Back on the Trail: A Rocky Return
The sun is peeking over the horizon, shedding a warm morning glow over the idyllic grounds of the Woods Hole Hostel. The quiet of the morning is a stark change from the busy place I encountered when I limped up the drive a little after 6 o’clock yesterday evening, ready for a break six days after getting back on the trail.
I put ten hours of hiking and 17 miles behind me, arriving just in time for a quick shower before dinner. Father’s Day weekend was winding down and the hostel was abuzz with the chatter of tired thru-hikers seeking respite and optimistic section hikers getting ready to hit the trail. My feet were hurting and I could barely stand for the “circle of happiness” – a moment of gratitude shared as a group before we all chowed down on a delicious meal of organic, homegrown salad, pesto pasta, and homemade ice cream.
I always enjoy hearing the stories of other hikers. Where are you from? What brings you here? How far are you hiking? The answers can be fascinating, and eating dinner family style is a great way to spark conversation. Sadly, I was beat and my tired feet drew me to bed. I needed rest, and I couldn’t wait for the zero day ahead.
The morning light crept into a window in the loft where I slept at about 5:30, and by 6 a.m. I was up. Someone beat me to the hammock on the porch, so I wandered the grounds watching the morning activities of ducks, goats, and hummingbirds as the sun edged its way over the horizon. “This is even better than sleeping in!” I thought.
Today is a zero day – no miles for me – and I have time to reflect on my tough week on the trail. I started hiking Tuesday after five days off to travel home for a family celebration. I assumed I’d jump back into trail life with ease, but I was wrong. The last six days were the most difficult for me so far: a mental and emotional challenge as well as a physical one.
First, there were five bears in one day. I’d been hoping to finally see a bear on the trail and I knew there were several in the section I was hiking. I rounded a bend and startled a mama with two cubs. A noisy stare-down ensued as I tried to persuade mama to move on and she successfully convinced me to back up… even farther… giving the cubs space to scramble down the trees they had climbed in a panic.
In the process of backtracking, I nearly stepped on a snake. (He escaped unhurt.) Eventually, we reached a truce. The bear family wandered off and I continued on my way only to meet two more bears a few hundred yards farther down the trail. They were less put out by my presence, and moved along quickly with barely a backward glance.
Surprisingly, I wasn’t scared by these bear encounters, but they did make me feel as if my bear quota was filled for a while. I was thrilled to reach Chestnut Knob Shelter with its lovely views, and where I could set my tent and rest for the night.
I hiked out early the next morning, calling out to any bears that I was coming through the forest. Within half an hour I experienced my first fall of the day, slipping on the jumble of rocks that covered the ridge. Later in the day, with just a half mile to the shelter, I would fall much harder on nice, smooth trail.
Something caught my toe and I felt like I was flying before I crashed to the ground. My knees and left wrist made contact first, then my pack, then my head. Before I could even inventory my injuries I thought, “How far am I from the shelter, and will anyone hear my whistle if I’m really hurt?”
My wrist was throbbing, but not broken. My knees were bloody and bruised, but I could walk. A knot on the top of my head was growing, but not bleeding. I pried myself off the ground and set out, gingerly, to nurse my wounds at the shelter.
Not ten steps later it began to rain on me as if the trail were saying, “You made it through that, now let’s see how much more you can take!”
Clearly, my first week back on the trail wasn’t going to be all sunshine and butterflies. Instead, it was a test, physically and mentally, of my determination to be here. It would have been so easy to pack up and go home, saying, “Enough pain. Enough rain. Screw Maine.” But that’s not me.
So here I am at the lovely Woods Hole hostel, healing my body and my psyche so I can keep going. I won’t get too many zeros in the next few weeks because I need to make up time and miles. I’m way behind my planned schedule. My friends are all ahead. Hiking is a little lonely now. Pain is a constant presence. The rocks I used to love are now cursed because they hurt my feet and slow me down.
Reality has set in: thru-hiking is hard. Really hard.
And I still love it.
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