Thursday, October 27, 2011

One Month Ago...

I finished the Appalachian trail at about 1 pm on Tuesday, September 27th.  The previous two days had been some of the best in Maine- bright blue skies, lovely rolling hills, crystal clear lakes, and a friendly dog named Lyle who followed a group of us to the Baxter State Park boundary line.  There was a stay at a remote hostel that involved blowing an air horn to signal a boat to pick you up, a lovely beach for swimming, a reunion with a long-lost thru-hiker friend, and a night time hike for one final camp on a beach and star-gaze over a lake so glassy that it was difficult to see where the stars ended and the water began.  Three of us forded two rivers at night (which, as you might suspect, was not particularly smart, as the rivers were almost crotch deep and swiftly moving), stargazed under clear skies from the top of a waterfall, and tried to soak in every damn moment of the end of the journey.  I had wanted to end my thru-hike at dawn on the summit of Katahdin, but a late arrival to the campground at the base nixed that idea (I fell asleep at midnight, and the prospect of waking at 2 am to climb the mountain was unappealing).  Instead, I arrived at the summit at 1 pm, dragging my feet, and trying to delay my arrival at the summit as long as possible.

Hiking up to the summit. 

I wanted to feel joyous, to shout and whoop and yell my way to the finish like the thru-hikers who had finished just minutes and hours before me, but instead all I felt was a crushing grief.  Six months, I thought, six months, and what do I have to show for this?  Was I any better off than when I had started my hike?  I honestly didn’t know, and in the emotion of the moment I made a vital mistake: I started second guessing myself.  If I could hike the AT, I thought to myself, deep within the thralls of depression, then what was stopping anyone from doing it?  Was my decision to hike the AT selfish?  Was it worthwhile? What was the point? I didn’t know, so I stood on the sideline, drank a “celebratory” beer, watched my friends scream, and shout, and laugh, and tried not to cry.

At 3:30, after the crowds of people had left, I had the summit to myself.  I turned around in a slow circle to take in the scenery, looked at the beautiful sign, traced out the word “KATAHDIN” etched and painted in white with my finger, and in one instant, my heart broke in two.  I put my face to the sign, and bawled my eyes out.  I cried like I hadn’t cried in years, the kind of crying where you’re glad that nobody is watching you make a mess of yourself.  My pent up frustration at the entire state of Maine poured out, as did my worry about what a future without white blazes to follow had in store.  I cried because the last two years of my life were so fucking awful, and because in comparison walking 2,181 miles was easy (even though it sometimes wasn't).  I cried because I was sad to be finishing the trail, but also because I was ready for it to end.  I cried because I felt loved by so many people, including strangers, every step of the way, and because without that support I would never have been able to make it. 

After about five minutes of uncontrollable crying on the Katahdin sign I could hear my friends calling to me in the distance, wondering why I hadn’t yet caught up.  I stood up, wiped my tears off of my face and onto the sign, picked up my pack, and did what I had been doing for the past six months: I walked it off.  Three days later, snug in bed in the morning at my sister’s house, I reflected on my summit day for the first time with joy in my heart: GODDAMN IT, I hiked the Appalachian Trail this summer, and it was the best decision of my life.

Six months and five days.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What is bravery?

I keep coming back to this question, because for some reason, people keep telling me that I am brave because I spent six months on the Appalachian Trail.  Whenever I’m confronted with someone making this statement, I respond with the following question: Why?  The answers I receive are, I think, very insightful about the fears held by the people who are applauding me for bravery, and say very little about me.  They tell me it’s because I’m a woman alone, or it’s because of bears, or it’s because the woods are a very scary place to be, regardless of gender.  In Pearisburg, Virginia, a woman I was chatting with called me brave, and then proceeded to tell me it was because there was a serial killer in those parts who preyed on thru-hikers, a topic which Bill Bryson was surprisingly remiss to cover in “A Walk in the Woods”( probably because it isn’t true).  I usually respond to these reasons by pointing out the following: being a woman in the woods isn’t any scarier than being a woman in a city (and furthermore, you’re only alone on the AT when you really want to be), that bears are less scary than the ticks (Lyme disease felled or harmed a number of people I knew on the trail), and finally, that, for me, the woods are not a scary place to be (unlike, for example, a bar full of pretentiously dressed young masters of the universe on the prowl for fresh meat) (That's a Bonfire of the Vanities, reference, and not a He-Man one).  No, I would always, respond, I’m not brave for those reasons.  

In fact, the bravest things I did in the past year was off trail; on January 2nd, I walked into my supervisor’s office and asked for a leave of absence.  I didn’t know what to expect when I told him that I wanted to spend the majority of the spring, summer, and half of the fall living in the woods, but suspected that this was the right path for me, at the time.  The past two years were incredibly hard ones, involving habitual lack of sleep, over committing myself to volunteering, coping with a seriously ill parent, and some questionable decision making that resulted from all of the above.  Spending six months on the AT, I figured, would help me sort that jumbled mess of awfulness into order, and would give me the time to process and recover.  Also, I knew I’d be catching up on the sleep I’d missed.  When I walked into my supervisor’s office, I knew I was committed to this path, and that I would be hiking the AT, regardless of his answer, despite my reluctance to leave a good job with an excellent company.  With the economy suffering as much as it is, that’s fucking bravery. 

(My supervisor granted me a leave of absence.  I return to work on Monday, October 31st, and I'm so very thankful for this.)

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Fairest of the Seasons

I’ve been out walking.  I don’t do too much talking, these days.

It’ll come as absolutely no surprise to those of you who have been patiently waiting for me to resume blogging that I’m having a bit of trouble summarizing my trip, putting up photos, and tying everything up in a smart little knot with a pretty bow at the top.  I have a number of stories and thoughts that I want to share before I post my summit photos (Spoiler alert: I finished!), starting, first and foremost with this: Maine kicked my ass.  It took me about a month to navigate the final 281 miles of the trail, which, with only two days off, makes my average about 10 miles per day.  I spent nearly the entire time in a long, drawn out funk, which was clumsily wrapped up in the following:
  • I took time off before, during, and after Hurricane Irene, and lost some of my steam.
  • I was tired, mentally and physically, of the trail. 
  • The trail was slippery, and steep, and tricky.  Also, I fell down a lot.
  • My feet were wet.  Actually, everything was wet.
  • I was missing my friends and family sorely.  This isn’t to say that I wasn’t also enjoying my trail friends, but there’s nothing quite like spending time with the people who know you to the core of your being. 
  • It was pretty, and there were a lot of rocks to sit on and stare off into the distance. For someone who is particularly skilled at brooding, this does not exactly speed things up.  Likewise: PEAK FOLIAGE! LAKES! CANOES! VIEWS FROM THE TOP!
  • Every step was bringing me closer and closer to the end.  And finishing things is not my strong suit.  
You get the idea.  Maine was challenging.

I sat on the summit of Avery peak of the Bigalows just after the 2,000 mile mark with my headphones in, watching the morning light dance across the landscape and listening to the melancholy music of Nico.  The leaves were starting to turn, the scenery stretched for miles, and I contemplated a time when I would not be sleeping outside and waking up to soak in a beautiful view.  What if, I thought to myself, this is my last good view? What if this is the last time I see an undercast clinging to the outline of a lake? What if it doesn’t get any better than this?  All reasons to continue to sit, and think, and soak in every moment. 

The beginning of the trail was about finding my hiking legs, and the middle was about using them.  The end of the trail, however, was about gazing over red and yellow speckled landscapes, swimming in pristine ponds and lakes, exploring every side trail I could, taking off my shoes to wade through ice cold water and look down into a deep pool of water at the base of a 25 foot waterfall, examining the vibrant explosions of mushrooms that the rain had produced, and two hour long lunches that ended with naps on beaches.  The end of the trail was about ensuring that I took advantage of every single solitary moment, so that years from now, when I look back on Maine I don’t remember the difficult parts, but instead remember the palate of colors and smells.  The end of the trail was not about a rush to the finish line, but a slow and steady walk, allowing me to leave in the fairest of the seasons.