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.


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.

Monday, September 12, 2011

No Good Song Available...

But 2000 miles just the same. It's all downhill from here..... until it goes up again. But from what I hear, its a doozy of an up.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Maine... Part the Second.

The day after I entered Maine I hiked through Mahoosuc Notch.  For those of you who don't know, Mahoosuc Notch is a notoriously difficult (or fun, depending on your perspective) stretch of trail lasting 1.3 miles.  It's literally a jumbled boulder field crammed in between two cliffs, complete with a sporadic stream that surfaces and dives below the surface of the boulders.  Approaching Mahoosuc Notch I kept hearing stories of how the Notch ended the hikes for many an aspiring thru-hiker, or at least delayed the finishing date, through a variety of slips, trips, falls, breaks, and sprains.  My time through the Notch was filled with the first three, but thankfully, not the last two (although I did have one terrifying moment where I slipped backwards and briefly got stuck with my leg above my head in a rather uncomfortable position).  It took me 2 hours to carefully negotiate my way across the boulders, through the caves, and down the steep inclines.

 This is the first thing I saw when I got into Mahoosuc Notch.  
Not a very auspicious sign, if you ask me.

Carefully picking my way through a tight spot.


Anyhow, to amuse myself as I slowly picked my way through the boulders, I made up slogans for the Notch.
  • Mahoosuc Notch: Don't you wish you were an ultralight backpacker?
  • Mahoosuc Notch: Not a good place to encounter a bear.
  • Mahoosuc Notch: Don't you wish the last 2,000 miles hadn't sapped all of your upper body strength?
  • Mahoosuc Notch: Put on a pair of pants because wearing a dress isn't a good idea. 
  • Mahoosuc Notch: Just when you think it can't get any more dangerous, start bouldering over a river!
  • Mahoosuc Notch: It's a difficult five mile hike out, so try not to get hurt. Please.
I should mention that despite everything written above, Mahoosuc Notch was tremendously fun.  I'm looking forward to doing that section of trail some time in the future, only this time with a day pack and a pair of pants (as it turns out, dresses don't really provide much protection against scratches from rocks).  It's funny- all the negative hype about the Notch didn't live up to the reality, proving, once again, that I shouldn't listen to over-reacting thru-hikers who like to complain.

Or so I thought.

Maine, as it turns out, has been really hard (which is what I've been hearing all along, but have been choosing to ignore).  It's been a combination of the terrain and the weather, but the last week, Mahoosuc Notch aside, has been SLOW going.  I think that the double combination- not being able to do big mile days because the terrain is challenging, and being soaked to the bone on a regular basis is really making this portion of the trip trying.  I like doing big miles- it makes me feel productive and good about myself.  I mean, at the end of a 25 mile day back in Pennsylvania I remember thinking: 25 miles- that's FANTASTIC!  And here, in Maine, with nearly 2,000 miles behind me, I can barely manage to do 14 mile days.  At my worst moments, I feel like a bit of a failure, and at my best, I wonder what's wrong with me.  (Note to self: I'm doing fine. Stop over thinking.)

As you can imagine, the wet weather hasn't been making the challenging terrain any easier.  Yesterday, when confronted with, literally, a two feet deep river running down the trail, I finally gave up the pretense of trying to keep my feet dry, hiked up my dress, and waded right in.  Oddly enough, this simple act of giving up and letting things be what they were, made me feel quite better (as did the angry teenage boy music I was playing on my ipod). 

This is the trail.  The water is two feet deep.  The 
whole area is flooded, so finding an alternate path
is not an option.

I knew from the start that Maine was going to be wet, but I had thought that it would be limited to river fording, which is what Maine is known for.  I've forded three rivers already- the first two were time consuming affairs, where I took off my shoes and socks, put on my crocs, carefully picked my way across shin deep water, dried off my feet, and put my shoes and socks back on.  This last time, however, because I'd given up trying to keep my feet dry (and because the river was flooding and I knew I'd want the stability of shoes to negotiate the scary-fast current), I just waded right on in.

 Bearbait, fording a rapidly rushing river.  Yup.  Those
are white water rapids you see in the background.

The other day I got into my tent after an appallingly windy and rainy day, feeling mildly hypothermic from sitting outside in the wet to eat dinner, and after snuggling into my (thankfully) dry sleeping bag, got hit on the head with a drop of water from my leaking tent tarp.  Knowing that I couldn't simply ignore the problem (being royally screwed if my sleeping bag were to get wet), I had to get back out of my tent and mess around with it for 5 minutes in the dark (and rain) to get it to stop leaking.  When I got back into my sleeping bag, more damp and cold than before, I realized that there are some things that I'm really looking forward to, once I'm done with the trail:
  • Not relying on a thin piece of nylon to keep me dry at night while sleeping.
  • Not having to put on wet shoes in the morning.  Ditto wet sock liners, wet socks, and a wet dress.
  • Cooking with real food, instead of instant stuff.
  • Washing my hands.
  • Feeling feminine.
  • Sheets.
  • Being overly warm.  
  • Not wearing the same dress every day for six months.
 But enough complaining.  Maine has been off it's rocker gorgeous, and I've been loving that.  Fall is in the air, and it's been beautiful to see the faintest hints of autumn begin to emerge in the forest.  On Sunday while hiking with friends I came across an abandoned cabin on a pond, and we hung out there for several hours, poking around, and eating lunch.  Eventually we found a leaky canoe nearby, and using boards for oars, we took it for a spin. Learning to take advantage of the small moments is what doing the trail is all about, right?

The leaves are just barely starting to lose their green color.

Speck Pond.

I forget what mountain this is, but it was rocky and bald and a good scramble.

So that's the news from the trail.  I'm doing okay, but am sensing that I'm getting ready to be done.  Six months is a long time to live in the woods.  I've got a direction home, and it's north.  Time to keep on trucking.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Maine... Part The First

I'm afraid I'm not sure where to begin this post, except to say this: the past week and a half has contained some of my best days on the trail, and some of my most challenging.  Most challenging, you say?  More challenging, than, for example, the bleak nothingness that characterized most of the state of Virginia?  More challenging than overcoming the nausea that comes along with eating a half gallon of ice cream in one sitting?  MORE CHALLENGING THAN ESCAPING THE BLACK HOLE OF PEARISBURG?

Yes, friends, more challenging than those things. But let me back up for a second.

I got back on the trail on Tuesday (I think?  Time is so meaningless out here.) by catching a ride north from Melvin Village (where I rode out the storm) to Gorham, NH with Trapper and Dube (whom I had last seen back in Damascus as he was in the process of making up his mind to leave the trail).  I had wanted to get to Gorham the day before, as I was getting antsy to get back to the trail, but since Route 16 was closed due to hurricane damage, I couldn't get up there any earlier.  The ride up to Gorham was lovely, although due to many washed out roads what should have taken an hour ended up taking closer to three.  We ended up cowboy camping (laying out under the stars in our sleeping bags) three miles out of Gorham, watching the stars, warming ourselves by our campfire, and eating wild blueberries.  It was a magical night, made more so by getting to see an old trail friend.  The last time I'd seen Dube was under the saddest of cirumstances, so getting to hang out with him once more when his life was headed in a more positive direction was, excuse my language, fan-fucking-tastic.

 Dube, Trapper, and me, sporting a Burger King crown.
The next day I solo hiked to the Maine border.  Walking into Maine was both amazing and incredibly sad: my last state border in this journey, and an significant reminder that the trail has a rapidly approaching endpoint.  Happily, I was able to share the experience with Trapper, who I should mention, I met on my second full day on the trail.  At the border he reminded me of the conversation we had when we met while eating lunch on a windy overlook way in Georgia.  At the time everything was still brand new, and we were all still sorting out how do to the whole "Appalachian Trail" thing.  I remember being a bit shy at that time with people, and feeling almost like I had to justify my presence on the trail as someone who was serious about making it all the way to Katahdin.  On that windy overlook I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and an apple, and introduced myself to a quiet (HA! WRONG ABOUT THAT!) red haired guy named Trapper (then Jon) as Bree, from Boston (It's weird to think about introducing myself now with my real name.  I hope I get that sorted out before I return to work.).  After several minutes of polite conversation (mostly centered around him being from Philadelphia and me going on and on and on about how I love the Mutter Museum there) he mentioned how amazing that this was our real life for the next six months.  And it is.


Oops.  Getting kicked out of the library.  Part 2, in which everything goes down hill (spoiler alert: MAINE IS WET) is coming up... soon?

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Way Life Should Be

The Maine state slogan never resonated with me until now.


Saturday, August 27, 2011

Here I Am!

Rock Me Like a... oh, forget it.  That's a stupid song.

This one's nicer:

I was in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
"Come in" they said
"We'll give you shelter from the storm".

I'm holed up with my family for the next two days.  Hopefully the power won't go out right away, so I'll get another few posts up.  Be safe and sound and dry, folks!

Weather in the Whites

I spent the past week hiking in the White Mountains, my old stomping grounds.  Seeing the Whites through the eyes of a thru-hiker gave me a different perspective on where I grew up.  I think on some level I’ve always known that I was incredibly lucky to have spent a large portion of my life within easy driving distance of the White Mountains, but the hike from Georgia has really shown me how true this is.  While the AT goes over many 5,000 and 6,000 foot peaks, none of them are as beautiful or at all come as close to making you feel like you’re going to be killed at any moment as the Whites.
This was especially true when I summited Washington on Monday, in 81 mile per hour winds.  Before I started the AT I’d only hiked once in the rain, and it was descending to the car at the end of a two day hike.  Growing up in New Hampshire I’ve heard plenty of stories about people making silly mistakes that cost them their lives on some of the higher peaks.  As a person who generally shies away from embarrassment, I was hell bent on not making a mistake that would cause me to be the person in the newspaper that everyone else would shake their head at and wonder how they had come to be so stupid.  Consequently, up until my thru-hike, I had only hiked the Whites in the best of weather.  On the AT, however, if you only hike in the good weather, two negative things happen: 1) you don’t make good mileage, and therefore don’t make it to Maine, and 2) you miss out on all the beauty of inclement weather.  Which is how I found myself summiting Washington in weather that was literally blowing me off of my feet.

But let me back up.  Prior to hitting the Presidentials, I’d been doing approximately 15 mile days, which left plenty of time for blueberry picking (and campfire blueberry pie baking [Yes, you read that right!  CAMPFIRE BLUEBERRY PIE BAKING.  WHO WANTS TO HIKE WITH ME NOW, EH?]), sliding down moss into swimming holes, marshmallow roasting over campfires, and loafing on sunny peaks.  However, when I hit the Presidentials, I slowed way down.  Part of it was getting to hike with more people from home (Surjeet and Chris, thankfully sans monkeys), part due to not wanting to rush thorough a beautiful section of trail, and part of it was wanting to see the Presidentials through the eyes of my most recent hiking partner, Cotton, who is a photojournalist who had never seen the White Mountains before.  As such, I did a whopping five miles to stealth camp on Pierce my first night, and five more to Lake of the Clouds Hut on my second. 

One of the privileges afforded to thru-hikers through the White Mountains is the ability to stay at the huts in exchange for an hour or two of work.  I’ve always wanted to wake up above tree line, and consequently staying at Lake of the Clouds seemed like a good deal.  Cotton and I did the before dinner dishes at Lake of the Clouds and reorganized the hut bookshelf after dinner.  Dinner was an all-you-can eat affair, served in the kitchen after the paying guests had eaten, and the idea was for us to sleep on the floor of the dining room, after the lights were turned out and the guests left.  Unfortunately for us, by lights out (9:30 pm, which is waaaay past midnight for thru-hikers) not only had some of the paying guests not left, but were noisily getting loaded in the dining room.  Cotton and I packed up our bags, marched outside in the rain to the emergency shelter (dubbed “The Dungeon”) in the basement, and fell asleep in the musty, dank, and QUIET room. (Well, it was quiet until the second thunderstorm hit.  Man, thunder and lightning at 5,000 feet is incredible, and incredibly loud.  Also, I think that I've finally found an appropriate situation for using the word "awesome" because it certainly was.)
Lake of the Clouds

The following morning brought high winds and 20 feet of visibility, and since we weren’t going very far, we delayed our start until about 11 am.  The climb up Washington brought many beautiful sights, including the brilliantly pink calves of a 16 year old girl wearing jean Capri pants.  (For reference, Cotton and I were both decked out in rain gear, gloves, and wool hats.  Remember what I said about people making stupid mistakes in the White Mountains?) The summit of Washington was wild- I couldn’t stay upright, as my pack was acting like a sail and catching the wind every few seconds.  We ended up hunkering down in the lunchroom for two hours until the winds died down to a reasonable 60 mph.  During that time there were rumors floating around about the closure of the auto road and the Cog Railway, a scenic tourist train that runs to the top of Washington.

 Cotton at the summit of Washington.  He's able to stay upright because 
he is an ultralight backpacker and his pack doesn't act like a stupid sail in the wind.

When the winds died down enough we hiked north, off of the mountain, and down to lower elevations. There is a long hiker tradition of mooning the Cog, which I may or may not have done in the past and may or may not have wanted to do during my thru hike.  Cotton and I had figured that since there was talk of shutting down the Cog due to weather that we’d lost our chance to participate, but shortly after we crossed the tracks north of the mountain we could both smell and hear it coming.  Now, I’m not exactly sure why there is a long tradition of mooning the Cog, but it probably has something to do with this: hiking up or down Washington is hard work, and taking a shortcut to the top by riding a (historically) coal belching, nasty smelling, expensive train doesn’t seem fair.  (Park Rangers, who presumably rely on income generated from the railway, discourage the practice of mooning the Cog by handing out expensive violations to hikers who get caught.) So as the train slowly chugged its way of the mist, I assumed the proper position, and got ready to go.  Thankfully, before I was able to fully negotiate my way out of the many layers of clothing I was wearing, Cotton called my attention to the conductor of the train, who snapped a photo of us as he passed by.   Well then.  
 Pretty, eh?

We reached the summit of Madison in time for sunset.  The clouds over our heads were brilliantly pink, and the sunset was by far the most beautiful one I’ve seen.  Up until then, the trail had been fun; cold and windy, but fun.  However, after sunset we headed down the Osgood trail, and things started to get a bit tough. The footing wasn’t all that great, and the trail was steep, so I started moving very slowly.  I was getting very tired from being blown all over the trail for the past 8 hours, and had several near falls onto sharp rocks (also, the wind kept blowing my pack straps into my face, which was extremely unpleasant).  I didn’t know the trail at all, so Cotton and I kept having to stop and search for the next carin in the dark.  My feet started hurting from the rocks for the first time in 300 miles.  And yet, despite my mood taking a nosedive, I was extremely thankful for getting to experience such beautifully inclement weather on such wild and remote (except for Washington) mountains.  In fact, I wouldn’t have changed a single thing about the day (except, maybe, the photo that was taken of me by the conductor of the Cog.  That was a bit creepy.).    

 Madison sunset.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Calm Before The Storm

I hear there is a hurricane barreling its way up the eastern seaboard. I had wanted to get to Maine by this weekend, but the prospect of zeroing in a shelter in the woods or doing the Mahoosuc Mile (alledgedly the most difficult section of the AT) in a hurricane is unappealing. As such, I will be laying low one more weekend in NH before I continue on. I hope all of you stay safe and dry, wherever you are!

More Introspection Than You Can Shake a Stick At

I’m 320 miles from the end of my thru-hike, and am minorly confused.  The stores are starting to sell Octoberfest beer, and I’ve started to see red and gold leaves peeking out among the green canopy.  It’s fall already?  What the hell?  Where did the summer go?  Have I really been hiking for over five months? 

It feels like just yesterday I was leaving my home in Somerville, boarding the train for Georgia, and starting my thru-hike, wondering if I would be one of the ones to make it all the way to Maine.  And now I find myself reading texts and blog posts from friends who are ahead, who have finished or are nearly there.  Jetpack and Eats, the lovely people I started the trail with, summitted yesterday.  I myself am almost there, and I find myself wanting to go slower and slower to delay the inevitable return to bills, traffic jams, and a schedule that is not completely dictated by my own immediate wants and needs.

 My return to Boston has been weighing on my mind lately, for a number of reasons.  I’m worried about relearning to eat like a normal person (i.e. not eating an entire jar of Nutella in three days), I’m worried about relearning how to exercise like a normal person (i.e. not spending 12 hours per day exercising), I’m worried about having to make difficult decisions again (i.e. having to think about more than what to eat for lunch), and I’m worried about falling into my previous patterns of over committing myself to various side projects and volunteering.  I’ve met a number of former thru-hikers on the trail in the past few weeks who have warned me about the culture shock that comes along with re-entry into real life after the trail.  They’ve suggested that I have a plan, that I avoid crowds of people, and that I consider all that I’ve learned on the trail and integrate it into my new life.

But how do I come up with a plan when I don’t know how I’m going to react to reality after six months of a nomadic lifestyle in the woods?  How do I avoid crowds of people, and traffic, and noise, when living in Boston?  And finally, how do I know what I’ve learned?  I’m not so sure what I’ve gotten out of this experience is tangible.  I’ll be returning to Boston a different person that when I left, but not in a way that’s easily explainable.  Sure, I look different and I feel different, but how am I ACTUALLY different? 

My friend Lydia recent wrote me a letter recently in which she said the following: “I wonder if, like Peace Corps, one of the hardest parts of hiking the Appalachian Trail is returning to your normal life afterwards.  Trying to figure out how what you’ve learned and what you’ve done meshes with 'real' life.  When I think about it, I never fully made it back to 'real' life in a lot of people’s view.  Perhaps I changed my definition of what the real world is without even knowing it.  But that’s a challenge for the future, and part of the beauty of hiking is being forced to live in the moment.”

I’m going to spend my last month on the trail thinking about these questions and issues, but not worrying about them.  As my friend says, the beauty of hiking is living in the moment, and I intend to soak up every minute of my last 320 miles.  With the help of my wonderful friends and family I’m sure I’ll adjust okay after I summit Katahdin, as long as I remember that when I do return, the mountains will be waiting for me whenever I need them.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

White Mountain Wonderland

The Presidentials, as observed by Waterbug, Bearbait, Shorty, and Cotton.

It feels DAMN GOOD to be home!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


I've made it to New Hampshire, and have only one state left to go.  The remaining milestones are slowly dwindling down to just a handful: I have one more state border to cross, the 2,000 mile marker, and then Katahdin.  (Small aside: if I can't manage to spell Katahdin correctly by the time I summit I think my thru-hiker license should be revoked.  Seriously, my mental block on the proper spelling of the northern terminus of the AT is ridiculous.) As I rapidly approach the end of my hike (although not right now, as I'm getting lost in music at my parents house while the rain comes pouring down outside), I've been having trouble summarizing my thoughts into coherent blog posts.  The trouble is magnified by a couple of things: first, I don't seem to have consistent cell phone service up here, which makes updating my blog with mini vignettes rather difficult (and also makes being in touch with those of you who want to meet up with me nearly impossible), and second, so much has happened in the past few weeks that I get overwhelmed when I think about sharing it. So please forgive me for the infrequent posting, forgive me for leaving things out, and forgive me for not sharing each and every moment. (Actually, don't forgive me for that one, but just be grateful.  I suspect that you really don't want to know my thoughts on the most recent privies I've encountered, which generally have not had doors or walls or lids.)

Last week my friend Elsbeth and her wonder-dog Duke were hiking with me, and got to participate in the full range of thru-hiker experiences.  She hiked in the rain, up steep hills, and got stuck in mud up to her calves. She saw beautiful vistas from high, craggy cliffs, and inhaled the odors given off by wet dirt and grass and leaves.  She filled her belly with blackberries, and ate ice cream and pie as often as we could manage. She felt the joy that comes along with crossing a state boundary, finding unexpected soda chilling in a nearby stream, and entering a hiker town and finding oneself instantly surrounded by hikers who are your immediate friends based solely on shared experience.  She marveled at each flower, listened to the loons, and reminded me of the beauty of the forest that after 1,700 miles I don't always see right away.  Lately the trail has felt like normal life, as if everyone wakes up every morning and stumbles out of their tent, hikes all day long, and then watches shooting stars from a fire tower at night.  Having her along for five days has made me pause and see just how magical my life really is.  I can't believe that in the past thousand or so miles I'd forgotten that.

The goodbye hug.

I'd like to write more at the moment, but I need to patch my long johns and hang out more with my parents before I hit the trail this afternoon.  Posting may be infrequent during the next month as I finish up this journey, but please know that I appreciate each and every thought and well wish that you send my way.  I don't have many mail drops left, nor do I know exactly when I'm going to be finishing (a month or so, I suspect).  If you are interested, you can write to me by the following dates at these addresses: Bree Carlson, Thru-Hiker; General Delivery,
  • Rangeley, ME 04970 (August 25)
  • Caratunk, ME 04925 (September 1)
  • Millinocket, ME 04462 (September 9)
Thank you.

Monday, August 15, 2011


As my AT adventure is starting to slowly wind down (Less than 400 miles left? Where did the time go? Just yesterday I was slogging my ass through Virginia with a TERRIBLE haircut), I've been thinking a lot lately about my best and worst moments on the trail.  I'm not going to write about those right now, however, as I've still got another 400 or so miles to go, which will hopefully be filled with the sorts of moments that make my heart sing and with none of the ones that will make me cringe later in life (for reference: see old photos of my shaved head).

Instead, I'm going to tell you about the only day on the trail when I wanted to go home.  Before I got down to Georgia, a couple of thru-hikers had told me that at some point, everyone wants to quit.  Their advice for when that day arrived was this: quit tomorrow.  But on the day I wanted to go home, it wasn't because I wanted to quit, but because I felt devastatingly alone and as if I was missing out on one of the biggest moments of my life.

On the day I wanted to go home, I called my sister at a predetermined time, and she casually left her cell phone on the dining room table as she and Seth handed my mom and Seth's mom mother's day cards.  I listened as they opened their cards and read the inscription "We hope you like your gift, because we're not returning it."  Ivy had already told me that they had put a small photo showing a small black object shaped like a peanut floating in a pool of hazy greyness inside the card.  I'd known about the object since Hogback Ridge Shelter, in Tennessee, and when they had told me on that night I was going to be an aunt I had yelled out loud with joy.  (They then told me that I couldn't break the news to ANYONE, and consequently I couldn't explain to my thru-hiking friends why I was yelling in the middle of the woods at night.) The moment at which both my mother and Seth's mother realized what they were looking at nearly broke my heart.  By the time that my father and Seth's father realized why their wives were screaming I was crying, quietly, on the other end of the line.  I've never wanted to be somewhere else, so desperately, in my entire life.
Being, as my dad so eloquently put it the other day, "within the weather map" of home has been amazing, in part because it's allowed me to continue my seven week streak of seeing people I love just about every weekend (and taking zero days with them), but also because it's put me in close proximity to my sister.  Her belly has grown tremendously each of the three times I've seen her since March, and every time I see her, after I say hello to her, I bend down and say hello to my little niece or nephew.  I pat my sister's belly, and and tell the peanut to grow well, because I can't wait to welcome him or her to this glorious world.

(Hey, SisterPants: nice job one-upping me this summer.)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

This Is Gross

Let me start off by saying this: I’m on a bus right now, wearing cotton everything, and it feels AMAZING.  Better yet, the people on the bus surrounding me as I type this don’t realize how lucky they are: less than 24 hours ago I hadn’t showered or done laundry in 8 days.  My parents, when they met me four days into my ‘no showering for eight days’ streak said that I “smelled a little bit musty” but that it wasn’t a problem.  When I met my sisters on top of Killington on Wednesday, night, however, they were a little bit more honest, and told me that I stunk.  (At one point Ivy forgot how nasty I was and gave me a pat on the head, and instantly regretted touching me.  HA!)  Logically, I understand that I’ve been smelling a bit rank, but it’s complicated by the fact that most of the time (i.e.: when I’m dirty), I can’t smell myself or other thru-hikers.  Day hikers, however, I can smell, and when they walk by me on the trail I often stop, deeply inhale, and contemplate following them wherever they’re going because they smell SO DAMN GOOD.  (I imagine that politeness keeps them from retching when I walk by, although by now they probably know enough to hold their breath when a thru-hiker approaches.) 

Back in Pearisburg (that horrible black hole of a town in Virginia), I was running errands with some thru-hikers and a hostel owner.  Once we had dropped off the trash at the transfer station and were headed to the grocery store, a particularly foul odor filled the car.  Having just offloaded the trash, we assumed that it was leakage from one of the trash bags.  As the journey progressed, however, we realized that it wasn’t leakage; it was Ruffles’s shirt, which hadn’t been washed in quite some time.  If I hadn’t spent the previous night at the hostel, and if I wasn’t wearing clean clothing, I don’t think I would have noticed.

Eight days is the longest I’ve gone without taking a shower, and this last stretch was only the second time I’ve done it (and honestly, I hope to never do it again).  The first time was my first 8 days on the trail, when I was traveling approximately 10 to 12 miles per day in temperatures that hovered around 60 degrees.  Recently I’ve been traveling between 18 to 22 miles per day, in much higher temperatures, so I’m sure you can imagine the olfactory difference.  (Or maybe, just maybe, you don’t want to imagine it.  That’s fine, too.)

I’ve been sweating a lot these days, especially during the last heat wave.  I left Connecticut and traveled into Massachusetts during the worst of the heat and humidity, and during that time was consuming between 5 and 7 liters of water per day (and was traveling approximately 20 miles per day to make it to my pickup location at the right time and place).  When I got my friends Cynthia and Kevin’s house, I had to scrub their tub after showering, because it looked like this:

Note: Their tub was perfectly clean before I got in.

There are many things that people get out of hiking the Appalachian Trail.  Some folks gain a better understanding of who they are, and where they’re going with their life. Others find that their world view shifts drastically from spending six months living out of a backpack.  And then there are those people who learn to love the simplicity that comes along with having the most difficult decision of the day being what to eat for lunch.  As for me, I’m getting all of the above out of this experience, along with this: there are few things better than putting on clean clothing after your first shower in eight days.