The Hardest Part of the Journey: Getting Started
I woke up on the couch, grumpy because Burt had a rehearsal the night before and we weren’t able to fall asleep together. When he had gotten into bed in the middle of the night, I felt too crowded, a little angry at him for being away on my last night at home, so I had gone to fitfully sleep away the last few hours of the night on the couch by myself. When I awoke, I saw that Lola had chosen to stick it out with me in the living room, and I grinned to myself at her sweetness.
Anxiety was sitting heavy in my chest, as it had been since the previous afternoon. It was that kind of pressure right in the center of the chest that felt like it would be relieved if I could just sit down and have a really good cry. But the crying would not come easily, and I was forced to continue going about this very important day feeling hyper aware of the weight pressing down on my heart and lungs.
It wasn’t even 8 a.m. yet, so I started busying myself with the last-minute things I needed to do while I waited for the laundromat to open. A previous version of myself envisioned starting the day with a warm lemon water, a calming yoga practice, and a long, grounding meditation. That probably would have gone a long way in relieving some of my anxiety, but in the moment, I could not sit still, and keeping busy was the only way to keep it at bay.
I did a final load of laundry, very conscious not to mention to the laundromat owner that it would be my last visit until January, probably. I had nothing in me that could sustain an excited conversation or a sad goodbye, or answering the same list of questions for the millionth time. To protect my energy, I knew I had to slip out of town as undetected as possible.
Burt started to stir and wake up as I was standing in the closet folding and putting away the freshly laundered load of clothes. He waved at me with a sweet smile. I waved back at him, trying not to look too pissed off because I knew the anxiety was controlling everything, and I didn’t want to have a fight with him.
“When did you want to get up there?” he asked.
“As soon as I can get everything done here. Are you still going to clear the pictures off my phone and put new music on it?”
I went back to busying myself with the folding. After a few minutes, I looked back at him and saw that he was watching me calmly. I immediately started to soften, remembering how much he loves me, and that this might be a hard day for him too.
I dropped the pair of jeans I was holding back into the hamper and walked to the bed where I snuggled myself in beside him.
I admitted to him how upset I was that we didn’t get to spend our last night together, and I unloaded on him about the anxiety that had been plaguing me for going on 20 hours at that point. Logically, I understood that it was anxiety and there was nothing to get so upset about, but my body was betraying me with a nauseous tummy and a chest full of pressure. I already felt better just putting my truth out there. Tears welled up and I was able to enjoy the tiniest bit of relief with Burt’s arms squeezed tightly around me.
While he worked on my phone, I went to the grocery store to get some last-minute things for my food bag. Blocks of cheese, a bag of spinach, and some limes. At the checkout counter, the girl who was my cashier, whom I knew, asked me when I would be leaving for my big adventure. I couldn’t lie to a direct question, so I answered, “Today.” I made it through the conversation with as much honesty as possible, telling her that anxiety was at the forefront of everything at that time.
Back at home, Burt was still working on my phone, and I did the last touches of packing and getting ready to go. Burt was still working on my phone when I had completely finished getting ready. I noticed that my anxiety wanted to come out as anger again as I got annoyed at him for waiting until the last minute to do something I had asked him to do over a week ago.
I told him gently that I was starting to get worried it would be getting dark by the time we got there. We were able to compromise and just get the pictures off my phone and not worry about putting any music on it so we could get going as soon as possible. Argument avoided, my chest and tummy still feeling terribly tight.
During the over four-hour car drive, my mood went up and down as fast as one song ended and another one started on the radio. I made a point of trying to drink sips of water infused with fresh mint, and unsweetened tea, and turmeric orange juice to start out my adventure as hydrated as possible. The weather was mostly sunny, but the forecast told us there were supposed to be storms right about the time we were to arrive.
My plan all along had been to stop at the ATC headquarters first and check in and get my thru-hiker hang tag, but with our timing that day, I quickly changed my mind and decided just to take our time, get a good dinner together, and then head to the Mason-Dixon Line.
When Burt took the exit off the interstate that would lead us to Waynesboro, PA, I felt a sharp wave originate in the upper right side of my neck and shoot down the vein of my right arm, causing the fleshy area at the base of my thumb to throb painfully. With my other hand, I massaged the throbbing part of my right hand, familiar with this response to stress that my body had always displayed throughout my life.
I took a deep breath in, feeling it fill my chest, and sighed it out loudly with an open mouth. Burt looked over at the sound of my exhale, and as soon as we made eye contact, I grinned weakly at him as tears rolled silently down my cheeks. He put a firm, grounding palm on my thigh, his silent and powerful gesture of support.
My right hand continued to throb as we drove down beautiful, historic streets that led us to The Waynesburger where I went in to order us falafel burgers and fries and a milkshake while Burt waited in the car with Lola. We held hands solemnly the rest of the ride to PenMar Park.
I left all my gear in the car and the three of us wandered across the park to sit at benches facing a beautiful overlook of miles and miles of Maryland farmland. The food was so authentically delicious, even though I felt like I was forcing myself to eat on an uneasy stomach.
After we each took our turns hanging out with Lola while the other used the bathroom, we were leaning up against a railing, facing the same direction toward the gorgeous view, pressed up against one another’s sides, his arm wrapped strongly around my back. Tears began to flow freely, and the harder I cried, the harder he squeezed me.
“I’m not gonna get snuggled for seven months,” I sobbed.
We both laughed, mine sounding snotty and slobbery, and changed our position to a full-on embrace, heart to heart. We let the moment drag on for quite some time until we had to stop stalling and walked back to the car to grab my gear.
I filled my two water bottles and my two water pouches, all one liter in capacity, with water from gallon jugs that I had picked up at a gas station earlier in the day. That was when I discovered one of the pouches had a terrible leak in it. We improvised by finding another one liter water bottle in the car and figuring out where it would easily slide into my pack.
Burt held my hand in one hand and Lola’s leash in the other hand as we walked back across the park and got on the AT to walk the short distance to the sign marking the Mason-Dixon Line. Emotions stayed at bay while we posed for pictures with the sign, and I sent them to all the people at home worrying about me.
We had made it to the hardest part of the day—actually having to turn our backs and walk away from each other. It felt impossible. We hugged and looked into one another’s wet eyes and sobbed into each other’s shoulders. He kept smoothing down my hair with such a loving touch while I wiped tears off his cheeks with my thumbs. We would break apart and fall back into a sobbing hug and repeatedly, neither of us able to let the moment pass.
“Lola has no idea what’s going on,” I told Burt. We looked at her and laughed at her attention that was laser-focused on a squirrel in the distance. That moment gave me enough umph to take a step away from Burt toward the trail heading north. We were still within arm’s reach of each other and continued to hold hands until I took another step and we could no longer touch.
Burt nodded his head at Lola, encouraging me to give her one final farewell. I petted her head softly and she put her ears down, wagging her tail and looking at me in the eye with her sweet little eyes. I looked at Burt, a fresh wave of tears surfacing. “Fuck,” I sobbed. He nodded, looking at us both with love.
I began taking unsteady steps away from them. Every step I took, I looked down at where I was stepping, then looked back to see if they were still there. Burt waved at me every time I looked back at them, and I waved in response. We continued this back and forth with one another until Lola started barking at someone coming toward them, and he had to give his full attention to that situation. I turned and committed to looking fully forward at the trail, my chest heaving with sadness.
What now? I just walk into the woods totally vulnerable and on my own? It felt really weird and unnatural, although that was absolutely what I had signed up for.
Because of my late start, I had decided on going to the closest place to camp, which was a little place by a stream about a half mile in. The walk was all downhill, and although it was relatively easy, the tips of my toes and my toenails were already aching. I found myself wondering if I should have Burt send me my half size up shoes in the first resupply box he would send.
Before I knew it, I was already at the campsite. It felt silly to have barely walked even 20 minutes, and for a second I considered walking a bit farther just on sheer principle. I talked myself down, knowing that it would be getting dark soon.
There was one other person at the campsite, also in a hammock, but they were already tucked away for the night, and I never saw them. I walked around for a while, not convinced that any of the trees available were good enough to hang a hammock. I finally settled on the spot I deemed the least crappy, and got to work, methodically unpacking too much food to get to my hammock, bug net, and rain fly. Everything went up easily, and I patted myself on the back metaphorically for practicing this skill plenty of times.
I laid my yoga mat out on the dirt and sat down on it, feeling overwhelmingly alone. My chest became tight again, squeezing more tears, still out of my eyes. I flicked my phone off airplane mode and was glad to see I still had service. I called Burt and listened to the line ring until his voicemail picked up. I had enough time to curse at the voicemail silently, then he was calling me back.
There was nothing really to say, so we sat on the line mostly in silence. I asked him again why I was doing this instead of spending every possible second with him and Lola. He murmured supportively, but he did not answer. I said I wished we were doing this together. I thanked him for letting me be free.
Once off the phone, it was beginning to get dark, but my body was so alert and stressed that getting into my hammock at 8:45 p.m. did not sound appealing. I pulled out my too-stuffed food bag and dug around clumsily until I found teabags, then I scrambled around more and was able to get some water boiling on my tiny camp stove. My stomach was still in knots and full of the falafel burger I had unceremoniously shoved down my gullet in a frenzy of stress and worry, so drinking the tea was more like forcing more substances into my sensory overloaded body, and it did not go down easy.
It was dark. I fumbled around with my headlamp and got to work putting all my items with scent into my bear bag. I nervously walked around in the dark, trying to find a limb that seemed suitable enough to use for a bear hang. Once I decided on a limb, I threw my rock sack “up and over” unsuccessfully for a good half-hour. Bugs were swarming around me because of the headlamp, and I was sweating through my sleeping clothes. Every time the rock sack slammed onto the earth loudly, putting my inexperience on display, I felt both sorry that I was being loud while unidentified-hiker-in-the-hammock slept, and also embarrassed that unidentified-hiker-in-the-hammock might be judging me mercilessly.
After a semi-successful, pretty pathetic hang, I decided it was all I could do, and returned back to my hammock area. I realized that hanging the bear bag had been enough to get me out of my head and relieve some of the pressure in my chest. My body was still buzzing so I called Burt again. More comforting silence. Then I said goodnight and got into my hammock.
My heart rate was still up and I felt hot and claustrophobic zipped up inside the bug net. Unsteadily, I took off my outer layer in the wobbly hammock, then tried to just lie and be calm. The sound of the water gushing in the creek behind me sounded lovely and soothing. With my eyes closed, focusing on the sound of the water, I took a deep breath in and let out the softest ohm with the exhale, not even audible above the rush of the water. I continued with the pattern of big inhales through the nose and exhales released as soft ohms. Slowly but surely, areas of my body started to soften and release. My shoulders and chest dropped away from my neck and ears. My jaw loosened, allowing my tongue to be tension free, my face became slack, and my torso and legs felt heavy and drippy.
At last I had found a bit of calm. At last, I was on the Appalachian Trail.
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