I gradually woke up, cozy and rested on the side o–
Oh, shoot. That’s a lie. There goes my silly mind, romanticizing things again. Let me stop here and throw ‘er in reverse.
I woke up to the adolescent cackles of Just Matt and The General tooting and talking about their high school buddies in the tent above us. None of nature’s alarm clocks – the rose-gold sun, or the prattling river, or the amorous birds – would gently rouse the ledge full of tuckered out travelers from their hard-earned slumber. These two idiots would. When those clowns were up, everyone was.
The best breakfast I had on our trip was the one I had on the side of that mountain. My Trader Joe’s instant coffee with cream and sugar and – what else – freeze-dried Biscuits and Gravy, combined and expanded like a warm sponge in my depleted body and warmed me up. I wanted more than my half.
I sat the Mountain House bag of milky remnants next to the tent and went about my minimal hygienic upkeep. I pulled my toothbrush out first. My hand shook as I forced the very last of my travel-size tube of toothpaste out onto the frozen, matted bristles. I stepped back to pace the trail as I lathered up my gums. Then, something stopped me. It felt like lukewarm vomit spreading out over my foot. But it wasn’t. It was the soupy white remnants rapidly escaping the blue Mountain House bag and saturating my last pair of clean hiking socks; sparing the fabric only where the straps of my Tevas crossed. Frickin great, man. Now my pack not only smelled like 3 days worth of butt, but dehydrated sausage juice as well.
We started up the trail for what would be our final day of hiking. You know when you go for a jog and sometimes you have it, and sometimes you don’t? Well, on this morning, on this section of dirt, I just didn’t have it. Gravy went up ahead of me, focused on reaching the privy at the Gooch Mountain Shelter, just over a mile ahead. Just Matt kept me in sight for a bit, but eventually his Sasquatch stride naturally separated us. I felt weak and weighted. Every step required more energy than it should have. I started pounding the Rx Bars and Snickers I’d stashed in my waist pack pockets. I sucked on an energy Blok and hoped for the best.
But then, I was reminded of a phrase uttered frequently on our first venture to the Appalachian Trail, and it ignited an important conversation with myself: Hike your own hike, Courtney. Look around you. What’s your hurry? By dinner, this will all be over and you’ll wish you were starting again. My body was sending me signals to slow down and enjoy the journey and I was trying to juice it up and speed things along. And why? So I could breeze past the white blazes I’d been looking forward to seeing for months? I had to listen in the quiet, not rage against the voice. I pried my eyes up off my feet and regarded the tendrils of rich emerald leaves. The birthmarks on the trunks to my left and to my right. The sounds of the forest starting its day and getting down to the business breathing, sprouting, spreading, creating new life.
We stopped at Gooch Gap for a snack. I’d created the perfect trail mix of granola, Traders Joe’s Omega Trek Mix and Simply Almonds, Cashews and Chocolate, and I was now hammering it like a savage by the filthy handful. An elderly couple came down the path behind us and crossed the road to pick up the AT on the other side. “Hey guys, I’m going to go ahead since I’m slower today,” I said. The truth was, I was just happy to see people whose pace I could certainly match. I imagined the stories they would tell me about their time on the trail, their past. Maybe this was their 10th time doing the whole thing. Maybe they were just out for a section.
But it was a story I’d never actually hear. Because, you guys, they dusted my ass. Those two old birds traversed the AT like a pair of mountain lions and I sniffed their burnt rubber for at least a mile. The trails take all sorts of travelers, and the great ones have legs they’ve earned on the backs of boulders and jagged peaks. I had to admit, I’d just been schooled by a set of septuagenarians on making assumptions and respect for those who’ve put in the mileage.
We had a lot of company that morning in Georgia. One gentleman, from Florida, stopped The General to review his map.
“He’ll never make it,” The General said, after the kid walked on. “I can tell you within 3 minutes of talking to these people which ones are going to pull it off, and which ones are out of their league.”
As I write this, nearly 3,500 hikers are en route to Katahdin, and about 500 are heading south to Springer Mountain. Statistics tell us about one-third of these ambitious men and women (and children) will actually make it. This guy seemed to be struggling to navigate both the elements and the route, both of which have the ability to bend you over their knee and break you like a bitch.
After a few brutal climbs, we came to an overlook at Ramrock Mountain. It was sunny, beautiful. A collection of thru-hikers had gathered to eat Clif bars and chat. I saw the guy in a kilt and the woman with a dog who thought I was the other woman with a dog from the day before, a pair of girls clearly just out of college, Just Matt, and the elderly couple from earlier.
“Man, I tried to keep up with you two, but you were too quick for me!” I said, playfully, like a granddaughter would.
And just like a grandmother would, the woman smiled sheepishly, first at her husband and then at me, and said, “Oh, honey, I’m sorry. We could have waited for you if you were looking for someone to walk with.”
In my mind, they laughed and high fived each other the second I turned away. Thrilled at the fact they’d straight smoked another unsuspecting youngin. I wanted them to be my grandparents so bad.
Just Matt was antsy, and mentioned he hadn’t eaten anything since 3 p.m. the day prior. The promise of real food, namely a cheeseburger, gave him the strength he needed in this moment to push on and persist up the mountain. Before I could put my pack back on, he was gone. Tank was waiting at Woody Gap just over a mile away. He was ready for the reunion, for the road, for the beef.
Gravy had arrived and agreed to wait for The General, so I could go ahead. Truth be told, I kind of liked walking alone for a change.
As a society, we are searching. We think if we meditate, if we unplug, if we administer a digital detox, if we journal, if we cut out sugar, or gluten, or dairy, or red meat, we will unlock the hidden temple of peace. Myself included. I am, perhaps, the deepest worshiper of these beliefs. But honestly, I think the answers we want are already in us – bouncing around somewhere in the landfill of our frantic minds. If you spend enough time digging around up there, if you wait around long enough, and let all the crap filter out, the things you really want to hear will settle at the bottom. They’ll come to you.
Walking does that. Walking gives us enough time.
Somewhere between Moana lyrics and organizing our new camper, unbelievable truths appeared to accompany me on the trail. All the shit that typically gets diluted in the noise of motherhood and my career were suddenly barefaced in the solitude of the woods. I had to listen. Really listen. But they were in there.
I’ve been standing at the edge of the water – Long as I can remember – Never really knowing why … I could pack the girls’ clothes in the collapsible laundry basket and then use it for dirty clothes, and then if I get that 31 tote … I need to challenge myself more. I can’t remember the last time I felt like this. Gosh, Courtney, remember when you used to set big goals? Where’d that girl go? … Every turn I take – every trail I track – every path I make – every road leads back, to the place I know – where I cannot go – Where I long to be … Ah! My ankle just turned. That hurt. OK, we’re good … What should I do next? I need to clean up my diet, that’s what I need to do … Am I a good mother? I wonder what my kids will say about me when they’re older … That girl has those cute pants like Lydia had. Ask her where she got them. Just ask her. Ask her. Ask her. Ugh! Great, now she’s gone and I’m going to have to spend an hour on Pinterest tracking these pants down.
Still wearing my down vest and pants, I was really starting to sweat in the 70-plus-degree heat. I knew I had to be nearing the end of the section, so I decided to stop at a small water source and wait for my husband and The General, so we could finish together. One by one, the thru-hikers came. First, the guy in the kilt and the gal with the dog. They slowed and eventually agreed they’d get water.
“Where are you guys stopping tonight?” the gentleman asked.
“Actually, we’re getting off just up here at Woody Gap.” I said.
“Oh, wow! So you’re really almost done then.” the gal commented.
“Yup! We like to do this for our spring break. Then it’s back to reality and kids and jobs and responsibility,” I whined.
“Yeah, I hear that. I’ve been missing my kids,” the guy said.
“You have kids?” the girl asked, surprised. Which surprised me because I assumed these two were trailmates and had likely already covered this territory. I was also admittedly surprised that a young guy like this who had walked the AT, he claimed, several times had a wife and a kid. I mean it takes the assemblage of a small army and a willing village for Gravy and I to take off and do this for 5 days. And that’s just 5 days. Again, I’d fallen into the pit of assumptions. I had more in common with kilt guy than I’d thought.
After what felt like 40 minutes, I gave up on the rest of my party showing up and decided to walk into Woody Gap alone. I tiptoed over a waterfall, jumped from boulder to boulder, came around a bend in the trail and there it was, the parking lot. I was heartsick that it was over, to be honest. All the preparation and the anticipation and the effort would quietly absorb into the stories I would tell of our time on the trail in just a few steps.
I came upon Just Matt, who’d changed into shorts and a T-shirt, sitting in Tank. The truck was running and he looked like he was ready to hit the gas at the first signal. Gravy and The General came up about 10 minutes after me. The General was quick to tell the story of his run in with the thru-hikers, at the same water source where I’d left them.
“They asked if Hank was your husband and said he’d just missed his wife. Then I said, ‘Who? Biscuits?!’ and they proceeded to tell us that your trail names were too easy, too basic.” I think he felt offended since The General had assigned those names to us about a year ago and a few hundred miles north (as a crow flies). I wasn’t offended. I smelled too bad to take offense to anything. The General went to the public restroom to bathe in baby wipes, and then we all climbed into Tank and started the vomit-inducing road out of the mountains. It was like an evil snake with no tail, you guys. It went on for years. I was green.
Eventually we came to a straight away where a Wendy’s, nestled inside a gas station, sat, waiting for my carnivorous brother. The Masters were on. Not a word was spoken. Just the sounds of bun and burger being shredded by teeth and jostled around between gums and dry lips. They were burgers 3 days in the making. This stop would be followed by dinner at a Big Boy outside of Cincinnati at 9:45 p.m. that night. Only at a greasy restaurant whose mascot is a tubby boy in checkered overalls is it acceptable to order a side of what I believe to be doctored up tartar sauce to dip your french fries in. And you bet your sweet ass I did.
As the space between my body and my typical life shrunk, I felt myself slipping back into my routine. I frantically returned to the 800 minuscule worries and tasks I’d set aside while walking. I sat, curled up in the back seat, watching light poles tick by and thinking about the ground I’d covered. I was smiling, longingly, like the way you smile when you see a new mom with a fresh little baby and you think about your own days of rocking and smelling and squeezing soft little butt cheeks.
My friends think I’m crazy. Acquaintances politely regard the hobby as “interesting”. But it’s so much more than privy pots on cold mornings and rodents. When I think about backpacking, I think about my comfort zone. I think about the reward that comes on the other side of obstacles and the way getting there changes me. Every time I do something that brings me off autopilot and forces me to reconnect with my instincts, I feel stronger, clearer, more awake in this life. When I’m counting my steps, working my way slowly up the side of a steep summit, I feel so aligned. I feel like my mind and body are communicating for the first time in months. Like I can hear the screams that are typically muffled by mundane responsibility and my own self doubt.
And again, there’s that word … perseverance.
I love the concept of perseverance. More than anything, I want my girls to know that they can, and should, always persevere over what hinders, haunts or hurts them. I – and they – have unimaginable strength sleeping just on the other side of fear. If it’s scary, that’s OK. If it hurts, all the better. Sometimes, it’s those feelings that surge in the pit of your stomach that signal it’s all going to be worth it. That’s what backpacking does for me. It frightens me just enough to stretch my limits and takes me to that uncomfortable place where change resides.
I have anxiety, right? And I think people who struggle with the constant dripping faucet of anxiety can understand when I say that a normal day, week, month, sometimes feels like walking through a rose bush. As lovely as the flowers can be, it also leaves hundreds of tiny little cuts. The journey often leaves me bleeding, aching and irritated, but the bouquet in the end keeps me coming back. Being out there, in the unadulterated air, with my thoughts and the crunch of my boots, smooths over the gashes. It heals me. It tastes like sun tea with honey and rose petals and feels like my oldest t-shirt. At least for a few days. It’s the same feeling I get when I put my ear to my daughter’s chest and listen to her heartbeat. Each thud sends purpose surging through me.
And it’s the culture of the trail, the people. To be frank, there are times it’s hard to be a human in this world in its current condition. I panic about our future and the abuse of basic rights I’ve taken for granted. But with no phone, no push notifications, no “breaking” anything, it all feels a lot simpler. The current events of the trail are related to weather conditions and record setters, not press conference blunders and cruel, unthinkable acts that my heart just can’t seem to process. I feel safe around this species. The people you pass (98 percent of them, at least) want to know how your journey is going, and help if you need it and encourage you and stand under the majesty of what God gave us with you. It’s the softer, more digestible version of humanity.
We’ve been off the AT for about a month now. The chicks ask about the mountains a lot, and tell us they can’t wait to join us on the Appalachian Trail, and every fiber of my being hopes that day comes. Nothing would make the path sweeter than having my daughters’ footprints beside my own and their fingers against the white bark of a blaze.
Until we meet the path again, I’ll go in search of smaller, closer trails, and that same revealing quiet. I want to thank everyone who asked about our small adventure and followed these posts. I hope it awakens your wanderlust and leads you to a corner of the world that heals what aches in you.