Sunday, October 6, 2013

Retrospective

Two unpleasant side effects from attending survival school: my stomach can’t handle rich foods anymore (goodbye, dairy!) and sadly, between cooking over open flame for several nights and the dryness of Utah, all of my fingertips are peeling off.  Perhaps this is the universe nudging me towards a life of fingerprint-less crimes, but since that’s a bit too risky for my taste, I think I’ll just wait for them to regenerate (and in the mean time, take a break from campfires).

First dinner on the trail (and fourth night).  The fire
was courtesy of our instructors, Jeremy and Matt, who
told us in no uncertain terms that the first fire was free,
but from then on if we wanted dinner we'd have to make
fire ourselves.
I’m not sure how to talk about survival school, except to say that I learned more than I thought I would, I’m hoping to go back next year and learn more, and that I’m probably going to be insufferable to hike with for the next few years (a function of, I’m afraid, realizing that if I have a knife and water treatment, that I’ll probably be able to get by in the woods just fine).  For those of you who expressed interest in the trip (even if it was more of a ‘car accident on the highway’ kind of interest), here’s a summary: I didn't eat bugs or worms or frogs, I went completely without food for 56 hours, the only scary part involved fording fast moving water that was waist deep, I went without dinner a couple of times because neither I or one of the other students could start a fire with our bow drills, not having toilet paper or headlamps isn't a big deal, southern Utah has a number of beautiful ecosystems, my new personal record is 14 days without a shower, I wish I hadn't slept through geology in college because the rocks were amazing, and someone else killed the sheep (though I certainly helped with the processing of it and the eating of it).  I started looking at nature differently; instead of as something to pass by on my way to a destination, I started observing it more critically, looking for food and shelter along the way.  I learned that I’m much stronger than I thought, that I don’t need much to survive (though thriving is a totally different thing), and that living in the moment really agrees with me.  Those of you who know me best probably thought that I already knew these things, and perhaps on some level I did.  But to be able to point to something concrete (I was fording waist deep rivers at night with no food in my stomach and cowboy camping under the (cold) desert sky and really, it wasn't much of a stretch for me) is pretty empowering.  It turns out I’m kinda good at surviving.

Ascending to 10,000 feet through cow country.
Actually, everywhere was cow country.
The last day of survival school was my most challenging one.  Our instructors had left us with maps the previous morning, instructing us to make our own way via a combination of bushwhacking, trail travel, and steep descent down canyon walls, to a cave to sleep in.  We students arrived at the cave after dark, leaving us no time to gather duff (leaves and pine needles with which to make an insulating layer between the sand and our bodies) and no time to make a fire (it’s hard to do in the dark).  The eight of us went to bed tired, and cold, and without dinner.  None of us slept well (someone was always snorting, and the sound would resonate off the cave walls), and the sand, which seemed so soft when we had first stretched out upon it, was brick hard and cold in no time.  In the morning, I put on my hiking pants without shaking the sand out, and within an hour had abraded my legs nearly bloody behind the knees and between the thighs.  I hadn't washed my sock liners well (okay, truth time: I only washed them once in two weeks), and blisters were welling up on most of my toes, exacerbated by the muddy and wet canyon travel.  We bushwhacked through willow thickets that seemed designed to snag and grab, past sage brush that scratched my legs up (once I switched to shorts), and tried not to lose shoes (and energy) behind in the quicksand (which was occasionally thigh deep).  It was tough, and it hurt, and left me in a fairly foul mood as I followed the other students to the location our instructors told us to go to. 

Gorgeous rocks!
And then I remembered that it was two years, to the day, that I had finished the Appalachian Trail.  Two years since I stood on top of Mt. Katahdin at the conclusion of my thru-hike, bawling my eyes out and feeling pitiful.  Two years, since I wondered what a future without white blazes meant for me.  Two years since I worried about readjusting to society, to paying bills, and to being responsible.  In retrospect it’s really easy to see how unfounded these worries were; how while adjusting to life in my beloved Somerville wasn't seamless (confidential to Surjeet and Ivy: sorry about the whining!) I wasn't giving myself enough credit.  I’m good at surviving.

Full moon in canyon country.
And in that moment, instead of trudging behind my fellow students, feeling upset about the brokenness of my body, I decided to FEEL the brokenness of my body, and to realize that it was all manageable.  My feet hurt.  So did the backs of my knees, and my thighs, and the front of my shins where they’d been torn up by the sage brush, and my stomach, and my poor cracked and peeling hands.  Instead of pushing all the pain off, I embraced it, and I felt it deeply, and it was fine. 

Look what I found, 2,000 miles off trail!
The Appalachian Trail was so much more than a hike for me; it was a time of remembering who I am, walking off some bad times, and of accomplishing something tremendous.  It was fun, and lovely, and occasionally challenging (I’m looking at you, creepy guys and lack of gender balance).  There were ticks and mosquitoes, heat waves that left me filthy and thunderstorms that cleaned me off (even if I was huddled in a ball in the middle of the trail, cowering during them).  There was magic.  There were bears.  There were milkshakes and pizza and cold Cokes chilling in streams.  There were friends.  My feet hurt daily, but my body sang for those six months.  Survival school was more of the same (minus the bears and food), though for a significantly shorter duration.  I survived the AT, I survived survival school, and man, am I thriving.  

Thursday, October 27, 2011

One Month Ago...

I finished the Appalachian trail at about 1 pm on Tuesday, September 27th.  The previous two days had been some of the best in Maine- bright blue skies, lovely rolling hills, crystal clear lakes, and a friendly dog named Lyle who followed a group of us to the Baxter State Park boundary line.  There was a stay at a remote hostel that involved blowing an air horn to signal a boat to pick you up, a lovely beach for swimming, a reunion with a long-lost thru-hiker friend, and a night time hike for one final camp on a beach and star-gaze over a lake so glassy that it was difficult to see where the stars ended and the water began.  Three of us forded two rivers at night (which, as you might suspect, was not particularly smart, as the rivers were almost crotch deep and swiftly moving), stargazed under clear skies from the top of a waterfall, and tried to soak in every damn moment of the end of the journey.  I had wanted to end my thru-hike at dawn on the summit of Katahdin, but a late arrival to the campground at the base nixed that idea (I fell asleep at midnight, and the prospect of waking at 2 am to climb the mountain was unappealing).  Instead, I arrived at the summit at 1 pm, dragging my feet, and trying to delay my arrival at the summit as long as possible.

Hiking up to the summit. 

I wanted to feel joyous, to shout and whoop and yell my way to the finish like the thru-hikers who had finished just minutes and hours before me, but instead all I felt was a crushing grief.  Six months, I thought, six months, and what do I have to show for this?  Was I any better off than when I had started my hike?  I honestly didn’t know, and in the emotion of the moment I made a vital mistake: I started second guessing myself.  If I could hike the AT, I thought to myself, deep within the thralls of depression, then what was stopping anyone from doing it?  Was my decision to hike the AT selfish?  Was it worthwhile? What was the point? I didn’t know, so I stood on the sideline, drank a “celebratory” beer, watched my friends scream, and shout, and laugh, and tried not to cry.

At 3:30, after the crowds of people had left, I had the summit to myself.  I turned around in a slow circle to take in the scenery, looked at the beautiful sign, traced out the word “KATAHDIN” etched and painted in white with my finger, and in one instant, my heart broke in two.  I put my face to the sign, and bawled my eyes out.  I cried like I hadn’t cried in years, the kind of crying where you’re glad that nobody is watching you make a mess of yourself.  My pent up frustration at the entire state of Maine poured out, as did my worry about what a future without white blazes to follow had in store.  I cried because the last two years of my life were so fucking awful, and because in comparison walking 2,181 miles was easy (even though it sometimes wasn't).  I cried because I was sad to be finishing the trail, but also because I was ready for it to end.  I cried because I felt loved by so many people, including strangers, every step of the way, and because without that support I would never have been able to make it. 

After about five minutes of uncontrollable crying on the Katahdin sign I could hear my friends calling to me in the distance, wondering why I hadn’t yet caught up.  I stood up, wiped my tears off of my face and onto the sign, picked up my pack, and did what I had been doing for the past six months: I walked it off.  Three days later, snug in bed in the morning at my sister’s house, I reflected on my summit day for the first time with joy in my heart: GODDAMN IT, I hiked the Appalachian Trail this summer, and it was the best decision of my life.

Six months and five days.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What is bravery?


I keep coming back to this question, because for some reason, people keep telling me that I am brave because I spent six months on the Appalachian Trail.  Whenever I’m confronted with someone making this statement, I respond with the following question: Why?  The answers I receive are, I think, very insightful about the fears held by the people who are applauding me for bravery, and say very little about me.  They tell me it’s because I’m a woman alone, or it’s because of bears, or it’s because the woods are a very scary place to be, regardless of gender.  In Pearisburg, Virginia, a woman I was chatting with called me brave, and then proceeded to tell me it was because there was a serial killer in those parts who preyed on thru-hikers, a topic which Bill Bryson was surprisingly remiss to cover in “A Walk in the Woods”( probably because it isn’t true).  I usually respond to these reasons by pointing out the following: being a woman in the woods isn’t any scarier than being a woman in a city (and furthermore, you’re only alone on the AT when you really want to be), that bears are less scary than the ticks (Lyme disease felled or harmed a number of people I knew on the trail), and finally, that, for me, the woods are not a scary place to be (unlike, for example, a bar full of pretentiously dressed young masters of the universe on the prowl for fresh meat) (That's a Bonfire of the Vanities, reference, and not a He-Man one).  No, I would always, respond, I’m not brave for those reasons.  

In fact, the bravest things I did in the past year was off trail; on January 2nd, I walked into my supervisor’s office and asked for a leave of absence.  I didn’t know what to expect when I told him that I wanted to spend the majority of the spring, summer, and half of the fall living in the woods, but suspected that this was the right path for me, at the time.  The past two years were incredibly hard ones, involving habitual lack of sleep, over committing myself to volunteering, coping with a seriously ill parent, and some questionable decision making that resulted from all of the above.  Spending six months on the AT, I figured, would help me sort that jumbled mess of awfulness into order, and would give me the time to process and recover.  Also, I knew I’d be catching up on the sleep I’d missed.  When I walked into my supervisor’s office, I knew I was committed to this path, and that I would be hiking the AT, regardless of his answer, despite my reluctance to leave a good job with an excellent company.  With the economy suffering as much as it is, that’s fucking bravery. 

(My supervisor granted me a leave of absence.  I return to work on Monday, October 31st, and I'm so very thankful for this.)

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Fairest of the Seasons

I’ve been out walking.  I don’t do too much talking, these days.

It’ll come as absolutely no surprise to those of you who have been patiently waiting for me to resume blogging that I’m having a bit of trouble summarizing my trip, putting up photos, and tying everything up in a smart little knot with a pretty bow at the top.  I have a number of stories and thoughts that I want to share before I post my summit photos (Spoiler alert: I finished!), starting, first and foremost with this: Maine kicked my ass.  It took me about a month to navigate the final 281 miles of the trail, which, with only two days off, makes my average about 10 miles per day.  I spent nearly the entire time in a long, drawn out funk, which was clumsily wrapped up in the following:
  • I took time off before, during, and after Hurricane Irene, and lost some of my steam.
  • I was tired, mentally and physically, of the trail. 
  • The trail was slippery, and steep, and tricky.  Also, I fell down a lot.
  • My feet were wet.  Actually, everything was wet.
  • I was missing my friends and family sorely.  This isn’t to say that I wasn’t also enjoying my trail friends, but there’s nothing quite like spending time with the people who know you to the core of your being. 
  • It was pretty, and there were a lot of rocks to sit on and stare off into the distance. For someone who is particularly skilled at brooding, this does not exactly speed things up.  Likewise: PEAK FOLIAGE! LAKES! CANOES! VIEWS FROM THE TOP!
  • Every step was bringing me closer and closer to the end.  And finishing things is not my strong suit.  
You get the idea.  Maine was challenging.

I sat on the summit of Avery peak of the Bigalows just after the 2,000 mile mark with my headphones in, watching the morning light dance across the landscape and listening to the melancholy music of Nico.  The leaves were starting to turn, the scenery stretched for miles, and I contemplated a time when I would not be sleeping outside and waking up to soak in a beautiful view.  What if, I thought to myself, this is my last good view? What if this is the last time I see an undercast clinging to the outline of a lake? What if it doesn’t get any better than this?  All reasons to continue to sit, and think, and soak in every moment. 

The beginning of the trail was about finding my hiking legs, and the middle was about using them.  The end of the trail, however, was about gazing over red and yellow speckled landscapes, swimming in pristine ponds and lakes, exploring every side trail I could, taking off my shoes to wade through ice cold water and look down into a deep pool of water at the base of a 25 foot waterfall, examining the vibrant explosions of mushrooms that the rain had produced, and two hour long lunches that ended with naps on beaches.  The end of the trail was about ensuring that I took advantage of every single solitary moment, so that years from now, when I look back on Maine I don’t remember the difficult parts, but instead remember the palate of colors and smells.  The end of the trail was not about a rush to the finish line, but a slow and steady walk, allowing me to leave in the fairest of the seasons.
 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

More on Maine

I can't put up photos from the last few days because it's not allowed on this computer, but let me take a moment to say this: Maine continues to be gorgeous.  This last stretch has contained some breathtaking peaks, waterfalls and pristine lakes (although for some reason, they're called "ponds").  The sunrises and sunsets have been legendary, the terrain has been manageable (but very muddy), and the aroma of fall is lingering in the air in the most pleasant manner.  I've been having a lot of conversations about what it means to have reached 2,000 miles, and whether this milestone in the trip is as significant as the 1,000 mile mark.  While I do think that 2,000 miles is personally a lot less meaningful than 1,000 miles, I can definitively say this: Maine is the reward for sticking it out this far.

I've been taking as many side trails as possible the past few days, and consequently am now four mountains shy of completing the Maine 4,000 footers list.  While I was detouring 1.7 miles to the summit of Mt. Abraham I ran into some lovely trail maintainers who told me that when they saw me coming they started wondering if I was a thru-hiker or a peakbagger.  Their conclusion was that, based on the size of my calves and the speed at which I was moving, was that I was a thru-hiker.  I laughed when they told me this, and then admitted that at least for the time being, I was both.  Mt. Abraham was quite possibly the best detour I've taken so far, as both the climb up to the summit and the view from it were lovely.  The trail maintainers that I shared the summit with were able to point out both Mt. Washington and the ever elusive Katahdin (which was my first view of the peak).  Both seemed impossibly far away, even though, I guess, both are technically within walking distance.  

The last few days have been particularly epic.  On Monday I reached the 2,000 mile mark, and spent the night camping at Avery Memorial Campsite, which is located between the two Bigelow peaks.  The campsite is within 0.3 miles of both summits, so getting to see both sunset and sunrise was easy.  My group and I packed out ingredients, so we celebrated becoming 2,000 milers by drinking beer and cooking steak, potatoes, veggies, and blueberry cake with cream cheese frosting.  It was quite possibly the best dinner I've ever packed out of town (although it was VERY heavy and consequently is unlikely to be repeated).  (I find it funny when I look back at my early blog posts and see how skeptical I was about people who packed beer out of town.  While I'm certainly not packing out a six pack of beer, carrying one beer out of town isn't as big a deal as I used to think.  Also, my pack no longer weighs 47 lbs, so carrying an extra 12 oz of beer isn't as crippling as it used to be.)

It took me the better part of two hours to say goodbye to Avery Peak, my last 4,000 footer until Katahdin.  From there I descended to the shores of Flagstaff lake, which I had the pleasure of observing from several thousand feet for the previous two days.  While eating dinner on the lake a bald eagle soared directly overhead, before crossing the lake and landing on a pine tree on the far shore.  I had been contemplating pushing on after dinner, but made up my mind to stay put then and there.  I spent the first half of the night cowboy camping on a stone beach about five feet away from the water (best half a night of sleep on the trail), and the other half  hunkered in my tent as a storm rolled over (not the best half a night of sleep on the trail, sadly).  I almost spent yesterday on that beach; the combination of wildlife, sense of peace, and lack of evidence of society was deeply thrilling and calming.  Also, the loons kept paddling back and forth in the water, crying out in the most chilling and beautiful manner.  Instead, however, my hiking partner and I decided to book it to Caratunk to avoid today's bad weather.  This was both a great and poor decision, as it meat that we had to haul ass to make it to the ferry on time.

Ferry, you say?  There's a ferry on the AT?

Why yes!  As it turns out, the Kennebec River is dangerous to ford, and the official AT route involves arriving at the Kennebec between 9 and 11 or 2 and 4 pm and taking a canoe shuttle across.  The Kennebec is controlled by a dam upstream, and water releases are unpredictable and can cause the river to rise rapidly.  Given the flow of the current and the width of the river (and being a bit of a wimp about quickly moving water) I doubt that I would attempt to ford it even if it was considered "safe."

Anyhow, Cotton and I were in the process of making it to the ferry by 2 pm (Note to Mom and Dad: Look!  I'm no longer opposed to arriving early for things!) when I got distracted by East Carry Pond.  There was swimming (followed by the unpleasant discovery that there were leaches lurking among the rocks of the pond, despite the clear water), lunch, and some laying around letting the sun bake my skin, when all of a sudden I looked at my watch and realized that we had to MOVE.  And MOVE we did: I set us up at a rather fast pace, and we booked it the 10 miles from the pond in 3.5 hours.  While at first it felt AMAZING to be moving that fast, I became a bit disheartened as we passed an additional beautiful pond and some gorgeous waterfalls, all with no time to spare for lounging and taking in the scenery.  We ended up making it to the ferry at 3:58, but at the expense of not enjoying a beautiful stretch of trail. I guess I'm just going to have to come back and do that section again.

I want to leave this last quote with you, as it's something I want to keep in the back of my head as I go about traveling my last 151 miles.  Myron Avery, the first person to hike the Appalachian Trail,  had this to say about Maine in his book "Into the Maine Woods":
To those who would see the Maine wilderness, tramp day by day through a succession of ever delightful forest, past lake and stream, and over mountains, we would say: Follow the Appalachian Trail across Maine. It cannot be followed on horse or a wheel. Remote for detachment, narrow for chosen company, winding for leisure, lonely for contemplation, it beckons not merely north and south but upward to the body, mind and soul of man.

Caratunk

Let me start by saying this: I'm in Caratunk, Maine, and it's raining again.  Thankfully, the weather forecast says that the rain will only last one day (followed by a week of GORGEOUS weather), and so I'm planning on spending today at Northern Outdoors playing pinball and goofing off.  Tomorrow I start the two and a half day stretch to Monson, after which I hit the 100 mile wilderness and then Katahdin.  I'm guessing it's going to take me about 10 more days, but the finish line is in sight.  Woah!

This morning I went to the post office in Caratunk, and the lady at the front desk said, "Oh, you're Bree Carlson! I was hoping to meet you!  I've never seen ANYBODY get THIS MUCH mail!" Friends, thank you.  The outpouring of love and support that I received at the post office this morning is overwhelming, and so deeply appreciated .  While the past few days have been beautiful days, I have to admit that I haven't been really feeling up to this hike anymore.  I think part of it is that I'm ready to be done, ready to wear cotton clothing, ready to start planning my next adventure, ready to go back to work, and ready for reliable cell phone service so that I can catch up with all of you after months of being away.  (Small aside: I'm also sick of being around guys all the time. Don't get me wrong- guys are great, but I've been feeling like a participant in the man show for the past few weeks now, instead of feeling like a woman in charge of her own hike.  Time to strike out on my own, and leave the group I've been hiking with, I think.)  Anyhow, all that to say this: I was feeling a bit blue, and then I went to the post office and all of you made my day, and gave me the energy jolt needed to keep it going to the (spectacular) finish line.  Thank you.

I'll write more later, as other thru-hikers who are avoiding the rain are waiting to use this computer.

Again, thank you.