No Sleep Till Katahdin!
The Hundred Mile Wilderness did its best to make me almost hate the AT. It started off kindly — Lovechild and I arrived at Cloud Lake Shelter just in time for a beautiful sunset. I crouched on the rocks just in front of the glass-like pond and dipped my smart water bottles in to gather some water for the night. The sky blazed a bright orange and faded to a soft crimson pink. Reflections of the pines around the pond were mirrored against the vibrant sunset.
As I watched the wind trace ripples across the surface in between the lily pads, I realized it would be one of my last sunsets I’d see as a thru hiker on the AT. The only sounds were the wind through the pines and the hushed lapping of water on the shoreline. I ate my spam out of my Fanny pack like a small feral animal and thought about how lucky I was to witness a still quiet moment like this. I felt like I belonged for a brief moment.
A Gear Disaster
Until the next morning. My sleeping pad usually deflated during the night due to some baffles that burst. I had patched it over the past couple weeks with super glue, a patch kit and duck tape. I tried to find the holes in it by dunking it in lakes and yet still I woke up on the shelter floor in the mornings.
That morning, I reached around to unplug the top of it. RIIIIIPPPPPP. My heart sank. Oh shit. I had completely ripped the valve halfway out of the sleeping pad. A five inch long tear extended in the fabric around the valve. Along with my sleeping pad, any hope of a comfortable sleep also deflated. And so began my first day in the hundred mile wilderness.
But Wait — There’s a Hurricane!
And for the next few days it rained. The hurricane brought 40 mile an hour winds with it and leftover showers for the next few days. Usually I don’t worry about rain too much. On the AT, when you’re wet, you’re wet and there’s not much you can do to dry out. There’s some positives to rain — finding super cool salamanders, seeing a ton of frogs and toads and the forest becomes even more green and alive.
However, when it rains day after day in the cold it becomes an issue. Stream crossings swell up and become impassable. Clothes sap what little warmth your body has. And for me — it meant waking up in a puddle.
The shelter we intended to stay at was completely full. The fabric of the bathtub of my tent was prone to wetting through. I usually woke up above the water on an inflated pad — but without a pad that inflated, I was screwed. I set up my tent the best I could and made my peace with the fact that night was going to be rough.
I woke up at 3 am to cold water seeping through my sleeping bag and clothes. I sat up quickly. It was still pouring outside. No! No! No! It was cold enough for me to see my breath. It was a nightmare situation. I was getting cold quickly. Rain becomes stressful when it’s cold out and nothing you own is dry enough to provide any warmth — and there’s no way to get dry.
If I learned anything on the AT — it’s when to ask for help when you need it. I called over to Lovechild who invited me over to his dry tent and sleeping bag to stay warm. Neither of us could sleep on his single person pad — but it was better than being cold and wet. We woke up at 5 and decided the best way out of this situation was to get warm by hiking.
To my relief, I quickly became warm again once I started walking — even though we were basically wading through the trail (which seemed more like a stream) at that point. The only thing that mentally helped me was listening to music — even if while packing up my wet tent in the dark rain happened to be “Get Up Offa that Thing” by James Brown. Talk about a fever dream. Sometimes, you can’t help but laugh.
These woods made me into the hiker I am today. I’ve grown more comfortable being uncomfortable in the face of overuse injuries, incessant rain and shin deep mud. I learned how to accept where I was and do my best to find the positives — like admiring the tree leaves above me as my feet soak in another mid-trail puddle. I learned how to nurture my body with food when I felt miserable — and had developed a respect for how the state of my body could affect my mindset so quickly.
On the hike, I lost twenty pounds. I had to change my entire mindset towards eating from “Eh, I don’t really feel like eating right now,” to “If I’m not hiking I need to be eating or I will be at an unhealthy weight and will have to get off trail.” It was really stressful! Yes, thru hiking is great because you get to eat whatever you want. But it’s also hell for some because you HAVE to eat EVERYTHING because if you don’t, your body won’t be able to sustain your hike anymore. I started drinking protein powder every morning and packing out anything I thought I might eat. This ranged from whole bricks of spam to frozen burritos to uncrustables. Eventually it worked out, but I had to completely change my mindset towards food.
This thru hike reawakened my inner child. When the terrain got particularly tough, sometimes I’d do something silly like swing on a vine or stick a leaf to my forehead. Or sometimes I’d just scream. I’d make time to sit by a waterfall and throw sticks in for a few minutes, finding a thrill in the way they’d disappear in the white foam and float down stream. I’d try my best to approach every day with a sense of wonder. To be amazed at how many shapes leaves can take and still serve the same purpose. To wonder at how tall the trees stand — even in forceful winds. To laugh at the weird sucking noises mud makes and have fun sliding in it. To be incredulous at my legs that have strengthened to carry me so far. To be grateful for the strange and awesome people that wander into my life daily.
I realized that sense of gratefulness, wonder and positive outlook on life does not have to stop just because I finished my thru hike. I can still walk in nature and just be glad to be there. I can still talk to strangers and listen to their stories. I can still do strange and funny things throughout the day to entertain myself. And now — I know I have the strength to thru hike, so I know I have the strength to do it again.
I learned it’s always best to let others know about any unfortunate situations you run into — in regular life and during a thru hike. You never know how others around can help you, just as you might be able to help them. At the shelter after waking up in a puddle, I told another hiker about my predicament, and he quickly offered his long foam sit pad to help give me some insulation while I slept. Had I been embarrassed about my faulty gear — I would’ve just slept on the hard ground again. Additionally, most women on trail also struggled with eating enough food — so it was nice to help each other out with ways to fix our problem.
The Trail Provides
I found truth in the saying “The trail provides,” — or at least found truth in believing it. It’s a helpful mindset to get into, for negative and positive things. Right before I crossed the Abol Bridge, I was worried about how I was going to react to seeing Katahdin so close. I was so busy thinking about myself during that dirt road walk that I stepped on what I thought was a rock.
I looked down and realized it was a baby snapping turtle! I gasped, picked him up and apologized, cleaning him off with some of my water. He was okay but looked tired. I hurried across the bridge, glancing at Katahdin, but more preoccupied with saving the baby turtle. Eventually I bushwhacked down to the river and set him gently by the bank where he walked off along the shoreline.
The trail provided exactly what I needed in that instant. This wasn’t just my journey. I was just one person in the midst of a wilderness full of life — and as a hiker passing through, a part of my responsibility was to leave it untouched and help out the wildlife when I see it affected by things my own kind had created. When you get too caught up in your own journey, it’s hard to help others along on theirs. Aside from helping the wildlife — you can help a fellow hiker by just listening. Many times, a majority of hikers are preoccupied in telling their own stories they forget to ask questions and be an active listener to others. Being an active listener can make others feel important and heard — something I believe every human should have an ability to feel. I believe looking outside yourself with an empathetic worldview is one of the best ways to approach life.
As more negative circumstances go, even when my sleeping pad deflated, I looked at it as a test to see if I could still find the positives in day to day and push myself even in a sleep deprived state. There have been countless times where I didn’t think I could handle another rain storm, another hill or another day alone (or sometimes another day with the wrong people) and the trail provides exactly what I didn’t think I could deal with. And I find out I can deal with it. And things still turn out alright.
If anything I can look back on trail and think, “Well, at least I’m not half-starved and waking up in puddles staring down the mouth of a hurricane.” This is a mindset I’ll carry into regular life. Life will hit you with great and shitty things — it’s up to you how you view them and handle them. You can find salamanders in the rain or get sad that you’re wet. It’s up to you.
A Herd of Men
The trail also provided me with many circumstances where I was the only female presenting person in a herd of white men. In many sections, the trail lacked diversity. I was overjoyed when I found other women traveling solo.
As a female presenting person, when I told others I’d be going on a solo thru hike, they reacted with much more concern than any of my male counterparts. I was asked if I carried a gun, if I thought hiking alone was a good idea, informed that it was dangerous for a woman to hike alone etc. It’s bullshit. Natural dangers are just as dangerous for men as they are women. I should not have to alter the way I hike for any man on trail. As long as you’re prepared, solo hikes and thru hikes are feasible for any gender.
Most of the men I met on trail were kind people. However, I often ran into uncomfortable situations. Older men often commented on my stretching routine in weird unneeded ways. Sexist comments were made by a hiker I was nice enough to share some food from trail magic with. A dude took a slice of pizza from me during a hiker feed because I wasn’t “direct enough” when I asked for it. There’s been endless displays of hypermasculine energy that’s just unnecessary.
If you’re hiking the AT, you’re tough. End of story. Regardless of sex, regardless of gender, regardless of anything. Hikers should be supportive of one another, no matter what you identify as. You’re not stronger by putting other sexes down. The trail is hard for everyone in unique ways, so the best thing you can do is to be kind. I hope to see more diversity on trails in the future, and in the meantime, being extra supportive of female presenting thru hikers. If you’re out there, I’m rooting for you!
And after 100 miles of rain, puddles and salamanders, there it was. The moment I dreaded and anticipated for five months. The sign looked out of the fog, perched atop a mountain of boulders. Silhouettes of hikers clustered around it. Stumbling, I slouched towards the sign. My steps sped up as I grew closer. The ground swam below me, a mess of lichen and sharp rocks. The hikers’ faces swim into view. No one I know, but they watch — hikers, my community, nonetheless. A collection of darn toughs, dirt stained clothing, bright eyes and worn faces. Worn — but alive.
I wave and they do too.
I can read it now. “Katahdin” scrawled across the top in bright white letters. That was it. That was the end. On September 21, 2023, this 2,198.4 mile, 155 day long walk from Georgia to Maine concluded in less than a minute.
The fog blew over the sheer mountain cliffs in the distance, indifferent and the same as it always was. I thought about all the people I met along the way — all the shelters falling asleep next to friends and chuckling even as our breath froze; all the cold ramen and spam shared over a fire; all the blazes followed through rain, cold, sun and wind; all the trees I watched the sunrise through their leaves; all the salamanders I helped cross the trail; all the sunrises and sunsets that colored my life with meaning; all the misty mornings holding the sunlight in midair; all the times rambling down a mountain with lovechild; all the times I realized how lucky I was to be alive and able to find a home and such lovely friends between these gnarled roots and rocks.
And all so quickly gone. My hand flew to my mouth as the tears started to flow. All I could think was how grateful I was for this trail. I fell into the sign and hugged it tightly, pressing my cheek against the weathered wood. Thank you, I thought.
And then I stumbled backwards and sat on a rock. I looked over the fog, blowing over the pine covered mountains and distant lakes and just felt tired. Drained. Hollow. My intense emotions evaporated quickly. Quickly as the colors in the sunrise, quickly as the trail behind me, quickly as my friends summiting and disappearing in planes and busses back home. Nothing like the ending of a long trail to remind you of the gut wrenching and beautiful impermanence of life. The only excitement I felt anymore was a slight pull towards the next trail (I’m looking at you PCT.) Another gift the AT had given me was making me realize I was strong enough mentally and physically to thru hike — and I couldn’t wait to get back out there.
But for now, it was time to go home — well really, time for me to make a new home. I wasn’t sure I was ready, but if I waited until I was ready for anything in life, I never would’ve started the trail to begin with. Here’s to starting life before we’re ready, to beautiful people to walk with and to a trail that’s made me feel like home ever since I found it. Thanks for everything AT❤️
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