Thoughts from a Thru-Hiker with Bad Knees
Hi!! I’m Megan (Sweetpea) and I set out to flip-flop hike the Appalachian Trail with my now husband Livingston (Flash) in 2018 when I was 20 years old. In my free time, I write poetry and short stories inspired by my experiences, conversations, and the funny way life turns out sometimes.
I am hopeful and terrified. The rain pours down and the thunder is closer than it has ever been before. A tree could fall on me right now. Lightning could strike us. I could die and it would all be over. Day one and done.
I hear the hail against my tent and know that the immensely thin sheet of fabric is the only protection I have against the incredible powers of nature. I think about the stone shelter 100 yards away and curse myself for wanting to sleep underneath the towering trees. There’s nothing I can do now, I guess. We sit on our packs because our tent is flooded, and if lightning strikes, we need as much distance from the water as we can get.
It can’t get worse than tonight, can it? I want to go home. I never liked hiking growing up. Why am I here? How did I end up in a record-breaking thunderstorm in Maryland? What on Earth convinced me I could do this? Why am I having fun?
A Month Already?
The hours feel like years but the days fly by. Has it really already been a month? Our legs and appetites grow stronger. The white blazes and red efts lead the way North. Familiar faces have turned into family. We sleep in garages and floors of church basements. We hike until we lose our sanity. Why didn’t we pack more snacks? When will this mountain end? It’s definitely been 22 miles already. We curse the uphills. We curse the downhills. We curse at every rock and branch that is slightly in our path. Our only bliss is in the short-lived flats. Sometimes we curse at those too. Why am I enjoying this? Have I lost my mind? My knees hurt.
What’s Stranger? Life On the Trail or Life in Town?
Seedy hotels fill the days we don’t hike. All we want is to rest, but a zero-mile day is filled with anything but. Wash every item of clothing you have. Attempt to plan your next few days. Walk to the store and buy an ungodly amount of peanut butter. Search desperately for a new flavor of ramen and tuna – one that doesn’t make you sick to your stomach from overeating. Take a shower. Take another shower because you still smell. It won’t go away, no matter what you do. You and the smell are one now.
Get extra change to tip the hotel staff. Weigh and repackage and re-weigh every item in your pack. Do I need this? Do I really need a second shirt? Every ounce matters. Re-weigh everything. You need far less than you think you do. Being prepared is not about having everything but about being able to make do with what you have. Spend $30 at a Taco Bell and have the most amazing sleep of your life in a bed with a real pillow.
A New Way to Get Around
Hitchhiking is a weekly occurrence. It has restored so much of my faith in the kindness of people. I need to pay this forward. I need to pay so much forward. I hope I’m not making their car smell too bad — should I roll down the windows? We are driven by people of all kinds and walks of life. We cram into minivans and Honda civics. Our favorite is riding in the beds of trucks.
We dream of getting picked up by a guy with a motorcycle and sidecar. How cool would that be? Hitchhiking is a science. Smile and look approachable. Stand in the perfect spot where the car can notice you, have time to decide you aren’t a serial killer, and pull over on the side of the road. Don’t get discouraged when people avoid eye contact. You’ll get there eventually.
It’s been three months. I am in pain. I vowed to not rely on ibuprofen but am jealous of those who refer to it as ‘hiker’s popcorn.’ Maybe just one. I need to get some miles in today. I can see the end in sight. Katahdin is coming. My knees hurt. Alternate the good knee brace every mile and talk to other hikers so you don’t think about it. The Whites were tough. Everything has been so beautiful. We have seen and experienced almost 1,000 miles of the East Coast. The scenery has changed and so has your family. Some hike faster than us and warn us about what’s coming. Some slow down or get injured. We must keep going. We must keep going. My knees really hurt.
I am on top of Katahdin. It doesn’t feel like I imagined it to be. I feel so small. There are people around who have just finished a day hike, with their small water bottles and picnic blankets. I feel overly prepared with my trekking poles and water filtration system. The day hikers are unaware that we have been dreaming of this moment for over a year.
Should I laugh or cry? What happens now? I really want that sandwich in my backpack. Take pictures with the sign. Reminisce. It’s time to hike down. My body doesn’t want to move. Southbounders are summiting, marking the beginning of their journey. Should I tell them about what is coming? They have such a long journey ahead of them. Is he seriously wearing cotton?!
Only Half Way?
We started at the halfway point, so we still have a thousand miles to go. Every time I remember this fact, I start to cry. We get to D.C. to take the train to Harper’s Ferry. I want to go home. Katahdin felt like the end. My knees can’t take a thousand more miles. Harper’s Ferry is exactly like I remember from four months ago. Familiarity is not something that is felt on the trail. I have not been in the same place for more than three days in a row. It’s a disconcerting feeling. I want to go home. I am so tired.
I start the hike south. Thirty minutes in, I am crying again. I know I have to make my choice now. It has been a long time coming – I knew my answer but didn’t want to face it. I didn’t want to say it out loud: I want to go home. I need to go home. Walk hitchhike train uber airport plane layover new airport new plane find my baggage hi dad car ride I am home. It only took a day: what would have taken me three months to walk. Technology is amazing.
Post-trail depression hits hard and it hits randomly. I miss the open air. The memories suffocate me. I cannot sleep. I cannot eat peanut butter or tuna. I don’t smell like a hiker anymore. My pack still smells and it floods me with memories that feel like home. Why did I leave? I could still be out there.
Every rainy and cold day I am so grateful to be indoors. My knees still ache after a day at the mall. I miss the trail. It’s true that you only remember the good stuff. I remind myself of the feeling of putting on cold, wet shoes after a week straight of rain. I remind myself of the hopeless feeling of knowing you spent all your money for the week and can’t get a hotel room no matter how amazing a hot bath sounds. I remind myself of the screaming, burning muscles and the feeling of total futility when a mountain just goes on forever.
But you had fun. You laughed and saw the stars and climbed fire towers and met people from across the world. You lived in a tent for four months and saw things you couldn’t believe. I push these thoughts down. I can’t be sad forever. My hike is over.
We pick up a friend who finishes in the freezing cold. We hike up to the summit of Springer Mountain, where we would have finished. I am wearing cotton in the snow. I stop and listen to the sounds of the forest one last time. My knee hurts. It brings me closure. The trail is no longer my home. My Appalachian Trail hike is finally over. …Should I do the PCT?
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