The mind of a thru-hiker: a scary place to be

From the moment I decided to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, my mother has provided unwavering support. She listened to my plans, encouraged me, and promised to send mail drop boxes all along the way. Then, the night before I flew to Georgia she finally said,

“So, what will you actually be doing all day? You just…hike?”

Ha! Truth comes out.

“Yes, Mom, I’ll hike. And eat. And camp. And take in the natural beauty around me. And think.”

“And…that’s it?”

We had a good laugh over our different views on having fun, but it made me realize that many of you might appreciate insight into the mind of a hiker (or at least this hiker) because, let’s face it, there’s a lot of time for thinking.

The other morning my friends and I left Franklin, NC after taking a Zero. Ron Haven, a great friend of the trail, dropped us off at Winding Stair Gap, and we picked up where we left off.

After a few minutes of climbing with our freshly loaded packs, I thought, “I think my heart is going to explode. I have to stop eating so many York Peppermint Patties and PB M&Ms in town. Maybe if I just vomit, I’ll feel better. No, wait it out. Wait it out, Jor. Let your body catch up. Or maybe vomit. No.”

Sure enough, within a mile, I felt better and began hitting my groove. I leap frogged back and forth with the same half dozen people for a while before deciding to take a break to create distance. Then, over the course of the next 15 miles, I hiked mostly alone, more caused by inconvenient spacing than by intent.

At one point, I came across a fellow hiker who unabashedly asked if Peanut were behind me. Keeping in mind that our little hiking clan has met this young buck (puppy dog?) before, I decided to be evasive in my response and to wait around unsuccessfully for Peanut for a half hour to head him off at the chase. Hey, we ladies have to stick together, especially when unwanted attention from puppy dogs is involved.

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Luckily, I’d intersected said puppy dog at an old stone fire tower, which lent itself to a good resting point. I took the opportunity to stretch, drink some water, and take in the view.

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Foul weather was in the forecast, but we managed to get out in front of the storm and enjoy a calm day of hiking…and sight seeing, I suppose.

When Peanut didn’t catch up, I continued on. Here’s where the fun really begins. I spent the next 7 miles in the following conversation with myself. Hold onto your seats, folks, because this isn’t pretty.

I wonder if it’s going to start snowing tonight. The forecast said it might. So, if it snows, I hope it doesn’t melt then refreeze. That would be so treacherous, like the time I tried to hike on ice a few months ago in DC. Hm, I wonder what everyone at home is doing right now. Wait, what’s today’s date? What day of the week is it? Am I missing someone’s birthday? Oh shoot, I forgot to call Grandma and Grandpa before I left town. Heave, this hill is exhausting. I have to pee. Ugh, I don’t want to stop. There’s no place to hide around here. Have I eaten anything today? I should eat. I don’t want to eat. Maybe I’m thirsty. What am I doing here? I must be crazy. Oh, wow, that moss is awesome. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it before. Hm, what color is it? Dang, I’m so bad with colors. It’s probably because of my rods and cones. I always mix up blues and purples. Wait, this moss is greenish. I’m making excuses. I wonder where everybody is. They probably don’t want to hike with me. Ugh, I can be so annoying. I should tone it down. Less jibber jabbering and giggling. I can do stoic. I should aim for stoic. And I would walk 500 miles. And I would walk 500 more…da da da… Holy cow, this last mile is a bear. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming…

For the record, today’s internal conversation – during which I was hiking uphill for 6.5 miles – involved a lot of cursing and defeatism. “What if I just stop right here on the trail and sit down? Will someone come find me, or will I die of hypothermia? I could probably find a cave nearby to stay warm. Or maybe I should put all my clothes on and build a fire. Oh what the f&$@. F&$@ you, mountain. I’m going to beat the crap out of you, you piece of crap. You’re mine. Oh, thank goodness, I made it to the top.”

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Yeah, sometimes it’s an uphill battle in one’s head. (For the record, stairs are my least favorite trail feature, so let’s say an ‘upstair battle.’). But most of the time it’s just a mess in there. I’m sure there’s a mathematical equation to explain the thoughts in a hiker’s head over time, but for now I only have anecdotal evidence.

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When I finally made it the 15 miles to Cold Springs shelter after the last stretch of snow lined trail, I found Lentil with his sleeping bag set up and five others I’d never met, filling the shelter to capacity. The following conversation – which was completely pleasant in tone – ensued.

“So when did you get here that you got a spot?” (Read: why didn’t you save me a spot?)

“About an hour ago. I was the first person here. I felt really good today on the downhills.”

“Oh wow, you booked it today. That’s great.” (Read: why didn’t you save me a spot?) “What are my other options?”

“There are campsites on the hill about 100 feet up the trail.”

“So, where? Up on the hill?” (Read: Whimper, don’t make me go up there.)

“Yeah, nobody’s up there yet. You’ll have your pick.”

“So, nobody’s up there yet?” (Read: Pout, seriously, up that steep hill? I just hiked 15 miles.)

“Yeah, actually I was thinking maybe I should just suck it up and grab a campsite. I’ll have to see if my (newly sealed) rain fly works eventually.”

“Oh, yeah?” (Read: Jor, you have pride. Don’t stoop just because it’s lonely on the hill. Tell him to stay in the shelter.) “Alright, I’ll go check out the sites.”

When I finally returned to grab my pack and to get fresh water:

“OK, I’m going to go up to the campsites. I’m not coming back down. I’ll see you in the AM.” (Read: I’ve accepted that I can’t stay in the shelter, but I’m still grumpy and don’t want to hang out because I’m not one of the cool shelter kids.)

Within an hour, Zen joined me up the hill, and Peanut made it as we were finishing up dinner, a light beady snow clinging to our hair and clothes. We all settled in for the night. Lentil joined us for a few minutes before making his way back to the shelter.

Then, Peanut and I huddled in my tent talking and eating York Peppermint Patties until past 11. Yes, I know I’d sworn them off earlier in the day, but – after a 15 mile hike full of ups and downs, both literal and figurative, jibber jabbing and peppermint patties make everything all better.

Meandering on,

Jordana

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28 thoughts on “The mind of a thru-hiker: a scary place to be

  1. Pingback: The Camino de Santiago… | The Rider

  2. That is similar to what’s in my head on any given day! I love peppermint patties and wouldn’t have any restraint either. They are kind of like rice krispie treats, you just gotta have one more. Keep up the good work!

  3. *laugh* the internal voice. what we don’t realize in our lives is how little we get to hear ourselves think. on the trail you find out very quickly that your mind is a very loud and amazing thing – i’ve often tried to explain that to other people…it’s five months of listening to yourself THINK, and man, you’d better be OK with the voices in your head or you will go mad or at least be comfortable with your own madness. this is a great post, including the shelter interaction…love it. good memories.

  4. Ya – my mind chatters like that a lot… even on the 15-min walk to work or doing dishes… Actually, I was thinking of you on my walk in: hmm… bet the old railway line they ripped up last year would make a great hiking path… I wonder if anyone’s gotten any further with all the levels of government that own the trail… I wonder if it is still illegal to hike on now that the tracks are gone… I wonder if we could encourage people to use it now, which would get more people using it, which would maybe help it to turn into an official trail… I should talk to Jeff who seemed to know about that stuff and would love it to be a trail…

    And then I got to work and forgot til now. I do envy your time to think and just enjoy the day without commitments and other things vying for your attention… I must make some time for those kind of days.

    Oh, and note: Peppermint Patties are health food! Antioxidants in the chocolate and mint is good for digestion! Enjoy!

  5. Great topic. I’m sure thru-hiking is a romantic thought to some, a bucket list kind of thing that people don’t give serious thought to, like spending about 95% of months and months inside your own head, YIKES! I have an idea as a distance runner that it can be pretty lonely out there, and that’s only on a two-hour run, you have to learn to enjoy your own company, something not everyone is suited for. So, great idea to throw it out there and post it. Go with it!

    • Aww, I didn’t mean anything by it! I’d have gotten in touch if I had contact info. I will say that every person I met in Franklin made my friends and me feel welcome. Your home is a wonderful trail town.

  6. jordana,hope u have gotten my other posts to you…i am the ole gal that will be walking your blazing trail when i am in my 70th year,2016. people say why, i say why not…i hope i will make my 100th mile,and see the nc/ga border and further north. i think inside myself all the time so hopefully i have a jump start on that part…altho i am sure each at hiker is different there must be a common thread that bonds u to the other. do we all color outside the line…….?? again thanks for all your hard work and efforts to enlighten the rest of us……..get more sleep if you can,morningstar

  7. lmao You just made my day and I’m sure all that crap would be going through my head, too. I couldn’t imagine trying to do this solo. I’d be freaking out if I’d go hours without seeing anyone. Good that eventually everyone meets up at the shelters in the evenings and also good that you look out for fellow hikers. Just remember, you are living the dream of a lifetime while the rest of us are stuck back home going to jobs we hate! 🙂 Keep on pushing on!

  8. So, “Peppermint Patty” you don’t have a trail name yet? Hmmmm, I’m thinking “Peppermint Patty”. Wait until you have that sapient moment of enlightenment as your walking along thinking about mindless meandering thoughts, “Hey, I spent $200,000 +/- on an education and this is all I can think about..”

  9. As you know, I love reading your posts and sharing your adventure through your words and photos. Just wanted to let you know that I nominated you for two blogger awards because you inspire me and make me laugh. Check out my blog post for details.

  10. Loved reading the honest conversation with yourself! I can’t imagine doing what you’re doing, but I’d probably be thinking like that too!

    Just keep swimming!
    Jolene

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