Monday, March 28, 2011

Lessons from the Trail

I've hiked over 67 miles since the start of my Appalachian Trail adventure, and have learned a number of things.  Here's my list of lessons learned from my first week on the trail, presented to you in a handy format for easy reading.
  1. People from the south have accents.  I took the overnight train from Washington DC to Georgia on Monday evening, and arrived in Gainesville on Tuesday at 7 am.  My original plan was to look around the train platform and visually identify any thru hikers and split a taxi ride with them to Amicalola Falls, but sadly, there were none.  There were, however, two gentlemen who took one look at me and offered their taxi services.  I wound up getting a ride with an older man who was nearly incomprehensible to me.  At first I suspected that it was his accent, but by the end of the ride decided that his lack of teeth was a contributing factor towards me not understanding him well.  When he dropped me off he wished me well, gave me a business card, and suggested that I'd lose a lot of weight.  Slightly odd, but perhaps honest, as well.  
  2. I checked in at the ranger station on Tuesday, March 22 at Amicalola Falls at 8:30, when the place opened for business.  I registered as hiker 424 (lucky numbers!) and was about to leave with my 45 lb pack (damn you, apples and cheese from Delaware!  Your deliciousness added about 4 lbs to my pack!) when I met fellow thru-hikers, Poppy and Hillbilly, retired brothers from Alabama. They offered me a ride to the top of the falls (about a mile of stairs), but I declined.  Lesson number two: accept help when offered, as there usually is a good reason for it.  It took an hour, and man, being exhausted before 10 am really sucks.  Especially when it's hot.
  3. Lesson number 3: While it doesn't look like spring in Georgia, at times it sure feels like the middle of summer.  I took the approach trail into the top of Springer Mountain, which is about 8.8 miles of gently rolling hills through what could easily pass as a typical New England forest (the rest of Georgia has had the same sort of feel to it).  The approach trail was quite lovely, although it was tremendously hot (at least according to my winter loving body), and before I knew it I was rocking the minor sunburn.  (Lesson 3a: buzzed head = more sunblock.)  While the leaves are not yet out and the overwhelming color is still brown, there were plenty of signs of spring.  I saw a handful of butterflies and some pretty flowers along the trail, although very few people.  Apparently the day before the Vampire Diaries had been filming on the approach trail, and had completely blocked it off.  So maybe March 22 was an auspicious day, after all. 
  4. I started hiking the AT at 14:44 (more lucky numbers!) and spent the night at Stover Creek Shelter. Poppy and Hillbilly were already there, and when I walked up to the shelter Hillbilly yelled out, rather loudly, "THERE SHE IS!" Lesson 4: It's nice to see familiar faces at the end of the day, even if you don't know people all that well.  I spend most of each day hiking alone, and coming into a shelter or campsite at the end of the day and seeing people I know feels so amazingly good.  Conversations at the shelters (which are usually, but not always, three sided lean-tos with a roof and a floor) tend to involve gear talk and start dates and (mostly) FOOD, but still, it's been nice to get to know people.  I've been leapfrog hiking with two people I met from Massachusetts (trail names Jetpack (Kaitlin) and I'll Eat It (Dan)), and having hiking buddies has been extremely nice, even if I only see them at the start and end of each day.  Lesson 4a: Earplugs are necessary in shelters.  Some of the men I've been sleeping in close proximity to sound like they're sawing wood.  Also, earplugs keep you from hearing the mice dancing around your head as you sleep.
  5. In Georgia, all shelters have a privy associated with them (I've heard that this is not the case farther north, and it makes me sad).  They're similar to the outhouses in the White Mountains, in that they're elevated composting systems relying on aeration (supplied by wood chips) and bugs and microorganisms.  Most of the privys have roofs, which I never thought of as being something I really could appreciate until I got stuck at a shelter in the pouring rain and had to venture out several times, only to sit down on the seat with the rain pouring on my head.  Previously I had thought of shelters as being nice if they were constructed relatively recently and were generally free of mice, but instead my favorite shelters now are the ones with privys with roofs.  If you disagree with me, I suggest you do your business outside at 40 degrees F in the pouring rain and see how you feel.  I thought so.  Lesson 5: Appreciate the little things.  
  6. One of the mantras of my family has always been 'Take Care of Your Feet.'  This is advice that I always take, and consequently have never once blinked at the cost of good socks (expensive), good insoles (moderately expensive), and hiking boots (horrifically expensive, and I haven't even bought a pair of Limmers yet).  About two months ago I bought a pair of hiking boots that I was sure were going to be wonderful.  Two days into the trail, the tops and fronts of my toes were hurting so badly that I was contemplating having them surgically removed to keep hiking.  Also, I had some blisters on my toes.  When I got to Neel's Gap, I did the shakedown at Mountain Crossing (a gear store), where they go through everything in your pack and help you cut pack weight.  I only had to send a couple of things home, but when the store employee got a look at my feet he immediately suggested that perhaps my $160, super-comfy-before-the-hike-started boots were perhaps a bit too small. As soon as I tried on new boots I realized that what he had been suggesting was completely true.  The boots that had fit so perfectly in the store a mere two months ago no longer fit my feet, which had swelled from hiking 12-13 miles per day, carrying a 45 lb pack.  My new boots are more breathable, lighter, and bigger, and honestly, so much better to hike in.  With the boots, I did an easy 10 miles from Neel's Gap before sunset.  Lesson 6: On the AT, it's not the economy, but the feet, stupid.
  7. Corollary to lesson 6: know when to stop.  On Saturday I hiked for 7 miles in the pouring rain (with lightning and thunder, to reach a shelter.  Because my boots were now super lightweight, breathable ones, it took about 1 hour for them to be completely soaked.  While I wanted to hike for more than 7 miles, the state of my feet (white and shriveled with raisins for toes) made me hole up in my sleeping bag for the rest of the afternoon, nursing some heel blisters which had materialized with the rain.  Booo.... Spending an afternoon (and night) in the company of 9 men, holed up in a sleeping bag, staring mournfully at the rain (the monotony only broken periodically by visiting to the roofless privy) was perhaps not quite what I had envisioned when I started with journey, it was necessary to give my feet a break.  The following day I was able to easily hike16 miles (although the last hill was ANYTHING but easy) because I didn't completely tear up my feet hiking in the wet.  Three cheers to knowing when to call it a day (even if it's at lunch time).
  8. Hiking appetites are awesome and scary, all at once.  At the end of my 16 mile day I ate an entire two-serving bag of dehydrated hiker lasagna, and then... nothing.  I didn't feel as if I'd put anything in my stomach.  Today, my first town day, a group of us went to an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet, where I ate a salad and had four slices of pizza for lunch, and again... nothing.  I may not feel hungry, but I definitely don't feel full.  From what I've been hearing, by the time I hit the Smoky Mountains, my hiker appetite will be in full swing, and I'll be a walking, talking, eating machine.  (I can't wait!)
  9. Listen to recommendations.  Everyone I've been talking to on the trail has been recommending the Blueberry Patch Hostel, and now that I've checked into it, I can see why.  Gary, one of the owners, picked up five of us wet, smelly, and grimy hikers at 10 am this morning, and brought us back to the hostel.  The hostel has a shower with warm water, free laundry service (yes, please... although I have to say that while I haven't been aware of my smell (which I'm sure is pretty bad), I have been aware of wearing the same grimy, wet, and sweaty clothing for the past week. Ugh.), a bed, towels, a hiker box containing free food and gear for the taking (or leaving), and a wood stove.  We were there for perhaps a half an hour when Lennie (Gary's wife) brought us fresh cookies.  Tomorrow morning we are apparently in for a breakfast that can't be beat, before being shuttled back to the trail head.  And by the way, in case you were wondering, my first shower in 8 days was only surpassed by a package from my parents and a letter from my dear old dad.  
Well that's all  for now.  I'm having some issues uploading photos from the library computer, but am working on coming up with a solution.  I miss you all, and wish you all the best.

Monday, March 21, 2011


My friend Zoe cut off all of my hair last night.  She did it in intermediate steps- mullet, rat tail, mohawk, gone- with a pair of scissors.  It took about 20 minutes to remove  one of the traditional hallmarks of femininity, and so far my biggest complaint is not odd looks or being hassled but instead just how cold my head is, all the time.  This morning Ted took me to the barber shop, where I had a professional take off the rough bits and make me look a bit less mangy (yet another friend whose true calling does not lie in the hair care profession, I’m afraid).  Ultimately, I like the hair cut- buzzing my head has been something that I’ve wanted to since college, but between work, parental and significant other disapproval, and fear, I’ve just never done it.  While I recognize that this may not be the best look for me, I’m enjoying the feel of it tremendously- I like the way my fingers feel on my scalp, the softness of the remaining hair, and the sensation of putting on and taking off hats.  I’m also curious to see other people’s assumptions about me, based on my hair cut.  In addition to doing it because I’ve always wanted to (and because I’m not going to be in the same state as my folks until it grows out a bit), I’m doing it because it’s easy- this way I won’t be walking around with knotty, greasy hair for 2,000 miles.  I’ll look cleaner (and feel cleaner) this way.  I won’t have to carry a comb, and the soap that I’m using will last longer if I don’t have to worry about washing my hair.  Win-win-win!

I’m currently in Washington DC, waiting for my train south, which leaves at 6:30 tonight.  It’s funny how way back in January I set this ball rolling, and have since just sort of gone along for the ride, letting so many things happen along the way.  (Okay, so it was a little bit more complicated by that, but not by much.  You’d think that there’d be more roadblocks set up for taking a leave of absence and dropping out of society for a half a year, but there aren't.  It makes me wonder why more people don't do it.)  I’m surprised by not feeling at all nervous, and how I don’t want to jump on the next train north to Boston to go home. My pack is heavy, but my heart is light and I’m feeling giddy with excitement.  This is going to be such a great adventure!
Thank you all for your support- your messages, love, hugs, and kind words have meant so much to me already.  From everything I’ve read, the Appalachian Trail isn’t the sort of journey that you can do alone- relying on the kindness of strangers along the way is a big part of the experience.  The kindness of my community, however, has blown me away, even before I’ve started.  Honestly, I’ve never felt so loved, supported, and reassured as I have in the past three month.    To all of you: thank you. 

Friday, March 18, 2011

NYC Interlude

Please forgive me for not posting for a while; I’m afraid that I thought it too dull and boring to report that my leave of absence from work has been quite lovely (no surprises there), that traveling around New England like a madwoman trying to get JUST ONE MORE visit in was exhausting, that my family continues to be wonderful and supportive (as always, unless I’m talking about shaving my head), and that getting the stomach flu was tremendously unpleasant both for me and for the unfortunate family members whose couch I commandeered for a period of 24 hours until I was able to act like less of a expellant slug.  Like I said… nothing particularly surprising to report.
My pack is packed (minus lunch for 5 days, a block of cheese, and 40 ft of thin cord) and weighs in at a respectable 36 lbs.  I’m happy with it, although I know that I could shave off even more weight in some areas (for example, I don’t need to be carrying an entire liter of fuel, or even two small tin can stoves, but so far I am).  I’ve got 2,000 miles to perfect my pack load, and am looking forward to hitting the Trail on Tuesday. 
My plan for the next few days is as follows: Friday and Saturday in NYC seeing a fantastic play called Sleep No More (yes, I’m seeing it twice in one weekend.  Trust me- it’s gonna be worth it.).  For those of you who didn’t listen when I was gushing about it in February 2010, it’s an interesting take on Macbeth that involves running around following characters as they act out the play in 100 rooms of an old hotel.  So  I’ll be doing double duty with seeing the play, as I’ll be continuing to break in my new hiking boots as I run around after people tonight.  Ivy, Seth, and Mary will be joining me in NYC later tonight, and hopefully we will have a fun filled weekend.  I’m heading to Delaware to visit friends for Sunday night, then on for an afternoon in DC on Monday, followed by the overnight train to Georgia, arriving early on Tuesday morning.  I haven’t figured out all the details for getting to the trail head on Tuesday, but I keep telling myself that my mantra for the trip is ‘prepared, not planned.’  In short- I’m gonna wing it, and hopefully that won’t come back to bite me in the ass too hard later on.
My sister is maintaining a list of post offices that I promise to stop by while I’m hiking- if you’re interested in sending along a letter, please contact her.  If you do go that route, and you want a response from me that is not a simple post card, I recommend you include an extra piece of paper and an envelope.  J  I’m not sure how much I’ll be checking email, or how much free library time I’ll have to respond, so don’t be alarmed if you don’t get a fast response from me.  I’ll be keeping in touch mainly by this blog (and by my terribly neglected twitter account).
More later.