Rekindling My Love of Hiking
I have yet to put together a coherent write-up of my first 205 miles on the trail from Rockfish Gap at the southern end of Shenandoah National Park to just past the Mason Dixon Line in Pennsylvania. For much of them, I was too busy feeling like I was drowning in sweat to realize I was submerged in beauty. I started telling people that I used to love hiking before I began my AT thru-hike attempt. The love had already started to fade by the time I fell and banged up my right knee just after finishing the Roller Coaster. That injury might be the best thing that could have happened to me because it convinced me to take some time off at my mom and stepdad’s house in the Berkshires.
My stepdad, Ken, drove over 800 miles round-trip to pick me up in Pennsylvania where I was hanging out at the Mason-Dixon AT Outdoor Festival with a bunch of cool folks and adorable dogs. I had been trying to do low mileage to take it easy on my knee for a week, but it didn’t seem to be helping at all, and with that plus the heat and humidity in the mid-Atlantic, I was just feeling done. I called my partner, Jason, to talk over my decision before I called for pickup, and cried because I knew if I left the trail I was not only cutting down my chances of finishing, but risking the possibility of not coming back at all.
I’m still feeling pretty uncertain about finishing, especially given that my travel insurance runs out around Thanksgiving, but I plan to be back on the trail next week. Over the past several days, to judge how my knee is doing and keep myself from going completely stir-crazy, I’ve taken a few 8.3 – 10.5 mile day hikes on sections of the AT in Massachusetts near my folks’ house, and I’ll be continuing these day hikes up to the Vermont border before starting back on the trail full time in Connnecticut. This gradual reintroduction to the trail has been courtesy of my mom and Ken’s willingness to be my personal trail angels and provide shuttle service. Ken has even accompanied me for the first few miles of two of my hikes.
Ken has always been the one who encourages our family to get outdoors. He’s retired, but he volunteers with local conservation organizations in both administrative and trail maintenance capacities and stays busy. He’s almost 70, but his characteristic joyful exclamation of “Neat!” when he spots a partridge just off the road as we turn around trying to find the trailhead, is still full of child-like wonder. As kids, we rolled our eyes at his earnest enthusiasm, but as an adult, I realize how well it serves him and how he invites others to share in his excitement. These days, I accept that invitation, and it makes everything feel like an adventure. His contagious joy is a big part of what has helped to rekindle my love of hiking.
A sense of adventure is one of the things my journey thus far has felt like it’s lacking. I’ve been seeing new views every day and visiting mostly new places (with some childhoood memories of Shenandoah sprinkled throughout), but it has felt more like work than wonder. The times I’ve felt most attuned to the beauty that surrounds me is when I set up my hammock every evening and relax in camp. I’m not generally the best at taking breaks, but when I hike with Ken, I stop every so often for him to catch up and he tells me what he’s noticed on the trail. It encourages me to slow down and really take in my gorgeous surroundings as well.
Massachusetts has thus far been kind and gentle to me. The weather has been lovely, with highs in the 70’s and low humidity. There are rocks, but only enough to keep me out of the mud or help me up the hill or make things a little interesting. There have been some moderately steep inclines, but they aren’t long climbs. It also helps that I’ve been half-slacking, carrying my hammock setup but not my bear can full of food, or my Jetboil, or my clothes besides a change of socks. This brings my load to a little over 25 pounds instead of almost 40, and the difference it makes is amazing, especially when hiking uphill. Before I get back on the trail in Connecticut, I’m going to switch out my 20 degree under- and over- quilts for summer weight quilts, possibly switch to a bear bag if my shoulder is able to handle throwing again, and pare down some non-essential items to get my pack weight down as much as possible.
I’m eager to be back on the trail, but I won’t deny that I’m enjoying my vacation lifestyle right now. We went to Tree House, a craft brewery specializing in Northeast IPAs with a cult following, and stood in line for 45 minutes to buy some tasty beers that I’ve been drinking in the gazebo in the late afternoons. I’ve gotten to spend time with my mom, my sister, and her kids. I’ve read several books. I wrote part of this after taking the pedal boat out on Richmond Pond at Ken’s family cottage that we used to visit every year as kids. Last week, I went fishing there with Ken, and we ate our catch for lunch. Even during this time off the trail, I’ve still been taking every day as it comes and spending time surrounded by the beauty of nature.
Tomorrow, I will hike up Mount Greylock, the highest peak in Massachusetts, with my light pack, and meet Ken for lunch at the summit before he drives me down. It feels like cheating, but I don’t see any advantage to feeling guilty about enjoying the lack of suffering. I’ve realized that I’m not in this to become an endurance athlete, in pursuit of miles and the destination at the end of the trail. I am here to learn to relax and slow down, in search of a different way of life filled with effervescent wonder. I’m here for the journey.
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