08.06.2018

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.

07.27.2018

Postcards from New Jersey.

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.

07.19.2018

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!

07.08.2018

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.

06.28.2018

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.

06.22.2018

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.

06.13.2018

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.

06.07.2018

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.

05.27.2018

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.

Onward.

05.21.2018

Just a very quick post to share a few pictures from our last short section. It started pretty wet… we counted 131 of these little red efts one morning while walking in a cloud.

But then the skies cleared and the trail traversed the Roan highlands and it was pretty glorious.

05.17.2018

I took fewer pictures the last few days and looking back at those that I did take, there is a striking uniformity to the palette if not quite the subject matter. Spring green is on in these mountains.

When we walked out of town last, it felt much more like summer, though. It seems that I have either never experienced real humidity or I have blocked it out. Because it’s been rather a shock for me. The most confusing are the days that are overcast and cooler but equally humid. I’m a comfortable temperature but my body is sweating profusely and everything we have is vaguely damp. It’s disorienting and terrifying if I think too much about the expanse of summer in front of us. I have never wished so fervently for rain while backpacking.

Of course, it wasn’t the kind of rain that cleared the air and moved on… It was the sort that started with thunder and lightning and torrential rain that made trail tread indistinguishable from creek bed and then settled in for another day or two.

And so we found ourselves waking up in a shelter on Wednesday morning warm and dry, putting wet hiking clothes back on and packing up into wet packs and setting out with the intention of walking our first 20-mile day of this trip.

It was very wet but never really cold. Spring forests look remarkably similar whether they are dripping or not. Our feet spent 8+ hours in socks fully saturated with rain and mud. There were old football stories told and bad 90s pop songs quoted.

And we got to camp beat but feeling really satisfied that we could pull out a long rainy day and be just tired at the end of it. It felt fitting that it was our one-month anniversary on trail. There has been a long feeling of tentativeness these last few weeks, but I am exhaling just a bit more. We’re finding our way, and finding our trail legs.

05.12.2018

I have found myself in town and short on words once again; it seems to be a recurring theme of late. I am full of thoughts that I want to capture while I’m walking but somehow they evaporate when I am still. So, I give you some images from the last stretch of miles.

The northern Smokies were just as fabulous as the southern parts, maybe better. Lots of ridge walking and expansive views, neither of which the AT is reputed to have too much of.

And then an abrupt transition as we found ourselves following white blazes on a guardrail to pass under I-40 about two miles outside the park.

Returning to lower elevations, it is apparent that the season is changing, with the bright shades of new leaves moving higher up in the forest canopy. More and more things are looking familiar as it all comes to life. I am both enjoying more shade and lamenting the reduced views as everything fills in.

And we found ourselves in a most restful spot, a quiet corner in an old Victorian home where the plaque in our room tells us that the very first AT through-hiker slept right here on his journey in 1948.

We left home four weeks ago today. It feels like an age, and yet we are still finding our way. We feel strong and morale is good, unless you ask around 3p when the legs are tired and the joints start hurting and descending among rocks and roots and mud feels like each step has the potential to be catastrophic. But then we find a place to camp, and rinse off the day’s miles in a creek and eat a hot meal and lay down to rest accompanied by a chorus of owls or coyotes or squirrel chatter, and it’s all more than worth it.

05.06.2018

Three weeks on trail, it’s not long by any objective standard but the days are starting to accumulate so that each one feels less distinct and more part of a whole something.

I has two quotes bouncing around my head this last section…

“But complete freedom, it turned out, is not what a trail offers. Quite the opposite – a trail is a tactful reduction of options. The freedom of the trail is riverine, not oceanic.” (Robert Moor, On Trails)

“Everyone is trudging along with as much dignity, courage, and style as they possibly can” (Hafiz, 1320-1389)

Sometimes I’m flowing with the river of the trail, content to see where it will take me; sometimes I’m trudging along trying to hold onto a bit of dignity. But I am remembering how it feels to just surrender to the trail, to the weather, to this body. Again and again.

We passed a couple of milestones as well. Clingman’s Dome is the highest elevation on the trail. It was mostly just a big expansive view of white cloud when we were there, which seemed somehow appropriate – a little reminder from the universe that the real landscape to explore on this trail is the inner one.

And the 200 mile mark!

And a few more images from the Smokies, because they have been so fabulous…

04.26.2018

Hello from day 11 and my first attempt at blogging from my phone. At the laundromat, trying not to resent town for all the chores it requires. On the other hand, it is raining outside and I have a roof over my head. Which is also a pretty good summary of this last stretch of miles.

After a beautiful day leaving town, our days ranged from damp to drenched. It was wet and stormy enough that we took an unplanned zero on our third day out and holed up in a shelter while the worst of it raged. In one three-day storm, I went from happily riding it out in our tent to skeptically moving into the shelter to gratefully squeezing into the last possible shelter space mid-downpour to opting for the shelter out of laziness on an evening that was maybe threatening rain.

And similarly, I swore that I would never use my phone service away from town and then the first storm blew in and we were headed for higher elevations… so we checked the forecast from our tent and made the call to sit out the six inches and 50 mph gusts. And I was reminded, yet again, that there are good exceptions to every rule.

After yearning to find routine in the first few days, I’m yearning for the imagined routine and simplicity of dry days now. It’s always something.

The trail is starting to feel familiar, as we learn the landscape and our bodies learn to navigate the terrain. Starting. It’s all so tentative, a good morning has me thinking maybe I’ve crossed some magic invisible line and then my knee screams down a steep descent and I find myself contemplating five months of knee pain. Neither is true, of course, but when each day feels like an odyssey, it’s easy to get caught up in it.

04.20.2018

Our plane landed in Georgia last weekend but it’s taken most of the week to feel like we fully landed.

Not surprisingly, week one of a big trip is all about adjusting, finding your rhythm, letting things settle. Thinking “I can’t wait until I have a routine for this” as you fumble through packing your pack, filtering your water, setting up your tent each day. Watching all your anxieties about the trip surface, seeing many of them go, finding out which ones are going to persist. And of course, feeling the miles, walking that line between finding your legs and overstressing them.

There’s a sense of waking up something old and familiar, something dormant. My body remembers parts of a long hike that I’ve forgotten.

We made our way to Atlanta on Saturday and then to Amicalola Falls State Park on Sunday so that we could wake up and start walking on Monday morning. Sitting in the tent on Sunday evening, Dean was sewing a Smokey the Bear patch onto his backpack and I was modifying my ill-fitting bra with some scavenged cord and needle and thread from my film canister repair kit.

Right. We have this move. Even if I’m not exactly sure what that means just yet.

60 miles. 5 days. Snow, sunburn, lots of wind. One small blister, a few sore knees.

04.10.2018

The big leaf maple blossoms popped in the last few days, great canopies of chartreuse. And it is feeling a lot like spring here, sunny one minute and then raining the next, blustery wind taking all the warmth out of the sunshine.

The news from the homefront is all about trip prep and it’s all mundane as can be. Getting ready for a big trip is a project all in itself, with the level of tedium an inverse function of the excitement rating of a trip. For at least the last half a year, I’ve had timelines and spreadsheets and to-do lists whose only objective was getting us out the door.

Last week was all about one big project – resupply boxes. We spent the last 3 months making food plans and stockpiling ingredients and dehydrating and generally amassing everything. And then spent last week turning that stash into actual meals and portions that fit into neatly packed boxes to meet us at a couple dozen post offices along the trail. It’s the kind of sprawling logistical project that I excel at, but keeping track of details and anticipating each next step took my full attention until the end. And then our very good friends whisked it all away on Saturday and our house felt strangely empty (unless you count the mountain of recycling because, holy packaging, batman) and I was a little disoriented.

Suddenly, “trip prep” has been reduced to a very long list of loose ends to tie up. There’s a sense of neurosis to this week, bouncing from “pay property taxes!” to “set up tent!” to “make notes for housesitter!”

Mostly the actual trip still feels abstract, but I felt a glimpse of it today. I spent the morning at the laundromat giving my sleeping bag a fresh wash and fluff, and found myself casting onto my sock needles with my first skein of trail yarn. And sitting in the purple plastic chair amongst the smell of detergent and the bustle of folks busier than me, I felt a glimmer of trail life, of how I’d be knitting these socks on the flight to Georgia and then who knows how many miles of northbound walking, and how many more laundromats along the way.

Almost there.

divided

As the start of our Appalachian Trail hike nears, I’ve been thinking more about prior trips. In 2007, I hiked from the Mexican border to Yellowstone National Park on the Continental Divide Trail. A couple days later, sitting in a coffee shop in Bozeman, Montana and processing my prior three months, I sat down and these words poured out. They were a mass email then (ah, the quaint old-fashioned mass email) but mostly hold up at capturing the long hike experience for me.

divided

no job. no schedule. all i need is all is i have. in my pack, on my back. a route to follow, a narrow swath of this country to see. the continental divide – the place where waters part, pacific and atlantic.

trail. a gentle path, just wide enough for one foot traveler? or maybe a jeep road, forest road, gravel road, highway, stock driveway, cow path, no path… pile of rocks, sea of sagebrush, beaver swamp, creek bed, canyon, ridgeline, line of cairns, nothing…

where’d it go? i don’t know… find your way. topo maps, backwards guidebook, compass, gps. follow your trail instincts, game trail, path of least resistance, probably uphill… if all else fails, go norther.

walk. desert heat, open range, barbed wire, “keep out”, cows… grassland, mesas, mountains. snow-capped, snow-covered… post-holing, going nowhere, everyone going their own way… mountain forests, mountain meadows, mountain ridges, mountain-sized pile of rocks. walk. up. way up. down. straight down. rain, wind, hail, thunder and lightning… glorious sunshine. sunrise, sunset. just walk.

95 days following the divide… never a dull one. i know fatigue and frustration. i know strength and satisfaction. the futility of self-pity and the immense comfort of shared misery.

thanks for making my summer immeasurably more joyful, for reminding me all along the way that i am never alone.

04.01.2018

I’ve dropped in here to give you a recipe. A recipe for granola, to be precise. Which seems absurd, because I leave for a 2,000-mile hiking trip in less than two weeks and I’m back from a weeklong meditation retreat and it feels like the earth is tilting toward spring so quickly the daily increment is noticeable and I haven’t gotten around to showing you about half a dozen finished knitting projects in the last couple months… and let’s be honest, no one is asking for my granola recipe.

But this afternoon, while Dean was taking a shift at the meal assembly station on the dining room table (with the scale – accurate to one-hundredth of a gram! and vacuum sealer and spreadsheet), I cranked out 3 batches of granola for our trip. As I pulled out the recipe and collected my ingredients, I couldn’t help but think something along the lines of “you probably could have just BOUGHT the granola”.

But then I had the first batch ready before the oven could get up to temp, and I caught myself reflecting on how I feel a little more adult, a little more like I’ve arrived somewhere in life, for having a stock granola recipe. One that comes together in a few minutes with one bowl, one measuring cup, and one measuring spoon. One that I never get tired of. One that suits my tastes in granola precisely. The one that finally converted me to eating granola regularly.

And I thought maybe one of you needed that little boost to your quality of life. So just in case, here it is:

Granola (adapted from somewhere on the internet, but I’ve lost all trace of where)
3 c rolled oats
1 c chopped cashews
1/2 c almonds
1/2 c pumpkin seeds
1/2 c sunflower seeds
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
Combine above and mix well. Then add:
1/2 c maple syrup
1/2 c olive oil
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Mix well.
Spread evenly on a sheet pan (lined or greased) and bake at 325 for 30-35 min. Stir after 15 min.
Yield: approximately one gallon

PS – I hope to have more to say soon, whenever I manage to stick my head up from the trenches of final trip prep.

03.12.2018

You can see so much blue sky through bare branches. Three straight days of sunshine and mild temperatures and it feels like spring is everywhere. My first nettle harvest, the first dandelion bloom, the honeybees out collecting pollen… I can hear the frogs nightly now, and I startled the great blue heron from the wetland near the garden two days in row. Even the fenceposts are sprouting charming new life.

The whole sense is one of waking, a little rumpled, but hopeful about what the day might bring.

2.25.2018

See the hopeful new leaves? And the spray of blossoms almost unfurled? And how it’s all covered in ice? I feel you, osoberry. I so feel you.

I started writing this post a week ago, after I woke up to discover a wet white blanket that pretty abruptly altered my weekend plans. But I just kept complaining about the weather, possibly the most uninteresting topic of my many. So I left the draft open, thinking I’d come back to it when I actually had something to say. It’s now a week later, and I’m still complaining about the weather.

In the meantime, it melted just enough to actually drive all the way up the driveway once midweek before we got another couple inches. And this morning I can see enough rock through the snow once again to seriously consider bringing the car up from the bottom of the hill. But the forecast shows rain and/or snow for the another few days and I’m not sure I’m prepared to tempt fate that directly.

February. One way or another, or every way at once, it seems to be a test of endurance.

I took an extra-long weekend last week, and with all the time I wasn’t spending outside, I did manage to crank out most all of my sewing for our hike. I snapped that photo above at one point when I was struck by the juxtaposition of my old sewing machine and the techy silnylon fabric I was working with.

Taking a closer look, there are so many things I love in that scene. First, obviously, the avocado Kenmore sewing machine, manufactured in 1969-70. The typed label on top of it with my mom’s name and phone number from when she took it in for a service after buying it from an auction for me, a few months before I finished college. The original manual, with the dated image of a young mother and daughter on the front and the “Dear Homemaker” letter inside the front cover… that is remarkably useful, sitting out because I referenced it as I was adjusting things for the slippery fabric. Behind my machine is the sewing basket that was a Christmas gift from my Grandma Axtman as a teenager. The gold stork scissors is a favorite from my sister. So many layers to these ordinary useful objects.

There was nothing too exciting in the trip sewing, mostly the pile of stuff sacks and ditty bags above, along with a rain cover for my pack and a fair few pack modifications… changing out the side pockets, rearranging straps to work with a new top lid, that sort of thing. But it’s ten more things marked off the endless list.

I can feel things shifting again as our departure draws nearer. For so long, the to-do list just grew longer and longer as things got more real and we filled in all the details. But it has started to get shorter now. Partly because we’re working every day on prepping and drying food, making or buying gear, and generally making the countless tiny decisions that go into any endeavor of planning. But perhaps more so, the list is getting shorter because it gets pruned. Seven weeks feels like a scope of time that I can wrap my head around. Seventeen working days. Three weekends when we are both home. However you measure it, our remaining prep time is finite.

And then we’ll be standing on bare ground in Georgia and whatever we managed to get done will somehow be enough. Soon.