Sunday, October 6, 2013


Two unpleasant side effects from attending survival school: my stomach can’t handle rich foods anymore (goodbye, dairy!) and sadly, between cooking over open flame for several nights and the dryness of Utah, all of my fingertips are peeling off.  Perhaps this is the universe nudging me towards a life of fingerprint-less crimes, but since that’s a bit too risky for my taste, I think I’ll just wait for them to regenerate (and in the mean time, take a break from campfires).

First dinner on the trail (and fourth night).  The fire
was courtesy of our instructors, Jeremy and Matt, who
told us in no uncertain terms that the first fire was free,
but from then on if we wanted dinner we'd have to make
fire ourselves.
I’m not sure how to talk about survival school, except to say that I learned more than I thought I would, I’m hoping to go back next year and learn more, and that I’m probably going to be insufferable to hike with for the next few years (a function of, I’m afraid, realizing that if I have a knife and water treatment, that I’ll probably be able to get by in the woods just fine).  For those of you who expressed interest in the trip (even if it was more of a ‘car accident on the highway’ kind of interest), here’s a summary: I didn't eat bugs or worms or frogs, I went completely without food for 56 hours, the only scary part involved fording fast moving water that was waist deep, I went without dinner a couple of times because neither I or one of the other students could start a fire with our bow drills, not having toilet paper or headlamps isn't a big deal, southern Utah has a number of beautiful ecosystems, my new personal record is 14 days without a shower, I wish I hadn't slept through geology in college because the rocks were amazing, and someone else killed the sheep (though I certainly helped with the processing of it and the eating of it).  I started looking at nature differently; instead of as something to pass by on my way to a destination, I started observing it more critically, looking for food and shelter along the way.  I learned that I’m much stronger than I thought, that I don’t need much to survive (though thriving is a totally different thing), and that living in the moment really agrees with me.  Those of you who know me best probably thought that I already knew these things, and perhaps on some level I did.  But to be able to point to something concrete (I was fording waist deep rivers at night with no food in my stomach and cowboy camping under the (cold) desert sky and really, it wasn't much of a stretch for me) is pretty empowering.  It turns out I’m kinda good at surviving.

Ascending to 10,000 feet through cow country.
Actually, everywhere was cow country.
The last day of survival school was my most challenging one.  Our instructors had left us with maps the previous morning, instructing us to make our own way via a combination of bushwhacking, trail travel, and steep descent down canyon walls, to a cave to sleep in.  We students arrived at the cave after dark, leaving us no time to gather duff (leaves and pine needles with which to make an insulating layer between the sand and our bodies) and no time to make a fire (it’s hard to do in the dark).  The eight of us went to bed tired, and cold, and without dinner.  None of us slept well (someone was always snorting, and the sound would resonate off the cave walls), and the sand, which seemed so soft when we had first stretched out upon it, was brick hard and cold in no time.  In the morning, I put on my hiking pants without shaking the sand out, and within an hour had abraded my legs nearly bloody behind the knees and between the thighs.  I hadn't washed my sock liners well (okay, truth time: I only washed them once in two weeks), and blisters were welling up on most of my toes, exacerbated by the muddy and wet canyon travel.  We bushwhacked through willow thickets that seemed designed to snag and grab, past sage brush that scratched my legs up (once I switched to shorts), and tried not to lose shoes (and energy) behind in the quicksand (which was occasionally thigh deep).  It was tough, and it hurt, and left me in a fairly foul mood as I followed the other students to the location our instructors told us to go to. 

Gorgeous rocks!
And then I remembered that it was two years, to the day, that I had finished the Appalachian Trail.  Two years since I stood on top of Mt. Katahdin at the conclusion of my thru-hike, bawling my eyes out and feeling pitiful.  Two years, since I wondered what a future without white blazes meant for me.  Two years since I worried about readjusting to society, to paying bills, and to being responsible.  In retrospect it’s really easy to see how unfounded these worries were; how while adjusting to life in my beloved Somerville wasn't seamless (confidential to Surjeet and Ivy: sorry about the whining!) I wasn't giving myself enough credit.  I’m good at surviving.

Full moon in canyon country.
And in that moment, instead of trudging behind my fellow students, feeling upset about the brokenness of my body, I decided to FEEL the brokenness of my body, and to realize that it was all manageable.  My feet hurt.  So did the backs of my knees, and my thighs, and the front of my shins where they’d been torn up by the sage brush, and my stomach, and my poor cracked and peeling hands.  Instead of pushing all the pain off, I embraced it, and I felt it deeply, and it was fine. 

Look what I found, 2,000 miles off trail!
The Appalachian Trail was so much more than a hike for me; it was a time of remembering who I am, walking off some bad times, and of accomplishing something tremendous.  It was fun, and lovely, and occasionally challenging (I’m looking at you, creepy guys and lack of gender balance).  There were ticks and mosquitoes, heat waves that left me filthy and thunderstorms that cleaned me off (even if I was huddled in a ball in the middle of the trail, cowering during them).  There was magic.  There were bears.  There were milkshakes and pizza and cold Cokes chilling in streams.  There were friends.  My feet hurt daily, but my body sang for those six months.  Survival school was more of the same (minus the bears and food), though for a significantly shorter duration.  I survived the AT, I survived survival school, and man, am I thriving.