Tough Times

Before I started this hike, I knew there would be tough times. I knew I’d be “finding my edges” and “stretching” and “going outside my comfort zone.” That was a big part of the point, after all. When I made my list of reasons to thru-hike, transformation was among them, and as a wise man once told me, transformation does not tolerate mediocrity. I have to be better than mediocre to transform.

If mediocrity is staying inside your comfort zone (or being, frankly, comfortable whatsoever), then aside from town days, I’m certainly not being mediocre. (Actually, even town days are a stretch for someone as used to comfort as I … hostels have infelicities such as people smoking and dogs barking and coffee makers needing jerry-rigging to work and dirty floors and hair in the shower drain. But they have their luxuries as well, such as flat surfaces to set coffee cups on, walls to lean back on while journaling, and running water.)

So yin and yang, right? As humans interested in transformation or peak experiences, we put ourselves intentionally in discomfort’s way precisely because we know it is through this kind of deprivation and denial that we can begin to “re-see” and re-appreciate simple things like chairs and tables and sheets and showers.

Why? And is this contrast and intensity the only way to gain such appreciation?

When I planned this trip, a huge part of my reasoning and seeking was related to the peace and stillness that hiking has always brought me, the freedom from the chatter of my mind. But after two weeks out here and hiking being my new normal, that peace doesn’t come anymore. Sure, I can bring mindfulness and attention to moments, and walking beats the hell out of making PowerPoints, but it didn’t take long for my ego to realize this was my new reality and for the chatter and rumination to start up again.

It doesn’t help that I injured my foot. In fact that hurts a whole hell of a lot.

Yeah. A few days ago, I was so excited to encounter a friend I hadn’t seen in a while that I picked up my pace significantly in a barely conscious effort to match his. On top of that, it was my longest day, 13 miles, after previously having mainly done sub-10-mile days. On top of that, the morning took us over two big mountains. On top of that, I wasn’t eating enough because I was afraid of running out of food because I haven’t yet figured out how to correctly resupply. On top of that, it was hot, and since the leaves haven’t come out yet, there’s no escape from the unrelenting sun. On top of that, the water source I chose to use, which the guide said was 0.1 miles off trail, was in fact closer to 0.5 miles off trail, straight vertical. My knees where hot and swollen and my feet hurt and I hadn’t yet sent home a bunch of superfluous weight and the number of F-bombs I dropped on seeing yet more incline all afternoon was significant.

I knew that the last little bit of trail into camp would be downhill, and so when I started that last descent I pulled out Guthook to see just how far I had to go. 0.2 miles. Reader, I wept; it was so close. I couldn’t believe the day was almost over, couldn’t believe I had made it. I limped into camp and saw Montecristo, and just cried and cried. He saw me and came over, and I asked for a hug, and sobbed.

“That was so hard,” I said. I said it over and over. Within 10 minutes though, with my tent set up and my tears dried, I felt really fine, really happy. It just felt so amazing to not be walking.

Since then, though, despite two neros and a night in a hotel, the foot hasn’t stopped hurting, and I’ve been doing big-(for me)-mile days: 12.5, 11.3.

The injury means I’m painfully, excruciatingly slow, which makes 12 miles take 8 or 9 hours to hike, which leaves no time for restorative lunch breaks with my feet up or long morning journaling sessions–two things that I really had been feeling I needed and enjoyed.

So why do the big-mile days? They were in my plan, and seemed super reasonable in my pre-out-here understanding of what my capabilities would be and how soon I’d get my hiker legs. But more importantly, I felt I only had enough food for three days and therefore had no choice to push it to get to Franklin.

Saturday I started listening to Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now, and when I got to the part where he talks about the mind’s control over us, and thought’s power to make us miserable, and it was the late afternoon and I still had miles to camp and my foot was throbbing and I had to step sooooo carefully down wet, steep roots and rocks, again I started weeping. “This is just so hard,” I kept saying. “Why is this so hard?”

I knew the answer–it was hard because I was wanting to be in camp, or in a town, not walking, not carrying 30 pounds, not hurting. And because I couldn’t get my brain to shut the f**k up.

Turning off the audio book, I stood mid-trail and let myself cry and cry, periodically sneaking glances behind me so I could sniffle it up if someone came along, but no one did.

I walked on a bit and tried practicing presence. Just stayed with the stepping, with breath, with the sight of unfurling green leaves on scrawny branches, the brilliance of the blue sky, the scent of mountain air. Peace came in glimpses when I could forget how many miles I had until camp.

A short side trail appeared to my right and I glanced up it–it went to a view and, although my MO had mostly been to skip these in the interest in ending my misery sooner, I took the trail to a breathtaking vista where two men were already enjoying the view.

“Pull up a rock,” one said. I unlatched my pack and sat next to him, just drank in the view. We sat in a silence a while.

We started chatting–they were Mike and Bruce–Mike with a white goatee and Bruce with a white bushy beard–and it turned out they had thru-hiked in 1980. I didn’t know it yet, and maybe they didn’t either, but they were trail angels.

Later in the day I finally arrived at Betty Creek Gap to camp but found a No Camping sign (NC sets certain areas off limits periodically to allow restoration). The next shelter was 5 miles away–on the other side of the epically steep Albert Mountain, and there was just no way. I sat down on a log and felt tears close to rising again.

Mike and Bruce were there already scoping it out, though, and 100 yards down a blue blaze, Mike found a little collection of tent pads next to a bubbling brook.

On the way there I carried my hiking shoes in one hand and my poles in the other and limped so pitifully that Bruce came up behind me and said, “Here, give me your shoes,” and wordlessly I did.

“Notebook, you pick first,” Mike said. “This looks like the best one–you take this one.”

“Okay, thank you,” I said, and I dropped my pack. Bruce set down my shoes and he and Mike went to pick their sites. Again I wept, only this time in gratitude for the kindness of strangers.


They didn’t stop there. At supper we sat together on a log and cooked our food, shared more stories. They informed me I didn’t have to go as far as Winding Stair Gap to get to Franklin, that I could get there at Rock Gap, which was 3 miles sooner, which moved Franklin from day after tomorrow to tomorrow, which was the best news I’d heard in days.

Then they said they had a car and could come get me at Rock Gap (I didn’t think I’d make it there by the time the last shuttle came, 3:45). Then they said they wanted to go to Shoney’s, did I want to go to Shoney’s?

“Hell, yes, I want to go to Shoney’s!”

And so we did all that, and now I’m taking my much-needed zero in Franklin, luxuriating in not walking, in being clean, in wearing clean clothes, in typing, in having had a giant omelette for breakfast, in contemplating what real food to have for lunch, and in planning a resupply trip to the grocery store and a visit to a foot doctor.

Depending what he or she says, I might wind up taking more than one zero. I’m okay with that. This is a cool town.

And when I do get back on trail, I’m not hurrying up for ANY reason, and I’m backing way off of mileage. It’s not that this is supposed to be fun (as Jennifer Pharr Davis put it, it’s “better than fun”), and I know transformation requires stretching, but if my next 2,000 miles are anything like the last 50 have been, there’s no way I’ll make it to Maine.

Will I make it even if I do back off miles? Maybe not; statistically, probably not.

Do I have any answers yet to the deprivation, comfort-zone transcending, yin-yang, peak experience motivation questions? No.

Now I’m just deciding to trust that taking one day at a time will get me to some resolution somehow. The trail’s taught me some stuff but not yet nearly enough–I want to learn more, as trying as the learning curve is.

Some part of me believes Mike when he says this is the toughest part, that it will get better, that it’s worth it to stick it out.

So I am.

And, since this post has been weighted toward gloom despite the sprinkled successes and milestones I’ve also had, I will soon post something more positive.

Plus I have fun pictures to share :).

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Comments 19

  • Karen : Apr 26th

    Foot pain is the worst! No getting around it. Take care of those dogs. I highly recommend superfeet insoles! They can make a big difference. Soak your feet in cold water. Ibuprofen. Foot stretches. It all helps.

    I love and hate backpacking. It’s a physical, mental, and emotional test of endurance. Long stretches of discomfort with moments of bliss. In a world where we rarely push ourselves to our limits, it can make our body and mind almost raw. Take care of yourself. You are doing really really amazing. We are all rooting for you!

    • Mathina Calliope : May 6th

      Thank you, woman! Ibuprofen is helping, as well as the new shoes and insoles I got at Outdoor 76 in Franklin.

  • Tinkerbell : Apr 26th

    Hey lady! You’ve got this and you rock. Foot pain sucks and you’re doing the best thing for it: rest and slow down! I live in Franklin. Drop a reply or email me if you need anything or wanna grab a beer or something: you deserve it!

    • Mathina Calliope : Apr 27th

      Tinkerbell, how do I get in touch with you?

  • Fatimah Mirbaha : Apr 26th

    Mattie I’m rooting for you love! How do I get in on these package drops for you. I WA t to send you some love, food, and encouragement.

  • TBR : Apr 26th

    Thanks for sharing this interesting account of a hard day or two. The trail teaches lessons, that’s for sure.

    I had to get some insoles after a few weeks of hiking.

    I rarely pushed these kind of miles. Good decision to back off. It can be fun, sometimes, but rarely when you push too hard.

    Notebook — that’s a great nickname.

    We all look forward to your next post, with pix.

    • Mathina Calliope : May 6th

      Thanks for the encouragement! I finally got that positive entry posted! 🙂

  • Lisa Wieman : Apr 26th

    You are truly amazing. I would have called a cab from Franklin and high-tailed it to the closet train/plane/whatever back home!!

    • Mathina Calliope : May 6th

      Ha! It’s tempting, believe me. But I think the trail still has lessons for me.

  • Frankenfoot : Apr 27th

    This is your journey and only you can dictate how it will go. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. You will learn exactly what you are supposed to learn and in the proper time frame.

    Take care of your foot. I sustained a metatarsal stress fracture last year on the AT. It was a result of too many miles in too short a time (26 miles in 19 hours). Rest your body, mind, and soul.

    You’ve got this!

    • Mathina Calliope : May 6th

      Really appreciate the encouragement and advice, Frankenfoot!

  • Ronnie Hull : Apr 27th

    Mattie, my family is following you. We are ‘adopting’ you.. we will do boxes for you for the rest of your trip. We have the first one that is going in the mail tomorrow, as we discussed. Chin up Gal,..your going to do fine. Remember, when it rains your wet and when its hot your sweating.. its just the way it is on the trail. Take care of that ankle.

    Ronnie ( Slo Mo ) & Colleen Hull
    Shreveport, La

    • Mathina Calliope : May 6th

      Trail angels! Love you guys! Thank you so much!

  • Mathina Calliope : Apr 27th

    Thank you so much, everyone, for the encouragement! Taking a second zero today and going to the doctor. Franklin is an amazing town–a great place to be “stuck.” Tinkerbell, Hope to meet you today!

  • Walter Johnson : Apr 30th

    Wow you’re getting quite a fan club. It’s so nice to read about your struggles and the outpouring of support from friends and strangers too. They turn from strangers to friends overnight. Love you Dad

    • Mathina Calliope : May 6th

      ? Love you, Pop!!

  • Trillium 2014 : May 5th

    I read this with great interest, because we are about the same age and my hike was quite similar! I also injured myself (a knee) a few weeks in, from pushing too many miles too fast… just like they all say you shouldn’t! I learned a LOT of lessons about myself, some I didn’t want to know.. that happens. It’s very encouraging (and adds a bit of pressure to succeed) to have folks tell you, “you can do this! Keep going!” But YOU must make the best decisions for your own health, body and spirit. This is YOUR hike, YOUR goals, YOUR body, no one else’s. I hiked alone for most of my thru, but the best and most spiritually healing times were spent with other hikers. Getting a hiking-buddy or two can help take you out of your own head, make the journey more enjoyable, and help you make decisions you might not make on your own (like when to rest!). Good luck, and HYOH!

    • Mathina Calliope : May 6th

      Good to know. Your perspective is super helpful. I’m looking forward to getting some trail buddies. I have met many awesome people but so far no one at my pace to really connect with. I trust the trail will provide that in time. Be well!


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