A solid week ago now, Lentil texted me, demanding, and I quote: “Update your damn blog already!!!” Despite the friendly chiding, I was still preoccupied with my post-AT adventures. And since I had been solidifying these plans for a while pre-Katahdin, I couldn’t just interrupt them to write a blog post, if you’ll excuse my inattention. What were these post-AT adventures, you ask? Well, I was slowly making my way from Maine to Virginia, visiting friends and family along the way, or – as my friend Nicki called it – my Victory Tour.
I, on the other hand, would describe it as a three-week indulgence in overeating, sleeping excessively, moving minimally (often with a book in hand or with eyes fixed upon a TV), and lazily contemplating my next steps. And please don’t mistake the pattern for post-AT depression. Instead, understand that I – as might be surmised from my decision to thru-hike the AT – am a person who thrives on single-minded focus of a goal, and in this case, I chose to single-mindedly focus on an extended period of slothfulness. Where many of my thru-hiking buddies discussed their intentions to maintain the high level of physical fitness inherent in a thru-hiking physique, I boldly and honestly (patient, know thyself) declared that I would return to a lifestyle of sporadic fitness and on/off healthy dieting (…I can only convince myself that I don’t love sweets – to excess – for so long).
And truth be told, I truly believe that I’ve deserved my recent stint of near catatonia (dramatic word choice?).
Maine wore me out. In fact, I’m fairly certain that Maine was conspiring to kill me. I mean, sure, there was the section of southern Maine that has a reputation for being challenging and wearying. But don’t let anyone ever try to convince you that the last 100 or so miles in Maine are a cake walk either. (And actually, don’t ever let anyone – anyone! – convince you that any mile on the AT is easy peasy. Each person’s experience is unique, based on many factors including mental and physical state.)
In our attempts to prolong the thru-hike experience as well as to dry out considering the soggy conditions, my friends and I took every opportunity possible to zero and nero in the trail’s northernmost state, including a couple of double zeros. In so doing, we essentially – hindsight is 20/20 – set ourselves up for what I consider as a disaster of an experience for the Hundred Mile Wilderness.
For those of you who do not know, the Hundred Mile Wilderness is the stretch of trail after Monson through which there are no easy “bailouts.” While there are a couple of paved roads, none of them are well trafficked nor lead to easily accessible towns. So hikers essentially have to plan to hike straight through the 100 miles without respite in a town. The theoretical upside is that the 100 miles have a reputation for being easily managable, in particular relative to the southern section of Maine.
Unfortunately, rain can – and did – completely change that.
The day my friends and I entered the 100 Mile Wilderness, we managed to stay relatively dry – if you ignore the thick, warm fog of humidity that saturated my clothes in a layer of sweat. By that evening, the temperature dropped, and the rain mercilessly began to fall. From the cocoon of my sleeping bag, protected under the awning of my night’s shelter, a sense of dread began to suffocate me. See, the forecast was more or less calling for rain for the entire week. The following morning I actually contemplated – and tentatively declared – not hiking on before I managed to steel myself against the inevitability of getting – and remaining – hopelessly wet for the next several days.
The problem with the rain was not specifically being wet, although feeling like a drowned rat surely doesn’t help morale. Instead, it was the pain in – and disuse of – my hands. I don’t know how many of you have read my early blog posts when I was still in the throes of daunting winter weather conditions (was it daunting? It didn’t seem so at the time but feels so in retrospect.) or if you would even remember my discussions about my hands and feet.
The long and short of it is that I have a condition in my hands and feet called Raynaud’s whereby they become extremely painful and limited in dexterity (and often swollen) in cold conditions, which is exacerbated when they become wet. Generally, it’s nothing to complain about (no “whoa is me” pity party, seriously), but – if I’m being honest here – exhausted emotionally as I was at this point in my thru-hike, the cold, wet weather certainly did not improve the situation.
I don’t want to make it sound like it rained non-stop for the 6.5 days I was hiking through the 100 Mile Wilderness. However, even on the one completely dry, sunny day, the trail was a boggy river, leaving my boots – and aching feet – soaked through.
After six months on the trail – through snow, ice, foot-crushing rocks, knee-pounding descents, heat exhaustion, swarming mosquitoes, etc. – not once did the thought of quitting actually cross my mind – cross my heart and hope to die, I swear. For the first time, several days into trekking through the Hundred Mile Wilderness, forever wet and harrowingly hiking among the slick rocks and roots (remember, I’m clumsy and bleed easily), I thought to myself, “I could quit right this very minute. I’m utterly, all-consumingly, stick-a-fork-in-me done with this trail.”
Luckily for me, there was no easy out, as I mentioned above. And let’s be real: I wouldn’t have actually quit. For better or worse, I’m not very good at it. But for the first and only time on the trail, the thought crossed my mind.
I don’t want you all to think I spent my last week completely miserable. Like much of my thru-hike, this last week was marked by extreme contrasts, highs and lows, often changing in the blink of an eye. One minute, I’m edgily hiking in an attempt to push through; the next minute I’m sitting on a beach, awash in gratitude at the sparkling blue lake in front of me. One night I’m shivering and nauseated from hiking in the cold, wet rain; the next night I’m ravenous and overcome with gratitude over my abundance of cheesy rice.
Fortunately, the morning that Lentil and I hiked out of the Hundred Mile stretch, the sun shone down unapologetically, warming the previous night’s 30-something degree temperature into the 60s, as if to say, “OK, you paid your dues. You’ve earned a respite.” We spent that morning sitting in the sun, drying our boots and socks and soaking up much-appreciated Vitamin D. (This was one of the week’s highs.)
And the following day, when we – including friends Lentil, Honey B, Vitamin C, Ledge, M-80 and Trooper (and their dog Willow) – summitted Katahdin, we were all treated to equally beautiful weather conditions, which made the previous week more than worth it, as far as I’m concerned.
So now, here I am, three weeks later. After bouncing from Millinocket, ME to Boston to Burlington, VT to NYC to (various towns in) New Jersey to DC/Arlington, VA to Richmond, VA and finally to Virginia Beach, I sit here contemplating my next move. I hesitate to say too much since my experience on the trail has taught me that life is to be taken one day at a time and that plans can change at the drop of a hat. And I do have a tendency to come up with 1,000 ideas before one sticks.
Keeping that in mind, of course I have thoughts on how the next couple of months/years of my life could play out.
Over the last few months on the trail, I thought – and frequently postulated aloud – that I would like to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (the west coast equivalent of the Appalachian Trail) in 2014. However, I’ve decided that the A.T. really did take a pretty significant toll on my body. My knees and feet are pretty roughed up; I’m still going down flights of stairs leading with my left leg to lessen the impact (although I think I’ll be OK to start running again as soon as I get new sneakers). And I have several significant scabs and divets on my legs that have yet to heal. Time to work on a more well-balanced diet and not put as much of a physical strain on my body for a while.
Further, I would like to take what I learned on the A.T. and make some changes – lightening up my gear and perhaps learning how to dehydrate my own food. And I’m not sure that the six months between now and the beginning of the PCT thru-hiking season will be enough for me to prepare mentally and physically.
Instead, I am tentatively planning to thru-hike the PCT in 2015.
In the meantime, I think I might like to maybe, um, perhaps – gulp – try writing a book about my experience. I’m extremely nervous about even saying that on this blog – as in to an audience – because 1. I’ve never attempted such an endeavor and am extremely intimidated, 2. I know there are plenty of books by A.T. thru-hikers and don’t really know if there’s a marketable need for another, 3. Refer to 1 and 2.
But, what the heck. The worst that can happen is that I do not accomplish that goal and move onto another one. So there it is. For the foreseeable future, I will be trying to collect my thoughts and write a book. If nothing else, it’ll be a good exercise in helping me reflect on this significant life experience.
Other ideas, that have the potential to run concurrently with writing a book, include moving out west in the Spring to work in a PCT trail town or – assuming the Federal government resumes funding the National Park Service (not trying to be political, just practical) – I would love to spend a season working and living in a national park, such as Yosemite.
Mind you, I haven’t completely given up on the idea of returning to the “desk job” lifestyle. I’m just at the point where I’m coming off a 7 month high and want to take that energy and run with it. If I come across a job that compels me (ideas welcome!), I’d certainly keep an open mind. In the meantime, though, I’m pretty excited by the prospects in front of me, so I’m convinced it’s a pretty decent jumping off point for now.
1. In the coming weeks, I plan to write several follow up blog posts that might be useful to some of you out there planning a future thru-hike, including an exhaustive breakdown of my expenses and a complete review of all of my gear choices. If you are interested in any other topics, please let me know via comment.
2. Of course there is no right way to thru-hike the A.T., but I would be glad to converse with anyone one-on-one (via email, phone call, in-person if we’re geographically close) that is looking for advice or information, based on my own experience. Feel free to ask me via comment or message me on Facebook (please no “friend requests” unless I know you). Men too; however, women out there, I was looking to talk to another female when I was planning, so I’d like to point out that I’d be happy to discuss any topic specific to being a female on the trail, if you’re interested.
3. Thank you to everyone who left comments of congratulations and support. I was truly overwhelmed by the outpouring.