whyineedfeminism

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.

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…