A Long Day on the Camino

Now, I love the thru-hiking community dearly, but I can’t help but notice certain patterns to the conversations at shelters, watering holes, or shade trees:

“I just crushed 21 miles.”

“Yeah, I’m easily at 3.5 miles an hour — uphill.”

“Your pack looks like the new Gregory model.  I looked into that one, but then I chose one that experts say beats it on every level.”

“People say this trail is rocky, but it’s nothing compared to Mahoosuc Notch.”

“Guess I need to go grab some water.  This filter has 3,000 miles on it, but it will probably last a bit longer.”

“I should be in Canada in just a couple months.  Everyone could if they really put in the effort.”

There’s so much bro talk!  I try my best to avoid such conversations, but sometimes, especially when it’s clear that the speaker imagines he’s the most seasoned/fastest/toughest hiker there is, it’s too hard to resist asserting myself.  When Ant would catch me discussing pace or mileage on the PCT, he’d start calling me Rainbro Dash.

Years of these sorts of experiences had convinced me that that’s just the way the backpacking community was, and I’d stopped thinking much of it, bro-ing out when need be but (probably like many other hikers) relishing the deeper-than-gear-and-bro-talk conversations that happened one-on-one.  And, that’s why I was completely caught off guard by the absence of bro talk on the Camino de Santiago.

In the albergues at night and along the way, pilgrims didn’t discuss the number of miles they’d gone that day or on their journey. Pilgrims didn’t discuss pace.  There wasn’t any talk of gear.  No one exchanged resumes or tried to impress each other with tales of their adventures.

So, when I put in my first “big-mile day” on the Camino — my first marathon day of the trip — the only social consequence of my exhaustion was the way my sun-muddled brain struggled to string together Spanish sentences for the hospitalera.  I think the absence of external motivation made the day seem both more surreal and more fun.

The day had begun in Arrés, a tiny hillside town of 40 people.  I hadn’t slept much the night before, but I hadn’t cared:  I was in good company and had enjoyed my first communal Camino dinner.  We also breakfasted together, and then I set off.

I was on the Camino Aragonés, and the day seemed to dawn hot and just get hotter.  Along old rural roads, shade was limited, but I found a few cooler places to rest occasionally.  Most of the time, I was too busy marveling at the area’s “lunar landscapes” to stop walking:  The valley of the Rio Aragonés is dotted with eroded bad lands where nothing grows.

The middle section of the morning involved a brutally hot walk along a deserted new highway which may or may not have been the Camino.  (It’s a long story.)  It provided stunning views of a bright blue reservoir beneath long ridges, before yellow arrows led me downhill.  They took me along an overgrown, forested path, where a crumbling old ermita waited in a clearing, still providing a quiet place of worship and meditation to pilgrims.

Most of the Arrés crew stopped for the day in another small town under the towers of a medieval castle.  After cooling off with them, I continued on my way, surprised to find that the trail ascended into a forest.  I walked along a forest road, and the mid-day sun provided little shade, so I found a good spot and enjoyed one of my favorite components of a long day’s hike: a trailside nap.

When I woke, I headed toward Puenta la Reina once more and soon found myself in high moorland.  A longtime fan of The Secret Garden — I answered to “Dickon Sowerby” for about a year — I have a special love of the bioregions known as “moors,” and reaching the heathered highlands late in the day, already elated from exertion, was enough to make me quite high on life.  By the time my journey up there was over, I was thoroughly windblown, thoroughly sunbaked, and thoroughly happy.

Depending on the elevation gain, my favorite hiking days are generally 24 to 32 miles long.  That length seems to allow me enough time to stop and smell the roses and take some scenic breaks — such as my dinner break under a tree near the descent to Undués de Lerda — but still walk long enough to find a lovely hiker’s high.  As an Irish pilgrim told me, “When the body is tired, the mind feels good.”

That night, my mind was wonderfully quiet and content as I made my bed at the albergue.

Creepy Moments on the Appalachian Trail, Part Two

Inherently, hiking isn’t especially dangerous.  But, if you do it often enough, you’re bound to come across some weird/creepy/less-than-ideal situations.  If my memory serves, in 5,000 miles of backcountry adventures, I’ve been in exactly five human interactions that have engaged my fight-or-flight response.

Sometimes, they’re simple, as in the case of a southbounding, gearless, scowling day hiker who walked past me, seemingly unseeingly, Bible in hand.  Other times, they’re a bit more drawn out, such as the case of the feather-adorned lone backpacker who spoke to demons.  The story I’m about to tell (which technically happened near the Appalachian Trail) belongs to the latter category.

It was 2011, and I was on the AT for what turned out to be a long section hike (and my first backpacking trip).  I was hiking with a friend from home, Chapstick, and he and I had just enjoyed a night in Palmerton, PA, in a jail-turned-hostel at the base of what once was a zinc-smelting Superfund site.

The following morning, Chapstick wasn’t up to hiking, but I wanted to hit the trail.  As he stayed behind, pledging to find a taxi to take him to meet me at a northern trail town, I worked on finding my way back to the trail.

I am not sure what it is about the Lehigh Valley that creates a vortex, but I’ve had serious difficulties both times I’ve tried to hike out of Palmerton.  Legend has it that there’s a blue-blazed trail back to the trail, but it seems the trail gods would prefer it stays untrammeled.

In 2011, I’d heard that the blue-blazed trail could be most easily found if I walked along the railroad tracks, so that’s what I did.

It was a hot day, the kind of hot, humid, thick-aired day you can only find in the South and Mid-Atlantic.  There wasn’t an inch of shade over the railroad tracks in the middle of the day, but I walked toward the general direction I’d come from as the sun baked down on me.

After walking for over half an hour, I came to a construction site, where it appeared that most of the workers had left for lunch.  There were two guys left, but one finished his conversation and drove away as I got nearer.  The remaining guy watched me approach.

He was in his fifties or sixties and wore a white tank and jeans, with gold chains around his neck.  I was a couple days past 22 at the time, very new to the world of adventuring/hiking/hitchhiking, and something about this man alarmed me.

He wanted to know where I was from, where I was headed, and whether anyone was with me.  I tried to be evasive and just keep walking, but he had a truck; he pulled up alongside me and kept talking.  Playboy-type female silhouettes were stuck to his car windows.  Changing tactics, I tried to be calm and politely dismiss the conversation.  He suggested that he drive me to the trail.  I assured him that I was all right; that I was merely walking what was apparently the wrong way to catch up with my friend.

Eventually, he seemed to give up and drove off.  I ran, pack and all, tears rising to my eyes, along the tracks.  I could see houses near the fence, and I hoped that I’d find someone there who could help.

As luck would have it, there was a 30-something man doing yardwork not too far away.  The tracks ran higher than his backyard, so I word-vomited down at him:

“Can I please climb over your fence?  There was this man at the construction site who really creeped me out, and I think he’s probably somewhere nearby, and I just want to get back on the trail, and I don’t even know where it is.”

I don’t remember what he said, but I know that it was immediately comforting.  I climbed into his backyard, and he had me wait on his porch (probably thinking that I would freak out if someone invited me into their house just then) as he got the keys to his car.  As I composed myself, he told me that he was an army vet who’d returned to his hometown and was in the process of fixing up his house.  I thanked him profusely as he drove me back to the trail.

As we talked, he learned about Chapstick and vowed to drive him further north, and he gave me his number, to use in case I ran into any more trouble.  When he met Chapstick, he brought a collection of pressed four-leaf clovers for us, as well as a fortune-cookie proverb:  “Great things happen when men and mountains meet.”

Those lucky clovers still remain in my gear collection, a lasting reminder of the kindness of strangers and the importance of asking for help.

Fast Friends with Fanny Pack

When I set out on the Appalachian Trail in 2012, fully knowing what I was getting into, I pledged to thru-hike the trail.  However, less than two weeks into my hike, I seriously considered changing my plans.

One of the milestones on the southern AT is the Nantahala Outdoor Center, “The NOC,” in North Carolina.  The day I descended to the NOC, I was high on life.  I spent the afternoon cooling my achy feet in the Nantahala River, sharing photos from some of the beautiful places I’d seen with friends online, talking to a self-proclaimed “Bronie” who was wearing a Rainbow Dash shirt, collecting and organizing my mail drop, and satisfying my hiker hunger in the restaurant in the adventure village.  It was a warm, sunny afternoon, and, while I was a bit overwhelmed by the flurry of activity in the gap, I was thrilled to have made it so far, so fast.

That night, I slept in an otherwise-empty bunk room.

The next morning, I hit the trail at 8:00, embracing the 5000-foot climb that began immediately.  At 8:08, the skies opened up.

It wasn’t just any thunderstorm.  I’m from Florida, and it was one of the angriest thunderstorms I’ve experienced.  The rain fell hard and quick — until it became hail.  Thunder resounded through the forest.  I kept walking.

Through eyes squinted against the water, I saw the silhouette of another hiker ahead, standing still.  As I passed the old man, smiling ruefully and making some comment about the storm, he grumbled back at me (for no apparent reason other than — just like him — I didn’t have the sense to get out of the rain), “You’re an idiot.”

That wasn’t exactly motivating.  In the time that I’d been on the trail, I’d had so many people make discouraging comments about my hiking.  Other hikers suggested that I only section hike (rather than thru-hike) or told me that I needed to hike fewer miles each day.  Even park rangers and ridge runners told me that my aspirations were too great.  Apparently, “little girls” like me just couldn’t hike the whole trail, let alone hike it quickly.  I’d been rolling with the punches, but the combination of the man’s comment and the storm were too much for me that morning.

After I’d hiked past him, I started to cry.  Suddenly, everything was wrong.  I was going uphill in the rain in the wrong frame of mind, and I wanted desperately to quit the whole endeavor.  I considered turning around and heading back to the NOC, but my cell phone reception had been abysmal there, so I hiked onward in the hopes that some elevation would help.  On three different occasions during my ascent, I set down my pack, took out my phone, and tried to keep it dry enough to insert its battery and turn it on so that I could call my mother and ask her to pick me up.  Every time, I decided against it because I couldn’t seem to keep the phone satisfactorily dry.


A wolf tree in the fog

Eventually, I made it to the top of the climb.  I enjoyed an overlook from which I saw the clouds racing by below me, and then I kept walking north.

Soon, I could barely see 40 feet in front of me.  The forest was shrouded in a thick mist, and I hiked through the dense fog, mildly disoriented.  As cold and dispirited as this young biologist was, I couldn’t help appreciating the way the mist seemed to celebrate the dramatic statures of wolf trees.

Soaked through and shivering, I stopped at a shelter for a snack break and a chance to sit somewhere dry.  There, I found two hikers, one of whom had waited out the storm in the shelter.  As per usual, we started chatting about the trail and the woods ahead.  I conversationally mentioned that I needed to make it through the Smokies in four days so that I could attend my sister’s graduation; my plans were immediately scoffed at.  Since these male hikers wouldn’t be hiking that quickly through the Smokies, there was apparently no way that I could either.  I stuffed the remainder of my snack in my pack and headed back to the trail, thoroughly fed up with mansplaining.


Fanny Pack admiring a tree

The fog and light rain persisted for rest of the day, and, having not seen other hikers since leaving the shelter, I was cold, wet, and alone.  In [title of show], a fun and clever musical, there is a wonderful song about the “vampires” that attack us when we are at our most vulnerable and work to drain and discourage us.  I had a whole host of vampires walking with me that afternoon, and I knew it.

That’s why, when I rounded a bend and found a tall and friendly hiker I’d seen a couple days earlier in town, I stopped to join him in his standing break.  That’s also why, when he asked me how I was doing, I blurted out, “Not so good.  I’m actually having a really bad day.  I got poured on earlier and this old guy told me I was an idiot and no one thinks I have any business being out here and I can’t seem to find anyone who hikes at my pace or who I want to hike with and this other guy won’t leave me alone and I just think I might actually go home soon but I really don’t want to.”

He invited me to take the lead and walk with him for a while.  As the trail turned rocky, the likes of which I hadn’t seen since hiking in Pennsylvania the year before, I did everything I could to keep up the pace on the rain-soaked, slippery rocks.  If anything, I hiked faster on the wet rocks, even though I was tired and hungry; I wanted to demonstrate that I was a worthy hiking companion, one who wouldn’t slow down a fast hiker.  In retrospect, I don’t think that was necessary.


Quiver and me

In our first two hours together, Fanny Pack (as my companion was known at that time) and I discussed politics, religion, our families, relationships, sexuality, aspirations, and other assorted topics that one is not usually advised to broach with new acquaintances.  When we came to a road crossing before Jacob’s Ladder, Fanny Pack decided to make camp.  I asked whether I could join him for the night, and he welcomed me.  As the rain continued to fall, we continued to talk, him in his bivy and me in my rain gear, outside my little tent.  I planned to head out the next morning alone so that he wouldn’t feel obligated to hike with me, but it was readily apparent that we were fast friends.

I woke up the next morning to a beautiful sunrise, the vocalizations of turkeys, and a “good morning” from my new friend.  Quiver, as I renamed him (because his homemade pack looked more like a quiver than a fanny pack), and I would spend the next 1000 miles together.DSCF0491

Every White Blaze, Part One

First things first:  As I was driving backIMG_20141209_115509_511 from North Carolina, I learned that the story of my upcoming thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail to benefit Lyme disease research had been published on Kentucky.com.  It was featured in the Lexington Herald-Leader today, which was really special and exciting.  If you’d like to check out the story, click here.  And, if you’d like to read more about my Lyme disease fight, you can read this post.

Anyway, what I’d like to write about today was what took me to North Carolina.

There are as many ways to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail as there are thru-hikers.  There are hikers known as “purists” or “white blazers,” who insist upon walking every mile of the AT from Georgia to Maine.  There are hikers who are more lenient about the path they follow.  They might “blue blaze” by taking side trails, “yellow blaze” by hitchhiking to a town further ahead on the trail, or “aqua blaze” by paddling up the Shenandoah River rather than hiking through that park.  (Rumor has it that there are also “sky blazers,” who take the gondolas up Wildcat in New Hampshire, but I’ve yet to meet one.)

When I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2012, I made a point of walking past every white blaze, not because I thought there was something superior in that sort of hike but because I wanted to see the entirety of the trail.  When I got to Maine and broke my foot, I had to relax my guidelines; however, before that point, the only section I’d missed was 20.7 miles between Deep Gap and Rock Gap in southern North Carolina.

I’ve already written about the bitterly cold night I spent sleeping like a sardine in Muskrat Creek Shelter.  When that night finally gave way to dawn, I quickly packed up my gear and, after attempting to thaw myself by the fire for a little while, hiked on.

I’m generally not a hiker who enjoys spending a lot of time in trail towns; at this point, I usually sleep better in my tent than in a strange bed in a hostel or crowded hotel room.  But, that April morning, I knew that I needed to get myself to town to preserve my sanity.  As the section hikers and hikers with smartphones told the rest of us, the temperatures were only expected to drop in the coming 24 hours, which meant that I was in for another sleepless night, unless I found a way to get to town.

Checking the guidebook, I happily discovered that a shuttle to a local hostel could be procured at Deep Gap, only a few miles north.  Shivering, but with new-found enthusiasm, I hiked onward.

When I reached the parking lot at Deep Gap (a parking lot at the end of a 6.2-mile, uninhabited, gravel United States Forest Service road), I got my phone and guidebook out of my pack, found that I had a tidbit of service, and called the hostel.

“Good morning!” the owner of the hostel said enthusiastically.

In spite of the cold, I smiled at his energy.  “This is the hostel that picks hikers up from Deep Gap, right?”

“Well, normally, yep.  But, my wife and I are down in Florida.  I hear it’s real cold up there.”

Apparently, the cold brought out unusual persistence in me.  For the next half hour, I dialed number after number as I was referred to local trail angels and potential places to stay.  Had I been alone, I might have given up and just stuck it out, but groupthink is a powerful thing.  As I worked to find a ride out of Deep Gap, hikers continued to walk north and stopped at the Gap to learn about the results of my phone calls.  When I eventually reached Ron Haven — a man who owns several motels in Franklin, coordinates all sorts of hiker services in that town, and promised to come pick us up for $45 — eight other hikers planned to join me on the ride.

I was hiking on a budget, but I decided that $5 for the ride and $10-15 for a shared hotel room to avoid another sub-freezing night would be worth it.  At that point, I actually felt like getting warm was essential to my staying on the trail, and I wasn’t ready to give up my dream of thru-hiking yet.

So, an hour later, when Ron Haven pulled up in his big pickup truck, I climbed aboard, pulling my backpack onto my lap.  I shivered the whole way to town.

In Franklin, I got warm and caught up on sleep.  I purchased a neck gaiter and gloves, and I enjoyed a few baguettes and hummus.  (Because comfort food.)  When the next morning rolled around, I felt ready to brave the cold and hit the trail again.

I soon learned that I was in the minority.  A few of the hikers I’d gotten the ride to Franklin with were getting off trail for good, some were planning to stay in town for a while longer, and others were content in skipping ahead a bit, to one of the regularly scheduled stops of Ron Haven’s free hiker shuttle.  It turned out that I was the only hiker interested in going back to Deep Gap, which meant that I faced a $45 bill.

I deliberated about what I should do, but determined that skipping ahead would probably help rather than hurt my psyche.  You see, there’d been a hiker who’d been “pink blazing” me (i.e., changing his hiking plans to match mine and driving me crazy) since early on in Georgia.  He had decided not to stop in Franklin but was planning to wait for me that day.  I was anxious to lose his company, and I realized that I was being offered the opportunity to do just that.

And so, I skipped ahead to Rock Gap.  As a result (and because I stopped signing shelter registers for a while), I avoided my pink blazer and met the man who became one of my best friends and hiked 1000 miles with me.  Not paying for the ride to Deep Gap was one of the best decisions of my thru-hike.

However, after hiking the remainder of the trail (even the miles my broken foot had forced me to skip), I knew that I wanted to walk the 20.7 miles that I’d missed in North Carolina.  It was logistically complicated to do so when I lived in New England, but I moved back to Kentucky at the end of November.

Since I had the last two days off work, as soon as my shift ended on Saturday evening, I jumped in my station wagon and headed south.

To be continued…

Feminism and the Appalachian Trail, Part One

By the end of the Appalachian Trail, female thru-hikers are not uncommon; however, we are decidedly in the minority at the start of the hike.  Even more unusual is the young female who is hiking solo, and, at the time of my thru-hike, I looked considerably younger than I was.  As a result, I was rather conspicuous, as I learned on the approach trail.

Before a northbound thru-hiker even sets foot on the Appalachian Trail, he or she has to ascend Springer Mountain through Amicalola Falls State Park.  The approach trail begins by traversing the park and then climbs the eponymous waterfall by a series of 604 metal steps.  Hiking up Springer feels like a great introduction to the trail, a rite of passage of sorts.  (I’m bound to revisit the actual hike of it in another post, but you can see a few pictures of Amicalola Falls State Park and Springer Mountain here.)

Anyway, along the course of my climb of the approach trail, I began to see a response to my being on the trail that would become all too common in the weeks and months ahead.

When I’d find other hikers along the trail, I’d give the usual greeting and either pass them or allow them to pass me. More often than not, they’d do a double take when they saw me and say at least one of the following:

“Are you out here all alone?”

“Good for you, out here as a young girl!”

“You’re a brave little adventurer!”

“Do you need anything?”

“Honey, look at this little girl. She’s hiking!”

At that point in my backpacking career, I wasn’t a complete newbie; I had 400 miles or so under my belt on the Appalachian Trail alone. Being thought of as a brave little adventurer wasn’t really what I was going for, but I took it in stride.

I began to get upset, however, when the friendly exclamations turned into friendly warnings:

“Be safe!”

“You’re carrying a gun, right?”

“This trail is real difficult. Be careful.”

“You don’t need to get to Maine; just do whatever you can do. It’s awesome that you’re out here at all.”

(When similar comments came from rangers and ridge runners, I became very upset and discouraged, but that’s also a story for another day.)

And, then, as I hiked on, I began being asked how old I was. “Almost 23,” I said, to which the reply was, “Oh, I’ve heard there’s another girl [ranging in age from 15 to 19, in various accounts] out on the trail. You should hike with her.”

After hearing about this girl for a while, I asked someone to describe her. Apparently, she was from Kentucky and blonde and liked horses. Yep, this hiking partner everyone was trying to introduce to me was me.

Just a day in the life, I suppose…