Currently, in a little town in the south-west part of Virginia named Damascus, there is an amazing event going on. A party for hikers, by hikers, about hikers.
I am not there.
It’s a hard thing – not being somewhere you want to be. It’s even harder knowing you could have made something happen that you wanted to, but didn’t. But part of growing up is realizing that just because you want something doesn’t mean it’s good for you to do.
So I’m not at Trail Days, with a bunch of other 2013 AT Hikers that I know. I was not there when they showed Seven’s documentary and my short on Thursday night.
Nor does it look like I’ll be getting on the PCT in 2015.
I don’t think that reality fully sank in until I wrote it down there.
Why not? Maybe I’m growing up a little bit. I’ve got a new job that has me tied to a contract for a year, pays well and has good benefits. It lets me meet new people, be flexible and travel some, all while letting me pay off the bills and debts. Maybe if I play things right, I can knock my debt off a lot faster than I thought I was going to. It also is a job that might let me come back and work somewhere else in the nation after my next adventure in a few years. Just not next year.
I mentioned something Chevy, a 2011 AT Thru-Hiker had said to months ago – “Some people never leave the trail.” They are walking to find something, or walking away from other things. Sometimes it’s because they don’t know anything different, they understand hiking and the people and culture. It’s the only place they feel right about. I can understand that entirely. When I sit in the cubeland during my current gig I find it hard to relate to my coworkers, I just want to stand up and scream – punch a window out to feel real air, not the same recycled air-conditioning. But I can’t – it wouldn’t get my anywhere. I know I don’t belong here, and as much as I miss the hiking and the people, I don’t belong back there yet either.
There are people I know on the PCT right now and there are people I know at Trail Days right now who I’m jealous of, whom I’d trade places with in a heartbeat. But I also know that I’m not ready to go back to that life yet – physically definetly, and probably mentally too. I learned many things about myself last year, and about those I love. But I have to work at making that person who hiked the person I am back here at home.
That is my greatest challenge. Not money, not love, not injury. But my own self.
So instead I’ll follow their adventures. Just like others followed mine. I’ll support them, just like others have supported me.
Because even though I’m not with them, my brothers and sisters, My Family, are still out there.
And you do everything you can for the family you choose.
Alternatively – Trilogy Time
For those of you who watch How I Met Your Mother (Alternatively – the LONGEST, most drawn out story you should never tell your kids) there is a running gag regarding the gang watching the Star Wars Trilogy every three years and making predictions about the future in the process.
As a dedicated Star Wars fan, geek, nerd etc this idea holds appeal to me. Because lets face it – who doesn’t dream about what their life would look like in a perfect world three years from now. Not that I need an excuse to watch the Trilogy – as Damselfly once found out, I can recite Star Wars by heart… God I’m kind of a nerd aren’t I! Hooray for nerdiness!
Really though this train of thought – the “what will my life look like in three years” started over the weekend I shared with some old friends. I had gone to a friends house for a night of partying and was with people I’ve known for forever, and some I hadn’t seen in quite awhile.
Once we were all young and stupid
Among old friends, new friends and forgotten memories, I ran into an ex-girlfriend of mine.
I hadn’t talked to her since we broke up in 2011. Rather – since I broke up with her, shattered her heart and then moved on to other things.
Ok I promise this won’t be a mope-fest of introspection this evening. Morning I guess rather.
But seeing her made me start thinking. Where do I want my future to be in three years? This was a woman who I was in a relationship with for almost three years, lived with for more than a year and she at least, saw me as someone whom she could settle down with.
Fast forward three years from my breakup with her and I’m ready to consider settling down, thought I had found someone I was in love with and even considered marrying. Whuf. There’s a scary thing to say aloud. I was ready to marry someone 6 months ago. What’s different now compared to then? Where do I see myself in three more years, watching the Star Wars Trilogy?
I’m not sure. That’s an even scarier answer.
We all have moments, crises of faith. We wonder where our direction will take us. For me, three years ago I really started to realize my dream of a long-distance hike. I gave up a lot of things to follow that dream – I left a lot of people I love and care about behind to wander for more than a year. I’ve come home from all of that and now I wonder what I’ll be doing next.
One of the biggest deciding factors to everything is money. The high holy dollar bill. I need a job that not only pays the bills, but puts away a little more. Those jobs are hard to come by these days it seems – As of Wednesday I have sent out 172 cover letters in the year of 2014. I shaved my beard off so I’d look like a better candidiate.
Seriously. I shaved my beard. But still no job.
The job market sucks. There are plenty of cookie cutter college grads just like me out there all waiting for a chance to prove themselves. Nothing is owed to me – but I’d like a chance to prove that I’m worth something. Because I know I am – I hiked quite a ways to prove it to myself.
But what are my bigger ambitions? What goes beyond money? I want something that makes sense to me – maybe a career is part of that. Maybe a family is part of that. Just being a part of something again is important I think. Maybe that’s another long-distance hike. Maybe it’s falling in love again. I talked to an Army recruiter a few days ago – maybe joining the Army is the answer. Maybe I should take the plunge and vagabond my way through Europe.
Things don’t magically get better overnight – they take work and time and energy. I’m willing to do that – spend the effort, but I have to know what direction I’m aiming at.
So I’m going to sleep now thinking of a direction. Maybe not planning it out, but at least setting a compass point to follow. Waving my hands and saying “that-a-way” to the distance.
I’ll be charting my new directions while smelling the pine tree forests of New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine in my dreams.
Music has always been a big part of my life, and was one of my favorite things on the Appalachian Trail. I sang aloud often, joined in campfire sing-a-longs and made it an everyday occurrence.
March is Music in the Schools month. I learned to play my first instrument, the violin thanks to my school’s music program. It exposed me to music I’d never really heard before, introduced me to people I’d never met that could reach through hundreds of years to touch me in my mind and in my heart. As I grew my tastes may have changed, but my respect and love for music and the artists who create it never has dimmed.
So for March I’m going to be listening to an album a day. An album I’ve never listened to before. An album others think is important, good music from all genres. An album that may have changed someone else’s life at some point, or saved them for themselves. The album I feel is a dying art – we live in a world of singles now and the whole story seems forgotten most days. So I’m going to listen to it from start to finish.
So I’d like to ask for YOUR help dear readers. I’d like you to suggest an album for me to listen to during these 31 days. An album you love from an artist who you enjoy. An album that may mean something special to you – maybe it was the one you had on in your car when you kissed that special person for the first time. Maybe it was the one you didn’t take off the record player for 3 days when it was the darkest point in your life. Maybe it’s the seminal work from your favorite band. I want you to tell me to listen to that album.
You can email me the album name and artist, or leave it here in the comments. You can even tell me why you are recomending it, or what your story of that album is. If you really want to, you can even write me a short bit detailing it – I’ll put it up here. Because every album I listen to, everyday, I’m going to talk a little bit about it.
Because music opens up a window to your soul
I talked about Damselfly awhile ago in and earlier post but left her story unfinished because it’s one that shows Damselfly’s other amazing characteristics: not just smart, funny and happy – but a drive to finish.
A drive to finish against all odds and any obstacles she faced.
When she was coming out of Hanover, NH Damselfly slipped on some lose pine needles, or perhaps a small rock. It doesn’t really matter what it was exactly that she slipped, it only matters when happened when she hit the ground.
She twisted her ankle. Badly. It swelled up. Bruised. Turned odd colors. It was probably more than a strain or a twist. It was at the very least – slightly broken.
Her ankle was busted. Her hike was probably over.
Damselfly was able to limp back to town, slowly with help from other hikers. She rested some, iced it a little and took anti-inflamatory medication. She waited. When I saw her she had fallen three days before hand, and her ankle was still swollen to the size of a grapefruit.
How big is that you ask? Well if you don’t have a grapefruit handy, go find yourself a softball. About that size. Perhaps wrap both hands around your ankle – that might be equivalent, but not quite. It was bad to look at too beyond the swelling – it was yellow and purple and blue – all those disgusting colors you get from bruises as they try valiantly to heal.
“Oh I’m going to hike out of here tomorrow I think” Said Damselfly, casually as if it was no big deal.
“On that? On the ankle that can’t support any weight, that you’re hobbling on and can’t carry a pack with?”
“Sure – I’m going to slackpack, no problem. It’ll help it to heal.” For those who don’t know, a slackpack is when you don’t carry your full pack and instead leave it with someone else who will pick you up at the end of the day.
You couldn’t tell Damselfly no. You couldn’t make her see reason that if she walked on her busted ankle, she might damage it forever. She might not be able to have it heal properly without surgery perhaps. She was determined she was going to get to Katahdin on her own power one way or another.
So she did. She hiked out of town and got a few miles and then had to get picked up because her ankle hurt too much. So she took another two days off. Then tried again. She got a few more miles out – then had to get picked up again. Her friend Splash stayed with her for a lot of it, making sure she got through safely. She was doing it. Slowly but surely.
It took her a lot longer than she wanted. She had to hitch a little to get there. She spent a little more money than she thought she would and had to sacrifice things along the way to get there. But she got there.
I saw Damselfly again in Monson, Maine, the last town stop before the 100 Mile Wilderness and Katahdin. She was doing some work for stay at the Lake Shore House, and the owner Rebecca was taking care of her (Stop there hikers! It’s the best place in town!) and trying to make sure she stayed off her ankle. I talked with her a little there. Her ankle wasn’t swollen as much, she could put weight on it again. She wasn’t anywhere near 100% – hell she probably wasn’t 60% – but she was leaving soon and was going to walk as much as she could to get to Katahdin. She was going to finish under her own power. Stubborn lady that she is, she knew she had to.
And she did. Damselfly summited Katahdin on October 15, 2013. She walked up there all by herself.
I talked with her a month or so later. It’s always good to talk to your hiker friends – you love them all so dearly. Family.
“You guys were my summit date…. you were my heart-group”
Long distance hikers get so invested in our trail. Our walk. We meet people who become family – better than family even. These are the people you choose to be with in a way that few others ever can understand. Sometimes things happen that makes the people you care about suffer. They fall and bust an ankle, maybe they run out of money and have to go home. Perhaps they just get tired and can’t deal with it anymore. Whatever the reason, when they leave you, you cry a little for them – because they are gone.
When people ask me for stories about truly inspirational people that I’ve met on the trail, Damselfly’s story is the one I use most often.
“Who the hell is so stubborn that they finish a hike like that on a busted ankle, limping the whole way? Why would they put themselves through all that pain? Just to prove something?”
I always say “No. She wasn’t out to prove something, she wasn’t stubborn like you’re thinking. She was in love, and that love let her finish. She loved something so dearly that it hurt too badly to even think about getting off.”
And that is Damselfly. Intelligent. Witty. Happy. Bubbly. Beautiful. Stubborn.
With the trail and all it’s people.
I met City Slicker on my 4th day on trail in 2012.
“I remember meeting you, you had that massive 50 pound pack and you had a 20 degree bag in the middle of July in Maine. You. Were. An. Idiot.”
I was. I knew it – what I thought I had known about the AT wasn’t anything like what it really was. I had thought that the camping experience I had would prepare me for what I was doing, where I was going. So very wrong.
City Slicker was hiking north to Katahdin with a young man named Figs. They were meeting Fig’s grandfather at the end so they could climb together, in three days. They were going to push 3 back to back 25 mile days – which is a challenge in Maine. We had all gotten to the shelter at the same time, right as night was falling. I was amazed as the unpacked their food – fig newtons, jerky, Oreos and two lipton sides apiece. A an easy 1200 calorie meal, and they both were still hungry afterwards.
I stood in awe of them, and listened to their casual and practiced chatter as they ate and did their camp chores. I learned that City Slicker was going to ping-pong and head south from Hanover in a few weeks, just so he could keep hiking. They told me about where to stop in NH – Chet’s place was penciled into my guide book, and Rob Bird’s number for Dalton Mass was added. Important thing – like you have to be at the door of On The Edge Farm in VT if you want a fresh pie. The important things. And the next morning, they hiked out with a nod and twinkle in their eyes- they were almost done.
Skip forward a bit, some weeks passed and my pack got lighter, my days got longer and I thought I knew more about the trail. I did a fast 14 miles into the RPH shelter in NY for an early day, because a huge front was moving in and I had heard you could order pizza at the shelter.
I wander in and there is a thin man there, long beard and sporting a fresh mohawk not unlike my own, which I had gotten at Rob Bird’s hostel, the Birdcage. I said a hello and snagged the shelter log.
“Oh City Slicker has been here. Man I was hoping to catch up to him.”
“Really? Why is that?”
“Oh I met him back in Maine when he was going north, and I was just starting. He had said he was going to yo-yo back down to Springer, and he seemed pretty cool.”
“Well you’re in luck – because that’s who I am!”
I hadn’t even recognized him. He remembered me though – and he had never expected to see me again. “Tough bastard to make it all the way down here.”
We hiked together for awhile – he told me all kinds of stories from the trail and his home of Boston. He’d been hiking for almost 10 years on the AT, and been constantly on trail for the last 4 or so. In the winter he used to go out to Colorado and ski, but he had decided this year to just hike through the winter. Just because.
I saw City Slicker again in 2013 at Trail Days, and then again at Harpers Ferry. He hiked together for a bit again we talked. He called me through the winter when I was off trail, and again when I finished this year. His advice helped me pull through the end of the relationship I was in, and helped keep things in perspective.
But the real treat was when he called me last night.
“I did the math for 2013 – I ended up with 4,153.4 miles this year.”
So if you hike in 2014 – you’ll see City Slicker out there. He’ll head north and then south – because he can. And when you do see him, tell him that Dr. Spice says hello, and loves him dearly. And then ask him where the next good bar is – because he knows every single inch of the trail. And he’s a wonderful human being for it.
If nothing else, one day you can look someone straight in the eyes and say “But I lived through it. And it made me who I am today.”
― Iain Thomas
At this time of year, we are all in the habit of looking at where we’ve come from in the past year, what growth we’ve made. We ponder what the new year will bring, and make promises to ourselves about what will do to improve ourselves.
For myself, 2013 was a roller coaster ride. I went from depressed and longing, to utter happiness and accomplishment, then back to being morose. I started the year in my eyes as a failure and ended as a winner when it came to hiking.
Highlights of the year 2013
- Walked 2185.7 miles
- Met some amazing people
- Saw sights I never had before
- Made discoveries about myself, and the person I am
- Feel in love
- Was cheated on
- Made a grand romantic gesture, sans boombox
- Started playing music again
- Accomplished what I set out to do
Everything on that list, baring one, were things I did. I had ups and downs, good times and bad. I followed my dreams and was rewarded. I was also punished for decisions I made along the way.
In the end though, after 365 days I’m older and a little wiser. I’ve accepted the fact that my parents know what they’re talking about, and mom is usually right. I should follow my dreams and make plans for the future, budget and commit to things. I should let people know how I feel, and especially tell the people that I care for that I love them.
I don’t know what the new year will bring. I can’t look into the future like that, though sometimes I wish I could. All that really is for sure is that you can’t change what has happened, nor can you forget the things in the past. Embrace them. Accept them. Make them part of who you are. Take the things that hurt, the people that you miss and use those good memories of them to plug the holes in your heart and soul.
The things that hurt you in the past year have made you stronger – I know that because we’re still here.
I hope the coming year brings joy and happiness. It limits your sorrows and dulls your pain. May we all heal a little in the year 2014.
Thank you for reading.
“Oh look at this one! It’s a (long sounding latin name I still never remember.)”
I heard about Damselfly long before I ever met her.
“Did you hear about the new chick that got on the Trail in Harper’s Ferry? She’s pretty hot! Smart too! She’s hiking with Uncle Buck!”
“I thought you said she was smart. Why is she hiking with Uncle Buck….”
When I met Damselfly it was really in passing into Duncannon PA. I had made it to town for the Billville hiker feed and a weekend of fun and zero days. She was stopping in town for 1 day to meet up with her step-dad, who wanted to hike with her for a week or two. He was leaving his car at the Doyle.
I don’t even remember what really sparked the conversation, but I’m pretty sure it had something to do with her gear, and how it looked heavy from where I was, drunk and leaning out of the second floor fire escape door.
“No worries! Shakedown in 3 minutes or less guaranteed to lighten you by 5 pounds or an ice cream novelty!”
Her step-dad had all manner of interesting heavy things. His pack was… heavy. More than a little heavy. Possibly very. He had a solid core air mattress that weighed more than my shelter and all my sleeping gear.
Damselfly was a little better off, and she lost a few things there that helped. I tried to convince them to stay another day and enjoy the hikers and the festivities. But she wanted to hike. She wanted to hike a lot.
It was the first person in awhile I had found who was still eager everyday to get up and hike. Maybe it was because she still had fresh legs, she didn’t know what the score was, or how monotonous it had gotten. Or how PA sucked.
She was happy to be there. It was like being in Georgia all over again. For her it was.
I told her I’d catch up to her in a few days. When I did it was 100 degrees, awful bugs and terrible terrain. He step-dad had gotten off the trail already and was headed home.
But you couldn’t keep Damselfly down. Even through all the awfulness of PA when I hiked with her, she was smiling and happy. She never expressed a moment of true despair or negativity. Sure she bitched a bit about the rocks, heat and bugs – but the whole time she did it she was smiling. Happy to be out in the world, in the woods and not at her old job or in school anymore. She was alive and unstressed.
It was like watching a bird fly for the first time. Beautiful.
Damselfly got her name because she’s an entomologist. She’s a bug person. A really really smart bug person. She knew the names of everything that was around – and even gave me the official latin name for the “no-see-ums” and biting gnats that plagued us in PA. Of course I don’t remember what they were, but she knew them. I remember camping with her one night and she knew all sorts of things about the fireflies that came out to play.
Sometimes you hike with someone who has good stories to tell. Someone who provides humor or life lessons through their tales. Other times your find people who have such a vast knowledge and intelligence on a subject(s) that you are awed by them. Others have the positive, always sunny attitudes that just lift your day.
Damselfly was all of that. Every single day I ever spent near her was a good one. She made the day better – instilled knowledge and positive feelings and love with every step and word, despite the pain she had and was dealing with. It left me in awe of her mental and physical fortitude. It made me a little jealous.
I knew she’d get to the end.
She’s a good person to be around. She’s one I miss quite a bit.
One thing I have a lot of from this trip is video. Moments that I was able to save. They tell only snippets of what happened, but sometimes when you string them together, they tell more of a story then you ever thought.
So this is an attempt at a story. Just like these writings are trying to tell a story. I hope you enjoy it
The other night an old friend of mine called me up and demanded I drag myself out of the hole I’m living in and come to her place for dinner. She’s known me for years, dated me once upon a time, and is one of those people who knows everything about me. During my Soouthbound AT Hike she drove 4 hours to come see me in PA. Changed her schedule for me, bought me all the lunch I could eat and then tossed in some groceries too.
One hell of a lady
When AT Thru Hikers get home we usually have a hard time reconnecting, reintegrating. We are detached from the people we knew before at home, because we’ve done something so different from anything most of them have ever experienced that it can become hard to relate. We isolate ourselves often, because the people we’ve come back to just don’t get it, are so focused on their little slice of the world that we don’t understand anymore. Think of it like this – why would a hiker who has lived the last 6 months out of a 60 liter pack care about buying more stuff. The new car, that expensive pair of shoes, the big screen tv – we don’t really care about these things anymore.
The closest thing I’ve come across to long distance hikers and those like them are returning vets. They get it. (No, I’m not comparing the trials both have faced as alike – the isolation is the same though)
So when it was demanded that I leave my house to hang out with her, and a few other people I went. It’s good sometimes to leave your comfort and go be uncomfortable – especially when you know it’ll do you some good.
Sometime during the evening we got on the topic of girlfriends, love interests and partners. Like with any other group of friends, we like to know what the others are all into – “But is the sex good?” is a generally accepted question in my circle of friends. When one of the guys said he hadn’t asked the girl he’d been pining over for a bit out, I kinda lost it a little.
“If I can drag myself out of my depression and the hole I’m living in, to come out and see you, eat tacos, get lotto tickets and snag depression ice cream cones, you can ask a girl out!”
Later when I’d gotten home I realized something – it was the first night since I’d been back where I didn’t feel the sharp knife of loss when I was with people. I wasn’t thinking “Man, I wish Roadkill was here, she would have loved that joke.” Instead I was just thinking of me.
Beyond that though, I wasn’t longing for my trail friends and family when I was with other people. I was okay with where I was in that moment, fully there and not with half of my head in the mountains somewhere.
Hikers become so close to their tramily (trail + family) – we share everything with the people we’re with. There are perhaps 3 people in the “real” world who know everything about me, but with my trail family, they know everything. You hike long enough with someone, you tell everything and learn all. Keeping a secret while hiking with someone is to me, impossible.
The people who become your tramily are people you like – who you chose to be with and stay around. They get you, and you get them. You don’t always agree – hell sometimes you bicker all day long, but they are yours. And you are theirs. It’s strong bond of love, and when you don’t have them anymore you long for them to be there. It’s a tragedy that we’re all so far apart usually.
Even when I was in my relationship on the trail, in love with a wonderful girl, I still missed my tramily. I wasn’t with them a lot when I was with her, because she had a different hiking speed, and a different desire of things to see and do. I had made a decision that she was important to me, and as a result I missed time with my tramily. I don’t regret that, even with the way things ended up with her, but I do miss the times with the tramily.
When people ask me what the best part of the Appalachian Trail was, I say without hesitation – “The people I met and the friends I made who became my family.”