Excerpt From Where the Rhododendrons Bloom: New AT Memoir by Audrey Payne

There was a time, not so very long ago, when doing the most mundane activities sent my body into spasms of pain. Sitting at my desk for more than 15 minutes at a time made me feel like the hinges in my back had all rusted up, as if I was the Tin Man. Stepping on uneven ground could make me feel like I was being electrocuted. Riding the metro to the office each day was torture. There were days when I thought the pain would never subside and I would never make it to the other side of the experience.

This years-long debacle, caused by herniating a disc in my spine during a group exercise class at the gym, was a horrendous experience. It ruined two years of my life and cost me a lot of money. Money that I didn’t really have to begin with. However, it redeemed itself in one way and one way only: it inadvertently led me to the Appalachian Trail (AT).

While I was laid up, confined to the adventures of books for far longer than I’d like to remember, I picked up a copy of Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods.” Immediately, the idea of thru-hiking burrowed itself into my brain and wouldn’t let go.

Just under five years post-injury, following a long and painful recovery, I stepped through the arch at Amicalola Falls State Park in Georgia to begin my journey north to Maine. Thinking about it still brings tears to my eyes. After a difficult few years, the AT was a true gift, a second chance at a life worth living. And it did not disappoint.

A woman raises her arms to the White Mountains while on the Appalachian Trail.

I think we all go into new experiences with some idea of how things will play out. But I truly could not imagine what hiking for six months straight was going to look and feel like, and I had a lot of anxiety going in. I quit my dream job to hike the trail, and the longest I’d ever been backpacking prior was five days at a time. I needn’t have worried though; hiking the AT turned out to be hands down the best experience of my life. It wasn’t perfect and there was certainly hardship along the way, but it was more beautiful, healing, and life-changing than I ever could have imagined.

I first sat down to try to write my trail memoir, “Where the Rhododendrons Bloom,” five years ago, just a few months after summiting Katahdin and shortly after moving to Boulder, Colorado. But the experience was still too raw and emotional at that time; I missed the trail and the community deeply and I was still grieving the end of my hike.

A few months ago, I felt a strong urge to pick the project back up. It felt like the words poured out of me like magic, and I could do nothing else in my free time until I had gotten through my first draft of the book. I sobbed as I wrote about Maine, especially the 100 Mile Wilderness and Baxter State Park, reliving the end of the hike and grieving it once more.

A woman raises her trekking poles above the Mt. Katahdin sign that signifies the end of the Appalachian Trail.

“Where the Rhododendrons Bloom” is a true trail memoir. It focuses on what the experience was truly like, why it was so incredibly meaningful, and the important role that the AT community and my trail friends played in my hike. If you’re hoping to thru-hike the AT and want to know what it’s really like out there, or if you want to be inspired by a tale of perseverance and overcoming hardship, I hope that you will pick up a copy of my book. I’m incredibly proud of it, and I hope that you will enjoy my story. You can find the book in ebook and paperback on Amazon and Kindle.

Since the AT, I’ve gone on to hike the Colorado Trail, John Muir Trail, Wonderland Trail, Foothills Trail, Trans-Catalina Trail, O Circuit in Patagonia, and many other hikes. If you’d like to follow along with my adventures, you can find me on Instagram and YouTube.

Edited Excerpt from Where the Rhododendrons Bloom: A Thru-Hiking Adventure on the Appalachian Trail

This is the cover art for "Where the Rhododendrons Bloom" by Audrey Payne.

The cover art for “Where the Rhododendrons Bloom” was created by Monica “Moss” Aguilar of Chasing Trails Art.

It was just the three of us at the shelter that evening, and we made another fire, enjoying the gorgeous spring night together. After the long day, I was sure I’d sleep soundly that night. And I did, until about 4:00 am, when I awoke to the sounds of snapping twigs and the heavy plodding of what I assumed was a very large animal circling the campsite. Whatever it was, it came too close to my tent for comfort, then visited the shelter, which I was happy not to be sleeping in, then ambled over to the tree where our food bags were hanging.

I suddenly regretted chasing Energizer off. This was no mouse. I was certain, this was a bear. It had to be a bear. And if one of us was going to be eaten, I was certain it was going to be me.

I lay in my sleeping bag, terrified, listening to the bear’s every move as it trudged back and forth, back and forth around the campsite. After about half an hour of this, I heard Wintergreen shuffling around in his tent.

“Chet?” I asked, tentatively. I hadn’t called him Chet in weeks.

“Yeah?” he responded.

“Do you, um, hear that?” I asked softly.

“Yep!” he replied.

“Well, um, what do you think it is?” I asked.

“Uh, I’m gonna have to say that’s a bear,” he responded matter-of-factly.

“That’s what I thought, too!” I squeaked in terror.

To assuage my fears, he volunteered to peek outside his tent with his flashlight to ascertain that it really was a bear. He wasn’t able to see anything, even though it still sounded to me like it was quite close. I was thankful that he was awake; at least I wasn’t alone in this experience any longer. Ibex, on the other hand, was fast asleep. She could sleep through anything—wind, cold, thunder, bears—completely undisturbed. It was her superpower.

I came close to asking if I could make a mad dash for his tent. I couldn’t decide which was safer, staying put in my tent alone, or crawling into his for more protection. Ultimately, I was too frightened to leave my tent to move to his, so I put the hunting knife that my dad had bought for me before I started the trek next to my head. Just in case. In the morning, Wintergreen told me that he’d had the same thought and almost suggested we’d be safer in one tent together. My heart skipped a beat at the thought.

Where the Rhododendrons Bloom: A Thru-Hiking Adventure on the Appalachian Trail by Audrey Payne is available on Amazon and Kindle as of February 8, 2024.

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About the Author

This is a photo of Audrey Payne, author of "Where the Rhododendrons Bloom."

After bouncing back from a debilitating spinal injury, Audrey Payne quit her dream job working for World Wildlife Fund in Washington, D.C. to hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. She loved (almost) every second of it.

From there, she moved to beautiful Boulder, Colorado, where she works in public relations for a scientific research organization and spends her free time hiking, backpacking, skiing, paddleboarding, and learning to play the guitar. She hopes to thru-hike another long trail in the not-too-distant future.

“Where the Rhododendrons Bloom” is her first book, but she enjoyed the process so much that she aspires to write another one someday!

All images, including featured image, courtesy of Audrey Payne.

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