I’m running. It’s the first time in two months. I was supposed to lay off running to heal the contusion in my ankle. It feels better now, but it still twinges, and my breath comes in semi-regular raggedy sips.
I didn’t think about what I looked like as I laced up my shoes and stretched in the driveway. I didn’t think about my skin as I started jogging up my street. I’ve never had to. The system serves me. People who look like me don’t question how to make themselves look safer. People who look like me are the default. Safe. Breathing.
I round a corner and follow the curve of the street gently downhill. Gravity takes me. I go for it. The road crests back to flat, and turns up. I’m tired. I take a breath and something catches. I’m coughing. I’m really coughing. Breathing hard in and out, foot over foot, to the end of the cul-de-sac. Cough. Can’t breathe. I put my hands on my knees and bend over.
I close my eyes. I see what I don’t want to see. I see what I’ve been thinking about all day. George Floyd on the ground, the cop’s knee on his neck. For four minutes. He can’t breathe. He’s trapped. He’s being murdered. He didn’t choose this. Strangled on the pavement. He can’t breathe.
I’m not shocked. I know this is the latest addition to centuries of violence against Black bodies. I know this capitalist state is built on and maintained by white supremacy. I know about Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and Christian Cooper and Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and Eric Garner and. And. And.
I cough. I breathe hard. Innocent Black people murdered at the hands of the state. I’m running, but Ahmaud can’t run anymore. I will return to my house soon; Breonna wasn’t safe in hers. They can’t even be. All of the hate. All of the racism. All of the hypocrisy, everywhere.
Like the murders. Like the school shootings. Like the people who want teachers to carry guns but who won’t wear a mask to the store. Like this weekend, when the Governor of Kentucky was hanged in effigy by people who take COVID-19 as a hoax and quarantine as oppression. People who want haircuts show up with guns and leer at the police and no one reacts. And in Minnesota there is tear gas and there are rubber bullets at people protesting police brutality and white violence.
And there is George Floyd, and he can’t breathe.
I catch my breath. The sun retreats behind a cloud. I stand up and look around. I’m a slow runner and my body hurts. But I can pull air into my lungs and sigh it out again. I can speak. I can breathe.
If you can breathe, please check out the links below. It’s way past time for us to take action.
Black Lives Matter Official Page: It’s more than just a chant. This is the official website of the Black Lives Matter organization. There are educational resources here, as well as information on local chapters. I will be learning more about this.
In late October I went backpacking at Shawnee State Forest in southern Ohio. It had only been a few weeks since completing the Appalachian Trail, but in those odd days following my summit of Katahdin, every day of not hiking felt like a confused century. The opportunity to walk again—through a forest heavy with the scent of changing leaves—was irresistible.
I had made the plan to go with a friend I met on the trail, Red Wiggler, aka Wiggs. I realized, through the power of social media, that he lived a mere two hours north of me, in Columbus, and sent him a message casually offering to serve as a semi-local hiking partner if he ever found himself missing folks from the AT. To my delight he responded almost immediately, and plans were set in motion for our three-day mini-adventure.
I was gleeful. I went to Walmart to buy food for the trip, and got oddly nostalgic. It felt like I was in town along the Appalachian Trail. I imagined being with my trail family, carefully evaluating weight versus calories versus flavor and tallying up my purchases. By the end of my thru-hike I was sick to the point of nausea of rice sides, peanut butter, and oatmeal, so I didn’t buy any of those for Shawnee. But I did splurge: dehydrated bacon, bagels and cream cheese, and a non-perishable noodle concoction so extravagant that it came with its own massive plastic pho bowl. I sent a picture of my shopping basket to Wiggs as I sauntered around the store: I feel like I’m resupplying!
On Friday, October 25, I drove the hour and a half over winding rural Ohio roads to the parking lot at the Shawnee trailhead. I saw my hiking partner as I pulled up. For a moment, I wondered how it would go. We knew each other on the AT, but not well—our tramilies tended to travel at slightly different speeds, so we sometimes ended up at the same place, but he and I hadn’t talked as much as I would have liked to on the trail. He always seemed cool. I kind of had a low-grade crush on him. I didn’t know, though. Would I remember how to talk to people like I did on the AT? Would it be awkward?
All worries dissipated immediately as I parked my car and got out. “Wiggs!” I proclaimed. “Passport!” he proclaimed back with a miles-wide grin. We hugged, took a selfie, and sent it to all of our trail friends, and I knew the weekend would be something good.
No Sun, No Problem
We hoped for sunshine, but this was Ohio in October. Rain was in the forecast for all three days, and it delivered. Oddly, it didn’t seem to make a difference. If anything, the rain made it feel even more realistic, like the thru-hike had never ended.
It was also a prime time to go backpacking, as the leaves were just about in their peak. They weren’t the same shades of vibrant red and yellow that defined Maine in September, but they were still lovely: lively yellow and a calm Ohio ochre. As we walked up and over hills and across ridges, I started to realize how beautiful this state could be. Like the AT, the beauty isn’t overt or dramatic. There was no above-treeline sweeping view, but there was a kaleidoscope of leaves and a certain peace in the soft dampness of the Midwestern autumn world.
Shawnee’s trails aren’t the AT, but they are impressive, especially for Ohio. There is a main backpacking loop that measures just under 40 miles, as well as many options for side trails, cutoffs, and alternate routes.
We didn’t make it through the whole loop as we planned. The second day we were there it poured rain in the morning, so we sat in our tents at camp and talked, enjoying a luxurious breakfast and multiple cups of coffee before beginning to hike around noon. We made it about part of the way through, and planned to do the whole loop in the spring.
What we did see was highly enjoyable. Shawnee is sometimes called the “Little Smokies of Ohio,” as its scenery looks somewhat like that of the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina. Having hiked through the Smokies just a few months before, I could see the comparison. Not only are there vistas of gently rolling forested hills, but there are also fire towers and picturesque campsites, pretty little gurgling creeks and benches by a lake full of geese. We saw only a few other people the whole weekend, and the trail was blanketed with a sense of quiet autumnal peace.
Campsites with privies and water spigots are available throughout the loop, spaced at regular-ish intervals of between 6 and 10 miles. The first camp we stayed at had a lovely fire ring with a makeshift stone bench, and it was on this bench that we sat the first night while we ate our dinner, watched the fire, listened to music, and talked. The second night was a little soggier, but given better weather it would have been a superb place for sitting around and cooking. There is also a lake with a picnic area, and on the last morning we wound up there for about an hour, watching the geese fly over the water.
Having just finished a thru-hike, the trails did not feel overly difficult to me, though they were challenging for Ohio: there were frequent steep hills (though no long hills like on the AT) and the trail was sometimes overgrown or obstructed with blown-down trees. There were a few times when we had to navigate over or through massive brambles, but for the most part the trail was wide enough to walk two abreast and fairly well maintained.
Despite being less than a month from my AT finish, and despite the relative ease of the trail at Shawnee, I struggled a bit over the three days. I sprained my ankle on the AT in Virginia and it probably never got a chance to heal properly, so that was still bothering me on this trip. Besides that, I discovered that trail legs disappear shockingly quickly. My calves were not the rock-hard boulders they were in Maine, and I was not able to tolerate the hills as easily as I might have, had I still been on my thru-hike. But I suppose this is the way of things.
The weather also presented its own set of struggles. On the AT, despite multiple days of heavy rain overnight, I never experienced a flooded tent. That changed at Shawnee. On the second night Wiggs and I inadvertently set up our tents in what would soon become a swamp in the relentless rain, and I woke up in the middle of the night to water all over everything I had with me. Oddly, I wasn’t really bothered by it, because I knew I didn’t have to hike all the way to Maine with that gear. I could just toss it in my car and go home the next day. But it was still a bit of a struggle to get out of my tent, relocate to a drier spot, and wring out my soaking clothes before hunkering down for a few more hours on my sad, worn-out three quarters of a Z-Lite.
I realized after this trip that I’m going to need some time to regroup on the gear front and heal properly before my next thru-hike. It was miraculous to be in the woods again for three days, and I can’t wait for the next time I wake up and hike day after day for six months. But for now, it’s good to have a rest, and to enjoy other parts of my life.
A New Adventure
Although Wiggs and I didn’t know each other very well on the Appalachian Trail, we still knew each other. And it was that knowing—that intuition from the AT, that immediate understanding of another thru-hiker—that made us comfortable with each other, opening up easily, connecting. When I arrived to the trailhead that morning I knew we’d get along, and I knew we would have a good time. I definitely didn’t expect, however, that Shawnee would lead to a relationship. And yet, that is just where it lead.
So we stumbled unintentionally into love. Isn’t that how it always happens, though? One minute you’re sending a message on Instagram to someone you met on the trail—If you ever want an Ohio hiking buddy hit me up!—and the next you’re driving home over windy rural roads with the pungent smell of hiker wafting from the backseat and a goofy smile on your face, wondering what would happen now.
Here’s what: An adventure of an entirely different kind. Comfort and challenge and distance and closeness all wrapped up into one. That weekend at Shawnee was both a return to the world in which I feel most myself, and the start of a great big something.
So go there, if you want. Tread the wide paths with their leaves and frogs and Branta canadensis honking on the water. Sit at the campfire and breathe in the soft Ohio woodland air. Drink the water from the spigot and feel wild. Maybe if you’re lucky you’ll fall in love.
I loved the New Jersey section of the AT, but mostly I loved New Jersey because it was not Pennsylvania. That being said, the Garden State had some lovely features, including marshlands and the Pochuck Boardwalk—a mile of easy, flat walking through cattails and swamplands, which was a very pleasant change from the unforgiving and unexciting hills of Pennsylvania.
We hit a hot spell towards the end of New Jersey and the beginning of New York, and I stopped writing regularly. It was difficult to make it through the day, much less have enough cognitive function left over to write at night. I only wrote one entry in New Jersey, and a series of jumbled thoughts in New York. The first entry here was written hastily as I was walking, and the second is a more coherently arranged version of the notes I took while walking on that day in New York.
17 July, somewhere in the forests of New Jersey, 11:19
I can’t take a picture, and I can’t find what I’m looking for to show you how happy I am to be walking on pine needles, the light filtering through conifers. All I can think about is the Sierras. The Range of Light, dominated by pines and firs at lower altitudes, water rushing through canyons and over rock faces. I will never smell this smell and not think of sunsets over clear mountain lakes and ice-cold stream crossings. I will never smell it and not think of Tuolumne and Evolution Meadow and Selden Pass and Sapphire Lake. I don’t yearn for that trail unless I smell this, and then when I do, my soul lurches westward.
23 July, New York: The Day of the Blueberries
Everything is blueberries.
Everything inside me curls irresistibly upwards into a smile.
I can’t stop eating them. Bushes everywhere, offering their fruit on thin tendrils extending towards the trail. They brush against my legs as I navigate around rocks. Here we are for you, they say. We offer ourselves.
The trees: a neon mat of uniform green. The kind of green you could sail ships on. The trunks: black matchsticks, standing sharp against the verdant field. We walk up, up, going up Bear Mountain. At the top of the ridge, there is a view of New York City. The force of the feeling strikes me: we walked here from Georgia. We’ll be going to NYC in a few days, but for now we are here, treading in a sea of green. And blueberries.
Yesterday the elements of on-trail misery exploded all at once. Steep, pointless hills led to the Lemon Squeezer, a small tunnel of rock that requires the removal of one’s pack to get through. A thunderstorm exploded out of nowhere, unleashing cold wet fury for the last six miles. A branch fell and broke on Patches’ head, causing what was probably a concussion. We slept in a full shelter, dingy with human-smell and mouse-smell and never-dry-walls-smell.
I love this trail, but sometimes I hate it. You can love a person all the time and hate them sometimes too. It is the same here. Yesterday I hated the trail. I hated its humidity and wetness, its unforgiving extremity. I cursed it and questioned. I went to sleep as soon as I could because I couldn’t deal with the wet coldness of consciousness any longer.
But then there is today. It is overcast, but I feel no threat of rain. The trail lopes over hill crests, saying, hello, you are alive. Saying hello, I am sorry for what I put you through. Saying, I do love you. I am sorry. Offering me blueberries in apology.
At the top of Bear Mountain the trail levels out. I walk over the ridge and feel gravity relent. The sun appears, and there are still blueberry bushes everywhere. I climb the Perkins Tower and look out onto valleys. How this trail takes, and gives. It gives, over and over, like the blueberries; views, friends, trees, people.
How much do I give, like the trail? How much more can I give?
The days that hurt the most are always followed by the sweetest mornings. Here on trail, we are tested and beaten and made new. We are promised nothing but the passing of time. A thunderstorm will end, and there will be blueberrries.
I feel amazing right now. Sitting on a curb next to the Bear Mountain Bridge, feet planted on asphalt, holding a spork with peanut butter on it and smacking it onto my tongue. I feel magisterially alive, feet all the way down into my shoes and watching the tollbooth arms raise, lower, raise, lower, raise raise, lower. So many people going to and from and everywhere, but they have to cross this bridge first, and so do I. Hello, world: feet on the ground here, eating peanut butter and Sour Patch watermelons here, smelly and disgusting and full of life, hello, yes, we belong here and here we walk.
We’re trying to figure out where the trail goes next. Eyes squinted, we peer around the area. I spot it across the street: a white blaze painted on a signpost. The way becomes clear, and uncertainty abates.
And I think: hikers imagine this trail like a large and grandiose ribbon, something that just simply is. A blaze here, an arrow there. But who thinks about the little things, like getting across rivers and painting coherent blazes and making rocks and putting in stairs and telling people where to go?
There are people behind these scenes, those who love distance and those who map it out. There are hands behind the blazes. Trail maintainers. I salute you and I thank you.
Across the bridge, the day begins to draw to a close. We are headed for a spiritual center that allows hikers to camp for free. We have one more hill to climb, and I climb it slowly, walking with my friends.
The green of the trees is still vivid, though less neon in the sifting evening light. The tree trunks still stand out, though they are less contrasted. I feel a settling.
At the beginning of this hike I wanted to know exactly what was going to happen. I wanted to know how far I could walk and where I would end up at the end of the day. I wanted to match Krazy Glue’s pace, I wanted to go fast, I wanted to be headstrong and sure and achieving. And while I still set goals (I don’t know how else to be, and I don’t know if there even is another way to be), I feel less demanding. Plan all you like; the trail will treat you how it treats you. Every day is different, with unique joys and frustrations, and every day is hard.
And every day is beautiful. Every day gives gifts, some bitter and some sweet. Step by step, the stubbornness is being beaten out of me, and leaving a smooth space, which I can fill with whatever I choose.
I want to fill it with gratitude. With grace, with kindness. Want to scrape out the judgment and replace it with thanks. Want to give. Like the blueberries. Like their tendril arms and selfless apology, giving, over and over, to those who walk past.
It’s 3:18 in the afternoon. I look down at my feet. My calves and ankles and shoes are covered in black, sopping mud. Look up. Up more. The hill, which doesn’t look like much of a hill, keeps finding ways to go on. Gnats swarm around my eyelashes, diving towards my corneas. It doesn’t matter how much DEET I pour all over my limbs and rub on my face. They still find me. It’s hot. No, it’s boiling. The afternoon drips on in a mindless summer haze. Crowley probably invented this insect repellent; I’m convinced at this point that it does not actually contain any functioning DEET. I am probably spewing a fog of low-grade evil for miles, cursing the bugs and the mud and the rocks and the summer. I look at my phone. I still have eight miles to go. Better stop complaining. Buck up. Move.
I’m just over halfway through my hike of the Appalachian Trail, a 2,192-mile ribbon of glorious masochism that runs from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. It’s July, and I’m in Pennsylvania, and the low elevation of this section of the trail does not lend itself well to human comfort. For all my complaining, though, I’m not unhappy. Far from it. I am traveling with a group of friends whose humor, resilience, and determination astound me. I wake up to raindrops and birds, and when I fall asleep at night, fireflies sometimes creep under the vestibule of my tent. I’ve seen bears and turtles and deer and turkeys. The last 1,200 or so miles have brought me joy and memories that I fail to express sufficiently with words, and on some level, I never want this hike to end.
But that’s the big picture. That’s the overall sentiment. The moment-to-moment, day-to-day struggle is what more frequently bubbles to the surface. I have strategies, comforts to get me through these times. I have my friends and their love. I have my family cheering me on. I have books and podcasts and imagination. I have a keyboard with which I write every night. And I have Good Omens.
It seems appropriate at this point to lend apologies to friends, family, social media followers, and anyone who has been remotely in my vicinity since May 31. The wave of love with which this rendition of one of my most favorite books has swept me is, well, somewhat ineffable. I know that I will eventually stop talking about Aziraphale and Crowley, The Nice and Accurate Prophecies, the brilliance of the casting, the flawless rendition of the book, the Easter eggs, the new ending, and the acting that deserved all of the awards and then some. But that day has not yet come, friends. So talk I will.
I discovered Good Omens the book somewhat late: just a couple of years ago. I didn’t even know that a show was in the works when I gave the audiobook my first listen. I recall doing nothing but sitting in rapt attention, while walking to and from my office or crocheting, while the world of the novel poured over me like a bubbling stream. I was thirsty for it, and I listened again when I finished.
I don’t know what it was that hooked me. I still don’t. Maybe it’s the unique take on the apocalypse. Maybe it’s the shenanigans and rollicking debauchery. Maybe it’s the humor. Or maybe it is the gentleness, the way the world is given to us as an absolute mess, but a place that is worth saving. Worth going against prophecy and ineffability and Heaven and Hell for. Whatever it was, something about Good Omens captured me—along with everyone else who adored the book in the years before the show arrived.
And oh, friends. It arrived. It arrived like a thunderclap, like a shimmering halo in a Jesus-beam through the forest. It arrived in the middle of my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, two days after I took a nasty fall and sprained my ankle, which ballooned to the size of a grapefruit and forced me into rest in a town in Virginia. I spent many hours in the local McDonald’s, using the free wifi, downloading the show to my phone, waiting for my friend Patches—also a fan—to arrive in town so we could watch it together. Before I saw it, I hoped that it would be the best possible rendition of the book.
Look, I don’t think I can put it into words how good this show is. Other people—properly eloquent people with real computers who aren’t typing a fangirly essay on their phones in a tent in the middle of the woods—have already done so. And I agree with them on so many points. Michael Sheen’s Aziraphale made me want to simultaneously weep and grin like a moron; David Tennant’s Crowley left me cackling. I will never get enough of them. Then there’s Madame Tracy and Shadwell, lifted, I swear to God, right from my imagination. The horsepersons of the apocalypse, including the brilliant non-binary Pollution. And the music! The main theme could not be more iconically Good Omens. It’s on my AT playlist on Spotify now, and when it comes up on shuffle I am delighted.
And beyond characters and the music there are wise additions, amendments, and edges to the original story. Binary thinking is exploded. God is referred to as “She” without a trace of irony or disrespect. The angels and demons are not limited by traditional portrayal of gender. Perhaps most importantly, Crowley and Aziraphale’s relationship, the axis on which the show turns, is not forced into any boxes. The story is so much: a tale of love and friendship, a commentary on good and evil, and an ode to the world. These and other elements launch the show into the current moment, without deviating from the original spirit of the narrative.
At one point in the story, Aziraphale and Crowley travel to the village of Tadfield to search for the missing Antichrist. When they arrive there, the angel is staggered to find that the whole area is surrounded by a feeling of love. “Someone really loves this place,” he says by way of explanation. A great big haze of love hangs over the village. Similarly, a cloud of affection seems to hang over this story. I’ve read people’s tweets and Tumblr posts explaining what this tale means to them. I’ve gone soft at Neil Gaiman’s and Michael Sheen’s retweeting of and responding to fans’ art, discussions, and notes of thanks. I’ve begun my sleepless journey into the world of fanfiction, and I am humbled by the dedication and skilled writing therein. I feel rolled up into a movement, a great big tide of appreciation for a production that celebrates the world, uplifts some of the most marginalized, and declares with flaming sword of joy that life is so valuable, so meaningful, that it is worth averting the apocalypse to save.
I’ve seen folks share how stories, Good Omens included, have saved their lives. Maybe they felt like the world didn’t see them, and then it did. Or maybe their anxiety prevented them from making the art they loved to make, and then the show gave them new perspective. This is the grace of storytelling. In his acceptance speech for the Newbery medal awarded to The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman recalls memories of fans approaching him and demonstrating how his words have influenced them in one way or another. While his first instinct, he says, is to be grateful and polite, in the past he used to dismiss these comments as irrelevant. He writes not to help other people, he says; he writes because he wants to see what happens. But then he goes on to elaborate on how these views have changed since the death of his father. In the speech, Neil reflects on his realization that “it’s not irrelevant, those moments of connection, those places where fiction saves your life. It’s the most important thing there is.”
Michael Sheen, Patron Saint of the Good Omens Fandom himself, also recently expressed a similar idea about stories in a delightful interview with David Tennant on the latter’s podcast. After discussing his journey to Good Omens, the enthusiastic actor mentioned a line from T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” that reads thus: “these fragments I have shored against my ruin[s].” Life is hard, said Michael Sheen. It is a thin line between making it and going under, so you need to seek and find those fragments that keep you afloat. Whether they are stories, poems, fandoms, something you were into as a kid—it doesn’t matter. Humans need to find and hold onto the fragments that keep us going.
So, I’m hiking a trail. I’m on an adventure. It’s miraculous and I am grateful to be out here living my dreams every day. But dammit, it is hard. It’s hard to get eaten by mosquitoes to have gnats flying into your mucous membranes every five seconds. It is hard to look at a map and see how many miles lay in front of you. It is hard to stay happy and cheerful all the time (and most of the time I fail at this anyway). It is hard to keep going. I’m not complaining, because I love it out here. But it’s a microcosm of life: no matter how good things are, sometimes they are just difficult. And it is these difficult times, the rainy days and sweltering rock climbs, that make me cling to my fragments.
I cling. I put in my headphones and listen, for the third time, to Neverwhere and The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the entire Sherlock Holmes canon. I dive into my favorite podcasts and put on my upbeat playlists and dance across the rocks. At night, I unpack my bag and set up my tent and pull out my copy of Good Omens, Crowley grinning encouragingly at me from the cover. I watch the show over and over, I read the script book. I know the voices; I hear them in my head. Soon, I will have the letters written word for word in the fibers of my heart.
Come on, say the angel and the demon in my mind as I walk ever more north. Come on, we saved the world so you could live in it. Come and see. And I look. I spread out my arms and look to the stars, ad astra, sugary-splattered across unimaginable space and time. I see my favorite characters and words and poems up there, dancing. I see the Divine. See the tips of the trees swaying in the moonlight air; see the glimmering eyes of deer reflected in the gleam of my headlamp. See the snakes lazily slithering across the trail. If I squint enough, I can just begin to imagine that their eyes are yellow and smiling.
It seems too much to say that Good Omens saved my life. So many stories have made me, and this is not my first obsession. But it is not a stretch to say that Good Omens has saved—or at least drastically aided—my hike. It gives me comfort, a fragment to shore against my ruin. I am still walking north, with this tale in my bones, one of the things fueling me to Maine, comforting me, reminding me that I am writing my story onto the pages of a world that is both broken and beautiful. Half demon, half angel, all human.
I am so grateful. Thank you, Neil Gaiman; thank you, Terry Pratchett. Thank you Michael Sheen and David Tennant and all of the brilliant cast and crew that made a most miraculous rendition. You keep me walking.
I’m continuing with my reflections from early on in the trail. Here are a few selected highlights from North Carolina and Tennessee.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Greetings, reader! Have you ever met a less dedicated blogger than yours truly? Seriously, I had so many ideas for writing: discussions about my hike on the Camino del Norte and Camino Primitivo last summer, traveling in England, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the Czech Republic, not to mention some thoughts on gear and reflections post-JMT (which, by the way, I recently learned was originally a Native trade route: the Nüümü Poyo). Additionally, last year I bought a Sony Alpha a6000 camera that I enjoyed taking all over Europe and Arizona, and I swear at some point I’ll put those photos up. I’ve wanted to do so many things, but between managing my shop, working, traveling, being with family, and preparing for the Appalachian Trail, time has of course gotten away from me.
What I’d like to briefly talk about here in this long-overdue post is the realization of a dream: my upcoming thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail!
I don’t remember exactly when the desire to hike the AT was born. I don’t come from an outdoorsy family, and it wasn’t until I studied abroad in India in 2013 that I even realized such a thing as a backpack made specifically for hiking existed. But between reading A Walk in the Woods in high school, going to college, meeting a bunch of dirtbag climbers who became fast friends, and moving out west and falling in love with the mountains–somewhere along the way, the fire of long-distance hiking took light somewhere within me.
I hiked the Camino de Santiago Francés in 2015, and though this trail is very different than American long-distance hikes, it solidified the desire for distance. I then hiked the John Muir Trail (Nüümü Poyo) in 2017, which was an experience unlike any I have ever had or am likely to have again. The mountains, roaring rivers, miles of snow, and watercolor sunsets changed me in ways I can’t quite put my finger on, but feel nonetheless. In 2018 I traveled around green, verdant England for a month before hiking the Camino del Norte and Camino Primitivo in Spain. Though these last trails were also Camino routes like the Francés, they were entirely different in character, scenery, and experience. On the Norte and the Primitivo I realized how dramatic, hilly, windswept, and breathtaking northern Spain can be. I met people with whom I had conversations about a wide spectrum of issues and ideas. I spoke a lot of Spanish, learned a little Dutch, and fell in love. I ate communal meals with fellow pilgrims and met people whose lives are so intertwined with the Way that they’ve walked it over and over and still can’t get enough. This trip made me more comfortable with myself, more confident in the face of uncertainty and difficult decisions, and more thirsty for the world and for distance than I can explain.
Towards the Appalachian Trail
In the back of my mind on all of these hikes, the Appalachian Trail has been there. It would have been too big an undertaking in 2015, or 2017, or even 2018. Before all of these hikes, I didn’t have the gear, understand what a thru-hike would take, or have a concept of pain. On the Francés, I took a downhill too fast and irritated my knee. A brace, recommended by my friend, saved my hike. On the Norte and Primitivo I battled a rough case of achilles tendinitis, followed by plantar fasciitis in the same foot. Months after I reached Santiago, even as I dutifully performed my doctor-assigned stretches and iced my sore muscles, the whisper of pain still lingered. If I step right, or push right, I can still feel the spot, and this worries me. But now I know how to treat it, I bought better shoes, I’ve done my research.
I’ve also whittled down my pack weight considerably since the JMT. High in the Sierras, sucking in air and trudging uphill at a crawl, I was frustrated and uncomfortable and tired with my nearly-40-pound pack. I swore over and over on that hike that I would make moves towards ultralight before I even thought about getting on the AT. I followed through, with lots of gracious help from family, sales, coupons, and trial and error. Technically, I’m still not “ultralight”–the real bros will tell you you have to be under a ten-pound base weight to wear that badge of honor. I’m not a bro, though. I’m very satisfied with my 12-lb setup, and look forward to learning how I can take even more weight off my back.
I’m doing this hike alone, just like I’ve always wanted it, and always planned it. If you’re worried about my safety, hang tight: there’s a resource coming for you at the end. I’m leaving this weekend, and I’m a mixed bag of emotions. Now that it’s finally time, I’m in disbelief, and I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the concept of a thing I’ve thought about and planned for so long, but won’t really know about until I get out there. I’m scared. I’m anxious. I’m eager. I’m hopeful. Five to six months is a long time, but also a short one. Lots can happen, but it will pass quickly once I start moving. I’m excited to learn from the trail and the trees and the rain and the cold and the sun. I’m excited to meet other hikers and hear their stories and share a little walk with them. I’m excited to watch how I grow and how I learn to rely on myself even more than I have before.
How to Follow My Adventure
Because I’m notoriously terrible at writing regularly, and because I’ve joined an awesome community of hikers and writers, I won’t be sharing posts on this website. Rather, I will be writing for The Trek, and you can find my author page and all of my posts here: Sarahmarie Specht-Bird at The Trek. I have a few posts up at the time of writing, including a comprehensive article answering safety-related questions (See? I told you I’d give you a safety-related resource!).
You can also follow me on Instagram. My username is @srirachamarie, or you can check out this link: Sarahmarie on Instagram.
My Etsy, Wild Heart, will be running on a limited scale with the help of my wonderful mother, but my stock is very limited. Here’s the link for that if you’re dying for one of my already made items: Wild Heart Whimsical Art.
Finally, and this is by no means a requirement or a necessity: support. Thru-hiking isn’t the world’s most expensive endeavor, and there are certainly people in the world who need support more than I do (see below). But it does take a lot of time without a paycheck to complete. So if you’re inspired or entertained by my adventure, or if you like my writing and would like to support it, my Venmo name is @sspecht.
Some Outdoor Organizations You Should Know About
While we’re on the subject of supporting hikers, I’d like to highlight some really cool organizations you may be interested in researching and/or supporting.
For a long time I’ve been interested in how I, as a cisgendered white woman, can support folx that are working to upset the white-, hetero- and male-dominated nature of the outdoor industry. The following organizations are just some of many that I’ve learned about who are working for real, meaningful diversity and difficult conversations about the nature of this community.
We as outdoorists have definitely come a long way in our journey towards inclusion, but there is so much more progress to be made. The following groups do such work as encouraging Native people, women, and people of color to get out there and reclaim their space, as well as fostering discussion that interrupts the colonial mindset attached to American outdoor recreation. There are so many more, and so much more I could say about them, and so much more that I need to learn. But these are groups that I’m learning about and really admire:
Thanks for taking the time to learn about, support, and encourage these groups! I am encouraged by the direction that this community is going in, and we have so much more to do and to learn. Let’s make a commitment to listen and be better.
Here We Go!
Here we are, on the weekend I’m heading down to Amicalola Falls to start my thru-hike. I can’t believe how fast these last few months have gone. I’m full of trepidation of course, but also full to the brim with eager anticipation of all that I will learn, all the trail has to teach me, all the conversations and rain and tears and joy. I am grateful to my parents for giving me a place to rest and prepare, grateful to God for granting me the opportunity to walk, grateful to the universe for all the beauty it contains. I walk towards the white blazes with an open heart, humbling myself to the distance.
Hello, Internet! It’s me, Sarahmarie! Remember me? The one who wrote obsessively about preparing for and hiking the John Muir Trail last summer? I’m still here, and I’m writing again!
Because time is weird and bizarre and very hard to keep up with, I find myself flabbergasted that it has been 9 months since I wrote my last post about gear evaluations after the JMT. So much has changed. Here’s a quick overview:
I started a new Master’s program (still at NAU), am almost complete with a very large and very exciting capstone project, and am psyched about my trip to Europe this summer: I’ll be traveling around the UK, visiting my friend Lauren who lives in London, and hopefully climbing and hiking as well as sightseeing, for about 4 weeks, before returning to Spain, meeting up with my best friend Monica, and hiking the Camino del Norte.
My Etsy shop, Wild Heart Whimsical Art, has become more thriving and lucrative than I could have ever imagined, and it’s been so fun to make art for people all over the country and the world.
I’m climbing again for real, and it floors me that I ever stopped: I feel so much stronger, confident, and capable when I am taking my climbing seriously. There’s something about the sport that just gets under my skin, and while I don’t think I’ll ever be as dedicated to it as I am to hiking, it’s wonderful to be back on the rocks again.
My partner (that I hiked the JMT with) and I are no longer together, which has been weird and hard, especially in a small town like Flagstaff. But time continues, as it is wont to do, and I am learning to take each day as it comes, and embrace each moment as its own little adventure.
Upcoming Projects and Posts
I recently wrote a Part 1 of a Place-Based Writing Project for my American Literature and the Environment class about a cool, mellow multipitch rock climb in Sedona that I did with one of my college friends, who was visiting northern Arizona for a couple of weeks back in February. I’m really excited about how the piece turned out, and I’m going to be revising it and publishing it here as a post in the coming weeks.
To anyone reading this, thank you for visiting, and for following along with my adventures. The semester is wrapping up, and I’ll be in the air, on the road, and on the trail soon! I can’t wait to share more of my experiences with you.
Here I am again: sitting at my desk, writing at my computer. It feels weird to be out of the wild, off of the JMT, enjoying the fruits of civilization, facing the turn of the seasons again. I’ll spare you the “time goes so fast, I can’t believe the trail is already over, etc etc” sentiments, though I certainly have them, because there’s not a thing either of us can do about the relentless march of the clock except for treasure the present and reflect on the past. Allow me to do some reflecting for a moment.
For the past week and a half I have oscillated between astonishment at the hike, gratitude for having been granted the opportunity to explore the Sierras, and regret that I am not still on the John Muir Trail. I cannot overstate how much I want to be back on the trail. I yearn for it. I close my eyes and I see LeConte Canyon, its towering walls reflecting the waning daylight. I look to the hills and I am descending from Palisade Lakes to Deer Meadow. My thoughts wander and there I am again, back at Mt. Whitney, on the 14,500-foot pinnacle separating the brown expanse of desert from the jagged staccato peaks and glacier-carved valleys of the Sierra Nevada – the Range of Light. I am camping by Bubbs Creek near East Vidette. I am sharing a campfire with Timmy and three friends we met on the trail. I am ascending Pinchot Pass with an ice axe and crampons. I am climbing Half Dome. I am glissading down the snow on the north side of Forester Pass. I am crossing Evolution Meadow. I am watching a bear scratch at a log from 100 yards away. I am looking up at Cathedral Peak, imagining how John Muir would have felt looking at it for the first time. I am telling the sun goodnight as it sets over Tuolumne Meadows.
In some odd, understated way I feel like a switch has been flipped somewhere within my neurons and muscle fibers, and now forward motion and the beautiful, masochistic satisfaction of covering the distance on foot and minimizing what I carry to the point of absolute necessity is stitched permanently into my soul. My motivation is aimed in a direct line towards the next time that I can hike for days, take a long walk from one point to the other. I feel like a world has been opened. It is solved by walking. The way is made by walking. As far as I am concerned, walking is the simplest, purest, most worthy activity. The trails are there. They are waiting for me. And I will find them.
On the trail you don’t get any filters. There is no noise. There is no distraction. You have to be okay with yourself, with sitting in silence and facing yourself head-on. It leaves the door wide open to brutal honesty. You see life as it really is. You are engaged daily in pain, in struggle, in simple actions, in the way life must have been before modern conveniences. Stripped of these layers, all that is left is the trail, and God, and you. I wish more people could experience that kind of simplicity. It takes away so much of our hurtful, superfluous, vain concerns. On the trail I don’t care whether someone I meet is from the United States, or Israel, or England. I don’t care if they’re conservative or liberal. It doesn’t ever come up in conversation, because it doesn’t matter: We are all out there together, experiencing the same beauty, the same pain, the same joy, the same struggle. This is true of life in general, of course, but it’s hard to see when there is so much noise. On the trail all is harmony, even in the chaos of nature. On the trail I can imagine a world free of hate, and full of simple peace. What I hope and pray is that I can translate that peace into my life, to live with the same joy and peace that the trail showed me – not keep it to myself, but spread it outward.
A few people have asked me to describe the John Muir Trail in a few words. What I have come up with so far is that it is beautiful and brutal, and beautifully brutal. For obvious reasons, the JMT is beautiful: The pristine alpine lakes framed by towering, glacier-speckled mountains; the mountain passes leading to new worlds of trees and streams; the meadows filled with deer and marmots – it’s no secret that the trail is visually stunning. But it’s brutal. There were miles of snow, thousands of feet of elevation gain and loss, really rough hills, rocky terrain and mud pits. It’s physically, mentally, and emotionally grueling. Just when you think you’re almost to camp, another drastic uphill mile that wasn’t even on the map presents itself. Switchbacks go on forever. The downhills are almost worse than the uphills, with all the wear-and-tear on the knees. But it was always, always worth it. My lowest, most desperate point on the trail was the north side of Mather Pass. It was hot, and the sun reflected off of the three miles of snow relentlessly, making for a rather frustrating combination. My crampons kept getting stuck in rocks, we unsuccessfully tried to avoid a thinning snow bridge, and a fast, hip-deep, freezing cold creek came out of nowhere right before we made camp, which was above 10,000 feet so we couldn’t even have a fire. But the next day, we cruised 8 miles to LeConte Canyon and were rewarded with the most incredible view of a meadow where the Middle Fork Kings River stops its violent flow and meanders softly, slowly, through the grass, while soaring mountains on either side keep watch. There was not a single part of the JMT that I would refer to as “easy.” But one hundred percent of that trail was worth it.
I think that I will be processing this trip for a while. No matter what trails I hike in the future, I have a feeling that this one will always be special: my first real thru-hike, my first real wilderness experience, the one that flipped the switch. The Sierras have wedged themselves into my heart, and I hold them there gratefully.
That’s all I’ve got for now! I hope this gives you, in the broadest sense, a feeling of what the John Muir Trail was like for me. In the coming weeks, I will add more pictures, as well as follow-up posts about our itinerary and a few more reflections about the JMT. Thanks for following along. 🙂