One Whole Month of Laughing at Farts
In somewhere around 24 hours, I’ll have been on the trail for a whole month. I wanted to apologize for not writing yet, though I certainly don’t feel half as guilty as I should. Disconnecting out here has been so stupidly, incredibly easy and has felt so natural that I haven’t questioned it. I have also not yet taken a zero — this gorgeous day spent in Hot Springs has been my first. Town stops have otherwise been frenzied attempts to eat as many burgers as possible and take as many showers as three towels shared between seven hikers will allow. It hasn’t provided much time for writing.
My first week was hands down the most difficult for me. I do believe there is such a thing as being too prepared. The words “6 months” and “2,190 miles” kept ringing back and forth in my head. My ten mile days felt like they weren’t even making a dent in the vast commitment I’d just made. Maybe I’m a bit of a commitment-phobe, but facing down those six months armed with the knowledge of the incredible physical and mental challenges I was about to face was draining, to say the least. The day we crossed out of GA into NC, I can only remember crying, a lot. Not necessarily from joy, but rather exasperation and desperation to be done. Only one state? My shoes weren’t pulling their weight and my arches had visible bruises on them — every single step hurt and I barely had the willpower for twelve miles, let alone 2,190.3.
The next day was the first that we got rain on the trail, and, taking the advice of a previous thru who was out here for the second time, stayed in my tent all morning until the deluge stopped. I read my book, I wrote in my journal, I cried, and I tried to come to terms with the troubles I was facing out here. I’d been waiting for this moment for a decade. I couldn’t quit if I wanted to avoid the guilt from both myself and my support system, and I wasn’t going to have another chance to do this anytime soon.
The advice to take the trail day by day is spread so often and talked about so regularly that I naively believed I’d internalized it. That I somehow had shed my type A personality and the way my life was so meticulously planned out to the minute the last three and a half years that I’d been pursuing my dual Bachelor’s. But you’ll learn that lesson on your own out here. I was setting alarms and planning my snack spots and lunch spots and pushing myself through bad moods and the inability to wake up in the mornings, and it needed to stop. I stopped setting my alarm (you’ll start to wake up with the sun soon enough), and walked until I was tired. I started to lay in bed until 10am, take naps in the sun, doodle pictures of the views in my journal, and quietly muse over my own thoughts and feelings rather than performing my daily death march from shelter to shelter. I also told myself I could ask about quitting again after the Smokies: this big, scary challenge that was ahead of me at the time.
The reality of the trail is that it will not act like a pause button or a restart button for your life. Your demons will follow you out here. Your fears, your failures, your missed connections and mistakes and heart breaks will be given ample time to be rolled over and over in your mind. You can walk through them, I swear, but you cannot walk away from them.
There has been nothing better out here, though, than my playlists and podcasts. When you start to get tired and your brain gets stuck in a loop of “fuck this” and “who put this hill here,” a good playlist really serves to short circuit it. Many people like to fully distance themselves from technology out here, but I personally think headphones are far better than the alternative: belting out old school favorites to yourself in the middle of the woods. My most recent listens have been Strangers, The Moth, and Serial. I have laughed and cried out loud to my podcasts on the trail, and need to extend a sincere apology to the gentleman with Warrior Expedition who watched me hike past him half smiling at him, half in full blown hysterics listening to a Strangers episode about the death of a wife during childbirth.
After the first week (and getting new shoes in Franklin, shout out to Outdoor76 for all their help), it really has been smooth sailing, mentally at least. I have fallen hopelessly and irrevocably in love with this trail and with the people on it. I’ve stopped looking at mountains as this terrifying climb before me. I’ve climbed enough and survived enough to know I’ll make it to the top, eventually (as long as my Snickers reserves hold out).
I was dubbed StinkyCheez, in part thanks to all the cheese I carry (right now, gouda, colby jack, and sharp cheddar totalling to about 2lbs) and because we were talking about the incredible kids book, Stinky Cheese Man.
Being among hikers is like middle school, where farts and poop reign supreme among humor. Dinner conversations revolve around the timing, regularity, and consistency of our bowel movements. Well intentioned competitions are held for the loudest fart — and the best S.B.D. bombing. We’ve planned shelter stops around whether they have a privy or a toilet area (aka, a field of not so pretty toilet paper flowers), and plan snack breaks around the best hidden vista from which to poop with a view.
I have two pieces of advice for future thrus: first, practice your third world squat/toddler squat. It will make your mornings so much smoother, and enable full appreciation of the sunrise or mountainscape. There was an ill-fated morning where my calves were too tight, and the tree I used to balance myself snapped mid evacuation. For my second bit of advice, I’m going to quote directly from my trail journal: “some privies are gross, and some privies have bees under the seat. Thanks, Groundhog Creek.” Check for wildlife, ladies and gents.
The relation to middle school ends after the juvenile humor, though. Not only do hikers embrace their freak flags, they actively encourage others to wave theirs with vigor. Strange colors and strange personalities are all at home and accepted out here. There has not been a single night, with seven to nine hikers spread out on a hotel room floor to save money or at all you can eat buffets or standing stinky in a McDonalds holding two Dominoes pizzas and ordering 5 McDoubles or around a firepit that I haven’t gone to bed (at 8pm) feeling so lucky to share the trail with these weirdos, from all different corners of the world (and yet I’ve met 18 people now also from Massachusetts. We’re like some really dumb kind of snowbird.)
The Smokies came, and they came in with a bang. The first day was heat and sunburns, and the second saw us up to the higher elevations with a thunderstorm raging above us and the wind along the ridge driving the cold rain into our faces. I woke up on the third day to my worst nightmare: a snowstorm. This was the core of all my apprehension about the Smokies, the cold. I hate being cold, I get cold so easily and so miserably. My quilt hadn’t exactly been toasty on the 35 degree nights in early Georgia (fair warning to quilt users, have found mine to be rather drafty if not set up juuust right). And here was 6 to 8 inches of forecasted snow. Section hikers bailed on their long planned trips and hiked back down the mountain, and many thrus were hunkering down for two or three zero days in a row. I decided to hike in it.
I am so grateful for the challenge the Smokies gave me, to overcome my fears. I’m also very grateful that I continued to carry my rain pants, and ziploc bags. I don’t recommend waterproof boots, but when temperatures plummet and snow covers everything, bundling your feet in gallon sized ziplocs is a lifesaver. Hiking through the storm itself was probably one of my favorite days out here. The snow silences the world, and I loved the way it even muffled my footsteps as I shuffled along. I hiked for two more days in snow, sometimes knee high in the drifts, following others footprints and hoping they were on the right trail. It slowed me down, and I fell nearly twenty times in those three days, but snow makes for a pretty soft landing. I promise you won’t be cold while you’re moving. Pack a pair of dry, warm PJs and squeeze yourself between two big dudes in the shelter and embrace the reality of cuddling with strangers.
The mountains are absolutely beautiful in the snow. Climbing Clingman’s Dome in the early morning, covered in snow, was like traipsing through Narnia. The pine trees hung over the trail, their branches heavy with the thick, wet snow, and I spent the entire climb looking for a light post or a satyr.
Two days in, I hiked into a shelter for lunch and encountered a severely hypothermic thru hiker. A member of my tramily, Pterodactyl, was on the phone arranging her rescue. I stayed with him and helped hold the tarp covering the shelter as the helicopter came in. Watching flight medics in full military gear walk into the shelter among a bunch of smelly, cold hikers was surreal. It struck me then that that could’ve been any of us, the victim of absolutely uncontrollable misfortune and snow blowing in onto our sleeping bags. Hiking and living in the snow and cold nights was, right in front of our face, proving its danger. My heart goes out to the hiker they airlifted out, and I left that day feeling very fortunate and humbled.
I didn’t want to quit when I asked myself again, after the Smokies. All I wanted to do was hike, and to share my life with the trail. My anxieties have melted away out here, and I feel like much more in connection with my emotions out here. I had become so accustomed to a weird sort of apathy before the trail, so that even saying goodbye to by family for 6 months at Springer didn’t hurt nearly as bad as it should’ve. I feel much more strongly and openly since I’ve started my hike. Here’s to naps on solid logs and trying real hard not to cut my fingers with my Swiss again while slicing lunchtime cheese.
Until next time, if you’d like to follow my progress more than once a month, I’m on instagram (@stinkycheezat2017).
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