When I read things like this, it makes me reevaluate what I want to do again. I think about the Trail everyday. Things will happen and I’ll flashback to a moment. I’ll smell something and remember an instant. Everyday.
I think about the Trail every single day.
It changed me – and I’m not sure if that change makes me fit for normal society anymore.
When I read of new hikers who are coming to grips of the realities of the trail for the first time I think about how we have a tendency to build things up. Put things on a pedestal.
I once heard a story from Baltimore Jack. Of rain that lasted for forever. Grown men would wake up hearing the same sounds that had put them to sleep. The constant drumming of rain on the tin roof. It brought them to tears when they looked outside and saw the grey clouds and constant water cascading from the skies. He said it was one of the wettest springs on the AT – and he saw more people break from the rain than he’d ever seen before. People just gave up and went home.
I can understand that. I sympathize – there are few things worse then getting up for the fourth or fifth day in a row, putting on wet and cold socks with the utmost trepidation. “If I pull them on slowly, they’ll warm up a little more than if I pull them on quick and shock my feet.” Hearing the squelch of water as you shove your feet into your shoes. Packing your things up haphazardly – it doesn’t really matter anymore, everything is at least damp already. The rain jacket has as much moisture in it on the inside as it does the outside, why bother putting it on. You’ve stopped trying to avoid the puddles and small lakes that form on the AT because the whole trail has turned into a river.
You think you’ll never be dry again. I know how it feels. I’ve been there.
It’s odd because looking back now I recognize the same feelings of despair in that scenario of rain that I had with depression. Trapped. Drowning. Overwhelmed. Too tired to care anymore. How do you keep going when it’s like that.
I think some people are just built a little differently. No matter how depressed they get, how awful the situation gets they keep going. I’ve heard some call it “dogged determination.” People have called me stubborn. It’s been described as a coping mechanism, or protective trait. Some call it strength or mettle. But whatever you want to call it – these people just keep going.
They don’t lie down and die, and they don’t seem to ever quit. And when they do quit it’s because they are literally so run down, so ragged that they just don’t have the energy anymore.
I once read a psychology theory that postulated we can all endure only so much. Our capacity for suffering, for the negatives in our life are like a glass for water. It’s only so large. The more things we have going against us, the more water fills that glass. We can only handle so much before it all spills over. You can make your glass bigger by doing positive things, having good friends to share the load or have coping strategies. But there is always a finite amount you can take. Eventually you reach that.
The people who broke down and cried on the 5th day of rain had just reached their limit. Their glass was full. That was all.
What’s the take away from all of this? I’m not really sure honestly- lord knows I rambled on in this post, but I wonder if there really is an answer. On one hand, we’ve gout our dreams, and we want to pursue and accomplish them. But we should always be realistic of the moment, of the adversity facing us. So what should we do? I don’t know. It’s something you’ll have to make up your mind about yourself. I follow this simple advice.
Don’t ever quit until you’ve been completely and fully miserable for 48 hours. Then give it another 24 hours of staying someplace with a TV and Ac/Heat. If you’re still miserable – then you can quit. Because it’s not something you can fix with pizza, Chinese food and beer. And if you can’t fix it with those things, you may be well and truly screwed.
I had a long discussion this evening with SingleGirlHiking about the Great Eastern Trail (GET), a 1600 mile long trail from Alabama to New York.
The pull is great. It is strong.
I justified it in my mind as well. The flu study I’m in the running for would pay for 4 months of hiking without any problem. I could be the third person ever to hike the GET on foot (no yellow blazing, no skipping for this one…). I could escape again to the wilderness and walk. Be free and whole again.
It’s a strong feeling. Being whole like that again.
I’ve felt good about myself before. In college I felt like I belonged, felt loved and accepted. I was loved and accepted, with many friends. They felt like family.
But out on a trail, I feel Whole. It’s hard to explain. Everyday I felt born again, every person I met never questioned who I was, or what I was doing. There wasn’t judgement on how I lived my life. My actions spoke for who I was, and nothing more.
I romanticize the Trail life quite a bit. I know I do. I remember how terrible the climb down the White’s was when I almost died. How it never stopped raining in the south for days. The feeling of dampness and wet that never went away no matter how much sun you got. The hunger and disgust when you had nothing but chicken ramen to eat that night. The pain of a 25 mile day.
But I have never felt more alive. More complete. More myself than I did out there. I had purpose and drive and love. Love for the people around me, the trees that grew over me and the smell of dirt and pines.
I can smell that freedom now when I close my eyes. I may be physically sitting in a basement in Virginia, but when I close my eyes I am in Maine or Tennese. Vermont or North Carolina. New Hampshire. I smell the pines, feel the dirt, pine needles below my feet. Feel the wind whistle around me and carry the scents of the forest while it tugs on my hair. It is as real to me in my dreams as it is to someone standing there.
Because I’m still standing there in those places. They never leave me. Even when I’m sitting in a basement in Virginia, crying a silent tear. Because of where I am, instead of where I am meant to be.
Sometimes you need a little extra push to make it.
There’s no shame in that. We all need a little help, sometimes more than a little. Help can come in all different forms, shapes and sizes. You may not even realize it’s help until far after the fact. But however it comes and finds you, it helps you to keep on going.
Ron Haven, of Franklin, NC Budget Inn fame gave a little help at the PA/NJ border. He’d given material help down in NC, shuttling us all around town to the grocery store and buffet in his mini bus from the motel. He told stories and gave advice, made us laugh and helped us to remember to be happy – that while this was difficult it wasn’t something that had to make you miserable.
So when I saw his business card slid into the visitors map at Delaware Water Gap’s Sunfish Pond, he reminded me that even people we met only briefly were still thinking of us, pulling for us to finish. We had never left his thoughts. We were his friends and he was happy for us.
Why do some people keep going when other get stuck in a rut or are unable to complete? The AT is full of this question – some people get off after 10, 20 or 40 miles. Others make it to 500 and leave. More still find themselves close to the end and remove themselves from the Trail. Few actually finish.
Sometimes it’s not a question of want or desire to complete something – there are things that can stop one from finishing far beyond your control. A girl I knew in TN/NC (actually we stayed in the Budget Inn together…) named Genie made it to Damascus and found she had stress fractures in her Tibia. She tried to rest it for two weeks and came back, only to have it fully fracture and took her off the Trail. She had done 1000 miles of the AT as a section in 2011 and was determined to finish. She’s going back out there again this year.
But for most, the decision to leave is a mental one. The reasons are as varied as the people who leave. Some are tired, angry, sick or just plain exhausted. Some built the journey up to something it wasn’t and now upon realizing the truth can’t handle it. Others found what they were looking for and decided that was enough.
The people who stay though, who keep going always have that nagging thought in the back of their head. “I’m here by choice. I could go home anytime.” What stops them from going home?
Some are just stubborn people.
Like everyone else out on the AT, Ron Haven had his quirks and stories. Stories were that he was a former wrestler turned businessman turned county commissioner. Perhaps he was just a guy who owned a motel and learned that the hikers needed help – and started helping. Maybe he really was Jack Black’s second cousin. His history didn’t really matter to us – what mattered was he was there. And like everyone I met onthe AT, Ron Haven made a bigger impact in the small amount of time I was near him then most people in my “real world” back home.
So keep going friends. When you feel as if the world is too much, the miles are weighing you down, just keep going. Left foot. Right foot.
Because any day out here is a better day then one in the office.
One of the biggest things that new hikers on the Appalachian Trail are worried about is their trail names. A trail name is how you identify yourself to other hikers – it’s a pseudonym that will follow you around forever and have stories attached to it. So naturally, everyone wants a cool name and some are tempted to give themselves one.
I say this out of love – don’t give yourself a trail name. It’s not who YOU are on the trail, it’s who you THINK you’re going to be on the trail. Those are two very different people. In fact, they are such wildly different people that you’ll sometimes wonder who that other person is.
I can think of a handful of people who have given themselves trail names before they got on the trail who actually embodied their trail names, and that had more to do with who they were as a person than anything.
Plus, you want a great story to go along with your trail name right? You don’t want to have to give the answer “oh, well it sounded cool so I picked it.” No! You want an awesome story, like Talker has!
Talker’s name relates back to his hike, and the person who he is. Imagine if he’d chosen a name before hand, like “Strider”. It wouldn’t have reflected the man who he was – a sleep talking, hilarious young man.
My name relates back to my first hike and the spices I was carrying in a novel way. Little Spoon’s relates back to his off-hand comment about how he “sometimes like to be the little spoon in bed”. Chuckles got hers because you could hear her laugh for miles, and she was always laughing. Snakebite got bit by that snake and Fire Eater went after the bacon in the fire. It’s who they were, are.
I know you’re anxious about trail names. I know you want something cool. Don’t take the easy way out – wait for it. It’ll be awesome. If you do get one you’re not comfortable with, you don’t have to take it. You can say “no, I’m not okay with that name” if it’s something that disturbs you or puts you off – that’s fine.
But artifically creating a name for yourself, when you don’t know who you’re going to be? I would advise against it. Especially not Strider. Because every time I meet a “Strider” I make it my goal in life to rename them.
Strider became Slider this year. Strider became Hatchet. Strider became Slowpoke. Strider became Nap Time.
So wait for your name. Have adventures. Do silly things. Carry silly things. You’ll get an awesome name. Promise.
When it comes to gear, long distance backpackers will talk for hours upon hours. We love all aspects of gear, and love seeing what others are carrying and why. It’s important for us, because we use it everyday.
So now that everyone has taken all the extra stuff out of their pack, lets put some things in that they’ll want for various reasons.
- Extra zip-lock bags. You can never have enough of these (especially the larger ones) and they weigh nothing. Use them for food storage, waterproofing electronics and maps, putting books or clothes into – even a pillow or waterproof booties over your socks when you’ve got wet shoes. There are few things zip-lock doesn’t solve.
- Make sure your headlamp has a red or green light on it. You don’t want to be “that guy/girl” in the shelter at night waking everyone up to go pee. Plus, red lights are a much lower power and draw less battery, making your headlamp last longer. It’s much easier to read with that red light at night without disturbing EVERYONE ELSE. If you don’t have a red light on your already purchased headlamp, some colored cellophane and a pair of binder clips can work. There are also very low cost red light only lights that are sold as clip ons, or aftermarket cheap lenses that snap one. But seriously – don’t be “that person” in the shelter.
- Watches are a controversial thing out on the trail, but I find they come in handy. There will be a few times when you’ll want to get up early to see a sunrise, or you have to leave in order to get to a post office before closing. Sure you could turn your phone on to check – but why waste that batter power? Snag yourself a cheap waterproof watch. Get a kids one if you can – they are always more colorful and fun.
- Pen or pencil. In fact bring two. There are some shelter logs where the pens are dead or have wandered off, and you’ll want to leave an entry. Shelter logs are one of the best things about the AT – you get to hear from people you’ve never met and you’ll learn to love them from their entries. The pen is also helpful if you want to leave a note along the trail for someone behind you – you’re going into town and are staying at XYZ hotel. So use an old guidebook page that you’ve already walked over, write a note on that, put it in a zip-lock (you ARE carrying extras right?) if it’s raining and head to town.
- Needle and thread. Or needle and dental floss. I prefer the later, but it’s up to you. You’ll need to sew something back together guaranteed, whether it’s your pants that blew out in the knee, the shirt that got ripped from a low hanging branch, or an attempt to make your shoes go just a few more miles to town before they die a terrible terrible death. Needle and thread will help.
- A good eating utensil. This is one of these things that for some reason people decide that they have to have “ultralight” which baffles me. This is a piece of equipment that you’ll use everyday, takes a lot of abuse and is pretty important. Get a metal one and don’t look back. The number of plastic/lexan ones I saw broken out on the trail was staggering. I think the $15 I spent in Delaware Water Gap getting a titanium spoon/fork was the best purchase ever.
- Multiple USB outlet plug. There is nothing worse than jockeying for outlets because everyone has their stuff plugged in. If you’re part of the growing number of hikers with more than one thing to charge, get yourself a plug that has more than one socket to it. If you have two things to charge in town (phone and say, steripen) then get a dual plug wall charger. Get a small square one if possible, so you’ll be able to fit it in anywhere. Long cords also help – the weight is negligible.
- Sunscreen for the first two weeks. You never would think you’d burn in early April, but you will. The leaves aren’t out on the trees yet, but you’re hiking enough that you’ll be in short sleeves. and you’re exposed. You. Will. Burn. So bring along a small sunscreen and use it. If you ignore this warning, be prepared to buy the smallest thing of aloe that have (usually 8-12 ozs). Which sounds like a better use of weight?
- You don’t need a big knife or a multitool. Seriously, when are you going to use that screwdriver? All you need is one blade. I got by with a 2 inch blade that cost me $3. Plastic handle. Simple.
- Bring an extra lighter or a small book of matches and keep them dry. When it rains and you spring a leak and your lighter gets wet, there is nothing worse than trying to dry that flint out. Or sometimes your lighter will walk away. It happens. Bring a backup.
- I like athletic tape over duct tape when it comes to wounds/first aid. Peeling duct tape off your body is pretty terrible – athletic tape flexes better and I find it doesn’t rub badly when wet. A little athletic tape (the cloth kind) is cheap and light. Consider it for blisters.
- Bug headnet. Mail it ahead to yourself for PA. You’ll want it there, and by the time you get to a place that sells them in PA, they’ll be sold out
- Bring the camp shoes. You’re probably on the fence about them because you’ve heard so many different things… But the truth is you’ll want them the first day it rains. Why? Because your shoes/boot will be soaked and you want to put dry socks on. But then.. you’ve got to go to the bathroom at 3am. Shove your clean fresh dry socks into wet shoes? NO. Camp shoes! Worth the weight!
- Extra candy. Seriously. You’ll want it. Chocolate. Hard candy. Bring the sugar! Put it in your morning coffee if you drink that, your complete breakfast powder or your protein shake. It’ll help with the flavor.
Fun things. I can’t stress this one enough. You’re going out on an adventure and you should enjoy yourself. By that I mean you want to have good memories, and you want to be a good memory to others.
What do I mean by that exactly?
The people you’ll remember far longer than others are the ones that stand out. Carry interesting and fun things – things that aren’t necessarily useful. I can still remember each and every person who carried silly things.
Things I’ve seen on the trail include: Kites. Pinatas. Wiffle ball bats (with returning wiffle ball). Foam swords. Real swords. Crazy hats. Water guns. Flasks of alcohol. Whole bottles of alcohol. Musical instruments. Plastic figures and toys (dinosaurs, alligators, birds, bears). A platoon of Green Army Men. Bricks. 2 pound mushroom paper-weights. Etch-a-sketches. Crayons. Paints. Chalk.
I could go on and on with this list. But bring fun things. Bring something that makes you stand out in the crowd. Don’t afraid to be a little crazy. You’re out in the woods already!
And don’t forget your sense of adventure!
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.
Life never was the same. And everyday I’ve been thankful for that fact.
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
I had a story about a hiker named Talker awhile ago. When we were in Lincoln, NH and Spoon and Chuckles’s family put a feed on for us (all organic, all local spaghetti dinner!) which was delicious. In the process, we heard lots of stories. One of them, was about slap bets Talker had lost.
People who haven’t hiked a long distance trail like the Appalachian Trail always talk about mileage, pack weight or weather. Those who have finished a long distance trail, they all talk about the people and the experiences they had with them. People make the journey.
These are trail people. They understand you, and you understand them. They get it – all of it. Sometimes it feels like they can read your mind. You live with them everyday and share everything.
Even on the bad days, a day with your trail family is magical.