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.