Looking Back After Three Months

It has now been over three months since I finished my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. At times, it feels like I was standing on Katahdin just yesterday. At other times, it feels like it has been years since I saw that sign. As for many of my thru-hiking friends, it has been a strange period of time.

That’s not to say it hasn’t been a good period of time. On the contrary, I’ve enjoyed the chance to regroup, plan for new adventures, and spend time with my family. I’ve had the opportunity to work on some cool projects; in particular, I wrote, edited, and completed Blaze, the zine I had been dreaming of writing since halfway through the AT. (You can order a copy here!) I have also crocheted a lot of interesting things: orders for hats and headbands from friends, requests for unique gifts like a teddy bear and a giraffe, a snail, a flamingo, a nativity for my mom for Christmas, and a whole lot of cacti and succulents. I participated in three craft shows, which enabled me to get back in touch with my creative side and make new connections. I have painted, embroidered, and started knitting a cowl. (My knitting is abysmal and the cowl is rife with glorious mistakes, but it’s fun to practice.)

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

And of course, there has been hiking. In October I went on a three-day backpacking trip at Shawnee State Forest in Ohio with my friend Wiggs, whom I met on the Appalachian Trail. We’ve been walking together both on trails and in life since that weekend. We’ve explored John Bryan State Park near Yellow Springs, as well as smaller trails in Columbus and Cincinnati, among other places. Although our respective thru-hikes ended in September, it feels like the trail has extended into off-trail life. We are enjoying this new adventure, and are excited for all the adventures to come. (Look out, summer 2020!)

I’ve been grateful for the chance to spend time with family and friends, and I enjoyed being home for the whole Christmas season this year. I’m doing things I love, I’m starting a teaching job that I’m very excited about next week, and I finally had the chance to read a few books for once.

And yet, I still miss the trail every day. I miss the directed, consistent goal: get up, eat, walk, sleep, repeat. Day after day, footstep after footstep, until you reach the end. Six months of days spent doing one small piece of a massive adventure. I miss sleeping in my tent and waking up with the tentative sunlight peering through the silnylon walls. I don’t miss the pain or the fatigue or that very specific hiker smell, but I do miss the freedom of it, of walking into town with a straight-backed confidence and feeling perfectly at home in any place, town or trail. I miss my tramily around me, rounding a corner and seeing a familiar face, sitting around a campfire and eating my millionth broccoli-cheddar rice packet (but I don’t really miss those rice packets). I miss the sound of a stream next to a campsite and the comfort of sunset by a pond.

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

It seems sometimes that the further away I get from my thru-hike, the more I process and understand its gifts. The AT taught me so many things, made me see the world in a slightly different way. It made me less desperate to know exactly what’s going to happen, made me more flexible and okay with uncertainty. I still remember these lessons, but sometimes I worry that as time passes I’m losing the positive changes the AT made in my life. As soon as I finished I felt refreshed and reset, if anxious and disappointed that the trail had to end. I felt like things that used to bother me in off-trail life weren’t quite as annoying, and that I was more empathetic than I had been before. But now, it’s harder to remember what the lack of worrying feels like, what it felt like to understand where people were coming from and not to get upset about things that didn’t matter. Sometimes I feel like I’m right back where I started: short-tempered, easily upset, antsy.

I know I’m not really losing it, because I can still close my eyes and think about these important realizations. The trail lives inside me now, and that experience will never go away. As time goes on, I will just have to work harder to remember what the trail instilled in me, and how I can apply it to everyday life.

Anyway, that’s more than I meant to write about post-trail life. But there you go. Some reflections.

A few weeks ago, I reread my last entry from Maine, which I wrote on the plane leaving Portland. I decided to add an edited version of it here, as a kind of bookend for my AT posts. Thank you for reading this, and thank you for being there for me, whoever you are. I am grateful.

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

2 October 2019, in a plane flying from Portland, ME to Atlanta, GA, 19:34

When I’m in a plane that’s taking off, I love pressing my face to the plastic window and watching the world shrink under the wings. Tonight, leaving Maine and heading home, we’re rising from the ground as the sun is setting. We ascend, wheels streaming, velocity increasing, and we’re flying over the ocean. There’s a lighthouse down below us, and I can see its beam throwing itself out onto the waters. How small it looks from here, this tiny pinprick of moving light.

As the world rushes by, I put in my headphones, select my AT playlist, and play “Birdhouse in Your Soul” by They Might Be Giants––what has become, for me, the unofficial anthem of my thru-hike. (Thanks, Nemo!) Drum beats, a catchy refrain, and I’m ascending more, more, more, up and into the clouds, turning south, and suddenly there is the melting orange sunset outside my window. Deep blue fading downwards into layers of yellow, orange, purple. The kind of sunset that could seep into the trees rimming a northeastern pond; the kind that calls for loons and crisp evening air.

And then I see it all behind my eyes. Georgia to Maine.

The enormity of what I have just done hits me. I stare out the little oval towards the sunset, songs playing in my ears that call back specific memories and images. I saw it all. I did it. Two years ago I hiked Katahdin while my family was in Maine, and I told her I would be back at the end of a thru-hike. And I did it. It is done. I kept my promise.

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

The last three days I have been reeling. Floating, really. I oscillate between a desire to plan my next thru-hike and the need to savor this one. I feel like I should be doing something, but I can’t muster the enthusiasm. I had so many ideas for projects, things I wanted to do when I got done hiking, but now I feel shell-shocked, numb. I keep playing memories of the AT behind my eyes like an internal movie on constant loop.

It isn’t so much that I want to be hiking again as much as it is that I want the experience back. There was nothing like walking into a store, restaurant, or hostel and knowing every single person there. There is nothing comparable to the sense of ultimate comfort of hiking. On the trail, you get people at their rawest, most exposed, and most honest. We are who we are, completely. We have nothing to hide behind, and we become close, fast, because of it. We can fall asleep almost anywhere, eat almost anything, talk to almost anyone. We stick our thumbs out for rides and hope for the best, and don’t think twice about it. We trust each other and we trust the trail.

In the woods, I know who I am. I know exactly how all of my gear works, what I need, how to make myself comfortable. I can tolerate storms and heat and a lack of running water. I can dip my dirty long-handled spoon way down to the bottom of the peanut butter jar and smack a glob of it on my tongue. Perfect simplicity, perfect lack of need for anything beyond what is absolutely necessary. That comfort, that confidence, is what I know I will miss.

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

This world, this country. It has an obsession with more. More, says the big fancy house. More, says the new car. More, say the corporations. More, say the insurance companies. More, say the shops and websites and billboards. We know this; it’s ridiculously trite to even start this conversation. Money rules. “What will you do after this?” asks everyone I know. “Good thing you’re doing this now,” say the older folks on the trail. Meaning, good thing you’re doing this now before you are tied down to amassing wealth for the rest of your life.

The trail, meanwhile, whispers less. Less, say the trees. Less, say my back and my joints.  You need so much less than you think you do. There is real magic in making do; there is such undervalued joy in seeing how well you do with less.

This is not to say I’m a “minimalist,” or that I’m going to sell all of my possessions and walk on my knees though the desert. I’m privileged to be able to hike and see the world this way. And I’m a hypocrite; we all are. We have things, and we use them and need them, and we mess up, and that’s okay. 

I just don’t want to be pulled into the more-ness. I don’t want to succumb. I don’t want to stop learning the rich ways of the long, thin place I called my home for the last six months. Her call is so much harder to hear, and I don’t want to lose her.

I wondered, before I got to Katahdin, how you end a thru-hike. How you just stop walking. How you tell your friends goodbye. I still don’t know how to do it. I kind of just did it. I kind of just let them slip through my fingers, sand from the hand of the Dream King returning to the soft places. A wave, a hug, and the end had already passed. Now, I am heading to whatever is next. I hope I never learn how to stop walking.

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Sunset on Annapolis Rocks, Maryland

 

Connecticut and Massachusetts

Massachusetts was one of my favorite states. I didn’t expect this, since it was not one of the sections with a particularly strong reputation. In Massachusetts the trail started to feel more like the north I was anticipating: clear ponds, conifer forests, soft paths covered in pine needles. I felt calm and grateful for milder weather, and anticipated the far-north states with joy.

Connecticut was a different story. We had the misfortune of hitting this short state in the middle of a second heat wave. There were a few days when we only managed to walk seven or eight miles, and one particularly miserable day where sixteen miles––usually a reasonable distance to cover in eight or fewer hours––took us from morning until dusk. My parents came for a third visit around this time, which was a welcome reprieve.

Despite the sweaty misery, time passed as it always does. We made it into Massachusetts, and then into the far north of Vermont.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Here are a few thoughts from Connecticut and Massachusetts.

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

Connecticut

30 July, Caesar Creek campsite, 21:05

God, it’s so hot. So hot I can feel my bones melting. Everything is a slurry of gooey humidity. Mosquitoes dive-bomb my ears. I drip sweat over everything. I should write a thing but I cannot be bothered to take out my keyboard. I just want to watch Doctor Who and go to sleep and not walk ever again.

Yesterday Patches and I took a three-hour nap in a shelter, after which I finished the first volume of The Sandman and was transported. That was a good nap. We didn’t get very far after that but it didn’t matter. I was happy and lazy and slow.

Today was rough. 16.8 miles of steep relentless ups and downs. There was a rather lovely five-ish mile section that was flat, following right along the Housatonic. I enjoyed that bit. But I’m still breaking in my Superfeet so my arches ached and burned with every step. I had to stop a lot. I enjoyed the creeks and the rocks by the river, and I enjoyed my podcasts. Otherwise, today was miserable and I am glad to be horizontal. Isn’t the north supposed to be cold?

Patches (on the right) and me, getting back on trail in Connecticut after a double-zero in NYC. It was a bit of a transition coming back to the trail.
2 August, Sages Creek on the CT/MA border, 12:52

There’s a waterfall. A thin one, pouring through a crack in a boulder and down over smooth strands of lichen and moss. A proper creek, this is. Solid ravine walls and a breeze flowing out from the push of water and air further down the canyon. I could get drunk on the smell of this creek. I think of the Sylvia Plath quote: “I take a deep breath and listen to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am.” Or something like that.

I’ve felt tired and hot and shitty for most of the last week. I needed something to make me feel calm and alive. I needed to be shown why I love hiking, and made to feel that it’s not all the same. This day is perfect. A couple of difficult climbs so far and a couple more to go, but this ravine right in the middle. This stupidly beautiful mossy creek cutting a slot through an old growth Hemlock forest. I think of Kimmerer’s tale of learning Potawatomi and its verbs for objects: to be a creek. Nothing has ever felt more animate than this creek.

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

Massachusetts

4 August, Wilcox Mountain South Shelters, 21:43

I just remembered what my cross country coach used to say about a 5K race: you run the first mile with your brain, the second mile with your body, and the third mile with your heart. Actually, I’m not sure what the second mile mechanism was. But I know the last mile was heart.

It feels like I’m starting the “heart” section of the AT. I’ve made it past my first mile of three: the head. I planned and was strategic and worked to meet goals. Then I survived the physicality of the second mile of three: sprained an ankle, went up and over Dragon’s Tooth and McAfee Knob, Shenandoah, the Roller Coaster, Pennsylvania. Now I am solidly in the North, in mile three of three. This is when I start to run—or in this case, hike—with my heart. This is when I realize that these miles will end. This is when I drink in sunsets over ponds and dusklight views and say I am, I am, I am. This is when the truth of what I have learned sinks into me, when I feel and cherish every step acutely.

I’m starting to think now about how I will feel when this hike is over. I know I’ll need another goal, which is why I want to work on the book. But I do think I might be shocked by the depression that follows. What will I do when I don’t wake up in a tent, when my morning routine isn’t reading Sandman in the woods over a silicone cup of instant coffee before walking for ten hours?

I’m terrified by the thought of returning and the complacency that threatens at the bottom of the pit of comfort. What am I going to do when I don’t have walking every day to power and sustain me? I will have to drastically cut back my eating, I will have to find a job, I will have to sacrifice my free time and creativity on the altar of money-making. Obviously this is what I have to do, and I’ve known it from the beginning. As mom says: you play, you pay. I’ve been home for months before and survived the mindset, but this seems like it will be forever. I know it won’t. I know I’m resourceful and determined and privileged and I will be able to achieve what I set my mind to. I just don’t want to slither down the hole of complacency. A place like Northern Kentucky can do that to you if you aren’t careful.

I know for these last 650 miles that I will be eating it all up like breakfast: the mornings, the evenings, the lazy afternoons. The mountains. The struggle. This is where I want to be.

One of the many ponds in Massachusetts that we passed. This one was en route to the Wilcox Mountain Shelter.
5 August, Wilcox Mountain South Shelters, 08:53

Last night I slept inside my sleeping bag for the first time in weeks, because I was cold. This morning I woke up, poked my head out, and decided I needed to put on my fleece. It was a glorious revelation. I felt like crying. The heat over the past month has been mostly unbearable, and when it wasn’t hot, it was raining.

This morning feels like the first fingerbrush of autumn. It’s still summer; solidly so, but the next season is tentatively reaching out with her more slanted light, her snapcrackle mornings. I wonder if there’s a word for the first day when it begins to feel like the next season.

I know it won’t stay this temperature today, but at the moment I’m holding it close to me. Massachusetts. You are a treasure.

(Krazy) Glue and Patches on the dock at Upper Goose Pond. Of the whole trail, this was one of the most memorable and relaxing evenings.
8 August, Williamstown, MA, 22:00

Walking around the campus of Williams College at night, with no one around. The students have not yet returned, at least not all of them. Here and there someone walks to the gym, back to a dorm from shopping, but for the most part the campus is empty and the spaces between the old and new buildings sit wide and abandoned, with the occasional sprinkler to break up the still summer silence. The old mingles with the new here: old dorms and renovated buildings from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries sit next to Hollander Hall and the Class of 1996 Environmental Center and the modern extension to the campus library. It’s dark, and I can’t tell if there’s some sort of central quad that I have not yet located, or if the sprawl of buildings just continues past the cemetery and the park.

I like doing this: walking around college campuses I am not familiar with. It reminds me of the summer between junior and senior year of high school, when my family and I vacationed in the Northeast, South, and Chicago areas, visiting universities I was interested in and in between the tours acting as tourists in the cities. I don’t know what it is about a campus that lures me in and makes me feel at home. I see the dorms with their keypads and students pressing RFID tags up against black plastic boxes to be let in. There is a sense of comfortable belonging alongside transience. Behind the youth and vigor and consumption with studies, there is the tacit knowledge that the four or two or three years will end and a moving-on will be inevitable. And yet, there is life and presence: clubs, sports, libraries, staying up all night, returning to the dorm, rolling out of bed for an unavoidable morning class. I love the sense of immediacy and importance. On the next exam hangs the universe. On the next audition the entire future rests.

I want to do so many things and be so many people. I want to see the world and write books and travel and make a difference. And behind it all, there is this: walking on a college campus at night. Feeling the lull of knowledge and the cliffhanging hope of everything that sits just ahead of me. This presence, this prescience: the hope of the near future and the destinations just past what currently is. I see myself, walking with a messenger bag and wearing my cherry-red Doc Martens and carrying a coffee to a lecture I am teaching. Happy, professionally curious, alive. I see an office filled with books and students sitting across from me. I see a career that is defined by a gleam that never dies.

I am at home on the trail. I am at peace on a campus. I talk to my mom, I understand that all things will end—yes, even this 2,192-mile hike—and I walk back to my motel.

I drink too much wine. I laugh with my friends. I read Sandman. I write. I listen to Amanda Palmer. And I write. Write, write. Think about the future. Hope. Write.

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

Pennsylvania, Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8 July, 21:55, Hamburg, PA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for strengthening me, Pennsylvania.

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

Maryland + Pennsylvania, Part One

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

26 June, Maryland

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

Midday nap time at Dahlgren Campground, MD

Annapolis Rocks campground, 21:30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 July, Green Mountain General Store, lunchtime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virginia Reflections, Part Three: Shenandoah

14 June 2019

Calf Mountain Shelter, Shenandoah National Park, 07:18

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

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

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

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

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

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

19:03

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virginia Reflections, Part Two: 26

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

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

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

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

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

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

I crossed 800 miles on my birthday. Wahoo!

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

But then, I step back and think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virginia Reflections, Part One

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

15 May, Chatfield Memorial Shelter, 21:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The beauty of the AT is in the details.

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

Dismal Falls, just before Pearisburg, VA

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

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

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

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

Ultreia.

On Good Omens, Pennsylvania, and Fragments that Fuel

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.

Until this hike I hadn’t owned a copy of the book, so I sent one to myself in Pennsylvania, along with the script book. I had to send home the latter because it was just too heavy, but my copy of the novel is traveling with me to Maine.

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.

It was.

If you look closely, you can see my “to the world” reference from the show written on my pack. Fun fact: the shiny pouch contains Ground Control, the Miniature Giant Space Hamster, who I am carrying to Katahdin on behalf of my friend Nemo.

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.

I wasn’t joking. This is literally my writing setup in the woods: Bluetooth keyboard, gross feet, The Novel.

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.

I got the idea to write on my pack from my friend Krazy Glue (Shawn). I’m adding more as I go along. I just couldn’t go without this quote.

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.

Victory! I made it out of PA and into New Jersey—helped, in no small part, by my loved ones, and by the fragments I cling to.

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.

To the world!

All Trails Lead to Roan Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April Highlights

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

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

April 23, just before Hot Springs, NC, evening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 April, campsite past Spring Mountain Shelter

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

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

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

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

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

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