This article originally appeared on The Trek on May 9, 2021. Read it here.
A couple days ago I posted an update from my first two weeks of my 1,000 mile hike from Boiling Springs, PA to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Now I’m writing this update from home. Let’s dissect this for a couple paragraphs, and then I can move on to the good stuff, the trail stories.
I know a lot of my friends and family read these, so just to clear the air first: everything is ok guys! Nothing is wrong, I just chose to get off of the trail because I felt I needed to be home for some things going on. I mentioned in my last post that my boyfriend had a lot going on. I felt like it was causing some rifts between us and I learned that I couldn’t mentally deal with what was going on in the background while also trying to hike. Also a disclaimer for my boyfriend’s sake: He did not make me come home and actually encouraged me to keep hiking. This was solely my choice, and I plan to be back on the trail soon. My hike is not over, after all I’m on a leave of absence for a couple more months to finish this thing! I want to make sure that is understood, out of respect for him as my stories are on a public forum.
That being said, I have so much to say about the experience of deciding to go home when I did. It’s difficult to do without talking about the ins and outs of relationships and life situations and what constituted worthy of me feeling like I needed to go, and wouldn’t be fair of me to discuss those personal things here when I’m not the only one involved. But I can discuss the mental game of this decision, because I know I’m not the only one that has ever gotten off of the trail for something and others might be able to relate or could use my sharing of this experience as a reference for a future decision while on-trail.
When I first started hiking the AT, I had this huge fear that I would fail, because I wouldn’t be able to handle the trail. I’m feeling humbled in a new way. I know I can handle the physical trail itself, so I don’t really feel embarrassed by that, but I’m having this huge realization that it’s not just the trail that can be difficult or the thing that you fail at. This is also part of the “trail”. I learned that if I’m going to be gone in the woods for a while, I need to know that the things in my life I left behind are in control, and when circumstances cause things to not feel all that in control anymore, even if accidental, and one thing is piling on top of another, I feel more of an importance being home than I do on a trail that will always be there. Not only do I feel an importance in going home, but my mental hiking game depends on it.
Picture the scene: As I was hiking out of Delaware Water Gap, PA after taking a second zero in accompaniment to my first zero of the hike to finally get some real rest I felt I needed, I had my trekking poles in one hand, phone to my ear in the other. I was already a little frustrated with myself for having to take a second day. We were talking about some car repairs that needed to be done on my car that my boyfriend was trying to get taken care of. The conversation was not going well. The car repair topic is not at all why I came home. This added on top of a backdrop of enough that was already going on with some tough family things that he’s dealing with, and we were forced to end the conversation because I had spotty service and he was at a mechanic shop. It’s just the topic we were talking about at the time, but I pulled myself over right then and there and said I can’t do this. I can’t hike this way, I can’t start walking up that hill and be out of contact for another 3 days the way this has been going and after leaving it on that note.
After realizing that town was a tough place to leave from or try to rent a car from, I toyed with the idea that I might just have to keep going anyway unless I wanted to stay stagnant in town another day figuring it out. I got lucky. I walked into the church hostel nearby to see if there was wifi, and soon after that the caretaker walked in with his granddaughter and dog to check on things at exactly the right moment. I explained I was trying to find a way home, and he handed me a bus schedule to NYC and dropped me off at the bus station up the road. I was fortunately first in line for the next bus into the station at Times Square, about an hour and forty-five minute ride, as I realized that this bus regularly fills and several people didn’t get on. Feeling thankful for some familiarity with New York even though NYC will always overwhelm me a little, I hopped in a cab to Newark airport and listed myself for standby on the last flight to Chicago as I completely re-packed my pack to be flight-ready in the bathroom near the check-in line. (I know flying last minute like this isn’t necessarily “normal”, but being a flight attendant, I’m used to a little different system of traveling). My dad picked me up, I stayed the night, and the next morning I was on a flight home to Alabama.
On one hand, by definition, this is a failure. My goal was to hike from that point I started to Katahdin, continuously, and I did not do that. I definitely have a lot of thoughts swimming through my head and I’m already trying to figure out when I’ll leave to get back on the trail. Will the same thing happen? What can I do to prepare so this doesn’t happen? Maybe life things are inevitable and the lesson is that it’s ok that I made this decision? I guess I feel a wane of my confidence in myself, like I might try again and not last longer than two weeks. On the other hand, part of me doesn’t care about said failure. Since I wasn’t already concerned with doing a full thru-hike and am really just working at finishing the trail in whatever timeframe allows, what does this matter? If I get back on trail rather quickly, won’t I still feel like I did what I wanted to do? It is a little bit of a bummer feeling like I was just starting to get into the groove, getting hungry instead of force-feeding myself, doing my first twenty mile day of the hike much sooner than I expected, making new friends, etc, and I’m sad I interrupted that. But when I was sitting on that flight to Chicago, staring out the window, I felt a huge wash of calm, which is unusual for me as I tend to get claustrophobic as a passenger when I fly. I knew that meant I made the right decision. Oops, I said this would only take a couple paragraphs! Let’s get to some trail stories.
The first day that I took off hiking, the wind was whipping and it was cold, and there was snow on the ground in town in Carlisle, PA that morning. The previous day, my boyfriend and I walked the 8 miles together from Boiling Springs to Carlisle as a fun sendoff. It was really hard to leave the comfort of a warm room that first day. I reached the shelter early, and there wound up being seven of us there that night. That particular shelter happened to be equipped with a tarp that we could hang over the front side. For those that don’t know, shelters on the AT are three-sided lean-to’s with an open front. Great for getting out of the elements but still subject to cold and wind. As I slept in my 25 degree bag plus liner, warm leggings and sleep shirt, my puffy, winter hat, and was still a little chilly, I couldn’t believe I considered not bringing the warm stuff. I figured there might be a few cold days but the weather would start to warm quickly and I wouldn’t want to carry the heavy stuff.
I guess my mind was still preoccupied in memories of the AT in the south in the summer. That snowy, windy morning is what made me hike out with all of it, and I used the warm clothes most days during those two weeks. There were a few spans of days where within a 24 hour period I went from hiking in pants, a jacket, a hat and gloves in 30-40 degree weather to hiking in shorts and a tanktop in 80 plus degree weather. I’m so grateful I got the reminder that the weather does anything this time of year and I’d much rather carry the warm stuff than ditch it and have to power through the cold, something I’m not particularly good at. Even with the warm stuff, cold mornings can be tough!
A particular night a few days into the first week stands out to me as the hardest. I ended the day relatively early because I promised myself I wouldn’t go too hard at the very beginning. It was about three in the afternoon and I came to an awesome stealth camp spot right next to a flowing creek that the trail crossed over. This wasn’t in the plans, but I decided to set up there for the night. It was such a beautiful, peaceful spot, but a series of small things started to change the demeanor over the next few hours. As I was setting up my tent, a pole snapped at the very tip. It was really unusual. If you’re not familiar with setting up a tent, just know that it becomes impossible to set the tent up at all if the pole won’t hold any tension. I tried to splint it in several failed ways before realizing I could rip the entire end of the pole off and get it to hold tension without ripping further. Crisis averted. But for some reason, that made me feel pretty alone when the adrenaline of trying to fix it wore off. To cheer myself up a bit, I decided I’d make a nice fire to hold out the rest of the evening. There was a pile of firewood there someone had already picked, and I gathered up some more myself. Things had been pretty wet the night before though, and I couldn’t manage to get the fire started for the life of me. Eventually giving up, I knew the perfect cheer-up! I had gotten one of those pad-thai backpacker meals out of a hiker box. I hand’t tried it before but was excited as I love pad thai in real life, and usually just eat pasta sides on the trail. Well, my stomach did not handle it well. I should have known, as I broke my own rule for my weak stomach – don’t try something new while actually on the trail. Let’s just say that I had to dig a hole more than once within a half hour of eating it, and I just didn’t feel very well after that.
So I crawled into my tent while it was still light out, the cold started to set in, and with the addition of there being no cell service, I started to feel very, very alone. Something just hit me. I was homesick. I wasn’t ready for that feeling. I had carried some envelopes and stationary in my pack because I thought it would be fun to send some letters home, so I pulled one out and started writing a message to my boyfriend. It helped take the edge off of that first bought of “the lonelies” and eventually I drifted off to sleep. Something walked by my tent early the next morning, but I’ll never know what it was. (It was probably just a deer or something but it makes the story better, doesn’t it?) Sometimes all it takes is falling asleep and starting the next day fresh.
I guess the joke is on me for starting this hike with lovingly used gear a little overconfidently. By the time I reached town I had to fix my tent in more than one way, my sleeping pad, and my right shoe. Truthfully though, I checked it all before I left and it was all in manageable condition. It turns out that in the field, things go downhill a little faster than when the gear is sitting indoors. So somewhere in the second week, I was having a nice day of hiking, but was feeling tired from a particularly rocky stretch of Pennsylvania trail and decided I’d end a little early at a stealth camp spot to get some rest and try to chill out a bit, as I’d been camped around people or around people in a hostel every night since that night I ate the pad thai that I just wrote about. I ended my day somewhere around the 13-14 mile mark, found the stealth spot I was shooting for and rejoiced that it was empty, as it was Saturday night, and hung out for a minute before I finally started setting up.
Disaster struck. My tent pole that seemed like it was holding up strong after I ripped the breaking end off until I could get a real replacement started cracking again, this time beyond the point of repair. One of those tent pole splints will now always be a staple in my first aid kit, but I didn’t have one. I tried everything, cutting my finger in the process, and it suddenly hit me that I would not be able to set up my tent that night. Thinking back, maybe I could have come up with something if I lingered for a few hours, but this pole was beyond the point of repair and nothing could splint it. I wasn’t prepared to just lay out in the elements all night at that stealth site alone.
So I made a quick decision. I felt dread for a second, being so tired from the day, but I immediately started packing everything up again and skipped snack time. It was a four mile hike to the next shelter. I had a couple hours until dark. I was about to cross a really rocky section, I believe it was called “The Knife’s Edge”. I didn’t know if I could hike those four more miles that quickly, but I decided my only smart chance was to try to reach the shelter, and hope that it wasn’t full already, and hope that I would arrive before dark when anyone that was there would still be awake. Maybe they would take pity on me and let me in.
I started walking, fast. I think adrenaline pushed me through those four miles. It was the evening, a beautiful temperature out, and I was able to hit two coveted points along the trail without them being full of day or weekend hikers. It was late in the day, and I realize that pretty much every stealth campsite I passed was occupied with a group already settled in for their Saturday evening. I went over that knife’s edge way faster that I probably should have, but in the moment I felt swift and smooth, like something was carrying me to my goal and I just sort of floated over it. I am convinced if I hit that point in the trail without that adrenaline rush, I would have gone a lot slower and really felt the challenge of it. I kept telling myself that it wasn’t even like this was a life or death situation – worst case scenario I just hike through the night all the way into the next town or get up the courage to ask some of the weekenders at one of these campsites if they could help me, and I would survive it.
I arrived at the shelter about a half hour before dark, and all was meant to be. There was only one other person sleeping in it, a friend I had made over the past few nights, and two others tented nearby. The four of us sat and talked for a while as I set up and ate my dinner, and the four of us wound up spending the next several nights around each other. If my tent pole hadn’t forced me to the shelter that night, I’m not sure if I would have met that group. I think the trail provided. Also, some side news, Big Agnes is going to send me a new pole for free! I wasn’t sure how that was going to go since my tent is out of warranty.
There was one particularly hot day of hiking when it got above 80, and I got to replace my long sleeves with a tank top for the first time of this section. Everything felt dry and rocky that day, and I was proud of myself for granting myself a moment to slow down. I stopped at a little viewpoint past a small rock outcropping, and there was a group of soaring hawks continuously circling the area. I sat there and watched them while I ate a bag of beef jerky and felt thankful I had the spot to myself and didn’t feel like a bunch of people were going to come up right behind me. I have no idea why I feel like that out there occasionally – does anyone else? It’s a feeling like a bunch of hikers are going to catch up to me so I better keep moving at any given time. I think it’s just a weird, social anxiety type feeling. Anyway, the air was calm and quiet, sun shining and I was mesmerized. A few miles later, I came upon this awesome swimming hole! This is one of the coolest spots that I didn’t expect to see. Tons of campsites, a beautiful waterfall, and I had the place to myself. It was only the middle of the day, but I contemplated just stopping and camping there. I decided that had I been with people, I would have loved to stop there for the day and jump in, but it just didn’t have the same effect while I was alone and I didn’t want to have to dry off. So I kept walking, following the pretty creek and climbing over a large fallen tree in the trail. Eventually I came out to a little bridge and access-type road.
Then I had that moment. “When was the last time I saw a white blaze? I knew I was going to go downhill for a little while, but shouldn’t I have been going up again by now?” I opened up the guthook app to find myself on gps and to my dismay realized I had followed another trail that was not the AT. That swimming hole was just off of the AT, and that’s why I never knew such a cool spot was going to be there because it wasn’t marked. I begrudgingly trudged back up that trail I had just been so thankful to be following downhill, eventually rejoining the AT already sweating and needing a break before beginning the marked climb. I laughed as I couldn’t help but think to myself, that would have been a really nice place for some more white blazes. That night, I found out the other hiker I had seen the past few days did the same thing when he came to that area, so at least I can take a little bit of dignity back and tell myself it wasn’t just me.
Well, I feel like I could write for hours but this is already a lot to read. If I get around to it, I might tell a few more stories, otherwise my next update will hopefully be from the trail again very soon. I just have some things to sort out first and grant myself the confidence that I just have to begin again rather than stop altogether.