Hello again. I have more pictures of winter skies. A lot of them, actually, although I’ve really tried to cull it down to some number that seems reasonable to impose on you and your kind attention here.
As has become our tradition, we saw in the new year at the beach. It was a pretty classically fantastic winter beach weekend, with moody dawns and brilliant dusks and a few spots of blinding blue in between. The waves crashed non-stop for three days, the kind of roaring and breaking that vibrates through your whole body and glues you to a spot in the sand, staring, absorbed by the ceaseless rhythm of it all until suddenly you are scrambling to keep your feet dry and looking around sheepishly to see who might be witnessing your high-stepping.
Going into the weekend, the turning of the calendar didn’t feel much like an event that needed marking this year. I had several big transitions in the last few months, and did my share of reflecting on what they meant to me, on our journeys and lessons and gratitudes for 2018. But it turns out that there’s always room for more reflection, or at least there was this time. So I stood on the beach and felt the waves and thought about all the living that we crammed into the last year, and what kind of hopes I have for the next year. And it felt good, especially that part about new hopes.
I hope that you, too, can stand and look at a horizon and feel peace and possibility this year. I hope that you will be awed by light and clouds. I hope that you will find a bit more trust in the innate goodness of yourself and the universe. Maybe even enough trust to allow a new crack in the protective armor you have constructed for your heart, a crack that might allow you to be seen a little more honestly or to feel something you thought was too uncomfortable. Maybe that crack will open just wide enough for some of that light to sneak in. I guess what I’m saying is, I hope that your heart feels a little brighter this year.
I took these images several weeks ago at this point, before packing up boxes for friends and family, before writing cards. Right in the midst of the hubbub of all the making and baking and everything that I’ve come to think of as “decembering”.
After all that, the holidays themselves usually feel like a deep breath, or maybe a long exhale. It didn’t go quite as planned this year. A big wind storm on the 20th knocked our power out and it stayed out for more than two days. So there were lots of candles for the solstice, but by evening number two they were feeling decidedly less charming.
The power returned, the house recovered, and after a few more days of baking and sewing and cleaning and re-stocking, christmas went on (almost) just as planned. And every afternoon, I managed to get out for a walk to actually feel those deep breaths. Without trying, I think I came back with photos of the sky every day. Sky with moon, sky with fog, sky with light playing on the clouds… it was all captivating in real time.
In retrospect, it’s a lot of photos of winter skies.
There were a few oddballs, like the winter greenery or christmas dinner.
Hello from deep December. Deep in the dark days, when sunrises like this one come well after 7a and slowly, and some days it feels like it never quite gets fully light.
And I’m sure that it has been an endless stretch of gray half-light until I look back at my photos and I am reminded that there were a few gloriously cold and bright days a few weeks ago, and I even took a long beach walk on one of them.And then I remember it was dumping rain every chance I had to get out for a walk yesterday, so when it finally cleared after the sun had set, I went out despite the dark. And the moonlight was brilliant and I couldn’t stop marveling at my shadow and the stars and the glory of a landscape awash in night-light.
So clearly the gray has not been continuous.
But there is much gray, and I try to find the beauty in it to counter the tendency to feel oppressed by it. I find myself drawn to the shades and grades in the gray, allowing my eyes to adjust to the dimness and discovering that there is more subtlety than just “gray”. And perhaps conversely, I find beauty in the almost-monochromatic scenes, like bare branches and broad sky. Like maybe color is just beside the point in this light.
Greetings from deep fall. Light is in short supply on these days of big gray skies and so I’m drawn to the half-light, wondering at how it can appear with so many subtle differences in the seemingly narrow space between gray and white.
It feels like an age since I last wrote here. I spent four weeks in retreat and have now spent another four weeks finding my way back to routine and forward into life after a seven-month-long sabbatical. Lots of reconnecting with friends and community. Lots of picking up little bits of my life and appreciating them with fresh eyes, or realizing that it’s time to set them down for good. Honestly, I’m not sure where this space fits. I feel like the things that are most interesting to me these days are things that I don’t know how to write about. Ideas that float by, ways of seeing the world just a little differently, all the feelings that are apart of this human experience.
But then I did a little rug surgery this week and snapped a few photos and thought, “I’d like to share this”. So here I am today.
In the earliest days of this blog, I finished a cotton braided rug project. It was my first go at rug braiding and it was perfectly serviceable and also a little wonky, just as you’d expect. But then at some point I washed the rug, and the “little wonky” became a persistent buckle. My best guess is that the the cotton twine I used to lace it shrunk more than the braided fabric. I’ve been feeling motivated to do more re-making this winter. Mostly inspired by standing in front of a shelf full of hand-knit sweaters and thinking about the next one I “need” to make to have something to wear out. I want to try again on the collar that sits funny or the body I’m always tugging at to be an inch longer or whatever it is. Unravel a bit and re-make this thing I have instead of buying a pile of new yarn and getting entranced by the idea that this time I’ll pick the perfect pattern and the perfect yarn and knit the perfect sweater.
So in that spirit, I guess it’s not surprising that one evening this week I looked at the rug with the bump and grabbed a scissors and started unbraiding.
In the end, it was probably only an hour of work. I pulled out two rounds of braid, reconnected the strands with some ugly but hidden hand-sewing, and then re-laced it into the rug. The result is certainly not perfect, but it lays flat, and I’m pretty satisfied to have been able to make it better.
Knitting! After being forced to concede that trail knitting was not to be, I had my longest break from yarn and needles since I first picked them up. So the local yarn store was near the top of my list of places to visit in August when we found ourselves off the trail. Especially after the realization that trail knitting wasn’t a good fit because it was too similar to walking in the way that both occupy the mind and body just enough but not too much. When I had hours of walking in my day, I wanted some other kind of diversion; but when I those hours suddenly disappeared from my days, knitting was just the right thing to pick up.
This shawl was a good post-trail project – easy but not boring, it required just one pair of needles and no fussy fitting, and it was just enough knitting to keep me busy until we got home.
And I expect it will be in heavy rotation for the next few weeks. Which would be true just given the changing fall weather, but especially true when my plan for this fall includes lots of sitting and walking. Mostly just sitting and walking, actually. Before I return to all the routines of home and life, I’m taking a few weeks of personal meditation retreat. So this space will be quiet for awhile, and in the meantime, I’ll be watching the maple leaves flutter or the raindrops splat or whatever tiny wonders appear here:
We arrived just after sunset last Friday night. I set my two small travel bags down on the floor and exhaled with the kind of relief that comes from knowing that you belong right where you are, and you don’t have to leave anytime soon.
We walked through the house and assured ourselves that it was all here and then I sunk into that particular comfort of my own bed. By 6a the next morning I couldn’t stand waiting any longer, so I explored the yard by headlight to see how all of the trees and gardens had fared through a whole season apart (mostly just fine).
The trip home was a cross country drive. It was only the second time I’ve driven from coast to coast, the last one in the opposite direction not long after the end of my first long hike more than a decade ago. This time we were helping some dear friends move house, so the chariot was a 15-foot U-Haul truck. A bit of a transition for me who had resisted any driving for the first month off trail, but I can’t help but get a little romantic about any long road trip (and frankly, I was mostly a passenger). All the better with friends. And especially when it involves watching the season change quite literally before your eyes. I wouldn’t have guessed it but somehow the fall colors emerged more and more as we drove west.
The days since have felt disorienting – a whirlwind of organizing the chaos in the silverware drawer, re-folding all the towels, and generally putting everything back to just the way I prefer it; reconnecting with friends and neighbors and this place generally; long stretches of just needing to sit on the couch and stare out the window and slowly settle in. Discovering the little ways that we changed and things around us changed and how it all fits together slightly differently now.
It’s been awhile since I’ve visited this space. Time has felt suspended as we have passed the last few weeks without any pressing requirements or obvious landmarks. I started this post days ago and despite coming back to it a few times, I can’t seem to find any tidy way to share a brief update and move on.
There are these photos of late August on the Maine coast that seem far off… but still somehow calming.
I also spent a week wandering around Brooklyn and discovered that I enjoy urban miles more than I expected. The photos aren’t exactly representative of the ground I covered since I was too self conscious to pull out my camera in most neighborhoods but still feel like a good reminder of the diversity of life in someplace as dense as the city.
And this week we took the first step in the direction of home. I can feel my mind shifting toward another center, summer and the hike and travels giving way to autumn and home. But we’re not there yet so I am doing my best to ground myself in the ground beneath me.
We are in between the trail and home, a liminal span of weeks. A space that could easily be mistaken for blank or empty, a time to be passed until the next transition.
Perhaps because of this, it feels essential right now that my days be OF the time and place that I occupy. That I exist in a context.
August in Maine means the beach.
I am really not a beach person. I start to feel overexposed after mere minutes of direct sunlight and the texture of sand gives me heebie-jeebies to a degree I generally describe as a sand phobia. And yet, it has felt like some kind of magnetic pull since we landed in Maine.
Our first day here I was scouring goodwill for a bathing suit and a day later we were packing towels and chairs and Italian sandwiches for our first outing. I played in the waves with a stupid grin on my face until I stumbled drunkenly on wobbly legs back to my blanket. The next day, we found a nearby river swimming hole.
In the water or out, I feel content. My mind is quiet. Everything feels simpler for a couple hours. I gaze at the horizon, or read a book with the sun on my back, or close my eyes and listen to the gulls squawk.
We’ve been off trail for a week but already it feels impossibly more distant. Part of me believes that any lasting insights will emerge on their own, and in their own time, but another part of me believes that it’s important to intentionally take the time to reflect in order to process the whole experience.
But we’re not home and won’t be for several more weeks, so it’s difficult to carve out the time and space for that processing. Today’s small step: make a (simple, imperfect) slideshow from of my daily photo project. I took a photo of my feet nearly every day of our hike. (I missed several, most often when we were in town.)
I have no idea if this will be interesting to anybody else. My mind takes these little snapshots and translates the light or the rock to a whole memory of that time and place but obviously you have only the snapshot.
But here it is, 1600 miles of trail in two minutes of my feet:
I didn’t know it then, but this is what our last day on the AT (for 2018) looked like. After four months, we conceded that while our hearts and minds and most of our bodies were aching to walk another 550 miles, Lucy (as I’ve dubbed Dean’s left foot) demanded and frankly, deserved otherwise.
For the one from Maine, everything since Georgia has been a “Katahdin approach trail”. The mountains and lakes and miles I was most excited to see still lay north. It’s heartbreaking to let that go.
And yet… I know that the trail was always just a sturdy container for the real journey, and the wildest wilderness is the one inside me.
Slowly (and with a fair bit of resistance) I am learning to relinquish my imagined plans and to surrender to the way it is.
And… because I got behind on sharing the last couple weeks, I still have photos from the hike from our travels through Massachusetts and southern Vermont.
It was my favorite stretch in many miles, the transition toward bigger forests and wilder country unmistakable. It was also a mess, the trail a giant mud pit from the intense nightly storms.
Lots of signs of progress since I last wrote. We completed the New York and Connecticut sections of the trail. We passed mile markers that were round numbers (1400! 1500!) and meaningful fractions (2/3!). The calendar even turned to August, a very real reminder that the darkness creeping into our evenings is only going to steadily increase.
Time marches on. We continue to pluck our way northward. And yet…
It feels very much like we have been hiking every day for long enough that it’s hard to remember what waking up at home felt like. And the 670ish miles of remaining trail feel like we will be doing so for the foreseeable future. So every day I put on the same smelly clothes and chew through a mountain of dense food and walk under a green canopy, up and down, rocks, rain, bugs, blah blah blah.
We are in the doldrums. We are making progress. Both are true.
Progress feels more true when the sun shines, though. I wish it were more complicated than that, and really I’m sure it is. But… blue skies sure help.
Vistas of more forest than anything else, a real novelty of late (when the clouds allowed a view). Wild berries. Signs announcing a pond as “one of the seven natural wonders of NJ”.
Also, monsoon season rains and vicious swarms of mosquitoes. (actual snippet of conversation: “maybe we can pretend like we’re on an exotic vacation to India”) A night tenting in a town park, tormented by streetlights and dogs barking. Gorgeous boardwalks over wetlands and sketchy bog bridges.
We made it to NY, and felt a small sense of accomplishment, and then immediately embarked on a few miles of rocky ridges requiring bouldering moves, wet and slippery from all the rain, and were humbled once again.
No update on the foot troubles I wrote about last time. It still hurts, we are still hiking north. Still a bit slower, still hoping.
The last time I wrote, the whole idea of being in Pennsylvania was full of the triumph of reaching the north, of getting over the hump and marking northward progress. Just below the surface of that triumph was a simmering anxiety about the storied rocks of PA. It turns out this stretch of trail was a bit like a protracted game of mercy for us. And that even our pride was no match for the pain.
Overall, our bodies feel strong and settled. But Dean’s left foot has grown more painful than is sustainable for another 900 miles over the last couple weeks. So progress has slowed while we sort that out. In the last week and a half, we have more than doubled the number of non-hiking days of our entire trip. We spent an entire day procuring him a new pair of shoes, a day that culminated in 180 miles of freeway driving in a Ford F-150 (mind bending, terrifying, and exhausting). We also walked many miles of Pennsylvania rocks, alternately convincing ourselves that it wasn’t nearly as bad as the stories we had heard and that it was cleverly devised torture aimed very personally. We got a visit from my sister and her family to buoy our spirits. And we were forced to admit that right now, these rocky miles were threatening to derail our whole trip.
So we skipped the last 50ish miles of Pennsylvania and opted to spend that time resting instead. We stayed in town long enough to get Dean in to see a foot doctor. We put our feet up, and tried not to think about it all too much. Because we don’t know, and of course we never do, but right now that truth feels a little too raw. I feel a little raw, frankly. The paradox of bodily rest is that it is the opposite of rest for your mind. My mind is at ease when I’m walking these days, or watching the fireflies outside the tent at night. Holed up in a hotel, anxiety is a noisy mental narrative and acceptance of this vulnerability an occasional visitor. So mostly, I avoid it all by escaping into a book (thank you library ebook loans) or some similar distraction. Like any other part of life, I suppose, but stripped to such simplicity that it’s all unavoidably obvious.
The verdict at the doctor was that a high threshold for pain (check) and some serious anti-inflammatories might be sufficient. So tomorrow, we plan to tentatively venture north, humbly hoping New Jersey is gentler on us than Pennsylvania. Wish us luck!
Greetings from Pennsylvania! Since I last wrote, we have passed a whole pile of trail milestones. First was the 1000 mile marker, a nice round number. We completed Virginia after more than a month and 550ish miles, then West Virginia and Maryland in quick succession. There were halfway markers of all sorts – the actual mathematical one as well as the traditional sort in Harpers Ferry and the plaque of the appropriately weary-looking hiker on Center Point Knob.
And there was a heat wave. The mid-Atlantic isn’t known for its mountains for good reason. The Appalachians are… subtle through these parts. More of a theoretical concept than a geographic feature. So our heat relief came in the form of state park picnic grounds and a tavern with an outdoor shower rather than mountain breezes and lake swimming.
It seems likely that these next weeks involve more of the same, as summer settles in and the tracts of public land dwindle and the AT becomes more of a “backyard trail”. It’s interesting to see all the little corners and corridors that connect together to make the trail’s path. There are still points of interest but they are more likely to be civil war monuments than vast views just now. On the good days I appreciate the unique nature of this trail, on the bad I calculate miles until the mountains rise again to the north.
It was 108 trail miles from our last town stop to this one, our longest carry yet on this trail and only a few miles shy of the longest we plan to do. And yet those miles were the least removed from civilization of any yet.
We were walking through Shenandoah National Park, a beautiful place very much designed for automobile tourism. So what you can’t see in those shots of a ribbon of trail is the background rumble of motorcycles on Skyline Drive. And what I didn’t take pictures of were the water spigots in picnic areas (no filtering required!) and wayside grill selling hamburgers and milkshakes for lunch one day and the other little conveniences gleaned.
We still hiked 108 miles in 5 days and our feet still feel just like you might expect. And extra snacks are always very welcome. But novelty only lasts so long, and I prefer quieter environs.
Today is a rest day in town. My big indulgence was a haircut (ok, so really the salon shampoo was the indulgence), Dean caught a matinee movie. Tomorrow morning we head out in the heat in search of quiet, and the end of Virginia.
A week ago, we got a ride 5 miles back to trail. Our driver wasn’t chatty so we all listened to the local radio station for 10 or 15 minutes.
Five days later, eating lunch with some hiking friends, I was moaning about the song that had been stuck in my head for days and Dean was telling the story of the hopelessly bad caller playing the name-that-tune game.
everything dies and that’s a fact/ maybe everything that dies one day comes back/ put your makeup on, do your hair up pretty/ and meet me tonight in atlantic city
That’s where we are in this hike right now in a nutshell… one brief bit of input from the world is still the most interesting topic of conversation a week later.
We are strong enough to hike longer days now but too tired to do anything else in a day. We truck northward.
Here I am again, wondering what to tell you. It seems that I have reached that point in our hike where I’ve lost perspective on what is new or interesting, what is different. I feel like I’m just immersed in the daily rhythms, and it’s hard to parse out the highlights to share.
We have walked one-third of the miles and been out for nearly two months. We are still trying to acclimate our bodies to the daily grind, still trying to increase our average miles just a bit higher. Somehow I had this notion that we would spend a month or so getting up to speed and then we would just be “there” – not that it would be easy, but that we would generally have our trail legs and maintain a steady pace. The longer we are out here, the more memories of prior long hikes have come back and I know that was a delusion, but it’s been a hard one to let go of.
We have reached the point where we have calculated the average daily pace needed to reach the end of the trail in the time we’d like given the number of miles between here and there… which is both intimidating in its stark reality and encouraging, because the results seem utterly possible.
We’ve reunited with trail friends after hiking a couple hundred miles mostly together and then hiking nearly as far separated by less than a day, tracking each other through log book entries.
I found my first pint of non-dairy ice cream yesterday, and ate it for dinner. I may or may not write a letter to Coconut Bliss telling them how much better a world we live in for their existence.
I’m finally letting go of some of my ideas about what a through-hike should look like and beginning to understand the nature of this trail… how “trail” and “town” aren’t so distinct but more often blur. How much more varied the nature of a through-hike can be with the frequent hostels and shuttles and roads intersecting trail.
We are re-evaluating every day the relative merits of living with the cast of trail discomforts – heat, humidity, rain, bugs, etc. Lucky for us, it seems that it’s a pretty constant trade from one to another.
Ten days is an age right now, so a tidy recap of the hike since my last post feels impossible. So instead of trying, I offer some snapshots from our days…
We traversed some high country where our databooks were sprinkled liberally with “view” icons out of Damascus, but we mostly saw the inside of the clouds and pondered how real a threat trenchfoot might become.
But the sun returned, complete with generous laurel and rhododendron blossoms.
And then the most glorious weather development occurred, and a breeze picked up. And I realized that wind is the natural antidote to humidity and suddenly a whole lot of fanning in older southern stories took on new levels of meaning. We even had enough wind to feel a bit of chill a couple nights and zip up our sleeping bags. Best sleep!
Unfortunately the bugs have returned with the clear skies. Or rather, I should say the bug bites have returned. Because they don’t seem too bad until I absent-mindedly scratch an ankle and then can. not. stop. Ankles are definitely the most delicious part of me.
The mountains have mellowed a bit in Virginia, with more rolling hills and long cruisy ridges.
Also, lots of rhodies that grow so dense the trail is a tunnel.
And occasionally, views high enough that capturing that “I’m standing on the edge” photo gives you a bit of vertigo and requires some cheating.
And after 600+ miles, I finally got my first swim. It felt pretty great and I hope to work on improving my swim to miles ratio.
Greetings from our first zero day in a month. It seems that we have become the proverbial tortoise in this non-race. For the last 30 days, we have walked some bit of trail; some days 20 miles, some days 3. Resting and walking, all things in moderation.
It snuck up on me, that string of days of forward progress. But it also feels like an appropriate summary of how the trip feels right now. I told myself I should take advantage of the day to write a bit more, to tell a tale from the trail. But I’m not sure what that would be. This trip hasn’t had a lot of singular moments or epic days, it feels like the story of this trail is the steady accumulation of the days and miles, paying attention to the gradual shifting of the forest with the season, the latitude, the elevation. (And of course, the gradual shifting of us as legs grow stronger, calluses tougher, minds a little quieter.)
The forest is dense with layers of green now so that it’s hard to remember the bare branches we saw back in Georgia. And all that growth is lightly contained water, which is exactly what it feels like. The air is thick with humidity, regardless of sunshine or cloud, hot or cool, day or night. A week or two ago I found myself hoping for rain, naively believing that would clear the air. But I’ve grown familiar with “a nice southern rain”, as we have come to call it, the sort where the sun is shining and there’s not a whisper of a breeze and rain is falling but there’s no discernible change in air temperature or humidity.
No high tops with grand views this section, but it was a good stretch. We got lucky and found ourselves under a roof every time the rain was torrential, walked by some bigger waterways for the first time that held real potential for swimming if our timing had been better. And we crossed from Tennessee into Virginia, where we will spend the next 500+ miles.