How I Went From Hiking Out of Town in the Morning to Sitting On a Flight Home That Same Night, Plus Other On-Trail Stories from Weeks 1 and 2

A couple days ago I posted an update from my first two weeks of my 1,000 mile hike from Boiling Springs, PA to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Now I’m writing this update from home. Let’s dissect this for a couple paragraphs, and then I can move on to the good stuff, the trail stories.

I know a lot of my friends and family read these, so just to clear the air first: everything is ok guys! Nothing is wrong, I just chose to get off of the trail because I felt I needed to be home for some things going on. I mentioned in my last post that my boyfriend had a lot going on. I felt like it was causing some rifts between us and I learned that I couldn’t mentally deal with what was going on in the background while also trying to hike. Also a disclaimer for my boyfriend’s sake: He did not make me come home and actually encouraged me to keep hiking. This was solely my choice, and I plan to be back on the trail soon. My hike is not over, after all I’m on a leave of absence for a couple more months to finish this thing! I want to make sure that is understood, out of respect for him as my stories are on a public forum.

That being said, I have so much to say about the experience of deciding to go home when I did. It’s difficult to do without talking about the ins and outs of relationships and life situations and what constituted worthy of me feeling like I needed to go, and wouldn’t be fair of me to discuss those personal things here when I’m not the only one involved. But I can discuss the mental game of this decision, because I know I’m not the only one that has ever gotten off of the trail for something and others might be able to relate or could use my sharing of this experience as a reference for a future decision while on-trail.

When I first started hiking the AT, I had this huge fear that I would fail, because I wouldn’t be able to handle the trail. I’m feeling humbled in a new way. I know I can handle the physical trail itself, so I don’t really feel embarrassed by that, but I’m having this huge realization that it’s not just the trail that can be difficult or the thing that you fail at. This is also part of the “trail”. I learned that if I’m going to be gone in the woods for a while, I need to know that the things in my life I left behind are in control, and when circumstances cause things to not feel all that in control anymore, even if accidental, and one thing is piling on top of another, I feel more of an importance being home than I do on a trail that will always be there. Not only do I feel an importance in going home, but my mental hiking game depends on it.

Picture the scene: As I was hiking out of Delaware Water Gap, PA after taking a second zero in accompaniment to my first zero of the hike to finally get some real rest I felt I needed, I had my trekking poles in one hand, phone to my ear in the other. I was already a little frustrated with myself for having to take a second day. We were talking about some car repairs that needed to be done on my car that my boyfriend was trying to get taken care of. The conversation was not going well. The car repair topic is not at all why I came home. This added on top of a backdrop of enough that was already going on with some tough family things that he’s dealing with, and we were forced to end the conversation because I had spotty service and he was at a mechanic shop. It’s just the topic we were talking about at the time, but I pulled myself over right then and there and said I can’t do this. I can’t hike this way, I can’t start walking up that hill and be out of contact for another 3 days the way this has been going and after leaving it on that note.

The town of Delaware Water Gap, PA

After realizing that town was a tough place to leave from or try to rent a car from, I toyed with the idea that I might just have to keep going anyway unless I wanted to stay stagnant in town another day figuring it out. I got lucky. I walked into the church hostel nearby to see if there was wifi, and soon after that the caretaker walked in with his granddaughter and dog to check on things at exactly the right moment. I explained I was trying to find a way home, and he handed me a bus schedule to NYC and dropped me off at the bus station up the road. I was fortunately first in line for the next bus into the station at Times Square, about an hour and forty-five minute ride, as I realized that this bus regularly fills and several people didn’t get on. Feeling thankful for some familiarity with New York even though NYC will always overwhelm me a little, I hopped in a cab to Newark airport and listed myself for standby on the last flight to Chicago as I completely re-packed my pack to be flight-ready in the bathroom near the check-in line. (I know flying last minute like this isn’t necessarily “normal”, but being a flight attendant, I’m used to a little different system of traveling). My dad picked me up, I stayed the night, and the next morning I was on a flight home to Alabama.

On one hand, by definition, this is a failure. My goal was to hike from that point I started to Katahdin, continuously, and I did not do that. I definitely have a lot of thoughts swimming through my head and I’m already trying to figure out when I’ll leave to get back on the trail. Will the same thing happen? What can I do to prepare so this doesn’t happen? Maybe life things are inevitable and the lesson is that it’s ok that I made this decision? I guess I feel a wane of my confidence in myself, like I might try again and not last longer than two weeks. On the other hand, part of me doesn’t care about said failure. Since I wasn’t already concerned with doing a full thru-hike and am really just working at finishing the trail in whatever timeframe allows, what does this matter? If I get back on trail rather quickly, won’t I still feel like I did what I wanted to do? It is a little bit of a bummer feeling like I was just starting to get into the groove, getting hungry instead of force-feeding myself, doing my first twenty mile day of the hike much sooner than I expected, making new friends, etc, and I’m sad I interrupted that. But when I was sitting on that flight to Chicago, staring out the window, I felt a huge wash of calm, which is unusual for me as I tend to get claustrophobic as a passenger when I fly. I knew that meant I made the right decision.

Oops, I said this would only take a couple paragraphs! Let’s get to some trail stories.

Thankful I Took My Warm Gear

The first day that I took off hiking, the wind was whipping and it was cold, and there was snow on the ground in town in Carlisle, PA that morning. The previous day, my boyfriend and I walked the 8 miles together from Boiling Springs to Carlisle as a fun sendoff. It was really hard to leave the comfort of a warm room that first day. I reached the shelter early, and there wound up being seven of us there that night. That particular shelter happened to be equipped with a tarp that we could hang over the front side. For those that don’t know, shelters on the AT are three-sided lean-to’s with an open front. Great for getting out of the elements but still subject to cold and wind. As I slept in my 25 degree bag plus liner, warm leggings and sleep shirt, my puffy, winter hat, and was still a little chilly, I couldn’t believe I considered not bringing the warm stuff. I figured there might be a few cold days but the weather would start to warm quickly and I wouldn’t want to carry the heavy stuff.

The tarp at the shelter helped keep the whipping wind out that night

I guess my mind was still preoccupied in memories of the AT in the south in the summer. That snowy, windy morning is what made me hike out with all of it, and I used the warm clothes most days during those two weeks. There were a few spans of days where within a 24 hour period I went from hiking in pants, a jacket, a hat and gloves in 30-40 degree weather to hiking in shorts and a tanktop in 80 plus degree weather. I’m so grateful I got the reminder that the weather does anything this time of year and I’d much rather carry the warm stuff than ditch it and have to power through the cold, something I’m not particularly good at. Even with the warm stuff, cold mornings can be tough!

The First Night That Things Just Didn’t Go Right

A particular night a few days into the first week stands out to me as the hardest. I ended the day relatively early because I promised myself I wouldn’t go too hard at the very beginning. It was about three in the afternoon and I came to an awesome stealth camp spot right next to a flowing creek that the trail crossed over. This wasn’t in the plans, but I decided to set up there for the night. It was such a beautiful, peaceful spot, but a series of small things started to change the demeanor over the next few hours. As I was setting up my tent, a pole snapped at the very tip. It was really unusual. If you’re not familiar with setting up a tent, just know that it becomes impossible to set the tent up at all if the pole won’t hold any tension. I tried to splint it in several failed ways before realizing I could rip the entire end of the pole off and get it to hold tension without ripping further. Crisis averted. But for some reason, that made me feel pretty alone when the adrenaline of trying to fix it wore off.

To cheer myself up a bit, I decided I’d make a nice fire to hold out the rest of the evening. There was a pile of firewood there someone had already picked, and I gathered up some more myself. Things had been pretty wet the night before though, and I couldn’t manage to get the fire started for the life of me. Eventually giving up, I knew the perfect cheer-up! I had gotten one of those pad-thai backpacker meals out of a hiker box. I hand’t tried it before but was excited as I love pad thai in real life, and usually just eat pasta sides on the trail. Well, my stomach did not handle it well. I should have known, as I broke my own rule for my weak stomach – don’t try something new while actually on the trail. Let’s just say that I had to dig a hole more than once within a half hour of eating it, and I just didn’t feel very well after that.

So I crawled into my tent while it was still light out, the cold started to set in, and with the addition of there being no cell service, I started to feel very, very alone. Something just hit me. I was homesick. I wasn’t ready for that feeling. I had carried some envelopes and stationary in my pack because I thought it would be fun to send some letters home, so I pulled one out and started writing a message to my boyfriend. It helped take the edge off of that first bought of “the lonelies” and eventually I drifted off to sleep. Something walked by my tent early the next morning, but I’ll never know what it was. (It was probably just a deer or something but it makes the story better, doesn’t it?) Sometimes all it takes is falling asleep and starting the next day fresh.

When Gear Fails, Again

I guess the joke is on me for starting this hike with lovingly used gear a little overconfidently. By the time I reached town I had to fix my tent in more than one way, my sleeping pad, and my right shoe. Truthfully though, I checked it all before I left and it was all in manageable condition. It turns out that in the field, things go downhill a little faster than when the gear is sitting indoors. So somewhere in the second week, I was having a nice day of hiking, but was feeling tired from a particularly rocky stretch of Pennsylvania trail and decided I’d end a little early at a stealth camp spot to get some rest and try to chill out a bit, as I’d been camped around people or around people in a hostel every night since that night I ate the pad thai that I just wrote about. I ended my day somewhere around the 13-14 mile mark, found the stealth spot I was shooting for and rejoiced that it was empty, as it was Saturday night, and hung out for a minute before I finally started setting up.

Disaster struck. My tent pole that seemed like it was holding up strong after I ripped the breaking end off until I could get a real replacement started cracking again, this time beyond the point of repair. One of those tent pole splints will now always be a staple in my first aid kit, but I didn’t have one. I tried everything, cutting my finger in the process, and it suddenly hit me that I would not be able to set up my tent that night. Thinking back, maybe I could have come up with something if I lingered for a few hours, but this pole was beyond the point of repair and nothing could splint it. I wasn’t prepared to just lay out in the elements all night at that stealth site alone.

So I made a quick decision. I felt dread for a second, being so tired from the day, but I immediately started packing everything up again and skipped snack time. It was a four mile hike to the next shelter. I had a couple hours until dark. I was about to cross a really rocky section, I believe it was called “The Knife’s Edge”. I didn’t know if I could hike those four more miles that quickly, but I decided my only smart chance was to try to reach the shelter, and hope that it wasn’t full already, and hope that I would arrive before dark when anyone that was there would still be awake. Maybe they would take pity on me and let me in.

I started walking, fast. I think adrenaline pushed me through those four miles. It was the evening, a beautiful temperature out, and I was able to hit two coveted points along the trail without them being full of day or weekend hikers. It was late in the day, and I realize that pretty much every stealth campsite I passed was occupied with a group already settled in for their Saturday evening. I went over that knife’s edge way faster that I probably should have, but in the moment I felt swift and smooth, like something was carrying me to my goal and I just sort of floated over it. I am convinced if I hit that point in the trail without that adrenaline rush, I would have gone a lot slower and really felt the challenge of it. I kept telling myself that it wasn’t even like this was a life or death situation – worst case scenario I just hike through the night all the way into the next town or get up the courage to ask some of the weekenders at one of these campsites if they could help me, and I would survive it.

I arrived at the shelter about a half hour before dark, and all was meant to be. There was only one other person sleeping in it, a friend I had made over the past few nights, and two others tented nearby. The four of us sat and talked for a while as I set up and ate my dinner, and the four of us wound up spending the next several nights around each other. If my tent pole hadn’t forced me to the shelter that night, I’m not sure if I would have met that group. I think the trail provided. Also, some side news, Big Agnes is going to send me a new pole for free! I wasn’t sure how that was going to go since my tent is out of warranty.

Finding The Best Spot by Accidentally Going off Trail

There was one particularly hot day of hiking when it got above 80, and I got to replace my long sleeves with a tank top for the first time of this section. Everything felt dry and rocky that day, and I was proud of myself for granting myself a moment to slow down. I stopped at a little viewpoint past a small rock outcropping, and there was a group of soaring hawks continuously circling the area. I sat there and watched them while I ate a bag of beef jerky and felt thankful I had the spot to myself and didn’t feel like a bunch of people were going to come up right behind me. I have no idea why I feel like that out there occasionally – does anyone else? It’s a feeling like a bunch of hikers are going to catch up to me so I better keep moving at any given time. I think it’s just a weird, social anxiety type feeling. Anyway, the air was calm and quiet, sun shining and I was mesmerized.

A few miles later, I came upon this awesome swimming hole! This is one of the coolest spots that I didn’t expect to see. Tons of campsites, a beautiful waterfall, and I had the place to myself. It was only the middle of the day, but I contemplated just stopping and camping there. I decided that had I been with people, I would have loved to stop there for the day and jump in, but it just didn’t have the same effect while I was alone and I didn’t want to have to dry off. So I kept walking, following the pretty creek and climbing over a large fallen tree in the trail. Eventually I came out to a little bridge and access-type road.

The swimming hole find

Then I had that moment. “When was the last time I saw a white blaze? I knew I was going to go downhill for a little while, but shouldn’t I have been going up again by now?” I opened up the guthook app to find myself on gps and to my dismay realized I had followed another trail that was not the AT. That swimming hole was just off of the AT, and that’s why I never knew such a cool spot was going to be there because it wasn’t marked. I begrudgingly trudged back up that trail I had just been so thankful to be following downhill, eventually rejoining the AT already sweating and needing a break before beginning the marked climb. I laughed as I couldn’t help but think to myself, that would have been a really nice place for some more white blazes. That night, I found out the other hiker I had seen the past few days did the same thing when he came to that area, so at least I can take a little bit of dignity back and tell myself it wasn’t just me.

 

Well, I feel like I could write for hours but this is already a lot to read. If I get around to it, I might tell a few more stories, otherwise my next update will hopefully be from the trail again very soon. I just have some things to sort out first and grant myself the confidence that I just have to begin again rather than stop altogether.

 

The town of Duncannon, PA. Home of “The Doyle” hotel

 

A rather orange water source that I decided to skip drinking

 

Haven’t seen one of these since the south!

 

Beautiful views climbing out of Palmerton, PA

 

A rare, near-vertical spot on the trail

 

Nothing like a beer to celebrate the end of the first 20-mile day into Delaware Water Gap, PA

 

Hitting some trail magic! The famous “Fresh Grounds”. Thanks for the watermelon!

 

Huge shoutout to Rock n’ Sole hostel.

 

Notice the hawk, but also notice the rare, beautiful flat segment of trail

 

Came upon some bleeding hearts, one of my favorite flowers

 

A trail angel set up some water caches on a particularly dry 20 mile stretch of trail

 

This IS the trail, flooded due to beaver activity. My feet got wet that day

 

 

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Comments 13

  • Avatar
    Kelsey : May 9th

    Your bf is presumably a grown man and he can’t take his car to a shop without burdening someone on a maybe once in a lifetime quest. Wow, hon, I really hope you get back on the trail soon. I wasted a lot of years of my life on controlling drama kings and helpless pouter bfs and I regret SO much the things I could’ve done if I weren’t babysitting some man who never gave me anything in return, who is now long gone. If you want to go back to the trail Please do not give up on your goal for this guy. You might say he didn’t make you come back, but he guilttripped you. He should’ve taken care of his business and been nothing but supportive when you called. Not a giant albatross.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Sarah : May 9th

      Kelsey- I appreciate your comment and it made me realize something. I had a huge fear in posting what brought me temporarily home because I didn’t want it to paint another person (my boyfriend) in the wrong light. Truthfully, he had a serious family issue come up and also was in a small car accident. He was handling himself, and it’s just the conversation we were having at the time I decided I needed to get there. So maybe I can go back and edit to better convey that. I just wanted to keep him out of this post as much as possible on a public forum while also being able to explain that something really hard happened for him and I made a personal decision to get back. He’s hiked a lot of the trail too and knows what it means to us which is why it was actually really difficult for him when I told him I was coming home briefly, but I’m very glad I did. I just felt the need to clarify but I understand that I can only write so much without digging into topics unrelated to the trail that I don’t want out in the open yet.

      Reply
      • Avatar
        David H : May 11th

        Hi Sarah (lil bear),

        I saw the comment about one thinking it was your bf for taking you off trail. I am not sure if I literally just finished reading the edit but I could tell there was much more in life going on rather than a discussion between two dating.
        As a Marine, I know people are never going to be as prepared for a trail and it is always a living and breathing organism that can and will change and so will our challenges.

        The Lord Jesus always will help see us through EVERYTHING, but we gotta try to do thimgs when the time, for ourselves, is right.

        Even if you don’t end up finishing what you wanted, remember, maybe that was all the Lord wanted you to do.
        I give lots of respect to all who start and beat themselves up for “not finishing” because there is more to life and life does not stop or pause but each moment makes us more knowledgeable in what we go through and each person goes through something different.

        Awesome job for all you have done!

        Reply
      • Avatar
        Bonny : May 17th

        Hi, interesting read. I have recently read of lost hikers and saw how easily it could happen in your writing above. Please get a satellite finder or locator so if you do get lost they can find you.

        Reply
    • Avatar
      Hendog : May 31st

      Agree. You go in half heartedly….this is your result. Learn to turn real life or stay home in your local woods. The AT is NOT FOR YOYuf you are worried about relationships

      Reply
  • Avatar
    pearwood : May 9th

    Sarah,
    Yeah. Life happens, and not necessarily according to the way you or I had it scheduled. Don’t blame yourself; don’t blame your boyfriend. Figure out what you need to do and do it.
    You may get to repeat those words back to me next year when you’re the experienced one and I’m the old newbie on the trail.
    Blessings on your way,
    Steve / pearwood
    https://thetrek.co/author/steven-tryon/

    Reply
  • Avatar
    pearwood : May 9th

    By the way. You write beautifully. Thank you.
    Steve

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Mary Lou Lesiecki : May 10th

    Hi Sara,
    I so loved reading your posts on your AP adventures!! I’m sorry it was cut short for now, but totally understand why. I’m like you also in that unless things are ok at home, I’m not mentally ok with doing my stuff. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad about going home. I know you will finish the trail when things are better. I will pray for that and your bf’s problems. I’m sure all will work out. It’s just life’s bumps in the road. Remember that God is always there to help you. He is your trek partner as you journey the AP. Rely on Him! Love you. Can’t wait to read your next post😘🙏

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Quinn Ford : May 10th

    This is an awesome site with great stories. I can’t wait to read more. I could never do this amount of a time commitment.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Scott : May 11th

      Hi Sara! Try this the next time you set out. You have no choice but to finish! That is what got me through the Marines. I feel now you are beating yourself up for coming home but please don’t. That was just a training run. You will complete your journey! But next time, unless there is serious illness at home, you WILL finish your mission! When it gets tough, and it will, remind yourself of that and put one foot in front of the other. Think small finish big

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Virgilio de Sousa : May 11th

    All things are possible through christ

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Kelli : May 11th

    To every thing there is a season.
    Just follow your gut.
    The trail will be there when you return.

    Reply

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