Reflections

It has now been 11 days since I returned home from finishing the Appalachian Trail. Reaching Springer Mountain was, of course, a joyous occasion, but there was no overwhelming feeling of emotion. It was a special day in that it was my last day (for now) out on the AT, but the experience of being out on the trail for 6 months was a lot more special. Some days I got wrapped up in the miles and our pace, but the people around me were my reminder that the experience out there was more important than finishing the trail. I plan on going back out in the Spring and making up the sections that I skipped, so leaving the AT felt more like a “see ya later” than a “goodbye.”

So how has my experience on the AT changed me?

The first time Jim and I got accidently separated, back in the 100 mile wilderness, I ended up crying because I let all of my fears from being alone in the woods get to my head. Gradually, I became more comfortable being alone and eventually I was able to go out on my own for a few days while Jim and Captain Morgan helped out with the hiker Thanksgiving. Hiking alone in the woods gives you an incredible sense of freedom that you really can’t find anywhere else. I now have the confidence to go out in the future by myself, whether it’s the AT or a trail in a foreign country or really anywhere.

Generally in society, people hang out with their own age group. Most of the older people I have interacted with in my life have been authority figures, family, or family friends. Not my own friends. But on the AT, all differences between thru-hikers seem to disappear. We all need food, water, and shelter, and enjoy the company of others. I have become better at seeing everyone as being human rather than classifying people into categories. Even more than that, I’ve become better at seeing the good in people. On the AT, people showed an overwhelming amount of compassion and generosity, showing me that it is possible for people to be selfless and live in peace together.

Being outside of “normal” American society for 6 months has given me a new perspective on how I want to live my life. For 99% of human history, we have lived as hunter-gatherers. It’s only been recently that humans have come out of the woods and into the civilization we are familiar with today. Evolutionarily speaking, humans were built to survive in the wilderness. Being in the woods every day felt natural, like I was where I was supposed to be. I was hunting and gathering my food at grocery stores, but I was still living a nomadic (aka homeless) lifestyle. It felt amazing to be away from technology, to have all of my social interactions face to face, to sit around a fire at night instead of a television, to just live without having to make or spend money (besides food). I feel more connected now with the peacefulness and beauty of nature, and I can’t imagine myself ever living far away from the mountains.

It almost feels like the AT was a dream because I have already become used to living at home with my parents. My bed is no longer a luxury, but just my bed. I’ve shaved, brushed my hair, and washed the stank out of my gear. But I notice myself not caring as much about what I look like as I did before the trail. I notice myself feeling more confident about who I am. I know the friends I made along the way have influenced me in their own ways (yes, Captain Morgan, your crazy permaculture ideas have rubbed off on me). I’m sure the trail has changed me in other ways too that I’m unaware of now. I know that I want to give back to the trail since it has given me so much. Maybe one day I’ll live close to the AT and be a trail angel. But for now, it’s on to the next adventure.

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Hiking in the South

We’re currently at Neels Gap and about 2 and a half days from summiting Springer Mountain. How did we get here so quickly? Well I must admit that we did a bit of yellow blazing (skipping miles with the help of a vehicle) so that we could join our friends for a hiker Thanksgiving in Hot Springs, NC put on by the famous trail angel Miss Janet. My thru-hike has not been a perfect hike from end to end, but I’m not perfect either. Instead, I just do the best I can each day. I’m hoping to make up some of the miles I skipped this Spring, but I have the rest of my life to hike, and there’s many phenomenal trails throughout the world. What matters is that I got to experience the Appalachian  Trail for 6 months and become a part of the community.

I really enjoyed the North Carolina/Tennessee part of the AT. There were a bunch of bald mountains with amazing views at the top.

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Jim on Max Patch

The Smokies were my favorite section of the trail since the Whites in New Hampshire. We were over 6000 feet for a lot of it, making it much colder, but luckily we had nice weather. In the middle of the Smokies, we were able to go into Gatlinburg, where we got free moonshine tastings and witnessed a Christmas parade.

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By Clingmans Dome

I am stoked to be finishing with 9 other Southbound thru-hikers so soon, but it’s of course bittersweet. Right now, I am just trying to enjoy the last days of my adventure as much as possible.

Diet of a Thru-hiker

I usually go around 3.5 days in between grocery stores, although sometimes it’s as much as 6 days. I try to pick out just enough food so that I’m not going hungry, but not so much that I have extra weight in my pack. I usually buy food that is high in calories and low in weight, but exceptions are made for food that is especially delicious.

Here is a typical day of food on the trail:

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Breakfast: 1 package of grits and 1 package of oatmeal (just add hot water to pouch)
Snack 1: poptarts and fruit cup (heavy but oh so worth it)
Snack 2: fruit snacks, granola bar, reeses
Snack 3: cheese and crackers, chia bars, honey bun
Snack 4: almonds, granola bar
Dinner: rice sides (usually I add some kind of protein like Spam or tuna) and mashed potatoes
Dessert: cookies

Yep, I eat all that everyday and have still been losing weight. The food I eat when I get to town is a whole other story…

Hiking on Familiar Territory

Virginia is the longest state on the AT with 550 miles, but I think it’s the most diverse state on the trail. After just hiking along ridges for the past few hundred miles, we finally got back to being in the mountains in Shenandoah National Park. The Blue Ridge mountains are breathtaking, and all the switchbacks on the trail make them fairly easy to climb. Even though we were in the park  past the peak of fall foliage, there were still many tourists visiting. It was a bit annoying to have cars whizzing by while hiking, but I feel like I can’t really complain because I love driving on Skyline Drive. And it was pretty awesome being able to eat real food and resupply at the waysides in the park.

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Staying in a PATC cabin with friends

After Shenandoah National Park, we started climbing bigger mountains. We passed a few places I have hiked before, like Three Ridges, Humpback Rocks, and Spy Rock. We followed the AT tradition of writing confessionals at Priest Mountain Shelter. The towns have been gradually getting more Southern, and now that we’ve reached a Bojangles, I think it’s safe to say that we’re definitely in the South now. Soon, we’ll be hiking even bigger, more wild mountains as we head to North Carolina.

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Captain Morgan at Humpback Rocks

Now that we’re approaching winter, we have to start dealing with below freezing weather. Anything wet freezes overnight unless I put it in my sleeping bag with me. I’ve put rocks from the fire ring in my sleeping bag with me to keep me toasty for a few hours. The sleeping bag is getting crowded. The plus side of the cold weather is that it keeps us moving during the day, and we’ve been able to knock out a few 20 mile days recently.

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Our first taste of snow

Since we’ve been hiking close to home, we’ve had a lot of support from friends and family. Big thanks go to my dad, my mom, Dot, Herb, Becca, Zoe, Ian, Lyra, Emily, and other trail angels for helping us along!

I updated my gear list with what I’m currently carrying. Stay tuned for a post on hiker diet coming soon 🙂

Made it to Harper’s Ferry!

We checked in at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy today and got our photos taken. Even though we already passed the halfway point a few days ago, Harper’s Ferry is known as the psychological halfway point.

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Pennsylvania had it’s rocks, but they weren’t as bad as people made them out to be. We have received some amazing trail magic recently. Shout outs to Dave & Trish and Seth. Our bodies and minds are still strong and we are excited for the Shenandoahs. It took us about 4 months to get halfway, but we are hoping to finish in about 3 months. We’ve been starting earlier than our usual 10 am, so we’re making progress. It’s hard to turn down those zeros though 🙂

New York and New Jersey

The leaves are just now starting to change colors. It is wonderful to see more reds and yellows with each passing day. Sometimes we see how many leaves we can catch before they hit the ground. The weather recently has been warm and dry, which has been great for hiking, but not so great for our water sources. Luckily, many buildings close to the AT have water spigots outside, and we have encountered water jugs left by trail angels a few times. There was only one day where I was out of water for the majority of the day, but a few section hikers saved me by giving me their extra water. The trail provides. I know Pennsylvania will be very dry too. For once, I’m hoping for a rainy day.

In New York, it seemed we were always going up or down. New Jersey seemed flatter and a lot of the trail went along the ridgeline. The views weren’t spectacular, but they were still views, and there was a lot of them.

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We met a lot of great people in New Jersey as well. There was a father and son out for a few nights that shared their orange juice, Captain Morgan, food, and stories with us. The father claimed that he could turn off the internet for the whole world. There was a man who had a cabin on his property specifically for thru-hikers to stay in. It was complete with a shower, power outlets, and 2 donkeys collectively known as Jake.

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We also met some more southbounders that we liked, including one that has already completed a northbound thru-hike this year (yo-yo-ing).

We made it to Delaware Water Gap, PA, and had a very comfy stay at the Church of the Mountain Hostel. Members of the church volunteer to keep it clean and supplied, and they ask only for donations to help keep it going. Bring it on Rocksylvania!

A few days of vacation

We decided to get off the trail in Pawling, New York in order to see Jim’s friends from college get married in Richmond, Virginia. I was a bit hesitant about going so far away from the AT, but the thought of seeing friends and family after 2.5 months away lured me into it…plus my parents’ hot tub. I also had a bad case of poison ivy on my feet and legs that needed some healing time. Captain Morgan decided to join Jim and me on our adventure. Our trip started with a train ride into New York City. It felt like I was visiting not another part of the state, but a completely different world. As soon as we got off the train, crowds of people in nice business attire were pushing past our smelly backpacks. On the AT, there wasn’t a single person we passed by without saying hello. In the city, the only people who said hello to us were looking for money.  We sat in Times Square and in Central Park just observing everyone going about their business and taking in the grand architecture. It seemed like the whole city was just screaming at us around every corner to spend our money on this or that, with billboards, flyers, and flashing advertisements everywhere. After a few hours, we felt we had had enough, so we boarded a bus to DC.

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Hikers in the big apple

We spent the next few days visiting friends and family in Manassas, Hood, Charlottesville, and Richmond. It felt like I had never left my previous homes, yet I felt like I didn’t exactly belong in one place. I started to get a bit tired of explaining AT life to everyone, but the admiration and encouragement I received was very motivating. It was definitely nice to take a few days off from hiking, but I’m ready to get back on the trail.

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Jim and Polly