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 good to be home.
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.
Here I am. I am here. This. Maine. August. 2018.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…