Surpassing Expectations: My first few weeks on the trail

So here I am, following my dream of thru hiking the Appalachian trail. It’s everything I dreamed of and more but somehow nothing like what I was expecting. In the two weeks or so that I’ve been hiking with my dog Scout my life has totally been turned around. Events both on and off th

e trail have already made lasting impressions and there’s no way I could ever share my experience in full…. But lemme try.

You are a new person on the trail. Is strange introducing yourself as your trail name at first, especially before everyone else has one… But it grows on you. I’m no longer Brittany Neal, the hot mess working at a call center and dreaming of adventure. I’m Rodeo, the badass who quit her job six months after breaking her back to hike over 2000 miles. Trust me, it sounds cooler than it actually is. In a way it’s like being your own superhero, because odds are you’ve never done anything quite so crazy before and your friend back home are starting to notice your uncharacteristic changes.

Standing on top of blood mountain!

Standing on top of blood mountain!

Everyone starts out the same. I hit the trail as a solo hiker terrified of winding up alone overpaying for hotel rooms because i didn’t have friends to split the tab. The thing about the trail however is that it doesn’t really take long to find your niche. There are fast hikers and slow hikers. The people you wouldn’t expect to make it quickly pass you while those who trained for months fall back. I’ve noticed the people who I see regularly are back and forth within about a three day window of myself. Sometimes they pass me and some days i feel froggy and blaze ahead of them. The average age of people I’ve met seems to be around mid to late twenties but my new friends are every size, age and shape you can think of from athletes to retired couples to high school dropouts. Is a Heinz 57. Even as a hiker with a dog (meaning more expensive hotel rates) I haven’t had a problem yet finding friends to share rooms with.

It’s not just a stroll in the woods. Okay it is, but make no mistake it’s hard. Like, not “oh she’s getting over an injury and is weak” hard. I’ve seen more strong young guys cry in the past two weeks than ever in my life. It takes around ten days of continuous hiking to get used to the weight of your pack, but no one talks about the bruises you get on your collarbones or the rubs from hip belts on even the best fitted name brand packs. No one mentions downhills can turn your toenails pretty colors even with size large shoes and fancy insoles. My first week was a mixture of hurt from being out of shape, panic from a lack of water, a stolen sleeping pad, stress from a dog with a sprained paw and poor planning on a rainy first week that led to us coming up short on food. It was awful. It was wonderful. In the word of my hiker friend Grunt : embrace the suck.

My hiking partner Scout during his first rainy day on the AT

My hiking partner Scout during his first rainy day on the AT

Georgia was magical. On day one I had trail magic twice and even though it was a wet rainy day, the millions of shiny rock flakes called Micah lit the trail up as though someone had sprinkled my path with glitter. I met blogger Amy and many other people who i’ve grown so close to in such a short time, which really helps heal the homesickness. The trail does that. For better or worse social boundaries dissolve and friendships are propelled into hyperdrive. I knew I was starting at the busiest time of the season but I never expected what I found.

The view of the smokies from Clingman's Dome

The view of the smokies from Clingman’s Dome

Hiking the AT is like reverting back to my first year of college. Instead of ‘what’s your major’ it’s ‘what’s your trail name?’ Were on week two and already relationships are flourishing and falling apart. Gossip spreads like wildfire or the smell of body odor. There’s clicks and there’s creeps. It’s obvious that many people are here to put off one thing or another or to have a six month long bar crawl. Others shun electronics and social situations and seek refuge in the forests. Again, Heinz 57. You are no doubt going to find alcohol, drugs, and gross sweaty hiker sex if that’s what your coming out here to look for, but more often I think you’ll find people like yourself minus the barriers or frustrations from the “real world”. Think of what your answer was when people asked you why you’re hiking. When you ask your fellow hikers you get the same answer…” Seems like a good time ” “it just worked out”.

You learn to prioritize. Not just tuna sides over Vienna sausages, but you learn what useless things to remove and what to cling onto. Why did you decide to carry that pot holder and that spare spork two hundred miles? Who needs that much camp soap? Peanut butter gets old fast but biscoff cookie spread is where it’s at. Forget the rain pants, unless you need an emergency bear bag. Ditch the crank radio and alarm clock if you have a smart phone. Playing cards are instant popularity makers and you can never have enough zip lock baggies. Facebook is overrated.

Thanks to Beth and the guys for hiking up to Tray Mountain Shelter with fruit, sammiches, cookies, and beer!!! Trail magic of the century!

Thanks to Beth and the guys for hiking up to Tray Mountain Shelter with fruit, sammiches, cookies, and beer!!! Trail magic of the century!

All in all hiking so far has been an incredible journey. I’m blown away by the camaraderie and bond that hikers share. Between physical and mental exhaustion and missing my boyfriend and family back home, hiking the trail is the biggest challenge I’ve faced in my life but I can’t imagine ever quitting. There’s definitely not a way to fully prepare for this experience and it’s going to be everything you thought it’d be and more. For some this is to much but that’s not to say that the trail doesn’t shape who you are in other ways. Even if you leave early, things happen for a reason; maybe it’s time to pursue that thing you’ve been putting off after all?

For me hiking the trail is like watching my favorite storybook come to life. I’m seeing these places, meeting the trail angels and becoming a part of the community revolving around the trail. I’m sitting here now writing from the Fontana Dam ‘Hilton’ shelter, waiting for my first shower in days and listening to my friends cook, laugh and catch up. These are the moments that make you smile. These are the moments that I know will get me to Katahdin

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