AT: Day 1 on the Appalachian Trail

Eager to start our journey, we hopped out of our bunk beds after a short night of sleep. We gathered around a big table with other hikers and devoured our last breakfast before heading into the woods. After nervously filling our bellies with French toast, eggs, and oatmeal, we bought gas canisters for our stoves and dragged our packs out onto the porch with the other hikers. As we waited to leave for the trail, Ais & I started dying laughing at how much bigger our packs were compared to the others sitting on the porch. Clearly, we had missed the memo on how to pack light. As we crammed the last of our belongings into our overstretched bursting bags. it occurred to me that we might become the female versions of Bill Bryson & his friend Katz, throwing our belongings and donuts off the side of the mountain.

Soon after carrying (dragging) my overstuffed burrito of a pack, ten of us crammed into a van and followed the windy road up to the start of the Appalachian Trail. After a couple stops along the way to let two hikers throw up on the side of the road, we arrived at a parking lot where we were promptly greeted by a man named Mountain Squid. He let us store our packs behind a sign so that we could quickly hike up to the top of Springer Mountain (the official start of the Appalachian trail for northbound hikers). Feeling light on our feet, we made it to the top of Springer in just 20 minutes. Buzzing with excitement we took pictures & videos next to the AT sign. There was a rock with metal drawer and inside of it was the first trail register we would sign. We all confidently wrote “see you in Maine!” while chomping on Starbursts given to us by a hiker from Scotland. We then each picked up a small rock to bring with us on our journey for the big cairn on top of Katahdin in Maine (the end point of the Appalachian Trail). At the time it didn’t seem strange to lug a rock from the top of one mountain, 2,181 miles up the eastern seaboard to place on top of another mountain, but we also found it perfectly normal that a man named Mountain Squid lived in a parking lot in Georgia & was at the moment watching over all of our worldly belongings for the next 6 months. Our commonsense was a little lacking at the time, which would prove itself to be true over and over again throughout our journey.

We hiked nine miles through the Georgia woods for our first day & made it to Hawk Mountain Shelter. It was a beautiful wooden shelter with two floors. The three of us claimed the top floor and after unrolling our sleeping bags & digging our stoves & food out of our packs, we joined the other hikers at the picnic table in front of the shelter. We were introduced to 8 other hikers: Spring, Half-Man, Tuna, Samsquach, Snowflake, Big Bear, a nameless hiker, and a 70 year-old man with long gray hair pulled back in a pony tail named Tequila Joe. Tequila Joe was a man of few words and looked like he had seen some shit in his day.

Dinner was a comedic event; we were all trying to figure out how the gear that we had overly bragged about to our non-hiker friends back home, even worked. I had Spring crying laughing as I read the instructions from my stove manual outloud, fidgeting with the nozzles, befuddled as to why it wasn’t working like the REI salesman had demonstrated. After a meal of Uncle Ben’s instant rice & time around Tequila Joe’s fire where we talked about trail names & the hiking to come, we crawled into bed drawing our first night on the AT to an end.

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Changes

I didn’t expect so many changes, so many BIG changes, but within the last year, everything in my life changed. Back in August 2016, I casually applied for a job in Colorado at the suggestion of a friend, not expecting anything to actually come of it. Much to my surprise (and everyone else’s), within three weeks I was packing up all of my worldly belongings, cramming them into my car, and driving cross-country with my boyfriend, heading west to begin my new life.

I don’t think I truly comprehended what was in store for me. I was riding the high of a new job, a new city, and an escape from complacency. Another job wanted me! It was exciting. They told me I was their number 1 choice out of 276 candidates. How could I turn that down? I was their number 1! So what if I lived in New York City with my best friend, a mile from my boyfriend, had a great job and a ton of friends and cool things to do? Denver was calling my name!

It was exciting. It was unexpected. It was scary.

The road trip from NYC to Denver was a lot of fun, and eye-opening in some ways. We sped along 80-W, passing small towns, cornfields, wind turbines, and big barns with Trump/Pence banners. We discussed politics, sang along to pop songs, ate fast food tacos, and laughed a little too hard every time we passed a Swift semi truck and yelled out “Trailer Swift!”. We got sucked into Serial season 1, so much so that we found ourselves lost on the south side of Chicago (when did we even get off the highway??). We visited my friends & family along the way – watched a replay of the Cavs parade in Cleveland, discovered that asking for 2 eggs means 4 eggs at a diner in Iowa, and ran around the backyard playing Ninja Turtles with my 3-year-old nephew in Omaha.

It was such a fun adventure, and I was feeling optimistic and hopeful of what this new life would bring.

When we got to Denver, we got a storage unit for my stuff, looked at a few apartments, and hit a few restaurants with my cousins. Then, all too soon, it was time for James to go back to his life in NYC. It’s what we had decided, that I would try this out, he would hold down the fort in the city, and we would visit each other every month. After a tearful goodbye, I drove back to the hotel and started to realize the enormity of what I was undertaking.

Starting over in a new city by yourself is HARD. You’re forced to step outside your comfort zone all the time, and really put an effort into everything you do. Year 1 was one of the most difficult years of my life. I felt pretty alone and lost a lot of the time. It didn’t help that I was working 10 hour days at night, and sometimes had to work on-call over the weekends too. I found myself keeping a mental list of all the things I was missing in New York, and drowning in misery & self-pity. Being in a long distance relationship on top of that made things seem unbearable.

It seemed like I wouldn’t get through it, but I did. I survived Year One.

It had its highs & lows for sure. I went snowboarding & hiking. I met new people & explored new dive bars. I re-joined the driving population & re-discovered my passion for singing my heart out in the car. I climbed up sand dunes in Alamosa. I learned that even though I had climbed Kilimanjaro 8 months earlier, I wasn’t immune to the altitude in Denver, which had my heart racing and body begging for water.

I went on walks on my work break and instead of seeing tourists & homeless people, I found myself face to face with coyotes & watched hawks try to scoop up baby bunnies. Instead of filling with stress at the idea of missing the next subway train as I rushed towards the station, I filled with stress about beating the garbage truck down the alley of my apartment building, in fear of getting boxed in & being late for work. I learned the value of a friendship & have held my friendships even closer and dearer to my heart.

It’s taken me a year, but I finally learned how hard you have to work at happiness. There’s an Elizabeth Gilbert quote that I’ve always loved: “Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it.” This rings so true in my heart now as I navigate the waters of a new and unfamiliar life.

It’s been a long strange road, but I’m finally starting to feel like me again. The joy is slowly coming back to my life, and my heart can’t help but flutter at the sight of those beautiful Rocky Mountains in the distance. It’s still hard at times, but things are starting to look up.

I’ve got a good feeling about Year Two.

AT: Barber Shop Adventures & the Hiker Hostel

Bleary-eyed, I stepped off the plane at Atlanta International Airport & looked around with slight hopes of finding a friendly face in the blur of quick-moving travelers to help settle my nerves. My stomach had dropped so low from my uncertainty and uneasiness that it was now swishing around by my ankles.

Big adventure, woooo-weeee! Boy, was I tired.

The day had had a rough start, including one last $500 bill & an angry message from my super for leaving my mattress on the sidewalk on a “non-big objects day”, which had left a sour taste in my mouth.

“Note to self,” I thought. “Leave big objects in front of other buildings.”

One last Big Apple injustice to propel me with open arms towards my 6 month stint of a much simpler life in the woods.

My train of thought was broken immediately as I spotted Avery waiting for me by the gate. We screamed and ran towards each other, jumping around with glee. Seeing her helped jumpstart my excitement as we recounted our nightmare tales to each other of our last minute packing freak outs. Buzzing with palpable nervous energy, we walked through the maze of concourses, plotting the rest of our afternoon before Aislinn arrived.

Avery wanted to start the trek with a bald head & take pictures every day of it slowly growing back for an art project. A flash of panic washed over me, before I realized that I was not required to partake in the same creative endeavor. We grabbed bagels & our monster packs, and navigated our way onto the MARTA subway line.

With no real idea of where we were going, we randomly got off at the College Park stop, figuring that that sounded as good & as “real Atlanta” as any other stop. We went into the first barber shop we stumbled upon and were met with a look of wonderment & genuine confusion from the barber, as Avery explained her desire for a shiny bald head. The barber, filled with excitement about having his first white female customer, refused to shave her head, explaining to us that it wouldn’t be very good business for him if someone saw a bald girl exit his shop. Instead, he gave her quite the business-in-the-front, party-in-the-back mullet haircut. Not at all what she had been hoping for, but her smile did not betray her as we thanked the man for his service & stories and headed on our way.

On our way back to the airport, we stopped at the post office so I could send a few things home. I was already abandoning random items in a desperate attempt to shed pack weight once I saw how much larger my pack was than Avery’s. As I packed the box, I smiled, picturing Bill Bryson’s faithful hiking partner, Katz, throwing donuts & other objects off the cliffside in A Walk in the Woods. While that was a tempting solution to my likely future problem, I applauded myself for recognizing that it would:

(1.) be a waste of money to throw good clothes & pans off a mountain

And that, more importantly,

(2.) with the current state my pack was in, I had my doubts that I would even be able to make it up to a cliff from which I could throw my belongings.

Looking back now, it makes me laugh to think about how much I pondered every little decision the first couple weeks of the trip. If only I had known how many Katz-like situations I would end up getting myself into before the journey was through.

Oh well, I was I about to find out.

We made it back to the airport in time to greet a very hungover Aislinn. We shared what we thought would be our last real world meal for a long time before heading into a temporary life of instant mashed potatoes & instant rice. Aislinn & Avery got soup in bread bowls & I dove into a basket of Wendy’s chicken fingers & fries. The grease, mixed with my nerves, helped my stomach make the final slide down from my ankles to my toes, filling my entire body with stress & agita.

After dinner and a brief struggle with our monster packs, Avery & I navigated our way back to the MARTA subway, boasting to Aislinn of our newfound knowledge of Atlanta’s public transportation system & barber shop banter. She was not very impressed.

An hour on the subway gave me an ample amount of time to craft what I thought was the most perfect and brilliant status message for Facebook:

going for a walk. back in 6 months.

How cool & nonchalant was I?!

We got off at the North Springs stop where a man from the Hiker Hostel in Dahlonega, GA picked us up and drove us to our shelter for the night. The hostel, filled with excited hikers, was bumping when we pulled in at 9:30pm. It was a beautiful building with high oak beams, big common spaces, and bunk rooms. Most of the hikers hung out in the basement watching movies while Aislinn & I commandeered the living room to unpack & repack one more time.

Two hours later, Aislinn & I were sitting on the floor with our clothes and gear strewn all around us, frantically holding up objects in each others faces and asking panicked questions “Did you bring this?!” “What IS this?!” “Do I even need this?!” “Do you have this?!”. Our shared stress & hysteria made us laugh so hard we cried as we gave into the fact that we were in over our heads.

“Guys?”

We turned from our mess towards the small voice to find Avery standing behind us, clutching a disposable Bic razor with a look of distress on her face. Her mullet was now gone, replaced by alternating uneven tufts of hair and big bald craters with little dots of blood. Our mouths fell open, causing Avery’s eyes to widen as she nervously laughed and explained “I really wanted to start the hike with a bald head. Can you help me shave it?”

The three of us spent the next couple hours huddled in front of a bathroom mirror in the Hiker Hostel, while Ais & I went through 5 or 6 razors, Bic-ing Avery’s head.

Strangely, this event was the comedic break we needed and within 15 minutes of resuming our packing, we had finished and made our way into our bunk room, desperate for a few cherished hours of sleep. I climbed into the creaky top bunk & stared in the darkness at the ceiling, while the snores of a man below me, named Buffalo Bobby, enveloped my ears.

What a weird adventure this was already proving to be.

AT: Big Adventure, Bigger Pack.

Eventually, I was able to finish organizing my food boxes & flew back to New York to finish tying up loose ends. I packed all of my belongings into large cardboard boxes & shipped it all up to my parent’s house in Maine, a delivery which I’m sure they were thrilled to receive. I looked around my mostly empty Harlem bedroom and suddenly wished that I owned a pair of roller-skates so that I could take full advantage of the open space with hardwood floors, momentarily forgetting the tiny detail that I didn’t actually know how to roller skate. It was irrelevant thoughts like this that made me one heck of a procrastinator that night.

I laid out all of my gear and spent forever packing my brand-new Gregory 65 L pack. 1 pair of shorts, 2 shirts, 3 pairs of underwear, 2 sports bras, 2 pairs of hiking socks, 1 pair of rain pants, 1 pair of long johns, 1 long-sleeved shift, 1 fleece, 1 rain jacket, 1 baseball hat, 1 snow hat, 1 pair of sunglasses, 1 pair of crocs, 1 pair of hiking boots, 2 water bottles, a toothbrush, a journal, a headlamp, a hardcore police flashlight with a beveled end guaranteed to take out bears & serial killers, and maybe 30 pounds of food. Why I thought I needed that much food, I’ll never know. I gazed at my stuff lovingly, silently cursing myself for being such a great supporter of Eastern Mountain Sports. Unfortunately, although my gear was laid out quite nicely on my bed, that did not transfer at all to laying quite nicely in my pack. I shoved everything into every pocket, constantly packing & re-packing, yet always failing to fit at least 2 items into my bag. Finally, after forcefully stepping into my pack, smashing most of my food down with my foot, and hanging plastic bags of items on the outside of my bag, it all “fit”.

The next morning, it was time to head to the airport to get the adventure started!

Thankfully, I had the privacy of my room to shield my roommates from the true horror & embarrassment of me struggling to put my pack on my back. Sure, I was an experienced camper and knew that you should first lift your pack onto your knee, put an arm through the strap and carefully swing it around onto your back, I knew that. Communicating that to my muscles, however, was an entirely different thing. What the heck did I have in here? All of that stuff didn’t look that heavy laying on my bed. When I finally got my pack on, I immediately stumbled sideways and crashed into the wall. My eyes shot up at the door. Still closed, thankfully. I weeble-wobbled over to the mirror hanging on the door, and took in the sight. Hmm. Girl with a dripping nose, nasty cough, bags under her eyes, slightly off balanced sway, and shaky hands. Oh yes! So ready for this adventure. “You can do this,” I said to myself with a hint of doubt.

I swung open my door, slapped a probably way too over-eager expression on my face, & walked into the living room to say goodbye to my friends. One of my roommates slowly surveilled the scene, his eyes widening a little at the load on my back. “Are you sure you can carry that? Do you need help?”

“Oh no, I’m good!” I said. “It looks like a lot, but it’s actually not that heavy.”

Such a big lie for someone who was clearly about to fall into the wall at any moment. My roommates were amazing & sweet though and pretended not to notice. After saying my goodbyes, wiping my teary eyes, and taking in one last long look at the apartment I had lived in for 3 years, I stepped out the door, took a deep breath, and walked a couple blocks to hail a cab.

The adventure was beginning!

My heart pounded and jumped up & down with glee & terror as we zipped along the highway heading towards LaGuardia Airport. I stared out the window at the concrete jungle slowly slipping into the distance. Finally, after forcing myself to turn away from my former home, my eyes fell upon the monstrosity next to me, that was technically, now, my current home.

Yikes.

“Now, I just have to figure out how to lift this damn pack out of the cab without falling into traffic, and I’m home free,” I thought. I settled back into the seat and closed my tired eyes as my heart continued to pound.

Atlanta, Georgia, here I come.

AT: The uncertainty

Leading up to the trail, there was a lot of preparation to be done. Our duo had been upped to 3 once we found out that our friend Avery from Wyonegonic would also be making the big trek north. Swirls of emails were shot back and forth, excitedly talking about schedules, food, mail drops, campsites, and gear. Ais and Avery were excellent planners with spreadsheets galore insuring that our adventure would go off without a hitch. Me being the “let’s live in the moment/it will all work out/laissez-faire” personality I proudly claimed to be, had absolutely nothing prepared. I sat with college friends at bars throwing back beers and excitedly talking about our plans without ever actually thinking to get organized for the trip.

Fast forward to a few nights before our journey began, and I was in trouble. I flew home to Maine to pack up my belongings and prepare boxes of food for my parents to send me throughout my 6 month walk. Unfortunately, right before I went home I had picked up the worst virus I’ve ever had and was sick as a dog. Though I was barely functioning, I managed a trip to the grocery store where I packed a cart full of instant rice, powdered mashed potatoes, tuna packets, oatmeal, Clif bars, and other delectable must-have camping goodies that were to surely make me sick by the end of the 3rd week on the trail.

I hobbled up to the checkout line with my supplies, coughing, sneezing, dripping, and oozing with crazy bloodshot eyes looking more like a little troll that had escaped from under a bridge, than someone setting out for an adventure of a lifetime. I sputtered loudly at the site of the checkout lady’s raised eyebrows: “I’m hiking the AT!” while wiping drips of who knows what from my eyes and mouth. The lady, who was clearly disturbed and disgusted by my presence, not-so-discreetly covered her mouth and glanced away murmuring “oh?” to which I eagerly nodded, trying my hardest to convey my enthusiasm, in between wheezing and choking on mucus.

When I finally made it home, I laid out all of my supplies on the dining room table and lined up cardboard boxes on the floor. Hours later, armed with a blanket over my shoulders, a hood over my head, and a pile of tissues by my side, I grimaced in concentration trying to carefully measure out cups of flour and baking powder, silently cursing myself for claiming that I would be “the Julia Childs of the trail”. I dragged myself back and forth from the stove with cups of tea, my hair and clothes spattered in flour, wiping snot off my face while my parents stared in horror. My mom sweetly suggested I wait to fly to Georgia until after I was feeling better, to which I managed to screech in between coughs “I’m fine!” at a decibel only meant for canines.

At 10pm, the dining room was still in disarray, and with 16 cups of tea sloshing around in my belly, I was doing no better. My dad, who rarely stays up past 8pm, stood with his hands on his hips and with an edge of impatience in his voice asked “What can I do to help?” I looked up from the piles of food, toilet paper, and dirty Kleenex. Tears streaked down my face from the nonstop coughing. I was crouching over bags and spices, and for the first time made myself sit up, exhale, and take a look at the site around me. I looked back up at him.

I was feeling so many things at that moment. The heaviness of how I had quit my job. The excitement of seeing two of my best friends and going on a grand adventure. The reality that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing or getting myself into. The uncertainty of what it would be like. The terror of letting myself and my friends down if I failed to finish the hike. And the overall aching and pounding in my head from my cold. It all sat like an anvil on my shoulders. I looked up at him, my childhood protector. I could tell him all of it. Tell him how sick I felt, how unsure I was, how much I was freaking out. He would understand.

But instead, I wiped my face for the 50 millionth time that day and said “oh, I’m actually almost done!” He uneasily scanned the mess in the room, shrugged his shoulders, said ”alright well goodnight! I’ll see you in the morning” and turned on his heels to head up to bed. My smile faded as I looked back down at the giant mess laid out before me. What the hell was I doing?

It took me 4 more hours to finish packing that night.

AT: Beginning the AT story – a work in progress

I’ve been writing on and off in my spare time, mostly while I’m commuting to and from work. I’ve been dreaming of sharing my story about my Appalachian Trail adventure, but too often wait for those sudden moments of inspiration, get distracted, and fail to compile my random notes into chapters of a book I so desperately want to write. I’ve decided I have to STOP WAITING for these moments of enlightenment and JUST DO IT. So, this morning, I wrote a chapter on my trip. A chapter I actually find quite funny. As I was going to post it though, it felt strange to me to tell my tale out of order and I’m not sure why. So, I’m making myself go back, read my journal entries, and try to tell the whole story of the Appalachian Trail. It is a wild story, but in order to get to the wild parts, I need to cover some of the boring ones. Please bear with me as I navigate my way through old memories, and play around with writing styles and grammar. (The AP book was not my most favorite companion in high school). My hope is that in a year, I’ll have put together some sort of acceptable representation of my journey, that I can then fine-tune, and harass everyone I know to read. Until then, enjoy (or feel free to ignore), my Work in Progress.

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Growing up, I spent every summer in Denmark, Maine at a rustic all girls camp called Wyonegonic. Swimming, canoeing, climbing trees, windsurfing, acting in camp plays, pulling camp pranks, singing at the top of my lungs during meals, staying up all night laughing with friends, these were the things I would dream of during the winter. The reasons I’d count down the days until my dad hoisted my trunk into the backseat of the car, ready to begin our 14 hour drive from Ohio to Maine.

Wyonegonic was a lot of things to me. It was home; it was family; it was a rustic paradise. There, at Wyo, I fell in love with hiking. The challenge of it. The adventure of it. The idea of following a path, and that path taking you through valleys and over mountains, past beautiful streams and waterfalls, showing you sites you might never see, showing you beauty that no picture or postcard could ever do justice. I love it. I love the sounds, I love the smells. I love the sweat pouring down my face and arms. I love the excitement of reaching the top of the treeline – the promise of spectacular views just ahead, so close you would sprint the rest of the way to the top if you could. I love how the mountain teases you, how you think you’re near the top when really you’ve just found yourself climbing a false peak, with the true mountain behind it. I love the companionship. I love the solitude. I love the simplicity. I love the challenge. I love it all. Camp gave me a fire for exploration, and the counselors, the people I looked up to and wanted to model my life after, gave me the fuel.

One summer, two former Wyonegonic campers and current AT thru-hikers came to stay at camp for a few days. During their stay, they gave a presentation about their AT thru-hike. They showed picture after picture of mountains they had climbed, friends they had made, and answered question after question that we all were falling out of our seats frantically waving our hands to ask. I remember sitting next to my best friend, Aislinn, and the two of us looking at each other with excitement and determination, promising each other that, we, would some day do that same trip together.

For years, we talked about our future AT trip. “We’re going to do it after high school.” “We’re going to do it a summer in between college years.” We’re going to do it after college.” She’d be ready to do it, I wouldn’t. I’d be ready to do it, she wouldn’t. The timing just never seemed right. I’d day dream about the trip, but time was getting away from us, and for awhile I had given up hope of us ever truly setting off to do it. The real world had sucked me in and while I was having a great time, the plan to hike the AT was always poking its head out of the ‘Coulda Woulda Shoulda’ box in my mind.

One day, out of nowhere, Aislinn texted me and said ‘We’re doing the AT this year. I need to do it.’ I quickly wrote back “Me too. In, 100%.” It turned out that we were both going through particularly hard times, but didn’t know it because we only talked with each other a few times a year. Those 2 texts changed my life. They set into motion one of the greatest adventures I’ve ever had.

It had been settled. We were going to hike the Appalachian Trail.

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