Life changes when one takes on a “big epic.” A significant part of adventure is moving out of one’s comfort zone. Obviously, during that time frame, life is different than the usual routines of home. However, with most good epics, some changes are longer lasting. They continue even after returning back to “normal” life. Here are some of the things we lost…and found…on our backpacking adventure on the Appalachian Trail earlier this fall.
Fears (of snakes, of spiders, of walking in rain, of the dark, of getting lost!!)
Long to-do lists
“Need” for lots of “stuff” (except books…we still need books…)
Weight (if you find it somewhere, please don’t send it back…)
Tastebuds (everything tastes great when you are starving and tired at the end of a long day of hiking…fortunately we have regained these now that we are home!)
Need to be in control of even small details (okay, so this is an ongoing battle…)
Outdoor Skills (reading a topo map, making a campfire, pitching a tent, and more)
Perseverance (gotta keep walking until there’s a flat place to camp!)
Muscles (and hip bones…who knew I actually have hip bones?! HA!)
Attitude of partnership and companionship between daughter and me
Enjoyment in simple pleasures
Ability to reframe frustrations by choosing a different attitude
Need for regular exercise (We are working hard to not lose this one again. Hubby asked this morning what I had planned for the day. I was shocked to hear myself say that I *needed* to get out and walk, that I was feeling jittery without exercise. What a stunning change from the couch-potato I was before this hike!)
We look forward to returning to the Appalachian Trail for another long-distance adventure. (Is it spring yet?!) We want to reinforce the attitudes and life skills we found this fall.
Have you taken on the challenge of a “Big Epic” recently? What things were lost and found for YOU along the way??
Both of us look for beauty in our surroundings. Even though every ounce adds up on a long-distance backpacking trip, we chose to carry a small camera, sketch paper, and a variety of pencils. Here is some of the art we brought back from our time on the trail. Enjoy!
Daughter spends hours creating imaginary characters. While on this trip, she worked hard at adding action to her drawings.
Influenced by spending so much time in the woods, she drew both whimsical and realistic images of things she discovered along the trail. One afternoon she dissected a number of acorns and drew what she found inside the shell.
Scenes like this one near the Blackburn Trail Center led to both a drawing and a poem:
Up! Down! Up again!
When will we be there?
11:00. 11:45. 12:00. 1:00.
Finally!! (Oh,nice view…)
I prefer to use color in my drawings, like this reminder of a rainy day:
Daughter remembered the day this way:
Pouring, Sloshing, Sliding
Walking in the rain
My heart sings when I see beautiful colors in nature, especially when the color “pops” out from a darker background. When trying to capture those scenes on paper, I love the saturated colors I get from Derwent Inktense watercolor pencils:
Finding beauty and making art on the trail added to our enjoyment of our grand adventure!
Most of the long-distance hikers on the Appalachian Trail are in a time of transition. One phase of life is finished and there is still uncertainty about the “what next?” This definitely described me last summer as I prepared for our big adventure. Hubby and I were trying to choose a direction to follow among many possibilities for the future. Hiking the Appalachian Trail seemed to make so much sense—take a long break from the demands of “real life” and sort out big questions along the way.
Obviously, on challenging, overwhelming days (like the one I described HERE) the only questions being pondered are things like “can I manage to keep moving?” or “when can I crash for the night?” Even on good days, however, life questions rarely crossed our minds. In talking with other hikers, this was a common experience. The immediate overshadowed the ambiguous or unanswered.
“I’d set out to hike the trail so that I could reflect upon my life, to think about everything that had broken me and make myself whole again. But the truth was…I was consumed only with my most immediate and physical suffering. Since I’d begun hiking, the struggles of my life had only fluttered occasionally through my mind…I’d imagined endless meditations upon sunsets or while staring out across pristine mountain lakes. I’d thought I’d weep tears of cathartic sorrow and restorative joy each day of my journey. Instead, I only moaned, and not because my heart ached. It was because my feet did and my back did…” – Cheryl Strayed, “Wild”
We often used our thoughts to distract ourselves from frustrations of hiking including aches and pains. I tended to focus on finding safe footing or on how much further we had to go before stopping for the afternoon. I looked forward to enjoying a chocolate bar at our next break. I debated whether or not daughter had been doing enough “school” things or I plotted out my next blog post. Daughter preferred to remember lyrics or make up new ones to favorite melodies. She quoted extended passages from books, movies, and plays. She made up profiles for new imaginary characters and planned how she would later draw them. All of this kept our brains busy while hiking, but did nothing toward finding answers to big questions.
When we took a break on the trail or on zero days, we tended to live in the moment. We enjoyed the view or listened to birds sing or wondered about little critters we saw. We traded stories and information with fellow hikers. Questions that felt so important to sort through when at home, lost their urgency while enjoying the pleasures found in nature.
We have been home for a month now. I’m still baffled as to the “what’s next?” I’m not sure what daughter and I “should” be doing. Some days I’m not even sure what we want to do. Hubby and I are trying (so far unsuccessfully) to figure out what work he will do as he finishes his career. We need to envision what retirement might look like and how to best prepare for it in the next decade. All things we were pondering before the AT adventure. All big questions. All still unanswered.
What we DO know is that the time spent backpacking was invaluable. It brought calm in the midst of the questioning. It brought enjoyment and practice living in the moment. Daughter and I look forward to spring. We still might not have answers to our life questions, but we are heading back to the trail for whatever gifts we will find along the way.
Just like the main character in Judith Viorst’s classic children’s book, we had a day where everything was frustrating and we just wanted to quit. On this particular day, we were attempting a longer than usual distance for us which made it even more challenging to continue putting one foot in front of the other. In talking with other hikers, these are common feelings during the first few weeks of a long distance hike until one’s mind and body both strengthen…
I went to sleep in the Ed Garvey Shelter but the owls were so noisy I didn’t sleep all night. When I got out of my sleeping bag this morning it was really cold and by mistake I slipped on the fancy stairs and hurt my broken toe and I could tell it was going to be a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
At breakfast my daughter had her favorite breakfast drink and another hiker fixed an omelet rehydrated meal that smelled yummy but my breakfast bars had been crushed to crumbs so small they couldn’t hold the peanut butter. I think I’m gonna quit hiking and go on vacation in Tahiti.
When it was time to leave, one hiker was already packed up and saying good byes and my daughter was still slowly sipping her hot chocolate. I said, “I could use some help.” I said, “this stuff won’t possibly all fit back in my pack.” I said, “we are always the last to leave.” No one even answered. I could tell it was going to be a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
When we finally got on the trail, my daughter hurried ahead and took the lead. When I wanted a break, she said I walked too slow. When I looked at the map, she said I was ignoring the side trail to an interesting overlook. Who needs overlooks? I could tell it was going to be a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
I could tell because when we finally took a break and got our snacks out of our packs, I dropped my bag and the M&Ms fell on the ground and my daughter said I was obviously not a long-distance hiker because I didn’t choose to eat dirt-covered M&Ms. I said, “I hope the next time you open your pack your Snickers bar falls out and lands on the beach in Tahiti.”
She still had dried mandarins in her fruit mix and pop tarts in her snack bag and a day hiker gave her a bottle of flavored water. I had only peanuts and crumbly granola bars left for snacks and plain spring water that wasn’t even cold anymore. It was a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
That’s what it was because I was already exhausted and we weren’t even halfway through the downhill climb. My daughter was still full of energy and we met a trail-maintainer going the other way who climbed up the rocks like a mountain goat. “The ‘Roller-Coaster’ is a few days from here and it’s even harder than this,” he said. “Next week,” I said, “I’m going to Tahiti.”
On the way down the steep mountainside, I was afraid I was going to slide off the edge of the trail and there were so many rocks that even the tree roots had to wrap around them and the path kept going down and down forever. My knees started aching and my broken toe hurt so bad even ibuprofen didn’t help. I started crying and then that squirrel up in the tree laughed at me so hard he dropped the nut he was carrying and it almost hit me on the head.
I am having a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day I announced. No one even answered.
When we finally got to where the Appalachian Trail follows the flat C&O Canal towpath, it was boring. The trees all looked the same and my pack was so heavy I couldn’t skip and I was tired of walking. My daughter thought the turtles sunning themselves on logs were cute but all I noticed was how disgusting the scummy water smelled. She said the whitewater rapids of the Potomac River were beautiful but the glinting sun hurt my eyes. I tried calling my husband when we took a break but the reception was bad. I think I called Tahiti by mistake. When I finally got through, it was so static-y that my husband suggested I try again later when there was better coverage in town.
When we finally got to Harper’s Ferry, the outfitter didn’t have the small fuel canister I wanted and the meal my daughter ordered at the café tasted better than mine. I thought I knew the way to the hostel but we missed the trail and had to turn around. (Who puts the white blazes used to mark the way on lampposts and walls?!) I was so tired I thought I was dead. But someone said I couldn’t be dead because I was still walking.
It was a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
Nobody told me the hiker hostel was a zillion miles up the hill from the historic town. When we got there I was excited that there was frozen food available to purchase for supper (no further walking needed). But there were no pepperoni pizzas left and I hate plain cheese pizza. There was a choice between vanilla or cookies-n-cream ice cream and I hate both of them. The shower at the hostel was too hot, I got soap in my eyes, I slipped on the wet bathroom floor and all the other hikers had used the thick towels. I hate thin, scritchy towels.
When I went to bed, the mattress was too soft for me to get comfortable and my headlamp batteries had run down so I couldn’t read and somebody was already snoring so loud I couldn’t get to sleep. It has been a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. My daughter says some days are like that. Even in Tahiti.
If you want to read the original book by Judith Viorst, you can find it at your local library or you can buy it HERE.
(Note: We finished this year’s epic hike–filled with good days and a few terrible ones–on October 21. We will continue to post photos and stories for a few more weeks.)
Lessons for the trail…Lessons for life!The Appalachian Trail seems to be constantly climbing up one side of a mountain and clambering down the other. This gets exhausting when it is repeated hour after hour after hour. Sometimes we just wanted to drop our packs and quit…but even that is difficult to do when there is little flat ground to be found. A common grumble when hikers get together is wondering just what the trail-makers were thinking and why the trail has to go up and over every mountain along the way rather than staying on ridge lines or meandering along the sides of mountains. Complaints were louder when the trail headed straight up and down. Sections with switchbacks or at least with log or stone steps were much easier to hike. (To be fair, those types of changes would be much harder to build when making trail…)
Climb every mountain, Ford every stream, Follow every rainbow, Till you find your dream. –from Sound of Music
Eventually we figured out how to conquer the steep climbs. It took trial and error to figure out what tips and hints from other hikers worked well for us.
Never look too far ahead. It can be discouraging to see how far you still have to climb!
Focus on the next step and the next one. Counting steps can help. (I used 25 steps, not 100 like some hikers suggested.) Take a short break for deep breaths and a gulp of water each time you hit that number.
Don’t hesitate to take a longer break and take off your pack if you find a good seat (boulder or fallen tree). Just don’t sit too long or your muscles will stiffen up and make the final climb more miserable!
Readjust the weight you are carrying. Tighter straps on the uphill and looser straps on the downhill use gravity to keep weight better aligned over hips.
Don’t fight the mountain. Work with the terrain and with your own body to find a rhythm that can be sustained.
Celebrate when you reach the top! Take time to look back on what you accomplished before moving on to the next challenge. Downhill climbs are also exhausting, but at least there is relief in switching modes and stressing different muscles…
After a few weeks on the trail, we realized our muscles were stronger and our energy had increased. With each mountain we put behind us, our confidence grew. We really CAN do this. In fact, now that we are back home, we quickly get bored with flatland walking. It’s not just the lack of beautiful views. It simply feels too easy. We walk up and down the little hills around here without getting out of breath or tiring muscles.
It was hard to believe we had really hiked the ridgeline above this town!
Looking back, we realize we did not just learn how to thrive while climbing up and down physical mountains. Those same techniques can be applied when facing difficult challenges in life:
Never look too far ahead
Focus on the next step
Take self-care breaks
Readjust expectations/manage heavy burdens
Don’t fight against the challenges but find a workable rhythm to move forward
Celebrate milestones reached and look back on what you accomplished
Wishing all of us JOY in the journey, even in the midst of difficult ups and downs!
(Note: we finished this year’s big adventure on October 21. We will continue posting photos and thoughts from our AT hike for the next few weeks.)
Many folks assume the Appalachian Trail must be similar from start to finish—a dirt path meandering through the woods. That’s not wrong, but it only describes a small portion of the AT. In reality, we backpacked an ever-changing trail.
The stereotypical “walk in the woods”
In the 150+ miles that we hiked, we encountered changing elevations, varied plants and trees, and different views. Sometimes it felt like we were walking through an unending green tunnel. Other times we saw glorious layers of mountains beyond a patchwork quilt of farms in the valleys. Here are some of the many trails we walked while backpacking on the Appalachian Trail in Maryland and Virginia:
Boggy ground is crossed on a series of boardwalks…
A few streams are crossed on a bridge, some are waded through, and most are crossed by balancing on rocks.
Sometimes the trail follows the side of a road.
Sometimes it winds through the center of town! (This is in Harpers Ferry WV…not Narnia as some might suspect…)
Some trail sections have gravel; some require climbing over boulders; and other sections are just a jumbled path through loose rock.
No matter where the white blazes lead, it is always interesting to follow the ever-changing trail.
(Note: we finished this year’s hike on October 21 but will continue to share stories and photos from the trail for another few weeks.)
Backpacking the Appalachian Trail in the fall means beautiful views and bright colored leaves. No one warns you it also means NUTS: walnuts, hickory nuts, chestnuts, and acorns. The leaves are certainly lovely…but the nuts are maddening!
At first the nuts are fascinating. “Oh look, there’s a walnut!” “Awww, that acorn is so tiny it’s cute!” “Oh look, I’ve never seen an acorn that huuuuuge!” Then irritation mounts, as individual nuts cause problems. “Yuck!”—walnut husks leave big black stains on whatever they touch. Stepping on a nut startles the hiker with a loud “crack!” or could leave a bruise, even through heavy boots. Eventually, those innocent looking nuts become dangerous. When the trail is filled with fallen acorns, walking over them becomes an exercise in keeping ones balance on a slippery, rolling, sliding surface. This is similar to trying to keep a 2 liter bottle of soda upright on the metal rollers at a grocery store checkout lane—easier said than done.
Staying in shelters in wooded areas along the trail has its own challenges in the fall. When a nut falls off an overhanging tree onto the metal roof, it lands with a crack like a rifle shot. At first, the hiker sits up in terror each time, heart pounding with a rush of adrenaline. A windy night sends many nuts onto the roof at the same time, sounding more like machine-gun fire. Yikes! The good news is that after a few nights of interrupted sleep, the exhausted hiker eventually learns to ignore the explosions.
In one area of the trail in Virginia, daughter and I kept seeing spiny green balls. We couldn’t figure out what they were. (We knew our initial impression of lime green baby hedgehogs was unlikely to be correct. HA!) Eventually, we found out these were chestnuts. Yes, nuts from genuine American Chestnut trees which were wiped out by blight more than 100 years ago. Apparently some sturdy roots continue to put out new shoots that grow to as much as 20 feet tall and drop nuts before eventually succumbing once again to the blight.
The combination of critters and nuts is another challenge in the fall. One night daughter and I were woken up by weird noises. It was not the usual able-to-be-ignored “BAM!” followed by “shhhhhhhhh…plop!” as the fallen nut hit the roof then slid down and fell to the ground. This time we heard a “clicking, clacking, skritch, scratch” sound. Suddenly there was an unexpected explosion immediately above our heads! Daughter jumped up and turned on her headlamp. There was an acorn on the top wooden bunk platform. A mouse popped through a hole in the roof, scurried down from the ceiling, grabbed the nut, and climbed back up. It then tried to shove the nut back out through a hole. That didn’t work well as the acorn fell out of its mouth, “BAM!” back onto the platform. Daughter grabbed the nut and threw it outdoors. Whew! We were able to sleep in peace for the rest of the night.
(drawing by Andowen)
The next morning, we hustled through our usual morning routine, in a hurry to get back on the trail. Everything was finally packed. I slid off my camp shoes and tied them to my pack. I put on my first boot and tied it tightly. I shoved my foot into the second boot…oops! Someone left me a gift during the night! (Or else that critter somehow thought my smelly boots made a good pantry for his winter food supply…) That hickory nut soon followed the night-time acorn into the woods.
It’s a nutty world in the fall on the Appalachian Trail. However, as my parents discovered when they left a car parked for a number of weeks in their suburban driveway, it can be just as nutty in the city…
(photo by Bob Fischer)
(Note: we finished this year’s hike on October 21. We continue to post photos and stories from our adventure…)
True Confession Time: daughter and I are experiencing culture shock. We didn’t expect it to be such a challenge to readjust to life at home. Everything here moves so fast. And there are so many choices. Although many folks have commented that they can’t imagine living in the woods and doing without so many amenities, while hiking on the Appalachian Trail for six weeks we discovered that life is so much simpler in the woods.
This is because travel by its very nature demands simplicity. If you don’t believe this, just go home and try stuffing everything you own into a backpack. This will never work, because no matter how meagerly you live at home, you can’t match the scaled-down minimalism that travel requires.” – Rolf Potts, Vagabonding
There is no set daily schedule in the woods. We paid attention to what our bodies were saying: eating when we were hungry and taking breaks when we were tired. Each day we simply covered the miles needed to reach the next shelter or campsite without needing to organize where to go in what order to accomplish a long to-do list of errands and appointments. By choosing a long-distance hike, we were also choosing to avoid the tyranny of an external calendar or schedule.
Even the days of the weeks began to blur together while hiking. Weekends were no different than weekdays (other than a sudden influx of a zillion dayhikers on Saturdays and Sundays!) Although church defines the weekend for our family when living in town, while on the trail we sang worship songs and enjoyed God’s creation every day. It became a joke between us—when someone asked “what day is it?” we could always tell the section hiker from the long-distance hiker. The former wanted to know the date while the latter was curious about the day of the week. (Daughter’s watch included both which kept us from getting confused.) The biggest difference between one day and the next was the weather.
There are fewer choices in the woods. We wore either our hiking clothes or our camp clothes (with extra layers for warmth as needed.) Each morning we put that day’s snacks in an outer pocket of our packs, merely choosing throughout the day which snack we wanted to eat during each rest break. We ate the same basic meals for dinner every night—based on either instant potatoes or dehydrated rice. Our choice was limited to which flavor meal we wanted to eat each evening. I’m still not back to cooking a widely varied menu of meals at home—there are entirely too many choices to overwhelm me when I enter a huge grocery store and can fill the cart to the brim with food that will not have to be carried on my back until it is ready to be cooked and eaten!
Finally, we lived from sun-up to sun-down in the woods. Occasionally, we used our headlamps to read a few more chapters of a favorite book on the kindle before going to sleep. But most hikers went off to dreamland shortly after the sun went down. Very occasionally a few hikers would stay up past “hiker midnight” (8 or 9 pm) to enjoy telling a few more stories around a campfire. Here at home? The lights are on for hours after dark before we finally wander off to bed. But then we are tired when the alarm goes off the next morning. Life is ruled by clocks and schedules.
As we readjust to life off the trail, we are trying to lessen the number of choices we have to make each day–getting rid of extra clothes, shortening our to-do lists, making a master list of meals. We look forward to returning to the woods in early summer—happy to live once more with fewer choices. That’s not a hardship but a gift! Life really IS much simpler in the woods…
Many folks assume that spending weeks backpacking the Appalachian Trail will be a solitary experience. That might be true on the Pacific Crest Trail or the Continental Divide Trail. However, during our six weeks on the AT, we were passed by multiple hikers every day. In addition, the only way to experience a solitary night is to camp away from shelters. There was only one night that daughter and I had a shelter completely to ourselves.
As extroverts, we delighted in this level of social interaction. Time alone while hiking balanced nicely with social time. I introduced you to some of our favorite hikers HERE. In today’s post, I want to introduce you to some of the non-hikers we met along the way.
Some folks who help hikers have been thru-hikers themselves. After completing his epic hike (along with his college age son) a few years ago, Scott began searching for a property that he and his wife could turn into a hostel for hikers. They bought a historic home with outbuildings near Front Royal, Virginia. The property had been abandoned for more than a decade. Many would have ignored it as a ruin. Scott and his wife saw the possibilities and are pouring energy and money into restoring the home to its former glory. The hostel is already up and running—a cozy brick cottage which sleeps up to 8 hikers. The big house will eventually hold living quarters for Scott and his wife plus 3 fancy bed & breakfast rooms. Scott is passionate about history and has uncovered many fascinating stories about the lives of those who lived here over the years. (If you are a hiker, definitely stay at the hostel. If you are looking for a B&B, keep an eye for when those rooms open sometime next year! Facebook link HERE )
Some folks have little or no hiking experience but enjoy meeting and helping AT hikers. In two different towns, we paid for someone to shuttle us to another part of the trail. (Phone numbers for these folks are found in trail guides or on lists at visitor centers in towns along the trail.) Debbie saved our trip by letting me avoid a very steep 6 miles of hiking with a broken toe. Sharon drove us to a Walmart on the far side of town to resupply fuel and buy some warm gloves. On a gray rainy day, Shellie took us to a parking area that was a hop, skip, and jump away from a shelter for the night. This also meant we could carry a fellow hiker’s gear so she could “slackpack” a long day of hiking. And then Shellie rescued us the next day and came back to evacuate us to town to more easily meet my sister for a few days off trail during bad storms. (See post HERE)
Other folks are “Trail Angels.” (I explained about “Trail Magic” HERE) In the Shenandoah National Park, we discovered that the campground where we were hoping to spend a zero day was full for the second night. We decided to try to catch a ride and get there a day earlier. Lori talked with us at a picnic area and agreed to give us a lift to the campgrounds. She is from Victoria Island, British Columbia and is traveling with her little trailer for 4 months of exploring the US. She asked a zillion questions which we happily answered. She took our photo to add to her memories of interesting people she meets along the way. We took her photo to remember some of the Trail Angels who helped our trip be easier.
Many folks are easily forgotten—the ones who move to the other side of the street when we are walking in town, the ones who ignore us in park campgrounds, the ones who are unfriendly or unhelpful. The folks who are Hiker Helpers will be remembered for a very long time!
(Note: We finished our hiking for this year on Oct. 21. We continue to share photos and posts from our adventure for the next few weeks.)
While hiking the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park, we spent days shuffling our way through a thick carpet of leaves covering the trail—shhish, shoosh, crinkle, crackle. It was not a quiet hike! Most of the blanket was made up of brown oak leaves or a variety of golden leaves. We joked about someday being important enough to walk a red carpet…
And then we found a section of trail surrounded by maple trees. Woohoo! Does walking this red carpet prove that we are VIPs?
We are certainly Very Important People to our friends and family. And it could be argued that we are Very Interesting (back)Packers. Just for curiosity I did an internet search for alternate meanings of VIP. Some of these definitions also apply to us:
Value in Partnership – we are in agreement that it was much better to hike with two of us rather than alone.
Ventures in Peace – we both found a new level of peace and contentment while spending our days and nights outside in nature.
Versatile Individual Program – this is the only way to succeed at a long-distance backpacking trip. A common saying along the AT is “Hike your own hike!”
Very Into Pizza – true confession time: after days of trail food, hikers crave a big hot pizza loaded with meat and dripping cheese. A burger and fries runs a close second.
Very Important Princess – haha! We joke that I’m the Queen and daughter is the Princess.
Under any of these definitions, we certainly deserved to walk the red carpet. And yes, we did feel extra special while doing so!
(Note: we finished this year’s hiking adventure on Oct 21. We continue to have posts and photos to share with you for a few more weeks.)