Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Monday, June 20, 2011

Major Milestones

The last few days have been packed with milestones,  but sadly I have no computer access so I can't show you photos just yet. But don't worry... they're coming. Or, hey, worry all you want. As we say on the trail, "hike your own hike."

The first major milestone happened a week ago, when I hit the 1,000 mile mark and walked out of Virginia, all in one day.  For those of you who don't know, Virginia is a big state,  encolosing about 25% of the entire Appalachian Trail. That's over 500 miles in one state alone, which makes the positive reinforcement that goes along with ticking off major milestones disappear for about a month.  When you add in the lack of regular views, the heat and humidity,  and the beginning of bug and tick season,  you get a handful of hikers with the Virginia Blues. In short: I needed to get out of the state, in a hurry, and last Monday I did. Hooray! Which is not to say that Virginia didn't kick me in the ass on the way out: at the end of the Shenandoah my feet swelled up again, and all of a sudden my boots were too small. Hiking when your boots are a half a size too small is incredibly painful, and in my experience either causes blisters on my toes (I'm looking at you, first 30 miles in Georgia) or loss of feeling in the tips of my toes (which is hopefully not permanent). Either way, bad news. Thankfully I was able to pick up a pair of $25 KMART shoes and walked 60 miles out of the state in those (for the record,  they held up better than three of my five pairs of Keens).

Walking out of Virginia and into West Virginia made me a bit emotional,  as did signing in as a thru hiker at the ATC.  A friend of mine recently completed a Marathon, and wrote the following on my Facebook wall: "I discovered that the emotion of the finish line transcends the numbers. I hope you have tears of joy when your foot hits the Earth on the last step of your journey." Based on my reaction to the ceremonial halfway point, I'm going to be bawling my eyes out on the top of Katahdin, regardless of whether I finish it in three months or three years. (Note to self: bring a hankie. Or three.)

In the past week I left West Virginia (but I didn't want to, because Harper's Ferry is a beautiful and historical time suck of a town), entered and left Maryland, crossed the Mason-Dixon line (back to the land of no eye contact from strangers, aka HOME) and have now completed 10% of Pennsylvania (confidential to Virginia: why can't you be more like your neighbors to the north, short and sweet and with lots of places to get a bite to eat?). Today I passed the official halfway point in the pouring rain, and "rewarded" myself by consuming a half gallon of ice cream as part of the Thru Hiker Half Gallon Challenge (I strongly suspect that my brain cells are dying off in massive quantities because looking back to this morning, the only thing I can definitively say is that I might have one upped my 'backpack in the woods because I wanted a milkshake' story). Friends, I hope you don't need me to say this, but don't eat a half gallon of ice cream in one sitting. It may seem like fun at first, but is one of the most revolting experiences I've ever had, and has made the thought of consuming just about any cold dairy based treat absolutely nauseating.  In short, don't try this at home. (But if you do, try to beat my time: 3 hours, 45 minutes. It shouldn't be hard, as most people who attempt this most assinine of challenges complete it in under an hour.)

Another milestone that passed by quietly was me dropping my pretence of having a Plan B in case Plan AT didn't work out. (Plan B, for those of you I didn't want to frighten with the details,  involved three months bumming my way through Central America, learning Spanish, and frying my skin on the beach.) Sometime in the last 1000 miles I lost interest in Plan B. Radar, a thru hiker from 2007 and 2010, said it best, "Eventually the AT stops being optional,  and starts becoming a quest." If I'm forced off the trail tomorrow due to injury,  I know I will be back to finish.  This has become who I am, and what I do, and is so firmly tied to every fiber of my being that I will finish the trail, even if I have to do so on my hands and knees when I am 80 years old.

Apologies to Tom Waits, but he summarizes my thoughts well (with a minor modification from me):

Spent last night in a cedar grove
I was born to ramble,  born to rove
Some men are searching for the Holy Grail
But there ain't nothing sweeter than walking the trail.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


I need to get away from this computer and let other people have a turn on it, but I keep remembering things that I want to share with all of you.

When I got into the Bear's Den Hostel (at 8:50 pm... WHY can't I stop hiking earlier in the day?  UGH.) on Sunday, the woman who runs it said, "Oh, you're Bree Carlson?  You get more mail than I do!  I've been wondering who you are, because this stack of mail (2 packages and 5 letters) is for you!" And then, on Tuesday when I got to the post office at Harper's Ferry, the clerk said, "Oh, you're Bree Carlson?  People are worried that you're starving!" And then he brought me 6 packages and 5 more letters.  Guys, I had to buy a bag to tote everything you sent me back to the hostel.  (Confidential to the Beanes and Voters: both boxes of cookies were gone within 24 hours.  Confidential to Surjeet: I still have the things you sent me, and think you're a jerk. Confidential to everyone else: THANK YOU!)

A while back I wrote about how I thought that hiking the AT wasn't a solo task, but something that it took a community to support.  I wrote about how blessed I felt to have had so many people wish me well when I left Boston, and how loved and supported and amazed I felt by it all.  I still feel that way, only more so, along with a deep and powerful sense of gratitude.  This trip would be so much harder if it weren't for all of you.  I really can't find the words to explain all you've done for my emotional well being, even if it's just periodically stopping by and reading my blog.  Thank you for making this journey that much more pleasant, and for making me feel that much more connected, heard, and loved, than I have in years. 

Thank you, thank you, thank you.


I get a kick out of numbers.  So when I signed into the ATC yesterday as a thru-hiker who had made it to Harper's Ferry, I realized that I was just 4 hikers away from my starting number at Amicalola Falls State Park.  I ended up hanging out for an hour, waiting for three more folks to come in, but I got the number.  On June 14, 2011, I registered as hiker 424. WOO! (For the record, I won't be doing this at Katahdin.  Probably. Unless I'm close to the number...)

I'm in the book!

And speaking of numbers, guess who signed in exactly 21 years before me, on June 14, 1990?

Why, it's my friend, Bill Weye!

Off Trail Adventures

My dad recently sent me the following text: "You may or may not be losing New England but you are absorbing the spiritual footprints of the Civil War. No wonder your feet hurt."  It's not just the Civil War I've been absorbing,  but the natural and social history of the Appalachian Mountains.  Continuously running headfirst into history has been such a ball, especially when it happens when I least expect it.  (For example: the Overmountain Men, back in Tennessee, who crossed over the Appalachian Mountains to take part in the Revolutionary War.  I'd never heard of them before I came across an informational sign in the middle of nowhere.)  Likewise, seeing the remnants of old foundations, and chimneys, and graveyards keeps reminding me how the land over which I'm walking has had a diverse and rich history, well before the Appalachian Trail was but a gleam in the eye of the National Park Service and Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

I haven't just been taking in trail history, however, but have been spending my time off of the AT bushwacking backwards through history.  A lot of the folks I've met on the trail don't quite understand why I've been getting off it, exploring the surrounding communities and historical sites.  For some people, hiking the AT is simply about that: hiking the AT, heading north, with few distractions.  But for me, getting off of the AT and taking in some of the area surrounding it is almost as important.  (Also, taking a break now and then REALLY helps my mood, especially on the days when I'm covered with sweat before I even get out of my tent.)  As such, I've visited Blacksburg, Thomas Jefferson's Poplar House, Appomattox Courthouse, Stonewall Jackson's House, FOAMHENGE!, Luray Caverns, and Antietam.  (Also Pearisburg, but I'm still trying to forget that place.) I'm planning on getting off the trail again for Gettysburg, and hope to also see Centralia, PA and the Hershey Factory, as well. 

I'm limited on my time on this computer, so I can't really come up with a solid thesis to link all of these photos together, except to say that I've never felt more curious, more excited about history, and more willing to deviate and detour from my plan than I have over the past few months.  And I love it.

Luray Caverns.  Sorry there is no sense of scale, so just trust me:
this was HUGE.

What's Mosby's Confederacy?  No idea, but I'm going to find out!


Sunken Road, Antietam

Appomattox Court House

Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Half at Harper's Ferry

When I stood on the summit of Springer Mountain, in Georgia on March 22, I thought to myself, "This is it. This is the moment where my life changes,  in an instant,  in ways which I won't understand for months or years to come." It was a powerful moment; how many times in our lives do we fully sense and understand that from that moment forth, everything will absolutely be different and more full of wonder than ever before?

And largely, it seems to be true.  As of today, I've walked 1,015 miles, and am in Harper's Ferry, WV, which is widely accepted as the halfway point of the AT. (The engineer in me would like you to know that technically speaking, Harper's Ferry is not the halfway point.  The halfway point is at 1,090.5 miles, in Pennsylvania.  I would like the engineer in me to go fuck off for a bit.)  Walking down in the the village last night I got a bit teary eyed, and thought to myself: "Holy shit (sorry, Mom). I just walked 1,000 miles. I'm halfway done!" I'm amazed at myself- in the past few months, I've accomplished SO MUCH, and learned even more about myself than I had thought possible.

In his blog, my friend Bill Weye was recently discussing something that he'd learned while doing the AT 20 years ago.  He wrote: "When I’m back in the real world I’ll be an animal — nothing can stop me after finishing the Trail." Until I saw it in print, I didn't realized that I shared these sentiments, but I do.  I mean, I've walked through FOUR states so far.  I've walked uphill, and downhill, and then uphill and downhill some more.  I've walked until my feet hurt so badly I couldn't sleep at night.  I've gone to bed freezing and damp, and have woken up because I was too hot and humid, even when wearing nothing.  I've walked in the pouring rain, cowered near the tops of mountains in thunderstorms, watched hail bounce off my bare knees, and coated my boots in mud.  I've pulled seven ticks off of me in the last two weeks, three of which were embedded, and one those was in an unmentionable place.  I've put up with creepy men, struggled tremendously with the politics of gender out here, and wondered what the hell I'm doing with my life.  I've lived out of a backpack for two and a half months.  I've gone to bed hungry, and woken up dying for something other than oatmeal on more days than I can count.  To summarize: I'm having the time of my life, and I know that to most people, this sounds like hell.

About a week ago Hoop and I were talking about this very thing. He said, "Out here, I accomplish something every single day. What I achieve is meaningful, every single day. When in our lives do we get that level of satisfaction on a daily basis? It's incredible."


Monday, June 13, 2011


I would walk 500 miles, and I would walk 500 more... (actually, I've walked 1,000 miles and would walk 1,181 more, but whatever).


Saturday, June 11, 2011

Losing New England

As the halfway point of the AT rapidly draws near, I've been thinking a lot about what the purpose of this trip is.  Why am I out here?  What am I doing?  Is dropping out of society, enduring the pain of my feet swelling daily, showering and washing my clothing just once per week, living in the dirt with the snakes and the bugs, is all of this really worth it?  Am I saving the world by hiking the AT?  Nope.  Am I contributing to society in a meaningful way?  Not really.  Am I making a living, advancing my status in society and moving up the ladder?  Most assuredly not.  Is hiking the AT, in some way, a selfish endeavor?  Well... yes.

But here's the thing: if everyone did the things they loved, the world would be a much better place.  Even if I'm not volunteering, or cleaning up the environment, or working within the normal constraints of society, by doing something that is so deeply personal and meaningful and lovely, I AM contributing.  It may not be obvious, and it may just be temporary, but by living a dream, I AM making the world a better place.  And that's reason enough to keep going.

Friday, June 10, 2011

In Memory

Life on the trail is occasionally hard.  Lately I've been battling black flies and ticks, hot and humid weather, and swollen and sore feet.  However, feeling like I'm missing out on important events is one of the hardest things, and while being out of touch with world events is often a blessing, at times it hits home, hard.  Several weeks back I got an email from my sister with the subject line "Sad News," and a description of a childhood hero who had passed away. 

I spent some time reflecting on this most unlikely of heroes, and trying to figure out how to honor him while on the trail.  I thought back to the time when I watched him regularly on television, and how for a time my sister and I would cheer him on, every Saturday morning, without fail (much to the bewilderment of our parents).

And as I do not have black fringed arm band and sunglasses to wear, Mr. Macho Man, I snap into this Slim Jim in your memory.

Ooooohhhhh Yeeeaaahh.

Rest in peace, good sir.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Mary's Rock

Hazy, hot, and humid. As Bon Jovi so eloquently put it, "it's 99 in the shade."  That does it... I'm going to spend the rest of the day at Luray Caverns, where it is 58 degrees, year round. Huzzah!

Monday, June 6, 2011

A Post In Which I Confess To Poor Decision Making

On Sunday I hiked 28 miles. The Shenandoah, as it turns out, are gently rolling hills, weaving in and out of Skyline Drive and around many campgrounds.  This is significant for one reason, which has multiple consequences: there are a lot of people here. In many ways this is great- the prevalence of showers and flush toilets makes me very happy. Sadly, wildlife here doesn't seem scared of hikers, probably because they're crammed into a long and narrow area and because at some point someone probably fed them (either accidentally or not). Bearfence Mountain Hut was closed last week because someone left their food in a tent, which was then destroyed by a bear (while hikers were 100 yards away, socializing).  But I digress, so let me start again: on Sunday I hiked 28 miles because I wanted a milkshake.

Lately it's felt like hiking is something I do to spend time when I'm not eating or sleeping.  Thoughts about food occupy a large part of my brain while hiking, whether its thinking about what I will eat for my next meal, fantasizing about my all time favorite meals, coming to the slow but poignant realization that I am the type of person who likes beef jerky, or wondering if I'll have a hankering for trail food when I'm done with the AT (I believe I will, because instant mashed potatoes with beets and cheese is delicious).  So, when Grimey mentioned that there was a wayside only 7 miles away that sold milkshakes,  I was in. Granted,  my guidebook indicated that the wayside closed in 3 hours, at 5:30, so I knew I'd have to fly. And fly I did, until I rounded a corner and saw a great, big, bear. (Actually it was more like this: I rounded a corner and saw a great big stump, which lifted its head and glared at me. To my credit, my first reaction was not "MONSTER," as it has been in the past when I've been startled by animals, but "BEAR!") I approached it, talking, in an attempt to drive it away from the trail so I could continue my pursuit of a milk shake (preferably coffee, I'd decided, although I thought that something fruity might be nice, too). The bear moved away slightly,  but then turned back and stared straight at me. And then, not 40 feet away, two baby bears scrambled up a tree. 

In the interest of full disclosure,  my next reaction was OH SHIT and I backed up, out of sight. I sang the bears a couple verses of a Tom Waits song, thought I heard the trio moving away, and then proceed forward again. As it turned out, Mama Bear hadn't moved, and consequently I treed the babies a second time. Not wanting to stir up any more trouble, I backtracked and hiked along the road for 0.8 miles.

To make a long story short, I hadn't double checked Grimey's math: the wayside was actually 9.5 miles away, along with a 0.5 mile detour off the AT to get there.  By the last 1.5 miles, I was running. When I got to the detour I dropped my pack, grabbed my wallet,  and sprinted down the path. I arrived at 5:34, covered in sweat, out of breath, only to learn that the wayside was open until 7. While waiting for my meal and milkshake to arrive (it was blackberry, by the way) I told Grimey and Ogre about my afternoon.  At the conclusion of my story,  Grimey said, "So let me get this straight: last night we learned that a shelter has been closed because of bears. Today you were delayed by a bear. And after that, you left your pack, full of food, a half mile away in the middle of the woods?"

"Huh," I said, "I guess I REALLY wanted this milkshake."

And then I wolfed down my dinner, downed my milkshake, and sprinted back to my pack, which had not been touched.

Ladies and gentlemen: I am a dumbass when it comes to food these days. But still, it was a delicious milkshake.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

More Mail Drops

Hi everyone! 

I'm updating my mail drop locations for the next few weeks.  If you want to send a letter, please send it to "Bree Carlson, Thru Hiker" by the dates at the following addresses:

~ June 9: General Delivery, Front Royal, VA, 22630
~ June 11: Bear's Den Hostel, 18393 Blue Ridge Mountain Road, Bluemont, VA 20135
~ June 12: General Delivery, Harper's Ferry, WV, 25425

Check it out: less than two weeks until the unofficial halfway point of the AT!  AMAZING!!!!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Flora and Fauna

The Mountain Laurel, Rhododendron, and Honeysuckle are blooming, and flowery perfume is lingering in the air throughout the AT.  The 'Long Green Tunnel' is finally in effect- I spend most of my days hiking through leafy green forests, with only occasional views of gorgeous topography or a visual sense of elevation gained or lost.  Compare, if you will:

Georgia, in March

Virginia, in June

 Pretty different, eh?  There are some parts of the trail where I'm walking, surrounded on both sides and above, by flowers in full bloom.  It's crazy beautiful, although none of the photos I've taken can capture the feeling that I've accidentally snuck into someone's no-so-well manicured English garden.

 Rhododendron, finally in bloom.
(I've been waiting for MONTHS for this.)

 Mountain Laurel.  (Silly me, I thought these plants were 
mini-Rhododendron until they started blooming.)

With the spring has also come an abundance of wildlife: squirrels, chipmunks, vultures, ravens, raptors of some variety or another, deer galore (including a sneezing one), hard-working dung beetles, gorgeous black/brown/red millipedes, fleet footed lizards, tubby tummied toads, newts, fish, raccoon, and snakes (although I've only had ONE good snake sighting so far).  No bears, no rattlesnakes, and (thankfully) no catamount.  

 There's not a chance of me catching one of these guys.  They're too fast!

I thought I knew what a milipede was until I met this guy.
I will never confuse them with centipedes again.

Yesterday, during my 22 mile hike, I was surprised by a snake.  Now, I've been surprised by snakes before- catching their tale end as they disappear into the grass, which, as an appreciator of snakes, is rather disappointing.  Many of my friends have seen multitudes of snakes, including rattlesnakes, but not me.  The other day I came across this sign, which got me all excited, but then, nothing.

 The AT isn't big on truth in advertising.

But then yesterday, I happened across a scene that was so startling that it took about 20 seconds for my brain to process what my mind was seeing.  And then, once I finally recognized what I was looking at, I was floored.  (If you're squeamish about snakes or are really sensitive, you might not want to look at the next photo, because it's a doozy).

This isn't going to end well for anyone, I think.

And finally, because I didn't want to leave you with something sad, here are two very industrious dung beetles, and grand, grand view. 

Hard at work!



I'm currently in the Waynesboro, VA public library, having partaken in an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, which was followed up with free camping and a free shower at the YMCA [with soap and shampoo and other goodies provided by Peter, a blog reader (THANK YOU!)].  It was really easy to get a hitch into town this morning, and the folks at Graham's Shoe Service were very friendly (and lived up to their tag line: The Most Eccentric Shop in the USA!).  Slightly less hiker friendly: the Chinese buffet, where we had to leave our packs outside, were seated in a separate room from the other patrons, and were greeted at the front door by this charmingly informative sign (sorry I can't rotate it):

It says: Attention Hikers.  We wanted to let you know 
that the YMCA (two blocks away) has free showers.

Well then.

So I've only got about five more minutes on the computer before I have to run to pick up my newly repaired brand-new boots (Why do brand new boots need to be repaired, you ask?  Well, because they're Keens, and as it turns out, the only two good things that I can say about Keens are that a) they have a really roomy toe box, and b) that they have good customer service.  I've yet to have one of the FOUR pairs I've worn on the trail last more than 100 miles before something breaks, and something tells me that if I call them again to request a non-defective pair they're going to send a personal assassin out to hunt me down.  As is, I think my policy of calling them frequently has caused them to change their policy: the hiker grapevine tells me that they've started sending only one replacement pair to thru-hikers, not three.).  I'll update more when I get back from the shoe shop.

Like I said earlier, it's been easy to hitch around here, which may or may not be to me and my trail buddy Hoop practicing our "PLEASE HELP US" hitching faces. 

Effective, eh?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Staying Positive

The last few days have been brutually hot and humid, and despite my body beginning to adjust to this weather, it's still sapping my strength with each step I take.  To keep myself from breaking down and melting into a mushy pile of sweat, I've been trying to come up with reasons why it's okay to be spending my days hiking up and down mountains instead of lounging by a pool with a margarita in hand and a cabana boy fanning me. As such, I present to you: Things I love about hiking in hot and humid weather.

1. The sweat pouring off my body keeps the ticks and flies from biting me. This is a good thing, as they've finally noticed how tender and tasty I am.
2. Post lunch siestas. Especially 2 hour long ones.
3. The smell of Mountain Laurel and Rhododendron lingering in the air. The humidity really brings out the perfume of the flowering bushes and the stringent smell of ripe grass.
4. Feeling like a badass for hiking 10 miles when the temperature with humidity factored in is 107.
5. Afternoon thunderstorms become pleasant events that one looks forward to. (Hint, hint, Mother Nature.)
6. Unexpected swimming (or wading) holes. Also: expected ones.
7. Drinking a lot of water, and occasionally for a treat, flavoring the water. Mmmm... cool tea in the middle of the woods.
8. Shelters or campsites next to streams, where one could conceivably soak their feet while fetching water.
9. Knowing how good sitting in a movie theater in Waynesboro is going to feel when I get there on Friday.  The funny thing is that I don't really want to see a movie; I just want to sit in an over air conditioned room far away from nature, drinking a soda.
10. Being done with big climbs in hot weather until Mount Greylock, in Massachusetts.  While the next 700 miles aren't flat, they certainly don't have any monsters, like today's 2000 foot climb over 2 miles.
11. Turning a corner and finding a breezy spot.
12.  Views like this one, when the humidity finally breaks.