Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Travels with SisterPants

I had a tough day last Friday.

Wait, that's not quite right.  Let me try that again.

For someone who is spending all of her time goofing off, seeing the country, and in general having a ball, Friday was a wee bit difficult.  My sister Ivy was coming to visit on Friday night for our birthday, and so I had to hike 22 miles over challenging terrain (steep uphills and, even worse, steep downhills), through inclement weather (heat, humidity, a thunderstorm that broke literally right over my head, causing me to hunker down in the middle of the trail until it passed, and about 6 miles of hiking in the rain with wet boots), and try to get a ride to our campsite at 7 pm at night on a road where nobody wanted to stop and pick up a sopping wet and smelly hitchhiker.  My feet hurt, my cell phone wasn't getting service so I couldn't call a shuttle, and I was completely exhausted.

On this blog I keep posting about trail magic; about getting soda and beer unexpectedly, and how wonderful it is.  However, the real trail magic happens when I really need something, like being picked up after hiking for two miles along a dangerous road as dusk approaches, and being driven directly to my campsite, which was 15 miles away.  Derrigo and Python- I can't say thank you enough for helping me out.  The relief I felt at having a long day behind me and being in a safe location is indescribable, except to say that once I had showered, done laundry, eaten, and finally climbed into my tent, I started crying when I realized that if it weren't for you both, I wouldn't be snuggled into my sleeping bag, waiting (im)patiently for my sister to hurry up and arrive.

Ivy ended up getting to our campsite the following morning, and we spent our birthday seeing the area, eating fried food, and doing trail magic.  We bought some watermellon, cookies, and beer, and set up near the Blue Ridge Parkway, where the trail crosses Route 43.  As we unloaded the trunk, I said "I hope the hikers that come through are people I know" and sure enough, not three minutes later, my friends walked out of the woods and got some beer.  It was magical.

Rainbow, Trapper, me, Firestarter, and Mr. Black.

Another magical thing was hearing Ivy introduce herself to my friends.  When she was serving in Peace Corps in South Africa, Ivy went by the South African name Mpho.  I was given the name Mphonyana (meaning little Mpho) when I went to visit her, a name which at best was annoying (as I'm the older sister), and at worst linked us together in that supid twin way that some people find endearing but that I find repulsive.  Ivy, however, loved it (mostly because of my reaction to the name).  Since she came to visit me on the trail, I decided that she needed to use a trail name bestowed on her by Who Knows, weeks earlier: SisterPants.  It's a terrible name, I know, and one that I would hate if I were given it.  So, perfect.  :)

 Me and SisterPants, at the James River.

When we were done doing trail magic we drove to Foamhenge, where I learned that there are two alternate theories for the creation of Stonehenge: 1) that it took the druids years to hoist the stones into place, or 2) Merlin magicked them into place.  (We didn't make it to the artist's follow-up creation: Yankees versus Dinosaurs, which I am sorely upset about.  That would also have been magical, but in a very, VERY different way.) I baked SisterPants a campfire birthday cake, which she thought was most impressive.  The following day we hiked 11.5 miles of the AT, mostly downhill.  It took about six hours to do those 11.5 miles, because SisterPants wanted to stop every 5 feet to take a photo, or have a snack, or look at a view.  It reminded me of my first few weeks on the trail, where everything was new and unique and exciting and photoworthy.  In the afternoon we hung around by the pool at the campground (I know, I know, thru hiking is supposed to be HARD), toured Stonewall Jackson's house, and played a couple games of cribbage.  On Monday morning she dropped me off at the trail, and drove away quickly before we both could start bawling.

SisterPants, at Foamhenge.

I promise, despite photo evidence, thru-hiking is HARD.
Late on Sunday night, I asked Ivy what her favorite part of the weekend was, and she said it was being able to talk to me stream of conscious style, and not having to save up news and conversation points until I found the time and cell service to call.  She asked me what my favorite part was, and I said "everything."

This doesn't bode well for me in the woods.

Happy Birthday, SisterPants.  I miss you and wish you were still here with me.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Fahrenheit 451, Hiker Edition

For the record, before I met up with Firestarter and Rainbow on Friday, I thought that everyone on the AT had a pack weight of 40 lbs +/- 5 lbs. Well, everyone except for the ultra lightweight folks with pack weights of 20 lbs and no spare dry socks or sleeping bags (poor miserable bastards).  However, hiking with my most current group has shown me the error of my weighs (I'm sorry, I couldn't resist). I've been hiking with 7 other people for the past 3 days, none of whom have a pack weight of over 30 lbs, making me the slowest, most exhausted, most pink cheeked, and most likely to be voted off the island hiker in the group.

Yesterday evening, in a hotel room in Daleville, Firestarter went through my entire backpack and helped me cut weight.  Down jacket and winter hat? Gone. Pair of comfy pants? No longer in my pack. Chemical handwarmers? Sent home. Rainpants? Haven't put them on in 7 weeks, except to do laundry, so time for them to go.  I agreed with all of his suggestions until he got to my AT Guide and the current book I'm reading.  Now, I've spent a lot of time and effort trying to figure out how to read out here. Before I left I bought a small tablet, but it got a fatal error two days before I left, so it stayed home (word to the wise: don't buy the cheapest electronic device on the market and expect it to work flawlessly). I downloaded books on my phone, but reading such a small screen wasn't at all pleasant.  Finally I bit the bullet and got myself a book... and finished it in two days. So I got another, and finished it in three.  So I bought a book on the factors leading up to the start of the Civil War, and started losing myself in it. Despite what my parents may say about broken bindings and dog eared pages, I was raised to love and cherish books. So when Firestarter suggested I cut my books in half, I balked. I suggested alternate plans (I'd rather give up my sleeping bag than rip up a book.)(In fact I should give up my sleeping bag because it's rated for 0 degree weather, but that's another story.). I tried to bargain (I'd carry less food if I could keep my books intact.)(Actually, I need to carry less food. There is no need to carry 8 days worth when there is a town every 4 days.). I  almost cried. And in the end, I relented.

At first the items I removed from my pack didn't feel like a lot. However, after I carried a box full of them 1.1 miles to the post office this morning I realized that all of the things I gave up needed to go and when taken in aggregate were somewhat heavy.  Hand warmers in late May? Stupid. Ditto for the down jacket and winter hat. Extra extra head lamp batteries?  Unnecessary.  Sixty four pages of a guidebook showing areas that I've already passed through? Useless.

Even though the terrain today was fairly easy, by all standards,  I was tearing up the trail. I averaged 2.8 MPH, which isn't all that impressive except that I did it for over 18 miles. And it felt great. I don't know what my pack weighs now, but I can tell you that its significantly lighter this way. And now that the second half of my Civil War book is waiting in Harper's Ferry,  I'd better continue to tear up the trail, lest I never find out what happens.

Two Lies and a Truth

There's a lot of rumor and tradition surrounding the AT, some of which overlaps to a ridiculous degree.  For example, let's examine a handful of things I've heard about the state of Virginia.  For two months now, many of us have been hearing about how easy Virginia is.  Back in Damascus someone told me that what with the long and flat ridge lines, most people are easily able to do 30 miles per day in Virginia.  Someone else told me that Virgina can be done in less than a month, all 500+ miles of it.  And finally, I've heard that Virgina is the place where people tend to leave the trail, because they grow bored of the 'Long, Green Tunnel' and yearn for better views.

I've got to be honest: Virginia has been the hardest state for me so far.  While yes, there are long ridge lines periodically, they are tough on the feet and are certainly not flat.  Instead, they have nearly a constant upward or downward angle, which wears out the legs quickly and disheartens the soul (especially, if, for example, you were counting on the profile in your guidebook to be correct, as I tend to do, even though time and time again it's not).  Very few people I know can do even 20 miles per day in Virginia, let alone 30, unless they're slack packing (new vocab word for all of you!  Slack packing is making arrangements with someone with a car so that you only have to carry a day pack, and not your (stupidly heavy, in my case) 40 lb backpack.)  In that vein, I don't think Virginia can be done in a month, at least not by me, with the bruised and swollen stumps I have for feet (slight exaggeration, but wow, do they hurt, and I just took a bunch of days off last week).

Sadly, hiking pairs seem to be splitting up in this sate and people do seem to be leaving the trail.  I know a handful of folks who have gone home from Virginia, and can't really say the same for the last three states.  I don't think it's the views (because while they're few and far between, they're spectacular when they do happen), but instead the drudgery, and the heat, and the fact that we've all spent two months getting only 1/3 of the way up the trail.  Oooof.  Still, the views, and the gorgeous green leaves, and the joy of it all make it absolutely worth it for me.

Cliffs near sunset.

Mcaffe's Knob again.  There may or may not be a photo of me doing this,
but I'm not telling, based on my parent's reaction to the last photo I posted
from the same location.  Instead: here's Rainbow!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Mcaffe's Knob

My father just saw this photo and emailed me the following: That is a pretty photo but you are TOO CLOSE TO THE EDGE.

On second glance, yes, I think he's right.


I've finally escaped the vacuum known as Pearisburg.  I was there again on Friday afternoon, when I dropped off the rental car (after saying goodbye to my sweetheart) and wanted to hit the trail.  Please notice my use of the word 'wanted:' as it turns out, wanting to hit the trail and being able to do so are two separate things.  In most of the trail towns there are folks who run shuttles, ferrying hikers around town, to and from the trail, and wherever you want to go, usually for a cost of about $1.50 per mile.  I called all three shuttles listed in my guidebook (The AT Guide), and nobody could take me (two told me that if I waited until tomorrow they'd be happy to take me to the place I got off the trail (15 miles away), but as you can imagine, the idea of spending yet another day in Pearisburg was not terribly appealing).  So, with storm clouds starting to roll in and with antsy feet, I decided to hitch.  Now, in the past, hitching has never been a problem: I stick out my thumb, make sure my skirt is visible, and within about 10 minutes I'm in a truck, headed in the direction I want to go.  Given that Pearisburg was turning into a personal black hole with me rapidly heading towards the event horizon, I couldn't get anyone to stop.  After the cop car drove by slowly for the second time (why, I'm just looking at my phone on the side of the road, officer), I decided to give up and ask for help.  I headed into one of the hiker friendly hotels in town, and within 10 minutes was on a shuttle out of town.  Whew!

I didn't end up starting to hike until about 5 pm, and rolled into a shelter around 7:30, which is rather late for hikers to be out.  (It seems like most people end their hikes around 6 so that they can have a leisurely dinner, relaxed conversation, followed by going to bed early.  In fact, one person was already asleep in his tent when I arrived.)  When I took a look at the shelter log, however, I saw that two very dear friends (Firestarter and Rainbow), had passed through about an hour before.  The folks at the shelter didn't know if my friends were pressing on to the next shelter (6 miles away) or were camping at the road (0.8 miles away).  I decided to press on to the next camp site, and if they weren't there, to catch them in the morning.

It was a solid plan, until I arrived at the roadway and saw the world's most sketchy van parked not too far away.  It was large and white and was full of junk, with a shadowy figure sitting at the wheel.  As I crossed the road I thought I heard a door slam, and that was it for me: decision made, hiking until past dark (with fresh headlamp batteries, for once), camping at a safe location far, far, FAR away from the van.  It took about three miles before I finally felt comfortable looking for a place to camp (at 9:30 pm), when in the distance I saw the beautiful glow of two headlamps.  As I approached I heard voices I recognized, and when they called out "Who's there?" I let out a cry that let them know that it was me. 
Firestarter and Rainbow

In the real world, when you run into friends that you haven't seen in a month or two in the grocery store, you act calm and cool, because, really, it's no big deal.  But out here, because everyone is headed in one direction at just about the same pace, it's amazing when you run into friends unexpectedly.  The next day, after spending the morning talking about how wonderful it was to be hiking together again, we ran into three more friends: Trapper, Mr. Black, and Mr. Mojo Rising.  The following day we picked up two more people.  Having friends to help me work though the tough days (heat, humidity, challenging terrain, and a hostel loaded with fleas) has been maybe some of the best trail magic I've received so far (although the ice cream for second breakfast two days ago comes close).  Huzzah!

Firestarter (in short shorts) and me on Dragon's Tooth

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Pearisburg, Part Three

Well, here I am, in Pearisburg, VA, yet again.  It seems that I can't quite seem to escape the clutches of this small town in Appalachia- I was first here a week ago to catch a shuttle back to the trail, then on Saturday (as the trail passes through the town), and now, here I am again, on Tuesday.  In general I don't do a good job of keeping track of days on the trail (it all kind of blends together), although in this instance it feels like Koen and I were here just yesterday, because, well, we kind of were.  The Pearisburg website promises that the area is known for its Civil War History and the Appalachian Trail, but beyond that I don't know what else... as far as I can tell, Pearisburg is known for cheap and plentiful food, inexpensive seventies decor style lodging, a massive insulation production plant (and accompanying industrial waste landfill), the best hostel on earth (more about that later), and (to balance it all out) the worst Chinese food I have ever eaten in my entire life.  We're off the trail for a couple of days because Koen's back is bothering him, and rather than struggling through miles of backpacking with pain, wet feet, and no views (he brought some bad weather from Boston with him), we've rented a car and are going to see a bit of the area instead.  (Appomattox Court House, here we come!)

Pearisburg insulation production plant.  Not your typical
AT view or sound.  This plant was LOUD!
Having Koen around has been wonderful- it's been lovely to hike with someone during the day, and to share meals and decision making with.  (It's also been nice because he brought some good Belgian chocolate with him, which I've been dipping in Nutella as my lunchtime dessert.)  He's pretty handy to have around with regards to identifying wildflowers, helping me remember that I don't need to eat fried food when in town, doing my laundry, politely pointing out that the 'wild strawberries' I found on the side of the trail are not actually strawberries, and being generally sweet and kind and basically the best thing ever. The only downside to having him around has been that he eats cheese at a more alarming rate than I do, so we keep running out.  (Happily, because we seem to be stuck in a whirlpool around Pearisburg, we keep being able to resupply.  So it's not much of a problem at all.) 

Exhibit A: Joy!

Exhibit B: Not a strawberry!

We spent two nights at Wood's Hole Hostel, a relaxing, low-key place with yoga, smoothies, a fantastic dog, massages, community breakfasts and dinners, and a garden.  I suppose I should say that the best part of the experience was the atmosphere based on rest and relaxation (and in that vein, re-reading 'A Walk in the Woods' in a day was tremendous fun), but really, it was the food.  Not only were the smoothies, breakfast, and dinner that we ate there delicious, but Neville's bread was absolutely amazing.  Also, I've been sorely missing community dinners while on the trail- before coming out here, I participated in a weekly potluck dinner at my home in Somerville.  Sharing food and conversation once per week was such a wonderful tradition, and I've been feeling the lack thereof.  (Also, I've missed eating dinner that didn't come from a zip-loc bag.)  Being able to stay in such a wonderful place, surrounded by interesting people, and sharing food and conversation did my heart good.  (If you ever come through this area, you really should stop and check this place out.)

Foggy morning at Wood's Hole Hostel.

Up until now there haven't been many pick-upable creatures on the Trail.  Sure, I've seen multiple species of millipedes and caterpillars, and a handful of snakes but nothing remotely catchable.  Even the frog ponds that I've passed have been remarkably frog-free.  The wet weather, in addition to bringing out the incredibly pungent aroma of my boots, has brought out some of my favorite woodland creatures: the Eastern Newt (in red eft stage) and toads!  I tried to shower love upon one lucky guy, but he didn't return my feelings.

The love is not mutual.

I've only encountered one funny sign recently, but it's a passive-aggressive doozy.  I should mention that graffiti seems to be a trail tradition- all of the shelters that I've stayed at have been tagged, some of which have some lovely sayings and jokes, and some of which... not so much.  The worst thing I've seen is a drawing of a naked woman with flippers for feet and whose creator took some liberties with regards to anatomy.
Someone wasn't too happy.

Well, that's all for now: I've rambled my way  incoherently through a lunch/laundry break and one power outage.  I've got more that I want to write about, specifically about the day the tornadoes came through (I was cowering underneath a shelter, which people have been teasing me about non-stop), town days (and how I can't ever seem to hang a bear bag properly afterwards), food (and how my three main food groups are sodium, fiber, and sugar) and gender (the post will be subtitled "where the fuck are all the women?"), but we need to get a move on.  Time and tide (and buffet dinners) wait for no woman!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Mail Drops

A couple of people have been asking about my schedule for the next couple mail drops.  To be honest, I've been trying very hard not to have much of a schedule, except heading vaguely north, at an amboling pace.  (This is part of my "prepared, not planned" mantra for this trip.)  But since you've been asking, I'll try to comply.  If you want to send a letter or something, please send it to "Bree Carlson, Thru Hiker" at the following addresses:

~ Mid May: General Delivery, Daleville, VA 24083
~ Late May: General Delivery, Waynesboro, VA, 22980
~ Early June: Bear's Den Hostel, 18393 Blue Ridge Mountain Road, Bluemont, VA 20135

I'm looking forward to hearing from you!

Friday, May 13, 2011


Last week I hatched a brilliant plan: hike 100 miles in 4 days, meet up with my dear friend Sho at her wonderful home in Blacksburg, pick up my sweetheart (if this is news to you, surprise!), take a couple days off, and then resume hiking sometime mid-week.  About 50 miles into this accelerated journey I came to a very significant conclusion: I wasn't having fun.  Instead of taking my time, strolling over some beautiful ridge lines and staying a historic shelters, communicating with the deer and singing with the hawks, moseying my way through Amish grocery stores and enjoying the ensuing extended lunches on overhanging rock ledges, I was hauling ass, and was missing all the good stuff.  Also, to say that my feet hurt would be a little bit of an understatement- while no (new) blisters were present, my feet ached with every step, and I was hiking well into the dark every night (with a dying headlamp, AGAIN).  In sort, as I alluded in my Twitter feed, my body asked me to be less of an asshole, and I decided to listen. 

Taking a couple of summer days off did me tremendous good- I read some excellent books, helped Sho and Joe and Chris plant part of their garden (Confidential to Ivy: HA!  You're not the only sister with a green thumb!) (Confidential to Sho and Joe and Chris: I really hope I didn't screw up your garden!), ate good food, played with a dog, chased some chickens around a yard, belly laughed on a regular basis, wore a red clown nose for a little bit, lounged, listened to wonderful music in a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, and visited both a cadaver lab at the local med school and the bio mechanics crash testing lab at the local university.  It was wonderful.

I've been thinking a lot about community and family, and the intersection between the two.  While I am always grateful for the family that I was born into, the people who have raised and loved and supported me since birth (even if some of them have voiced concerns that during this hike my legs will morph into David Ortiz's legs), I've been becoming more and more grateful through the years for my non-biological family.  I hope you know what I'm talking about: those friends with whom both years and distance and lack of contact don't seem to break the bonds of friendship and love.  Sho- I am so deeply thankful that you are a part of my life.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.

This is the first in a series of four photos.  By the last one I
was giggling like crazy and Sho was looking politely pained.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Thoughts on Trail Magic

When I was a girl, I spent endless summers at the beach. Looking back as an adult I know we didn't go every day, but it sure felt that way. One memory of that time keeps coming back to me as I hike along.  As I remember it, as we left the beach one beautiful afternoon,  I found a full pack of Wrigley's gum in the parking lot. As a kid with a $2 per week allowance,  this was a significant find. I also knew that in general,  one does not pick up packs of gum from parking lots, and that if my mom found out she would take it from me. I managed to play it cool until about halfway home when I couldn't resist anymore and completely unsubtly popped a piece in my mouth. I'm sure you can imagine the follow-up: tattling sister, car pulled over, gum relinquished.

The reason I keep returning to that memory is because these days, whenever I find a cooler left on the side of the road, I open it, and I unquestioningly eat whatever I find inside. Remember the saying our parents drilled into our heads: don't take candy from strangers?  These days, not only do I take candy from strangers,  but I also take soda and hot dogs and cookies and beer.  Two weeks ago I ran 0.4 miles back down the trail because I realized that I had missed a cupcake sitting in an incredibly sketchy container.  It was delicious, and at no time did I second guess the intentions of the person who left it there.

I love it that right now I'm living in an environment where this lack of fear is the norm. I hope that this beautiful sense of optimism about people and their intentions is something I keep when I have completed the trail.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Farm Envy

The Appalachian Trail is both everything I'd hoped for and nothing like what I expected. 

Topography wise, I expected mountains and hills, occasional strolls through towns, and more than a couple rivers and lakes. And while sure, it's all that and a bag of chips, some of the most beautiful moments have come when I least expected them: the grassy balds, the early morning fog, mist enshrined trees appearing out of no where, and the farms.

Before I entered Virginia,  I'd seen plenty of farm remnants: dilapidated barns, aged barb wire fences, old roads, and grassy fields. In Georgia I walked over areas called 'stamps,' which were places where farmers used to let their cattle roam.  It was interesting seeing places scattered throughout the trail where people so clearly used to live and work, but no longer do.  The politics leading to these occasional reminders of historic farm life aren't something I'm qualified to comment on, save to say that some of the communities surrounding the AT were disbanded and seized by the government for a whole host of reasons.

In Virginia, however, I've been crossing active farmlands. In full disclosure,  I have to admit to all of you that I have a thing for farms. I'm not exactly sure how or why, but the smell of sweet grass, diesel,  spring, flowering dogwood trees, mixed with a slight undercurrent of cows and the thought of a dinner bell ringing in the background makes my heart skip a beat. (Also in the interest of full disclosure,  I've never worked a day on a farm, and yes, I realize that this is a highly idealized view of farm life.)

I spent yesterday afternoon / evening strolling through beautiful farmland, watching the cows go home (literally around me, as the AT passes through several grazing pastures), and feeling completely content. The combination of everything : the setting sun, the animals,  the mountains, the smell of the cold brooks cutting their way through the valleys, the birds chirping sight unseen from the middle of a giant hay field; all of it made for an overwhelmingly beautiful sensory overload.   As such, it took me about 2 hours to go 2 miles because I just couldn't take in enough of the landscape to fill me up (my normal speed is 2 - 2.5 MPH).

Photos don't do this area of Virginia justice,  especially those taken with my cell phone. 

Just trust me: it was glorious.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Ponies Galore

When I rolled into Thomas Knob shelter last night around 7:30 pm, there were a handful of wild ponies hanging out. By the dim and dusky light they appeared a little bit rough around the ears, but gave off a vibe that indicated that all of their troubles could be solved if only someone would be kind enough to share their dinner. (Bad idea.) I put my hand out for one to sniff, and was rewarded with a dirty, wet pony kiss. Bleech.

By the morning light, and alone, the ponies appeared slightly different.  Instead of seeming to be curious beggars they were a wee bit more aggressive and mangey than I had noticed the night before, and at my most startled I mistook one for one of Hell's minions.  I dare say that anyone who was born between 1975 and 1988 and has had absolutely no contact with ponies probably felt the same way I did: that once again the reality had been a disappointment compared to the idealism presented by toys (where were their sparkling ass tatoos?).

Over time, though, I warmed up to the wild ponies, and am sure glad I did. It was a wonderful day.

Monday, May 2, 2011

In Case You Doubted My Ability To Over-Think Things...

A couple of days ago, Who Knows came across me hanging out at Watauga Lake, and he said "LadyPants, I can always tell when you've had a tremendous day." And... yes.  I've never been one of those people who are good at hiding their feelings.  The amount of quiet, productive pleasure I've been taking from this hike is written all over my face, day after day. 

Nearly every day is a tremendous day. 

There is a part of me that is concerned that I will never be able to adequately describe the personal meaning of this journey or to fully explain how the experience is changing me at a cellular level (and I don't mean the sunburn on my arms).  I can feel my soul start to stitch itself back together again, and I know that I'm going to be emerging from this experience whole.

When I checked into the ranger station at Amicalola Falls back in March, the ranger on duty asked me if I was going all the way to Maine.  I think I gave him my standard line, which was "That's the idea."  He immediately started teasing me, telling me that I needed to say "YES," as if the only reason that 75% of people don't make it all the way to Katahdin is because they don't want it badly enough.  But honestly, at that time, the answer wasn't YES.  It was 'probably' or 'maybe' or 'I sure hope so.'  A false sense of bravado at the start of a momentous undertaking doesn't help anyone (except for professional wrestlers), and certainly doesn't reflect the way that I feel.

Somewhere in the past week I've noticed that whenever I'm asked if I'm going all the way to Maine I've started nodding.  I've stopped adding qualifiers designed to give me an out just in case this doesn't work out.  I might break my ankle in two places tomorrow, forcing me off the trail, but today, at the very least, today I'm headed for Maine and am a thru-hiker.  In short, YES.