Shawnee State Forest, October 2019

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.

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Classic Ohio in the Fall.

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.

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Yours truly and Wiggs, October 25, 2019

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.

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It was a little bit wet, but there was a certain kind of comfy beauty in the rainy autumn world.

 

The Trail

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.

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Shawnee has a rather impressive network of trails, including a large backpacking loop. We did about half of the loop on this particular weekend, and will soon be going back to do the whole route.

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.

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Side trails to campsites are marked with white blazes at Shawnee, while the main loop is marked with an orange blaze. It was comforting to see this white mark, as if we had never left the AT.

Slightly Struggling

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.

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Wiggs resting on the second evening, before the torrential downpour that flooded both of our tents.

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.

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Wiggs. pack, and 2019 AT thru-hiker tag. From one trail to another, and onto a new adventure…

Looking Back After Three Months

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.)

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The cover of Blaze, the zine I wrote about my thru-hike of the AT. Patches did the illustrations for me, and the result is better than I could have dreamed. If you’d like to order a copy, check out the link above!

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.

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This is somewhere in Maine. The northeast portion of the trail was probably my favorite. I miss the soft paths and conifers.

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.

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The tramily at Katahdin! KG finished before us, on September 18. Patches and I finished on September 28th. Even though we were 10 days apart in summiting, these two defined my thru-hike and I can’t believe how lucky I was to meet them.

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.

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A sign on a tree, above a blaze. This was somewhere in New York.

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.

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From left to right: me, Patches, and KG, in front of Stratton Pond, Vermont

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.

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Sunset on Annapolis Rocks, Maryland

 

Maine

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.

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That moment when you’ve walked from Georgia to Maine

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.

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Somehow this turned out as the most underwhelming photo of Maine, although the moment was lovely. This is Long Pond. There really were loons.

13 September

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.

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.

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.

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September 28, 2019. I summited Mt. Katahdin after a northbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail lasting 6 months and 4 days, and covering 2,192 miles.

Vermont and New Hampshire

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!

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Shout-out to Daphne for putting us up at her lovely house in Quechee! It was a perfect break from the rain and a good rest before the Whites.

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.

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There was a large group–over 50 of us–at the Yellow Deli in Rutland the night we stayed. It was fun to catch up with friends and meet some new folks.

Vermont

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.

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Taken from the tower on the summit of Stratton Mountain (I think). The forests really started to feel northern around here.

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.

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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.

New Hampshire

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.

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New Hampshire began with some lovely streams. Patches and I camped here one night. It was just a few miles short of our goal, but I slept like a baby and I was happy that I stopped early.

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.

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A classic AT sight. How I miss those white blazes now!

25 August, Hikers Welcome Hostel, Glencliff, NH, 22:30

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.

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.

Connecticut and Massachusetts

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.

Though Connecticut is hilly, there are a few very enjoyable miles that follow the flat path of the Housatonic River.

Connecticut

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?

Patches (on the right) and me, getting back on trail in Connecticut after a double-zero in NYC. It was a bit of a transition coming back to the trail.
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.

It was hard to get a good photo, but Sages Ravine was one of the most beautiful places on the trail.

Massachusetts

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.

One of the many ponds in Massachusetts that we passed. This one was en route to the Wilcox Mountain Shelter.
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.

(Krazy) Glue and Patches on the dock at Upper Goose Pond. Of the whole trail, this was one of the most memorable and relaxing evenings.
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.

Williamstown was an unexpectedly great place to take two neros. I enjoyed walking around the campus at night and visiting the local bookstores.

Pennsylvania, Part Two

Pennsylvania was the worst state on the AT thus far. Hikers often speak of it semi-affectionately as “Rocksylvania,” but it wasn’t the rocks that did it for me so much as lots of little annoyances coming together: rocks, pointless hills with no views, low-altitude ridgelines with no breeze, gnats, mosquitoes, mud, heat, and humidity. I was miserable for most of the second half of the state. The first half, before Duncannon, was gorgeous: pine forests, soft paths, well-maintained shelters. But something terrible happens when you get north of the Susquehanna.

On the bright side, it did give me a lot of time to work on my gratitude and presence. And it made me savor the little things: flowers, mushrooms, trail magic, friends.

Here is the second of two entries on the infamous Rocksylvania.

5 July, 14:31, somewhere north of the Susquehanna River

It just stopped pouring. Still a drizzle, but mostly mist now, and the sun is peeking through through the droplets in the air and the needles of the conifers. This clearing was made to eat lunch at. Plenty of rocks around a fire ring, logs and soft leaves on the ground. It’s that particular light again, the one that calls to mind Cape Cod and lighthouses in sweet summer fog. Caterpillars and tea parties and impossible things. Some kind of liminal state it is, the dripping green forest just after the rain, but before the return of the sun. There is thunder rumbling at a low constant meander in the distance. It hasn’t stopped since I’ve been sitting here, but it’s far away and fading and sleepy. I feel no threat.

I’ve just finished eating lunch. I am happy and calm and alone. That hill was hard, but I feel gratified and accomplished now and so I am taking a break.

One interesting part of the trail was the section that was flooded due to beaver activity in the area. It was a bit of a slog, but at the end of the day we got a hotel room in town. So our socks weren’t gross for too long.

I feel alive today. Yesterday I felt like a melted gummy bear with a sprained ankle and an irritating penchant for attracting gnats. But today I’m back to being in love with it all, with the rain and tuna packets and pine needles and the feeling of walking north. Which is to say, I feel back to normal.

I was just thinking that I love how Nemo says as a parting, “step joyfully!” What a way to remind ourselves of how we should be conducting our spirits. How easy it is to sink into autopilot, half asleep and half pissed-off at the rocks and the heat and the struggle of it all. If you remember to step joyfully, though, you’re doing it right. I guess not every step in life can be joyful, but for me on this trail so many of them are, as long as I can remember why I’m doing this.

8 July, 21:55, Hamburg, PA

I hate Pennsylvania. I hate its rocks and low-altitude dullness. I hate its 50-degree uphills that take you absolutely nowhere. I hate the swarms of gnats and mosquitoes that always, always find me despite baths in DEET and bug nets and vigilant hand-waving. I hate the endless mud pits, the sucking mess that takes hold of shoes and ankles. I hate the close undergrowth and the rain and the roads.

I love Pennsylvania. I love the little ramshackle, shabby-vintage towns that remind me of the city in which my father grew up. I love people referring to my tramily and me as “yous” and the not-unfriendly––though not overly ebullient––restaurant service. I love the thunderstorms teetering and breaking. I love the springs and the locusts. I love the evenings. The hazy cream twilights. I love the mushrooms. I love the flowers. I love going into town and feeling competent, like a hiker. I love taking a shower with the shampoo Nemo bought and sitting in lobbies drinking tea, alone, clean. I love eating berries. I love reading Gaiman and falling into a rabbit hole of fanfiction and dreaming in my tent. I love looking forward to the next sections. I love sending mail ahead. I love this life spent walking forward.

If you want to get to Maine, you must first survive PA…

15 July, 08:48, a few miles before Delaware Water Gap, the last town in PA

This morning I am calm and in love. I got water from the pooling spring beneath the trees, paying attention to every movement of my wrist, the snap of neurons and tendons that enables me to twist and squeeze and bend down and filter. I like the light that is sifting through the campsite, with its quiet morning tenuousness. I feel good. The rocks hurt yesterday, but I am in that state of wistful anticipation that accompanies a long journey. I’m listening to “Conrad” by Ben Howard, thinking of distance and water and all that is worth seeing. This world is worth saving. I’d avert the apocalypse for these trees.

A lake full of lily pads just before Delaware Water Gap, the last PA trail town on the AT.

I haven’t loved Pennsylvania. That much is probably obvious. I thought other hikers were exaggerating the suffering, and I still think the rocks are blown out of proportion, but whatever the reason, this state was hard. I met a ridgerunner while I was walking last night. “How’s the hike?” he asked. And I replied, “Good, I just want to get out of Pennsylvania.” I don’t know if New Jersey will be any better, but it won’t be this state, and for that I am glad.

I know there were good things about being here, and I am grateful for them. I think it’s like the Meseta on the Camino Francés: beautiful in its own way, with the fields of wheat and windmills eerie in the distance, like aliens lording over a barren landscape, but also terrifying and daunting. I was happy to get to Galicia on that trail, and I am happy to be moving northwards now.

Thank you for strengthening me, Pennsylvania.

The Delaware toll bridge, the official crossing from Pennsylvania to New Jersey. I may or may not have cried.

Maryland + Pennsylvania, Part One

Virginia is the longest state on the Appalachian Trail at about 550 miles. It was beautiful, but by the time I reached the end I was ready for a new state. Here are a few thoughts from Maryland and Pennsylvania (I didn’t write anything in the eight miles of West Virginia). More reflections on Pennsylvania to come, because it was a long and grueling state.

26 June, Maryland

We took a lunch break at Dahlgren campground. It was over halfway and the day was young, so KG and I lay down head to head on a bench, read our respective books, and took a nap. In between reading my favorite author and sharing a bench with my friend who had returned from big miles and three days off in DC, I looked up at the sky. Two huge poplars flanked the campground and they were fluttering in the wind. Perfect fluffy white clouds rolled by, and I felt completely present. This is the trail I wanted. Today I feel here. My head is swimming with love for writing and the world and The Graveyard Book and Aziraphale and Crowley and running water and summer and snacks. I am happy. So, so happy.

Midday nap time at Dahlgren Campground, MD

Annapolis Rocks campground, 21:30

We’ve just finished watching the sunset. Patches, Krazy Glue, Hermione, Slouch, and Nemo and I all sat there together, listening to chill music and watching the sky glow purple and orange and pink. I have felt varying things about my tramily and the very nature of having a tramily out here. On the one hand it’s frustrating to deal with logistics and differences, but on the other hand, a trail family means you can share experiences. You can look at each other and then back to a view, and say “wow” or raise your eyebrows, and get a response. The shared view is a mass around which the rest of my experience outdoors orbits. Here we are, with our vastly different personalities and motivations, all together and enjoying one thing.

I decided to go back to camp and get to sleep before everyone else. I’m tired today, and I’m starting to get into the rhythm of having time to read and write, and I don’t want to fall off the wagon. As I was leaving the viewpoint at Annapolis Rocks, Nemo asked me, “Are you writing a book?” And for the first time, with confidence, I said, “Yes. Well, maybe more a collection of essays than a book, but that’s what I want to do.” It felt like a switch, like how, after a certain point, you stop saying “that’s the plan!” when someone asks if you’re going to Maine, and switch to a confident “yes.” I have marked my plan and said what I will do. That feels good.

I want to write more thoughts but I am very tired, despite the nap today. I am so ecstatic to be this far through the trail.

Sunset at Annapolis Rocks, still one of the best on trail.

30 June, campsite past Pine Grove Furnace State Park, 20:15

Alone. The trees are whispering with the wind. Occasionally, a bird will chirp in the background, somewhere past the stand of bushes right by this fire ring. It is not silent, but it is quieter than shelters and quieter than being in a group. This forest, a young one by the size of the trees, feels like a blanket rustling over a mattress of earth. I am writing words on a page in English, but no English can be heard. As I let myself sink into this solitude I remember that the nature around me is older than language.

I am comfortable alone at first. At first I am rejoicing with relief. I set up my tent in a clearing where I see no other people. I eat a small dinner and write in my journal in complete unadulterated aloneness. I turn on an audiobook to pierce the silence, and turn it off, feeling that I am wasting my time to listen. Now I sit.

There is a road somewhere, maybe a few miles, to my left. This makes me nervous, but it would not make me nervous if I were not alone. I hear a sound that is probably a toad, but there is no water around here, so I start to imagine it as a boar, or a bear. A branch scuttles and I picture a black bear, Ursus americanus, waiting for sundown to accost my food bag. These are things I would not think of if I were not alone.

I do not think I am scared. If I am scared of anything out here, it is people. Especially after what happened earlier this year. And I am afraid of waking up and hearing a sound. I am afraid of a bear that is not afraid of me, a bear that I cannot chase away. Other than this, I am not afraid. This trail has nudged its way into the cords of my heart. I am home here, I am home and whole.

Patches (right) and me at the official (though incorrect) halfway point, just before Pine Grove Furnace State Park

1 July, Green Mountain General Store, lunchtime

This is the kind of place I want to put in a story. It’s the kind of place that’s right at home in Pennsylvania, all comfy and familiar, with an edge of country shabbiness that is elevated by its kind people and clean bathrooms and brilliantly delicious subs. The paneled ceiling is slanted and uneven, with a few fluorescent lights. The air conditioning is running at full blast in the little room up a staircase, and I am sitting right in front of it. (Which, I just realized, might be making the rest of the place stink. Oops.) I’ve just finished eating the best cheesesteak I’ve ever had the pleasure to consume. It was fresh and warm and perfect. I’m working on a cup of coffee now, which is what originally brought me in here. I woke up late today and thought, I wonder how it would go if I didn’t make breakfast but just started walking. So I did, and I felt like a zombie. But both the first shelter, where I was originally thinking about stopping, and this deli were 0.2 off trail. So I thought, real coffee and flush toilets trump whatever I have in my pack. I have no self-control when it comes to food on trail, but this place was worth the short but terrifying stint of road walking. It’s full on summer in the north now, here in southeastern PA, and forty-five minutes not in the sun are a merciful relief.

This is the kind of place in a small town where people know each other. The two girls behind the counter speak to customers who come in with friendly familiarity. Everyone seems comfortable and alright. It’s the kind of store where you could buy anything, if you looked hard enough for it. 2-liters of Pepsi and Mountain Dew, jars of peanuts, packs of oreos, fishing gear, bait, hope, wonder, potions. Wood-paneled walls and menu boards of the type that require individual letters to be placed between plastic lines. Large chunks of plastic-wrapped cheese, a basket of onions. Banjos on the walls made of old cigar boxes. Maps, t-shirts, thermometers.

I guess I should keep walking. But this air does feel nice. And the coffee is so much better than instant. And I am so happy to have had twelve hours of miraculous, beautiful aloneness. I feel like I am finally hiking my own hike, setting my own schedule and following my own rules.

Last night I felt a little nervous, and it took me a while to go to sleep. I eventually did so with the help of a chill playlist. I didn’t set an alarm, and I woke up at 5:30, but didn’t start moving until 8. It was quiet and beautiful and so miraculously solitary. I want to do that again, but I think tonight I’ll be forced to go to the campground just before Boiling Springs, since there isn’t much after it. Maybe I’ll try a big day tomorrow. Or maybe not. It feels good to have no rules, and I’ll have to remember to allow myself to make my own choices out here.

The only time I have truly camped alone was this night, just past Pine Grove Furnace. I had to go searching for it; a hiker on the AT is rarely alone.
21:46, Camp outside Boiling Springs, PA

I want to lie down. I want to watch Good Omens and fall asleep. But more than any of these things I want to remember the fireflies.

Walking back to the campground in the almost-darkness of twilight, KG and I watched in reverent silence to the spots of light dotting the fields and cornstalks. They make no noise, but they speak a language all their own in this special light. They are ethereal, walking the border between real and not. I stand staring at the lights, the uneven symphony. I am transfixed. I cannot pull myself away. I am reminded of times when the smallest movement of a stalk of grass on the Arizona Trail made me understand the significance of life, the worthiness of the world, why it would be worth averting the apocalypse for. These fireflies are a gift. This feeling will never come again, not exactly like this. They remind me that I am alive.

The Children’s Pond in Boiling Springs, PA. There’s not a lot in this town, but the sunset and the fireflies this night were delightful.

Virginia Reflections, Part Three: Shenandoah

14 June 2019

Calf Mountain Shelter, Shenandoah National Park, 07:18

It’s cold out this morning. As people wake up in the shelter—early, because most of them are doing a marathon day—they make jokes about the weather. “So,” says one voice, “are y’all hitching into Hiawasseee?” Everyone laughs. Hiawassee, Georgia was hundreds of miles ago, when we were still in the chilly grip of late March. In one way it feels like that was ages in the past, but then again, this morning the air is crisp and fall-like, and I am reminded that months are nothing in the grand scheme of time.

At this moment I’m still curled up in my sleeping bag, echoes of my injury radiating throughout my ankle. I’m only going 13 today, so there’s no need for me to be fully awake yet. But I’m enjoying this banter. The wind was rather rough last night, whipping through the campsite. I almost sent my puffy home, and now I’m glad I didn’t, and that I still have my 20-degree down quilt.

Right now we’re traveling in the orbit of a large group of hikers that I really like: Brew, Pizza Steve, Bumblebee, Gumby, Tortuga, Wiggs, Honey Buns, Tomatillo, Tigah Bahm. The atmosphere at the shelter last night was elated and light. Everyone seems to mirror the calm, contented excitement I’d been harboring about the Shenandoahs. Not that they’ll be easy, but they seem like a nice, 100-mile respite from the punishing uphills that came before and the rocks that lie ahead. We’re almost halfway, and this park is like a little dreamland. (Albeit a dreamland with ticks.) We are all comfortable with each other now, and comfortable with the life we have formed on the trail.

One of the first views in Shenandoah National Park. Unfortunately I don’t remember the name of this mountain, but there was a rather fun boulder scramble at the top.

I do wonder what I will feel when this journey ends. A weird sense of loss, probably. There have been times when I have just wanted to sit and crochet and be in a house, but I always talk myself out of that desire by imagining my hours being filled by so much work. Walking is work, I guess, but look what I get to see. I get to listen, to the forest and to music and to words. I get to dream and to live a simplified existence. I think Zach’s advice in Appalachian Trials about finding a “new Katahdin” is well warranted. I am going to write a book. A collection of essays, more precisely. I’ve been wanting to do it for a while, since taking the Memoirs and Creative Nonfiction classes and beginning to write about walking. Big goals, I know. I need to get my essays together, need to braid my ideas into comprehensible works. But I’ve wanted to write a book for so long. That is my next Katahdin. Today I have committed.

Words, words, so many words. I love them and need them and nurture them. My hands are cold in this crisp morning air. It’s not so much June as it is April, but it will feel like a nice respite once I start moving. Hello, Shenandoah.

19:03

This morning Krazy Glue took off, bound for higher miles. I knew it was coming, but I guess I wasn’t prepared for how I was going to react. Tears appeared out of nowhere in my eyes as he approached the shelter, ready to hit the trail. Something just struck me: we’d traveled 870 miles together, the three of us. We’d weathered storms and dealt with humidity and checked for ticks and talked about the merits and drawbacks of shelter privies. I hadn’t consciously realized how much he had wedged himself into my heart. I have a lot of respect and admiration for him, and I hadn’t thought consciously about the level to which my hike had revolved around the three of us, as a three.

I felt a strange, great sadness, which I did not expect. I know I’ve spent too much time putting down the AT compared to the relative amazigness of the Camino, but apparently it has moved me and touched me in ways I didn’t fully comprehend until this morning. I feel so lucky to have found my little trio, and it feels weird to be splitting off, even if we do meet again, which I know we will.

Spoiler alert: We did meet again, in Maryland. Actually, our whole tramily met up and hiked together for a bit: Nemo, Hermione, Slouch, and KG, Patches, and me. On the right you’ll see Krazy Glue trying to surf into the sunset.

I was thinking about change during the morning. Everything about hiking is an exercise in appreciation and letting go. I’ve thought about this before, and I’m frustrated by how few words I have for it. But here it is. The golden light last night. I went to hang my bear bag and noticed the way the leaves were a shining gold in the windy evening. The trees swayed in the wind, moving with a velocity slightly less than what might be described as “violent.” It wasn’t violent yet, though; it was smooth and beautiful and autumnal. And this morning, it was cold as well. I thought about everything that is comfortable and warm, thought about my love for Good Omens and crocheting and Harry Potter and being with my mother and the particular slant of golden light in October. And I thought again about how so much of my soul strains towards the impulse of collecting and holding. I want to gather experiences and information and hold them to me, but I live a life that protests this. Hiking demands that you do not stop for too long in one particular place. See a sunrise, hold it, and let it go. A good day, a bad day, let it go. I strain against this, but I also lean into it. There’s something beautiful about knowing that nothing stays the same and that the stories will keep on growing and existing and breathing no matter how long you stay or what you do.

21 June 2019, campsite somewhere 16 mi north of Front Royal, 20:48

I know, I should write. But I’m so tired and I’m lying down and I spent all day listening to The View from the Cheap Seats, and even now as I narrate my own words in my head I’m hearing them in Neil Gaiman’s voice. My sentences start to crescendo and fade away like the author reading aloud in his soft tones from my favorite novels. As delightful as Neil Gaiman narrating my life would be, it’s kind of just confusing me at the moment and I want to watch a show. Fleabag, maybe, for the second time. Or Good Omens for the fifth. It’s a toss-up.

Still, I’m a writer, or I want to be, and I need to write every day to be a writer. So here’s a little bit to chew on.

This campsite is different than any we’ve been at before. It’s a small clearing in a dense thicket of kudzu and other tangly leafy viney plants, with no clear trunks to speak of. It’s windy tonight and I’m hoping it doesn’t rain because the head end of my tent is rather bunched up and less angled than is ideal. But the sky is beautiful tonight. Not cotton candy or trix yogurt but a smooth peach and blue. This is the kind of sky that makes me think of the ocean and sand and South Carolina and fills me with peace.

I read The Graveyard Book while I was eating my pesto dinner and felt delivered back to myself again. Child-me must be smiling from her respective dimension. The adult she grew into is not so boring and removed after all. She is here hiking a long trail, on an adventure, and still reading ghosts and Gaiman.

One of the last pages of Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Graveyard Book.’ I loved this quote so much that I wrote it on my backpack.

I was a little bit sore today and I’m hoping this is because I am breaking in new shoes, and not because the new shoes were a bad idea. The Cascadias were done but they knew my feet and fit me like a glove. Too bad they fell apart and rubbed my big toes to numbness. Tomorrow begins the so-called Roller Coaster, 14 miles of continuous steep ups and downs. I’m dreading it a little, but I’m also excited to take on the challenge.

I cannot wait to get my picture taken at the ATC in Harpers Ferry. I’ve been thinking about it for so long, imagining how I’ll pose and what I’ll look like when I get there and how I’ll post the photo on Instagram, feeling accomplished and excited and proud. I can’t believe we’re so close, but I also can’t believe it’s taken so long. It’s trite to say you finish a trail different than you were when you started. Of course you’re the same person. But also, maybe not. Maybe what you think about and listen to and read and learn and experience change you if just a bit, in a way that is hard to notice as you’re walking. But I know at least some things are different.

Shortly after writing this entry I arrived at Harpers Ferry, WV, what is commonly called the “spiritual,” “psychological,” or “emotional” halfway point of the AT.

Virginia Reflections, Part Two: 26

In which I turn 26, eat too much food, mull over the differences between the Camino and the AT a little bit longer, consider what I miss, and am grateful.

8 June 2019, 23:02, Wintergreen Resort, Virginia

Hi, hello there! Haven’t written in a while. It’s my twenty-sixth birthday today, and I’m sitting at the table in a darkened dining room at a time of day when I should already be asleep. The refrigerator is humming softly and the dishwasher has just finished its cycle. I feel full, maybe too full. I’m tired and a little irritated for some indiscernible reason. Somehow I feel sluggish and incapable even after all these miles. I feel over-sugared and flabby. But this might just be the late night talking.

I feel other things too. I’m thinking about a lot of things.

I’m thinking about how different my mental state is during this hike than it was during the Camino del Norte. I feel weary and stretched out. 2,129 miles is a lot more than 500 in the span of a summer. 500 is enough time to think and to work on yourself without getting tired of walking. 2,192 is work. There are moments of real, pure joy and elation, and there are conversations that have shifted my views and made me realize things about myself. But not like 500 can do, and not like a pilgrimage does.

I can remember so vividly last summer feeling as though I were really changing. I was thinking hard about what I wanted to do with my life. I felt strong and capable. Here… I don’t know. It’s not that I don’t feel strong and all that, because those feelings remain. But I don’t know, it’s like I have more time to become irritated and tired and more excuses for giving over to exhaustion. It’s such a physical task that so much of the time I don’t feel like I have the energy to think about how I can be a better person. I feel worn-out, like this shirt that really needs to go. The neckline is an amorphous shape and the fabric hangs over my body in faded bulges. I feel like I need to be refreshed.

I crossed 800 miles on my birthday. Wahoo!

I love the AT, though, and I know if I went off-trail I would miss walking almost instantly. I love the little surprises that pop up everywhere, like the salamanders and snapping turtles and Eastern bluebirds. I like getting in the zone and looking at the trees. But sometimes I get so tired of the same shade of green. I listen to Braiding Sweetgrass and try so hard to talk to the plants and to thank them. I do thank them; I am grateful for them. I want to learn so much more about the woods and the animals and the Standing People and the soil. But I’m so tired. So tired. There is no Santiago, there is no ceremony or ultreia or “buen camino!” This is the oldest and wisest and best kind of spirituality here in these woods and yet I feel myself so solidly on the earth and plodding along dutifully, while no journey is happening in my brain.

But then, I step back and think.

I realize how I apologize more quickly, or try to. I realize how I jump to defend my pride when no one else is working to attack it, and I step back from it. I look at my anger and my temper and my competitiveness and work to control it. I think about all that I have learned from listening: to Kimmerer, to the trees, to the ponds and the creeks. And I think of the times (not enough, but still they are there) when I have tried to stand up, center the marginalized, shift the narrative. I think of my brave and tough and interesting friends. KG writing Black Lives Matter on his backpack, writing statements in bold black words. And Patches, unfailingly generous and kind and quick to support. My closeness to the trail and my tramily makes it hard to see what I have learned and how I have changed. Just because I’m walking in my broken country does not mean that this journey is any less meaningful.

Still, I think of other places. In my mind I travel back to Leiden every day. The cold air whipping across the canals, the voices streaming over the draaiorgel at the market, the smooth efficient trains slotting into the platform exactly when they are expected. And I miss Spain. God, I miss Spain. I miss shells on the ground and arrows on concrete curbs and churches and people who do not know how to speak English. I miss Oxford and Cambridge and the fluorescent familiarity of the Tube system. I miss climbing in Arizona and the warm kiss of sunlight on climbing gear at Red Rocks. And I miss childhood and home and American Girl dolls and the smell of new outfits. Simpler times. I miss my grandmother and my mom and my dogs and summer rainstorms and apple pie.

How happy, how lucky that I have such things to miss.

Is this my destiny, to miss everything I’ve ever experienced? Is it the Input strength in me, who wants to hold everything to my face and breathe it in and contain it? I cannot hold everything. I cannot keep everything and stop time from passing. I recognize this impulse; it is hereditary. We love things so much, too much sometimes. We love everything good that happens to us, every happy memory and every sunlit golden afternoon. Will I always be homesick for a smell, a time I cannot get back? How do I live in the moment, knowing that all I will do in the future is want it back?

Into a misty, rainy fog… Somewhere north of Glasgow, Virginia

I am in the moment, though. I am here now. I know this is where I should be, because the miles wrap around me and hold me. The trees told me the other day: we are your home, as much as autumn and Mom’s voice on the phone. The trail, whatever trail, loves me and calls. Of course I will yearn for the days spent walking, begging for green leaves and white blazes and babbling creeks. I will miss shelters and sopping wet tents and my tramily. I will miss watching Good Omens at night with Patches in her tent. I will miss talking with KG about Maoism and the Manifesto and racial inequality and making the outdoors community more inclusive. I will miss the sun and the rain. (Maybe not the rain.) I am here, I am here. With so much time to fail and fuck up and learn.

I have completed my twenty-sixth orbit of the sun. I tilt towards thirty now, and for the first time I start to feel a vague whisper of pressure, all the shoulds and oughts. But I’m ignoring them. To hell with society’s expectations. This is where I am alive. I hold this messy trail in my heart, and I am grateful.

Virginia Reflections, Part One

In which I talk about the Camino, allow myself to love the AT, and am honest.

15 May, Chatfield Memorial Shelter, 21:00

I feel a weird kind of clarity right now. I’ve been feeing it all day, actually. Ever since we saw Bubbles at the visitors center and we started talking about the Camino. I remember having these moments in the evening in Spain. The sun would start to set, we’d be showered and freshened up, and we’d either be sitting around with other pilgrims eating dinner, or talking after dinner, or wandering around a city, or drinking or eating pinxtos or writing or drawing. I would watch the sunset and the day fall towards quiet hours. And I would sigh, and think about my life, and feel calm and at peace.

Visiting a wild pony in the Grayson Highlands—still one of my favorite sections so far.

I know I spend too much time comparing hikes. The AT is not the Camino; both exist for different and equally valid reasons. There’s no way they can be the same. Still, I keep holding them up. And I keep finding people who have hiked the Way. Peregrinos y peregrinas. They understand walking but they understand pilgrimage too. And I think, something drives them to walk those hikes, and something drives them to hike here too. There is a through-line that loops between every long trail. We walk because we want to learn from others and about ourselves. We want to share and grow and sit in the fading light by the stream. Here we are, we say. Well, here we are together. On the way. Never quite arriving. Always on the way.

So much of the Appalachian Trail appears to be the same. There are hills and trees and ferns. For miles, it seems, this same forest goes on forever. But look, and you will see the land changing. Ferns and their spores now, larger and more mature. Different hillsides, different rocks. The rhododendrons are the same, but they are blooming now, and little pink polka dots dance about the forest. I sit here looking, listening. Like I did in the field in Triacastela. Like I did at Reposo del Andayón, the magic albergue, hidden beneath the Spanish Cantabrian mountains. Like I did in Llanes, next to turquoise waters. Like I did in Finisterre and Muxía and Santiago. I sighed then and felt right at home. Right in place. Now I feel right in place here too.

We continued past Atkins, VA in the week following Trail Days.

19 May, Sunday, Reed Creek, past the 1/4 way

Today I finally let myself love the AT. I’ve been grappling with the fact that long distance hiking is a privileged and largely white endeavor, and kicking myself for all the times I could have been a better outdoorist and done a better job centering people of color and other marginalized folx. And I’ve spent an even greater amount of time comparing the Appalachian Trail to the Camino. It’s not cultured enough, I think. It’s not full of people who “get it.” It’s full of white hippies and white feminists and people who think their worldview is massive and encompassing when it really just strikes me as colorblind and closed-minded.

But today I stepped back from it. Isn’t it equally close-minded of me to assume other peoples’ motivation? To me they seem like white hippies and privileged people with a lack of politics and a cause. But who am I? What do I know about what they’ve been though, what they’ve seen, who they’ve stood up for and defended? Just because a person has an American accent and white skin, it doesn’t mean that they can’t teach me things and change my mind. Being in a country and a culture for your whole life makes you critical of it when you step out and then back in. It’s so hard for me not to criticize. I see so many issues here and so many things that need to be different, but conflating origin and appearance and first impressions with real meaning is a dangerous game. I’m so tired of zealots in my face and white people acting like they know how the world works, but I haven’t earned any kind of right to act like I know more than they do.

The beauty of the AT is in the details.

I feel frustrated and stuck sometimes on this trail. Last summer, finishing the Norte and the Primitivo, walking alone and thinking about my future and feeling proud of my Spanish, I felt… freer. Happier. Like a better person than I was when I started. I guess this trail is longer, but sometimes I don’t feel like my mental journey is going anywhere. I’ve blamed it on the lack of spirituality here, on the lack of culture and history. I’ve thought, maybe it’s because this trail in its current incarnation is so much younger than the Camino. Maybe it’s the lack of other languages and respect for religious traditions. On the Camino people seem to know what they’re getting into; they expect prayers and religion and St. James and weird Spanish Catholic quirks. Here, it’s about tree after tree and mile after mile. I don’t know. Why is this surprising to me? I like trees as much as churches. I like trees more than churches most of the time, actually. Maybe it’s not any inherent difference between the trails I’ve walked, though. Maybe I’m acting like I’ve done my changing, maybe I’m not putting in the work that needs to be done. Maybe I’m looking for outside excuses.

Dismal Falls, just before Pearisburg, VA

Patches always says to me when I make a comment about a trait of mine that bothers me, “at least you’re self-aware.” This usually annoys me because it comes across as “yes, I agree, you have this character flaw.” But it’s true. I’m a shitty, cranky, pissed off, defensive human for a decent percentage of the time and I don’t like that.

I was thinking today about how, when I was a more committed believer, I spent a lot of time thinking about and praying about and working on the things that I didn’t like about myself: my judgmental nature, my impatience, my anger. I do miss that community of reminders and accountability sometimes. It’s hard to sit and listen to a sermon and imagine that it’s directed right at you. It’s really ego-crushing to think of all the times you tried to be a good follower of Jesus and completely botched the whole mission. Of course that’s the whole thing with salvation; it’s not deserved. In a weird way, I miss being reminded that I am nothing. I am dust. This isn’t about me or my story or my life or anything cool I’ve done to deserve any of the service and grace and kindness I have received, because I haven’t done anything to deserve any of this.

So, all this is to say, I took a step back today and thought about this hike. I thought about my self-improvement and spiritual journey constantly on the Camino, and maybe it was easier to do so there because you’re constantly being reminded of it. The Camino is a path forward but also a path upwards; ultreia et suseia; el camino de la corazón. It’s impossible to miss this dimension of the pilgrimage because that’s kind of been the point of the thing since people stared doing it a millennium ago. But just because there are no overt reminders or spiritual markers on the AT, it doesn’t mean that this isn’t still the goal. Ultreia et suseia just as much here as in Spain. The terrain is different, as are the people, as is the gear, as is the story. But the goals are the same: forward, and upward; to learn and listen and be better.

I’m allowed to love this trail too. It can be different, and still be amazing. I can work on myself and humble myself just as much here as on the side of a path in the Basque Country.

Ultreia.