In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that this post was scheduled rather than created tonight. I’m currently on the Pacific Crest Trail, hiking for the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society. You can read more about my PCT thru-hike here.
It’s funny which days are etched forever in our minds. One year ago today, I was enduring my second ambulance ride in as many weeks. A year before that, after having one of those life-changing, put-in-it-the-memoir family crises, I was living with 26 other people in a bunkroom in a very snow-covered Western Massachusetts as part of the SCA.
Perhaps it’s the changing weather or perhaps it’s historical precedent, but this time of year sends me into a reverie, and I decided I’d interrupt our regularly-scheduled hiking story to share some of my recollections from my time with the SCA.
In this case, the SCA is the Student Conservation Association, not the Society for Creative Anachronism. I stumbled upon the former while searching for the latter. The Student Conservation Association is an organization for which I’ve had tremendous respect for almost a decade now. Most of the members of the SCA are young adults who serve with various organizations and in various capacities across the country as they work to conserve natural areas and promote environmental awareness.
Long story short, three weeks after I got my driver’s license (as a 23-year-old), I loaded my tiny little convertible to the gills and drove it 1000 miles to Hawley, Massachusetts.
Some SCA positions are “front-country” positions. Like AmeriCorps VISTA positions, these usually see SCA members working individually with organizations, in internship-like settings. Other positions are backcountry positions, where (generally) teams of SCA members serve and camp together. Most backcountry positions focus on trail building, and the position to which I’d been accepted in Hawley was no exception.
My interview with SCA Massachusetts was memorable. They asked a question that I’d spent a great deal of time thinking about but still did not have a concise answer to: “How do you feel about cutting down trees?” I suppose my rambling answer — about the way cutting down trees for trails leads to an increased awareness and appreciation of the natural world, which leads to more conservation of trees — must have been acceptable.
Because of everything that had happened at home, I was a mess when I got to Hawley, but the whole crew of SCA members who were already at the base camp greeted me and helped me bring my belongings into the bunkhouse. Soon, my upper bunk in a corner of the giant room started to feel homey.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen as much effort put into group building and communal living as that displayed by the leaders of SCA Massachusetts. They ensured that we had plenty of formal and informal time to get to know one another, led us in many reflections and games (that we could later use when we led classes of children), and set group expectations. They encouraged us to view our base camp as home and took us on outings to familiarize ourselves with the area.
Coming from the South, I wasn’t sure whether I could ever feel at home in a place like western Massachusetts in early March. The snow was three feet high, and new snow fell every few days. Winter was my usual running season (and my key stress management strategy), and I couldn’t run at all. I’d never used snow shoes, and I had no clue how to cross country ski. I didn’t even know how to split wood to heat our bunkhouse. I was eager to learn it all.
Serving with the SCA did have its challenges. The 29 (27 SCA members and two leaders) of us who lived at base camp during training had 76 gallons of water to share each day. We rarely flushed the bathroom toilets and signed up for a couple short but precious showers at the start of each week. Our bathroom was up a hill, the path to which I watched go from snow-tunneled to bog-bridged. Sharing one room meant that this SCA member, whose Lyme Disease was slowly rising to the surface, could never get enough sleep.
But, it also meant that there were always great people around. It meant that someone could find a book recommendation, a service project buddy, or a head massage whenever the mood struck. Our living situation made for an unforgettable game of Cards Against Humanity by the fire one night, and it gave me a snowy sunrise that brought me to tears a few mornings later. The SCA’s base camp in Hawley earned a special place in my memories.
Unfortunately, my time with the SCA was cut short. It turned out that lots of reflection exercises and no space to be alone to process things weren’t very conducive to phase of the healing process that I was in at that time. Our leaders were incredibly understanding when I explained what had been going on and why I needed to leave the program; I was astonished when they invited me to apply another year.
Another year, in another mindset, I think a program like SCA Massachusetts would be right up my alley. I love communal living, love the backcountry, and love being around like-minded, passionate people. But, that year, I just needed to be around friends.
And so, on a bright sunny day, moments after I’d given my goodbye hugs to SCA Massachusetts, I climbed into my convertible again, turned up the Indigo Girls, and headed to Burlington, Vermont, where, sleeping bag in hand, I knocked on an old friend’s door.
My worst injury on the Appalachian Trail happened when I fell on a road.
Yes, you read that correctly. I’d walked 1500 miles, arrived in Massachusetts, climbed up the relatively impressive Everett and Race, descended to a road, took one step on it, and fell to the ground.
Trigger warning: There will be blood.
I blame a combination of new, t00-small boots and a branch on the road, but fault didn’t matter. What did matter was the fact that I was on my hands and knees in the middle of the road with my full pack on my back, nauseated because of the pain shooting from my knee.
Sitting so that I could look at my knee, I had my first glance of the Barrington Crater, as I came to call it. In falling, I’d taken a sizable amount of flesh out of my knee, and blood was flowing from the resulting crater. At this point, I should explain that I grew up on a little farm; I’ve dealt with all sorts of animal emergencies and am generally calm and tough in such situations. Likewise, I’ve been able to stay calm and think clearly in emergencies involving other people. This was not the case when I looked at my knee and realized that the fluid dripping down my bent leg while I was sitting on the road was my own blood. I grew faint and worked to remain conscious.
Luckily, at that moment, a thru-hiking family came up the trail behind me, and a southbounder arrived just moments later. While I was busy being barely communicative, they helped me to scoot out of the middle of the road, pooled their first aid resources together, and started working to clean me up.
As they were tending to me, an SUV started rumbling down the road toward us and then promptly pulled off the road nearby. The driver, a petite, middle-aged woman, jumped out of the vehicle and came hurrying our way.
Talking to me quietly and asking me simple questions, she worked to help me remain conscious while she bandaged up my knee.
“Where are you staying tonight?” she asked as she finished.
“Not far,” I said. “I’ll camp in the woods around here.”
Without hesitation, she invited not only me but also Palm Tree, who’d been hiking with me for a few days and was just a few minutes behind me when I’d fallen, to her home. I was so relieved at the thought of being able to be off my leg and keep it clean for a couple days. Palm Tree and Mary Kate helped me into the latter’s car.
Regardless of the fact that we were sweaty and dirty and bloody (or, at least, I was), Mary Kate welcomed us into her living room, where she continued to tend to my knee (and other, smaller, wounds). She ordered pizza for us and her teenage and young adult children, and we enjoyed a wonderful meal together.
For the next two days, I felt like part of Mary Kate’s family. Palm Tree and I ate, talked, and shopped with her and her children. We stayed in “the clubhouse,” a shed in the backyard that was cozy and comfortable. And, I served as Palm Tree’s sous chef as he created a delicious Thai meal to thank Mary Kate and her family.
While I’d had no problem escaping the Neels Gap vortex, the Hot Springs vortex, or the Waynesboro vortex, I must confess that I found it rather difficult to leave Mary Kate and keep hiking north — and not just because my knee was tender. Her hospitality, generosity, and kindness made me see her not just as an exemplary trail angel but as an exemplary human being, and I like to think that I became a bit like her because of the time I spent with her. I certainly consider her part of the reason that I stood atop Katahdin.
Over the last couple Thursdays, I’ve recounted the beginning of a hitchhiking voyage across New England. By being willing to change our plans and experience whatever came our way, my partner and I ended up at a commune in eastern Massachusetts before we resumed our northward journey.
Before setting out on our adventure, Quiver and I had decided that we wanted to spend some time in the White Mountains again, and the best time to make that happen was after leaving the commune. Therefore, we pointed our thumbs toward Gorham, NH, and headed to Pinkham Notch and Mount Washington.
We ascended Mount Washington via Huntington Ravine, the infamous trail that I love too much. On the way down the mountain, we saw a moose trailside — the first (and, thus far, only) moose I’d seen in my life! If that wasn’t enough, as I was coming out of the restroom at the trailhead, I ran into Sunbeam, a woman who tends to spend as much time in these woods as I do. Quiver and I had hiked near her for several days in 2012, and we’d all stayed at Kincora (arguably the best hostel on the trail) together. It was so fun to see her again!
Sunbeam informed us that she was working in one of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s High Huts and that, in keeping with the theme of serendipity, none other than Gluten Puff, one of Quiver and my favorite 2012 thru-hikers, was working in Greenleaf Hut that summer. And, with that and hugs goodbye, we headed to Franconia Notch.
The most direct route to Greenleaf Hut is the Old Bridle Path, a trail that climbs from the Franconia Notch Parkway (where US-3 and I-93 coexist). In getting there, Quiver and I hitched a ride in a police car. Seriously. (But, that’s a story for another day.)
Walking into Greenleaf Hut and completely surprising Gluten Puff was a blast. Quiver and I had had these grand hopes of hiking our beloved Franconia Ridge after a short chat with Gluten Puff, but the conversation was so enjoyable that neither of us wanted to leave. Besides, one of the most important take-aways from all the traveling I’ve done is that (apart from the Old Man in the Mountain) beautiful places are much more stationary and long-lasting than people; while seeing beautiful places is exciting and worthwhile, it’s also important to take advantage of the time we have with friends and family. And so, Quiver and I spent a gorgeous summer day inside a hut on the shoulder of Mount Lafayette, talking with a special trail friend until lengthening shadows forced us back down the mountain.
From Franconia Notch, we hitchhiked to Burlington, VT, where (after swimming/bathing in Lake Champlain) I caught up with and introduced Quiver to Monica, a friend of mine from college. After a wonderful night near a vineyard somewhere south of Burlington, we headed down Route 7 to Williamstown, MA (where we’d been just a few weeks earlier to hike Greylock), and then back to central Massachusetts along the Mohawk Trail (a highway).
As dusk was fading on the night before the day of Quiver’s flight out of Portland, ME, we seemed to be stuck 12 miles or so from my car. Just as we were on the verge of making camp, a petite Asian American woman pulled up beside us and, in broken English, invited us into her car. While her home was on the way to mine, she decided to take us all the way back to my place, and we arrived home just as darkness fell in earnest.
(One year later, I had the opportunity to thank that final driver when her name appeared on a sign-in sheet/mailing list from a project another AmeriCorps member had hosted. She seemed as astonished as I was at our reconnecting. Talk about a small world!)
The next day’s drive to the airport was uneventful but bittersweet. The weeks of intentional spontaneity, of mountains, of community, of old friends and new, had come to an end. I worked to cherish the memories and not cry because it was over but, rather, smile because it had happened.
Most of the time, the Appalachian Trail doesn’t feel clique-ish. Most of the time. Unfortunately, thru-hikers and section-hikers tend to walk with “their own kind,” in the words of Cera from The Land Before Time, and NOBOs (northbounders) and SOBOs (southbounders) tend not to think highly of each other.
Doctor Seuss wrote of the north- and south-going Zax and their inability to get along:
“Look here, now!” the North-Going Zax said, “I say!
You are blocking my path. You are right in my way.
I’m a North-Going Zax and I always go north.
Get out of my way, now, and let me go forth!”
“Who’s in whose way?” snapped the South-Going Zax.
“I always go south, making south-going tracks.
So you’re in MY way! And I ask you to move
And let me go south in my south-going groove.”*
All too often, we NOBOs and SOBOs are much like the Zax, thinking our own directions and experiences to be superior. I think this has much to do with the attitudes of the first SOBOs and the first NOBOs, who, as fast-hiking leaders of their respective packs, might not spend time making friends with the hikers going in the opposite direction. In my mind, this is a travesty: When a NOBO and a SOBO meet, between them, they’ve seen the entire length of the AT, and there’s so much information to be gained from those hiking the opposite direction on the trail. As a caveat, I must say that two of my top-ten favorite hikers were SOBOs, including someone I’m hoping to hike the PCT with next year.
Anyway, one place where NOBOs and SOBOs come together in peace and harmony, holding hands and singing Kumbaya, is at Upper Goose Pond. Located 0.5-miles off the trail in Massachusetts, Upper Goose Pond might be easily missed by those hikers focused on getting to Northern New England; however, the beautiful setting of the lodge there makes the side trip worth considering. The pancakes served by the caretaker in the morning make it a mandatory stop.
You see, there is a pick-your-own blueberry stand not far north of Upper Goose Pond, and SOBOs often arrive at the lodge bearing gifts of juicy, field-grown blueberries. Because the trail is all about reciprocity and sharing, NOBOs arrive at the lodge bearing gifts of…hmmm…of our awesome and awesomely stinky selves?
In the morning, the caretaker of the Upper Goose Pond takes the blueberries, adds them to the pancake batter, and produces a delicious breakfast for hungry hikers. It’s a great time of camaraderie and community before we all go our separate ways on the narrow but very long trail.
*The tale of the Zax is reprinted in its entirety inside a privy in Vermont, but you can also look it up online or at your local library.