Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)

I do my best to follow Leave No Trace. I only camp at established spots, I pack out all my trash, and I bury my poop. But my first day on the AT made a traitor out of me. I apologize to the people who maintain the land, the little critters that roam it, and the earth gods that preside over it.

The first dinner I cooked after leaving Harper’s Ferry was a heat-and-eat paneer curry from a local Indian market back home. It was tasty enough, and a nice change-up to normal backpacking fare. Sure, the texture wasn’t what I was used to, but hey, not every meal is a home run. So as I finished it up, I sat back and relaxed while the red mixture digested.

Then, I gave it all back to the ground.

Damn the Omens, Full Speed Ahead

I didn’t know what the wilderness protocol for cleaning vomit was, so I made sure to get far away from camp once I felt it coming. If someone wants to let me know what to do in the future, hit up the comments and make sure to call me a dumbass.

Anyway, I ate some bars and then got walking again in the morning. Physically, I was feeling better, but my emotions still ran wild. The usual stuff, really.

Holy mother of… I can’t believe I’m doing this! I just said goodbye to family yesterday, now here I am…

“You just sit there and think about what you did.”

Fortunately, the trail itself proved to be a great distraction from my inner thoughts. Maryland on the AT is gorgeous, with terrain that occasionally challenges, but is mostly gentle. It makes for a great first state on a thru-hike, and I pity the 4-state challengers who don’t get to slow down and appreciate it. The War Correspondents’ Memorial in Gathland, the pavilions and playgrounds at Pen Mark Park, and countless vistas over the farmland below all stand out in my head. But before I knew it, the Mason-Dixon line was before my eyes.

Crossing the mason dixon line

Borders are a social construct. So is whatever the hell I’m doing here.

I’d heard all the horror stories of the AT in Pennsylvania, but I wasn’t intimidated.

I had my own horrors to live.

Some Odd Company

While Pennsylvania’s rockiness is there from the start, the early portion of the trail in southern PA is a little more merciful. You could say it’s just merciful enough to give you the confidence to keep going, only to smack you with jagged granite further on, but we’ll get to that another time.

A cliff overlooking the PA countryside

Who doesn’t love a good cliff?

The truth is, much of the early mileage after crossing the Mason-Dixon line looks a lot like Maryland. Craggy vistas, some well-curated parks on-trail, etc. Point is, nature doesn’t recognize borders. I slowed down a bit, road walking into the town of South Mountain (not worth it) for a burger and fries, and shelling for a campsite with showers at Caledonia State Park (worth it, especially since another thru-hiker split the cost with me). This slowdown allowed me to notice the faces I was passing. I hung with other thru-hikers (including some other queers!!!). I spoke to the caretakers of some of the shelters I passed, each of whom seemed delighted at my presence. And, my personal favorite, I found a bunch of unopened Gatorade left in a stream by an angel. Don’t mind if I do…

A cache of gatorades for hikers left in a stream

You know, you don’t often get to see wildlife like this.

For better or worse, the trail teaches you early on that there’s no use for pre-conceived notions. In exchange, you get nice surprises like a bottle of Gatorade after a 15-mile day.

Or, you get the blood drained from your face in anxiety…

A Moment of Panic

Almost a week after starting the trail, I was on the cusp of reaching Boiling Springs and enjoying the luxuries of a small town. I emerged from the woods into the farmlands surrounding the town and happily breathed in the smell of fertilizer and cow shit. I reached for my shoulder strap to grab my GoPro and take a pic… OH GOD NO WHERE IS MY GOPRO?!?!?

In a first week full of weird omens, this was the first one that truly terrified me. I immediately dropped my pack and retraced the whole 2.5 miles back uphill to the shelter. Couldn’t find it. I talked to my family to try and calm my nerves. No luck. Oh, and it was raining.

On the way back to my pack, I struggled not to think about what was missing. A $100 camera with all the footage and pictures I’d gotten to this point, gone without a trace. Oh crap oh crap oh crap…

But after a long search, my frantic persistence was rewarded. A day hiker told me she found it on the ground and stuck it in a tree at eye-level, and sure enough, there it was! The downward spiral of anxiety turned into a mushroom cloud of relief. It was such an emotional swing that I ended up blasting Kate Bush songs all the way back to my pack. 

After it was all over, I knew it was time to take a pause. I got to Boiling Springs for breakfast at Cafe 101 (highly recommended), then took a Lyft and stayed with a good friend in Harrisburg. We reminisced about our time in California and watched King of the Hill while I rested my feet. Times like that are all part of the trail experience, too. Pennsylvania had many more surprises and challenges in store, but we’ll get to those later.

What matters is that despite all that, I feel like I’m meant for this. All the glory, all the nonsense. This is where my life was going.

And I’m embracing it.

selfie of me on the trail

Didn’t have the energy for a full smile.

Coming soon from the trail mixtape

  • The constant battle against the rocks
  • How I got my trail name
  • Navigating the towns along the way
  • Understanding my queerness in relation to the woods
  • Did I mention the FUCKING ROCKS?

“Oh come on, baby
Oh come on, darling
Let me steal this moment from you now”

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Comments 4

  • Lauren Panarello : May 20th

    Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is on my bucket list and I love reading about the trail experiences of others. I can’t wait to hear more.

    Your mom and I went through our masters together so I’ve been hearing Austin stories for a while. You inspire me!

    I wish you the best on the trail. Carry on!

    Reply
  • Laney Cohen : May 20th

    I absolutely love your choice of theme for this (Kate is a love of mine). So excited to be able to be on this journey with you. Thanks for keeping us up to speed on your trek!

    Reply
  • SLC Kicks : May 21st

    Keep it comin’, Austin. You’re unique. And a special writer too.

    Reply
  • Kat B : May 22nd

    I love this post, and your journey (and Kate Bush). Thank you. Good luck out there.

    Reply

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