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.

All Trails Lead to Roan Mountain

Roan Mountain, Tennessee was one of my tramily’s favorite places on the AT. I wrote the following entry while in my tent during our first night in town. The next morning, we met Birgit, a local who befriended us and graciously welcomed us into her home. We felt so lucky, and so at home. I’ll eventually write an essay about Birgit. But for now, here is my first-night Roan Mountain entry.

3 May: The Station at 19E and Roan Mountain, TN

Yet again the trail has shown me that often the best things that happen are ones I have failed to plan or foresee. We weren’t planning to go to Roan Mountain; I didn’t even know Roan Mountain was a town until a couple of days ago. But I made it to Overmountain Shelter yesterday and heard Krazy Glue and Camel and Lone Wolf talking about some festival at the Station at 19E this weekend and then, suddenly, the gears were put in motion to come to town.

My mood oscillated wildly today. Knowing myself, I know that this is because I did not sleep well last night. I was tired from a long and mentally exhausting day and I didn’t get enough rest in that converted barn, between the dog barking and the uncomfortable floor and my apparent inability to sleep in any shelter with half a z-lite. So I was acutely aware of the instability of my emotions this morning. At first I was peaceful, drinking my smooth morning coffee and looking down towards the gorgeous valley. Then I was sleepy and lazy, wanting to stay and sip for a while. Then I was irritated when I had to get going, and irritated that Krazy Glue was already miles ahead, and irritated that I’m still so slow despite all these hikes I’ve done, and irritated that I was irritated because it’s hiking and hiking doesn’t fucking matter. Then I walked over the top of a bald and just stopped, and thought for the millionth time about all of the Native people who used to live here and tend for the land and actually understand the earth from something other than a colonial, conquest-based perspective, and I thought, wow, we need that perspective now more than ever and what a shame it was to have killed them ravaged their land pushed them off, I hate my white ancestors and the colonialism that still lives within me. I wish I could do something substantial, why do people suck, but I’m so lucky. So lucky. I did nothing to deserve the opportunity to be on this mountain, looking at these highlands, cruising up this hill, bathing in this sunlight. Breathe.

Beauty washed over me, I was grateful, I was in awe, then I was going down down down and annoyed again, annoyed at the rocks and my slowness and my weak ankles and my inability to stay satiated and my selfishness. Took a snack break, drank water, I was me again. Rounded a final curve and the trail became mercifully smooth and easy and well cared-for. Close to a road, I thought, so close. The creek was flowing down with gravity, following me to 19E and there I was, on the road, refreshed, revived, ready to face my friends.

Odie picked me up in the Hiker Yearbook bus. I admit I was a little put off by him at first. I was thinking, we aren’t royalty for hiking this trail, and Benton Mackaye was no hero because paths and people were here so long before the AT was anything other than an idea. But now I see that Odie is kind and giving and would go out of his way not just for another hiker but for another human being. I like him. I’m grateful for him.

At lunch, eating with Camel and Krazy Glue and Lone Wolf, I feel my hunger becoming satiated and my desire to know these people around me increasing. Lone Wolf tells us about the rough time he’s had on this trail, dealing with family and relationship issues while trying to walk towards Maine. Something about him, about the way he talks and the way he tells his story, makes me lean in. Most men on this trail rub me the wrong way and make me want to avoid them like the plague. Lone Wolf is different. I want him to find what he’s looking for. I want him to be at peace.

Station 19E is a blessing. Roan Mountain is a blessing. Cold beer, Game of Thrones in the back room, charging our devices, gardens and parks and rivers. Everyone is friendly and kind, and it strikes me how this is the first place we’ve been to that is meant for and run for hikers but also for the community. And later, camping in the town park, we meet local volunteer One Mile and are welcomed and told that there’s free food in the kitchen. Free food, hospitality, welcomed with no questions and open arms. Would that everyone everywhere in this country could welcome anyone regardless of their background, their language, their skin color. What a privilege, what a relief, to feel welcome when we need rest.

I feel normal and free and in the right place. I feel like I would trust any person in this place with my life. I feel my desire for control and plans and perfection slipping away. The world needs to be different, yes, but sit and sip for a while. Look at this little place the Trail has given you. Thank you. Thank you.

April Highlights

I’m continuing with my reflections from early on in the trail. Here are a few selected highlights from North Carolina and Tennessee.

Sunrise on Max Patch, NC. Over three months later, this is still my favorite morning of the trail.

April 23, just before Hot Springs, NC, evening

Walking down the hill to camp, I couldn’t stop breathing in. That air, that green smell of oxygen, made me instinctually inhale. It smelled like summer, like bike riding in Loveland on my birthday, riding by the abandoned factory and traipsing down to the river to rest our legs and wash our feet. It smelled like the nature center and Monica digging clay from the creek and walking on rocks. It smelled sweet and scary, like the joy of adolescent ignorance mingled with the vague understanding that one day soon, things would change.

As I was walking down the hill, I put on the Tuck Everlasting theme song and remembered how that movie was always inextricably linked with summer in my mind. I think of the massive tree in that movie and the sleepy sense of time. It made so much sense to set that story in summer, where the afternoons seem to stretch on forever and impossible things seem to be as likely as any other event. A caterpillar could magically appear in an inland field of lighthouses in cape cod, for example. A family could drink from an enchanted spring and live forever. A swing could stop midair. A hammock could cradle a million fantasies and, just maybe, they would come true.

It’s not summer yet, so I don’t know why I was thinking about these things. All of the green, I think. The flowers and the oxygen filled my lungs with the kind of hope and stillness I remember from summer.

It was difficult to capture the beauty of the trail, but around this point the green really started showing up, and I was in love with it all.

I’ve been a little frustrated with my lack of “deep thoughts” or “original ideas” on this trail. I want to write something dramatic and meaningful but I feel stuck. I’m tired of my own style, with its excessive commas and artistic sentence fragments. I know the only remedy is writing, of course, that’s rule number one, but it’s frustrating. It feels big to be doing this, but so many thousands of other people have done this same thing. Looking at the stars last night on Max Patch I felt so small. Pleasantly so; I don’t need to be large or dramatic or original. It doesn’t matter anyway, and there’s a comfort in that. I’ll just write and walk and see what happens.

I’ll just write and walk and see what happens.

The sunrise greets me with warmth and with the breaking of every morning I feel more and more at home. My talk with KG and Patches last night made me feel even closer to them, and I’m amazed and grateful to be surrounded by such good people. Here we are tonight, in this weird little campsite, about to share tents. We’re heading to Hot Springs tomorrow and I’m excited for another little adventure along the way. Every day, new glories. Every day, new places, new lessons. I like life on the trail.

25 April, Lover’s Leap, just north of Hot Springs, NC. Morning.

I remember the boats. The sultry synthetic shape of them. White, pencil-thin fiberglass shimmering in the late May sunshine. I remember the smell, the green, the murmuring storm clouds far in the background. In my memory, East Fork Lake sits patiently in its verdant basin while the teams of strong young people slice its waters in synchronized strokes. Their shoulders are tanned and burned and tanned again, stringy muscles gliding and leaping with every stroke. Their uniforms are blue, green, white; blue water, green trees, white clouds. The day slides on. Pull, pull, pull. Morning to afternoon to sunset. Crickets emerge, blueberry cobbler is eaten on the deck. Pull, pull, pull.

It’s almost summer, but not yet, the last regatta before the end of the season. This is possibility; it would henceforth symbolize the feeling of being on the brink of something waiting to begin. This is the day I think of when I smell green leaves and listen to roaring river water and feel the late spring rain. More things have happened since then: new states, new friends, new late-spring memories of rock climbing and sitting on the quad and hammocking and traveling to England and planning summer study abroad. Still, each verdant late-spring day pulls me back to this moment on East Fork. Water, sky, clouds, rain.

A panorama of the French Broad River and Hot Springs, from Lovers Leap. Rivers and rain and trains make me feel like summer.

When I stand and look out on a valley, or see rain clouds and hear a train, or smell oxygen and the tipping breath of summer, I tend to think of all the possibilities. All the could-bes. I could do this, I could go there. I thought about it at East Fork: life seemed waiting to begin. It seemed hinged and poised on the water. I wondered what was around the corner and hoped for majesty and adventure. It all seemed about to happen. Not quite possible, not quite happening, but about to happen. Trees make me feel this way. Trails and rainstorms and impending summer make me feel hushed and expectant.

But here, in the drizzle, looking down to the French Broad and heading up into the mountains again, it hits me: this is not a could-be moment; this is it. I’m here, I’m alive. What I’m smelling isn’t the oxygen and chlorophyll of what could be and what is out there; I am breathing in what already is.

26 April, campsite past Spring Mountain Shelter

In my tent, in the rainstorm, two miles north of Spring Mountain Shelter. I wake up from a peaceful and nearly-perfect sleep. I have found that the most restful nights on the Appalachian Trail often follow some of the worst nights. Sleeping on the French Broad was delightful for its sound, but I kept sliding down the hill and finding myself in a pile at the end of my tent. The One didn’t quite fit in the spots, and I find little punctures in my polycryo from the thorny pokey plants there in the sand. Well, I think, at least my almost-ultralight kit includes gear tape. I patched it up last night and here, at this little campsite in the woods, I have just awoken from a deep sleep. It was the kind of in-tent sleep I’d been waiting for on this trail. Usually I get a passable amount of hours in, a satisfactorily restful night to tide me over until I set up my tent again. But last night, I slept.

I have found that the most restful nights on the Appalachian Trail often follow some of the worst nights.

I hear no birds this morning, which always feels like a loss. I love the chickadees and wrens and woodpeckers. But the rain is tap-tap-tapping on my single-wall tent. FIrst slow, then fast, then slow again–the weather can never quite make up its mind in the Appalachians. I have to admit that I love that about them.

I’m happy that we’re not hitting another town for a while. I love visiting towns but hitting them to often makes me feel off-kilter and out of rhythm. Even though we still did 8 miles on Hot Springs day, it felt like a distraction from the trail. I also think I might like to start hitting some more off-the-beaten-track places. It’s nice fo be in a bubble when you like everyone, but it’s stressful to be too close to the epicenter of norovirus and sometimes I feel like I get pulled in a direction that is not my own.

Everything was lush and blooming, in full spring glory, around this time.

Everything is packed up now and I’m just writing before I leave. It’s always hard to get out of the tent when the rain is coming down. Tap, tap, big taps of water falling on my little house in the woods. Time to emerge, get uncomfortable, an keep moving.

The First Few Days

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m going to be sharing some more in-depth updates from the Appalachian Trail, with revisions from my original writing. Here are just a few thoughts from my first week on trail.

25 March, Day 2: Hawk Mountain Shelter

I’m lying here in a three-sided wooden structure, between two strangers who, I realize, I would somehow trust with my life. Out here, you have to make bonds fast. You’re forced to cut through the bullshit and get to the core more quickly. We all have a common goal and we’re all equally as nuts for willingly going out for a five month walk. There’s an unspoken and necessary trust here. on my right: this wiry, strong, middle-aged woman who is meeting her family in a couple days. On my left: Bo (BBQ) the recent graduate who made the awesome custom deck of AT cards. I’ve talked with them for a matter of hours yet here I am, lying on a wooden platform in the middle of nowhere in Georgia, perfectly trusting in the human beings lying in this box. I have to be: the rain and hail poured from the sky today and it seemed much drier and safer to stay in the shelter. Convenience and comfort trump doubt and distrust. Sure, avoid people who make you uncomfortable. But as long as you have good feelings, the beginnings of community can arise.

Hawk Mountain shelter, day 2. I was happy to get a spot in the shelter this night, since there was a nasty hail storm later in the evening.

28 March, Day 5: Lance Creek, 07:11

Woke up to the trill of a bird up on the hill. Consulted Audubon and I think it’s a Carolina Wren. Pattern of three ascending notes, repeated three times. Another bird across the valley seemed to be talking but the song was a little different. Now I’m hearing the four notes of the Carolina chickadee. It feels so cool to know what I’m hearing, if I’m right about it. Now I want to know Native names. What did the people who originally occupy these lands call the chickadee, the Wren, Lance Creek? There is so much knowledge here that I will never be able to fully tap into, but it feels wonderful to start to identify songs.

The evening view from my tent at Lance Creek, Georgia

30 March, Day 7: Rocky Mountain Campsite, 19:42

The sun is setting but everyone is in their tents. I’m here in the silence, a thing surprisingly not common on the AT, listening to the rustle of wind and watching the sun slide behind the clouds and mountains. There’s no light like the forest at sunset. It glows, every leaf and rock and white blaze. I’m aggrieved for the loss of Native knowledge and stewardship of these lands. I am also grateful for the chance to be a visitor here. Thank you, Native peoples who tended these lands long before I arrived. Thank you, chickadees and wrens and bluebirds. Thank you, trees and wind and rain and sun. Thank you, Appalachian Trail.

Sunset through the trees near our campsite on Rocky Mountain, Georgia

Quick Update from the Appalachian Trail

Hi, hello there, whoever you are, dear reader! It is I, Sarahmarie, writing from a town near the Appalachian Trail. I have been out here for about three months now, and I don’t have adequate words for what this hike has been like. I have made friends with some of the coolest and most determined people I’ve ever met. I’ve sweat a lot. I’ve eaten a lot of food. I’ve climbed a lot of hills. I’ve seen a lot of beautiful sunsets and sunrises. I’ve walked in the rain, in the mud, in the heat, in the cold, and in the hail. A trip this long is hard to conceptualize in one little summary, so there will be more words, I promise.

Sunset at Annapolis Rocks, MD, featuring my friend (Krazy) Glue (aka Shawn)

As I have walked, I’ve been writing for the organization The Trek as a blogger. I’ve posted a few updates, roughly every 500 miles or so. The Trek is a wonderful community that has brought aspiring hikers, current thru-hikers, and other outdoor enthusiasts closer and encouraged more folks to get outdoors. I am grateful for the opportunity to write for them. However, recently I have been feeling a little bit limited in regards to the level of personal writing that I can do there. It feels appropriate to post trail updates, general information, and experiences, but I find myself wanting to go a bit deeper, and to share some of the thoughts I have written down in my own personal writing folders.

My tramily (trail family), plus the extended family, at the Mason-Dixon Line. The border between Maryland and Pennsylvania signifies the transition from the South to the North. This was a very happy milestone.

So, I have decided to do a bit of sharing here in addition to my trail updates on The Trek. I have been writing every day, both journaling and typing some thoughts on my phone, so at first I’ll be selecting some of the little reflections I already have. These are all over the place in terms of days on the trail, so bear with me at first. I hope to put them in some logical order and eventually to write more frequently.

If you’re still reading, thank you! I look forward to sharing more ideas with anyone who is interested.

Happy trails, and stay tuned…

-Sarahmarie

 

Lower Antelope Canyon: Not Exactly Wilderness, But Totally Worth the Trip

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Close details of the waves and textures of Lower Antelope Canyon

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Janna and I went on a weekend trip to Page, Arizona, about 2 hours north of our beloved mountain town of Flagstaff. While the city itself is underwhelming, the two main attractions of the area – Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend – are some of the most photographed, most famous, and (rightly) most visited places in the United States. If you’re considering making a trip to Antelope Canyon, you’re probably weighing the cost of the tours, the logistics of getting there, and accommodation options. Here, I’d like to share my experience with this trip to help you make the most of your visit to this distinctly not wild, but beautiful, surreal, and totally worth-the-trip place.

Note: If you’d like to see just the photos from the trip, check out my gallery page.

Getting There

Page is remote – it sits at the northeastern corner of Arizona, mere miles from Utah. Like everything in the southwest, it seems to be far from everything else. But luckily, if you’re already in Flagstaff, it’s an easy 2-hour hop, skip, and a jump away, making it a perfect weekend destination.

Janna and I left Flagstaff around 5 PM on a Friday. The trip was simple, following 89A north of town and into the Navajo Nation, rounding corners with views of scraggly, otherworldly rocks and climbing up a steep hill that yielded impressive views of the Vermillion Cliffs and the far eastern edge of the Grand Canyon. We listened to a lot of K-Pop on the way, as we are wont to do, so it felt like a mere few minutes to get to Page.

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View of the Vermillion Cliffs and part of the Grand Canyon from the hilly portion of 89A leading up to Page

The Campsite

As we covered the last few miles and rolled into Page, we noticed plentiful accommodation – both affordable and mid-range hotels, it looked like. But we, being the outdoorsy and broke grad students that we are, were headed for a free BLM campsite just north of town, on the 89A near Lake Powell. Reading the descriptions online, we were a little concerned about the quality of the road, since I have an adventurous but tiny and low-clearance Grand Am. But we found the gravel to be perfectly drive-able for the first quarter-mile, which was the minimum distance campers had to keep from the road.

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Sunrise at our campsite (looking towards Lake Powell)
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Looking back towards the BLM land where our campsite was located. There was at least another solid half-mile worth of campsites along the road past our location.

The camping was everything car camping should be: free, quiet, located close to our destination, and easy to find. While we were eating dinner and reading, we got a few glimpses of jackrabbits bouncing through the brush, and in the morning we got to see the funky rock formations surrounding the area and a beautiful sunrise. There is absolutely nothing like waking up while camping in the southwest: the mornings smell crisp, clear, and full of potential. After gathering up our stuff and packing up the tent, we headed towards town, in search of breakfast, coffee, and bathrooms. We had a tour reservation at 11:30 and a few hours to spare, so we decided to go to Horseshoe Bend first before the tourists arrived.

Horseshoe Bend

Located just south of Page off the 89A, Horseshoe Bend is an impressively deep incised meander of the Colorado River. It’s a frequently photographed spot at a location conveniently close to Antelope Canyon.

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Horseshoe Bend

We visited Horseshoe in the morning, hoping to avoid large hordes of tourists and to get an opportunity to photograph the feature before the sun became overly bright. We planned it right with the tourists – when we got there, around 7:30, there were only a few other people present, but as we were walking back to the car, large groups on tour busses had begun arriving. But the sun at that time of day was a little challenging – there was a deep shadow in the canyon, making it difficult to adjust the settings on our cameras to capture both the shadowy and bright parts of the bend. But this also gave the view an interesting effect. If I ever go back, I’d like to try to be at Horseshoe at either sunset or sunrise to get some different light. I guarantee that any time of day, though, is very impressive for viewing this place.

One thing that Janna and I really enjoyed about being at Horseshoe Bend was sitting on the edge of the cliff and watching people down on the river. It’s fun to see boats come down one side of the bend, make the curve, and keep on going, and it was also cool to see the tiny little ant people down on the banks. It really gives you a scale of the depth of the canyon, and of how precarious the edge of the cliff really is.

Speaking of edges, at the current moment there are no railings or guardrails to keep overly zealous tourists from tumbling over. For some reason, I find this weirdly refreshing – in my experience there aren’t many places left in the States where large groups of tourists can get intimately close to an edge, relying only on their common sense to keep them safe. But we did notice as we were walking up to the vista that a rail was being constructed in parts of the area. I was glad to be there before it was constructed.

Lower Antelope Canyon

After our pleasantly long visit to Horseshoe Bend, Janna and I went back to town for breakfast and reading, since our tour was not until 11:30 (meaning we had to be there by 11). Though it was only April, it was already in the high 80s, so we were glad for a few hours in the air-conditioned sanctum of the McDonald’s. The time passed quickly, though, and we were on our way to Ken’s Tours at Lower Antelope Canyon.

A word about tours and visiting Antelope: The canyon is on Navajo land, so in order to go in, visitors must book tours with one of the guide companies ahead of time. The day that Janna and I booked our tour, it was a Friday in early April, and at the time of booking most of the tour spaces were open. However, three days later a friend of ours tried to book for the same day as us, and everything was filled up. We later learned that April is one of the most popular months, and obviously weekends are busier.

Upon arriving at the tour company, we picked up and paid for our tickets (the online system just reserves the space; visitors must pay in cash on the day of the tour), waited for our tour to gather outside, and then we were walked down the surprisingly intricate system of stairs and ladders to the start of the Lower canyon.

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The staircase and ladder system leading down to the start of Lower Antelope Canyon

Descending into the famed orange canyon was like Alice falling down the rabbit hole – you can see the pictures and imagine the formations all you want, but there is nothing like seeing the textures, the undulating walls, and the surreal landscape of the ceilings and cracks that comprise the canyon.

When I told a few of my friends that I was going to Antelope Canyon this year, a lot of them told me that it wasn’t worth it because it was crowded, rushed, and overly touristy. It’s true that there are a lot of people – if you’re looking for a quiet, solitary wilderness experience, this is not that. Not by a long stretch. At the beginning of the tour especially, there are a lot of people crammed into one space. But the guides do a good job of spreading out the groups of people and taking their time walking through the canyon.

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There are definitely a lot of people on the tour at any given time in Lower Antelope. But after this first bit, the crowds thin out, and the tour never felt rushed.

In the photo above, you can see the extent of the crowd in the first “room” of the canyon. It seemed like the guides used this room like a holding space or waiting area. We were kept here for a few minutes, then led up another set of ladders and stairs to begin the rest of the tour. After that point, the crowd thinned out, it became quieter, and we were able to view the features of the canyon in smooth, slow detail.

One of the reasons I was really excited about this trip was that I had recently bought a new camera – a Sony Alpha a6000 mirrorless DSLR – for my upcoming trip to Europe and other assorted adventures. So far, the camera has done really well in moderate to low light in up-close and mid-distance landscape settings, so I was excited to try it out in the canyon. Likewise, Janna brought her Canon Rebel DSLR to capture the famous formation. We both had really positive experiences with photography in Lower Antelope: the tour never felt rushed, the guide showed us a few good places for taking the best photos, and there were numerous opportunities for testing out a variety of angles.

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Janna, shooting some photos at the start of our Lower Antelope tour

After the waiting room, I began to really enjoy the tour. We walked slowly through narrow slots, looking up periodically to see a bird’s nest, an interesting formation, a hole in the rock, or a snaking crack offering a view of the blue sky above. In the canyon, looking at the wavelike walls, it’s easy to imagine how the soft Navajo sandstone was formed by rushing, cutting water. The very shape of the canyon screams water: the rock alternates between sharp points and smooth edges, with calcium deposits scattered throughout the walls. It’s the southwest at its most ethereal, most impressive best: geology in simultaneously slow and immediate motion.

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Lower Antelope Canyon: rock that looks like water.

It’s hard for me to justify or understand anyone’s claims that it’s not “worth it” to go to Antelope Canyon. Yes, it was touristy, but so is the Grand Canyon, and despite going there eight times and being increasingly frustrated with crowds every time, I would never say that it’s not “worth it” to see it. Of course I wish that Antelope Canyon had been quieter or more “wild.” But it was 100% worth it. Despite it being a prime photography destination, and despite all of the beautiful photos I got to take, nothing compares to being there, feeling the warm orange light and purple shadows creep across the walls. I was very happy that we had made the trip.

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Sunlight and shadows in Lower Antelope Canyon

One thing I do wish, though, is that the tour had been more informative. Our tour guide was friendly (and he spoke Korean, randomly enough, which came in handy with the one Korean family on our tour, and which really excited Janna!), but he didn’t give us very much information about the canyon. I wanted to know more about the geology, for example, or the meaning of the canyon to the Navajo people, or the statistics on visitation. I’d wager that this lack of information has to do with the fact that most people who come to the canyon seem to just want to take pictures – despite the lack of extensive tour guide-ish information, he did offer to take photos for us at multiple points during the walk. Or perhaps the canyon just doesn’t lend itself well to people shutting up and listening to a tour guide talk. Still, I think that a bit more information about the place would have enhanced the experience.

The End of the Tour and Heading Home

At the end of the tour, we climbed up another set of stairs and emerged on ground level, just behind the building where we began. It was crazy to look back at the slot that we’d just emerged from – from the top, it looks like nothing more than an unassuming crack in the ground, rather than the magical wonderland of color and light that we had just seen. The earth holds such wonders, I caught myself thinking. Around every corner, within every crack, in every walk, there is something amazing to see.

Our trip home was just as simple and quick as the drive to Page. Since it was earlier in the day, we got a clearer view of the Vermillion Cliffs and the edge of the Grand Canyon, and we made it back to Flagstaff by late afternoon, with plenty of time to spare for grading, homework, and essays.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I would strongly recommend visiting Horseshoe Bend and Lower Antelope Canyon. We didn’t see the Upper Canyon so I can’t vouch for that experience, but I found Lower to be a worthwhile destination. While it’s not wilderness, and while the tour is lacking some informative elements, the canyon was beautiful, breathtaking, and inspiring. I don’t know if I would travel across the country just to see it, but combined with Horseshoe Bend, Utah National Parks, the Grand Canyon, and Flagstaff, Antelope is definitely a worthy addition to any southwest travel list.