Checking In: The Journey Towards the Appalachian Trail

Greetings, reader! Have you ever met a less dedicated blogger than yours truly? Seriously, I had so many ideas for writing: discussions about my hike on the Camino del Norte and Camino Primitivo last summer, traveling in England, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the Czech Republic, not to mention some thoughts on gear and reflections post-JMT (which, by the way, I recently learned was originally a Native trade route: the Nüümü Poyo). Additionally, last year I bought a Sony Alpha a6000 camera that I enjoyed taking all over Europe and Arizona, and I swear at some point I’ll put those photos up. I’ve wanted to do so many things, but between managing my shop, working, traveling, being with family, and preparing for the Appalachian Trail, time has of course gotten away from me.

What I’d like to briefly talk about here in this long-overdue post is the realization of a dream: my upcoming thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail!

The Beginning

I don’t remember exactly when the desire to hike the AT was born. I don’t come from an outdoorsy family, and it wasn’t until I studied abroad in India in 2013 that I even realized such a thing as a backpack made specifically for hiking existed. But between reading A Walk in the Woods in high school, going to college, meeting a bunch of dirtbag climbers who became fast friends, and moving out west and falling in love with the mountains–somewhere along the way, the fire of long-distance hiking took light somewhere within me.

img_5909
Little me on Hound Tor, Dartmoor, Devonshire, England, in the summer of 2018. Dartmoor was the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” As a hiker and a Sherlock Holmes nerd, it was a must-see.

I hiked the Camino de Santiago Francés in 2015, and though this trail is very different than American long-distance hikes, it solidified the desire for distance. I then hiked the John Muir Trail (Nüümü Poyo) in 2017, which was an experience unlike any I have ever had or am likely to have again. The mountains, roaring rivers, miles of snow, and watercolor sunsets changed me in ways I can’t quite put my finger on, but feel nonetheless. In 2018 I traveled around green, verdant England for a month before hiking the Camino del Norte and Camino Primitivo in Spain. Though these last trails were also Camino routes like the Francés, they were entirely different in character, scenery, and experience. On the Norte and the Primitivo I realized how dramatic, hilly, windswept, and breathtaking northern Spain can be. I met people with whom I had conversations about a wide spectrum of issues and ideas. I spoke a lot of Spanish, learned a little Dutch, and fell in love. I ate communal meals with fellow pilgrims and met people whose lives are so intertwined with the Way that they’ve walked it over and over and still can’t get enough. This trip made me more comfortable with myself, more confident in the face of uncertainty and difficult decisions, and more thirsty for the world and for distance than I can explain.

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The rugged, wind-beaten coast of the País Vasco (Basque Country). This is from Day 3 of our Camino del Norte hike: Zarautz to Deba, 22 June 2018.

Towards the Appalachian Trail

In the back of my mind on all of these hikes, the Appalachian Trail has been there. It would have been too big an undertaking in 2015, or 2017, or even 2018. Before all of these hikes, I didn’t have the gear, understand what a thru-hike would take, or have a concept of pain. On the Francés, I took a downhill too fast and irritated my knee. A brace, recommended by my friend, saved my hike. On the Norte and Primitivo I battled a rough case of achilles tendinitis, followed by plantar fasciitis in the same foot. Months after I reached Santiago, even as I dutifully performed my doctor-assigned stretches and iced my sore muscles, the whisper of pain still lingered. If I step right, or push right, I can still feel the spot, and this worries me. But now I know how to treat it, I bought better shoes, I’ve done my research.

I’ve also whittled down my pack weight considerably since the JMT. High in the Sierras, sucking in air and trudging uphill at a crawl, I was frustrated and uncomfortable and tired with my nearly-40-pound pack. I swore over and over on that hike that I would make moves towards ultralight before I even thought about getting on the AT. I followed through, with lots of gracious help from family, sales, coupons, and trial and error. Technically, I’m still not “ultralight”–the real bros will tell you you have to be under a ten-pound base weight to wear that badge of honor. I’m not a bro, though. I’m very satisfied with my 12-lb setup, and look forward to learning how I can take even more weight off my back.

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Gear for the Appalachian Trail (minus my trekking poles, which I always seem to forget). 12 lb base weight, compared to a hefty 35-ish on the JMT. Making the switch to a Hyperlite pack, Gossamer Gear tent, and Enlightened Equipment quilt made a world of difference. Can’t wait to see how these babies do!

I’m doing this hike alone, just like I’ve always wanted it, and always planned it. If you’re worried about my safety, hang tight: there’s a resource coming for you at the end. I’m leaving this weekend, and I’m a mixed bag of emotions. Now that it’s finally time, I’m in disbelief, and I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the concept of a thing I’ve thought about and planned for so long, but won’t really know about until I get out there. I’m scared. I’m anxious. I’m eager. I’m hopeful. Five to six months is a long time, but also a short one. Lots can happen, but it will pass quickly once I start moving. I’m excited to learn from the trail and the trees and the rain and the cold and the sun. I’m excited to meet other hikers and hear their stories and share a little walk with them. I’m excited to watch how I grow and how I learn to rely on myself even more than I have before.

How to Follow My Adventure

Because I’m notoriously terrible at writing regularly, and because I’ve joined an awesome community of hikers and writers, I won’t be sharing posts on this website. Rather, I will be writing for The Trek, and you can find my author page and all of my posts here: Sarahmarie Specht-Bird at The Trek. I have a few posts up at the time of writing, including a comprehensive article answering safety-related questions (See? I told you I’d give you a safety-related resource!).

You can also follow me on Instagram. My username is @srirachamarie, or you can check out this link: Sarahmarie on Instagram.

My Etsy, Wild Heart, will be running on a limited scale with the help of my wonderful mother, but my stock is very limited. Here’s the link for that if you’re dying for one of my already made items: Wild Heart Whimsical Art.

Finally, and this is by no means a requirement or a necessity: support. Thru-hiking isn’t the world’s most expensive endeavor, and there are certainly people in the world who need support more than I do (see below). But it does take a lot of time without a paycheck to complete. So if you’re inspired or entertained by my adventure, or if you like my writing and would like to support it, my Venmo name is @sspecht.

Some Outdoor Organizations You Should Know About

While we’re on the subject of supporting hikers, I’d like to highlight some really cool organizations you may be interested in researching and/or supporting.

For a long time I’ve been interested in how I, as a cisgendered white woman, can support folx that are working to upset the white-, hetero- and male-dominated nature of the outdoor industry. The following organizations are just some of many that I’ve learned about who are working for real, meaningful diversity and difficult conversations about the nature of this community.

We as outdoorists have definitely come a long way in our journey towards inclusion, but there is so much more progress to be made. The following groups do such work as encouraging Native people, women, and people of color to get out there and reclaim their space, as well as fostering discussion that interrupts the colonial mindset attached to American outdoor recreation. There are so many more, and so much more I could say about them, and so much more that I need to learn. But these are groups that I’m learning about and really admire:

Indigenous Women Hike

Native Women’s Wilderness

Melanin Base Camp

Latino Outdoors

Unlikely Hikers

Queer Nature

Women Who Hike

Pattie Gonia

Thanks for taking the time to learn about, support, and encourage these groups! I am encouraged by the direction that this community is going in, and we have so much more to do and to learn. Let’s make a commitment to listen and be better.

Here We Go!

Here we are, on the weekend I’m heading down to Amicalola Falls to start my thru-hike. I can’t believe how fast these last few months have gone. I’m full of trepidation of course, but also full to the brim with eager anticipation of all that I will learn, all the trail has to teach me, all the conversations and rain and tears and joy. I am grateful to my parents for giving me a place to rest and prepare, grateful to God for granting me the opportunity to walk, grateful to the universe for all the beauty it contains. I walk towards the white blazes with an open heart, humbling myself to the distance.

It’s time.

It’s time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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