long, but it is very narrow.

Albert Mountain is the most dramatic climb in the early section of the trail, and it is infamous among thru-hikers, so infamous that several hikers got off trail in 2o12 because they’d been intimidated by the thought of climbing it.  Spending so much time hiking in the White Mountains seems to have warped my perception, since it seemed to me that I was atop the foggy summit with little effort.  I kissed the golden USGS marker on the high point, thrilled to see finally see it after 2.5 years.  It was too cold and windy to linger at the summit for very long.

Leaving Albert, the walking was incredibly easy, and time passed too quickly.  With less than one mile to go, the trail rounded a bend and I suddenly found myself in the wide-open, understory-less, leaf-strewn valleys that I picture when I think of North Carolina.  Thinking about all that the trail has meant to me over the last few years and about how much I’ve changed and grown since the first time I saw the sort of valley I was walking in, I found my eyes blurring and a knot forming in my throat.  And then I quickly recovered, as I saw a horde of south bounders walking toward me.  Amazed to see a northbounding hiker, they stopped to ask my itinerary; our conversation ended with congratulations all around.  It was in this happy head space that I arrived in Rock Gap and saw the sign I’d seen two years ago when I got back on trail.DSCF7828

I reached into my pack and brought out an Appalachian Trail pendant I’d been waiting to give myself once I’d really completed the trail.  Finally, I had done it.  I had walked past every white blaze between Georgia and Maine.

On the long drive home, I began earnestly planning my thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail.

Bemis Road Hostel

As I’ve written before, I appreciate single-serving friends.  Even greater is my appreciation of single-serving friends who become long-term friends.  Such is the case with several people I met at a shelter in Maine last year.

I was out in the woods on a section hike on the Appalachian Trail south of Rangeley.  The weather was beautiful, and I was enjoying backpacking after a couple months away from the mountains; thus, my deciding to stop hiking early and at a shelter one day was particularly uncharacteristic.

I don’t believe in fate or destiny or karma; I don’t think the Universe willed me to stop at that shelter.  But, I am very glad that I did.

Tenting near me were Joe and Jay, a father-son duo who were section-hiking near their Bemis Road home.  Interesting characters who were passionate about the outdoors and eager to learn more about the trail, they talked for some time with me as we all ate.

That night was Joe and Jay’s last night on the trail that summer, but they met me again 36 hours later, as I crossed Bemis Road.  It was chilly and raining, and they invited me to climb into their truck and go to their house, where I talked with them and Joe’s wife, Betsy, and ate sugar snap peas and brownies before they drove me somewhere to wait out the deluge.  They invited me to stop by and park my car at their home next time I was section-hiking; I thanked them for being trail angels and figured that morning marked the end of our interactions.

I was wrong.

This past August, I decided to head to the Maine woods again and looked up Joe and Betsy.  I called them a bit hesitantly, but when I said that I’d hiked with Joe and Jay the previous year, Joe cheered, “Rainbow!  It’s good to hear from you.”

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Joe and Betsy and their four-legged family members

They said that the offer to leave my car at their home still stood, and I did so.  I hitchhiked to the Rangeley trail crossing and headed south to Bemis Road, picking up a section of trail I’d missed.  As they’d instructed, I called Joe and Betsy at the Height of Land, the Oquossuc trail crossing, so that they could meet me at Bemis Road.  Betsy answered the phone and, with this sweet but no-nonsense, trail mother voice, she told me that she had already prepared a bunk for me and would have dinner ready by the time I got to her home.  Touched and astounded by her generosity, I stammered my thanks and hiked down to Bemis Road.

My wet day of hiking ended with a hot shower, a delicious dinner and a pumpkin beer, great company (including the canine variety!), and the best night’s sleep I’d had in weeks.  At the end of the evening, I sat at Joe and Betsy’s counter, snacking on caramels and chocolate, as they presented to me their idea of turning their camp into a hostel.

There are some fabulous hostels on the Appalachian Trail:  Kincora, the Appalachian Trail Lodge, and the (now-closed) Blueberry Patch are some of my favorites.  However, I honestly believe that, when it opens next year, the Bemis Road Hostel will be among the best of the best.  Joe and Betsy’s camp is warm and cozy, and it’s situated in a stretch of woods that is quite in need of an affordable hostel.  More importantly, Joe and Betsy genuinely care about hikers; they’re the type of trail angels that most of us sorely need by the time we reach northern New England.

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Concerned that I wasn’t eating enough fresh fruits and vegetables, Betsy sent me on my way with these rainbow carrots from her garden.

If you find yourself on the Appalachian Trail in 2015, be sure to stop in at the Bemis Road Hostel and tell Joe and Betsy that Rainbow Dash says, “Hi!”

Incidentally, it seems as though I should add that Joe and Jay weren’t the only friends I made at the shelter that night.  Soon after I’d arrived, as I flipped through the shelter register, a southbounder (a “SOBO”) arrived at the shelter for the night.  The hiker introduced himself as Ups and asked whether I’d seen a friend of his who was south of him on the trail.  Then, we fell into easy conversation about the AT, weather, Massachusetts (where we both had been living), intentional communities, New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and life in general.  We talked for a good hour or so before I decided that I should ready my campsite for the evening.  We exchanged contact information and tentatively talked about hiking together after he’d completed his thru-hike; honestly, I doubted we’d ever see each other again.  We have, indeed, stayed in contact with one another and met for several hikes, and we may very well be starting the Pacific Crest Trail together next year.