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AT

Wanderlust

Biscuits back on the AT, Miles 14.3-21.1

May 3, 2017

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.

Read about Miles 6.2-14.3

Read about Miles 0-6.2

Read about Miles 28.3-30.7 + Springer Mountain

Wanderlust

Biscuits back on the AT, Miles 6.2 – 14.3

April 26, 2017

Morning came.

That’s right … By the grace of God, the sun rose sheepishly above the trees just beyond the pavilion and each of us had all of our limbs, and a pulse and a different theory about the headlights from the night before. It’s funny, in those startling moments when the lights crept in and filled the thin fabric walls of the tent, no one had uttered a word. But now, come dawn and the promise of another day, we were discovering that each of us had been awake. And each of us had entertained our own demented impending plot twist. (Granted, some more dramatic than others.)

After a few minutes of lingering in the sticky, sour-smelling warmth of our sleeping space, we emerged, one by one, out onto the cement carpet. When you’re frozen, everything feels hard, unyielding. I turned my face toward the morning sun, which was doing everything in its power to heat the pavilion where our dewy gear laid about on high picnic tables, and sipped my coffee. Maybe if I imagine a beach … if I focus on each stream of light, I can fabricate warmth, I thought.

My mind was weaker than my coffee.

History told us that movement is truly the only cure for numbness, and my lifeless extremities were screaming, demanding, I take my first steps. When we left Hickory Flats, we had just over 8 miles ahead of us. It was our third day on the trail and the first time we would walk without rain.

As our frigid, pathetic parade made its way down the path and past the white blazes, my fingers and toes slowly came back to me. I can’t say for sure, but it seems as if almost every morning on the AT begins with an incline. I see it as Mother Nature’s bitch slap to your lungs, heart and legs, and a great way to get the blood pumping. This ridiculously crisp morning was no different. As I put one heavy foot in front of the other, I felt my internal temperature rise and sweat start to gather under the lining of my wool cap. One extreme to the other. Perfect.

Not long into our walk, we came to a breath-taking babbling stream. It was the kind people write poems about. The current made the water twinkle and wink beneath my feet. I stood on a rock and looked down to chaperone the elements’ dance. As the guys went about attaching hoses and filling water bladders, I observed the incoming traffic. It was a busy morning at the stream, as thru-hikers who stayed at nearby Stover Creek Shelter came by in pairs to fill up.

A pair from South Africa stopped first. The one had just finished a temporary position as an auditor in New York and hit up his buddy, who was currently residing in Canada, to try the trail before he had to return. They’d made this plan just two weeks ago on a whim and the idea that it “looked neat”. My eyes were wide with astonishment and jealousy. Next came a cavalcade of lively, starry eyed youngsters. Most of them just two or three days into their attempt to cover the entire AT, optimism clung to their faces like shiny makeup. They were high on the newness of their endeavor … the buzz of this temporary and rugged minimalism. I got it. I was rooting for them. We indulged their chatter about breakfast and trail legs before parting.

The warmer I got, the more I relished this dry, sunny day. We came to a crossing with a wide log, and I decided to express the turn in my mood through the universal language of dance. I hopped up, Gravy and Just Matt behind me, The General already across, and started recreating one of my favorite scenes from the iconic, never-to-be-forgotten chick flick, Dirty Dancing. “Heeeeeeey, hey, baby! I wanna know-oh …”. I gingerly maneuvered back and forth with the necessary pep to really sell it. “Do you have your phone out, Matt? Are you getting this?” I asked, like a 6 year old attempting her first cartwheel. “No.” he said. Flame completely extinguished, I dismounted the log on the other side. “Dick.” I whispered to myself but also, I kind of thought, loud enough to reach The General’s ears. But the face I found when I looked up was not that of our dear old family friend, like I’d been expecting. It was a stranger. Dressed in neon yellow. A stranger who had been waiting for our group to cross and witnessed my Baby moment in all its glory.

The boys had a field day with that one.

Whatever. My performance was on point, and everybody knew it.

We stopped at The Hawk Mountain Shelter for breakfast. Hank and I whipped up some oatmeal while Just Matt raised the waterline in the privy. The General sipped on a mug of hazelnut instant coffee as we chatted about the logistics of ick spreading on the AT. See, hikers’ hygiene isn’t exactly a gold standard out there, and if one person gets sick, and they stay in a shelter, and what comes with a sickness comes out inside the three walls, chances are someone else is going to come into contact with that mess. Then they get sick and the gift goes on, and on and on. I remember talk of a nasty strain of the stomach flu going around the Tennessee and North Carolina sections when we went out last year. Nasty stuff. I stood down on the ground, out of the shelter that morning. I mean, I only had so much toilet paper and tolerance for bodily functions behind tree trunks.

It was windy, but a beautiful day to walk in the woods. The temperature seemed to rise with the mountains’ inclines, causing me to peel off layers, and drop as the wind whipped through, bringing my hood back up to intercept the chill. We stopped for lunch at a clearing along an access road called Coopers Gap. The strong breeze bullied my empty mayonnaise packets as I pulled my jacket up around my face to shield my skin.

The magical thing about being out on the AT is the diverse landscapes. You never know when you turn a corner or come to the top of a mountain what you’re going to find on the other side. After several miles of pretty-but-predictable mountainside woods, we came upon a Secret Garden-style labyrinth of lush greenery. The trunks of the trees twisted and jutted up against each other, flirting, mingling. The roots rose out of the ground, each set forming an enchanting wooden helix. The verdant leaves were a deeper hue than any of the growth we’d seen up to this point, drawing our eyes upward with their rich, emerald presence. The sunlight poked through keyhole openings of various shapes in the canopy covering this charming section.

We worked our way through the maze, admiring its intricacies, until we came upon a clearing. Below us, a stream rushed across perfectly distributed stones. It was picturesque, perfect. This was Justus Creek, where we would be camping tonight. It was a pleasant upgrade from the cement slab we merely tolerated the night before. We crossed the water and marched our way up a steep elevation to the campsites; six flattened planes on the side of the mountain. We picked our square and went about setting up. The sun was bathing us in luxurious heat now. A branch that died months, maybe years, ago cracked and fell about 4 feet from our spot on the ledge. A good sign, indeed.

I changed into my sandals, grabbed a mug full of red wine and my notebook, and ventured back down to the steps beside the stream. I sat to collect some thoughts, the comforting soundtrack of the stream in the background fueling my recollection. This, I thought, is why we do this. This is the prize.

I felt silent inside. Clear. Calm. For perhaps the first time in months.

“Where’s your dog?” an approaching thru-hiker inquired.
“Me? Oh, um … I don’t have a dog.”
“Oh, sorry! You look just like this other girl on the trail. She has a dog.”

I wish I was a thru-hiker out here with a disciplined, friendly pup, I thought to myself. But no. I am a suburban mom with a corporate job and an old bitch of a dog who whines at the wind and drags her butt on my carpet. Close, but not quite there. They moved on and I disappeared again into my stream of consciousness.

I loved to listen to the waves of wind crashing through the forest. The tops of the trees, still barren from winter, would rub together like a group of bucks locking antlers, generating the most peculiar sounds.

About 20 minutes later, a young woman and older gentleman approached the stream. She was wearing a blue raincoat and coaching her adorable little shepherd dog, Maggie, across the rocks.

“Hi there,” I greeted.
“Hi!”
“You must be the other me,” I joked. She just looked at me indulging my eye contact out of sheer kindness. “A couple that came along earlier mistaked me for you. We must look similar.”
“Oh!” she sighed, and smiled.
“You look tired. Come a long way today?”
“Kind of. We go pretty slow because my dad has bad knees. We stopped for breakfast at the Hickory Flats Cemetery, but didn’t linger.”
“We stayed there last night.”
“You did? Was there a young guy there?”
“Actually, yeah!”
“Well, he was still there. He kept packing and unpacking his gear.”
“He was doing that when we were there!”
“Yeah, I teach mentally challenged kids and that’s a huge sign that something’s going on. My instinct was to move on, and my instinct is usually pretty dead on.”

Oh. My. Lanta.

I knew it. I knew there was a Stephen King vibe coming off that lil fella. I would say 98 percent of the people you meet on the trail are a delight, but the other 2 percent are scary AF, my friends.

Biscuits No. 2 walked up the trail to the campsites, my mind like the exploding car behind the badass in an action film in her wake, still reeling at her observation. I sat for a few more minutes, until the sun touched the top of the treeline and threatened to disappear completely. I walked back up to have dinner with Gravy. And maybe two more mugs of wine. And maybe a chewable melatonin.

My entire body was a pool of content, peaceful jelly. I was on the side of a mountain with some of my favorite people on the planet, dulled by a few mild sedatives and downright jubilant. We sat, the four of us, chatting and giggling. Just Matt from his sleeping bag inside the tent. The General balancing in his squatty, collapsible chair. Gravy and I perched on a log dressed in an inch of dirt. Our faces were pink from wind and early spring rays, and the blush that comes from sipping a cheap red blend dispensed from a bladder that once lived inside a box.

The boys were having the same argument they’d been having for three days now: What do you call a group of bears. We’ll call it 45 bears, for good measure. We asked Ridgerunner Lydia, who guessed a pack. I, too, guessed a pack. Herd was thrown out there as a suggestion. Still, the debate raged on for the entirety of our time in Georgia, and via text all the way back to the Midwest. (The answer is actually a sloth, in case your curiosity is killing you.)

A tiny mouse scurried by and earned a huge reaction from our group. People always shudder when I mention the critters known to make their way into the shelters and campsites. But truth be told, they didn’t bother me much, because they weren’t much of a bother. This little guy was the first true wildlife we’d seen up close, and he was gone as fast as he’s arrived.

He was turning in and, after a walk down the trail for a potty break and tooth brushing, so were we. I nestled in next to my husband. “Do you hear the water?” he asked, a few minutes after we’d settled. I did. And that was the last thought I had before I drifted off.

Read about Springer Mountain + Miles 28.3-30.7

Read about Miles 0-6.2

Wanderlust

Biscuits back on the AT, Miles 0 – 6.2

April 19, 2017

“When I os taken him up pear, he told me he a, he had the cancer. So, I stopped anduh got him a gallun a whiskey anda carton a cigarettes and I took him up air to-a the mountain anda I’m not sure but I think he died in August dat year … Me and my partner hada motel we ran and it was fulla, pardon my french, prostitutes and druggies when we bought it and a, we bought it on April 2, 2009. And we ran it and that. And then a, my partner, he died on April 2, 2011, see. … Now, you guys look strong, but they call me Don’t Give a Damn Sam and ifya need me to come getcha, I’ll come up ear and getcha. Just not when I’m fixin to go to bed, em k? I take 5 Benadryl and 3 Unisoms, and I ain’t gettin’ outta my bed once I’m en dare. … Oh yeah, we had a guy die of a heart attack right dare and a girl hung herself on a tree right over dare and uh, yeah, the trail can be a lonely place. I mean, I’d be lyin if I didn’t say I hadn’t thought about it myself. Well, y’all member that girl and her dog, dontcha? Someone took her from the mountain and, uh, well, he cut her head off. Yup, he de-cap-a-tated her.”

I could hear Sam Duke, our colorful chauffeur through the mountains, from the back seat, where I sat staring at Just Matt’s hairline trying not to vomit. Sam was from Louisiana, and his personal slogan was, “Let er rip, patata chip!”, a phrase we uttered no less than 89 times over the next three days. He’d picked us up at the Woody Gap parking lot, where we left Tank with the promise we’d return at a reasonable hour on Saturday. In our 45 minutes with Sam on the winding service roads of the Appalachian Trail en route to Springer Mountain, we discovered that everyone who had ever come into contact with Sam Duke had, shortly thereafter, died. Small talk with the Grim Reaper was not how I’d envisioned starting the rest of our section hike. Nonetheless, here I was.

Despite the disheartening development that we were now destined to be eaten by a bear or snatched by an escaped serial killer, it wasn’t all bad news for us. Because of our last-minute change of plans, Gravy and I were able to unload some clothing items and a day’s worth of meals from our packs. When you’re shouldering 30+ pounds and 50+ pounds, respectfully, every ounce dropped is cause for celebration.

Here’s what we ended up with:

And:

Gravy carried much of the same, plus our tent and water pump. We split the weight of the food right down the middle. There are always things you’d adjust after the fact. I would have upped my coffee game, especially given the afternoon I was walking into. A few extra packets would have been a real morale booster; the more toxic sugar, the better. Speaking of, I picked up some Trader Joe’s Instant Coffee with Cream and Sugar and those packets were like drops of what the angels drink. Much better than the straight Via packets, in my opinion.

We exited Sam Duke’s mini van and stepped out into the parking lot at the trailhead. It was 30-something degrees, blowing and sleeting. It’s never good when you hold your hand out to gather precipitation and ask, “What is this shit?” Of course, I had to pee. I wandered off down a trail to find the widest tree and watched Sam drive away. Ah, fudge. We’re really doing this. The rest of my crew was standing by the Springer Mountain map, filling water bladders and situating gear. Lydia, a young female Ridgerunner, walked up from the general vicinity of the grass I’d just watered. Lydia’s role on the trail was to stay on a section to answer questions about gear, shelter and strategy, and educate hikers on the Appalachian Trail Conservancy initiative, Leave No Trace, their effort to minimize damage to the natural environment along the AT. (The jobs you wish you’d known about 12 years ago, right?) As she engaged in polite small talk, all I could hear was the sound of my inner girl crushin’ on her pants. They kind of looked like equestrian riding pants, but stretchier and warmer; Much cooler than my traditional cargo mom hiking pants. They must be a thing now because a bunch of chicks we saw had them. I was putzing around in farty fashions, showing my age for sure, at least from the waist down. It all felt very first day with a headgear to me.

We started down the trail and took our first steps in a three-day adventure. I followed behind Just Matt and The General as they perfected their Sam Duke impersonations and tallied the body count. The laughter worked as a warmer to counteract the piercing snow-water sludge diving at my face, and I was thankful. Not far in, we stopped at Stover Creek Shelter to make adjustments and get a little snack. Lydia was there. As were her cute pants. Just Matt made no adjustments and just looked on annoyed as we made small talk about bear canisters, the weather the night before and traffic on the trail. See, Just Matt didn’t like this part of it. He packed only bars (no “dehydrated bullshit”) and reminded all of us regularly, through both his verbal and nonverbal communication, just how much he hates to stop for any reason other than sleep or shit.

Lydia predicted the Three Forks Shelter, where we’d planned to stay, would be pretty crowded that night given the chilly temps they were predicting. She mentioned the Hickory Flats Cemetery and Pavilion as a better option. It was just a couple miles away and we were making great time. I mean nothing will motivate you to move your ass like numb fingers and perilous mud puddles.

I disappeared into my head a bit, thinking about everything and nothing at all, and before I even found my stride, I came to The General at a service road crossing.

“What’s up?” I asked.
“That pavilion is right over here, if you want to check it out.”
“K.”

It was 1:40 pm and 36-or-so degrees.

I started counting the hours on my bright pink fingers as I shuffled toward the cemetery. If we left at 8 o’clock the next morning, we would be here for 18 hours.

18 hours.

At a cemetery and open-air pavilion.

In 30-degree weather.

We walked under the roof to assess our accommodations for the evening. There was a young gentleman sitting in a plastic chair facing the trees. He turned and acknowledged us in a polite but minimal way. At this point, the rain was really starting to pick up, so I assumed our pavilion mate was waiting out the storm. I set my pack down and walked over to the bathroom. It had four walls – four walls! – and stood as a literal symbol of the term, “built like a brick shithouse”. I stepped in, out of the wind and into an eery silence. It was a silence that almost had to precede something horrific. I more than half expected to find a friend of Sam Duke’s propped up in a stall. But spooky as it was, it was easily 10 degrees warmer than outside. I stood in the sturdy privy not sure where I wanted to go. I didn’t have to use the drop potty, necessarily, but I didn’t really want to stand around with the frozen sausage fest in the pavilion, either. So, I stood. I stood in a brick potty and just stared at the wall. I stared at the cobwebs in the corners. I stared at the names carved into the plank over the stall built for those with shower bags. I stood and let my frozen mind thaw out with concocted tales of terrible scenarios that played out within these walls. I just stood.

Eventually, I found my big girl parachute panties and pulled them up. I strolled out to the pavilion and started going about the business of making lunch. It was 2 pm and we were strategizing tent setup so we could – what else – turn in for the night. During a break in our chat, The General turned to the young guy sitting next to us, still staring off into the woods.

“You start the trail yesterday?” he asked.
“No,” the kid said.
“Tuesday?”
He shook his head, no.
“Oh man,” The General said. He then turned back around and gave us the big eyes.

It would appear this little guy was having a really hard time getting himself up the AT. Granted, the weather hadn’t been great, and there are a million factors that can crush people at any point in their hike, but one would likely be farther than this 3+ days in. Whatever his deal, it seemed like maybe his meditation was coming to an end and he would be moving on soon. He slowly, quietly stood and started meticulously packing up his gear. He rolled his sleeping mat smoothly and snugly. He checked his food bag and then reclosed it, twice. When all was said and done, he spent 2 hours pulling his shit together. Two hours. Then, he grabbed a water bottle and started off down the road. Huh.

Just Matt was antsy. He’d misplaced his gloves back at Woody Gap and, after finishing a mug of coffee (and sharing his extras with the group), he was ready to hibernate. He and The General put their tent up in about 15 minutes. Gravy, on the other hand, spent a good deal of time strategizing over our sleeping arrangements, since our modest two-person tent required ground for staking into. This was more of a concrete slab situation, so … And I’m not entirely helpful in these situations when I’m not frozen, so …

After several minutes of contemplation, it was decided that Princess Biscuits and Prince Gravy would be resting their royal heads in a makeshift tent under a large picnic table. Gravy draped a hammock tarp over the wood structure and used concrete blocks to hold it down around the outside. We put a tarp down on the ground, our mats on top of that, and we were all set.

Somehow we’d made it to 5 pm and so my counterpart and I decided to go ahead and start dinner. Just Matt and The General had been in their tent for almost an hour already, but Lawd knows I don’t skip meals. They’d turned into a mumbled screen of farts and giggles. (We’re talking about two 40 year olds here.) We boiled water for our freeze-dried Southwest Lasagna, cupping our hands around the scorching dew of the device for pleasure. The rain and snow had subsided, leaving just a straight up cold to harden the cemetery ambiance.

Our neighbor came back.

And then, just as carefully as he’d begun, he initiated the tedious process of unpacking his gear.

Yes, unpacking.

See, he packed it. And now he was unpacking it.

It was time for me to go to bed. I crunched on a 10mg chewable melatonin, brushed my teeth, and had a nonverbal conversation with my husband about the strange behavior playing out beside us before crawling under the table. I put the tarp door back into place and zipped myself into my wine-colored sleeping bag, secretly wishing I were drunk. I was wearing my wool cap, down accessories and long underwear. A sliver of early evening sunlight rubbed against the end of our “tent” to remind me it was approximately 6 pm.

But the sun’s light was a liar. I started to shiver about 20 minutes after I laid down, and began having flashbacks of Roan Highlands Shelter, also known as “the night mama almost died”. I inch-wormed my way backward out of our tent. Gravy was still cleaning up camp. Just Matt and The General were generating a massive amount of heat in their tent. I knew this only because I heard the expression, “sweating my balls off,” a handful of times from my icy cocoon. I stood up and looked at my husband, my trailmate, my life partner, and I told him the thing no one wants to have to tell their loved one.

“I’m getting in there with them,” I said.
“Like, for the night?” he asked.
“Yeah, I think so.”

His feelings of abandonment sliced through my whiny tone as I crouched down and unzipped the door to my brother and my almost-brother’s temporary bachelor pad. It wasn’t warm. But it wasn’t freezing, either. I claimed a spot on the very edge as the two nudged up against each other in their nylon encasings. After 34 years of friendship, I was confident this wasn’t the first time they’d spooned (heads on opposite ends, of course) but it was certainly the only time I would remember.

About 40 minutes later, Just Matt had to pee. Since he was the patty in the hamburger, we all decided to get up and try. After that, my chill started to subside and I was able to drift off to sleep. My husband’s head was just a tent wall, tarp and picnic table leg away from mine, so I could quietly check in on him. When everyone was finally settled, I drifted off to sleep. The crack of a grown man’s fart piercing the peace of the pavilion jolted me awake every hour or so, but still I was warm and mildly content.

At some point after the sun went down, the tent filled with the vibrant muted yellow tone of car headlights and the familiar sound of gravel popping under tires. Someone was in the pavilion parking lot. My mind started firing.

Oh my gosh, they’re looking for that kid. I wonder if he’s still out there. Or, maybe he called a shuttle to come pick him up because he’s freezing and ready to get off the trail. Or maybe it’s the police coming to get him because he’s wanted. Or maybe they’re looking for another hiker who got off the trail and is in trouble. Or maybe they’re workers using the bathroom. Or maybe that kid was a scout and he called some serial killer who is now here to kill all of us and leave our bodies in the cemetery. I hope he doesn’t look under the picnic table. Damn you, Sam Duke! Damn you.

I found myself again just praying to make it to morning.

To be continued …

Read about Miles 28.3-30.7 and Springer Mountain

Wanderlust

Biscuits back on the AT, Miles 28.3-30.7 + Springer Mountain

April 14, 2017

Despite the magenta and neon red splotches with flashing cores parading behind the weather gal delivering the national forecast with an exaggerated drama she’d clearly practiced the night before. Despite the warning from Sam Duke, our would-have-been shuttle driver that morning. Despite the daunting, lead-colored sky, on a Wednesday morning in early April, a humble but determined band of hikers found themselves scaling modest boulders on the side of Blood Mountain, the highest peak in the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail.

I was the lone woman among this modest herd. Carbon fiber poles in hand, I heaved my weight up staggered rocks and scurried down slippery flat stones as drunken strings of the day’s downpour ran across and spilled over the bill of my hat and dropped onto my raincoat.

Oh, hello there, Mother Nature. It’s been too long.

The uncertainty of Her mood makes the vast wilderness both a magnet and a menace to me. She throws violent tantrums and then lures me back with fiery sunsets and soothing streams and masterful arrangements of stars. I liken her to the college roommate who said really beautiful things when she was stoned, but broke a lotta stuff when she drank.

So, why don’t I just break up with Her? Well, because as much as that bitch can break me down, she heals me, too.

If you’ve followed DSS for awhile, you might remember our hike on the AT last April. After nearly freezing to death in a tent on top of Roan Mountain, we made the collective decision to journey further south this year and knock out the start of the trail, beginning at Springer Mountain, in Georgia.

“I think you’re going to be pretty happy with the weather in those parts,” The General had said in February. “Real happy …”

As the week drew closer, we gathered our gear and laid out our freeze-dried dinners and watched helplessly as the conditions down south grew worse and worse. First, it was rain all four days. Then the declaration of downpours lessened, but the temps plummeted to the 30s. I thought we picked Georgia so we could get away from that shit! When you get one section a year, you hope to heck it’s a good one. It was definitely shaping up to be a long underwear kind of trip.

I pacified myself by cursing the Weather Channel app every day until the Tuesday we loaded our gear and our hesitant bodies into Just Matt’s big Ram truck (“Tank”) and hauled ass out of the Midwest to find solace in the great outdoors. Said solace wasn’t going to come easy. An accident on the interstate brought traffic to a halt for several hours around lunchtime. An eternity in Hell has nothing on the agony of spending that much time in crawling traffic with a full bladder, a Joe Rogan podcast where he’s more stoned than usual, and an impatient driver with a grounded lead foot. After a lifetime of slugging and snaking, we came to civilization again. Starving. Of all the options and all the restaurants, the men in the front seats chose White Castle for our late lunch. White Castle! Since I have tastebuds and my mother’s cantankerous intestines, I took it easy. But the boys didn’t hold back – a decision that would come back to haunt Just Matt the next day, to the surprise of no one.

After a quick REI stop in Knoxville, we pulled into Blairsville, Georgia around 11:30 that night. With lots of talk about town of tornado warnings and predictions of softball-sized hail, we knew it was time to check in with The General.

“Well, I called Sam Duke,” he said. (Sam Duke was our shuttle driver, scheduled to pick us up at 8 am the next morning.)
“Yeah?”
“He said, ‘I wuyundt duy it!’”
“He did?”
“Yup. He said, ‘Y’all can do whatcha whant, but the trail is alays gonna be dare. You won’t if ya dead.’”

And with that, the decision was made. We would meet Sam Duke another day.

Wednesday morning, over a cardboard continental breakfast Belgian waffle, The General, Gravy, Just Matt and I sipped small cups of coffee and listened to the local weather guy instruct Georgians to, “work from home if they could.” But we saw some windows, and gosh dangit, we came to hike.

The General went to work rerouting our course. We would get on at Neel’s Gap and slackpack Blood Mountain (which was intended to be on our fourth and final day) as a day hike, 2.4 miles in and 2.4 miles out. Once we conquered this summit, if there was still enough non-life-threatening minutes left in the day, we would drive over and complete Springer Mountain, which is technically, and I did not know this before that day, not part of the official AT mileage. It’s before Mile 0. The more you know [shooting star].

So, now we’re all caught up. The crew. Slippery rocks stacked on top of each other. Polls. Lightening.

One of my favorite things about hiking is the disconnect. I work in marketing, and I am responding to email, following up on Facebook messages, retweeting, typing, posting, fire extinguishing all day long. When you have to climb all the way to a mountaintop to get a signal, it’s really refreshing. But there, on a hill called Blood Mountain, under the ominous clouds of an unpredictable storm, these typically separate worlds collided. Up ahead of me I heard the distinct tones of a weather alert scream from Just Matt’s phone, followed by the rumble of thunder in the distance. It was so polarizing. We had made the decision to walk at the mercy of nature that day, but our modern day devices pulled and pleaded at us to rethink the vulnerability. We didn’t.

As we climbed up, it felt like the clouds came down to meet us as light fog enveloped our path. Eventually, we made it to the Blood Mountain Shelter, a magical-looking structure that rests in the shadows of Blood Mountain’s intimidating rubble. I used the privy and snapped some pictures of the overlook. My brother was ready to get moving. See, Matt was experiencing his White Castle sliders for a second time. I believe the comment was: “I’m scared if I fall on my ass diarrhea is going to shoot out of my mouth.”

I should have known better than to laugh. I mean, karma has gotten me before. But laugh I did. And on our squirrely descent back down the way we came, I ate shit. I felt my feet start to go, then there was a brief battle between my upper and lower bodies, and then, a second of serenity in that moment when I accepted the fate. I braced for contact. The group got quiet in anticipation of my ass’s connection with the stone below it. Had I been struck by lightning? No, oh no. Just a private demonstration of the grace God gave me. I made some indistinguishable noises in the space of their halted conversation. Then I crashed down, sending my poles flying off in both directions. My right hand and butt cheek took the brunt of it. Since people falling down is my favorite thing, I enjoyed a good laugh before I gathered up the puddle I had become and carried on. Then I laughed 50 more times as I replayed the scenario in my head.

Another window in the weather opened the door for a climb up Springer Mountain. But first we had to drive there. Every road in Georgia that leads to a trail takes 40 minutes or more and has more curves than a Playboy. Left … right …. Left … right … I took two dramamine and it didn’t put a dent in the dizzy. Every 5 seconds a yellow triangle with that damning squiggly arrow. Turns ahead. More. Turns. Ahead. I would pick a point on the horizon, but I was no match. The transportation part just destroyed me. Maybe that’s the cost of yellow blazing.

The rise to Springer was steady and manageable – Just one mile up and then back down. We posed next to the same plaque that Grandma Gatewood and Scott Jurek stood by. It felt like one of those moments where you should move something only semi-significant out of your memory so there’s room with extra padding for this moment, just to be sure. We lingered a bit. The smoky skies and gentle dew kisses suddenly felt fitting, rather than burdensome.

How do you end a day like that? When you’re going back to civilization to hide out from tornadoes rather than tent it? If you’re us, you eat 20 tons of Mexican food, clean up and climb into bed to watch My 600-lb Life with a king size Caramello. The rain and the cold and the fall all felt just fine given the promise of a hot shower, cable and two hotel pillows before sundown. Sleepless nights were tomorrow’s worry. And oh what a worry it would turn out to be …

Wanderlust

Giving thanks for Biscuits

May 5, 2016

“Just putting ink to paper to let you know how proud I am of you and how inspiring you are – because a text wouldn’t suffice. If you would have told me in college that you were going to carry everything you needed for 4 days on your back and hike a mountain, I wouldn’t have believed it. Proud of you for setting a goal and getting ‘er done. With hiking with half marathons. And those sweet babes of yours are watching their mom set goals and have great adventures and they are taking notes. I’m grateful for you and our friendship. It’s one that inspires and is forever fun. Cheers to you for lacing up your boots and going WILD! Here’s to your next adventure!” – My college roommate

“Wanted to send you some good luck wishes for your hiking trip! Hope your ankle is all healed up and you’ve found a way to pee in front of all the boys. Can’t wait to hear how it goes!! Not just the pee part, but everything, you know … Anyways, be tough, stay safe, don’t cry and have fun! Virtual side hug to you ?” – Friend and former coworker

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I share these personal notes because I gotta tell you guys, as humbling as it is to have a steep-ass summit bring you to a quivering halt, breathless and intimidated beyond measure, it is far more humbling to have the people you love, in spite of all their own busyness, take a moment to show their support for your crazy exploits. Because so many people sent well wishes and sat through recounts of our journey, I would be remiss not to officially wrap this series up with some words of gratitude. Because no experience or blessing or accomplishment means a thing without gratitude.

Yes, I’m grateful for the hike. I think it’s safe to say the days I get to spend standing on a dirt path overlooking some of the most magnificent slivers of creation and not in a windowless office are few and too far between. Turning my face toward the thrashing wind on a wide-open bald made me feel alive and small and awake. It gave me perspective and appreciation for sweet simplicity and a natural majesty that’s so often out of sight and out of mind. “How could you see that and not believe in God?” my mother-in-law asked. And she’s right. I imagine the Lord carving and crafting and painting with a fine artist’s hand as he composed the trail. Knowing how special it was, he set it aside so only those who sought such beauty could set their eyes upon it. It’s a bit poetic, I suppose, but the scenery encroaches on your soul in a way that alters your perception. Food tastes different. The air smells alive. The terrain touches all of your senses.

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There’s a saying for backpackers, “Hike your own hike.” It means go at your own pace, take it all in, make the most of your experience. I think, while we were almost always together, Hank, my brother and I did find ways to make the adventure what we each needed it to be. There were times I walked alone and I found a comfort in actually hearing the voice inside me for a change, rather than just dismissing it or making note as it dictates more tasks. There were times we hiked together, and I relished the support and the laughter. I asked myself, “When was the last time we laughed at something other than our kids?”
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I loved our little group of AT misfits – the rookies with their stash of desserts, The General and his futile attempts to make my brother comply with the rules, the Lieutenant with his worldly stories and constant gear adjustments. People come into our lives in the strangest ways. Sometimes their role is small and sometimes it’s big, but I’ve learned that the amount of time someone spends in your life doesn’t directly impact their impression on your character. Tremendous change can come from a few brief moments, or days. The odds are somewhat decent I’ll never put my sleeping mat down next to these folks ever again. But one time I did, and it will stay with me always.

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I’d be lying if I didn’t say I felt a little bit like a badass walking off the trail. It wasn’t an easy hike and it wasn’t the easiest weather, but there was a joy in the adversity of it all. My friends all say, “I don’t know how you did that.” But anything is possible when you have no alternative. You have to keep moving forward in order to meet your dream on the other side, to see it through to its completion. I found, just when I felt like I had nothing left, God gave me a reprieve. Whether it was a portrait-worthy overlook, or patch of flat land, or friendly passerby, something always saved me.

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“Would you do it again?” they ask.  And I answer with a self-assured, 100 percent, yes. I think in part because we’re so financially invested now (equipment is expensive as shit), but also I know what a few days in the woods really looks like. It was challenging and ugly and breath-taking. It was the craziest thing we’ve ever done that seemed oddly sane once we got there. My grand illusions were demystified, and I loved the true grit and glory that remained after the reality washed everything else away.
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And finally, I often have friends ask what surprised me most about the experience. It wasn’t the sleeping conditions or the trailmates or the food –  although there were a few thrills tied to all of those things. It was honestly the support I got from people who probably shouldn’t have given a shit. The first excerpt in this post is from my college roommate. She recently adopted 2 young children and has about as much spare time as Ryan Seacrest at the height of his career. When I found a hand-written letter in my mailbox from her after the trip, I sat down on my front stoop, read it, choked up and considered what her home must have been like when she made the time to send it. It isn’t easy in the chaos of playdates and preschool and snacks and spills and diapers and learning Bulgarian to push pause and acknowledge a life outside of your own. It just isn’t. But she did. I keep the note on the dresser in my bedroom as a reminder of how no one is alone in their ambitions.

Words of support came via snail mail, chat bubble, text and email, and I think it surprised me so much because in my mind this was just a little adventure we were going to go on. It only touched our small little snow globe of a life. But I think the truth is, when anyone chases down a dream, everyone celebrates a little bit because it means their dream is still alive. We rejoice when others remind us there’s more to our lives than the 6am-10pm grind. Because let’s face it, it can be hard to see the forest through the trees. It can be hard to step outside of the routine and freestyle for a bit, no matter how high the item is on our bucket list. But every once in a while somebody does it and all of the adult world drinks to the fact that their trip overseas or DIY project or race or girls trip is absolutely possible. It prompts us to pull out our journals or dream boards or Pinterest accounts and dust off our own dreams, and maybe even move just one step closer to checking them off.

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I can’t adequately express how thankful and, yes, humbled I was by every single well wisher and congratulatory message before, after and along the way. I am grateful for the guys in our group. I am grateful that pieces of the planet that look like that still exist and I pray my children get to see them some day. I am thankful for your readership, comments and emojis. They have warmed my heart and reaffirmed my decision to document these moments in my life, no matter how self-indulgent it feels at the time. I’m grateful for the laughter, the climbs, the descents and, of course, I’m thankful for the chance to make Biscuits out there in the brilliant, vast wilderness.

 Until next time … 

Wanderlust

Makin’ Biscuits in the Woods, Pt. 4

April 25, 2016

It was a seemingly uneventful Saturday night in early March. The chicks were having a sleepover with their little buddy from the sitter’s and everyone was chasing and screaming and actin a fool in the basement. After consuming half of a chicken club pizza and a warm chocolate chip cookie or 12, I figured it would be best if I went down and got in a workout. I grabbed my laptop and a big cup of water and headed south. I still don’t know if I missed the last step or I did all the steps right and am just my mother’s daughter or what, but I heard a crack! from my ankle region and went down. My water went flying and covered the wall … my laptop flew into the baseboard. Responding to my shrieking sobs, Hank came flying down the stairs from the kitchen. No words … I had no words. Until I managed to get out, “Is my computer OK?” “Let’s just deal with this situation first and then we’ll look at that, alright?” Then he half-joking, half-shitting-himself, looked up from my ankle and into my eyes and said, “We leave in 3 weeks to go backpacking. Three. Weeks.” A lot of ice, elevation and laziness got me in my boots by go time. But on the third day of our adventure, the crack! came back.

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Day 3

I woke up from my last 20-minute stretch of sleep and heard footsteps and voices in the distance. The thru-hikers were breaking camp at Roan Mountain High Knob Shelter. I was alive. I looked over at Hank. “I don’t want to get out of my sleeping bag,” he said. “I thought I was dying from hypothermia last night,” I responded, in an I’ll-top-that tone. “What the hell were we thinking with this?” True to Princess Biscuits form, I grabbed what was mine and hauled ass to the shelter to get out of the thrashing mountain wind and in to Jetboil some coffee and breakfast. One by one our crew Frankinsteined their way into the small cabin; stiff and frozen and cranky in a way that the Starbucks Via just couldn’t thaw. I pulled a fresh pair of underwear and a new sports bra out of my pack and assessed my dressing room options. I could either go out to the tent or climb up a shady ladder to the formidable second level of the shelter to change. Based on my PTSD from the night before, it was looking like the attic had it. Let me ask you something … Have you ever stripped down to your birthday suit in a 30-something-degree log enclosure that’s too squatty to stand up all the way? Well, you’re missing quite a thrill. I gave those mice a show, I tell ya.

Between frozen water bladders and frozen spirits, it was slow going that Tuesday morning. The most exciting piece of conversation was around a splatter of spilled coffee on Just Mat’s boot tip that looked like an old man. The longer we stood, the more my 10 toes felt like 2 blocks of ice jammed into cement blocks. It was my brother who suggested he, Hank and I take off since we were packed up. Movement does wonders for numb appendages, I can testify to that. The three of us spent that morning alone, first strolling down a rocky bed under a canopy of soon-to-be green branches, frost from the night before blowing off the treetops, sending majestic flurries through the streaming sunbeams. Eventually the terrain turned to a more traditional forest. I spent those hours trailing my husband and talking to my brother. Really talking to my brother, without a million kids running around or tension about a businesses matter or softball schedules. I had drinks with a girlfriend after we got back and I mentioned this time to her. “That is such a gift,” she said. Kelly lost her brother when we were young and I’ve often thought what a slap in her face it is to waste my own sibling relationships. And it’s true, it was a gift. I’ll always have that morning to retreat to when I need it. A particular fondness, radiating that morning sunlight, will always coat that memory in my mind.

We passed a young man at a turn in the trail. “Go ahead,” I said. “We’re pretty slow.” “That’s OK, I’m waiting for someone.” he replied with a smile, and we trekked on. Eventually we came to a road. We crossed and searched for where the trail picked back up on the other side. No luck. A young girl emerged from the path we’d just left. “Huh,” she said. “My brother isn’t here and he usually waits for me. Having trouble finding the trail?” “Yeah. I think we did see your brother though about a mile back. Blue coat?” “That’s him! We must have missed a turn,” she concluded. She turned around only to save our bacon by yelling back down at us a minute later that we’d missed a redirect. In hindsight, the logs that were piled where we should have turned but didn’t were actually a fairly clear indicator. We probably gave ourselves an extra half a mile on the day, if that. The error wasn’t surprising given the fact that we were gazing down 90 percent of the time. Rule No. 6: Try to look up every once in awhile. You’ll like the view. That was one of the most disappointing parts of the journey for Hank. “You’re in this beautiful area, with these amazing views, and you spend the majority of the time looking one foot in front of you on the ground.” It was true, your best bet of avoiding injury was to constantly calculate your next step to avoid roots, rocks and ruts. A necessary evil if you want to stay upright.

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A short time later, I heard a familiar voice, “Hey guys! There’s a real bathroom down here! It’s really nice!” It was Lieutenant Blazer. He’d found a visitors area for day hikers and took full advantage of the facilities. We were at the base of Three Bald Hike, a grassy section of the trail with vast views of purplish-gray mountains on every side. Almost as soon as we left the asylum of the forest, the wind began lashing out at my cheek pudge. I pulled the hood of my rain jacket over my ball cap and secured it to save my skin. The gusts carried any chance of conversation out of your mouth and back down the mountain like a dryer at the end of a car wash. Being as we were on a fairly challenging incline, I didn’t have much to say anyway. This section was interesting since, unlike when you were in the maze of the woods, you could see what was ahead of you, a feature that was both daunting and sobering.

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It had been several hours since breakfast by this point and the balds led us down into a windy route with strange-looking scraggly trees. I was getting a little lightheaded and the twists and turns weren’t helping. Finally, I could hear The General’s voice. That meant they were stopped for lunch. I picked up my pace a bit and came down the muddy hill to where the men sat sorting through granola bars. I heard pack hit dirt behind me and turned just in time to see Gravy sliding down the path. First fall of the trip. “I’m OK!” he assured me as he pulled only half of his right trekking pole out of a mud puddle. The suction of the wet dirt clenched the bottom, stabbing side of the stick and offered only a slight struggle before he reclaimed it.

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Of course any time we eat, it’s a highlight for me, but I have to ask: You guys, have you had Justin’s Maple Almond Butter? I don’t know if it’s really that good or it was just that good on the side of a mountain, but I’m telling you, we slapped some of it on a flour tortilla during lunch that day and it was like a creamy hug for my soul. With a full tank of gas and the promise of one more night sleeping out on the trail, we pressed on. The afternoon was a woodsy decline full of switchbacks and proof of Mother Nature’s sense of humor: roots. They are the bark that bites. Even if you’re looking right at them, you still trip over roots. I swear, they’re a magical height designed to hook the toe of your boot and send you hurdling toward the earth for one frightening flash of a second. All while, I imagine, the forest fairies point and laugh at this America’s Funniest Home Videos montage. I love it when they really fall, they say. But on that steady descent on the afternoon of the third day, I hit one of those stinkers and felt a familiar crack! Game over, I thought. Hank knew it, too. The sound, my obvious hesitation moving forward, the fact that we’d just been through this 3 weeks ago. “I was thinking about how I could throw myself down so we had an excuse to get rescued and no one would think you were wussing out,” he later told me. Did everyone think I was going to wuss out?

My ankle was sore but sturdy enough to keep me propelling forward. The rest of the afternoon was quiet for this girl. I focused on my steps and kept my fears to myself and soon we came to The General standing at a small side path. After 7.1 miles (plus our morning detour), we’d reached Over Mountain Shelter, a large barn that stood at the foot of a post card-esque panoramic view. We made our way down the steep hill to the building and I remember Hank noting, “This is gonna be a real bitch in the morning.” I filed it away in the folder in my brain labeled: Thoughts to freak the frick out about in a few hours.

TheBarn3

I walked into the barn and into the strangest adult sleepover of my life. We climbed the ladder to the second floor, which was essentially just a large hay-mow. We put our sleeping mats and sleeping bags down in a neat little row like preschcoolers preparing for nap time. I grabbed my snack (the Snickers) and went down to the fire. A girl about my age was whipping up some ramen and two older gentleman were working on the wood teepee over the fire. I struck up a conversation when it felt appropriate and waited a respectful amount of time before asking her what had crossed my mind the second I saw her. “So, how are you able to be out here for 6 months?” It’s the question I had for all the thru-hikers. How do you have the time and the resources and the ability to detach long enough to hike this entire trail. In some cases, it was easy to tell. They were recent college grads, or retired, or kind of a bum … But in a lot of cases I just couldn’t figure it out. It fascinated me. “Well, actually I worked for a tech startup in Seattle,” she said. “One day, I’d had enough, so I decided to go for a walk.” I sat on the log and stared at her like she was Deepak Chopra … or Oprah. “That’s so freaking cool.” I said, like a 7th grader to a senior. I was awe-struck. The super zenned-out gentleman next to her did fire and rescue in Wyoming and was a grade A badass. The third guy resembled Bob Ross and was so kind and calm I never pushed to hear his backstory. The one I came up with in my mind was far better than anything he could have said.

THeBarn1

They started trickling in … some just to eat and then press on, others to shack up in the barn. Fanning my internal flame for the trail life, the thru-hikers would greet all of the new arrivals by trail name. “Hey, Ruffles! Where’s Willow?” “Hey, Johnny Walker! You made it. You must’ve hauled ass, man!” “Grill! I haven’t seen you since the Smokies. What’s the story?” It was a club and we were there on a guest pass. I wanted in. I sat with my eyes open and my mouth agape with a jerky grin. Then my body caught on to the fact that I’d stopped moving and, once again, I was cold. I shivered, at times violently, at times with control, as I spooned pasta from a pouch past my wind-burned lips. “Do you want this dessert tonight?” Hank asked. I shot him a what-the-hell-do-you-think glare. A Raspberry Crumble with chocolate cookie topping wouldn’t fix everything, but it sure as shit took the edge off. Just Mat knocked over the bag with the juices from his chicken teriyaki and we all watched, helpless as they ran across the sleeping platform on which we sat. “The mice are gonna come.” The General said. My brother, in an act I can only assume was a byproduct of exhaustion, reached out with his glove and pushed the liquid to the edge. We all scrunched our faces in unison and disengaged.

TheBarn2

As much as I loved being a fireside voyeur and taking in all the trail talk and mile tallies, I turned in early that night. I was praying for sleep and warmth since we were technically out of the wind. I was also hoping the mice stayed away. I put on all of my clothes, including both of my jackets, and pulled every drawstring closure on my sleeping bag to keep me sealed in tight. I thought I heard one at some point in the night, but I can’t be sure. In the early hours of the morning, I (shocker) had to pee. I drunkenly climbed out of my sleep sack, put on my sandals and headlamp and scurried down the ladder. As I wondered out into the random smattering of trees behind the barn, I saw light from another headlamp and changed directions. Then I saw another light. And still one more. It was like a game of hide and seek with full bladders and bears. Or like the scene at the end of ET where the scary guys are coming for him. Rule No. 7: When you find yourself in the woods with other sleepy bathroom buddies, shine your light toward them, drop trou and get it done. They can’t see your fanny if they’re temporarily blinded. 

To be continued …

Wanderlust

Makin’ Biscuits in the woods, Pt. 2

April 18, 2016

On the eve of Day 1.
His trail name was “T-Rex”. He was dressed from head to toe in shiny black nylon that was too small, both on the top of his bottoms and the bottom of his top. He often looked straight ahead in a stoner stare rather than make any type of eye contact with anyone in our group. He materialized from the darkness some time between when we left to stuff our excited pieholes at Smoky Mountain Bakers and our return. T-Rex must have mentioned his intent to watch Jurassic Park no less than 15 times, only to get up and put in The Thing instead, much to the delight of no one. The kid was just a few beats off the rhythm if you hear what I’m rappin’.

I’d felt some dull apprehension about who we might encounter on the trail. The timing was perfect for us to intersect a good number of thru-hikers (people hoofing it up the entire 2,000+ miles of the Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine), most of whom started in late February-early March. Right outta the gate I was sharing my leftover cheese sticks with this joker; a guy who was, “Sent away to an island when [he] was young because [he] was very bad.” Great … awesome. I live in the suburbs with 3.5 children and have a secret crush on Sarah Jessica Parker, so … we have a lot of nothing really at all in common. Please don’t cut off my hair while I sleep.

While the accommodations were charming in a way that felt appropriate for this kind of adventure – I especially loved the pictures and thank you messages from past thru-hikers displayed above the deep wash tub sink in the corner –  T-Rex was adding a certain type of character that had me feeling unsettled. He was nothing like his calmer comrades, Ace and Calvin, who both ate their instant oatmeal and made polite conversation about “all the millennials who acted like the trail owed them something” and tendinitis.

thehostel

At 10p.m. hikers who didn’t pay for a bed at the hostel are expected to head out and pitch their tent in the designated area (I mean to camp; get your mind out of the gutter). Ace had forked over the cash, but Calvin and T-Rex adjusted their headlamps and bid us farewell. The aggressive wind had been screaming at the tin roof of the hostel for a few hours at this point, and the gusts only seemed to be growing, both in strength and frequency. The barn was noticeably shifting and bending to nature’s bold breath. I could feel it. And so, when Calvin and his shifty trailmate came running back in about 30 minutes later, it wasn’t entirely shocking. “Nope … not doin’ it,” Calvin said with wide eyes. “Nope!” T-Rex chimed in for confirmation. “A tree literally just snapped and fell 2 feet from my tent! I could have died.” Calvin recounted skittishly. I’ll admit, I thought it was a clever ploy to catch a spot on the couch. I think we all did. (It wasn’t). We offered up some half-hearted sympathy and turned in.*

TreeofTruth

My thoughts volleyed between the hike and the roof literally flying off of the hostel as I shifted to find a dip in the mattress suitable for my soft form. As I settled, I heard voices from the loft area where the rest of our crew was nestled. “It’s gotta be something that goes together,” My brother’s friend, who went by The General on the trail, said. “Like peanut butter and jelly or, ya know what just feels right … Biscuits and Gravy. Biscuits!” He hollered in a jerky southern accent. “Biscuits! Get yo ass down here, girl! Damnit, Biscuits!” I knew they were working up trail names for me and Hank. And, like gum to a security blanket, it stuck.

Between the squalls, swaying barn structure and unplanned sleepover guest, T-Rex, (who must have gone in and out of the hostel at least 6 times throughout the night to do God only knows what … gather weapons and cut letters out of magazines for the note he would leave by our bodies, I assumed), I didn’t sleep. I can admit with little shame that it went against every instinct in my motherly being to curl up mere inches away from a stranger who may or may not have been a juvenile delinquent in some capacity and who may or may not have been shipped off on a boat by his parents to be treated for some sort of disturbing behavior, with nothing between us but a curtain. But this is actually good, I thought. Between staying up late to pack our packs the night before and this sleepless night, I should have no problems falling asleep on the trail tomorrow.

Day 1
People started maneuvering the vinyl folding door to the bathroom around 7:15 or so Sunday morning. I whispered my zero sleep status and detest for T-Rex to Hank before shuffling out of the area where our king-sized bed was nestled. I sat awkwardly on a chair next to my brother blinking away what little sleep had accumulated in my eyes and acclimating myself to the sausage fest in which I currently found myself. I looked over Matt’s shoulder to see a kind-faced guy, about my age, sitting on the deck. He eventually stepped in, friendly but timid. He was swinging through to pick up a resupply box and didn’t hate the fact that we mentioned there was a shower here. “Hey, man,” he was looking at my brother. “I’m Bro-seph.” “Cool … I’m Matt.” There was a moment of silence as the morning high dropped from Bro-seph’s face and he accepted the fact that this guy wasn’t feelin’ his trail vibe.  “I’m actually Matt, too,” he conceded.

See, trail names are a funny thing. Almost everyone we came across had one, and, for someone who is terrible with names, it actually made them easier to remember while also lending a bit of anonymity. I imagine there’s something freeing about being whoever you want to be on the trail. You don’t have to be “Sharon from Accounting” on the AT. You can be “Coffee Mate” or “Monarch” or “Shuffle Butter” or “Quick Cheeks”. It doesn’t matter. Anything goes. It’s a story you tell around the fire and your entry in the registry.  The exchange between the Matts was a testament to the fact that my brother was there for the climb and not networking with the intriguing trail folk. He wanted to hike, spend time with his best friend, sister and brother-in-law, and maybe have some laughs. That was it. He had no interest in dissecting the new Lumineers album and he certainly didn’t want to sit around a flame talking trekking poles with strangers named “Nacho”. Ironically, it was also that exchange that earned him his official trail name, “Just Mat”.

OnShuttleStandBy

Around 10:25 an SUV and a truck pulled around by the General Store to shuttle us to the trailhead. It was frigid outside. It was so cold, you guys, that the hostel owners’ goat wouldn’t come out of a hole it dug for itself in the side of a hill. That’s freaking cold. Nonetheless, I wedged myself into the extended cab between Just Mat and Gravy. The General sat up front. It felt like we drove forever. As people made small talk and the cab filled with the smell of warm coffee breath and heavily applied deodorant, my attention went to how nonchalantly our chauffeur was taking these tight bends around the mountain; the mountain with no guardrails. One little sneeze, one sip of scorching-hot joe, one slip of the steering wheel and the truck would go violently tumbling. My eyes darted. No one else seemed to notice how close we were to plummeting to our deaths. Forget bears … we were never going to make it out of the shuttle alive.  The driver mentioned that after they dropped us, they were heading for a rescue. Apparently a couple of girls had gotten sick and couldn’t go on. Apparently a lot of hikers had gotten sick this year. “So we can call if we need rescued?” I inserted casually. He was playing a killer alternative radio station and I began to calm down.

BandGatTrailhead

We reached the start of our section at Iron Mountain Gap and piled out of the two vehicles. It was still bitterly cold. There was a stiffness and hesitation in everyone’s gate. Our bodies wanted to hibernate. “Good luck!” our escorts said before heading back down the winding mountainside. We gathered for a group photo, adjusted packs, poles and jackets, and took our first steps onto the Appalachian Trail. “We’re really doing it guys!” I said to Just Mat and Gravy. Just 1 minute later I was so winded I couldn’t utter more than 2 words strung together at a time. “Wow this … is so … pretty, huh?” To which my husband responded, “I think … we might … have … underestimated … the physicality … of this.” The good news was the heat came fast to my core and fingers. The bad news was the next 4 days were guaranteed to hand us our asses on a platinum AT platter.

blaze

TheOrchard

The landscape on that first day was much like a Midwest forest with a mountainous backdrop thrown in for good measure. Gradual hills, barely budding foliage and the dried, leafy remnants of the past autumn carpeting the path. Honestly, the first section went so fast. It was a manageable 6 miles and I felt invigorated when we arrived at Clyde Smith Shelter – our end point for the day – in time for a stupid-late lunch around 2:30. The weather was beautiful, probably in the high 50s/low 60s and a sad tuna salad tortilla rollup never sounded so good. In the unforgiving light of the mid-afternoon, the shelter gave off more of a lean-to vibe. It had 3 walls, a roof, a few sleeping platforms and mouse mobiles (strings with bottles and cans attached to keep rodents from scurrying down the line to get into your food sacks). For some reason I pictured cute little playhouse-type structures with warm, sturdy perimeters. Not so much.

The Shelter

We opted to set up camp in a circular area behind the shelter. “It’s nice and flat, and it looks like only a few people shit back here,” The General proclaimed. Lesson No. 2: Always look for toilet paper before you pick your camping spot. He and Just Mat had hammocks they attached across from each other, as did the father and son in our group. Lieutenant Blazer (a friend of The General’s) made a last-minute decision to sleep in his bivy sack next to the fire. The fire … ah, the fire. There are spirit makers and spirt breakers on the trail and the fact we were able to have a fire was a huge maker for me. I had heard the only blazes permitted on the trail were the white ones you follow, so I was delighted when I saw a fire ring at our site, and even more geeked when I sat next to that fire with a little hot cocoa. As I savored my hard-earned pouch dinner and listened to the tunes coming from The General’s portable speaker, my husband bustled about putting the finishing touches on our tent and hanging our packs from the trees. “Gawd, look at Gravy just hustlin to get shit done while you sip hot chocolate,” Just Mat remarked, in a way only a big brother could. “Princess Biscuits. That’s your new name. Princess. freaking. Biscuits.” And like a bad first impression to your bunkmates at church camp, it stuck.

Camp

I didn’t sleep much that night. I typically catch my Zs on my tummy, and my mummified sleeping bag wasn’t really conducive to remaining in that position without suffocating. I was using my clothing stuff sack as a pillow at the General’s recommendation and it didn’t want to stay put, slippery little sucker that it was. I laid there, Princess Biscuits in the vast wilderness, as my sweet Gravy finally found some rest. Around 10:30 – which felt like 3am because we went to bed as soon as the sun disappeared – my hot cocoa kicked in. I suddenly had to pee. I had to climb over my poor, sleeping husband to frantically fight for release from the zipper and find freedom. He awoke to a knee in the liver from his beloved, but I did escape in time to water the nearest thirsty tree. As I climbed back into my cocoon, empty-bladdered and a bit sugar buzzed, I reflected just long enough to admit to myself that this shit was real. And this shit was tough. And this shit was really tough.

To be continued … 

*A note from the author: In hindsight, those poor kids really could have had their water shut off that evening. I felt like the worst kind of jerk the next morning when we saw the tree and can’t stress enough how happy I am that to my knowledge neither they, nor anyone else we came across suffered any serious injuries.