Sometimes it’s hard for me to reflect upon a trip and come up with words to adequately and accurately describe the experience to others. Experiences are living memories. People say, “Tell me all about it.” But in reality you’re trying to describe days, weeks, or even months in just a few minutes, and you realize that the experiences you have cherished, the ones that imprinted on your heart, are yours, and yours alone. They are the ones that made your life yours, and they are only relevant to you. (thought stolen from Ellie Cleary, Elephant Journal)
In an attempt to wrap up the AT posts, I’ve been reflecting on things that went well, things I’m glad I did, and things I would have liked to have done differently.
Trail Concerns: Were they Validated or Unwarranted? My top concerns prior to leaving for the trail included poisonous snakes, ticks (which are just the sickest creatures on the planet), spiders (Satan’s pets), mosquitoes, peeing in the woods after dark, leg stamina, and mental health. Oh… and always having enough water.
Secondary concerns included blisters, torrential rain, wet packs and tents, knees surviving, not killing my companions, and the heat/humidity.
In reflection, I’d say that my concerns were all valid. While I somehow escaped entanglement with Satan’s Arachnid Army, I did encounter poisonous snakes and watched a rather nasty spider try to attach itself to Scout’s backpack while navigating a downed tree. Surprisingly I did not encounter ticks (although Permethrin probably helped out here) and oddly escaped any blood-sucking mosquitoes (thank you rain). I only felt slightly panicked peeing in the dark, and somehow came through the trail with enough water and my physical and mental health in tact. Mostly. I did leave the trail with a couple of blisters and a swollen knee and hiked in torrential rain, but thankfully the Osprey cover kept my pack completely dry.
When I said yes to this trip I was under the impression that those I was joining had done something like this before. That was a false assumption which launched me into an insane amount of planning and a massive learning curve. The more I know the better I feel. That may not translate to practicality in the real world, but it’s how I tackle unknowns. The best way to conquer concerns, for me anyway, is to plan and learn as much as possible.
Conclusion? I’m glad I thought through so many different scenarios, so that I could be as prepared as I was. Although I still maintain that nothing could adequately prepare you for the AT.
Food. Did I make the right choices? Was it tasty? Was I starving or satisfied? I have specific food parameters I try to follow. I’ve been a vegetarian for several years, but I also usually eat gluten-free and dairy-free, and try to avoid most soy. I don’t put things in my body with ingredients I can’t pronounce. This makes backpacking a slight challenge. I really deliberated over what foods to take, how much, considered the weight of items, and paired it down. I was really happy with the Good-to-Go dehydrated food options, particularly the pasta. It really hit the spot. Amrita bars? If I never see another one of those it’ll be too soon. Kind bars are still my go-to and hit the sweet spot for me. Gluten-free pretzels were delicious in my trail mix but became slightly stale after a few days. I ate them anyway. By night three, we were at Neel Gap and had the opportunity to go into town for normal food. It’s amazing how after just three days on the trail all food parameters went completely out the window. Did I want some wine? Nope. I can drink that anytime back home. But I never buy soda at home. Or eat things like candy bars. I bet I haven’t had a real candy bar in over 7 years. Guess what my order included…
Conclusion? It’s okay to eat things you normally wouldn’t when you’re doing something you normally don’t. Each bite of that pizza, each nibble of that snickers bar, and each swig of that coke took me a little bit closer to nirvana. And Hiker Hunger? That’s a real thing. It’s indicated by eating anything in sight, or when you go out to breakfast and then immediately drive to a second place for lunch. Not that we did that.
Lessons and Observations.
Slow down and enjoy the scenery a little more. This is also known as the hiker’s rule of “take the time to actually see what you see.” I had problems keeping my mind in the present on this trip. For the first time ever while hiking, I felt it difficult to relax and enjoy what I was doing. This made it challenging to stop and actually see what was in front of me, other than to see it as a challenge. In hindsight, I wish I would have stopped at the rare overlooks more and taken longer rests to enjoy the views that I’d worked hard to get to. I loved watching the blue butterflies in several locations, the snails clinging to giant leaves or sides of trees, the variety of colors in the mushrooms, the trickling water or babbling streams we’d discover as water sources, the way the light filters through the leaves and how the fog wraps you in a mystical hug, the countless variances in the types of trail and the rolling mountains that would eventually come into view. I saw a lot. But I know I could have seen more.
I’m a slow-to-warm-up person. Perhaps this is why I didn’t love the trail. I wasn’t on it long enough to find my comfort level, and I was too focused on the end point for each day, forgetting to stop more and enjoy the journey that got me there.
Don’t just see the trail, listen to it. You’ll be amazed at what you hear. The sounds on the trail are soothing. Total silence. Until you hear the slight rustling of the leaves. Then birds singing and chirping, owls hooting in the distance, the sound of rain falling and the wind blowing in the trees, allowing droplets to escape down. There’s a unique sound that’s made when the rain rolls through high above, bathing the leaves which provided protection for us walking below. The sounds your boots make as they’re thudding along on the trail, or the sound of your trekking poles digging into the rock to help you scramble upward. The internal groans your body makes on a steep descent down. The sounds on a trail are some of my favorite things.
Hike Your Own Hike with an open mind. We started out as a group of four. We were soon separated into pairs, which we assumed would happen based on our varying degrees of preparation for the trail. We hiked our own hike. They hiked theirs. One is not better than the other. Had we all stayed together, the experiences, the people we met, and the memories would be completely altered. Best laid plans are meant to be changed and altered.
Side Thoughts from the Trail.
- Two is better than one. This applies to carrying an extra water bottle which was put to good use when Scout’s only bottle cracked on day one and I could give her my spare. It’s also true for hiking with a friend. Just make sure it’s a good friend.
- Lighten the load. My world started revolving around ounces. Yes, it seems ridiculous, but those ounces add up. I’m still trying to figure out how to lighten the load of what I consider “essentials” but two areas I could have cut weight on were items that seem counterintuitive. Yet… water and food make up a huge portion of the load. By day two I felt comfortable in calculating my reasonable drinking rates with knowing where the water sources were, thus reducing the amount I was traipsing through the woods with. I also could have taken slightly less food, because on days one and two my body was in complete shock and I really wasn’t that hungry. I had to force myself to eat, and even then, didn’t consume all of my food for those particular days. Any hike lasting longer than 4 days could also utilize the use of a food-resupply station, which would have reduced weight as well. As for those essentials? I’m still contemplating what of those could be left behind.
- If you want to earn a possible trail name of “Bear Bait” then bring along some packets of tuna or salmon. Our hotel room the first night smelled particularly aromatic when we discovered that Scout’s salmon packets had leaked during the flight and coated many things in the enticing salmon fragrance, leading us to wonder if this was really the secret to ensuring a bear encounter.
- The more distance you have from a point in time, the easier it is to romanticize the experience. Blood Mountain doesn’t seem so challenging now that we’re several weeks removed from crawling over the miles. It’s a good thing I wrote down this quote from Scout: “I would do anything for you, but if you tell me I have to do Blood Mountain with you again, you are no longer my friend.”
As someone stated in the Appalachian Trail Women’s Facebook group, “The trail dished us a heavy side of suck alongside the smiles and coveted views.” It did, indeed. But we embraced the suck. And if you pause long enough to really absorb your surroundings, you’ll also discover abundant life everywhere on the trail, in both the grandeur and the small. You’ll also meet some really interesting people along the way, all of whom are woven into your unique experiences.
The characters from the trail that are intertwined into my memories include Captain Blue (aka Gladiator), the German kids Achilles and Foot Powder, Alan and Lemonade Stan, overly helpful Jonathon, the North Carolina Three, Adam the assistant principal from Texas, the two guys from the last day whose names I never got, the trail angel at Woody Gap offering us beer, Scott on Blood Mountain, Jason and Splitter at Neel Gap, Tina and Rob and the Far-Side character at the Hiawassee Lodge, and Ron, our shuttle driver and rescuer.
Christopher McCandless, an American Explorer and whom the book “Into the Wild” is based on, stated, “The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.” Adventure is what drives us, challenges us, changes us, and makes us appreciative.