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 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This piece was written for my American Literature and the Environment Class, for our Place-Based Essay assignment.
It’s 8 AM in Sedona. Not early morning – the sun has already peaked over the buttes and towers and otherworldly spires. But it’s not yet afternoon – the angle is still low, the air still thin and crisp, the stretch of Highway 89A that runs through town is not yet congested with RV’s and ATV’s and passenger cars all the way back to Manzanita Campground. All of that will come later. Right now, everything is solidly, but not overly, awake. Shops are opening – I can see them as we drive through the small stretch of town – rolling up the metal gates that cover their glassy front windows, inviting the day’s quota of tourists to investigate the wonders that lie within.
I try as hard as I can not to let my inner Edward Abbey be deeply disgusted by “uptown Sedona.” What harm is there, after all, in allowing people to walk the streets, to shop for crystals and jewelry and T-Shirts, to reserve Pink Jeep tours? Is it not their right, just as much as it is mine, to enjoy the scenery, to look up at the red giants towering over the junipers and canyons? How am I to know for certain that none of them have actually hiked to the base of Courthouse Butte or the top of Bear Mountain? And even if they haven’t done so, haven’t they still enjoyed being in this place, even if it is from the inside of an abysmal machine and behind a layer of glass? Yet, despite my half-hearted attempts at fairness, in my mind there are still two Sedonas: This one that we’re driving through, the “fake” one, the congested, touristy, Gatlinburg-y one, and the “real” one: The one that only climbers and hikers get to see. The one that’s raw and chossy and red and terrifying, where I have spent countless hours hiking up to hidden arches and basking in the sun. The one where every trail, no matter how unassuming the Forest Service website description is, contains vaults of hidden beauty around every corner – creeks and oak trees mixed with yucca and prickly pear; arches perched high in a wall a hundred yards off trail; soaring cliff faces and undulating amphitheaters.
This Sedona is the one we’re driving to this morning. I’m with my friend Chris, who is visiting from Atlanta, and who is the person who first introduced me to rock climbing nearly four years ago. Though my relationship with the sport has been fitful and off-and-on since then – I’m terrified of falling, think too much, and have the world’s worst spatial awareness – it has changed my life for the better in so many ways, and I’m grateful to have been introduced to it. Considering this, I knew when Chris told me that he was coming to visit that I had to take him on this particular climb: Queen Victoria.
Named, like the similar formation at Bryce Canyon, for its silhouette that looks strikingly like that of said British monarch, Queen Vic is a short, mellow, classic 5.8 multipitch tower. From 89A it looks precarious and thin, with a wide base that tapers towards a slightly tilted summit. It looks, from far away, like you could extend a finger and gingerly poke the top of the tower, and the whole thing would come crashing down. I think about this every time I see it, and I both smile and shudder. I haven’t decided yet if rock climbing is an obnoxious, egotistical expression of humans’ stubborn belief in our permanence and prowess, or if it is a humble acknowledgement of the transience of all things; a quiet participation in the limits of mortality. Perhaps it’s both.
Having exited (or perhaps escaped?) the paved roads of Sedona proper, and having bounced and sped in Chris’s truck down the rocky terrain of Schnebly Hill Road, we find our parking spot, pack up, and start hiking on the Marg’s Draw trail, up a hill, and down and into a dry wash. Smooth pebbles and sand sink underfoot, as we walk through oscillating sun and shade in the strand of junipers that bow over the creek bed. I breathe deeply as I walk. Sedona has a very specific smell, and one that I struggle to describe. There is a sharp note of bark: not metallic, but crisp and clean. Then there is the smell of warmth, of afternoon sun on sandstone. Sometimes, when climbing in Sedona, I can’t help but put my face to the rock and breathe it in. It’s something like the smell of old books, but with the earthy tones of soil. And then there is the scent of juniper, a sweet, but not flowery, melody. They work in concert, lulling me forward, up and out of the wash, onto the trail again, and up another drainage to the Queen Vic climber’s trail.
The difference between established trails and approach trails cracks me up. “Real” trails in Sedona are, while sometimes rugged and rocky, carefully planned out; they make sense. They follow acceptable grades, walkable switchbacks, and a practical width. Climber’s trails, on the other hand, are single-minded and sometimes terrifying. Their goal: Get to the base of the climb as quickly as possible. Awkwardly, with my rope slung across the side of my backpack, I begin to scramble up the loose scree of a steep wash, taking massive steps between logs and huge stone blocks, stepping over branches, through trees, and precariously close to prickly pears and yuccas. I reach the slabby, pink rock drainage that I remember from before, and rush up it, putting as much of my soles as possible on the angled stone. Breathe. I navigate around another sandy choss pile, and begin the last part of the approach through a rather tricky field of pokey things: prickly pears, cholla, yucca, manzanita.
It occurs to me, as I somehow become entrapped between a very large, very healthy prickly pear and an equally impressive pale green yucca, how much clumsier I am in this environment than everything around me. These plants, perched on the side of this sloping drainage, take no issue with the scree, the angle of the hill on which they reside, the intense sun, or the dryness. They are evolved to be here, right here on the side of this formation. The wide paddles of the prickly pear look so confident, branching outwards from the ground, from other paddles, in all directions, a symphonic chaos of spines and green. I, on the other hand, am a tourist. I am not naturally cut out for this place. Stumbling, with my rope and backpack and extreme lack of awareness of where my body is in space, I feel like a fool compared to the cacti.
Chris, at the top of the hill already, sees – or rather hears – me struggling. “What are you doing?” he asks, incredulously.
“Oh, shut up,” I say, but I’m cracking up. “I got stuck in a prickly pear.” Derp. I toss my rope up to him and attempt to extricate myself from the precarious situation, but not before my right calf gets the full force of a spiny paddle. Several more minutes and expletives later, I am finally at the top of the hill and at the base of Queen Vic, pulling spines out of my leg, while my climbing partner shakes his head at my utter lack of grace. He’s known me for seven years now, though. He expects nothing less.
Cactus, 1. Sarahmarie, 0. Already humbled, and I’m not even on the climb yet.
Spines removed, harnesses on, and gear at the ready, we take one last drink of water and walk up to the base of the tower. I’m always stunned at the contrast between the scope of a climb from far away and its actual size close up. From the Midgley Bridge, it looks like a precarious, delicately balanced totem pole, but from here, the Queen is impressively wide. Up close, too, the faraway conception of Sedona’s formations as smooth, polished rocks falls away quickly: there are seams, dihedrals, snaking cracks, huge chocks, and columns of red rock coming out in every direction. From here, feet away from the rock, it’s easy to see why the name “Sandona” has been lovingly applied to this environment. It’s a total choss-fest. The route itself has been climbed enough that most of the loose scree has fallen away. But still, the first time I climbed Queen Vic, at the top of the first pitch I was the recipient of a falling shower of rocks – luckily, I had my helmet on. Trad is rad.
There’s something special to me about the moment before a climb begins – the tie-in, the gear check, the send-off. I love the smell of a climbing rope. Well used, and well cared for, a rope bears the memory of every rock it has ever touched. It smells like dirt and chalk; it smells like juniper and sunshine. I flake out the smooth 9.5mm coil, and tie a figure 8 with the long end, the other attached in a bowline to Chris. I unclip my GriGri, place the rope, and twist it shut to my belay loop.
“Belay’s on,” I declare, clicking the gate to prove I’m locked.
“Alright,” Chris says, already climbing, much less concerned with formalities. “See you at the top.”
The first pitch is well protected, and shaded, following a clean chimney with good feet to a comfy belay station and anchor. It’s also the easiest pitch, so before I can really register that I’m belaying, Chris is at the top, pulling up rope.
“That’s me,” I shout up to my now invisible climbing partner, when the tension reaches my figure 8. I slide on my shoes and lace them up. When he gives me the all clear to start climbing, I dip my hand into my chalk bag, smear the white powder between my palms, crack my wrists, and yell, “Climbing!”
This is the first multipitch I’ve done in months, and I haven’t climbed sandstone in well over a year. I’m savoring every minute. The rock is pleasantly cool in the shade – not the cold, unbearable brand of chill that limestone has when it’s not in the sun, but a smoother, slightly more comfortable temperature. Still, my hands are chilly as I advance upwards, and I stop periodically to blow on them or tuck them under my arms for a few seconds. I come to the first piece – a small cam – and squeeze its trigger, wedging it out of the wall, and clip it to my harness. The carabiner shuts with a satisfying click. The pitch continues, as I place my chilled fingers on solid ledges, my feet on periodic footholds or stemmed across the chimney.
In case the cactus incident wasn’t a clue, I’m not a graceful person. I don’t move smoothly from place to place, or from hold to hold. Maybe this is lack of experience, or maybe it’s just physics. My climbing isn’t always rhythmic or pretty. But on this first pitch, I start to remember the movements. Find a foot, push, reach up. Match hands. Left foot, left hand up, pull. Right foot. Push. On a climb like this, a mellow, lovely climb like this, I can’t help but smile as I move. There’s a bit of a breeze, and as I climb I listen to the way it whistles through the cracks in the rock on the sides of the chimney. It raises in pitch as the wind picks up, and then tapers off as it dies out. I look out to my right and can see down to the highway, 89A. It’s starting to get busier now – there’s not quite a full backup yet, but more people are headed into town. On the streets of Sedona, folks will be browsing the crystal shops, trying on T-shirts, and reserving Pink Jeep tours. There will be noise, and conversation, and exchange of currency, and traffic.
But here, there’s just the wind, just my breath, just the periodic take-up of slack as I move progressively higher. One place isn’t better than any other. But I like where I am right now.
Having flailed, failed, and beached-whaled myself all the way to the top of the notorious pitch 2 offwidth, I plop down dramatically next to Chris at the belay. He’s leading all three pitches of course, because I haven’t led anything in months, my gear placement is abysmal, and because this tower is a walk in the park for his collected skills from twelve-plus years of climbing. The second pitch is awkward at best, and sketchy without a #4 or #5 cam for the offwidth crack. Chris brought neither, but he managed to find a smaller, bomber horizontal placement at the top of the first limestone band. I was shaking in my boots at the belay, but he, of course, was smooth and confident. My turn climbing wasn’t quite as pretty, but I still made it up, and that, in my book, is what matters.
“Well, that was fun,” I say, smiling and exhausted. And I mean it. Every moment that my hands and feet (and sometimes even my face) are in contact with rock, no matter how hard the pitch is or how much I struggle, is a good moment. I am in reverent awe of the smooth kiss of limestone and sandstone against my chalky skin, the sharp whip of the wind against my neck, the seeping warmth of the sun overhead. Bruised and sore though I may be, at the end of every day of climbing I will forget all of the frustration, the awkwardness, and the pain, and will ultimately remember only how satisfying it is to be in literal physical contact with the natural world.
The belay at the top of this pitch is massive. From the end of the second offwidth, a limestone ledge extends three feet outward to a tree. Further back from this band, on the tower itself, there’s a sandy, level space of about ten feet by ten feet. The sum total of this area is that it feels like we’re practically on a prairie. We’re clove-hitched into the anchor, of course, but we leave a long length of rope so we can move around. For once, there isn’t a line of climbers waiting at the bottom of the tower, so we decide that we’re not in a rush. Moving away from the edge, we sit with our backs against the sandstone wall and look out onto Sedona. To what I think is the northeast, there is a massive, domed sandstone formation with an impressively exposed south-facing wall. The sun is shining directly on this part of the rock, and it looks almost like it’s glowing. The real magic of Sedona, I decide, is the color contrast. In the afternoon, with the sun at an angle, the already-impressive orange-red of the rocks lifts off into another plane. Against the electric blue of the sky, the warm, burning orange seems so alive it almost hums. If I close my eyes, I think I can hear it: the beating, coursing heat of the rock.
On the same formation, the west-facing side is now totally in the shadows. A week ago it snowed, and there are spatterings of white all around the sloping base of the butte. The play of the light and the shadows, like the red rock against the blue sky, provides an interesting contrast. I imagine climbing that exposed wall – bathed in melting, buttery sunlight, perhaps it would be too hot. And it would have to be a sport climb, I think; there’s no crack to speak of, at least not that I can see. It doesn’t look like a route that I could climb. But then again, you never can tell until you get on the rock. Then I think about climbing in the shadows, how cold, windy, and miserable it would be right now. How much all of the negative things about climbing would come out: cold hands, the misery of being unable to send, frustration. Yet, in these shadows and in this cold, despite the darkness, it’s sometimes easier to hold on than the palm-sweating brightness of day. How much difference the sun makes. In one place, there can be so many different temperatures and feelings. All it takes is being on a different side of the rock.
My thoughts are broken by the call of two crows overhead – I think they’re crows, at least. Or perhaps ravens? I never learned how to tell the difference. Their smooth, shiny bodies glitter and swoop in the lazy rays of afternoon light. The wind is picking up a little bit now, and one of them catches a gust and turns upward, wings totally outstretched, before turning downward again, pointed beak piercing the breezy air. Then, for the next five minutes, the two of them circle just above the summit, which we can see now, cawing occasionally, but mostly silent, hanging and gliding on the wind.
Chris is watching them too, his pale blue eyes trained on the matching sky. “Wow,” he says. “They must think we’re so dumb.”
I smile. “What, you mean like, ‘Pathetic humans, having to use all their gear. Look how easily we can fly’?”
He laughs in response. “Yeah. Climbing is pretty dumb when you think about it. I mean, look at all this shit we have to bring up just to get to the top, and get back down again.” He jangles his collection of cams in demonstration.
While the crows (ravens?) probably don’t think this, our blatant anthropomorphism strikes me, like my earlier experience with the cacti on the approach, as a metaphor for climbing – or, perhaps more accurately, a metaphor for the reason people climb. The spaces where we go to climb are teeming with life that is adapted for its environment: prickly pears and yuccas that can survive in the harsh sun and dryness; birds that thrive on the wind and ride gusts in graceful arcs. And then there’s us: bipedal, hunking creatures, all bones and flesh and hair. We’ve invented our way into these wild spaces, relying on gear developed in a lab and tested repeatedly for acceptable levels of safety. We carry pounds and pounds of metal, fabric, heavily engineered fibers, shoes encased in rubber – all for the challenge of becoming as close, as unified a part of the environment as we can. The birds, the cacti – they’re residents here. They contribute to the environment, work with it, are integral parts of it. We, on the other hand, are tourists. Much as climbers and hikers – myself included – might like to think of ourselves as somehow different, more special or more real than the tourists in uptown Sedona, we are no more and no less perfect.
Climbing occupies a paradoxical space: on the one hand, it shows us how close we can be to the natural world. No, more than that – it reminds us that we are part of the natural world. Up on a climb, hands jammed in a crack, fingers finding crimps, feet searching for holds, there is very little division between that which surrounds us and that which we are. Yet, at the same time, we can only be in that crack, on that rock, because of the means we have produced to get there. Even free-soloists wear climbing shoes and use chalk. Even they have to train, practice, dial in their abilities. For some people, climbing may be “natural” or an extension of abilities they were born with. But for most people, it’s something that takes work, money, time, and relentless effort (too much effort, I think sometimes). And besides this, the routes we climb are completely arbitrary. Outdoors, we find things that look climbable – it’s not like someone set the routes or dictated where we should go. It’s a human application of a vision to the natural world. Nothing tells us we have to go a certain way or follow a certain route, and yet that is what climbers do. We look at rock formations like puzzles waiting to be found, and then waiting to be solved. We have an itching that comes from someplace deeper than our shiny trad racks and fancy ropes: a need, an instinct to be part of the world in a very specific way.
Perhaps, then, climbing is one manifestation of the powerful, deeply held human desire to stop being tourists of the world, and start being residents. Despite – or perhaps because of – all of the gear we need, all of the effort we expend, all of the technology we develop, we keep trying to climb because we want to know that we belong.
We made it to the summit. The third pitch was a struggle – it’s not exactly hard, but it’s an awkward dihedral stem with very few feet, and while the hand holds are good, they’re a challenge for a short, uncoordinated climber like me. On top of that, the wind kicked in on this exposed pitch, tossing the rope this way and that, blowing my hair in every direction, and stressing me out. But I made it – still flailing, still struggling, I made it.
I hobble over the last few yards’ worth of scrambling, pulling up the rope I had been hauling, and meet Chris at the summit.
“Hey,” he says, looking bemused at all of the noises I had made on the last pitch, and also very cold. It has become really windy and he doesn’t have a jacket. “You did it.” He smiles. “Now let’s get off this rock.”
The wind – and the fact that we’re using two ropes – makes the rappel a challenge. On the second rappel ledge we have to toss the ropes through a notch in the rock, at the top of which I can see growing – you guessed it – a prickly pear. After much delicate finagling, I get the rope over the rock where it needs to be, and I gingerly step over the edge, hand on my prusik, suspiciously eyeing the cactus. Its confident roost there on the rock stands in contrast to my uncertain wobbling rappel – one last reminder of the power of this plant’s adaptation, and the belonging to the space that it occupies.
But as I descend, now fully in the shadow of the tower as the sun begins to dip lower, towards evening, I start to feel that specific kind of peace that can only settle in right after a climb. Even in the wind, the tiredness, it’s there. It’s like a sigh: a great task has been accomplished, an adventure has been had, and now it’s time to rappel down, pack up, and go find dinner. But right now, at this moment, suspended in the air, I’m not desperate to get down, but I’m not dreading it either. I’m simply there. Passing the first pitch, I look to my right again, and see the highway once more – still busy, but less congested, the sun’s rays long and low over the bridge. We’ll be back on that road soon, heading north, participating in the great, inevitable passing of time. I look back to the rock, up to the birds, up to the cactus. And I feel something akin to being at home.