Exploring at Home

For someone who likes distance, this year has been hard. At first I was going to Scotland; that was obviously cancelled a while ago. Then I thought about hiking the Superior Hiking Trail in Minnesota. That no longer seems feasible or responsible, as much of the state is still shut down, and a three-plus week thru hike would render it difficult to get supplies without potentially exposing small towns to the virus.

So I’ve made the decision to do neither of these things, and instead stay closer to home. Now sections of the Sheltowee Trace or the Buckeye Trail are on the table as summer plans. At first I resisted something so close, but the more I learned about the trails, the more I opened up. Why is it that I resist an experience just because it is close to home? How did I not know how beautiful a semi-local trail could be? Why is something only sexy when it is foreign or exotic or new?

There are amazing things everywhere, including Ohio and Kentucky. Over the past few months I’ve begun to scratch the surface of places nearby I’d never been to before. Here are a few of them.

Middle Creek Park, Burlington, KY

My mom and I stumbled upon Middle Creek by accident. We were trying to go to Boone Cliffs Nature Preserve one evening for a walk in place other than our familiar haunts in Villa Hills and Fort Mitchell. But when we got to Boone Cliffs, we discovered that it was closed, the parking lot gated shut. Noticing a sign back on KY-18 for Middle Creek Park, we followed the arrow to the left, past Dinsmore Homestead, and discovered a massive parking lot at the Middle Creek Park trailhead.

Intrigued, we parked and began walking, descending a steep hill to follow the creek. What struck me first was two things: the omnipresent fungi on logs and beneath trees, and the fields of Blue-Eyed Mary everywhere beneath the shagbark hickory, honey locust, elm, and sycamore trees dotting the low-lying plain by the creek. Morel country, my brain whispered to me. I found Flammulina velipites, the edible enokitake mushroom; Cerioporus squamosus, pheasant back, and a variety of other mushrooms. I was elated.

The park contains over five miles of trail, including a large loop that crosses the creek on a bridge and winds its way over flat forest floor and up and over hills on the southeast side of the park. Numerous smaller trails connect to them main loop, providing for an easy way to cut the large 3-mile route shorter, if you so wish.

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The trails at Middle Creek park

That first night, my mom and I made it over the Trail 1 bridge and a bit past it, before we realized that it was late and we ought to be heading home. A week later, I took Wiggs back to Middle Creek and we completed the whole loop. It gets more difficult after the bridge, becoming a more classically hilly Kentucky hike, but there are fewer visitors farther east and south in the park, providing for a quiet, relaxing walk in the trees.

Middle Creek Park is located on KY-18 past Burlington and across the street from Dinsmore Homestead and Dinsmore Woods.

Wolsing Woods Trails, Independence, KY

In our manic quest to find morels, Wiggs and I searched several parks in Ohio and Kentucky in March and April. Though we didn’t find any mushrooms at all at Wolsing, this small park between housing developments was a pleasant surprise on a warm, sunny afternoon.

It’s a bit odd getting to Wolsing Woods. Approaching the park, the road takes a large dip and across a crowded railroad track. I almost got backed into by a large flatbed truck. I crossed the tracks quickly and, recovering, parked in the small lot at the edge of the trail.

These trails aren’t exactly quiet or wild; you can see the houses through the young woods at the tops of nearby hills, and a train line runs right past it. Nevertheless, there are some cool features. Many of the trees are labeled, so that walkers can learn how to identify honey locust, white ash, sycamore, maple, and American elms. The trail follows Bancklick Creek, a large tributary of the Licking River. When we were there, the whole area was covered in blooming Virginia Bluebells.

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Fields of Mertensia virginica, Virginia bluebell, at Wolsing Woods

At one end of the trail, we followed the path all the way down to the water. It was here that Wiggs spotted a tiny baby snapping turtle, smaller than the palm of his hand! We held and observed the reptile for a while, admiring the prehistoric look of him and his wet shell glinting in the sunlight, before continuing on.

The Wolsing Trails are completely flat, and would make a nice easy stroll if you’re looking for a mild afternoon walk in the area. This park can be reached from Turkeyfoot road or KY-536. For more information, visit the Wolsing Trails website.

Three Creeks Metro Park, Columbus, OH

This park isn’t exactly local if you live in Northern Kentucky or Cincinnati, I realize. But Columbus has become a bit of an adopted home for me, as that’s where Wiggs lives at the moment. We haven’t done as much exploring here as we have done in Kentucky, but this was one of the parks that we have recently visited, and I found it to be impressive for a city park.

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Map of trails and amenities at Three Creeks Metro Park, Columbus

Though Three Creeks is more of a bike-friendly park than a hiker haven, it is impressively large and beautiful for being right in the Columbus metro area. We started our walk at a parking lot near a pond where many people were fishing. We connected to the Alum Creek Greenway Trail, a paved bike path, and crossed Big Walnut Creek on a footbridge, following the path past numerous ponds, marshes, and even a large grove of pine trees. Along the way we happened to run into Wiggs’s friend Steve, whom we chatted with for a bit before continuing on the trail towards Heron Pond, another massive pond around which numerous fishers were gathered.

We followed a trail around this pond, returning to the main trail, and headed back towards the car. On the way we found a trail that leaves the bike path and enters the woods along Alum Creek to the Confluence, where Alum, Big Walnut, and Blackclick creeks meet. This path was quieter, softer, and flanked by massive sycamore and elm trees. Had it been earlier in the season, this may have been a nice morel hunting spot.

All in all, it was a pleasant day for a flat four-mile walk. I was envious of the bikers; I sold my bike a couple of years ago when I was leaving Flagstaff, and the prospect of such lovely paths made me miss it.

Middle Creek Park can be reached from numerous locations in southeast Columbus. For more information, visit the Columbus Metro Parks website.

Local Park Appreciation

Sometimes, as a thru-hiker on the Appalachian Trail, I would find myself developing a large ego about the fact that I had been on the AT for so long, forgetting that the vast majority of trail users are day hikers and section hikers, not thru-hikers. After a thru-hike, a hike that lasts less than several days can feel too short, or not good enough.

But I don’t think this mentality is healthy. Being able to go on a thru-hike is an enormous privilege, and most people do not have the time or resources required to do it. But the outdoors is a critical part of life. Becoming more aware of local parks and green spaces has made me understand this even more. We need trees and creeks and paths like we need food. Until this is all over, and even after that, we need to appreciate the nature that is close by.

A Little Hike in Yellow Springs

The pandemic has changed a lot of things: plans, travels, work, social life. One of the hardest things for me has been the inability to plan for the summer or for hikes. When our trip to Scotland was cancelled, Wiggs and I were pretty bummed. We intended to hike the West Highland Way, a 100-mile trail through the Scottish Highlands, and to visit with a couple of our friends from the Appalachian Trail. Though we’re working on alternate hike plans, and though other people are struggling with much bigger worries right now, it’s still a bit tough.

On the bright side, one of the things that I have enjoyed about the current situation is that it is making me appreciate the natural spaces available to me closer to home. Ohio has a reputation for being flat, boring, and uninteresting, but the truth is that there are lovely trails and parks all over the state. One of my favorite places is the area around Yellow Springs, particularly Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve and John Bryan State Park. Wiggs and I made a little day trip to the Gorge last week, and it was a perfectly sunny retreat from the news cycle and working at home.

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Yours truly and Wiggs on the bank of the Little Miami, in John Bryan State Park

Walking Through the Gorge

We met at the trailhead on OH-343 in the morning to begin our day. There were a lot of cars in the parking lot, and we soon realized that the main part of the trail was rather crowded. We did our best to leave enough distance between ourselves and the folks we passed on the trail as we began the walk down into the gorge.

After a flat section above the Little Miami River, the trail takes a rocky descent to walk right by the water. The path smooths out again once it is down in the gorge, where it is noticeably cooler than at the top. The river is narrow and gushing at the beginning of the hike, running between steep rock formations, before flattening out and becoming broad, slow, and peaceful at the Blue Hole.

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The Blue Hole. The Little Miami gets really wide, slow, and deep here, and it’s a lovely spot.

As we walked, Wiggs and I fell into our usual easy conversation, much of which frequently falls back to hiking, the Appalachian Trail, and future travels. We have learned that being on a trail, any trail, often reminds us in small ways of our thru-hike: the repetitive rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other, the feeling of the wind through the trees, the sound of water next to the path. After the initial excitement at the beginning of a day hike wears off, the instinct of walking takes over and the trail, any trail, feels like home.

Enjoying the Day

We followed the main gorge trail on the north side of the river until we reached the South Gorge Bridge. This footbridge was closed for repairs the last time we were here, but it was open this time, and we crossed it to the middle, slowly, avoiding the groups of other hikers and looking out at the river, now slow-flowing and glittering in the late-morning sunlight.

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Wiggs on the South Gorge Bridge

Deciding that we’d like to continue through the park to Glen Helen preserve, we crossed back to the north side of the river and walked on, as the Little Miami became smaller, rounding a bend. After this point there were few to no other hikers. We emerged from the woods at the Grinnell Mill, a restored grist mill and bed and breakfast. We planned to continue to the covered bridge at Glen Helen to have our lunch, but there was a team of workers putting up a barrier where the trail crossed the road and continued, so we turned around.

We found a lovely elm by the side of the Little Miami, where we sat and had our packed lunch. Wiggs also noticed a catfish in the river right near our spot, keeping us company as we munched on our turkey sandwiches. Shortly after we started walking once we finished our lunch, we found a flat, pebbly, sunny spot by the river. We stopped, I lay down and basked in the afternoon sun, and Wiggs skipped rocks across the water.

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The Little Miami from the footbridge

I’m not very good at staying in the present. That’s one thing that this pandemic has really shown me. For once, I can’t plan ahead or map out what the next period of my life is going to look like. This is difficult for me, but in a way, I  see it as a gift of the pandemic. In a culture that is obsessed with growth and consumption and future planning, being forced to remain in the current moment is a healthy reminder that life occurs not in the future tense, but in the now. I thought about this as I lay on the pebbly ground next to the Little Miami, feeling the sun on my skin and appreciating being with Wiggs. We’re trail people. We know how to enjoy the little things. Sometimes we just forget, and we need to be reminded.

Ending the Day in Yellow Springs

We finished up the hike by exploring some of the caves in the cliffs on the south side of the river, finding some lovely young pheasant back mushrooms, then finally crossing back over and heading to our cars. As none of the restaurants in Yellow Springs are open for dine-in right now, obviously, we couldn’t go to Peach’s Grill, our usual post-hike Yellow Springs hangout. Instead, we opted to order carry-out gyros from Bentino’s, which we ate with relish in the park by the community center.

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Wiggs and the Gyro

They were satisfying and hearty, and after we had finished we lay on a blanket, listening to the Grateful Dead and watching the evening clouds sail across the sky. Corny, I know. As if we belonged right in this crunchy, hippie hamlet right on the Buckeye Trail. Eventually we sighed, realizing that night was coming, and packed up the blankets and picked up our trash, and headed to our cars to return to our respective cities.

I looked at the windows of businesses as I drove out of Yellow Springs. There are shops, restaurants, and breweries that we love in this little town, and I hope they will survive the closures so that soon, people can come again and walk the streets and enjoy live music and buy books and drink local beer. But now, things are still, and birds dart across the sky in lazy loops, and the world is quiet. It will end soon, like all things do, and there will be noise and celebration again. But not yet. Not yet.

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A young pheasant back mushroom growing at the base of a tree right near the trail. We’ve been getting into foraging this year, and these make delightful dishes when you catch them young enough!

Shawnee State Park: The Sequel

Amid all the hubbub and weirdness of quarantine-land, my brain has started to wander to trails and a desire to be on them (as it always inevitably does, but now more than ever). I’m reading Wild, finally, and I can’t stop thinking about the Pacific Crest Trail. When can I do it? When can I be walking again? And I wonder how much longer we’ll be allowed to go to state and local parks. Will they close the cemetery trails? Will Zaleski State Park stay open so Wiggs and I can do the backpacking trip we planned on? Is it irresponsible of me to go to my favorite trails and prowl the hills for morels?

In the scheme of things, I know none of that really matters. I hold so much privilege in this world, and having a house, an income, and enough food to eat during the pandemic demonstrate that. I shouldn’t be worried about hiking while people are struggling to pay rent and feed their families.

But I’m a hiker, and for all the falling-apart madness in the world, I really miss hiking. I’m also a writer, so the closest I can get to being on a long-distance trail is writing about it.

Shawnee Trip #2: March 7-9, 2020

In early March Wiggs and I returned to Shawnee State Park, where we had met up last fall and started our relationship. This time we did much more of the loop, skipping just a couple of miles in favor of making it back to our cars in time to grab a beer in Portsmouth. It was a rare window of three perfectly sunny days, and now looking back on what happened just a few days later, I am so happy we went.

Here’s a bit about it, with photos, to take you out of your head and into the woods.

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Yours truly at the start of the backpacking loop at Shawnee State Forest. March 7, 2020

Spring Begins

Winter in southern Ohio isn’t necessarily cold, but it is depressing. Clouds hang low in the sky like soggy gray cotton. It rains—constant, thick drizzly rain—for days at a time. When we scheduled this trip we knew we were rolling the dice.

When I got out of my car at the trailhead on that Saturday morning, I was so glad to see that it was a warmish, hesitantly sunny day. In contrast to the torrential downpour that flooded our tents when we hiked this loop back in October, this weekend would turn out to be miraculously dry.

The first night was cold. We had to sleep with our water filters to keep them from freezing. The next morning our shoes were covered in a fine layer of frost. It was hard to get going, but when we eventually did, it warmed up. The sun blazed down on the still-brown trees and leaf-strewn paths, and I found myself actually warm outside for the first time since the fall.

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A lovely lake scene on the southern half of the Shawnee Backpacking Loop. March 9, 2020

The Hike

Back in October, the rain prevented us from doing as much of the backpacking loop as we had planned. This time, though we didn’t technically get through the whole loop since we took an alternate and slightly quicker trail, we got much farther.

The northern half—from the backpacker’s trailhead, past the Copperhead Fire Tower and down to Camp Oyo—was just as hard as I remembered from the fall. The hills are steeper than one would expect from a state as notoriously flat as Ohio. I had to pace myself on the steep inclines and pause at the top to let my lungs and joints rest. In a way it felt good to be this challenged. I hadn’t done any properly difficult hiking since doing this same route in the fall, and it felt in a way like being back on the AT again.

The southern half of the loop, which we did not get to do in October, was gorgeous. There were more views and longer ridges. It was still hilly, though not as bad as the northern half. On the second night, we ended up at a campsite on a ridge that juts out from the main trail. The temperature was slightly warmer, and we set up camp next to a tree and had a little fire. We sat and chatted, cooked dinner, and drank wine as we watched the sunset from the other side of the ridge.

There are a lot of things I like about hiking: the freedom, the untetheredness of living out of a pack, the sense of distance, the people. But the feeling of being content next to a campfire at sunset is pretty high up on the list. Especially when you’re calm and happy, and with someone you love.

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Wiggs and me, enjoying the early March sunlight. March 7, 2020

Home

Eventually, the three days passed and the hike ended, like all hikes do. We spent the last day zooming along a ridge, playing 20 Questions and fantasizing about cheeseburgers. I didn’t pack enough food for the weekend, having overpacked the last time, so I ate the last of my snacks for lunch and we sped back to the parking lot. We spent a few moments at the lake, watching the geese again and enjoying the feeling of spring about to bloom.

Then we went back to our cars, changed into sandals, and drove to Portsmouth Brewery for beers, burgers, and a massive plate of fries. It was shocking how fast the hiker hunger came back to me, and I was struck by how natural it felt to go from the trail and into a town. It felt so much like the AT, like hitching into Manchester Center and descending upon a restaurant. Soon, the meal ended too, and Wiggs and I said goodbye and headed home to our respective cities.

I thought about the woods as I was on my way home. I thought about how right it felt to be at Shawnee and how comfortable it feels to be there, and anywhere, with Wiggs. I feel confident in the woods. I feel strong and capable, despite a hill destroying me or the persistent pain in my ankle. I feel like I know what I’m about and what I can do. I feel home.

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Wiggs, enjoying sunset from camp. March 8, 2020

And Now

So it’s April now, a month since that three-day trip. If you had told me then that soon after I’d be teaching from home while a pandemic ripped through the world, I might not have believed you. Though the coronavirus was known at that point, it wasn’t yet clear to me how serious a situation it was about to become.

I feel so bad for all of the prospective thru-hikers who quit their jobs and sold their possessions in anticipation of a 2020 thru-hike. It is not easy to give up on plans, especially when they involve hiking. I know this intimately now: yesterday our flight to Scotland was cancelled. We won’t be hiking the West Highland Way this year, as we had planned.

Other hikes are being called off too. As of last week the Appalachian Trail Conservancy requested a formal closure of the Appalachian Trail in its entirety to ensure that people stayed off it and away from each other, in hopes of containing the virus. While many hikers have made the difficult decision to stop, postpone, or cancel their hike, there are still some people out there, despite the warnings.

As a hiker I know how hard it is to stay in one place. I miss the trail all the time, but I miss it more than usual now. Though giving up plans for a hike is nowhere near as difficult as the situation many people in oppressed communities are going through, it is still very difficult. At the same time, the last month has been an exercise—like the Appalachian Trail was an exercise—in accepting the present and learning to be adaptable. Hikers, let’s stay home now so that we can hike later.

To anyone reading, I hope you are well. Dream of trails, wash your hands, and hang in there.

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Part of the southern half of the Shawnee backpacking loop shares a route with the Buckeye Trail and the North Country Trail. We might not be going abroad to hike this year, but it’s good to remember that there are trails everywhere, even close to home.

 

 

Shawnee State Forest, October 2019

In late October I went backpacking at Shawnee State Forest in southern Ohio. It had only been a few weeks since completing the Appalachian Trail, but in those odd days following my summit of Katahdin, every day of not hiking felt like a confused century. The opportunity to walk again—through a forest heavy with the scent of changing leaves—was irresistible.

I had made the plan to go with a friend I met on the trail, Red Wiggler, aka Wiggs. I realized, through the power of social media, that he lived a mere two hours north of me, in Columbus, and sent him a message casually offering to serve as a semi-local hiking partner if he ever found himself missing folks from the AT. To my delight he responded almost immediately, and plans were set in motion for our three-day mini-adventure.

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Classic Ohio in the Fall.

I was gleeful. I went to Walmart to buy food for the trip, and got oddly nostalgic. It felt like I was in town along the Appalachian Trail. I imagined being with my trail family, carefully evaluating weight versus calories versus flavor and tallying up my purchases. By the end of my thru-hike I was sick to the point of nausea of rice sides, peanut butter, and oatmeal, so I didn’t buy any of those for Shawnee. But I did splurge: dehydrated bacon, bagels and cream cheese, and a non-perishable noodle concoction so extravagant that it came with its own massive plastic pho bowl. I sent a picture of my shopping basket to Wiggs as I sauntered around the store: I feel like I’m resupplying!

On Friday, October 25, I drove the hour and a half over winding rural Ohio roads to the parking lot at the Shawnee trailhead. I saw my hiking partner as I pulled up. For a moment, I wondered how it would go. We knew each other on the AT, but not well—our tramilies tended to travel at slightly different speeds, so we sometimes ended up at the same place, but he and I hadn’t talked as much as I would have liked to on the trail. He always seemed cool. I kind of had a low-grade crush on him. I didn’t know, though. Would I remember how to talk to people like I did on the AT? Would it be awkward?

All worries dissipated immediately as I parked my car and got out. “Wiggs!” I proclaimed. “Passport!” he proclaimed back with a miles-wide grin. We hugged, took a selfie, and sent it to all of our trail friends, and I knew the weekend would be something good.

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Yours truly and Wiggs, October 25, 2019

No Sun, No Problem

We hoped for sunshine, but this was Ohio in October. Rain was in the forecast for all three days, and it delivered. Oddly, it didn’t seem to make a difference. If anything, the rain made it feel even more realistic, like the thru-hike had never ended.

It was also a prime time to go backpacking, as the leaves were just about in their peak. They weren’t the same shades of vibrant red and yellow that defined Maine in September, but they were still lovely: lively yellow and a calm Ohio ochre. As we walked up and over hills and across ridges, I started to realize how beautiful this state could be. Like the AT, the beauty isn’t overt or dramatic. There was no above-treeline sweeping view, but there was a kaleidoscope of leaves and a certain peace in the soft dampness of the Midwestern autumn world.

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

 

The Trail

Shawnee’s trails aren’t the AT, but they are impressive, especially for Ohio. There is a main backpacking loop that measures just under 40 miles, as well as many options for side trails, cutoffs, and alternate routes.

We didn’t make it through the whole loop as we planned. The second day we were there it poured rain in the morning, so we sat in our tents at camp and talked, enjoying a luxurious breakfast and multiple cups of coffee before beginning to hike around noon. We made it about part of the way through, and planned to do the whole loop in the spring.

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

What we did see was highly enjoyable. Shawnee is sometimes called the “Little Smokies of Ohio,” as its scenery looks somewhat like that of the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina. Having hiked through the Smokies just a few months before, I could see the comparison. Not only are there vistas of gently rolling forested hills, but there are also fire towers and picturesque campsites, pretty little gurgling creeks and benches by a lake full of geese. We saw only a few other people the whole weekend, and the trail was blanketed with a sense of quiet autumnal peace.

Campsites with privies and water spigots are available throughout the loop, spaced at regular-ish intervals of between 6 and 10 miles. The first camp we stayed at had a lovely fire ring with a makeshift stone bench, and it was on this bench that we sat the first night while we ate our dinner, watched the fire, listened to music, and talked. The second night was a little soggier, but given better weather it would have been a superb place for sitting around and cooking. There is also a lake with a picnic area, and on the last morning we wound up there for about an hour, watching the geese fly over the water.

Having just finished a thru-hike, the trails did not feel overly difficult to me, though they were challenging for Ohio: there were frequent steep hills (though no long hills like on the AT) and the trail was sometimes overgrown or obstructed with blown-down trees. There were a few times when we had to navigate over or through massive brambles, but for the most part the trail was wide enough to walk two abreast and fairly well maintained.

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

Slightly Struggling

Despite being less than a month from my AT finish, and despite the relative ease of the trail at Shawnee, I struggled a bit over the three days. I sprained my ankle on the AT in Virginia and it probably never got a chance to heal properly, so that was still bothering me on this trip. Besides that, I discovered that trail legs disappear shockingly quickly. My calves were not the rock-hard boulders they were in Maine, and I was not able to tolerate the hills as easily as I might have, had I still been on my thru-hike. But I suppose this is the way of things.

The weather also presented its own set of struggles. On the AT, despite multiple days of heavy rain overnight, I never experienced a flooded tent. That changed at Shawnee. On the second night Wiggs and I inadvertently set up our tents in what would soon become a swamp in the relentless rain, and I woke up in the middle of the night to water all over everything I had with me. Oddly, I wasn’t really bothered by it, because I knew I didn’t have to hike all the way to Maine with that gear. I could just toss it in my car and go home the next day. But it was still a bit of a struggle to get out of my tent, relocate to a drier spot, and wring out my soaking clothes before hunkering down for a few more hours on my sad, worn-out three quarters of a Z-Lite.

I realized after this trip that I’m going to need some time to regroup on the gear front and heal properly before my next thru-hike. It was miraculous to be in the woods again for three days, and I can’t wait for the next time I wake up and hike day after day for six months. But for now, it’s good to have a rest, and to enjoy other parts of my life.

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

A New Adventure

Although Wiggs and I didn’t know each other very well on the Appalachian Trail, we still knew each other. And it was that knowing—that intuition from the AT, that immediate understanding of another thru-hiker—that made us comfortable with each other, opening up easily, connecting. When I arrived to the trailhead that morning I knew we’d get along, and I knew we would have a good time. I definitely didn’t expect, however, that Shawnee would lead to a relationship. And yet, that is just where it lead.

So we stumbled unintentionally into love. Isn’t that how it always happens, though? One minute you’re sending a message on Instagram to someone you met on the trail—If you ever want an Ohio hiking buddy hit me up!—and the next you’re driving home over windy rural roads with the pungent smell of hiker wafting from the backseat and a goofy smile on your face, wondering what would happen now.

Here’s what: An adventure of an entirely different kind. Comfort and challenge and distance and closeness all wrapped up into one. That weekend at Shawnee was both a return to the world in which I feel most myself, and the start of a great big something.

So go there, if you want. Tread the wide paths with their leaves and frogs and Branta canadensis honking on the water. Sit at the campfire and breathe in the soft Ohio woodland air. Drink the water from the spigot and feel wild. Maybe if you’re lucky you’ll fall in love.

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

Looking Back After Three Months

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

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

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

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

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

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

September_1
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.

September_7
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.

July_8
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.

August_3
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.

June_2
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.