Hey Hikefordays folks,
Spice here. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Owen’s stories from our International Appalachian Trail (IAT) adventure, as I’m sure you have too. With the closing of the Canadian portion of this larger ECT adventure on the blog, I thought a friendly hello and brief (or not) update from my journey on the Appalachian Trail might be nice. Fun note: I have no idea what words or photos will be posted on hikefordays until they are published live. I eagerly refreshed my web browser every morning on trail during my morning tea break to read the blog in real time with you all. Aside from keeping Tango (our dog) and Blackbird (our van) in tip top shape, stocking the massive resupply drawer with endless black licorice, and making me delicious trailhead meals (no small tasks), this blog has been Owen’s full time effort this summer. I’m so proud of his growth as a writer and know that we’ll savor these journals immensely when we’re old and gray. Your reading and encouragement mean a great deal to him and I’m very grateful to you all for your interest in this journey.
I’m writing from a rocking chair in a 1894 schoolhouse with over 2300 miles under my feet since beginning in June, and around 500 miles left to hike on the AT.* With our current understanding, the total mileage of the Eastern Continental Trail is expected to be about 4,400 miles, so I reached the halfway point of this whole thing somewhere in the past few days, just over four months in. Woah. Neat.
Overall, I’m immensely grateful for a mostly healthy and wonderfully capable body. I have asked a lot of it this year and it sure has delivered, with little complaint aside from the groaning and moaning of a few break-in weeks (23 days to be exact). I carry a few lingering health issues, but they haven’t felt too heavy to carry along this trail. The resilience of the human body amazes me on every thru-hike, again and again. Walk through enough pain, and if you’re one of the lucky ones, you are rewarded with a seemingly invincible thru-hiker strength. Great job, body!
*After the long process editing and stuff, I’m now 2600 miles in, with just 200 left until Springer. Time flies!
Gratitude and Privilege
I’m also grateful for the tremendous privilege of exploring the mysterious East Coast in perhaps the slowest way imaginable. To hike just one of the three uber long-distance trails in this country (PCT, CDT, AT) is the lifelong dream for many. Somehow I have had the fortune to hike all three of them. What? What?! How? There are so many factors that enable this lifestyle for me — white privilege, a lack of debt, being childless by choice (so far), ample opportunities to form an intimate relationship with death early in my 20s and into my 30s, and comfort being, well, pretty poor for the past 6 years since beginning to thru-hike. Poor in money at least. With only (mostly) the responsibility to tend to my health and savor every day, walking up and down mountains from one season to another and communing with nature are some of my favorite ways to enjoy embodiment. I am so grateful to have met a partner who prioritizes this nonsensical, some would say, mode of existence with me.
As selfish as thru-hiking can feel, I find it particularly difficult to share about the harder moments out here. The moments of doubt, or the moments where the human brain complicates such a simple set of tasks, like whether to slow or to push. Seems simple, right? Not always. And facing the privilege that has allowed me to hike as much as I have is paralyzing. If it’s so many peoples’ dream, thru-hiking should be all bliss, butterflies, and sunset-hued experiences, right? The AT, as I suspected, has been a profoundly emotional journey for me. I’ve walked in bliss, cried from grief and beauty, and experienced the warmth and comfort of new friends. I’ve spit, hissed, cried, and screamed out of anger and frustration, and been worn raw by most of the other emotions one might expect to experience on a thru-hike. For now though, I’ll leave alone the challenge of neatly packaging the emotional journey of the whole AT into one oversimplifying box. Instead, I will share more from the physical realm as well as some happy memories. Hopefully, this will offer a glimpse into my journey and sprinkle you with some of the magic of the trail.
Physically, the 700 miles of the IAT that Owen and I hiked together prepped me well for the AT. I bounded south from Katahdin feeling like a rocket. No need to throttle the miles to prevent overuse injuries, my body was broken-in to trail life. I could fly. The Maine and New Hampshire sections were unlike any trail I had ever walked before and I thanked the Sierra High Route daily for teaching me to be a mountain goat. I fell, often, and Owen was on the ready with a bottle of rubbing alcohol and bandages to patch me up when I needed it. But I broke no bones, accomplishing my main goal.
Shifting gears from shorter mileage/strenuous terrain to higher mileage/cruisy terrain days in Vermont was as clunky as my first year driving stick-shift, and my knees grumbled for the first time on this journey. However, my body quickly caught on to the new rhythm of longer hiking days, more daily miles, and the highly repetitive movements of smooth trail walking. By Massachusetts we were flying smoothly again and I was heartened to see the same southbounders more than once. Sobos are a different breed, and it was a treat to leap-frog with these kindred sobo spirits as they acquired trail legs of their own and began to keep pace with the hard-earned efficiency of experience. While I camped alone, having speckles of daytime community added a new flavor to Connecticut and New York.
My body and mind were at odds in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and I never quite found a rhythm that felt good through that section. Instead, I found lots of good reasons to indulge in an over-abundance of rest days, crawling my way towards Maryland. After stepping across the Mason-Dixon Line, that state was gone in a blink after what seemed like just one peaceful night hike with some owls. The magnetic pull from Harpers Ferry drew me in.
Harpers Ferry is the “spiritual halfway point” of the AT, and so serves as a midway check-in for hikers. Looking through the polaroid photos of the 94 sobos who had passed this point ahead of me felt like looking through a yearbook from the future. These were my people, my sobo class, and yet I hadn’t met a single one of them. This perspective felt odd.
Owen and I were taken in by close friends in DC to their home and rested for a few days. It was fancier than anything else we would stay in on the AT, and we ate fancier too, blowing our budget at Whole Foods. It would be hiker-box resupplies for me for a bit after that. This was a nourishing double zero for many reasons, one of which was getting to return to Harpers Ferry and check out the polaroid binder of sobos who has passed through in the previous two days while we were off trail. A few I knew (hooray!), and the a dozen or so more I would come to meet in the following weeks. How strange to spend so much time alone on a quiet trail, yet to have so many folks moving in the same direction as me just hours ahead or behind. With the northbound herd nonexistent since leaving Connecticut, it was a treat to share in rare conversation with fellow sobos.
These days, I see a few section hikers heading north, a hunter or two, and occasionally one or two sobos each day. Oftentimes, I’ll be alone on a quiet trail all day, run into a nobo sectioner who will tell I’m the 12th or so sobo they’ve met that day. Ha, like little ants in a line moving towards our shared goal. Most of my community comes from the trail logs at shelters, where hikers sometimes sign-in, and the occasional leap-frogging with friends.
I’ve enjoyed the physical challenge of pushing my body hard on the AT. By this point, it has pretty much stopped grumbling. My feet are more hoof-like, with nerves dead and skin leathered. I only take my shoes off at night. My legs feel more solid — my little oak friends. I have entered the point of the hike where I can set my legs to “walk swiftly” mode and allow my mind to dance. Without the physical aches and pains, there is so much mental space left for, well, anything and everything. The Rollercoaster, a notoriously arduous 10-mile section in northern Virginia, hardly registered as more than a river-side stroll. The real rollercoaster of Virginia, days of endlessly repeating 2,000-foot climbs and descents, came later, and added a few more layers of strength to my legs. Building up for…Florida? Ha. Chill, AT, chill. We’ve got a lot of flat coming up. The crispness of the autumn days out here, rarely feeling warmer than the high 40s or low 50s, is conducive to this machine-like hiking.
On the previous two long trails (PCT ’16, CDT ’19), I took a more social interest. For this one, I wanted to be on my own to let my body have complete say over the pace. My pandemic-project was learning everything that I could about the menstrual cycle, including the ever undulating hormone levels and noticing what that means for my experience as a woman and for others who menstruate. The blindfold came off, and how much cooler it has been to hike with this added layer of self-understanding.
A big incentive for hiking the AT was to explore it as an equally athletic and spiritual endeavor, viewing both through this new lens of living more cyclically. This means paying close attention to what my body needs from day to day, the changing energy levels and changing moods. What would thru-hiking feel like if my cycle wasn’t viewed simply as an on/off switch, bleeding or not bleeding? What if instead I approached it as though I was ever-changing and flowing through different seasons, not unlike the earth seasons I so much enjoy walking through? How can I allow more feminine into this linear/masculine goal of thru-hiking? Fun stuff. With this new awareness, I have traveled this trail pushing hard into the night when I’ve felt strong. I have slowed to walk softly and be still when I craved rest. Sleeping alone in the dirt, nestled among the gentle folds of these ancient mountains, I have the quiet space to form this new relationship with my body and allow it more space to talk to me.
I wish that all menstruating people, thru-hikers especially, were able to view their body through this lens. This is the project I’m slowly unfolding on my new blog, Cyclicbynature.com. If this exploration interests you, you’re welcome to come peek around. It’s not updated nearly as much as I would have hoped, but it it exists and is a work in progress.
As runs true for all of my sobo hikes, trail family circles are small, but cherished. I met Mosey in Virginia. I knew before we spoke that he had thru-hiked before, west coast thru-hiking specifically, because he took his breaks in the dirt right on trail. Such a simple clue, but walking upon him sitting for lunch in a nice breeze up on a ridge, I immediately knew we were kindred spirits. I have found that it’s customary for folks to become tied to the shelters out here. I don’t particularly care for human infrastructure in nature, and find the dirt much more comfortable than a picnic table, so I don’t frequent the shelters or campsite areas. I’ll often hear hikers plan their lunches, breaks, and camping goals around these spots, and that’s just not my style. Turns out, Mosey and I both don’t care for shelters. We also truly enjoy night hiking, and have similar paces. On top of that, we’re also both introverts who share comfort in silent company and can walk for miles next to one another without saying a word. Score. Mosey is a member of the Cherokee nation, teaches me about original names for mountains (Clingman’s Dome is really Kuwahi), and shows me leaves to harvest for my chronic morning cough. At the start of our friendship, we night-hiked together at the peak of the moon, and have plans to get together for some more night hiking for this this final full moon of the AT.
I have met a few others along the trail who I would call my trail family, although in true sobo fashion, I’ve only met or hiked with them each a few times. There’s a gentle yet strong naturalist who tears up over the memory of American Chestnut trees and does an epic Live Oak impression, a surgeon from Alaska who lives in an off-grid cabin and knows the West well, a retiree who reminds me of one of my best friends in almost every way, except for how easily he opens up about his childhood. Another retiree has led a life completely opposite to mine except for thru-hiking, and has a laugh that is delightfully similar to one of my favorite CDT buddies, Crunchberry. I was the 95th southbounder to pass through the Harpers Ferry, and I can recall meeting about 45 others. A small bunch we are. I remember being on my second long thru-hike, judging the fast hikers for not prioritizing people as much as I did. Now, having been a swift, lone-wolf for most of this trail, I have no judgements left and realize that each of us is out here to focus on different things. New friends haven’t been the focus on this journey, but they certainly have enriched it.
I’ve truly enjoyed hiking past sunset with the moon lately, sitting down for dinner as the sun dips, making a hot drink, and then setting out for another few hours of hiking. As the sun lowers beyond the horizon, my energy seems to rise. I become present in a unique way while night hiking that just doesn’t happen with the full vision of daylight. The trail smells delightful, I notice the changes in textures of the earth beneath my feet, the owls hoot and screech, and the deer nestle for sleep.
I’m not sure how my pace or experience will change as we creep deeper into the autumn weather and darkness. I’ve never not been in the desert when hiking this late in the year, so every step feels like a mystery. The leaves feel like they’re closing in on their peak with crimson and aspen-yellow maples, scarlet red oaks, and golden beech. The jewel-toned canopy makes walking feel like moving through a life-sized kaleidoscope when the sunlight hits just right. After a freeze some trees on the west side of the mountains have taken on a more winter, leafless look. Audiobooks and podcasts are of less interest lately, now that the end of the AT is nearing. The leafy crunch of my rhythmic footsteps, the rare songbird tune, the crashing deer are the sounds I want to have fill my senses. It’s “raining” leaves most days, in the most enchanting way, and I’m so grateful for the privilege to walk through a second change of season this year — Summer to Autumn, Autumn to late-Autumn (basically winter).
Some Fun Noticings
- I’ve met 4 other solo female southbounders. Two of them are youngins fresh out of high school, which brings me so much joy.
- I’ve met three other people going for their triple crown this year.
- I’ve seen more BIPOC hikers on this trail than any other. Most were at the end of the northbound herd.
- Being a 33-year-old on this trail feels a bit odd. Much fewer mid-aged folks on this trail. Mostly high school/college aged and retirees.
- The coldest night on trail has been 16 degrees. I did alright in my 30-degree quilt with many layers of fleece and a hot water bottle.
- Because everyone always seems to want to know, I’ve seen four bears, a cub up in Massachusetts, and a momma and 2 cubs just the other day in North Carolina.
- Snakes, birds, deer, newts (or are they salamanders), and toads have been the most common wildlife I’ve noticed out here. Toads are my absolute favorite. Oh my, have you ever seen a wild animal so adorable? They never failed to give me a laugh long after passing them. They were my joy many days.
A Few Highlights
- Existing above tree line from sun-up to sun-down in The Presidentials. Popular for good reason. I felt like Christopher McCandles, the the mountains my juicy apple.
- Getting absolutely drenched in New England with warm rain, never once reaching for rain gear because its purpose is really just to keep one warm. Warmth was abundant up north.
- The water caches left by trail angels in NY. I don’t know how southbounders would make it through the state without these generous people and their heartwarming support of hikers.
- Meeting a timber rattlesnake just north of the NY/NJ border. Unconcerned with me, it moseyed along the trail, allowing me to observe. What a privilege.
- Sunset at Tinker Cliffs. Otherworldly. I did not see that coming.
- Sunrise at McAfee Knob.
- Sunrise on Moosilauke. Epic. I blissfully savored the final alpine zone of the whole trail.
- Differentiating whether the fresh fajita veggie sizzle in the tree canopy was rain or wind. Sometimes the only clue was whether drops appeared 20-minutes later after the leaves could hold no more.
- The complete silence of camp some nights. I mean, complete silence. Am I dead? Was the CDT ever this silent or is it just because I’m alone that I can truly savor it?
- The giant wise oaks. Reminding me to take a few minutes to slow down and ground into the earth.
- Star-fishing and taking deep, nourishing breaths in any field or pasture. I’m convinced that people from the West had a hand in routing the AT through the occasional field, whether it was the logical route or not, because they understood that other West-folk would need the occasional breathing space out of the trees. Power line clearings accomplish this as well, and are savored immensely.
- Finding the perfect rocky perch for a morning tea-break sit. Ahh, bliss.
While I’m finishing up the final miles on the AT, Owen is off on a secret adventure that I’m perhaps not supposed to mention. Something about him not wanting to have to commit to writing another week’s worth of blogs about another trail. Hrmmm. Luckily, he’s the editor of hikefordays and will cut this out if it’s truly off the record. He’ll return to the East just before I finish the AT. Once I reach Springer, we’ll spend a few days resting and relaxing with close friends and family, before setting out together(!) for the 2,000-ish miles south to the Florida Keys. I can hardly wait to be hiking with him again, though I try not to think much about that next leg of the journey while I’m still on the AT.
Fortunately, I don’t have to. Owen and I actually made a deal that I would plan all permits and logistics for the ECT north of Katahdin, and he would do the same for everything south of Springer. The many trails and road walks connecting Georgia to Florida still feel mysterious, but I’ve met three folks out here who hiked this portion of the ECT earlier in the year, and this grapevine of information is both extremely valuable and illuminating of the questions (and answers) that we didn’t know we had.
Our best guess for starting south together is the last week in November. Owen is still figuring out how he wants to blog for this section, but returning to daily posts feels impossible right now. Perhaps, a weekly update to allow us more opportunities to fill gaps of nothingness with unexpected memories? Vlogging? He is a millennial after all (don’t worry, he won’t be vlogging). Who knows? But something regular will get created and shared starting in December. Hooray! Keep an eye out…
About a week ago in the Roan Highlands, although I didn’t notice the conscious thought/choice, my feet slowed as if resisting the swift movement towards the southern terminus. I remember this happening on each of the other long hikes — 100 miles from the end of the PCT in a frosty morning meadow, 800 miles from the end of the CDT at the CO/NM border, and 300 out here, on a golden grassy bald surrounded with the expansiveness of an unobscured horizon. Being empowered to decide between motion or stillness in a world that fetishizes constant motion is a huge joy of thru-hiking, and at the end of a long trek, it’s nice to turn the dial down a bit while choosing something between the two. To find a balance. Luckily, I’m not quite finished with the AT, so no wide-sweeping lessons about balance beyond thru-hiking feel expected… yet. What convenient timing for an update. Nailed it, me.
Thanks for following along. Wishing you your own peaceful Autumn walks.
“Whoo whooo that bird loon cries. In the stillness after, my mind tries to talk at me of less important things.
Sssshhh. I whisper back. The land is teaching me about the order of things, about trust through these seasons.”Tiffany Narron