For someone with an anxious personality, there’s a lot to worry about out here on the AT. For me, one of the principal concerns has been rain. I mean, in the best of circumstances, I don’t like rain that much, so when you pile on the fact of sweating in rain gear, juggling an umbrella (if you choose to go that route, which I do), having to set up your tent in the rain, not quite understanding how, exactly, tents keep you dry, being prone to cold and being scared your sleeping bag will get wet, worrying about slipping and sliding in the mud, you wind up with a hyperbolically freaked out me.
My first rain experience was hovering on a day I took in town, in Hiawassee, GA. Montecristo and I split a room at the Holiday Inn, and we woke to rain, ate breakfast to rain. I blogged to rain, did yoga with the downpour ominous just outside the hotel room window, and finally started packing up my stuff after digging through the hiker box and finding two black, plastic garbage bags.
It took me an eternity to pack up, because with each item, I contemplated just how disastrous an outcome its getting wet would create. All my clothes were in Ziplocks and my sleeping bag, pillow, and air mattress were in a garbage bag. The main compartment of the backpack I lined with another garbage bag, and then I covered the pack in a pack cover. Overkill? Didn’t feel like it.
I got out my rain jacket and rain kilt, carried my bag to the lobby, and sat down with 90 minutes to kill before the shuttle picked us up to drive us to Dick’s Creek Gap and the trail.
The breakfast area was open so I took my journal to a window seat and parked there, started pouring out my concerns. As I look back at it now, I can see how my nerves wrecked my handwriting; I was shaking.
“UGH. I’m so SCARED. Scared because of the rain–just … terrified. My anxiety level is super high. I just think it’s going to suck and I might die of cold and misery tonight. I know it will be survivable; I know I’ll live. And it might be worse than I expect in some ways and it might be better in some ways. It’s weird how high my anxiety is. Of course I’ve survived things about which I’ve been even more anxious in the past, so that knowledge should help me. Except of course I’ve never survived this particular challenge.”
And then Montecristo came over and I shared with him my anxiety, including saying, “If it gets cold I might die,” and he laughed and told me to stop being dramatic. I said, “You see now why Inti thought ‘Hyperbole’ would be a good trail name.”
He pointed out we couldn’t control the weather, only our reaction to it. He said he’d walk with me and help me with the tent and it would be okay. This should have calmed me, and I did appreciate the kindness, but the anxiety did not dissipate.
My journal: “This downpour we’re about to hike into. All this time I’ve been journaling my stomach nerves haven’t settled; I’m still jittery. But this, too, shall pass. This too shall pass.”
On the ride to the trailhead a few other hikers chatted and I sat in silence, my forehead a wrinkle, my hands clasped in my lap. You’d have thought it was a ride to the gallows.
Then we pulled up, and we got out and stood under the tiny eave of the trailhead map kiosk, extending our poles (one pole for me because umbrella in the other and) and pulling on our rain jacket hoods. The rain really came down.
We set off.
Within 5 minutes–no, 2–I was tearing up with relief and joy. The walking was fine! The umbrella worked! I was staying dry under all the rain gear, and using one pole was totally doable. And … the wet woods smelled SO GOOD after 36 hours in a town.
After maybe 90 minutes, the rain even stopped. And after the last 36 hours of downpouring, the woods had greened up considerably, which was such a welcome sight after a week or so of walking among brown tree trunks and brown forest-floor leaves.
By the time we arrived at the shelter the sky was blue with puffy clouds and some hikers had a fire going. I set up my tent on a sun-dappled patch of forest floor, getting all my dry gear unloaded into the tent and putting my pack (which I didn’t think fit inside the tent with me–though I’ve since found it does) into a garbage bag and tying it shut. I brought my food bag to the shelter. We cooked, socialized, enjoyed the fire.
Then we heard thunder.
Everyone scrambled to take their clothes and bandanas off the trees on which they were drying in the sun; I ran to get my umbrella, and we scurried under the shelter.
Just like that, my anxiety returned. I scooted back against the wall of the shelter. It grew cold, and Montecristo offered his bag, which I put my legs into gratefully.
Finally the worst of it passed, and I took my chance and ran to the tent, where, to my relief, I found everything in it was dry.
Since I couldn’t pull up weather on my phone, I texted Inti and he sent me radar map screenshots, reassuring me that the worst really was over.
I remember reading trail memoirs of people being caught up on ridges in rainstorms and wondering what was so frightening about it all. For me in that moment, it was the basic ignorance I had about how, exactly, tents worked–the purpose of guy lines, for example. Would I get soaked? I knew seams could leak, knew sloped ground wasn’t my friend because that would increase the chance of puddling. But I was on flat ground and the worst was passing.
I put in my earplugs and, reassured by the connection with Inti, who was miles away and still grounded by common sense in these matters, fell asleep.
The next morning there was a little wetness in the tent–one of my guy lines hadn’t been pulled as tight as it could be, so there was some moisture where the rain fly touched the screen roof of the main tent, and there was a lot of condensation. But my bag’s warmth hadn’t been compromised, and although the morning was misty and foggy, the rain had stopped, so I was spared packing up the tent in a downpour.
I tried–pretty much in vain–to wipe dry the rain fly and Tyvek footprint with my two bandanas, and that was an hourlong, demoralizing exercise that pushed my start time back and made for a long, late afternoon, but the sun did come out eventually and I was able, at a shelter, to throw my rain fly and sleeping bag over bushes and branches, where they dried out lickety-split.
Since that first experience, there’s been more rain, and there’s been the threat of rain almost every day.
But like with so much that’s new and scary, simply having experienced it has drained its power. Sure, there will be worse rain experiences on this hike, and sunny days, and other weather, but I’m learning to stay present in each moment and recognize not just its survivability but its beauty.
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