The Big Epic

Connect with Nature - One Adventure at a Time

Tag: People (page 2 of 2)

Walking the Trail…of Grief?

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order. ~John Burroughs

I expected physical challenges when my daughter and I set out on our Big Epic to hike the Appalachian Trail for 6 weeks. I understood we would, at times, be stretched to our limits, and that this would require mental stamina to overcome physical obstacles. I knew there were things I was hoping to sort out for daily life back home: how my primary role might change, how to best help daughter overcome disabilities, where to focus my time and attention, and more. It seemed to me that this “discovery process” was the healing and order I was going to find while my body was busy with hiking and my mind was free to wander.

A rough hiking trail

Oh, I knew there were many who headed to the trail to find deep healing from trauma or overwhelming grief. That is a common reason to leave civilization behind, at least for a while. I even met some of those folks: a fellow who left everything behind when his mom died, a pair of older women reeling from difficult divorces, a young man who was basically homeless. But, obviously, this was not MY reason for going to the trail. Me? I was seeking adventure!

And then…I found myself sobbing when I saw a walking bridge over I-70 in Maryland. So many times, I had driven under this bridge, wishing that I could be hiking the AT, not really believing it would ever happen. Now we walked across this bridge. As drivers below honked and waved, I smiled through the tears, happy that “my turn” had finally come. It freaked my daughter out to see me cry, but it was easy to write it off as a funny sort of joy.

AT Bridge over I-70The more tired I became physically, the more often I found myself with tears r

unning down my cheeks while I hiked. I cried after chatting with a red-headed thru-hiker…who could have been my red-headed son who died almost eight years ago and who never had the chance for this sort of adventure. I cried when my hips ached…because that son could never have managed the stresses of backpacking after injuring his hips with competitive figure-skating. I cried to see how stable my daughter was while in the woods, unlike the debilitating anxiety she faces in town. After all, how can she live forever as an elf in the woods?

What was WRONG with me? I was a hot-mess, riding a roller-coaster of unexpected emotions. Typical of my usual way to attack life, I hesitantly started talking to other hikers we met along the way. (Okay, so the hesitation wasn’t usual for me!!) I asked why they were on the trail. As mentioned above, a few were running away from trauma or seeking healing from grief. Most were simply taking a break, were fulfilling a dream, or were looking for the “what’s next” in life. On the surface, THEY didn’t seem to be dealing with a wild ride of emotions…

AT roller coaster

But as I confessed my struggle with unexpected emotions, these hikers slowly shared a similar story. Almost every person I talked with had been surprised by tears. This strong man sobbed at the beginning of his thru-hike because his mother was no longer alive to follow his adventures. That young man had cried in his tent on many lonely nights, after the break-up of a long-term relationship. There was a woman who was sad at the distance between herself and her grown children; another one with tears over dreams she had put aside to raise her family.

Since returning from the trail, I’ve searched other blogs. I’ve read more trail journals and autobiographies. I don’t see this effect of the trail mentioned anywhere. I’ve tried to stuff it down, burying these memories under all memories of celebration and achievement. After all, we had an Epic Adventure! But…this story keeps coming back, over and over. Apparently, it needs to be told. Sometimes, when we go to nature for other reasons, we discover grief we weren’t looking for. I’ve spent months processing on this…and I realize this isn’t a “beast” to be feared. It isn’t an indication of something “wrong” with me that must be fixed.  With a change of perspective, these wild emotions morph into something positive. Although it certainly doesn’t feel soothing in the moments that tears run down my face…this experience is gradually bringing more order to my emotional world.

 

Beauty? Beast?

Beauty? Beast?

I’m finally ready to share this story…and, as I start to plan our return to the Appalachian Trail in the late spring, I recognize I will most likely find more tears along the way. And…that’s okay.

(Read about how to handle Roller Coasters–on the trail and in our emotions–HERE. Read another post about responding to pain HERE.)

“Oh, the People You Meet…” — Helper Version

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 ) Mountain Home "Cabbin"

Mountain Home B&B

Storyteller Scott

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. helper Lori

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.)

A Touch of Home

“You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart will always be elsewhere.”—Miriam Adeney

As I have said before, I thrive on adventure, on the next big “epic” in life. It truly is exciting to go new places, meet new people, and try new things. No matter how much I love these new experiences, reality soon sets in. I begin to miss home: friends and family, pets, and “normal” routines. My heart is pulled in many directions at the same time!

As we started our epic adventure of a long-distance backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail, we happily said goodbye to friends and family at home. It was harder to say goodbye to husband/daddy when we reached the trail. We wouldn’t see him again for a few months…

saying goodbye

Along the way we discovered that many fellow hikers were surprised that we were fully supported and encouraged by hubby/dad to pursue this dream. When we paid attention, we realized most females on the trail were either hiking with their fellow or were single. Wow! What a gift we had been given! (Read more about how hubby and I support and encourage each other to pursue individual passions HERE.)

For the first few weeks, we had strong cell phone reception and internet access. We could talk to family back home and could keep up with friends online. The encouragement and support we received was significant in helping us persevere, especially on difficult days. At one resupply stop, there was an unexpected note waiting for us. Yay! That little card kept me from calling it quits when I questioned the wisdom of continuing to hike with a painful, broken toe.

notes from home

We always enjoyed the new places and new people we encountered. We soaked up the natural beauty surrounding us each day. But…we missed hubby/dad more and more each week. One afternoon, we were sitting on a bench at a shelter, feet propped up, watching the access trail for other hikers to stop for the night. Here came a fellow…but wait! He had no pack…and he looked familiar… Hurrah! Daddy/Husband surprised us, found us by our itinerary, and joined us on the trail for a few days! Unbelievable!

surprise visitor

(We discovered later that stories of this visit were passed up and down the trail along the thru-hiker grapevine. It really was considered an unusual, very big deal!)

Eventually, we reached a long section of trail where we had only limited opportunity to connect with family and friends. It felt like we were miles away and unreachable. Oh how that made us miss home! Eventually we reached another TOWN DAY. As I explained in a previous post, it’s not the same as “home” but each visit to a town includes delights such as a soft bed, yummy food, and good internet/phone connections. On this particular stop, we were greeted by a special package at the post office. One filled with things to make us smile: silly toys, little treats, tiny luxuries, sweet chocolate, survival gear for the trail, and more. But best of all, it was filled with LOVE from friends across the country.

trail mail

Ahhh…the best way to enjoy adventures is to regularly receive a touch of home!

(Note: We finished our hiking on October 21st. We will continue to share photos and posts about our adventures in the upcoming weeks.)

(Read HERE about things we have learned to say goodbye to before heading to the trail…)

“Oh the People You Meet…” — Hiker version

Both daughter and I are strong extroverts. We enjoy meeting new people and gain energy from talking with others. Let me introduce you to some of the delightful, quirky folks we have met in our first month of hiking the Appalachian Trail.

“By the time [thru-hikers] have been on the trail a month or two…they’ve had their faith in the essential goodness of mankind restored. They’ve learned that every time they see a new hiker coming down the trail, it’s a new friend. They’ve learned that the barriers of age, occupation, and geography mean nothing here.” –Warren Doyle (who has completed the AT 16 times!

Each hiker we meet has a story. When passing another person on the trail it is common to stop long enough to exchange basic info: length of time on trail, goal (thru-hiker or section hiker), and “trail name.” (This is the nickname one is known by while hiking and which one uses when signing the logbook at each shelter. Our names are Story Seeker and Andowen.) When ending the day at the same shelter or campsite, more stories are exchanged…from life stories to hiking info to anecdotes of life on the trail. The “hiker grapevine” is alive and well!

Our first night on the trail we camped beside a couple who had walked in for the night. She is a professional chef, taking a break between positions, wanting to get back to the joy of cooking for others rather than overseeing an entire kitchen. He is a mineral hunter, traveling the world to search for gems and ore to sell to collectors. Fascinating!

Like many long distance hikers, Aaron is in transition in life. He is putting life back together by spending time in nature, playing music, and exchanging stories with others. His metaphorical goal? “finding David’s secret chord that pleased the Lord.”

Aaron and guitar

Magoo retired last year. He and his wife planned to thru-hike, but after just a few days she headed back home, realizing this wasn’t her idea of fun. Magoo switched to doing long distance section hikes to complete the trail over the next few years. We were both amused to find out we are not just from the same city in Ohio, but that he lives only a few blocks from where I grew up!

TomTom is another retired fellow, this time from northern Ohio. He was on the trail for a week to figure out what he needs before attempting a thru-hike next year. Biggest lesson he learned was lighter gear is mandatory! (Note: this is not a typical shelter but is one of the fanciest on the trail! )

TomTom

Most of the hikers we meet in this area and at this time of year are southbound thru-hikers: couples and individuals who, by now, are a bit weary of the journey. They have their routines down to a science and are usually covering long miles every day.

We have also met a number of section hikers, spending a week or so away from work to complete another piece of the Appalachian Trail. We shared stories, encouraged each other, and giggled late into the night with K&K, two lacrosse-moms on their first backpacking adventure. We only spent one night together at a shelter since we were heading different directions…but we were thrilled to hear from them a week later to learn they successfully met their goal.

Daughter and I have been pleased to keep running into Blaze on our trip. He hikes longer days so each time we say goodbye we expect we will never see him again. But he has taken more zero days than us so we keep catching him. The first time we met, he patiently taught daughter how to make a good campfire (which he does morning and evening for cooking. ) He talks Lord of the Rings and fantasy with daughter and life challenges with me. He is a Brooklynite who is hiking south to Georgia from NYC, then plans to turn around and hike the entire trail back to Maine, then walk back south to home in Brooklyn.  (He estimates this will take a year or so. ) Like many hikers, this is a transition time to figure out the “what’s-next” of life for him.

Blaze

Finally, I want to introduce you to Beetle. We spent a zero-day together at a hiker hostel on a rainy day…followed by evacuating off the trail together due to severe weather. She and I have enjoyed learning the similarities in our life stories. She and daughter take delight in teasing each other…and trying to stump each other with riddles. She started as a “flip-flop” thru-hiker (start in middle headed north to Maine, return to middle and complete hike south to Georgia). Unfortunately she ended up off-trail because of an injury. She won’t complete the thru-hike, but is back on the trail,  hiking to complete another long section before winter. Hopefully, we will keep in contact back in real-life!

Beetle

(Read HERE about Hiker Helpers we met. Read HERE about trail names of hikers from later trips.)

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