Dreaming of White Blazes
Who Am I?
Hello! I’m Courtney, trail name to be determined. I will be heading NOBO on the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain with my dad and my dog starting in April 2023. I’m here today to tell you how I came to the decision to go on this epic adventure!
My best friend and I have recently gotten obsessed with asking everyone we know to take an Enneagram personality test. For those who don’t know, the Enneagram test is like every other personality test that you take and then instantly feel seen because of how accurately it describes you. I am Type 5: The Investigator. In short I’m an introvert that thrives having time alone to think and analyze but fears being helpless and incapable.
Translate that to backpacking and I’m primed to become over-prepared hiker trash.
Hiking the AT is my dad’s idea. He took me day-hiking and exploring as a kid and gave me a love for adventures. Although we tent camped, we never ventured into backpacking mostly out of intimidation. There are a lot of neat things you can see in a day hike. Even now we have yet to do a backpacking trip that is further than we think we could do as a day hike. That said, you can’t day hike and watch the sunset from Little Hump Mountain in the Roan Highlands.
My dad has been thinking about hiking the AT for a few years. Although I haven’t convinced him to take the Enneagram test yet, I am almost positive we would have the same result. We have discussed at length about how we go through life doing things because we think they’re what we’ve been told will bring us happiness, but yet we both struggle to define what actually makes us happy. When he started talking about hiking the AT he had never done an overnight backpacking trip, but he thought he would enjoy something that’s physically challenging, has a simplistic routine, and has a clear goal to mark the finish line.
In 2018, we took a family vacation to the Northeast. I had a coworker at the time tell me I couldn’t go to Maine and not hike the Knife’s Edge. It took 10 seconds on google images for me to start my campaign to the family to make Baxter State Park a day trip during the vacation. By the time we got to the park the day of our adventure the parking lot to hike the trail that included the Knife’s Edge to the summit was full, so we had to take a backup to get to the top. Up the Abol Trail we went for our first experience hiking above treeline.
To tell you we were under prepared might be an understatement. We had no clue what we were getting into. I grew up in Ohio where the highest point is at Elevation 1,549 feet. We didn’t have any extra clothes besides the short-sleeved shirts on our back, we carried all of our water because we hadn’t discovered Sawyer Squeeze, and I wore my steel-toed boots I had for work. We had luck on our sides that day and made it to the top for some incredible views with almost perfect weather.
That day was my first experience meeting a thru-hiker. It was mid-July and we were at the summit at the same time as a group of three thru-hikers finishing their journey. It was a fun experience feeling their energy when they got there and were taking pictures. We left the summit a few minutes before them, and before long they passed us and seemed to us like they were running back down the trail. We observed how efficient they were after almost 2,200 miles on the trail as they left us in the dust. To show you how little we knew, that evening we went to the closest McDonalds for dinner and asked the staff how to pronounce the name of the ‘big mountain”.
In early 2020, I befriended a few women I had met at my local gym. One of them was really into hiking and backpacking having segmented at different times from Springer through the Smokies. As The Virus That Shall Not Be Named was sweeping the country, she suggested a few of us go on a backpacking trip to get away from everything. I was lucky enough that she had enough gear to outfit the three of us plus her daughter. We hiked in on a local trail three miles and set up in a stealth spot she liked to frequent near a stream. I won’t lie and say the entire trip was amazing; I got irrationally mad when someone helped me as I was trying to restart the fire in the morning and the trip ended on a sour note. My bad. But as soon as I got back to my car I called my dad and told him we had the skills to backpack and just needed to jump in. I was hooked.
It wasn’t until October that I was able to plan my first backpacking trip with my dad. We invited my two younger brothers to join us for a trip to the Roan Highlands. My dad and I invested in Osprey packs, but everything else we had came from Amazon, Walmart, or anything we could find around the house. With our 8 lb tent we were anything but lightweight. The highlight of that trip was getting our tent set up right before a rain storm hit. The four of us ate our first Mountain House meals as we watched an Ohio State football game. We did so many things wrong that trip, but my dad got the same itch to do it again that I already had. (My brothers did not get that same itch and haven’t had any interest in joining us since.)
My dad had been eyeing either 2022 or 2023 for his AT attempt. At this time I thought maybe I would start with him for the first week and then go back to my job as he went on. I kept stretching that idea in my head to two weeks, and then a month. For awhile that was it, surely my life could only stand still for a month at most and then I would need to return, right?
My dad and I made some investments for the other 2/3 rds of our ‘big three’ and went back to the Roan Highlands two more times in May 2021 and September 2021. It took until that September trip that we finally got the views the Highlands are known for. The May trip in particular it rained the entire time and we started questioning what was wrong with us as we were both very much enjoying walking through the woods soaking wet.
Thanks to life circumstances, my dad scrapped 2022 and was set on a 2023 AT attempt. Although I had been doing long (10+ mile) hiking day trips by myself for years, I was excited to start adding the backpacking factor and making my adventures into weekend trips. I did my first solo overnight trip with my dog after Christmas. We went to Frozen Head State Park (home of the Barkley Marathon) and I had an incredible experience gaining a ton of confidence alone in the backcountry. I was starting to upgrade and fine-tune my gear, getting rid of what I didn’t need and researching what could be better.
I discovered Backpacker Radio and my backpacking obsession really took off. The more I dove into backpacking culture the more I fell in love. I wanted to be part of the long-distance community. I started thinking “what if” and considering what I would need to plan in order to leave my life for 6 months. The seed was planted.
Around this time I went on a roadtrip with a couple of coworkers. One of them I didn’t know very well at the time, and I had found out he is a pilot. I peppered him with questions about flying for over an hour. The other coworker with us mostly listened, and as I started running out of questions he told me if I wanted to become a pilot myself I should pull the trigger and do it while I’m young and have more disposable income and less family commitments. He didn’t realize I was asking questions only because I love to learn (Enneagram 5), not because I have any desire to become a pilot myself. I couldn’t stop thinking about his statement though and applying it to backpacking. The seed starts sprouting.
Over the next few months my dad and I continued taking weekend trips. On a trip to Frozen Head we happened to be there the weekend before the 2022 Barkley Marathon started. There were ultra runners all over the trails. As we neared the end of our 20-mile trip a couple of trail runners were passing us the other direction headed up the mountain. I did some internet sleuthing when I got home. I’m pretty sure one of them was Courtney Dauwalter and I told her “it’s a steep trail up”. For anyone who understands the irony of that: *insert face palm here*.
At this point I was all in on backpacking and was researching and investing in all the fun gear. A couple more weekend trips on the Sheltowee Trace trail in Kentucky and I was ready to start really crunching numbers to see if I could afford to tag along the entire way with my dad on his adventure.
I started making expense lists and budgets and decided with some planning and saving I was ready to go all-in. Now it was time to fully commit. I approached my boss and requested to take a sabbatical to go on this once-in-a-lifetime trip with my dad. I didn’t know what kind of reaction I would get. The one I received was not on my list of potential responses I had ran through my head a million times. “My wife and I have been talking about hiking the trail ourselves, yes we’ll figure it out.” Wait, really?! Let the real planning begin!
Now it’s really game on. Saving. Training. Planning. Shakedown hikes on the AT. All of the details to work out. Investing in more gear (there’s never enough). Every time I’m in the woods with my backpack on I smile and think, “I’m content.” I think I’ve found it, what makes me happy. The more I dive in the more I fall in love with trail culture and the more I dream of white blazes.
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