How Rocksylvania Saved My Thru-Hike

It’s true, despite being somewhat cliched: thru-hiking teaches you important things about yourself. Or, really, it reveals things that you kind of knew were there but maybe couldn’t hear from all the background noise and mental clutter of modern life.

I haven’t posted since writing about how the descent from Dragon’s Tooth made me feel like I’d lost part of my identity. My day-hiking identity.

But remaining on trail through that time has given me something I didn’t expect. It started in Virginia, really hit me full-bore in Pennsylvania, and has only been deepening and solidifying in the ensuing states. It’s a mentality I describe to myself as a simple motto:

Embrace the ascent

When I began to struggle in Virginia, one of the things another hiker said to me was that hiking had ceased to be fun and started feeling like going to work. Those of us who’ve been on trail for a while know what that shift feels like.

At the time, one of the ways I responded to that was: OK, so what if this is my job? How can I leverage my past work experience to make this work?

In every job, no matter how tedious, there’s been at least one thing that I took a lot of pride in. My sweet spot.

In day hiking, this has always been the ascents. Give me a calf-burning, heart-pumping, wheezing ascent and I would hurl myself into it.

I’ve realized in the last 1,000 miles that this is still true for me even as an aching, hobbling, struggling thru-hiker. Ascents remain my favorite part of hiking. Various hikers have told me I’m a great pacer on long, slow ascents. Tank told me once that following me up a climb was like “following an Indy pace car.” And Doubletap messaged me after a recent brutal climb and said: “Girl, I thought of you. That climb was inSANE.”

I never lost that

I vaguely knew that in Virginia.

But it wasn’t until Rocksylvania that I realized I still had that deep drive.

Pennsylvania, with its infamous feet-destroying rocks, loomed ahead of me. I had been mentally preparing for it since Harpers Ferry. I suspected that it would deal the final death blow to my feet, but I was determined to give it my best. So I went into it with a very different mind-set from other states. I expected it to be a brutal challenge. I expected agony.

And I certainly got it, with the seemingly never-ending jagged spikes of death that call themselves trail, the constant vigilance to not trip or misstep.

When I scaled Knife’s Edge, it drizzled all day. I had a couple of tricky slips that got my heart pumping and forced me to pause to assess my knees and ankles. It was what some people would consider a totally miserable day.

Knife’s Edge area.

But in the midst of that, I realized that I had learned how to use my body again. Smaller steps, a lot of careful testing of angles on my shoes since I can’t feel my feet well enough to tell how my shoes grip, lots of footwork, lots of leaning into my hiking poles, and an unabashed willingness to climb backward down steep faces or sit down and scooch: I had overcome my perception that my body had betrayed me. It may be totally different than it once was, but I understood it. And for the first time in what felt like an eternity, I felt proud of it.

As I levered myself up Lehigh Gap, awkwardly free-climbing that one open-faced stretch and carefully mountain goat-ing my way across the rock field, all I felt was exhilaration. And I whooped loudly at the top (as I’m sure Quarter and Flying Snail could attest, since they were behind me a bit), not just for getting through that climb but just for the sheer joy I felt in the action itself.

Pennsylvania helped give me back that joy

And in doing so, it gave me a new hiking identity. My thru-hiking identity.

It’s easy to say “Embrace the ascent” when you’re hiking every day. But as I’ve muttered this to myself through Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, I realized that it’s not really about the ascents themselves, anymore. Ascent as metaphor, though: yes.

Massachusetts ledges? Yes, please!

 

I’ve always been a lover of challenges. (Ya think, Sass, what with thru-hiking and all?) But I’ve realized that this is actually the thing that motivates me more than anything else: the hard thing.

When did this really become clear?

I was hoofing it through Connecticut and it stormed early in the day. I had checked forecasts and radar; I knew it was a fast-moving thunderstorm that would likely downpour and rumble intensely for under an hour and then be gone. Safe hikers–saner hikers–no doubt took shelter through this storm. I was near a shelter when it began. I easily could have.

But I chose not to.

I love hiking in awful weather. Relish it, even. The added challenge of the weather gives me something extra. And as I walked up to the shelter side trail and peered at it through the trees, I could hear a voice in my mind saying stopping would be the sensible thing. The practical thing.

And I walked right past it.

The heavens opened. There was the inevitable roll of thunder, flash of lightning. I got soaked to the skin within a few minutes. And as soon as I thought to myself: “Hey, at least I’m under cover of trees,” I got to the next road crossing. The ditch was filled with almost three feet of rushing water. And across the road: the one pasture walk I’d have to do all day. Of course.

And I looked up at the sky and said: “Really?”

Another bout of thunder rumbled loudly as if to reply: “Of course. You asked for it, we got it.”

But I was already soaked. So I hopped the ditches and the fence and started my way across the field. Where, inevitably, it began to rain harder.

As I heard cars go past on the road, I wondered if the people in them noticed me. If they thought I was crazy. And I realized that I was far happier being out here, soaked to the skin, crossing this field and knowing I’d be hiking with wet feet all day than I would be driving warm and dry in that car to a day at the office.

I laughed out loud. And I whooped really loudly, which made me laugh more.

When I got across the pasture, there was a stream so swollen and roaring that it was almost up to the footbridge. I heard a noise, and looked downstream. There was a mother duck with a handful of juvenile ducklings. The ducklings were quacking happily and diving through the water, scooting near the surface. They were playing. They were loving life. Frolicking, even.

I was ecstatic to have some other being that was as joyful about the storm as I was. I couldn’t stop grinning.

(Of course, I had to ring out my socks, my shirt, and my shorts twice in the next few miles after the rain stopped. And I chafed a bit. But I had the luxury of a town stop the next day to see friends, so this wasn’t a big deal. We aren’t always this lucky.)

But it has occurred to me, in the weeks since then, that this is an essential part of who I am. In the midst of the abominable heat wave, in the midst of thunderstorms and hives and chafing, in a sea of mosquitoes:

I love the ascent

I have a storied, varied career history, and I usually try to explain this to people by saying I get bored with things. But that’s not entirely true. I just really love hard challenges–the harder, the better–and when I’ve overcome the major challenges in a job, I tend to move on. I am bad at day-to-day operations, when things seem to be running smoothly and I just have to maintain. I’m at my best when I am creating order when none has existed, or trying to build something that nobody’s sure can be done or work properly.

I don’t know what that means for me after the trail. But I feel like knowing that this is what motivates me–the ascents and the nasty weather, the brutal circumstances beyond control that have to be bested through wits and strength and courage–is important self-knowledge.

And that has made me fall in love with thru-hiking in a way I feel almost embarrassed about. Because it has been so hard. And I would not trade that hardness for anything in the world. It had to be this hard for me to keep at it. If it had been easy, I’d have quit. Even if it had been only marginally hard, I might have quit back there in Virginia. But instead, it was all-consumingly hard. And that, for me, has been the best thing ever.

So if you hear some crazy whooping from the top of ugly climbs in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine in the coming weeks, there’s a good chance that’s me.

#embracetheascent #hikingwithsass

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