I’m running. It’s the first time in two months. I was supposed to lay off running to heal the contusion in my ankle. It feels better now, but it still twinges, and my breath comes in semi-regular raggedy sips.
I didn’t think about what I looked like as I laced up my shoes and stretched in the driveway. I didn’t think about my skin as I started jogging up my street. I’ve never had to. The system serves me. People who look like me don’t question how to make themselves look safer. People who look like me are the default. Safe. Breathing.
I round a corner and follow the curve of the street gently downhill. Gravity takes me. I go for it. The road crests back to flat, and turns up. I’m tired. I take a breath and something catches. I’m coughing. I’m really coughing. Breathing hard in and out, foot over foot, to the end of the cul-de-sac. Cough. Can’t breathe. I put my hands on my knees and bend over.
I close my eyes. I see what I don’t want to see. I see what I’ve been thinking about all day. George Floyd on the ground, the cop’s knee on his neck. For four minutes. He can’t breathe. He’s trapped. He’s being murdered. He didn’t choose this. Strangled on the pavement. He can’t breathe.
I’m not shocked. I know this is the latest addition to centuries of violence against Black bodies. I know this capitalist state is built on and maintained by white supremacy. I know about Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and Christian Cooper and Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and Eric Garner and. And. And.
I cough. I breathe hard. Innocent Black people murdered at the hands of the state. I’m running, but Ahmaud can’t run anymore. I will return to my house soon; Breonna wasn’t safe in hers. They can’t even be. All of the hate. All of the racism. All of the hypocrisy, everywhere.
Like the murders. Like the school shootings. Like the people who want teachers to carry guns but who won’t wear a mask to the store. Like this weekend, when the Governor of Kentucky was hanged in effigy by people who take COVID-19 as a hoax and quarantine as oppression. People who want haircuts show up with guns and leer at the police and no one reacts. And in Minnesota there is tear gas and there are rubber bullets at people protesting police brutality and white violence.
And there is George Floyd, and he can’t breathe.
I catch my breath. The sun retreats behind a cloud. I stand up and look around. I’m a slow runner and my body hurts. But I can pull air into my lungs and sigh it out again. I can speak. I can breathe.
If you can breathe, please check out the links below. It’s way past time for us to take action.
Black Lives Matter Official Page: It’s more than just a chant. This is the official website of the Black Lives Matter organization. There are educational resources here, as well as information on local chapters. I will be learning more about this.
For someone who likes distance, this year has been hard. At first I was going to Scotland; that was obviously cancelled a while ago. Then I thought about hiking the Superior Hiking Trail in Minnesota. That no longer seems feasible or responsible, as much of the state is still shut down, and a three-plus week thru hike would render it difficult to get supplies without potentially exposing small towns to the virus.
So I’ve made the decision to do neither of these things, and instead stay closer to home. Now sections of the Sheltowee Trace or the Buckeye Trail are on the table as summer plans. At first I resisted something so close, but the more I learned about the trails, the more I opened up. Why is it that I resist an experience just because it is close to home? How did I not know how beautiful a semi-local trail could be? Why is something only sexy when it is foreign or exotic or new?
There are amazing things everywhere, including Ohio and Kentucky. Over the past few months I’ve begun to scratch the surface of places nearby I’d never been to before. Here are a few of them.
Middle Creek Park, Burlington, KY
My mom and I stumbled upon Middle Creek by accident. We were trying to go to Boone Cliffs Nature Preserve one evening for a walk in place other than our familiar haunts in Villa Hills and Fort Mitchell. But when we got to Boone Cliffs, we discovered that it was closed, the parking lot gated shut. Noticing a sign back on KY-18 for Middle Creek Park, we followed the arrow to the left, past Dinsmore Homestead, and discovered a massive parking lot at the Middle Creek Park trailhead.
Flammulina velupites, enokitake
The beginning of Trail 1 at middle creek, near the trailhead
Collinsia verna, blue-eyed Mary
Intrigued, we parked and began walking, descending a steep hill to follow the creek. What struck me first was two things: the omnipresent fungi on logs and beneath trees, and the fields of Blue-Eyed Mary everywhere beneath the shagbark hickory, honey locust, elm, and sycamore trees dotting the low-lying plain by the creek. Morel country, my brain whispered to me. I found Flammulina velipites, the edible enokitake mushroom; Cerioporus squamosus, pheasant back, and a variety of other mushrooms. I was elated.
The park contains over five miles of trail, including a large loop that crosses the creek on a bridge and winds its way over flat forest floor and up and over hills on the southeast side of the park. Numerous smaller trails connect to them main loop, providing for an easy way to cut the large 3-mile route shorter, if you so wish.
That first night, my mom and I made it over the Trail 1 bridge and a bit past it, before we realized that it was late and we ought to be heading home. A week later, I took Wiggs back to Middle Creek and we completed the whole loop. It gets more difficult after the bridge, becoming a more classically hilly Kentucky hike, but there are fewer visitors farther east and south in the park, providing for a quiet, relaxing walk in the trees.
Middle Creek Park is located on KY-18 past Burlington and across the street from Dinsmore Homestead and Dinsmore Woods.
Wolsing Woods Trails, Independence, KY
In our manic quest to find morels, Wiggs and I searched several parks in Ohio and Kentucky in March and April. Though we didn’t find any mushrooms at all at Wolsing, this small park between housing developments was a pleasant surprise on a warm, sunny afternoon.
It’s a bit odd getting to Wolsing Woods. Approaching the park, the road takes a large dip and across a crowded railroad track. I almost got backed into by a large flatbed truck. I crossed the tracks quickly and, recovering, parked in the small lot at the edge of the trail.
These trails aren’t exactly quiet or wild; you can see the houses through the young woods at the tops of nearby hills, and a train line runs right past it. Nevertheless, there are some cool features. Many of the trees are labeled, so that walkers can learn how to identify honey locust, white ash, sycamore, maple, and American elms. The trail follows Bancklick Creek, a large tributary of the Licking River. When we were there, the whole area was covered in blooming Virginia Bluebells.
At one end of the trail, we followed the path all the way down to the water. It was here that Wiggs spotted a tiny baby snapping turtle, smaller than the palm of his hand! We held and observed the reptile for a while, admiring the prehistoric look of him and his wet shell glinting in the sunlight, before continuing on.
Wiggs and the turtle
A baby snapping turtle we found on the edge of Banclick Creek
The Wolsing Trails are completely flat, and would make a nice easy stroll if you’re looking for a mild afternoon walk in the area. This park can be reached from Turkeyfoot road or KY-536. For more information, visit the Wolsing Trails website.
Three Creeks Metro Park, Columbus, OH
This park isn’t exactly local if you live in Northern Kentucky or Cincinnati, I realize. But Columbus has become a bit of an adopted home for me, as that’s where Wiggs lives at the moment. We haven’t done as much exploring here as we have done in Kentucky, but this was one of the parks that we have recently visited, and I found it to be impressive for a city park.
Though Three Creeks is more of a bike-friendly park than a hiker haven, it is impressively large and beautiful for being right in the Columbus metro area. We started our walk at a parking lot near a pond where many people were fishing. We connected to the Alum Creek Greenway Trail, a paved bike path, and crossed Big Walnut Creek on a footbridge, following the path past numerous ponds, marshes, and even a large grove of pine trees. Along the way we happened to run into Wiggs’s friend Steve, whom we chatted with for a bit before continuing on the trail towards Heron Pond, another massive pond around which numerous fishers were gathered.
We followed a trail around this pond, returning to the main trail, and headed back towards the car. On the way we found a trail that leaves the bike path and enters the woods along Alum Creek to the Confluence, where Alum, Big Walnut, and Blackclick creeks meet. This path was quieter, softer, and flanked by massive sycamore and elm trees. Had it been earlier in the season, this may have been a nice morel hunting spot.
Big Walnut Creek
All in all, it was a pleasant day for a flat four-mile walk. I was envious of the bikers; I sold my bike a couple of years ago when I was leaving Flagstaff, and the prospect of such lovely paths made me miss it.
Middle Creek Park can be reached from numerous locations in southeast Columbus. For more information, visit the Columbus Metro Parks website.
Local Park Appreciation
Sometimes, as a thru-hiker on the Appalachian Trail, I would find myself developing a large ego about the fact that I had been on the AT for so long, forgetting that the vast majority of trail users are day hikers and section hikers, not thru-hikers. After a thru-hike, a hike that lasts less than several days can feel too short, or not good enough.
But I don’t think this mentality is healthy. Being able to go on a thru-hike is an enormous privilege, and most people do not have the time or resources required to do it. But the outdoors is a critical part of life. Becoming more aware of local parks and green spaces has made me understand this even more. We need trees and creeks and paths like we need food. Until this is all over, and even after that, we need to appreciate the nature that is close by.
The pandemic has changed a lot of things: plans, travels, work, social life. One of the hardest things for me has been the inability to plan for the summer or for hikes. When our trip to Scotland was cancelled, Wiggs and I were pretty bummed. We intended to hike the West Highland Way, a 100-mile trail through the Scottish Highlands, and to visit with a couple of our friends from the Appalachian Trail. Though we’re working on alternate hike plans, and though other people are struggling with much bigger worries right now, it’s still a bit tough.
On the bright side, one of the things that I have enjoyed about the current situation is that it is making me appreciate the natural spaces available to me closer to home. Ohio has a reputation for being flat, boring, and uninteresting, but the truth is that there are lovely trails and parks all over the state. One of my favorite places is the area around Yellow Springs, particularly Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve and John Bryan State Park. Wiggs and I made a little day trip to the Gorge last week, and it was a perfectly sunny retreat from the news cycle and working at home.
Walking Through the Gorge
We met at the trailhead on OH-343 in the morning to begin our day. There were a lot of cars in the parking lot, and we soon realized that the main part of the trail was rather crowded. We did our best to leave enough distance between ourselves and the folks we passed on the trail as we began the walk down into the gorge.
After a flat section above the Little Miami River, the trail takes a rocky descent to walk right by the water. The path smooths out again once it is down in the gorge, where it is noticeably cooler than at the top. The river is narrow and gushing at the beginning of the hike, running between steep rock formations, before flattening out and becoming broad, slow, and peaceful at the Blue Hole.
As we walked, Wiggs and I fell into our usual easy conversation, much of which frequently falls back to hiking, the Appalachian Trail, and future travels. We have learned that being on a trail, any trail, often reminds us in small ways of our thru-hike: the repetitive rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other, the feeling of the wind through the trees, the sound of water next to the path. After the initial excitement at the beginning of a day hike wears off, the instinct of walking takes over and the trail, any trail, feels like home.
Enjoying the Day
We followed the main gorge trail on the north side of the river until we reached the South Gorge Bridge. This footbridge was closed for repairs the last time we were here, but it was open this time, and we crossed it to the middle, slowly, avoiding the groups of other hikers and looking out at the river, now slow-flowing and glittering in the late-morning sunlight.
Deciding that we’d like to continue through the park to Glen Helen preserve, we crossed back to the north side of the river and walked on, as the Little Miami became smaller, rounding a bend. After this point there were few to no other hikers. We emerged from the woods at the Grinnell Mill, a restored grist mill and bed and breakfast. We planned to continue to the covered bridge at Glen Helen to have our lunch, but there was a team of workers putting up a barrier where the trail crossed the road and continued, so we turned around.
We found a lovely elm by the side of the Little Miami, where we sat and had our packed lunch. Wiggs also noticed a catfish in the river right near our spot, keeping us company as we munched on our turkey sandwiches. Shortly after we started walking once we finished our lunch, we found a flat, pebbly, sunny spot by the river. We stopped, I lay down and basked in the afternoon sun, and Wiggs skipped rocks across the water.
I’m not very good at staying in the present. That’s one thing that this pandemic has really shown me. For once, I can’t plan ahead or map out what the next period of my life is going to look like. This is difficult for me, but in a way, I see it as a gift of the pandemic. In a culture that is obsessed with growth and consumption and future planning, being forced to remain in the current moment is a healthy reminder that life occurs not in the future tense, but in the now. I thought about this as I lay on the pebbly ground next to the Little Miami, feeling the sun on my skin and appreciating being with Wiggs. We’re trail people. We know how to enjoy the little things. Sometimes we just forget, and we need to be reminded.
Ending the Day in Yellow Springs
We finished up the hike by exploring some of the caves in the cliffs on the south side of the river, finding some lovely young pheasant back mushrooms, then finally crossing back over and heading to our cars. As none of the restaurants in Yellow Springs are open for dine-in right now, obviously, we couldn’t go to Peach’s Grill, our usual post-hike Yellow Springs hangout. Instead, we opted to order carry-out gyros from Bentino’s, which we ate with relish in the park by the community center.
They were satisfying and hearty, and after we had finished we lay on a blanket, listening to the Grateful Dead and watching the evening clouds sail across the sky. Corny, I know. As if we belonged right in this crunchy, hippie hamlet right on the Buckeye Trail. Eventually we sighed, realizing that night was coming, and packed up the blankets and picked up our trash, and headed to our cars to return to our respective cities.
I looked at the windows of businesses as I drove out of Yellow Springs. There are shops, restaurants, and breweries that we love in this little town, and I hope they will survive the closures so that soon, people can come again and walk the streets and enjoy live music and buy books and drink local beer. But now, things are still, and birds dart across the sky in lazy loops, and the world is quiet. It will end soon, like all things do, and there will be noise and celebration again. But not yet. Not yet.
Amid all the hubbub and weirdness of quarantine-land, my brain has started to wander to trails and a desire to be on them (as it always inevitably does, but now more than ever). I’m reading Wild, finally, and I can’t stop thinking about the Pacific Crest Trail. When can I do it? When can I be walking again? And I wonder how much longer we’ll be allowed to go to state and local parks. Will they close the cemetery trails? Will Zaleski State Park stay open so Wiggs and I can do the backpacking trip we planned on? Is it irresponsible of me to go to my favorite trails and prowl the hills for morels?
In the scheme of things, I know none of that really matters. I hold so much privilege in this world, and having a house, an income, and enough food to eat during the pandemic demonstrate that. I shouldn’t be worried about hiking while people are struggling to pay rent and feed their families.
But I’m a hiker, and for all the falling-apart madness in the world, I really miss hiking. I’m also a writer, so the closest I can get to being on a long-distance trail is writing about it.
Shawnee Trip #2: March 7-9, 2020
In early March Wiggs and I returned to Shawnee State Park, where we had met up last fall and started our relationship. This time we did much more of the loop, skipping just a couple of miles in favor of making it back to our cars in time to grab a beer in Portsmouth. It was a rare window of three perfectly sunny days, and now looking back on what happened just a few days later, I am so happy we went.
Here’s a bit about it, with photos, to take you out of your head and into the woods.
Winter in southern Ohio isn’t necessarily cold, but it is depressing. Clouds hang low in the sky like soggy gray cotton. It rains—constant, thick drizzly rain—for days at a time. When we scheduled this trip we knew we were rolling the dice.
When I got out of my car at the trailhead on that Saturday morning, I was so glad to see that it was a warmish, hesitantly sunny day. In contrast to the torrential downpour that flooded our tents when we hiked this loop back in October, this weekend would turn out to be miraculously dry.
The first night was cold. We had to sleep with our water filters to keep them from freezing. The next morning our shoes were covered in a fine layer of frost. It was hard to get going, but when we eventually did, it warmed up. The sun blazed down on the still-brown trees and leaf-strewn paths, and I found myself actually warm outside for the first time since the fall.
Back in October, the rain prevented us from doing as much of the backpacking loop as we had planned. This time, though we didn’t technically get through the whole loop since we took an alternate and slightly quicker trail, we got much farther.
The northern half—from the backpacker’s trailhead, past the Copperhead Fire Tower and down to Camp Oyo—was just as hard as I remembered from the fall. The hills are steeper than one would expect from a state as notoriously flat as Ohio. I had to pace myself on the steep inclines and pause at the top to let my lungs and joints rest. In a way it felt good to be this challenged. I hadn’t done any properly difficult hiking since doing this same route in the fall, and it felt in a way like being back on the AT again.
The southern half of the loop, which we did not get to do in October, was gorgeous. There were more views and longer ridges. It was still hilly, though not as bad as the northern half. On the second night, we ended up at a campsite on a ridge that juts out from the main trail. The temperature was slightly warmer, and we set up camp next to a tree and had a little fire. We sat and chatted, cooked dinner, and drank wine as we watched the sunset from the other side of the ridge.
There are a lot of things I like about hiking: the freedom, the untetheredness of living out of a pack, the sense of distance, the people. But the feeling of being content next to a campfire at sunset is pretty high up on the list. Especially when you’re calm and happy, and with someone you love.
Eventually, the three days passed and the hike ended, like all hikes do. We spent the last day zooming along a ridge, playing 20 Questions and fantasizing about cheeseburgers. I didn’t pack enough food for the weekend, having overpacked the last time, so I ate the last of my snacks for lunch and we sped back to the parking lot. We spent a few moments at the lake, watching the geese again and enjoying the feeling of spring about to bloom.
Then we went back to our cars, changed into sandals, and drove to Portsmouth Brewery for beers, burgers, and a massive plate of fries. It was shocking how fast the hiker hunger came back to me, and I was struck by how natural it felt to go from the trail and into a town. It felt so much like the AT, like hitching into Manchester Center and descending upon a restaurant. Soon, the meal ended too, and Wiggs and I said goodbye and headed home to our respective cities.
I thought about the woods as I was on my way home. I thought about how right it felt to be at Shawnee and how comfortable it feels to be there, and anywhere, with Wiggs. I feel confident in the woods. I feel strong and capable, despite a hill destroying me or the persistent pain in my ankle. I feel like I know what I’m about and what I can do. I feel home.
So it’s April now, a month since that three-day trip. If you had told me then that soon after I’d be teaching from home while a pandemic ripped through the world, I might not have believed you. Though the coronavirus was known at that point, it wasn’t yet clear to me how serious a situation it was about to become.
I feel so bad for all of the prospective thru-hikers who quit their jobs and sold their possessions in anticipation of a 2020 thru-hike. It is not easy to give up on plans, especially when they involve hiking. I know this intimately now: yesterday our flight to Scotland was cancelled. We won’t be hiking the West Highland Way this year, as we had planned.
Other hikes are being called off too. As of last week the Appalachian Trail Conservancy requested a formal closure of the Appalachian Trail in its entirety to ensure that people stayed off it and away from each other, in hopes of containing the virus. While many hikers have made the difficult decision to stop, postpone, or cancel their hike, there are still some people out there, despite the warnings.
As a hiker I know how hard it is to stay in one place. I miss the trail all the time, but I miss it more than usual now. Though giving up plans for a hike is nowhere near as difficult as the situation many people in oppressed communities are going through, it is still very difficult. At the same time, the last month has been an exercise—like the Appalachian Trail was an exercise—in accepting the present and learning to be adaptable. Hikers, let’s stay home now so that we can hike later.
To anyone reading, I hope you are well. Dream of trails, wash your hands, and hang in there.
In late October I went backpacking at Shawnee State Forest in southern Ohio. It had only been a few weeks since completing the Appalachian Trail, but in those odd days following my summit of Katahdin, every day of not hiking felt like a confused century. The opportunity to walk again—through a forest heavy with the scent of changing leaves—was irresistible.
I had made the plan to go with a friend I met on the trail, Red Wiggler, aka Wiggs. I realized, through the power of social media, that he lived a mere two hours north of me, in Columbus, and sent him a message casually offering to serve as a semi-local hiking partner if he ever found himself missing folks from the AT. To my delight he responded almost immediately, and plans were set in motion for our three-day mini-adventure.
I was gleeful. I went to Walmart to buy food for the trip, and got oddly nostalgic. It felt like I was in town along the Appalachian Trail. I imagined being with my trail family, carefully evaluating weight versus calories versus flavor and tallying up my purchases. By the end of my thru-hike I was sick to the point of nausea of rice sides, peanut butter, and oatmeal, so I didn’t buy any of those for Shawnee. But I did splurge: dehydrated bacon, bagels and cream cheese, and a non-perishable noodle concoction so extravagant that it came with its own massive plastic pho bowl. I sent a picture of my shopping basket to Wiggs as I sauntered around the store: I feel like I’m resupplying!
On Friday, October 25, I drove the hour and a half over winding rural Ohio roads to the parking lot at the Shawnee trailhead. I saw my hiking partner as I pulled up. For a moment, I wondered how it would go. We knew each other on the AT, but not well—our tramilies tended to travel at slightly different speeds, so we sometimes ended up at the same place, but he and I hadn’t talked as much as I would have liked to on the trail. He always seemed cool. I kind of had a low-grade crush on him. I didn’t know, though. Would I remember how to talk to people like I did on the AT? Would it be awkward?
All worries dissipated immediately as I parked my car and got out. “Wiggs!” I proclaimed. “Passport!” he proclaimed back with a miles-wide grin. We hugged, took a selfie, and sent it to all of our trail friends, and I knew the weekend would be something good.
No Sun, No Problem
We hoped for sunshine, but this was Ohio in October. Rain was in the forecast for all three days, and it delivered. Oddly, it didn’t seem to make a difference. If anything, the rain made it feel even more realistic, like the thru-hike had never ended.
It was also a prime time to go backpacking, as the leaves were just about in their peak. They weren’t the same shades of vibrant red and yellow that defined Maine in September, but they were still lovely: lively yellow and a calm Ohio ochre. As we walked up and over hills and across ridges, I started to realize how beautiful this state could be. Like the AT, the beauty isn’t overt or dramatic. There was no above-treeline sweeping view, but there was a kaleidoscope of leaves and a certain peace in the soft dampness of the Midwestern autumn world.
Shawnee’s trails aren’t the AT, but they are impressive, especially for Ohio. There is a main backpacking loop that measures just under 40 miles, as well as many options for side trails, cutoffs, and alternate routes.
We didn’t make it through the whole loop as we planned. The second day we were there it poured rain in the morning, so we sat in our tents at camp and talked, enjoying a luxurious breakfast and multiple cups of coffee before beginning to hike around noon. We made it about part of the way through, and planned to do the whole loop in the spring.
What we did see was highly enjoyable. Shawnee is sometimes called the “Little Smokies of Ohio,” as its scenery looks somewhat like that of the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina. Having hiked through the Smokies just a few months before, I could see the comparison. Not only are there vistas of gently rolling forested hills, but there are also fire towers and picturesque campsites, pretty little gurgling creeks and benches by a lake full of geese. We saw only a few other people the whole weekend, and the trail was blanketed with a sense of quiet autumnal peace.
Campsites with privies and water spigots are available throughout the loop, spaced at regular-ish intervals of between 6 and 10 miles. The first camp we stayed at had a lovely fire ring with a makeshift stone bench, and it was on this bench that we sat the first night while we ate our dinner, watched the fire, listened to music, and talked. The second night was a little soggier, but given better weather it would have been a superb place for sitting around and cooking. There is also a lake with a picnic area, and on the last morning we wound up there for about an hour, watching the geese fly over the water.
Having just finished a thru-hike, the trails did not feel overly difficult to me, though they were challenging for Ohio: there were frequent steep hills (though no long hills like on the AT) and the trail was sometimes overgrown or obstructed with blown-down trees. There were a few times when we had to navigate over or through massive brambles, but for the most part the trail was wide enough to walk two abreast and fairly well maintained.
Despite being less than a month from my AT finish, and despite the relative ease of the trail at Shawnee, I struggled a bit over the three days. I sprained my ankle on the AT in Virginia and it probably never got a chance to heal properly, so that was still bothering me on this trip. Besides that, I discovered that trail legs disappear shockingly quickly. My calves were not the rock-hard boulders they were in Maine, and I was not able to tolerate the hills as easily as I might have, had I still been on my thru-hike. But I suppose this is the way of things.
The weather also presented its own set of struggles. On the AT, despite multiple days of heavy rain overnight, I never experienced a flooded tent. That changed at Shawnee. On the second night Wiggs and I inadvertently set up our tents in what would soon become a swamp in the relentless rain, and I woke up in the middle of the night to water all over everything I had with me. Oddly, I wasn’t really bothered by it, because I knew I didn’t have to hike all the way to Maine with that gear. I could just toss it in my car and go home the next day. But it was still a bit of a struggle to get out of my tent, relocate to a drier spot, and wring out my soaking clothes before hunkering down for a few more hours on my sad, worn-out three quarters of a Z-Lite.
I realized after this trip that I’m going to need some time to regroup on the gear front and heal properly before my next thru-hike. It was miraculous to be in the woods again for three days, and I can’t wait for the next time I wake up and hike day after day for six months. But for now, it’s good to have a rest, and to enjoy other parts of my life.
A New Adventure
Although Wiggs and I didn’t know each other very well on the Appalachian Trail, we still knew each other. And it was that knowing—that intuition from the AT, that immediate understanding of another thru-hiker—that made us comfortable with each other, opening up easily, connecting. When I arrived to the trailhead that morning I knew we’d get along, and I knew we would have a good time. I definitely didn’t expect, however, that Shawnee would lead to a relationship. And yet, that is just where it lead.
So we stumbled unintentionally into love. Isn’t that how it always happens, though? One minute you’re sending a message on Instagram to someone you met on the trail—If you ever want an Ohio hiking buddy hit me up!—and the next you’re driving home over windy rural roads with the pungent smell of hiker wafting from the backseat and a goofy smile on your face, wondering what would happen now.
Here’s what: An adventure of an entirely different kind. Comfort and challenge and distance and closeness all wrapped up into one. That weekend at Shawnee was both a return to the world in which I feel most myself, and the start of a great big something.
So go there, if you want. Tread the wide paths with their leaves and frogs and Branta canadensis honking on the water. Sit at the campfire and breathe in the soft Ohio woodland air. Drink the water from the spigot and feel wild. Maybe if you’re lucky you’ll fall in love.
It has now been over three months since I finished my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. At times, it feels like I was standing on Katahdin just yesterday. At other times, it feels like it has been years since I saw that sign. As for many of my thru-hiking friends, it has been a strange period of time.
That’s not to say it hasn’t been a good period of time. On the contrary, I’ve enjoyed the chance to regroup, plan for new adventures, and spend time with my family. I’ve had the opportunity to work on some cool projects; in particular, I wrote, edited, and completed Blaze, the zine I had been dreaming of writing since halfway through the AT. (You can order a copy here!) I have also crocheted a lot of interesting things: orders for hats and headbands from friends, requests for unique gifts like a teddy bear and a giraffe, a snail, a flamingo, a nativity for my mom for Christmas, and a whole lot of cacti and succulents. I participated in three craft shows, which enabled me to get back in touch with my creative side and make new connections. I have painted, embroidered, and started knitting a cowl. (My knitting is abysmal and the cowl is rife with glorious mistakes, but it’s fun to practice.)
And of course, there has been hiking. In October I went on a three-day backpacking trip at Shawnee State Forest in Ohio with my friend Wiggs, whom I met on the Appalachian Trail. We’ve been walking together both on trails and in life since that weekend. We’ve explored John Bryan State Park near Yellow Springs, as well as smaller trails in Columbus and Cincinnati, among other places. Although our respective thru-hikes ended in September, it feels like the trail has extended into off-trail life. We are enjoying this new adventure, and are excited for all the adventures to come. (Look out, summer 2020!)
I’ve been grateful for the chance to spend time with family and friends, and I enjoyed being home for the whole Christmas season this year. I’m doing things I love, I’m starting a teaching job that I’m very excited about next week, and I finally had the chance to read a few books for once.
And yet, I still miss the trail every day. I miss the directed, consistent goal: get up, eat, walk, sleep, repeat. Day after day, footstep after footstep, until you reach the end. Six months of days spent doing one small piece of a massive adventure. I miss sleeping in my tent and waking up with the tentative sunlight peering through the silnylon walls. I don’t miss the pain or the fatigue or that very specific hiker smell, but I do miss the freedom of it, of walking into town with a straight-backed confidence and feeling perfectly at home in any place, town or trail. I miss my tramily around me, rounding a corner and seeing a familiar face, sitting around a campfire and eating my millionth broccoli-cheddar rice packet (but I don’t really miss those rice packets). I miss the sound of a stream next to a campsite and the comfort of sunset by a pond.
It seems sometimes that the further away I get from my thru-hike, the more I process and understand its gifts. The AT taught me so many things, made me see the world in a slightly different way. It made me less desperate to know exactly what’s going to happen, made me more flexible and okay with uncertainty. I still remember these lessons, but sometimes I worry that as time passes I’m losing the positive changes the AT made in my life. As soon as I finished I felt refreshed and reset, if anxious and disappointed that the trail had to end. I felt like things that used to bother me in off-trail life weren’t quite as annoying, and that I was more empathetic than I had been before. But now, it’s harder to remember what the lack of worrying feels like, what it felt like to understand where people were coming from and not to get upset about things that didn’t matter. Sometimes I feel like I’m right back where I started: short-tempered, easily upset, antsy.
I know I’m not really losing it, because I can still close my eyes and think about these important realizations. The trail lives inside me now, and that experience will never go away. As time goes on, I will just have to work harder to remember what the trail instilled in me, and how I can apply it to everyday life.
Anyway, that’s more than I meant to write about post-trail life. But there you go. Some reflections.
A few weeks ago, I reread my last entry from Maine, which I wrote on the plane leaving Portland. I decided to add an edited version of it here, as a kind of bookend for my AT posts. Thank you for reading this, and thank you for being there for me, whoever you are. I am grateful.
2 October 2019, in a plane flying from Portland, ME to Atlanta, GA, 19:34
When I’m in a plane that’s taking off, I love pressing my face to the plastic window and watching the world shrink under the wings. Tonight, leaving Maine and heading home, we’re rising from the ground as the sun is setting. We ascend, wheels streaming, velocity increasing, and we’re flying over the ocean. There’s a lighthouse down below us, and I can see its beam throwing itself out onto the waters. How small it looks from here, this tiny pinprick of moving light.
As the world rushes by, I put in my headphones, select my AT playlist, and play “Birdhouse in Your Soul” by They Might Be Giants––what has become, for me, the unofficial anthem of my thru-hike. (Thanks, Nemo!) Drum beats, a catchy refrain, and I’m ascending more, more, more, up and into the clouds, turning south, and suddenly there is the melting orange sunset outside my window. Deep blue fading downwards into layers of yellow, orange, purple. The kind of sunset that could seep into the trees rimming a northeastern pond; the kind that calls for loons and crisp evening air.
And then I see it all behind my eyes. Georgia to Maine.
The enormity of what I have just done hits me. I stare out the little oval towards the sunset, songs playing in my ears that call back specific memories and images. I saw it all. I did it. Two years ago I hiked Katahdin while my family was in Maine, and I told her I would be back at the end of a thru-hike. And I did it. It is done. I kept my promise.
The last three days I have been reeling. Floating, really. I oscillate between a desire to plan my next thru-hike and the need to savor this one. I feel like I should be doing something, but I can’t muster the enthusiasm. I had so many ideas for projects, things I wanted to do when I got done hiking, but now I feel shell-shocked, numb. I keep playing memories of the AT behind my eyes like an internal movie on constant loop.
It isn’t so much that I want to be hiking again as much as it is that I want the experience back. There was nothing like walking into a store, restaurant, or hostel and knowing every single person there. There is nothing comparable to the sense of ultimate comfort of hiking. On the trail, you get people at their rawest, most exposed, and most honest. We are who we are, completely. We have nothing to hide behind, and we become close, fast, because of it. We can fall asleep almost anywhere, eat almost anything, talk to almost anyone. We stick our thumbs out for rides and hope for the best, and don’t think twice about it. We trust each other and we trust the trail.
In the woods, I know who I am. I know exactly how all of my gear works, what I need, how to make myself comfortable. I can tolerate storms and heat and a lack of running water. I can dip my dirty long-handled spoon way down to the bottom of the peanut butter jar and smack a glob of it on my tongue. Perfect simplicity, perfect lack of need for anything beyond what is absolutely necessary. That comfort, that confidence, is what I know I will miss.
This world, this country. It has an obsession with more. More, says the big fancy house. More, says the new car. More, say the corporations. More, say the insurance companies. More, say the shops and websites and billboards. We know this; it’s ridiculously trite to even start this conversation. Money rules. “What will you do after this?” asks everyone I know. “Good thing you’re doing this now,” say the older folks on the trail. Meaning, good thing you’re doing this now before you are tied down to amassing wealth for the rest of your life.
The trail, meanwhile, whispers less. Less, say the trees. Less, say my back and my joints. You need so much less than you think you do. There is real magic in making do; there is such undervalued joy in seeing how well you do with less.
This is not to say I’m a “minimalist,” or that I’m going to sell all of my possessions and walk on my knees though the desert. I’m privileged to be able to hike and see the world this way. And I’m a hypocrite; we all are. We have things, and we use them and need them, and we mess up, and that’s okay.
I just don’t want to be pulled into the more-ness. I don’t want to succumb. I don’t want to stop learning the rich ways of the long, thin place I called my home for the last six months. Her call is so much harder to hear, and I don’t want to lose her.
I wondered, before I got to Katahdin, how you end a thru-hike. How you just stop walking. How you tell your friends goodbye. I still don’t know how to do it. I kind of just did it. I kind of just let them slip through my fingers, sand from the hand of the Dream King returning to the soft places. A wave, a hug, and the end had already passed. Now, I am heading to whatever is next. I hope I never learn how to stop walking.
Maine. Legendary Maine. The northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Land of conifers, slippery uphill slabby rocks, moose, Moxie, Mahoosuc Notch, and some of the best hostels on the entire AT. Maine is 281 miles of rugged footpath vaguely loping from one point to another. It is cold mornings, fabulous views, fall foliage, and misty clouds parting into afternoon sunlight. It is Baldpate Mountain, campfires, all-day vaguely-rain, loons, ponds, canoes crossing the Kennebec, the feeling of eventual ending. It is laughter with friends morphing to steam in the evening air. It is warmth and struggle. And yes, there is Katahdin. But Maine is so much more than the end point.
It was my favorite state on the Appalachian Trail.
I was tired, but I never wanted it to end. It did end, like all things do. But first, there were almost three hundred miles of beauty that I will never forget.
Here we go. The last of the AT entries. The final state. Enjoy.
12 September, Long Pond, 12:15
When I think of Maine, this is what I imagine. A soft shore of a lake with clear, shallow water rippling to land. Loons calling in the distance. Pines and firs on the edge of the water. Clear blue skies and the mountains beyond. It’s perfect, and it’s ridiculous. The sigh of the water could be a track on a “Sounds of Maine” CD. Are those loons even real? I’m losing my mind watching this scene. As the wind pushes to shore the tiny waves lap and flee over and over. I could have plucked this place from a magazine featuring local trails and nature walks for weekenders. It isn’t fair. It’s so beautiful, it’s just not fair.
It is bizarre to be approaching the end of such a long journey. I’m done with the walking, over it completely, but I don’t want to be done with the trail. Friends have gone ahead and people we know have already finished, and we have a new tramily now. It feels like change, that only constant, is seeping into the cracks of on-trail space time and saying this is ending, you’ll have to let it go.
A few days ago I was desperate to be done—wet, uncomfortable, uncertain. Now, I know I’ll miss this. The presence. The light. Hearing Jingles laugh at our silly inside jokes. Singing Les Mis with Patches to get through a rough mile. Listening to Platypus tell me about trees. I never want any of it to stop. But I feel that things are coming to an end. There will be other trails and other summers, but never another trail and another time like this one.
And I am okay with that, in a way. When this is over, it will be through. I will leave it behind and hold it forever, just the way it was. Not a journey that was perfect or exactly as I imagined, but something much better: the adventure that did happen, the people that I did meet, the things that I did experience, the lessons that I did in fact learn.
It’s almost too perfect the way the trail parallels life. As much as we expect things to be a certain way and work towards their fruition, the fact is that nothing is set. Everything is always becoming something else. I remember how my mom told me once that when she was young, she had this idea about life that went something like this: you work hard and you learn all there is to learn, and then you start your life and you’re set from that point forward. And then she learned of course that this isn’t how it works, and I’ve come to realize it firsthand too. We’re constantly learning, or we should be. We are always evolving. There should be constant addition and subtraction as we move through the world. Life is always beginning and ending, and we are never set. Learning to live in that tenuous liminality is the real gift of walking.
So I know the days by the ponds with the loons will come to an end. It’s just how it works. There is no other way. I don’t want to think about that right now, though. I’m just going to sit here, Jingles on my left and Patches on my right. My friends; my family. We’re just going to eat lunch and sit in the sand before everything starts moving again. Here we are.
Piazza Rock Shelter, 06:10
I was cold last night. I had to sleep with my filter because it felt like freezing. Fingers of cold air kept slithering into the space between my down quilt and my sleeping pad. I kept waking up, feeling every bruise and ache, trying to keep myself from longing to be home because I know I’ll miss this, all of it, even the discomfort and the frosty fall nights in Maine. It’s so hard now not to fantasize about a warm, comfortable bed and a hot shower, and a meal that doesn’t come from a bag. I could foam at the mouth right now imagining the way my childhood home smells in October, with my mom’s pies in the oven and a host of autumn candles sending pumpkin and caramel into the air.
But I have to keep myself from falling into these thoughts, because I still have 218 miles to go, and I’m still out here on the trail that is my home. I still have people to meet, I still have mountains to climb and things to see and lessons to learn. I have to get out of this sleeping bag and into the cold air. I am so close, but I still have to keep moving.
On Saddleback Mountain, looking towards The Horn, 13:12
I will never get over how beautiful this state is. Treacherous, yes. Cold, yes. And beautiful despite this, or because of it. The trees are slipping into autumn robes everywhere around me, in the valleys, on the distant hills. I look downwards and then up, a parabola from me to the next peak. I see the path I’m about to walk. It looks so easily erasable, just a thin brown pencil line wiggling between one point and another.
I see Jingles down and across the dip, ascending towards the Horn. She’s a tiny purple speck sauntering upwards. It hits me: we are just little things. Such little things, walking. But we contain so many worlds. I’m here in my head and she’s down there in hers, probably rocking out to something loud, and somewhere behind me Patches is probably listening to a podcast, and up ahead Platypus is managing a severe lack of snacks. So many of us out here, occupying our own distinct universes, while we share a smidge of space-time out here on this path.
It’s so cool. I love this place. This trail has made a home for itself inside me.
Looking from Saddleback towards the Horn. It took me way longer to get to that next peak than I thought it would.
On the summit of Saddleback Mountain
20 September, Moxie Bald Mountain, 07:34
Last night I cowboy camped here with Sorte and Zippy. We got to the summit just as the sun was setting and drank hot chocolate while the world turned orangey purple. I fell asleep with starlight streaming in my eyes and the Milky Way loping across the night sky. It was cold, colder than any other time I’ve cowboy camped, and I had to wear all my layers and pull my buff over my face to keep the chill out of my bones. I thought about Max Patch, lying in the grass with KG and Patches, one of the first nights when I felt like I really started to know them. Last night felt like a sigh of acceptance. I will be in Monson either today or tomorrow—the last town before the 100-Mile Wilderness, and the last stop before I summit Katahdin. The last hostel and the last full resupply.
I didn’t let myself think about Maine any earlier than Vermont. If you think about the end of a thru-hike when you’re in the middle of 2,192 miles, you’ll drive yourself insane. So I thought about other places instead: Hot Springs, Damascus, Shenandoah, Harper’s Ferry, New York, Rutland, the Whites. The goals were little and manageable, bumping just ahead to the next destination when one was reached. So when I crossed into Maine, and realized that this trail did, in fact, end up here, I had to start thinking about Katahdin.
Katahdin. The sacred mountain. Already summited by some of my closest friends on trail. The end is within sight, almost literally, just about a week away now. All of the memories of my hike are starting to play behind my eyes like an end-of-movie montage. I see laughter on the way up steep mountains, epic sunrises and sunsets, curses and cirrus clouds at sunset in Shenandoah, reading books over coffee and watching movies in tents. I see ponds and silence, tears, Sour Patch kids, entirely too much peanut butter, and the feeling of clean relief after taking the first shower in six days.
They’re all there, these and more, in my memory. My friends are all in my heart. I’m not ready, and never will be ready, for this hike to come to an end.
How do you end a thru-hike? How do you get to Katahdin, and realize that you are done walking? How do you stop walking? How do you tell your tramily goodbye?
I guess I’ll find out soon.
Katahdin from the entrance to Baxter State Park
Sunrise from Moxie Bald, where I cowboy camped with Sorte and Zippy just before Monson
Jingles + yours truly at Shaw’s in Monson
We ate everything we could physically stuff into our bodies in Monson before the 100-Mile Wilderness. Here we are enjoying an unseasonably warm day. L-R: Me, Jingles, Stove, Willow, Columbus, Platypus, Zippy, Patches. A top quality crew.
If this isn’t a defining photo of Patches’ and my friendship, I don’t know what is.
Dinner in Millinocket the night before Patches, Platypus, Zippy, Willow, and I summited Katahdin.
Lots of the trail in the 100-Mile Wilderness looked like this. I don’t know what’s up with Maine and all its roots, but there were a lot of them.
Post-Katahdin dinner, courtesy of Jingles, the Selfie Queen.
A very warm first day in the 100-Mile
Zippy (L) and Patches (R), getting a bit emotional on the summit of Katahdin (to be fair, I was crying for like an hour, so…)
Pitcher plants in the Fourth Mountain Bog!
A shrine to the white blaze
Just after the 2,000 mile mark, we stayed at the Strong Church of the Nazarene in Strong, ME. There was a cool group that night, and the folks at the church graciously allowed us to shower, do laundry, and sleep in the basement of the church.
Patches (R) and me, just before Katahdin Stream Campground
Hug session the morning we summited Katahdin
Pollywog Creek. I camped right near this spot after a brutal 27-mile day.
Hunt Spur, Katahdin. Just before the Tablelands. This section is rough, but the views were miraculous.
26 September, Rainbow Lake Campground, 13:18
I’ve just finished a meager lunch from what remains in my food bag. I still have 7.9 miles to go, and I’m taking it easy today, since my 27.1 yesterday took it out of me and tore up my feet. I haven’t seen Patches or Platypus in two days, and Jingles is a day ahead and summiting tomorrow. I was alone all day yesterday and I have been for most of today, with the exception of chatting with Data at the shelter a few miles ago. I stopped here at this lake for lunch because I needed to be on the shore of a body of water. I needed to hear the little rippling waves lap up against the rocks. I needed to see the reds and oranges of fall across the lake.
A loon calls from somewhere in the distance. And then, all of a sudden, I am crying. Something about that sound, the two melancholy notes from across the water, makes me able to feel the palpable closure of this journey. I see the book being shut. I see the credits ready to roll after the final scene. Tonight I’ll sleep at an Appalachian Trail shelter for the last time on this thru-hike. I will finish the 100-Mile Wilderness, and all that remains afterwards is Katahdin. When I summit that sacred mountain, I will no longer be engaged in a focused pursuit where the only major daily task to accomplish is to walk. I won’t wake up to fireflies in my vestibule, I won’t step carefully over roots, I won’t scrounge around the bottom of my ursack for a jar of peanut butter. I won’t see notes in logbooks and won’t have any more logbook entries to write. Won’t sign my trail name or write “to the world!” for any other hikers to see. I won’t stay in any more hostels or eat my soul out at any more buffets. I won’t stop for lunch at a lake in Maine and hear the loon calls.
How the fuck do you just stop walking? How can you go back, once this is what you’ve known? I hate this trail sometimes, don’t get me wrong. I screamed at it in the dark last night, begging it to just give me a nice easy walking surface for once. My feet pulsed and ached with every step and god, I just wanted to be done. I am ready to be done. But life can never be easy, can it? What’s the fun in a straight, flat, unchallenging path that goes on for miles? What’s a hike without a little pain? What is an existence that does not contain a little madness, a little darkness, a little fear?
The loon cries again. The tears redouble. God, I’m always crying. It’s my default method for dealing with the madness of emotions too big to grasp. The wind pushing gently towards me feels like the spirit of the trail itself entering my blood cells. You did it, says the Appalachian Trail to me. You said you were going to do it, and you did it. Look at me and love what you’ve done.
I love what I have done. I love this trail. I love my people. I love what I have become.
Massachusetts was the beginning of the trail I had been dreaming of: ponds, subalpine forests, cool evenings, and sunsets with my friends. The terrain was similar as we entered Vermont, where the trail meandered through soft pine-needle paths and crested over wooded mountains like Glastenbury and Stratton. We also climbed Bromley, where the trail crosses through the ski resort, and Killington, the first of the New England 4,000-footers. We had numerous neros and zeros in cool towns such as Manchester Center (top-notch bookstore there) and Rutland, home of the infamous Yellow Deli.
I walked most of the state with Patches, KG, and Platypus, until KG went ahead at Rutland to chase bigger miles and an earlier end date. It was hard to see him go, but I enjoyed the time we had with the whole tramily together until that point. Towards the end of the state, Patches and I enjoyed some quiet time together, and we made a visit to our friend Daphne, who kindly put us up for a night to avoid the rain, before crossing into New Hampshire at Hanover. Thanks again, Daphne!
New Hampshire was a wild ride, and probably the most physically challenging state on the trail. It’s the home of the White Mountains, which start at Mt. Moosilauke and end with the Wildcats. It was all very beautiful, and we got lucky with weather, particularly on the day we summited Mt. Washington. But I was glad for the nero Patches and I took in Gorham with Nemo, Jingles, Platypus, and Queen, and I was glad to be done with that notoriously tricky part of the trail. I also hit a bit of a rough patch emotionally during this time. It was cold, and my days were starting to feel numbered. Despite everyone telling us we were “so close” to the end, it felt like we had a million light-years to go. But we did what we always do: we kept walking, and we got there.
I didn’t write as much in Vermont as I did in Massachusetts or New Hampshire. I’m not sure why. I think I was enjoying the forests too much. Or maybe I was just tired. I’m convinced that I wrote more in New Hampshire because I needed the therapy and processing time. Regardless, here are a few thoughts from these two beautiful northern states on the Appalachian Trail.
10 August, 06:18, Seth Warner Shelter
Oh, this morning.
I wake up and wrap it around me. It is breezy and a thick layer of clouds hangs in the sky. I know that weather like this is a portent of autumn. The leaves will turn red and orange, this wind promises. It is returning to a more comfortable state.
I get out of my tent and walk around before my friends awake. I walk to the privy. I come back to my tent and crawl into my warm blue quilt. I will the day to just hold on. Just wait. Just give me some minutes with this cool stillness. I want to press this morning to my face like a handmade blanket, and inhale.
Oh, this morning. It will turn into afternoon and nighttime again. But right now, it is morning, and I am holding it.
12 August, descending Stratton Mountain, 13:52
Vermont smells like Christmas. It smells like the wind slithering through the Ponderosas in the Inner Basin. It is a whisper of chill now, the snappy mornings and the unwillingness to move from my cold cocoon. I breathe it in and think of everything that is pine and fir, and the way Acadia smelled two summers ago. Summer yielding to yellow, uniform golden aspen leaves in the Peaks. I try to drink in every second like fine wine, savoring it, slowly tasting every tone and swallow.
It reminds me of things, this forest. Other places, other times. But it is all its own.
13 August, in a tent behind the VFW in Manchester Center, VT, 23:05
There’s a strange and specific magic about an abandoned street in the middle of the night. I walk back towards the VFW, talking on the phone with Monica and imagining my life beyond the trail, and I cross an empty strip of pavement and head back to my tent. There are lights illuminating the sidewalks and asphalt, the stores and restaurants lining the road half-lit, the electric signs extinguished for the night. My mind travels back to Clairmont, walking in Decatur at 3 AM, stars dancing behind my eyes. The nights of strolling home from the library in the crisp springtime air. I had so many ideas at night, then. Poems tumbled out of my brain, holding the world and all its potential not-yet glory in verse. I thought of universes and stars and things that never would be, but could. I thought of crossing the road and dancing on it in the frosty darkness saying, yes, hello, I’m here, I am I am I am.
I know, right? How characteristically me to think of poetry as I cross the asphalt. How quaint. Pretentious really. And yet, what’s the point, what is poetry if not an attempt to sift light through the frame of the most mundane?
I want all of my friends to be happy and alive. I want them to fold up and lift and scream. There is so much world. I want us to skip across this empty road at midnight, arms thrown out, laughter-filled heavy summer air running with the glory of all the good. Make. Be.
I was ecstatic to be in Vermont.
Not sure exactly where this was taken, but it captures the spirit of the Vermont forests well.
Platypus (L) and me at the Long Trail sign, entering Vermont!
Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, VT. We took an unintentional almost-zero day here, mostly because of this store. It’s a great one.
Platypus looking out towards the horizon on Bromley.
We spent the afternoon on Bromley Mountain sitting in the net below the ski lift, listening to music. Top quality day.
Stratton Pond. The Original Three.
22 August, Hanover, NH, 22:31
Time and distance are becoming harder to grasp. I’ve been out here for almost five months now. Do you know how bizarre it is to do the same thing every day for five months? I wake up in the morning and stretch, roll over, eventually sit up, pack up my tent, have breakfast, greet the morning, and walk. I put one foot in front of the other across roots across rocks across streams, uphill downhill repeat. I get to camp. I collapse. I write. I watch shows. I read. I sleep. Things have changed since the beginning, but they pull and blend in one continuously recongealing string yanking me northwards. Trees are different, seasons are shifting, but still there is this: walk on, walk on, walk on.
I am so close now, and I don’t know how to hold this feeling.
New Hampshire. State of Moosilauke and the Whites and Mt. Washington. The penultimate state of the Appalachian Trail. What is this magic that has propelled me here? This morning I sifted through photos from Georgia on my phone. I marked my favorites. Here, the first night I set up my tent instead of sleeping in the shelter. There, the first day it was warm enough to hike in shorts. And there, when the flowers and the green insides of plants were just beginning to sniff the end of their winter slumber. It’s almost impossible to believe that this is the same trail on which I am still walking. How many thousands of white blazes have I passed, I wonder, how many trees? So many lifetimes have been born and reincarnated on this same ribbon of space-time between Georgia and Maine. So many stories have held me here.
Approaching the Whites, it almost feels like I am preparing to enter another plane. People talk of the winds and the views like one moment the trail is in the quiet deciduous east and the next it enters a wormhole towards Middle Earth. I’m ready for it. Give me the cold winter gusts that scrape across my skin cells. Send me sunrises that melt and rocks that reach skyward. Tear me apart so I can be new.
24 August, Moose Mountain Shelter, 09:10
Yesterday morning: sunshine and clearing mists. Nemo, Patches and I walked down Elm Street towards Hanover. We wondered aloud: what makes the difference between a morning that is simply cool, and a morning that tells you that fall is on its way? In the summer there was the rare morning where the heat did not sink in immediately, when a breeze barely disturbed the start-up hum of locusts. These mornings were a reprieve from the stickiness, but they are not mornings like this one. Leaves—still green, but leaves nonetheless—scuttle across the pavement as we descend the hill. Big mountains are up ahead, and cold weather waits patiently.
This morning is the same. Moose Mountain shelter, ten miles after Hanover. I went to sleep chilly last night, wearing my puffy and my fleece, and I wake up and feel the snap of the morning before I even poke out my nose. The light playing on the walls of my tent is familiar. It’s a light that falls in sideways, ever so off-kilter, through the window of the world. A breeze stirs outside in the conifers, and my waking fingers strum the crackling air.
Autumn, I think, is the thin silver bridge of the year. I’ve been reading Sandman, and re-listening to my library of Gaiman audiobooks, and that space between dream and reality becomes less watery and more solid the more I live here. Autumn is this place, where the line between spirit and living becomes less tenuous and easier to walk. The trail is a ribbon on the edge of the explainable, this morning a veil that flaps in the wind. I am home, it feels. I think, I am home.
We are now just under 40 miles south of Mt. Moosilauke, thought of as the first of the White Mountains, the part when the trail takes a sudden turn for very serious. A northbound hiker hears about the Whites from the very beginning. Former thru-hikers warn of the unpredictability of weather, the sudden extreme difficulty of the ascents and the treacherous angle of the descents. Ridgerunners and ATC officials urge us to make a plan, have enough warm clothes, and expect a drastic decrease in mileage. From the beginning we are conditioned to fear these mountains and to dread them. Even now I imagine cold, windy fingers beckoning us to the danger of the White Mountains, to surely inevitable injury or death. It is easy to be afraid.
I don’t know what it is that urges past hikers to scare the ever-living shit out of current hikers about the Whites. I know they will be difficult compared to what we have done, but I also know that we are more than capable of completing this hike. This morning, in the gently frigid air and wind that sings autumn, I want to run towards the mountains, arms thrown wide. Something about knowing that we are done with heat and only fall and winter lie ahead of us makes me want to sing. I want to climb and struggle; I want sky and rain. This is the part you run with your heart, I tell myself. I’m counting on this beating warm muscle to get me there.
Patches is better at going to sleep than I am. That’s probably why she’s better at waking up.
I don’t know why I stay up so late on trail. Actually, I do. Something inside me strains against giving into unconsciousness, though my body begs for it. I don’t want the day to end, because as soon as I hit the pillow it will be morning again, and I will have to start moving. It’s not the hiking I dread so much as the loss of the few free hours I have to rest and think. It’s an odd paradox of the trail, this free time. On the one hand, you cannot possibly ask for more time to think. And on the other, your brain is so tied up with keeping your body moving and your spirits high that logical cognition flies away with the nearest breeze. At night I feel like it’s my only chance to nail down the sticky notes of ideas that rush past during the day. I never want to stop to write them down while I’m walking because I know I have to make miles, but by the time I set up my tent and begin to write I’ve forgotten the significance of whatever passing feeling stirred up meaning in the daylight.
So here I am, sitting in my quilt on a squeaky bed in a hostel in the dark. There is one lamp on beside me, and I feel comfortable and stubborn, resisting the urge to get horizontal. Hikers Welcome is one of the best hostels I’ve seen so far on trail. The space is small and yet it is set up efficiently: fridge stocked with drinks, shelves of DVDs, CDs, and books, and a massive set of hiker bins under the stairs. There are seven beds in the upstairs bunk room, but it’s $30 to sleep in a bed compared to $18 to camp, and Patches and I have the room to ourselves. I’ve rearranged the contents of my bear bag, examined volume 4 of The Sandman, which my mom sent to me in my resupply box, and retrieved our clean laundry from the dryer. All that’s left to do is lie down and drift off, yet here I am, writing.
I want to say so many things. I want to tell you so many things, like how good the ice cream was tonight, and how annoying the lady in the van was, and how excited and terrified I am for Moosilauke, and how it’s possible to feel so simultaneously tired and never ready to be done. I want to say things like, how cool is this, to just be out here, and I still cannot believe that I am doing this thing, but I’ve gone past my self-imposed time limit now. We climb Moosilauke tomorrow, and I should get some sleep.
Made it to Moosilauke with Nemo and Patches!
The door inside Hikers Welcome Hostel. It was a tiny but comfortable hostel, perfect for a rest before the Whites.
This ice cream was amazing.
Descending Moosilauke was truly no joke.
From the descent of Moosilauke
29 August, Campsite below the summit of Lafayette, 07:24
The mornings are getting a little easier. Today is cold and condensation drips from the inside of my tent onto my sleeping bag, and a thin light filters through the silnylon walls. It’s wet from the rain and we are barely below treeline, having claimed the first stealth site we could below the increasingly windy summit of Mt. Lafayette, but I wake up easily before six for once and feel decently rested. The Whites are hard, but no harder than I imagined. Plenty of hikers ahead of me warned me that my mileage would decrease, so I am satisfied with the days we have done so far: 9 miles over Moosilauke, 12 over Wolf and Kinsman, 12.5 over Franconia Ridge and Lafayette.
It is frustrating to have to spend all day covering distances that we might normally be able to achieve in a few hours, but I don’t mind taking my time. I enjoy watching the trees change as we ascend a hill, from deciduous and neon summer-green to strong conifers to moss and ferns and finally to rocks and grasses, and only the toughest stunted firs at the summit. It’s like climbing the Kachina Peaks every day, over and over. So many varieties of life are held in these wind-whipped mountains, and I thank them with every sweaty, half-cursed breath.
Franconia Ridge was something I was not prepared for. It was longer and far more beautiful than I expected, and when we finally got to the top in a half-dazed end-of-the-day state, I could only breathe and stare. I tried to make words happen when we ran into Nemo, but sounds kept falling out of me in mostly unintelligible clusters and eventually I gave up. In a way that trail is beyond the effort to converse. It was the closest thing I’ve experienced on this trail to the dramatic Western mountains I miss so much from the JMT and from hiking in Arizona. There is beauty to be found in the trees, but above treeline it shouts and sings. To the left I could see the mountains we had gone over the day before, and down to Greenleaf Hut, and over to the right the pinnacle of what I think was Mount Washington poked its head up from the ridge. The trail over Franconia was a rocky wave, a beige ribbon tracing the spine of the mountains and into the darkening sky.
I kept trying to find something to compare it to. The Lakes District, the night I went on a solo hike and watched the almost-storm and setting sun throw beams down onto tarns and creeks rushing towards the valleys. No, this isn’t quite like that; this is more wild, more trees, more ridgeline, no sheep. So it’s like the Sierras then, with dramatic alpine traverses and sudden storms. No, it isn’t that either; there are no snowy chutes or crystalline lakes. Arizona? Canada? No; the Whites are themselves. What is this impulse that makes me compare experiences to others I have had? I suppose it’s only natural for humans to categorize and fit moments into schemas to attempt to come to some sort of conclusion about the nature of life. It’s all wrong, though. This is a place unlike any other on this trail and unlike any other I have seen. These mountains reward hard work and give of themselves, if only one puts in the effort to make it.
My hands are cold and my tent is wet. I’m not looking forward to packing up my sopping gear. I would gladly sit and sip awhile on a second coffee. But more summits loom today, more huts and wonder. Let’s go and see.
Lonesome Lake, in White Mountain National Forest
Our campsite just below Lafayette. It wasn’t ideal–we were all up against trees and in puddles all night. But it worked.
A pensive Nemo staring into the clouds in the Whites
Patches, as the sun rises on Zeacliff. We cowboy camped here, and it was one of the best nights (and mornings!) on trail.
Here I am ascending Garfield. It was rainy and there wasn’t much of a view, but on the bright side I demolished many bowls of food after this.
Blurry pink sunset from Lakes of the Clouds Hut
Sunset fronds at Lakes of the Clouds
Lakes of the Clouds, between the hut and the summit of Mt. Washington
We waited in line to take this picture
The Presidential Range
Descending Mt. Madison. This was a hellish 2 miles that took us multiple hours. The Les Misérables soundtrack helped.
Massachusetts was one of my favorite states. I didn’t expect this, since it was not one of the sections with a particularly strong reputation. In Massachusetts the trail started to feel more like the north I was anticipating: clear ponds, conifer forests, soft paths covered in pine needles. I felt calm and grateful for milder weather, and anticipated the far-north states with joy.
Connecticut was a different story. We had the misfortune of hitting this short state in the middle of a second heat wave. There were a few days when we only managed to walk seven or eight miles, and one particularly miserable day where sixteen miles––usually a reasonable distance to cover in eight or fewer hours––took us from morning until dusk. My parents came for a third visit around this time, which was a welcome reprieve.
Despite the sweaty misery, time passed as it always does. We made it into Massachusetts, and then into the far north of Vermont.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Here are a few thoughts from Connecticut and Massachusetts.
30 July, Caesar Creek campsite, 21:05
God, it’s so hot. So hot I can feel my bones melting. Everything is a slurry of gooey humidity. Mosquitoes dive-bomb my ears. I drip sweat over everything. I should write a thing but I cannot be bothered to take out my keyboard. I just want to watch Doctor Who and go to sleep and not walk ever again.
Yesterday Patches and I took a three-hour nap in a shelter, after which I finished the first volume of The Sandman and was transported. That was a good nap. We didn’t get very far after that but it didn’t matter. I was happy and lazy and slow.
Today was rough. 16.8 miles of steep relentless ups and downs. There was a rather lovely five-ish mile section that was flat, following right along the Housatonic. I enjoyed that bit. But I’m still breaking in my Superfeet so my arches ached and burned with every step. I had to stop a lot. I enjoyed the creeks and the rocks by the river, and I enjoyed my podcasts. Otherwise, today was miserable and I am glad to be horizontal. Isn’t the north supposed to be cold?
2 August, Sages Creek on the CT/MA border, 12:52
There’s a waterfall. A thin one, pouring through a crack in a boulder and down over smooth strands of lichen and moss. A proper creek, this is. Solid ravine walls and a breeze flowing out from the push of water and air further down the canyon. I could get drunk on the smell of this creek. I think of the Sylvia Plath quote: “I take a deep breath and listen to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am.” Or something like that.
I’ve felt tired and hot and shitty for most of the last week. I needed something to make me feel calm and alive. I needed to be shown why I love hiking, and made to feel that it’s not all the same. This day is perfect. A couple of difficult climbs so far and a couple more to go, but this ravine right in the middle. This stupidly beautiful mossy creek cutting a slot through an old growth Hemlock forest. I think of Kimmerer’s tale of learning Potawatomi and its verbs for objects: to be a creek. Nothing has ever felt more animate than this creek.
4 August, Wilcox Mountain South Shelters, 21:43
I just remembered what my cross country coach used to say about a 5K race: you run the first mile with your brain, the second mile with your body, and the third mile with your heart. Actually, I’m not sure what the second mile mechanism was. But I know the last mile was heart.
It feels like I’m starting the “heart” section of the AT. I’ve made it past my first mile of three: the head. I planned and was strategic and worked to meet goals. Then I survived the physicality of the second mile of three: sprained an ankle, went up and over Dragon’s Tooth and McAfee Knob, Shenandoah, the Roller Coaster, Pennsylvania. Now I am solidly in the North, in mile three of three. This is when I start to run—or in this case, hike—with my heart. This is when I realize that these miles will end. This is when I drink in sunsets over ponds and dusklight views and say I am, I am, I am. This is when the truth of what I have learned sinks into me, when I feel and cherish every step acutely.
I’m starting to think now about how I will feel when this hike is over. I know I’ll need another goal, which is why I want to work on the book. But I do think I might be shocked by the depression that follows. What will I do when I don’t wake up in a tent, when my morning routine isn’t reading Sandman in the woods over a silicone cup of instant coffee before walking for ten hours?
I’m terrified by the thought of returning and the complacency that threatens at the bottom of the pit of comfort. What am I going to do when I don’t have walking every day to power and sustain me? I will have to drastically cut back my eating, I will have to find a job, I will have to sacrifice my free time and creativity on the altar of money-making. Obviously this is what I have to do, and I’ve known it from the beginning. As mom says: you play, you pay. I’ve been home for months before and survived the mindset, but this seems like it will be forever. I know it won’t. I know I’m resourceful and determined and privileged and I will be able to achieve what I set my mind to. I just don’t want to slither down the hole of complacency. A place like Northern Kentucky can do that to you if you aren’t careful.
I know for these last 650 miles that I will be eating it all up like breakfast: the mornings, the evenings, the lazy afternoons. The mountains. The struggle. This is where I want to be.
5 August, Wilcox Mountain South Shelters, 08:53
Last night I slept inside my sleeping bag for the first time in weeks, because I was cold. This morning I woke up, poked my head out, and decided I needed to put on my fleece. It was a glorious revelation. I felt like crying. The heat over the past month has been mostly unbearable, and when it wasn’t hot, it was raining.
This morning feels like the first fingerbrush of autumn. It’s still summer; solidly so, but the next season is tentatively reaching out with her more slanted light, her snapcrackle mornings. I wonder if there’s a word for the first day when it begins to feel like the next season.
I know it won’t stay this temperature today, but at the moment I’m holding it close to me. Massachusetts. You are a treasure.
8 August, Williamstown, MA, 22:00
Walking around the campus of Williams College at night, with no one around. The students have not yet returned, at least not all of them. Here and there someone walks to the gym, back to a dorm from shopping, but for the most part the campus is empty and the spaces between the old and new buildings sit wide and abandoned, with the occasional sprinkler to break up the still summer silence. The old mingles with the new here: old dorms and renovated buildings from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries sit next to Hollander Hall and the Class of 1996 Environmental Center and the modern extension to the campus library. It’s dark, and I can’t tell if there’s some sort of central quad that I have not yet located, or if the sprawl of buildings just continues past the cemetery and the park.
I like doing this: walking around college campuses I am not familiar with. It reminds me of the summer between junior and senior year of high school, when my family and I vacationed in the Northeast, South, and Chicago areas, visiting universities I was interested in and in between the tours acting as tourists in the cities. I don’t know what it is about a campus that lures me in and makes me feel at home. I see the dorms with their keypads and students pressing RFID tags up against black plastic boxes to be let in. There is a sense of comfortable belonging alongside transience. Behind the youth and vigor and consumption with studies, there is the tacit knowledge that the four or two or three years will end and a moving-on will be inevitable. And yet, there is life and presence: clubs, sports, libraries, staying up all night, returning to the dorm, rolling out of bed for an unavoidable morning class. I love the sense of immediacy and importance. On the next exam hangs the universe. On the next audition the entire future rests.
I want to do so many things and be so many people. I want to see the world and write books and travel and make a difference. And behind it all, there is this: walking on a college campus at night. Feeling the lull of knowledge and the cliffhanging hope of everything that sits just ahead of me. This presence, this prescience: the hope of the near future and the destinations just past what currently is. I see myself, walking with a messenger bag and wearing my cherry-red Doc Martens and carrying a coffee to a lecture I am teaching. Happy, professionally curious, alive. I see an office filled with books and students sitting across from me. I see a career that is defined by a gleam that never dies.
I am at home on the trail. I am at peace on a campus. I talk to my mom, I understand that all things will end—yes, even this 2,192-mile hike—and I walk back to my motel.
I drink too much wine. I laugh with my friends. I read Sandman. I write. I listen to Amanda Palmer. And I write. Write, write. Think about the future. Hope. Write.
I loved the New Jersey section of the AT, but mostly I loved New Jersey because it was not Pennsylvania. That being said, the Garden State had some lovely features, including marshlands and the Pochuck Boardwalk—a mile of easy, flat walking through cattails and swamplands, which was a very pleasant change from the unforgiving and unexciting hills of Pennsylvania.
We hit a hot spell towards the end of New Jersey and the beginning of New York, and I stopped writing regularly. It was difficult to make it through the day, much less have enough cognitive function left over to write at night. I only wrote one entry in New Jersey, and a series of jumbled thoughts in New York. The first entry here was written hastily as I was walking, and the second is a more coherently arranged version of the notes I took while walking on that day in New York.
17 July, somewhere in the forests of New Jersey, 11:19
I can’t take a picture, and I can’t find what I’m looking for to show you how happy I am to be walking on pine needles, the light filtering through conifers. All I can think about is the Sierras. The Range of Light, dominated by pines and firs at lower altitudes, water rushing through canyons and over rock faces. I will never smell this smell and not think of sunsets over clear mountain lakes and ice-cold stream crossings. I will never smell it and not think of Tuolumne and Evolution Meadow and Selden Pass and Sapphire Lake. I don’t yearn for that trail unless I smell this, and then when I do, my soul lurches westward.
23 July, New York: The Day of the Blueberries
Everything is blueberries.
Everything inside me curls irresistibly upwards into a smile.
I can’t stop eating them. Bushes everywhere, offering their fruit on thin tendrils extending towards the trail. They brush against my legs as I navigate around rocks. Here we are for you, they say. We offer ourselves.
The trees: a neon mat of uniform green. The kind of green you could sail ships on. The trunks: black matchsticks, standing sharp against the verdant field. We walk up, up, going up Bear Mountain. At the top of the ridge, there is a view of New York City. The force of the feeling strikes me: we walked here from Georgia. We’ll be going to NYC in a few days, but for now we are here, treading in a sea of green. And blueberries.
Yesterday the elements of on-trail misery exploded all at once. Steep, pointless hills led to the Lemon Squeezer, a small tunnel of rock that requires the removal of one’s pack to get through. A thunderstorm exploded out of nowhere, unleashing cold wet fury for the last six miles. A branch fell and broke on Patches’ head, causing what was probably a concussion. We slept in a full shelter, dingy with human-smell and mouse-smell and never-dry-walls-smell.
I love this trail, but sometimes I hate it. You can love a person all the time and hate them sometimes too. It is the same here. Yesterday I hated the trail. I hated its humidity and wetness, its unforgiving extremity. I cursed it and questioned. I went to sleep as soon as I could because I couldn’t deal with the wet coldness of consciousness any longer.
But then there is today. It is overcast, but I feel no threat of rain. The trail lopes over hill crests, saying, hello, you are alive. Saying hello, I am sorry for what I put you through. Saying, I do love you. I am sorry. Offering me blueberries in apology.
At the top of Bear Mountain the trail levels out. I walk over the ridge and feel gravity relent. The sun appears, and there are still blueberry bushes everywhere. I climb the Perkins Tower and look out onto valleys. How this trail takes, and gives. It gives, over and over, like the blueberries; views, friends, trees, people.
How much do I give, like the trail? How much more can I give?
The days that hurt the most are always followed by the sweetest mornings. Here on trail, we are tested and beaten and made new. We are promised nothing but the passing of time. A thunderstorm will end, and there will be blueberrries.
I feel amazing right now. Sitting on a curb next to the Bear Mountain Bridge, feet planted on asphalt, holding a spork with peanut butter on it and smacking it onto my tongue. I feel magisterially alive, feet all the way down into my shoes and watching the tollbooth arms raise, lower, raise, lower, raise raise, lower. So many people going to and from and everywhere, but they have to cross this bridge first, and so do I. Hello, world: feet on the ground here, eating peanut butter and Sour Patch watermelons here, smelly and disgusting and full of life, hello, yes, we belong here and here we walk.
We’re trying to figure out where the trail goes next. Eyes squinted, we peer around the area. I spot it across the street: a white blaze painted on a signpost. The way becomes clear, and uncertainty abates.
And I think: hikers imagine this trail like a large and grandiose ribbon, something that just simply is. A blaze here, an arrow there. But who thinks about the little things, like getting across rivers and painting coherent blazes and making rocks and putting in stairs and telling people where to go?
There are people behind these scenes, those who love distance and those who map it out. There are hands behind the blazes. Trail maintainers. I salute you and I thank you.
Across the bridge, the day begins to draw to a close. We are headed for a spiritual center that allows hikers to camp for free. We have one more hill to climb, and I climb it slowly, walking with my friends.
The green of the trees is still vivid, though less neon in the sifting evening light. The tree trunks still stand out, though they are less contrasted. I feel a settling.
At the beginning of this hike I wanted to know exactly what was going to happen. I wanted to know how far I could walk and where I would end up at the end of the day. I wanted to match Krazy Glue’s pace, I wanted to go fast, I wanted to be headstrong and sure and achieving. And while I still set goals (I don’t know how else to be, and I don’t know if there even is another way to be), I feel less demanding. Plan all you like; the trail will treat you how it treats you. Every day is different, with unique joys and frustrations, and every day is hard.
And every day is beautiful. Every day gives gifts, some bitter and some sweet. Step by step, the stubbornness is being beaten out of me, and leaving a smooth space, which I can fill with whatever I choose.
I want to fill it with gratitude. With grace, with kindness. Want to scrape out the judgment and replace it with thanks. Want to give. Like the blueberries. Like their tendril arms and selfless apology, giving, over and over, to those who walk past.