Sunday, June 21, 2015

Clarence Fahnestock State Park to Graymoor Friary

13.8 miles
Overcast sky and American flag at vista
Everything in my tent is wet. I actually did an excellent job pitching for the rain last night and stayed perfectly dry through the tropical storm until I tried to pack up this morning. I knew I had to leave early, before the rain stopped, because thirteen miles is a big day for me, my second biggest, and I needed all of the daylight hours. But that meant leaving before all of the sensible thru-hikers, and packing in the rain.

I have not mastered packing in the rain. I don't know if anyone has, which is why my thru-hiking rule always was: never start in the rain. You can hike in the rain, but never start in the rain. Especially do not pack in the rain.

But I was so excited about this long day to Graymoor, where we stayed in 2004, and I'd planned it so long—I didn't see how bad it could be. I'd keep the rainfly over my gear. It wouldn't be that bad.

It was. Everything except the rainfly was dry when I started, and in the process of packing, everything got wet. This doesn't just mean a wet camp—it also means an exhaustingly heavy pack for this long day. You may not think that much moisture makes a difference, but it certainly does. The thirteen miles meant no time to stop and spread things in the sun (which came out, on cue, about a mile into my hike). I didn't think the terrain'd be that bad today, but as always it is relentless, and the last climb nearly killed me. So tonight, I sleep with clammy feet and wrinkled toes. Did I learn my lesson? Probably not.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

RPH Shelter to Clarence Fahnestock State Park

6.9 miles
RPH Shelter interior--amazing how I remembered this shelter as grubby and everyone kept going on and on about how nice it was.  It was nice.  The pizza was nicer.

So I write tonight as I have not written since my beginning night, camped alone in my tent, lit by red headlamp.  Tonight the highway croons to my left.  I am camped at a New York state park on the first summer weekend.  How odd that I have to come to a campground crowded with car campers for solitude.

That's how crowded the trail is.  Even today, at the concession stand, I met four thru-hikers.  None wanted to stay here, close to the highway, with no shelter.  It's supposed to rain tonight, and already it is raining.

I was lured by the state park's hot shower, not by camping alone.  But I showered and pitched in the gravelly, trashy spot reserved for AT hikers, all alone, finally and for once.  Rain pattered and I zipped myself in, alone with my books and notebook and leftover pizza.  But even then at dusk, two hikers zoomed up, shouting hello to my zipped tent, guessing which of their friends was here.

It's just me, a lowly Southbounder.  They looked cowed and went and camped at the other site.  I don't mind, really.  Maybe civilization is the only place to be alone anymore.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Morgan Stewart to RPH Shelter

9.9 miles
Morgan Stewart Shelter, this morning's starting place
Tonight a man at the shelter questioned the legitimacy of my relationship and also told me I am too old to have children. I have been looking forward to this shelter, one I remember well from 2004, one from which you may order pizza. This gentleman, August, offers to split a pizza with me. The other guy here, Gas, has already eaten Chinese. August has written 24 books for sale on Amazon. I am, also, a writer.

I mention that my partner and I are rebuilding a sailboat.

He says: why do you use that word, partner? I hear that and think—he lets the sentence drop, implying that I may be gay.

I say: I like the gender ambiguity of it.

I wish I had said: why does it matter if my partner is male or female?

He says: there must be something wrong with him.
He says: why not boyfriend?

I say: because there's a deeper level of commitment. And implied in partnership is equality.

I say that I see in marriage after marriage a lack of equality. With women performing a greater share of housework and child-rearing, and also a greater percentage of sacrifice: of dreams, goals, ambition. I say: I've had friends divorce after less than a year. I say: how can you can what they have a marriage and what I have not? Maybe marriage is something that take a lifetime to accomplish, and one doesn't know if one is truly married till one is dead. Maybe marrying, like love, is a verb.

Gas chimes in: his 33-year-old marriage is a partnership.

I am perhaps defensive. I do not know if I always believe these things that I say. I know that part of me, the part of me indoctrinated by Disney and my evangelical family, still believes that my relationship carries no legitimacy because it does not have a certificate of marriage. But I know that I believe in commitment and partnership. And also I see the sacrifices that all women in relationships make.

Then he asks my age.

I tell the truth. I don't think I've managed to lie about my age yet in my life. I may be living like a 27-year-old but I am 37.

He says: I guess you don't need to worry about children then.

He apologizes under his next breath. It still stings.

Even not knowing whether I ever wanted children. Not knowing now. Feeling that because of gender discrimination, I was never allowed to know what I want. I still don't know how to know what I want. I don't know if I want children because I've always been told that I must. I push against that, still. As I am being informed about my own life by yet another man, a man explicit in saying he'd want to provide an income while his wife took care of house and kin.

I am angry. These things make me angry.

I tell him about this study: even mothers watching their daughters check their cell phones twice as often as when they are watching sons. I brush my teeth and go to bed.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Telephone Pioneers to Morgan Stewart Shelter

7.8 miles

That's the trail, over and between the rocks--an example of the kind of rocks I deal with, and also maybe a metaphor for the rocky path ahead as we deal with climate change?  Or am I stretching it?
Art that was at the Telephone Pioneers Shelter the first time I hiked through--I hoped it'd still be there, but it wasn't.
I find that people have one of several reactions when they concede that yes, climate change is happening.  They say:

1.  It's too late to do anything, so why try?  We may as well just party and enjoy civilization now.
2.  All of the signs of climate change parallel those of biblical apocalypse, so climate change is good news, because it will make Jesus come back faster.
3.  Or this one:  even if there is a mass extinction event, and 90 percent of people die, it'll be good for the earth.  It'll be a good thing if seven billion people die—only the strong will survive, and the world will remake itself post-apocalyptically.

This last one is the one I believe that future generations will find most objectionable.  After all, it will be them that die.

I continue to find myself talking about climate change all of the time on the trail.  Referring people to my blog.  As of today, I've had three nights (or more) of climate conversation in a row.

The first was with an environmental-science major named Dakota, one of the Iowa Girls, who agreed with me about the dire fate of the forest.  Recent science suggests that trees may react very badly to a projected three-degree rise in temperature, dehydrating much more quickly than people.

"Yeah," she said.  "All of the trees are dead."

The next night with Macklemore, the nihilist audio engineer.

Tonight it's Fizzles, a northbound Nevada hydrologist.  I told her I try to write about these things, although I don't know how to publish what I write.  I want to write for Christians, to remind them that faith means action here on earth.  That a human mass extinction means seven billion souls dead.  I want to write to explain to believers how faith and science are compatible, that evolution is a form of creation.

And I want to write articles for scientists, telling them how to convince a layperson of the value of their work.  To help ordinary people understand and *believe* the science of climate change.  To explain to ordinary people the vast amounts of innovative technology that already exists to solve the problem, to save the trees and our grandchildren.  That we can switch to sustainable energy with little loss to our standard of living, if we can manage massive economic dislocation.  I want to explain the history of revolutionary movements, that change is possible through activism, even if only a small percentage of people become active.  That we are the sleeping giant, but that we can awake.  That we've awoken in the past.  That the ship of state is driven by us.

But where to publish these articles?  The only places that publish about climate change are leftwing or green magazines whose readership is already convinced and does nothing.  Conservative Christian politics has been co-opted by rightwing conservatives and is in bed with the enemy, Big Oil.  

I said, to Fizzles, that Christians believe that our life—each individual life—has meaning.  That gives us a reason to fight against mass destruction, against death.   I believe that Christians are the only ones who can combat the sheer Darwinism of that belief system, that says the world'd be better off after a mass die-off.

I just can't manage to be that much of a nihilist.  Really, is everyone else?  And then I think maybe I am, that maybe all of the people who believe that the planet needs it are correct, that maybe even God is saying that we need it.  In the face of this argument, I find myself quailing, my faith uncertain.  Is human death really something to be prevented?  Or have we inflicted so much harm that we need a Dying to bring other life back?

Can I really believe that?  Would I have said that before the Holocaust?  Is this Holocaust different because it will not be just one particular race extinguished?

But it will be.  It'll be the poor people in the global south, who already die in boats.  There are already climate refugees.  We just don't care.

That was one new answer Dakota gave me:  it's because the people who will die are poor.  It's the same problem humans have always had.  We've never cared about the poor or the weak.

Christians are specifically commanded to care for the poor and the weak.  We are commanded to protect the least of these.  It's why we took the lead on abolition, and why I believe, eventually, we'll take the lead in fighting carbon dioxide emissions.

The fundamental problem is not carbon dioxide or climate change or drought or water shortages or blizzards or hurricanes.  The fundamental problem is our ability to talk back to powerful oligarchies.  Speaking truth to power has always been the problem.  As Buddha did.  As Jesus did.  As Francis did.  As Luther did.  As Gandhi did.  As King did.  As Mandela did.

Even the French and Soviet revolutions did.  Successful and unsuccessful revolutions prove the lesson of history, that people have power.  People choose to believe that they do not, because it's easier.  And my faith gives me hope that the Spirit may yet animate us to make change for the better.  To take to the streets.  That there is still time.

Fizzles and I discuss awhile, finding common ground.  I explain my Christianity in the face of her skepticism, my faith the only weapon I have against nihilism.  My faith is the only thing that gives me hope for change, my belief that God gifted human beings not just with souls but also with ingenuity, which is why we have science.  And faith and science together can give us solutions.

And then Hare, another thru-hiker, comes over.  He's a Christian from Montana.  He believes that the droughts and wars mean the Rapture is coming, and we don't need to worry about stopping people from dying.  We just need to convince all the people who are going to die to go not to hell but to heaven.  I say:  but what about justice?  What about Christ's kingdom here on earth?

[Hiking the same section in 2004, much less concerned about climate change.]

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Webatuck to Telephone Pioneers Shelter

10.3 miles

Again I'm at a shelter completely crowded with people.  Many flip-floppers.  The Appalachian Trail Conference is evidently encouraging flip-flop thru-hikes as a way to combat congestion in Georgia at the beginning of the trail and this is supposed to be the flip-flop bubble.  They're all talking about how awful Pennsylvania is and I just think that means they haven't done any hard states yet.

Which is sour of me, I know.  Tonight the shelter is full up, five women and one man.  Me, another section hiker, three flip-floppers, and a Gamer, the single dude.  He is doing thirty miles a day and has red nodules on his feet.  I sleep with my head at his feet, because I prefer my head against the wall.  But they smell no worse than my own socks, stuffed in my clothes sack as a pillow.  I don't mind hiker funk.

The flippers talk about throwing all of their clothes out of their tent because they smell so bad.  I know I shouldn't resent them, that they are just baby hikers still in the first quarter of their trail.  One of them is planning to exit the trail as it crosses the rail line to New York City, to return home to his doctor in Pennsylvania to check for Lyme disease.  Because he is more fatigued every day and his joints hurt.

It's become a joke on the trail, how the symptoms of hiking exactly parallel that of Lyme.  I don't joke about Lyme, though—I think people *should* get checked out, and I check myself multiple times daily for deer ticks.  But I wonder whether this man'll get back on the trail.  I wonder how many of these flippers will make it through Connecticut.

I tell them every state is harder than the last.  I let them listen to the crunching as I bend my destroyed knees.  The guy with 1400 miles under his belt obsessively probes his feet, ignoring us.  We sleep together, listening to breathing and creaks and people rolling over.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Ten Mile River Lean-to to Webatuck Shelter (Wiley)

4.1 miles
View from the shelter in the morning

Crossing the Connecticut-New York border (in 2004)
My idea for today was again, knowing thunderstorms were forecast for the afternoon, to do a short-mileage day and camp at the first shelter.  Really, I am hiking shelter-to-shelter, trying to stay at each one.  For no reason other than my own sense of completion, originally thinking I’d sleep at each shelter I missed in my thru-hiker.  But I missed so many.

But I think I can take the afternoon off—read, write, chill out.  Spend some time with the birds.  As I write one flies across in front of me, angry that I am sitting too close to its nest.  I hope I am not keeping the last avian of its kind from warming its young.  When I go and visit at the picnic table with another thru-hiker hiking through, the bird poops on my open notebook.  I swear it is intentional.

The barrage of hikers is relentless.  Again, no solo afternoon in the woods. I hole up by the shelter with my notebook and my pen and let the hikers talk among themselves.  But they are so close, I can hear every minute of their conversation.  And conversations among hikers can be asinine and repetitive, the same stories told again and again.  Here’s a sample, between two section hikers and a Nobo.  The section hikers are still shocked at regular trail exigencies, like their friend, who:

Section-hikers: …dropped us off.  He’d hiked hundred miles before and I had to get him in my car to take him back to his.  It was just randomly parked somewhere!


SH:  When did you start?

Thru-hiker:  March 28.

SH:  Man you’re *through* hiking.


SH:  Have you seen anything outrageous?

TH:  There’s this guy Hawkeye that’s always drunk.  No filter.  Whenever anyone sees him, he’s sitting in the trail, doing shots, not actually doing anything ever.  He’s like, never hiking.  When I first met him I was so scared.  I thought, this is the guy that’s going to kill me.

SH:  Do you carry a tent with you?

TH:  Yeah.  I feel like shelters are for those people who need it more.  Even if it’s crappy out, I use my tent.

SH:  Cool.

TH:  I figure my stuff’s wet already.


TH:  You guys work in the city?

SH1:  I live and work in the city, but my brother here—he—

SH2:  I’m just out for this.

SH1:  Where are you from?

TH:  Ohio, mostly.

SH1:  I’ve heard good things about Columbus.

[TH goes to get water.]

SH1:  Look at this.

SH2:  Oh wow.  [evaluating their packs]

SH1:  I mean, they’re shoved in as much as I can get ‘em.

SH1:  [trying to convince his brother to go to the next shelter] It’s just at the top of a mountain so we have to climb a little bit…


So that gives you an idea of the kind of mind-numbing dialog that happens again and again around shelters and their picnic tables.  I get sick of it.  I try to distance myself but am still distracted.  Later, I go and speak to the thru-hiker, Superglue.  We speak closer to the same language, but not that much.  There’s a noticeable relaxation from the thru-hikers when I tell them I hiked in 04.  They don’t have to explain themselves or their gear, I know what they’re going through.  Or I try to remember.

He is tired, in the zone, on his way towards *miles.*  He ran cross-country ever since middle school, eighty miles a week for probably the last ten years he tells me.  I can think of worse ways to train for the Appalachian Trail.

I say:  you mean every step is not pain for you?

He looks at me quizzically.  I think if my feet didn’t get tired, I could go all night, he says.  He is doing consistent 20+ days.  Maybe this is why I do four.

And then that night another of my now three-in-a-row conversations about climate change.  Tonight is with Macklemore, a Louisiana audio engineer, who bought all his gear at a thrift shop.  As a solution he proposed an all-agrarian society, with a barter economy.  But his mindset is nihilistic.  Nothing we do matters.  Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow all the trees die.

[Hiking the same section in 2004.]

Monday, June 15, 2015

Mount Algo to Ten Mile River Lean-to

9.4 miles

Misty, rainy vista
Today I walked in the rain for two hours, breaking my own rule:  never start in the rain.  Maybe this is a difference between section- and thru-hiking, too—sometimes rain-walking is worth it for the section hiker.  For me, to have some time alone in the woods, my stated purpose.  And my gear is resoundingly waterproof, so it’d be only myself getting wet.

Also the thrill of it, the experience, because it is a novelty and not drudgery.  And in the misty morning, a deer, a doe, jumped across the trail in front of me.  Vistas appeared and disappeared in wreaths of fog.  I forget about just how present I am with nature out here, or forget to write about it, what with my complaints about mileage and thru-hikers.  Still, I’m in the wild, above the highway roar that occasionally comes from a thousand feet below.

I surprise deer sometimes, hiking without poles.  I seek all-red birds, black-and-white striped birds (Baltimore orioles?).  On a sunny day, a garter snake slithered across my feet, surprised.  He felt weightless, like he floated on air.

Tonight I camp with Euchre, from Michigan (natch), and Superman, who does a headstand atop every mountain.  We discuss gear and climate change, one of many conversations I’ve been having with fellow hikers about climate change.  I feel like an evangelist or a prophet, someone obnoxious at least, how I bring every conversation back to it.  But it is inescapable, in my own mind and in my written and spoken dialog.  I can’t stop thinking or writing or talking about it.

The afternoon, after the rain cleared, was lovely hiking weather, and since I packed in a shelter and camp in a shelter, my gear is completely dry.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Kent, Connecticut, to Mount Algo Lean-to

1.8 miles

A single white blaze, preserved and framed, in Kent
I camped in town last night, camped for a second time in someone’s backyard.  I ate breakfast by myself at the diner bar like a truck driver.  I walked to the grocery store in bright sun in my black long underwear like it was normal, appalled by the prices in New England yuppiedom.  I bought more camp food than I probably need—and not enough snacks—and carried it back to my backpack and tent and repacked.

My idea for today was to do a mile out of town, camp at the first shelter, to spend the afternoon chilling out and reading, eating a sandwich I bought in town, but when I got there someone was already there.  A 20-year-old blonde girl who’d already been camped at the shelter for a week, waiting for a visit and a new backpack.  She was thru-hiking too, from Delaware Water Gap to Katahdin, theoretically, in white jeans and with a Cabela’s pack and a pink Walmart tent.  Hiking really does take all kinds, and it’s interesting to see how far different kinds of people can get with various kinds of gear.

So my plan for a lovely solo afternoon was foiled.  As much as I enjoy meeting all of these people, I had envisioned more alone time.  I’m beginning to think that for alone time I’d need the Continental Divide Trail, or Baxter State Park in winter.  Solitude is always more challenging than I think it is—both to find and to keep.

At dusk, three more hikers pulled in, another group of three twenty-year-old girls, these ones bedecked in ultralight gear, with tiny backpacks and going at a bruising pace, a long section but not a thru-hike.  Again, they’re racing to Katahdin—21 miles today and seventeen, including a town stop, planned for tomorrow.  It was cool that, for the night, it was an all-female shelter, and cooler still that the fact was not particularly remarkable.  But still, I find myself craving those golden sunlit afternoons, alone in nature, that I was looking for.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Stewart Hollow Brook Lean-to to Kent, Connecticut

7.2 miles

Backpack along trail

A good day.  Even in old thru-hiking times when I could do a short day into town but still kill some miles and get things accomplished in town, it was a good day.  In trail parlance these are "near-0s," close to being "zeros," days with zero mileage accomplished.  And I hiked up some mountains and down, despite still feeling ashamed of my pace compared to the blistering one of a thru-hiker.

Even though my express purpose is chilling out in the woods, I feel shame for holing up and writing in a shelter.  Today I leisurely paced my way down the mountain and met some other thru-hikers (Snickers and Taco) on their way out from town, overburdened with junk food.  They told me to camp in town behind a church that collaborates with a business, providing hikers cold showers and a place to tent.

In town, I met more hikers:  Draggin and Pops—two more Gamers—and Flower Child, a girl who'd gone south on the trail and was now going north, a drifter who'd lived in Hawaii and the Florida Keys.  We ate together and camped together and talked about the lure of the trail—how it draws you in and holds you captive while torturing you.  Why do I love it so much when it is so painful?

The two Gamers, too, complained about going too slow, starting on February 1 and having everyone pass them.  I said:  what's the rush?  You have till October 15.  I feel like I say this to everyone.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Pine Swamp Brook to Stewart Hollow Brook Lean-to

11.0 miles

Sewing up my backpack--my body is not the only thing eleven years older

I got a late start this morning, dawdling in the shelter, repairing my backpack, which is ripping out more every day in the places I sweat most.  (Big County hiked with this pack from Harpers Ferry to Katahdin, and I hiked with it on the PCT and Pinhoti, so it’s seen better days and a lot of trail miles.)  I found a pair of work gloves discarded along the trail yesterday and it felt a gift—replacement fabric.  So I sewed and wrote the morning away, even knowing I had at least six pointless up-and-downs to make it over, thinking I’m in trail shape enough for a piddly ten-mile-day.  Not so.

I’m suffering through shin splints.  A thru-hiker named Brother Louie helpfully informed me:  it’s because your calf muscles are too weak.  Thanks, sir.  Not much I can do about that now, other than continuing to climb the pointless mountains.

So it was a hard day that was supposed to be an easy day—the worst kind.  IN the middle was a river with its crossing wiped out that required a ford.  The Appalachian Mountain Club “strongly recommended” the high-water route.  I hate fords, especially alone without hiking poles, and the trail into the ravine went straight down.  So I took the alternate route and ended up with a brutal asphalt mile-long road walk, in burning sun with luxury SUVs whipping by me at the speed of sound.

Do I hate road walks more than I hate fords?  Maybe so.  I limped up the hill back into the blessed woods, and then limped the last flat two miles along the gorgeous Housatonic River, as the light faded and blue heron alit.  It was another of these days when I wanted to rest, wanted to dip my feet in the golden water, and didn’t have time, had to make miles to the lean-to.  I hobbled in right at dark, the other hikers already in their bags or with tarps pitched.  Camped with two flippers (Shadow) and a Nobo (Bullet) with a 20+ day planned for tomorrow.  Big surprise.

[Hiking the same section in 2004.]

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Falls Village, Connecticut, to Pine Swamp Brook Lean-to

9.0 miles

Mountain laurel, 2015
Tonight I am camping with two flip-floppers from Harpers Ferry (Blood Blister and Pack) and a section hiker finishing off his thru-hike (Vermont Visitor), who got off at Bear Mountain in New York in 1985.  I've been meeting a lot of flip-floppers lately, starting in Harpers Ferry and at other points along the trail, heading to Maine.  I've also been meeting people finishing off abandoned thru-hikes—they got off in New York, or Pennsylvania, or Massachusetts, and they're here to complete.  It seems fun and I am envious, to some degree, of the push to Katahdin.

It also seems an entirely different thing than a single-season "through" hike, hiking through, end to end, from Georgia to Maine. I feel like I can spot the Georgia-to-Mainers, or Gamers [GA->ME], as I've started calling them.  Their packs are dirtier, their gear lighter, the glint in their eyes crazier.  I don't judge the flip-floppers—hike your own hike—but they're still in their first quarter, shaking down gear, finding their legs.

Passing me on the trail, I can tell the Gamers because they're relieved when I don't ask them where they started, or what their trail name is.  I nod and say, have a good hike.  They move past at their three-mile-an-hour pace, covering in one day what took me three.  If someone stops to talk, it's undoubtedly a section hiker, or flipper, or someone finishing off a thru-hike from a couple of years back.

I like camping with flippers, though.  Pack, an older gentleman hiking with an external farm pack, put it best:  it makes me feel resentment, he said.  Speaking of the mega-milers who blow past, as the rest of us (me) suffer through ten-mile days, footsore and weary.  I keep trying to remember, again, as cliched as it is:  hike your own hike.  Even them—maybe it's as hard for them to go slow as it'd be for me to go fast.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Bearded Woods Hostel to Falls Village, Connecticut

8.2 miles

Torpedo-shaped serenity, in 2015

I'm at the Falls Village Inn, where Big County and I ordered pizza and night-hiked past the shelter so many moons ago.  I love sitting here with my well-poured pint, remembering those nights eleven years ago, being the dirty hiker writing at the classy Connecticut taproom, waiting for my bacon cheeseburger with grilled onions.  I came into this town precisely for this experience, remembering the dim lighting of this room, exactly the same as in 2004.  It's a challenge being a single woman hiking, and maybe never more so than when coming into a town and ordering a beer, sporting my hairy legs amid the white-dressed silver-haired ladies.

Nevertheless, I love everything about this experience.  Camping behind the Toymaker's Cafe with no bathroom, by myself, in the gravel even.  One thing I'd conveniently forgotten about the trail is how crowded it is.  Aside from my first night camping, it's the first time I've camped alone.  After a short day hiking in beautiful Connecticut hills, crossing the dammed Housatonic and its falls, I was able to spend a sunlit afternoon alone, catching up on my reading and writing in some stranger's backyard.

I love the torpedo-like serenity of being caged into my little mesh one-person tent, even here in the middle of town.  Being able to zip myself in is like wearing a shroud, or an invisibility cloak.  In many ways, spending an afternoon alone in the sun is easier here, in a stranger's backyard, than in normal life.

Why is that?  Couldn't I just pitch my tent in Maine or Massachusetts?  It is the beauty of being a the stranger come to town, beyond suspicion, anonymous by virtue of my impermanence, come to eat a burger and leave.

[Hiking the same section in 2004.]

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Brassie Brook Lean-to to Bearded Woods Hostel

5.8 miles

At the White Hart Inn, 11 years later--civilization and beer!

The view from above the White Hart Inn in 2004

Tonight I share the hostel with several thru-hikers:  Giuseppe, on his third thru-hike in so many years, Brother Louie, Luke Trailwalker—still a teenager, and Lonely, an impressive flip-flipper who started southbound from Harpers Ferry to Georgia and has now flipped north.  He camped in the snow below zero, hiking Virginia in March, which is really impressive.  And Hudson, the hostel owner, also an ex-thru-hiker.

I hesitate to speak ill of a hostel and I don’t, because Bearded Woods is really nice, but what I am remembering now of my 2004 thru-hike is the collective drama of assembled hikers, the badmouthing of hikers up and down the trail, of hostel owners in other states, the recitation of gear weight and accumulated mileage.  I love these hikers and the trail but at the same time, again, I want to shake them.  I know I did it too, back in my day, but I believe thru-hikers can miss the trail entirely.  This discussion of two 26-mile days and you’ll make it to Vermont.  How many 20s before the next town, as if the woods in between were irrelevant, a mere hurdle to be leaped over.

What’s the point of hiking at all?  Why not road-walk or marathon or use a treadmill to go 2200 miles?  If one is always going to put in earphones, and move at a four-mile-an-hour pace and barely blink at a vista?  I’d like to believe that the magic of the trail penetrates even the numbest of skulls, but I am skeptical.  It seems that the goal is just another feather in a cap, that mileage becomes a competition, another pissing contest.

I’m remembering what I loved about this trail but also what I hated, how compared to other trails I have hiked it is crowded, a booming metropolis of voices outshouting each other.  I went to the woods to live deliberately, said Thoreau.  Do these people even know who Thoreau is?

I came to the woods to be alone.  And still I am surrounded by people, as lovely, as annoying as people anywhere.  As Friedrich Nietzsche said:  “In loneliness, the lonely one eats himself; in a crowd, the many eat him. Now choose.”

[Hiking the same section in 2004.]

Monday, June 08, 2015

Glen Brook to Brassie Brook Lean-to

9.3 miles

Rock at the Massachusetts border, atop which Big County sat in 2004 (2015)

And here he is, sitting on the rock in 2004

This morning I stayed by myself at the shelter till eleven.  The thru-hiker I camped with left at 5:30, so I had the whole chilly morning to myself for sleeping then reading then random camping tasks—sewing up my hiking shorts, trimming my toenails.  It was the kind of Appalachian Trail morning—a vista of mountains, a running brook in front—that I’d dreamed of before starting.  The wonder is that I hiked at all.

But I did, thinking of eight easy miles to the next shelter.  They were not easy.  In the register someone compared this Massachusetts ridge line to a mini-New Hampshire, and I thought they were exaggerating but they were not.  Clambering up and down seemingly impossible rock massifs, sliding down on my butt, going backwards using all four limbs.

It’s days like today I realized why this particular trail is legendary, why it deserves its reputation, why it’s a test of endurance in its relentlessness.  I love it and I hate it all at once.  I love that I can never take it for granted, that eight miles is never easy.  I hate how painful it is, the excruciating shin splints I am developing from ramming into hard granite.

I slid into camp right at dark, with rain beginning to fall, two people already asleep in their bags.  I made Thai ramen in the rain, spilling some when my too-flimsy aluminum windbreak collapsed, retreating to the shelter to wait and eat in the dark.  But even sliding into my bag, cold and sweaty and exhausted and in pain, I was so happy.  This is really living;  why I am here.

[Hiking the same section in 2004.]

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Tom Leonard to Glen Brook Lean-to

14.6 miles

Yes, hiking makes me happy!  (2015)

Our gang of slackpacking thru-hikers from 2004--click here to read about this same section during my thru-hike

I am at a shelter tonight with just one other thru-hiker, Lorax, a Nobo going crazy fast.  I’m proud of my fourteen miles—I wasn’t sure I’d make it—but it’s still weird to be in a position to dispense advice from my experience.  Mainly I just want to shake all of these north bounders.  You’re missing the trail! I want to say.

I know it won’t make a difference.  Youth is wasted on the young, and a thru-hike is wasted on the thru-hiker.  And then it isn’t, too.  I know it wouldn’t have made a difference to me either, when I thru-hiked, if some veteran had shaken me.  I would have still hiked town stop to town stop, deli sandwich to deli sandwich.

Maybe it’s the only way to survive it.  But it’s weird how I came out here to be in the woods, to revisit the trail, and all the thru-hikers want to do is get away from it.  Race to the next road crossing, the next town stop.  I passed by both a town and a grill, .3 off of the trail, today—I’d have never done either as a thru-hiker.

But it was a glorious day of hiking.  A sun-drenched morning across the top of the mountain, and then down into the valley for six miles of relatively flat pasture walking in bright sun.  Lunch on a bridge crossing a stream, and then a brutal three-mile climb at the end of the day, fueled by a root beer from a trail angel whose daughter is thru-hiking in Virginia.  And then the shelter:  never soon enough but always too soon.  And now I sleep, and do it all again tomorrow.

[Hiking the same section in 2004.]

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Mount Wilcox South Shelter to Tom Leonard Lean-to

5.6 miles

Thru-hikers with empty pile of 72 beers, and smartphone, 2015

I passed this lake today and remembered this moment in 2004--wanted to get another shot here but a girl and her dog had the boulder occupied.

It’s weird doing five-mile days and crossing paths with these fast-moving front-of-the-pack four-monther Nobos, for whom 26 miles a day is normal and eighteen is slow.  I was never one of them, not even in 2004.  I was an eight-monther, and twenty miles a day was always brutal.  Still, even though I cam out intending to do slow, single-digit days, it still feels weird coming in first to the shelter with only five miles under my belt.

I remember the pressure, all of a sudden:  miles, miles, miles.  Feed the mile monster!  The relentlessness of the trail, how it requires not just a single twenty-mile day, but many, many of them.  It’s the trail’s beauty, its austerity, its terror—and as happy as I am to be away from any kind of hiking deadline, I’m also confused by it.  It seems to be just as much of a rat race for many people, and that’s a sad thing.

But why is it so hard to convince myself to let go and relax?  I passed a beautiful sunlit rock, on a beaver pond, and I had to actively convince myself to sit down and bask.  I’m here to recuperate from a gruesome winter, to find myself again, and still I struggle just to let go, relax into the slow-mile days.  But the hiking itself is lovely, and less painful today than yesterday.

Tonight the shelter is crowded with weekenders—three couples plus a friend, three Nobos (including Hermit), keeping to themselves and going to bed early, three flip-floppers plus a guest out for a week (Naptime, Smoke Signal, and Still Thinking), and two ex-thru-hikers, like me, but from ’07.  (The ex-thru-hikers, M&M and Poots, also met on the trail!)  [Flip-flopping is hiking the northern half of the trail, from Harpers Ferry to Katahdin, first, and then “flipping” back to Harpers Ferry to complete the rest of the trail southbound.]  Seventeen people at one shelter is crowded.  But it’s also great, and it feels like a family reunion—we may not know each other, but we know the trail, our common mother.  And all of us, the weekending couple that hiked .9 from the road in jeans and the from-Georgia thru-hiker that did a twenty today, all of us are here, the important thing.

[Hiking the same section in 2004.]

Friday, June 05, 2015

Shaker Campsite to Mount Wilcox South Shelter

7.4 miles

First morning selfie, 2015 (Guess bedface looks remarkably like plastic-surgery face.  Who knew.)

Big County in 2004
Came into a shelter tonight where three northbound thru-hikers (Cake Boss, Eddy, and Mojo) were doing the 24 challenge:  24 beers and 24 miles in 24 hours.  Except they’d given up on the 24 miles after the first five beers.  Big surprise there.  I guess the new thing with Nobos (north bounders) is challenges—tomorrow they’re going into town to do the McDonald’s challenge—one of everything on the dollar menu.

I guess the more things change the more they stay the same.  Thru-hikers getting drunk at shelters never goes out of style.  I feel weird because I’m so old and far out of the game—but in some ways I know more than these people.  I already made it to Katahdin.  Who knows if they will.

In unrelated fauna news, I believe I heard two owls making love last night.  One woke me up, calling loudly and repeatedly over my tent.  After what felt like an interminable time, another answered.  Then came what can only be described as monkey sounds, as made by an owl, harried and rushed.  Then silence.

Today I remembered the reality of the trail, that really it is about pain tolerance.  Endurance o pain.  I know I’m just warming up, but it’s a good thing to remember.  And still I enjoy it:  why is something fun if one chooses it, but torture if one doesn’t?

[Hiking from Mount Wilcox South in 2004.]

Thursday, June 04, 2015

US20 to Shaker Campsite

11.9 miles

The first stream of the trail, 2015

Big County and I at Upper Goose cabin the first time around (I'm posting old photographs and links from when I was hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2004)
So I begin.  I can’t decide if I want to take it easy or not.  My goal was about eight-mile days, but there are exigencies on the trail, and the first decent campsite was more than eleven miles in.  So maybe tomorrow will be one of my slow sitting-in-the-sun days.  Already I remember that feeling of always wanting to push, to keep going—one more mile, one more shelter.

Nevertheless, today I saw:  two red salamanders on the trail.  Heard an owl hoot and then saw it flutter to a farther branch.  Walked miles I remembered—bog bridges laid in bright sun over swampy Massachusetts land—and miles I didn’t.

The trail has welcomed me in like a home, completely absorbed me so already I feel disappeared inside of her.  i could just keep going—no one would know where I was inside this great green tunnel and it seems no one should care.  I’m pleased by my choices.  I passed at least eight north bounders and I’m happy to be going south.  I won’t get caught up in trail gossip and drama, nor will I have to spend all day leapfrogging people.

Instead, I can be the mysterious black-clad stranger, passing with a smile, camping alone, hiking alone.  I’m camped alone tonight.  It’s the first time in years, the first time backpacking alone in at least a decade.  It feels strange:  oddly comforting and terrifying all at once.

[A link to my post from hiking the same section in 2004.]

Marching forth again

I am going hiking.  I have this sneaking-out-the-door feeling, as I did when I left on March 4, 2004, and I posted my first trail journal entry, nervous and self-flagellating.  To announce one's plans too early is to jinx them, to let them out of the protective circle of one's own intention, and that means that people can crap all over your parade.  So I keep things quiet, hold them inside, stoking my own inner fire.

I may go camping and hiking for much of the summer.  I've been needing it, a vacation for the soul, hermitage, solitude, trees.  So the Appalachian Trail calls me again, for all of these reasons, and I want to go.  I want to walk.  Unlike last time, though, when I was a 26-year-old marathoner, my body feels weak and feeble, my joints aching.

I am not sure this is a good idea at all.  But I know the only way to know if one can do something is by doing it, and I am doing it.  I don't know for how long--for as long as my body lasts.  I'm bringing enough food to feed an army, and that way I can take my time, do four-mile days, spend sunny afternoons at vistas, hike shelter to shelter.

In related news, we are thinking of putting the boat in the water next season and going back to Maine in the interim, once I'm back, if I come back.  This is a difficult thing for me to admit, or even contemplate.  I want to finish things, follow through, and I find this difficult process of waiting, of living day-to-day with things uncertain, unresolved--almost impossible.  Maybe that's why I'm leaving, to walk, to follow blazes, where the course is predetermined, the route already set.