Many Struggle, Such Doubt
This is far, far harder than I expected. Everything about my life is different now from how it was five weeks ago. And none of those differences are easier.
The weekend couldn’t have been happier: a reunion with Inti; a dreamy Airbnb spot; breweries, pizza, burgers, three pieces of fried chicken with collards, grits, AND a biscuit, wine; new friends (the Airbnb hosts made us dinner on their patio!); lots and lots and lots of time in bed; singing along to old time country songs in the car; yoga and massage; but most of all SNUGGLING.
By Monday morning I felt refreshed and ready to tackle the trail.
Inti drove me back to Standing Bear Hostel, where he’d picked me up Friday morning. I dropped off a bag of unneeded food and supplies in the hiker box, and Inti drove me down the 1/4 mile to the AT. I loaded up my pack, kissed and hugged him goodbye (“No tears this time; I got this,” I said), and started up the hill.
“Oh!” I said suddenly. He turned. “My poles!” I didn’t have them. I felt mild panic because I realized I couldn’t remember seeing them all weekend, but I calmed myself with the knowledge that they must then be somewhere at Standing Bear. We drove back, and where I had most likely left them, the same place I’d put down my pack on arrival Friday morning, in their place was an inferior and bent set of poles.
After asking around and looking everywhere, I accepted that someone had likely traded up. Not knowing this for sure of course, I didn’t take the bent poles.
It was three days, about 34 miles, to Hot Springs; could I just walk without poles? Quickly, Inti and I tried to determine alternatives: drive back to Asheville an hour, find poles (half an hour?), drive back here … that would take too long and give me too late a start to make it to the shelter with anything approaching enough energy. I decided to suck it up and walk the miles without poles.
Greatly discouraged and worried by this prospect, I hugged Inti again and set off to climb five miles and descend two and a half to the first shelter.
Along the way I scouted for pole replacements. I picked up a pretty straight stick and, while definitely not as good as a pole, it did help. My foot was throbbing, and I realized I truly needed two, so I found another one. It was thinner than the first, and after about an hour, this imbalance became unignorable; I had to squeeze harder with my left hand. I found a replacement. A little later I stopped for a snack and found another replacement, and I stuck with these until I got to Hot Springs. The value of trekking pole straps has never been so apparent. Overall, though, the sticks were serviceable.
Once I had gotten the stick situation sorted out though, that afternoon, I was struck with a sudden and atrocious desire to NOT BE HIKING. To not be working so hard. To not be in the woods, to not be alone. I just couldn’t believe that I wasn’t going to see Inti that night, that this wasn’t a day hike that would end with a burger, a bath, a glass of bourbon, some snuggles, and a good night’s sleep in a clean, dry bed. I couldn’t fathom it; it was ludicrous.
Trying to talk myself out of the funk, I reminded myself that first days out of town are always tough; your pack is at its heaviest and you’ve eaten a lot and you’ve had some alcohol. The body re-adapts to being sedentary remarkably fast.
My attempts were ineffective.
That evening and the next morning I did feel a little better; I met some new people whom I like very much–Sage and Ladyslipper and Flannelheart and Dawdler–and the night wasn’t too cold. But my setup tasks didn’t feel reassuringly productive and happy, as they normally do. They felt mundane and pointless; they were a drag.
Right before I set off the next morning it started to rain, but that didn’t initially demoralize me the way it has on other times.
However, by about an hour into my hike up to Max Patch, the rain hadn’t stopped and my spirit wasn’t lifted by cardio, the way it usually is. Something must have broken with my hormones–endorphins just weren’t flowing.
The rain let up enough for bugs to come out. A gnat tried to fly into my ear and as I waved it away, I hit myself in the head with a trekking pole. It hurt, but not enough to make me start crying the way it did. I wailed. I sobbed. I could hardly breathe for how hard I cried.
My thoughts: I hate this. I don’t want to do this. I’m tired of working so hard all the time. This sucks. I want to go home. I miss Inti. This sucks. Why am I doing this? Etcetera.
I kept walking because there was nothing else to do, and I kept crying. Again, I couldn’t believe that I was going to do this for the rest of the day, that I was going to do it the next day, and the one after that, and the one after that, and the one after that.
More thoughts: I hate hiking. I hate the woods. I hate camping.
Usually a good cry helps.
Eventually I got most of the tears out of my system and climbed Max Patch, but before I did I met Mountain Man, a southbounder who asked, “How’s your hike going?”
“Ah, not too great this morning; it’s been one of those days.”
“How far you going?”
“Well, the plan was to go to Maine, but I’m not sure about that now.”
He wore shorts, a light backpack, short sleeves. He had a bushy gray beard.
As soon as I shared my troubles, as vaguely as I had, his eyes grew loving and concerned. He so genuinely felt for me. “You’ll make it,” he said. “You look healthy.”
He told me some stories of early difficulties he’d had, and of overcoming them (he was 250 miles from finishing), and then he said, “Can I give you a hug?”
We did hug, holding each other’s shoulders since our packs were too big to get our arms around them.
“Backpackers’ hug,” I said, and laughed weakly.
Then I almost broke down again heading up the hill–that whole humility, kindness-of-strangers thing.
I wish I could say Max Patch was dreamy and gorgeous and worth it, and that I cried again but this time out of joy from the beauty, but it wasn’t and I didn’t. It was raining sideways, and it was cold and windy, and I was struck by how wrong this entire endeavor might be for me, since just about every single person who knows anything about Max Patch can’t say enough good about it, and yet I was there and all I wanted was to get off it and out of the sideways rain and into the cover of woods so I could pee and not be going uphill anymore and hopefully find a place sheltered enough to stop for a snack.
My thoughts about quitting have been momentary before, have been theoretical, but I’ve spent the two days since that morning in serious contemplation of getting off.
Here are what’s hardest for me:
-Being alone. Yes, there are many amazing people on the trail, and meeting them has been one of my favorite things about this. But I am slow, and as soon as I meet and start to connect with someone, he or she moves ahead. So there’s companionship and socializing but not (yet?) friendship. I miss Inti desperately a lot of the time and without my people it’s hard for me to even feel that I am or can be myself.
-Being cold. It’s May. It’s May NINETEENTH, in the freaking SOUTH, and today it is cold outside. Two nights ago I wore all my clothes to bed and had to lay my puffy jacket over my 15-degree bag. I still regularly fill my Nalgene with boiling water and take it to bed with me. In camp evenings and mornings, I wear my puffy coat and my wool hat. I’m done with the Smokies. I’ve been out here more than a month. I started LATE to avoid cold, and yet every single day and night, at some point or another, cold makes me deeply uncomfortable.
-Being injured. Ibuprofen is doing a good job of keeping the tendinitis inflammation down, but I still feel foot pain a lot of the day, and it slows me down, which puts me behind potential friends and frustrates me. The foot pain started in week 2 and although I’ve mostly managed it, it’s time for me to admit that it isn’t healing; it’s simply being managed. To admit that means accepting this will likely be a part of the whole hike, however much longer I’m out here. That’s a dispiriting prospect.
They say not to quit on a bad day, but what if your only good days are zeroes, town days? I have good moments most days, but I’m mentally tallying things and wondering if it adds up to a balance of good or bad. Then I think, maybe that doesn’t matter; maybe this isn’t supposed to be all good. I mean, I didn’t come out here thinking it would be a luxury vacation.
This is supposed to toughen me up, or soften me, or break me down and build me up, anyway transform me somehow; it’s why I’m doing it, right? I want a re-set from digital distraction and distractability. I want to learn that I can handle deprivation, so when I come home I’m not so picky about things like lighting and temperature and other first-world comforts. If I’m going to find work and a life that makes a real impact, it’s going to mean some sacrifice. The idea was that if I can do six months in the woods, then something as “challenging” as a smaller apartment and fewer dinners out for the purpose of starting a business or being in a lower-paying field won’t wreck me.
The thing is, when you’re this deep in the “suck” of the AT, you can’t see that kind of change happening in yourself, and maybe it hasn’t happened yet at all.
Will this get easier? Will I get better at it?
Are those even the right questions for me to ask?
I’m at a marvelous (and marvelously CLEAN) hostel right now, Laughing Heart, in Hot Springs, NC, and although I wasn’t planning to zero, I know my body, mind, and spirit need to do so.
I’m using the time for rest, reading, resupply, reflection. And soul searching, serious soul searching.
Am I in a temporary phase of extra-suckiness? I mean, maybe it was the stolen poles, but that’s not enough to quit. Maybe it was the rain, but that’s not enough to quit. Maybe it’s the contrast of a luxurious weekend with Inti, but that’s not enough to quit. Maybe, like on the day I hit a wall while training for a marathon, my body’s reached some weird point of just needing more rest.
I dread going back into the woods tomorrow, but I’m going to keep on, at least until Erwin, six days’ ahead. I’ve tried marshaling my problem-solving skills and am planning shorter-distance days (people seem to all pass me no matter what, so might as well). I’ve downloaded another book to read, and a Spotify playlist for the long, lonely afternoons. I’m going to take longer breaks and going to stop in the mornings (assuming they’re dry) for writing, which I know feeds me.
If anyone has the kind of encouragement that would help me to deeply know that this will be worth it, that there will be some lasting, transformative impact on who I am as a person (beyond simply saying “I did it;” that wasn’t enough for me to feel a marathon was worth it), please, PLEASE comment here or reach out to me. I need it. I need help on this journey.
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