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.