When I decide to do something, I like to get started on it immediately. For example, when I find a book synopsis interesting, I want to read the book then and there. If I want to use a specific color while painting? I go out and get that paint color the next minute! I get the urge to try out a fauxhawk, and I walk in to a salon and ask if there are any available stylists. And so on.
When I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail, I was hot under the collar to get going. It was Christmas Day that I made the decision. I remember exactly because for the past two years I’ve had existential crises on December 25 that culminate in impromptu life changes. This past Christmas, itching from life claustriphobia, I resolved to take a long, extended walk.
Immediately, I was raring to go. I dragged out my collection of AAA road maps and traced the thin, squiggly line designating the AT in pen ink. Five AT memoirs were read back to back. I scrolled through the entire trail on Google maps. “We should start the trail in February,” I wrote to my friend and hiking partner, Anna.
Anna solidly vetoed starting in February, and rightly so, as it turned out there was so much preparation to be done. (Also, it’s as cold as ahem right now.
As it turns out, preparation is a great way to exorcise impatience. Anna and I have gear to buy, mail-drops to plan, money to save, and training to do. All of this bustle has served to cool my jets somewhat, but no piece of preparation has put the upcoming challenge of the AT in perspective quite like a recent training hike Anna and I went on.
Anna and I were having some trouble finding good trails near where we live, so I was overjoyed when I found a regional hiking guide at my local library. This past weekend, it was my turn to choose a trail, and I picked out Patoka Lake from the guide. It seemed pretty simple; just over 6 miles. I figured we could do the loop twice and get in a good workout.
We left early in the morning, after downing a significant portion of our recommended daily caloric intake in the form of Trader Joe’s chocolate croissants. (We’d work it off!) It was a solid hour drive into the country to get to Patoka Lake. At first I was a little worried that the park would be closed; nobody was manning the gates to collect our parking fee. But, a friendly ranger greeted us in the warm visitor’s center.
“Is the trail very snowy?” asked Anna, after a thorough inspection of the taxidermized bird displays.
“Oh, yes!” laughed the ranger, flashing dimples. “Ha, ha, ha!”
We started out on the main trail, and immediately it became apparent that the hike would not be as easy and breezy as our past training hikes. The trail was indeed very snowy. Covering that snow was a layer of ice that would almost hold up under our weight, but would inevitably crack with each footfall and send our feet crashing into the powder beneath.
For some reason, I had been expecting the trail to be more lightly covered, being sheltered by trees. What absurdity. The footpath was utterly obscured by whiteness. We would not have been able to hike the trail at all if not for the guidance of a pair of footprints that guided us on our frozen way.
For the duration of our 4.5 hour hike, I would step into these footprints with my own feet whenever possible, saving myself the slog of breaking my own path. These footprints were very large, swallowing my own, quite sizable feet. They had a pronounced heel and a wide stride. I imagined that these were the steps of one of the rangers. They seemed dutiful, and spoke of extreme familiarity with the trail.
“Should we turn back?” I asked Anna worriedly. The trailhead was still in sight, behind us.
“No!” Anna exclaimed.
On we marched. It was tough going. Each step was challenging. When we couldn’t step into our footstep guide’s tracks, we had to break through the ice layer, fall through into the snow, then pull our foot back out. Anna came up with our trail tagline. “Remember what Henry Higgins said in My Fair Lady? ‘Damn, damn, damn.'”
Our only moment of true fun came during mile two, when we reached Totem Rock. We had a good time squeezing through with our cumbersome packs, and read aloud from the pamphlet that Anna had brought from the visitor’s center. We took photos and shed layers.
After our extended, appreciative pause, we moved onwards, leaving Totem Rock in our slow, stumbling wake.
After a few more miles went by, I began to outpace Anna. She urged me to go at my own speed, and before I knew it, Anna was well out of my eyesight. I got into a hiking zone, powering through the uphill slopes, running down the downhills. I lengthened my stride to match the wide footprints guiding me. I swung my trekking poles with vigor, using them to propel me forward. I was tired, but felt powerful and robust! And then I was lost. I had powerfully and robustly propelled myself right off the trail.
Anna and I had lost our trusty set of footprints a few times before, but had found them again after some backtracking. Now, without Anna’s supportive presence, I began to panic. My enthusiasm popped like a balloon. Without the mental high, I now felt extremely tired. Dog tired. Fall-down-in-the-snow-tired. (Side note: when you look at snow really close-up, you realize how filthy snow really is.)
In despair, my mind flurried around worst case scenarios: having to call the park ranger to be rescued.
I slumped down on the crusty, frozen ground and called Anna.
“Are you finished?” her voice chirped from my phone.
“I’m lost!” I wailed piteously.
Calmly, Anna asked me about the last trail marker I saw. A shortcut fork and a snow-choked bench. “I passed that a while ago. Retrace your footsteps,” she instructed.
Gratefully, I did as I was told, and before long, Anna found me. She didn’t look as put together as she’d seemed on the phone. She’d picked up two long sticks to use as trekking poles, and her face was slack with fatigue. Her hands were scabbed from falling. We were a collective mess. “At least you have service,” she said. “You could have called the park ranger to get rescued.”
Now together, we still couldn’t find our phantom footstep guide. My GPS told us we’d hiked six miles, and weren’t close to closing our loop in the slightest.
“Let’s take that shortcut!” I bellowed.
We bumbled back up the trail. “Are we going the right way?” I asked Anna several times, paranoid.
The shortcut wound up being a wide, gently sloping road. Patches of melted snow revealed that the path beneath us was dirt and fallen leaves. Stepping on the solid ground, even if only for one or two steps, felt incredible. Mostly, however, the shortcut was a slog made difficult by our fatigue and hunger. Make no doubt about it. The shortcut trail was hard, hard, hard. My muscles were bunched and inflamed, my ankles weak. I stumbled and staggered more than stepped.
Every now and then, I checked my GPS to mark our progress. “Just don’t check it too often,” said Anna wearily.
Eventually, the moment came when the parking lot came into view. “Thanks, sticks. Bye!” said Anna, chucking her makeshift trekking poles aside. We stumbled to our truck and drove the fifty feet to the visitor center door. “I’m going to buy us some gatorade,” I told Anna.
“Tell the park ranger that the path disappeared!” snarled Anna.
Inside, I bought two gatorades for two dollars. “We got lost,” I told the ranger.
“Oh no!” she exclaimed.
Later, in the truck, Anna talked about her own experience hiking solo. “I don’t know why, but I was really disoriented. I felt like I would fall over with each step. Then the pine forest came and I got my sticks. Things were better after that.”
Deleriously, we drove to a Chinese buffet and gorged. “Never have I faced such adversity to be met with such reward,” said Anna through her bourbon chicken.
What I learned from the Patoka Lake Trail is that you can’t predict the adversity you’ll face on a hike. Scouring guidebooks is all very well, but you’ll won’t know what a trail is truly like until you’re walking it. Imagining the challenges I’ll face on the AT is a pale image of the sharp reality of experiencing those challenges. Preparing is good, but can’t beat the real thing.
That, and Anna and I are a pair of clowns.
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haha SO funny! you have such a captivating writing style(: