A short movie about a chill day among beautiful canyons filled with flowers.
A short movie about a chill day among beautiful canyons filled with flowers.
I finally updated the AT 2016 stories page, linked to the menu above. Here is a prologue of sort to the next adventure …
I had the means, the time and the gumption. I was going to hike the Appalachian Trail (the AT), all 2,200 miles from Maine to Georgia. My plan was to start at the summit of Kathadin in early July and roll on down south to Georgia for Thanksgiving.
But you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and bobcats … I made it to the top of Kathadin, across Maine, New Hampshire and half of Vermont. 500 miles I walked. Then I landed in the hospital. Here are the stories of my hike and its unexpected left turn –> here.
As I update this page in the fall from my temporary home in New Hampshire, I now know that the sickness that landed me in the hospital was a gift. This is still 2016. The year when I asked the Universe to “surprise me”. It might even surprise you … but hold on a little bit. The next chapter is being written, and I don’t have a full grasp yet of its extent. For now, I’ll tell you that it comes with delicious green eyes (or grey, or orange, depending on the weather) and an air of certainty, of game-change, of uncharted territory.
So, stay tuned. The adventure ain’t over yet, even if the AT is temporary (or permanently) on hold.
[I still had one story written on the trail saved in my phone. This was the day that started it all. I hiked another entire day after that one with belly pain before deciding it’d probably be wise to exit, especially since the rotten egg burps and frequent runs to the woods I had expected never came.]
Some days, I fly 20 miles up and over steep rocky mountains. Others, I drag my sorry ass 10 miles on almost perfect level terrain of soft easy pine needles. I guess it’s called balance.
This all started last night. I knew a big storm was coming, and I knew a nearby trail angel offered hikers dry space in a barn and breakfast in the morning. But I was enjoying my solitude in the Vermont open forest so much that I made a conscious decision to stop short a mile from town and brave whatever storm came my way instead of facing yet another crowd of new hikers.
The storm came, and what a storm! Vermont went from drought to flood warning in a few hours. The rain was so heavy and thick that it collapsed my tent immediately. I had feared this would happen. I had pitched the tent stakes at an angle through a few inches of leaves over a solid bedrock of granite. In dry weather it probably would have held, but in that storm, not a chance.
I got out in the downpour and dragged my tent to an area with thicker leaves. There were no loose anchoring rocks anywhere in sight, but eventually, after the n-th collapse, the tent finally stayed up. I was soaking wet by then, and still needed to hang my food bag up in a tree. Lighting crashed just over the next hill. I quickly coiled my bear line for the throw and found a worthy tree. The first two branches broke under the weight of the wet food bag – a nice full bag replenished that morning in Hanover – but the third one held. I was very pleased with myself – I can take care of myself in the wilderness. Yay! – and crawled back into my then still dry home.
I slept on and off, woken up often by some of the loudest thunder I have ever heard. The clashing traveled from one side of the sky to the other, creating shock waves that shook the ground under my sleeping pad. I had to contend with the usual tent leaks, and kept count of the time between lightning and thunder to gage the storm’s proximity. The closest it got was 3 seconds, so still about half a mile away. I don’t worry until it’s less than 3. I felt safe, in spite of the situation.
I awoke this morning to clear skies, a dry pad and quilt (my sleeping bag is off to Western Mountaineering for refluffing of feathers – that’s another story). But, by my feet, my pack swam in a inch-deep indoor lake. The area had been level and dry the night before, but leaves cannot be trusted to hold up weight. Everything aside from my pad, borrowed quilt and the electronics in a ziplock bag was dripping wet. I sat up to assess the damage and was immediately shot back down by a sharp pain in my lower right belly.
My brain quickly ran through its experiential files. Period cramp? Nah, too localized. Muscle cramp? Nope, too internal. Well then, I guessed I was in for some fun times ahead – rotten egg burps and frequent runs to the woods. I have a pretty good guess which of the water sources did it too. The stagnant one below the beaver dam, right after the steep uphill where I lost half my own body weight in sweat, and 9 miles away from the next water source. That one.
This isn’t my first sick belly rodeo. I don’t filter. I treat my water by loving it. It works 99% of the time. I have long ago accepted the consequences of my unusual choices.
So I started the day in pain, with a pack heavy with wet gear. My pack belt occasionally unsnapped, forced open by the growing girth of my bloated belly. I just walked slower and focused instead on the beauty of rural Vermont, its sugar maple forest, little barns and open fields of wild flowers. I was slow and bloated, but not unhappy … Until I climbed down the bank of a stream, slipped on rocks and landed smack on my tail bone.
That pain was so intense that I laid right where I fell for a minute, with tears in my eyes and both shoes in the river – damn it, those were my dry socks! A moan escaped my lips, the polite emissary of a rising flurry of curses. I kept them all in. A family of day hikers with kids was approaching.
“Are you alright?” The mom yelled down from the top of the bank.“I don’t know yet.” I crawled back up to her on all four and asked her to look down my pants. Nothing broken, she said, just a bit of blood from a cut right on my tail bone. “You’ll probably have a bruise.” Yep. I expect it.
I slowed down even more after that. Bruise in the back, bloat in the front. The forest was still beautiful. I was still mobile.
A few painful slow miles later, I came upon Sweet Toots, Monster and their dog, Beast, in a river.
“It’s only going to be a 9 mile day,” Monster said, “but we’re going to camp right here. Look! There are pools where we can bathe!”
Good enough for me. The water was frigid, but it was nice to get the sweat and blood off my body.
Sweet Toots (the man of the couple) built a fire, and Monster (his wife) recounted how they met in China, where she once ran a sex toy import business. I was full of questions, and, in the back of my mind, grateful to the slow miles for the opportunity to camp with these two.
So, overall, I think this day still comes out in the positive. Now, I’m not sure how I’m going to sleep. My belly wants me on my back, my tail bone won’t have it. Also, there are mice here. I haven’t had to deal with mice in a while.
Should be another interesting night.
Vermont, the beautiful.
Good morning world! Its sunny, bright and warm in the room at the end of the hall, on the 5th floor of Rutland Regional Medical Center.
The IV was moved again – my hand couldn’t take the amount of substances injected, especially after the spine-arching painful dye for the CT scan traveled through. The IV is now on my left forearm (4th location!) and my right hand is free again for writing. Yay.
Yesterday, I had 2 CT scans (for a total of 3), 4 more blood cultures, 2 more blood tests of other kinds and 1 stool culture. I now have 3 doctors working on the case, including the general surgeon (because if the antibiotics fail, I’m going under his knife) and a newly hired specialist in infectious diseases, in case I have something of the sort.
The CT scan shows a large inflammation in the lower right corner of the abdomen. “The kind that would cause massive pain” the doc said – why yes, that would be the kind. Behind that, a bit of the appendix pokes into view and it looks fine. Usually, with appendicitis, the whole thing would be inflamed, so it doesn’t look like appendicitis, but they can’t rule it out either, because they can’t see it. If it were an inflammation of the colon (forgot the name), the antibiotics should have cleared it by now, so it might not be that, but they can’t rule it out. If it was cancerous, an abscess or tumor, the sides of the inflamed area would have a definite line, and they don’t see that, but they can’t rule them out either. I could just have an atypical one of any of those.
The blood cultures show nothing yet, but they’ve only been brewing some for a day, some for two, so nothing in there yet, or at all. Same with the stool culture.
My blood count is normal, vital signs of a healthy person, still no other symptoms except for a bit of diarrhea – but then my last solid meal was roasted corn on the cob, cooked over a fire in a lookout cabin on the AT, 5 days ago.
If it’s Giardia or another water-borne diseases, I’ve got none of the symptoms. It’d be a very atypical one, but again, they don’t rule any of them out.
So, that’s that. Until they know, they feel the best course of action is to keep the drip of antibiotics going and keep looking.
Meanwhile, I am actually doing much better. I can sit up by myself, move around, and no longer need help to the bathroom. Talk about an exercise in vulnerability and trust. Nothing like a bit of pain to drop all “I can do it myself” pride.
The nurses and nurses aid have all been exceptional angels of love, respect and patience. Each comes with a precise unique mix of qualities they all possess. All are professional, efficient, caring, comforting, etc. but draw on these qualities in various ways. In short bursts of visits to change IV bags or take vital signs, I get glimpses into their world. Here, it’s all about the patients, but outside, they are mothers, wifes, girlfriends, mountain hikers, motorcycle riders, maple syrup fudge recipe inventors, travelers, with a whole spectrum of adventure dreams and plans. My surgeon is a mountaineer and climber, waiting for his kids to be old enough to become his rope guns. I imagine not everyone gets to find out all these juicy bits, but I’m curious, and my backpack with all my gear (brought to me from the Yellow Deli Hiker Hostel by Trail Angel Tom yesterday – thank you!!!) sits on the chair reserved for visitors, first in view when you come in the room. It’s a great conversation starter, that’s why I leave it there.
I see the nurses the most, but really, everybody that has come into my sphere has been absolute top-notch personel, from the transport-technicians who gives me bed rides down to the CT scan room, to the cleaning ladies, to the handsome green-eyed maintenance man who came to unclog my toilet – right, because I totally want to meet handsome men while wrapped in a saggy hospital gown, with dreadful fever bed hair! Luckily, he was also very efficient, and out of here in two flushes.
I’ve also had the visit of the hospital dietician – how cool is that? This hospital has a dietician! She came to enquire why my tray of mostly sugar and high fructose corn syrup water was returning to the kitchen intact. I told her that it seemed to me the last thing my body needed right now, it the midst of this epic fight to heal itself, was nutritionally empty substances I don’t trust or usually consume. Now my tray comes with hot water, herbal tea, wedges of fresh lemon and chicken broth.
So, overall, I’d say life is good and getting better!
Thanks again for the deluge of love and support. I am sure it’s helping, in one way or the other.
The last solid supper – the night before I got off trail.
This will be a short post. They’ve moved the iv to the top of my right hand, which makes doing phone things difficult.
A doctor was just in here. The massive antibiotics they have me on seems ineffective (so far). Still in pain, but better than yesterday – yesterday was epic! Now I’m spiking fevers. So, they don’t know what I have. But kudos to the doctors here for how hard they are working on it. They’ve checked for tick-born diseases, bacterial infections … several blood tests, urine tests, etc. and now back to the CT scan in a few minutes. I have no symptoms aside from the pain in the one spot in my belly.
I’ve just been sleeping a bunch. I even finally befriended the incessantly beeping iv machine. I’m hurt but not unhappy. Just having a very different kind of experience than what I’m used to. Also, I can see mountains out the window (I’m on the top floor). And the moon was full last night and hovering right there. The outside world is not too far.
Thank you for all the love making my phone buzz like mad whenever I turn it on.
WordPress alerted me that a whole lot of you have visited my site, looking for info, I surmise.
I’ll write the full story when I’m in less pain and have a little more perspective. This is just a bottom line of facts.
I got off trail two days ago because of increasing pain in my lower right abdominal area. I figured I’d better be in town if the apendix was the problem. I landed at the Yellow Deli hikers hostel, in Rutland VT, and slept for about 18 hrs before deciding to go to Urgent Care. Urgent Care took one tap at my appendix and sent me to the Emergency Room. Nice people too, didn’t charge me for the visit (I have no health insurance), and the doctor gave me his cell number in case I need anything.
I spent all afternoon yesterday in tests. CT scan, blood, urine, etc. The verdict is that it is most likely not the appendix, but an inflammation of the lower colon. Pain is the same, and the usual method is also surgery. The doc said that, at this point, if he was to perform surgery, he’d have to remove a big chunk of my colon, so instead, he’s bombarding my body with antibiotics for a few days and hope that does it. The pain is pretty intense. I think my pain scale went up a notch. I get morphine at night.
Silly and Long Spoon, two nobo hikers I just met, and Angel Tom “plans too much” have been visiting me. And my friend Brian’s mom, who happens to be a nurse here (what are the chances?) visited too. Tom said he’ll come back later with Miss Janet. Not how I thought I’d meet the famous Angel Miss Janet, but pretty cool still. Trail family is the best! Thank you all, trail family or not, for your love and support!
The doc said I’ll be here a few days. I don’t know how long. I talked with the financial dept. They said they’ll work with me to get me the most financial assistance they can.
I’ll decide what to do about the AT when I’m back on my feet.
That’s all. The iv machine is beeping again, driving me bonkers!
Love to all. This is just an experience among many. I’m feeling good mentally. Xoxoxoxo
The beeping nemesis.
I’m 1.3 miles from the NH-VT border, waiting for the rain to let off a bit, eating pastries and yogurt at the Co-op in Hanover.
The trail across the end of NH was nothing but a series of delights – Squishy paths of soft needles, no rocks, no roots. Then a mile or two through private fields under the sun, followed by a tunnels of black berries and grapes (the grapes aren’t ready yet) and a boardwalk above a small forests of cat tails, then back into the forest. The miles dissappeared under my torn up Cascadias like they were nothing at all.
Last night I slept at the edge of an open field to watch the meteor shower. But I only saw a few deer and one firefly. I was asleep before the shooting stars show began.
I was dreading the green tunnel, but so far, it’s a wide airy tunnel – a very different kind of forest then up north. I can actually see between the trees and the sun can find me here and there on the path. Also, the trees here love being hugged, they’re not grumpy and jaded like up north. We’ve had some good conversations. It’s nice to be alone. Trees are shy, they tend to not speak to hikers in group. Or maybe they do, but no one listens.
I made it to Hanover in 2 days, again faster than I expected. So this morning I purposely slowed down to enjoy the forest for the last few miles before town. There were fun messages everywhere.
First I met a leaf that wouldn’t fall. It stood on its edge, oscillating back and forth but never fully laying down. “How do you do that? ” I asked it, out loud. “Why aren’t you falling? ” I suspected a magician’s thread so I wrapped my pole above it and sure enough, the leaf flew up. I laughed triumphantly and we danced in circle for a few minutes. Nobody saw me. I left the leaf suspended on a branch a few feet of trail so it can have a better view.
Then, this tree happened.
Way to stand out, Tree! Grow your own growth. You don’t need to fall in line.
A mile later, this cat tail greeted me by the side of the trail.
Just like that. That cat tail doesn’t care that there’s no swamp around. It’s just gonna grow in the middle of the forest and stand tall and proud, certain of its right to be exactky what it is, where it is.
I want to be like that leaf, and that tree, and that cat tail.
And now that I think about it, I’m not even sure it’s called “cat tail”. But in the spirit of this post, I’ll call it whatever I want.
The rain stopped. It’s time to go to Vermont!
AT Trail journal. Day 35. New hampshire.
I know I haven’t written in a while, but, after Maine, I had nothing nice to say and a lot to process. Maine temporarily broke me, mentally and physically. I needed a serious attitude adjustment. In fact, I needed a complete overall. Who was this Bobcat who was forcing, enduring, complaining and dreading the trail? Thru-hiking was never before a task to accomplish, nor a checkbox on a list of adventures or a bucket list, it was, and is, an honor and a privilege.
Something had to shift.
Many miles and moons ago, before the PCT, a loved one once told me “If you ever feel like you want to quit the trail, take three town zeros, then get back on the trail for three more days. If you still want to quit then, call me, I’ll talk you out of it.” The last resort option is no longer available to me, so I made the most out of the first two.
I took three zeros in North Conway, surrounded by a tribe of loving friends and mountains I know and trust. I slept in my own bed in the back of the truck and gorged on fresh, organic, local vegetables and grass-fed meat. I snuck in free yoga classes and didn’t even look at my gear. My mind was completely off trail. I allowed myself the space to imagine I might just stay in North Conway, accept I might not walk the AT after all, then finally admit I actually didn’t have choice.
Some dreams hold us captive like a tiger’s jaw. Even if they hurt, there’s no getting out, and struggling only makes them clamp tighter. In North Conway, I relaxed in the jaw. I made myself limp and maleable. And I listened. On or off trail, I believe no experience pointless, so I sat with my trail malaise, right where the fangs contact the skin, and asked my body what ailed it.
“Entrapment”, it said. I felt trapped on the AT. While in Maine, I blamed my claustrophobia on the opaque canopy – the “green roof”. But when I scratched a little deeper, I realized the trail weighed on me like a job – get up at dawn, study the map to determine the miles to the next shelter, keep head down and put in the time to get there, eat lunch and dinner with “coworkers” – people working on the same goal, then go “home” to the tent, and repeat, every day.
Scratch still deeper. Right before the PCT, I quit a PhD, committed to six weeks of discipline to become a yoga instructor and navigated an all-consuming, difficult love relationship. Right before the AT, what was I doing? That’s right – whatever the hell I wanted! Single and free in the wide open Sedona desert. So the first trail gave me more freedom than my pre-trail life, while the second took some away. I think the shelter-miles-driven mentality is a good segue way to trail life for people coming from a mainstream structured existence. Nothing wrong with it. It just isnt where I come from. So, I stopped all accounting. I hiked the Whites alone, with no concept of time or miles. I got up when I had slept enough, ate when I was hungry, lingered where it was pretty, stopped walking when my legs asked and a good camp (i.e. with a view and away from people) appeared. With the added solitude, I talked to the trees and observed the forest with a friendly mind again and slipped into a natural state of flow I recognized as my own. I felt happy again.
With my natural flow restored, the next ailment surfaced. I hiked the PCT like all the other thru-hikers, on a steady diet of Ramen, Pasta Sides, Pop tarts and M&ms. Common trail wisdom claims “you can’t walk a long trail unless you like junk food.” I lost twenty pounds of upper body muscle on the PCT and slept for eleven days after Canada. “That’s just what the trail does.”
Well, apparently, my body doesnt care about trail wisdom. As early as my first night in the Whites, on top of North Carter, it refused to digest the Pasta Sides dinner I fed it. It gagged on M&ms and frowned at the sight of cheap summer sausage. I climbed up and over the Wild Cats on a growling stomach and up Mt. Washington fueled only by nuts and seeds. Luckily, my friend Moss met me at the summit with a ham and cheese croissant and a giant oatmeal raisin cookie. That’s some good magic right there! I got it then: I must eat real food. I don’t know how the whole “trail diet” started or if it became the norm because of low cost and weight, but at this point, I’d rather be unable to finish the trail because I ran out of funds then because I am depressively malnourished. A few texts from the summit later, my trail angel Sally had arranged to pick me up at Crawford Notch and bring me back to my truck for yet another zero in North Conway, a day of food bag adjustment.
The next afternoon, after a leisure breakfast and yoga morning, and in the temporary company of the lovely Laura, I returned to the trail loaded with five days worth of whole food. My pack was bulging with bean thread noodles, miso paste, deli meat, fresh green beans, dark chocolate, homemade cookies, dense bakery bread, coconut oil, banana chips, bee pollen, indian spices, etc. My pack was heavier with five days of real food than it had been with eight days of “hiker food”. I had accepted I’d be slower.
But, a strange thing happened then. Not only was I suddenly excited for every upcoming trail meal (a new experience), I also flew over Franconia ridge, the Kinsmans and Moosilauke. I really didn’t mean to. I meant to savor every exposed ridge, 360 view, every step on my beloved Whites. But my legs felt so strong that pushing up vertical rocky paths was fun. And I did linger plenty, and stealth camped on exposed ridges under the stars. But still, I landed in Glencliff effortlessly and the Whites, reputed to be some of the hardest terrain on the AT, were over in a blink – three days, three sets of mountains. I arrived in Gencliff with no soreness and still two days of food (which I didn’t need because Legion and Sweets, the Hiker’s Welcome caretakers and friends of mine, have been spoiling me with fancy grilled sandwiches and cooked breakfasts). Whole food hiking – I’m a believer!
So, that’s where I’m at now. I took two zeros to soak in the Legion-Sweets hospitality, for a total of eight zeros on the AT so far, more than I took on the entire PCT. No miles, no schedule, no worries. Georgia isn’t going anywhere.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it one more time now that I’m getting a glimpse of how deep that statement runs: this is a different trail, and I’m a different person. Officially, all bets are off. I get back in the green tunnel tomorrow with a heavy bag of good food and a commitment to solo, unstructured roaming.
Haha. I think I’ve got it all figured it out. Do you hear the Universe laughing? Yep. Me too, me too.
[glossary at bottom]
Maine is over. Alleluia!
I read somewhere that 50% of sobos quit before the end of Maine. I am not surprised. I don’t usually quit adventures, but I am right now sitting on the option – the option to put an end to the misery. There were a few days after the “Maine. Pain. Rain” post when I discovered new levels of internal bitchiness I didnt even suspect I possessed. I called it “PMS – Painful Mountain Syndrome”. On the physical level, my calves were so tight that each up-hill step was crippled by cramps. I also cramped at night, keeping me from repair and salvation. On the mental level, I went a little insane in the trees. Claustrophobic, trapped under the canopy, with no access to the sky, the moon, the stars, the sun. I learned about myself that I need open spaces to function. Without the room to be, I get angry. “Fuck this, why don’t I just use my AT budget and fly to India instead, and practice yoga, which would be good instead of destructive to my body, and hike the Himalayas, far above tree line.” It wasn’t pretty. *I* wasn’t pretty. I didn’t see myself but was convinced I was ugly. Unhappiness feels very unattractive from the inside.
I’m sure I’ll eventually get some perspective on Maine. For now, I’d rather not feed an indulgent unproductive rant any further. So, I’ll tell you my top three favorite Maine moments.
1. Coming out of the 100-mile Wilderness, I was the last of my trail family to get to the road – a daily phenomena that always left me wondering if I was “late”. Thorny and Waking Bare were still by the side of the road when I reached it, unsuccessful in catching a hitch to Monson. As the token female of the group, I stepped up to the road. A few minutes later, an old rusty Jeep pulled over. “Please, don’t step on the fish.” The driver said to Thorny and Walking Bare. “I caught them yesterday and forgot to take them out.” I don’t know why, this still cracks me up every time I think about it. I loved Monson. It was quirky and rural like the fish man, and there were green smoothie at Pete’s. Favorite trail town so far.
2. A few miles short of Avery Mountain, in the Bigelows, I met Brightside. Brightside was one of those nobos I just wished would turn around so I’d get a chance to know them. We crammed a five hour conversation in five minutes, skipping most of the standard questions, like “Where are you from?”, “Is there water up ahead?”, etc. We dove straight down to the bottom lines, “How is this hike changing you?”, “What does it all mean?” He spoke of necessary life changes ahead and of his dream of a different, off-the-grid, unconventional life. I told him I was “waking my talk” – I wrote a book that advocates following your heart blindly in all cases, and here I was hiking a trail with, technically, not enough funds. Without a moment of hesitation, he pulled out $80 and said “Your budget won’t be tight today. You were a bright side in my day. This is just a thank you.” We hugged and hiked on, me to the windy top of Avery, him to Monson, his childhood town. The trail provides!
3. The AWOL AT guide describes Mahoosuc Notch as either the hardest or most fun mile of the AT. For me, it was a haven of redemption. After hating Maine on and off for days, here was a mile long jungle gym of pure play. A mile long of giant boulders strewn about, with cold little caves, technical moves, and the opportunity to use every muscle in the body. I loved it so much that I considered doing it again. Thorny was with me. He said he’d wait. But I hiked on, because that’s what we do, we go in one direction, and one direction only.
[Note: I wrote this post about a week ago and am fascinated by the potency of my hindsight rose-colored goggles. I don’t remember hating Maine at all. In fact, my mind is filled with nice memories of friendship, magic and beautiful little lakes. And I definitely have zero desire to get off trail. That mood is long gone. But, I wrote it, so I’ll post it. Even if that’s not how I remember it now. Sorry, Maine, if I didn’t appreciate you as you deserved]
Nobo – a thru-hiker walking from Georgia to Maine.
Sobo – a thru-hiker walking from Maine to Georgia.
Flip-flopper – a thru-hiker walking the trail in sections in one calendar year (ex. North from VA to Maine, then south from VA to Georgia)
Trail family – the people you end up hiking with day after day, then keep as lifelong friends when the trail is over.
Appalachian Trail journal. Day 13. Maine.
I am not enamored with the AT, yet. The PCT could do no wrong by me, I loved it so. But the AT, oh, the AT, ggrrrrr …
Since I left Monson, my days have had a predictable pattern. I wake up tired, unsure whether it’s raining or just dripping fog from the trees. I triple dry-bag my gear, put my achy feet in wet socks and wet shoes, and wobble down the trail. It’s usually sunny by then. But I don’t see the sun because it’s shielded by the green roof, the shelter of infinite leaves all vying for the light.
It’s alright, it’s not like I can look up anyway. A cloud of gnats hovers in front of my eyeballs, matching my speed exactly. If I stop, they stick to the sweat on my face. If I accelerate, they dive-bomb my eyeballs. By gnat consensus, whoever dies in eyeballs is granted immediate, uncontested entry into bug Valhalla. I am certain of it.
I also can’t look up because of all the damn roots and rocks. No two steps are the same. I have no rhythm. Walking without rhythm is exhausting, and I imagine that the roots only await their chance to take me down. Best would be my face on a sharp rock, but they’ll settle for a twisted ankle.
I turn inward to escape my bleak circumstances, but it’s just as dark in there. That’s one of the gifts of the trail. So much space is created in the mind that any unresolved issue, grudge or resentment bubbles up to be released into the wild. But this release requires a clear heart, not a heart already seething with discontent. The terrain and my dark thoughts create the perfect volatile mind cocktail. Suddenly, I am pissed. Anger knots my stomach and clench my teeth. I walk faster. My feet hurt, and I don’t care. I stab my toes, and I don’t care. I slip, and my poles catch me.
My poles always catch me, sometimes with my face only a few inches from injury – out here, this could be really bad – but they catch me. That’s usually the turning point. Gratitude replaces anger. Gratitude for my poles, so tough, so light and reliable. Gratitude for my pack, so effortless and compact on my back … gratitude!
Gratitude is an integral part of my gear system. I don’t filter the water I drink. Instead, I love it. I take the time to deeply appreciate it, its beauty, its life giving energy. I thank it and the stream where I collect it, and know for a fact that I am safe drinking it. I don’t carry insect repellent. Mosquitoes don’t bite me. I have a long history of appreciating these misunderstood little creatures. I don’t carry bear spray. I am grateful for these powerful animals. I love them, and I believe they know it. I don’t carry Crocs to protect my feet at camp. I am grateful for the opportunity to ground myself barefoot and boost my immune system. All in all, gratitude probably saves me a couple of pounds on my back. And it weighs nothing. And it works.
I met Firefly and Loon (the man formerly known as John) on day 2. Loon was across the river when I came upon them. Firefly was still on the bank on my side. She seemed anxious.“I hate these!” she pointed to the precarious rock path across the river. “You should change your mind about it.” I told her. “Try this instead, ‘River, I love you. Please grant me safe passage. Thank you'” And I walked across the river without a pause. Firefly thanked the river and crossed right behind me, confident and safe. Loon asked “What did you tell her? I’ve never seen her cross a river so fast!” It really works.
So, if I know it works, it seems all these things that pissess me off are simply indicators of where my relations aren’t clean. I don’t like mice. Mice chew through my tent and eat my food. I don’t like gnats. They fly in my eyeballs. I also have adversarial relationships with wet socks, slanted or uneven ground under my tent, steep uphill, slick roots, rocky downhills and sun-blocking canopy … so pretty much the whole of the AT in Maine.
I have been trying to work on my attitude problem about it. I mean, I can see that the forest is gorgeous, but I don’t always love it, yet. And, honestly, I think it doesn’t care much for me either. On day 3, I hugged a tree by the side of the trail. I have hugged trees all over the world. I always get a happy feeling when I do – a love returned kinda warm glow. But when I hugged this one, I felt annoyance. I wasn’t annoyed, the tree was. Two other tree huggers have since shared similar experiences. Loon says this forest feels like Fanghorn. It has neither patience nor care for the affairs of men. I imaging we are nothing but nuisance, like gnats, to the trees. The AT is old. These trees have seen too much. Maybe, too many have taken knife to bark to carve initials, or painted blazes, or cut roots to clear the path, or, like the very nice and well-intentioned trail crew man today, with his deadly sharp tool, wacked off leaves within the corridor of the trail “for the hikers”. No permission is asked from the trees. No apologies are offered.
Those were the thoughts running through my head today, while dripping sweat up the Little Bigelow Mountain in the thick, sticky, buggy air. I stopped and placed my hand on a tree in apology. Five gnats immediately landed on my eyelashes, and I let them – an opportunity to maybe mend another relation. The sky grumbled. As though in answer to my handshake, the top of the canopy began to shake, and a breath of cool air funneled down through the narrow trail, sweeping all the insects away. I grabbed a quick snack before the noontime dawn. Oh yeah, I knew what was coming. I’ve felt that cold breeze before. I know this pattern:
It begins when the insects leave. The breeze clears the way, the trees shake, the sky grumbles and darkens. “Noontime dawn”, I call it – almost dark enough to use a headlamp. Anticipation mounts. Creatures scurry to their holes, hikers speed to shelters. I stay out, in eager excitement, with rain gear on standby. Then, suddenly, the sky unleashes. Within minutes, the whole world is drenched, starting with my shoes. The trail becomes a chocolate river and every leaf owns a waterfall. I love it! I love the rain in Maine. It is one of my best relations on the trail.
When the rain falls, and I known that my gear is safe and dry, I get giddy with joy, I jump in puddles, I hoot to the sky. I fall in love with this trail, this difficult trail I sometimes hate. In the rain, all anger and sweat get washed away. The forest speaks and I hear it. And for one brief moment, I am at peace with ALL my relations.
P.S. mike 188 – I have another blog post/story titled “Please don’t step on the fish” in the works. I don’t know if I’ll have it done by tomorrow. Resupply in Stratton is going to be a touch and go. So it might have to wait for the next zero.