Connecting the Dots of My Life on the Path to a Thru-Hike
It’s a clear night in August. The kind of summer night when it’s warm, but the mountain chill creeps down and into the meadow we’re sitting in just outside the camp at Summerland. It’s 2 a.m., but instead of being curled up inside our warm sleeping bags, Sarah and I found ourselves sitting in this meadow with our new trail friends — three dudes from Oregon — gazing up at the dark, sleeping silhouette of Mt. Rainier.
“There they are, see them?” the bald one from Oregon asked (sorry, Mr. Baldy, for remembering that you were bald but not remembering your name). We look to where he’s pointing, and did see — them, the small pinpricks of lights from headlamps, strung together in a perfect line slowly crawling up the mountain. They were the hikers starting their summit attempt from base camp; on this clear night they looked like constellations that fell out of the sky and were trying to make their way back to the heavens. We sat in silence and watched those constellations climb… moving up, up, and up while we sat wondering what it felt like up there, climbing till the sun.
Constellations are a strange thing: the evidence of our human impulse to make sense of the vastness, the complexity, of what lies out of our reach. We give them names. We connect stars that are separated by millions of miles with our little imaginary lines. We tell stories about them. We navigate by them. This same impulse doesn’t just compel us to name the stars, but also compels us to connect the points in our life that lead us to what’s next. We tell ourselves stories, we connect dots, we trace where we came from and use that to orient us in the direction we are going.
Connecting the Dots
Where to begin? Well, first off – I’ve decided to begin a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail starting this March (which still feels so strange to say out loud, and even stranger to put on a page). I’m a 9-to-5 working, photo-taking, video-shooting, trail-running, rock-climbing, book-reading, podcast-listening, quarter-of-a-century-year-old who loves the vast and immeasurable things in life. I also love breakfast and pizza (sometimes these two are one and the same), my family, and seeing the world around me in new ways.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the months leading up to this hike looking back and wondering at the vastness of my experiences, wondering at the different points that feel like they’ve led me this hike. It’s as if there was some divine hand tracing its finger from star to star and point to point – drawing out my constellations and forming my story without me fully noticing. Here’s my best attempt at retracing my steps.
My Wild Tribe
Imagine me at eight years old, balancing on a thin fallen branch that’s bending over a swamp so deep that if I misplace a step, all that soupy mud would flood into my yellow rubber boots. My wild-eyed cousins are all watching, some of them already have made their way across while some of them are holding MacGyvered torches of birch bark and sap. I take a sprawling leap to the other side and barely make it, to the cheers of my cousin tribe. This is Deer Camp. The yearly Johnson ritual where the dads take all the cousins to our deer hunting land in the swamps of the Iron Range and where we have a sense of wild freedom to explore the woods (along with occasional scoldings about fire safety, namely: MacGyvered torches of birch bark and sap). Deer Camp is our own little Neverland, where my first hints of freedom in the outdoors were tasted, and things like not showering and pooping outside were business as usual.
Making the Most of It
I’m now ten. I’m sitting on the ground with my dad and sister in the Boundary Waters, with the cold, depressing drizzle of rain spattering on our tarp. It’s the last night of our canoe trip, and as if he knew this last night would be miserably wet and cold, my dad pulls a no-bake Oreo cream pie dessert mix out of our food pack. We make it and it turns out comically bad – literally a mass of concrete no-bake frosting with chunks of Oreos sticking out like dirt on a wad of gum. We laugh, eat it anyway, thank our lucky stars for whoever invented no-bake Oreo cream pie dessert, and learn to find good fortune in our unfortunate weather.
Strange Human Glue
And oh, the perils of 14 – that age when clothes just don’t fit you right and when you feel like a stranger to your foreign, self-conscious self. But this night it’s different. I’m laid out in a sleeping bag under the stars, on an island in the Boundary Waters that’s filled with blueberries and fir trees, watching the moon rise over the lake with my new friends, re-quoting our favorite scenes from “The Office” and laughing till our sides hurt. These friends who started out as acquaintances turned into brothers and sisters, thanks to that strange human glue that fastens you to others the longer you spend in the wilderness. Everything feels more real out here, more genuine and unpretentious and sacred.
Waiting for Something
Twenty-two. I’m a few months into my first big girl, 9-to-5, cubicle dwelling, 401k-and-health-and-dental job. I walk into Caribou Coffee in Canal Park, buy a cup of black coffee, and meander up to the loft. At the third table I see a friend of mine. I sit and we get to talking about how my new job is going as I eat my boring salad. “I don’t know… it’s a good job but I don’t feel like it’s right, you know? But I also feel like I shouldn’t leave yet. It’s like… I’m meant to be here longer – like I’m waiting for something? If that makes sense?”
The Good with the Bad
Twenty-four. I’m sitting under a tree with my cousin Sarah and our new trail friends Marjorie and Eric. We’re all trying to shelter ourselves from the rain at Golden Lakes campground, cooking “the last supper” for our last night on the Wonderland Trail. “So Amanda, this was your first big backpacking trip right?” Marjorie asks me. “What do you think – would you do something like this again?” My mind replays the last 90 miles of hiking, witnessing rock slides, nursing my hurting feet in streams, meeting wonderful and strange people, walking two miles for an overpriced burger, dancing down trails, popping blisters, digging through hiker boxes, crying and cursing at the rocks tormenting my sore feet. Every night for 90 miles I’ve had a dream that for some reason I was off the trail – for a wedding, a family reunion, a birthday – and was trying desperately to get back to finish. I smile. “Oh, yeah. I’d definitely do it again.”
Now I’m 24 1/2. As part of a trip to visit my cousin in Asheville, N.C., Sarah and I have decided to hike a quick overnight on a local trail. That local trail turned out to be the AT… in early March. It was crawling with thru-hikers. The funny part is that as we were hiking SOBO for our quick section, I can’t tell you how many times we heard, “You’re going the wrong way!” Real funny, guys. And now I’m tucked deep into my sleeping bag at the Standing Indian Shelter. As I drift off to sleep, I listen to a couple of the thru-hikers we met talking about the trail, joking about wild hogs, and telling scary stories. At that moment, I knew I was a goner. I wanted to hike the AT so bad. The weeks and months that followed felt like I had this secret crush on the trail – I thought about it constantly. I creeped pictures of it on Instagram. I daydreamed about it.
And the Edge
Twenty-five. I’m sitting on the bus on my way home from work. It smells like cigarettes and stale air filters, and I’m talking to my friend Laura on the phone, trying to hear her over the deafening drone of the bus engine. I just told her that I’d decided – officially, yet tentatively – to hike the AT. “You’re totally going to hike it and I can’t wait! You’re going to walk across the freaking country!” Her words pushed me over the edge of uncertainty and I free fell into commitment. My stomach flipped, I smiled, and looked at my reflection in the bus window. This is it. I’m going to hike the AT. “Yeah! Yeah, I am!” I said.
Navigating by These Stars
And there’s more, more, and always more dots that I could connect to this story. This hike has connected me to the dental hygienist who was elated at the thought of my thru-hike. She gave me a little plastic bag filled with tiny tubes of toothpaste. “It’s for the trail,” she grinned, and gave me a hug. This hike has connected me to the man who saw me scrawling in a notebook at Starbucks. He said he was a writer too; I told him I’m going on a hike, and I’m going to (try to) write about it. He encouraged me, proclaimed me the next Annie Dillard, and we parted ways.
These stories are the things that leave me awestruck in their serendipity and connectedness. In tracing my lines through these stars, I’ve realized that there is so much power in the dots we connect and the stories we tell and the way we see and share the world. There are people and experiences that have pushed and pulled on the trajectory of my life, and I’m grateful that they’ve brought me to now. That is also what’s pulling me forward into this new season: that feeling that there are other stars out there to be incorporated into my constellations. That there are people to meet and stories to learn from and places to walk through – that in writing about it all, I can understand it better. That in giving my stories, I can hear some “no-way-me-toos!” and connect with other stories in return.
I hope that being generous with my story can make this hike a little something for all of us – for the fellow hikers, the co-dreamers, the supporters, the strangers, and for you, dear reader. Let’s do this.
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