Trial by Wind
There were a lot of challenges I anticipated before I stepped on at Springer. Putting on wet socks and shoes. Getting up in the morning with frost or snow on the ground. Starting the day’s hike with yesterday’s soreness still loud and clear in my legs.
One thing I didn’t think about? The wind.
Sure, I’ve experienced it before. In fact, one of my favorite tales from my 2019 hike is how I tried to scramble up the half mile road walk to the Inn at Long Trail in Killington, VT while wearing a poncho and the wind was barreling down at me, forcing me to do my best 1960’s Batman climbing up a building impression. But I hadn’t experienced or expected the wind like we had over the past week. Strong. Relentless. Cold. It changes how you hike. Breaks are as brief as possible, and only taken if there’s something to block the wind. Sleep is shallow, as it howls through and rattles your tent frame no matter how well you’ve staked it down. And for me, being half deaf, the ultimate isolation comes the moment I have to double layer my hoodie and my rain jacket. The sounds of nature are reduced to just the flapping of my jacket, which now drowns out the ability to think. I am isolated externally and trapped internally. It is a difficult place to be.
So while I was grateful this week’s hiking had been less challenging than the week before, the wind was wearing me down a little more each day. Mother Nature has been a bit bipolar recently, 70s one day, snow the next, and when I snapped, I went right along with her.
I woke up in my tent at the Overmountain Shelter field to the sound of the wind picking up momentum. I didn’t have too many miles to get to my destination of Station 19E, and I should have been looking forward to seeing the ‘leaving NC’ sign, but I wasn’t. My mood was anything but its normal relaxed positivity. Not even the valley view or bejeweled privy (yes, bejeweled. Go check it out!) at the shelter could bring a smile. I went through my morning routine as quickly as I could, resigned to the fact that until the wind let up, today was going to be about the miles and not the smiles. Once back on trail, I quickly started playing the temperature regulation game. Climb uphill, get too warm, drop the hood and lose the gloves, hike another 20 yards, get chilled by the wind and put everything back on. Rinse and repeat. Forget building momentum. For a not so speedy hiker like myself, this is my definition of torture.
I kept reminding myself, ‘at least it isn’t raining.’ which is a trick I use to pull my mind back from negative places. It didn’t really work this time.
This time the mental pendulum swung fully into the negativity zone. Remember when that kid snapped your bra when you were 10? Yeah, let’s revisit that. How about we open that box of grief you got, too. And while we’re at it, please do not forget you are TOTALLY ON YOUR OWN right now. I have always been a ‘go big or go home’ type person, and that includes my emotions, too.
What was going on inside was far more challenging than the climbs up Little Hump and Big Hump, but they were going to put in their 2 cents as well. I have climbed much more challenging inclines and descents in the last few hundred miles, but not quite under the same conditions. Half frozen mud took my feet from me every other step. The trail is a lovely trench (from horses, maybe?), but is too narrow for my gait so it becomes more like walking on a balance beam. And of course there was the wind, let’s not forget about that. Digging my poles in with every step and walking at a slight angle was all I could do to stay upright. It reminded me of days where my brother would try to push his way into my room. No matter how hard I pushed, he’d still push just a little harder. We went through a lot of doors in my childhood.
By the time I started to descend from Big Hump, I was fried, mentally and emotionally. And then I slipped one more time. A full pinwheeling arms, back contorting slip. Somehow, I kept myself from falling, but that’s when I snapped. I raged at the sky, with such a rant it would have made Samuel L. Jackson blush. I pulled myself back from the edge of a temper tantrum that wanted me to chuck my poles down the hillside in frustration. Color me done, folks. I can only thank my lucky stars no one was there to witness it.
I slowly regained my composure and started the last few miles down to the road. The wind finally started to let up, almost like it realized how it pushed me and felt bad. While somewhere inside me took note of the change in weather, I hiked with a thundercloud over my head for a while. It had almost cleared by the time I reached Doll Flats to bid farewell to NC, but then I ran into a pair of day hikers. After inquiring about the the weather up top, the guy commented, ‘Yeah, but it’s still gorgeous, right?’ To which I replied, ‘Honestly, it’s hard to appreciate it when you are fighting to stay upright.’ To which he responded with the phrase absolutely no thru hiker wants to hear: ‘Think it’s windy now? WAIT TIL YOU GET TO THE WHITES!’ It’s the Appalachian Trail’s version of Whamageddon. It serves no purpose other than to discourage those out on this incredibly difficult journey. While inside I re-enacted that scene in Disney’s Hercules when Hades completely loses it, outwardly I managed a chuckle and kept hiking.
By the time I reached 19, I had only three things on my mind: a shower, beer, and food. That’s pretty typical for me. But I had been looking forward to checking out Station 19E since I first saw it on a YouTube video a few years ago. It just seemed like a good karma kind of place. I had even thrown in a few days before arriving, to gift bunks for the night to my trail kids. Pay it forward, guys, Mama loves ya. Despite this, I was still in a funk when the shuttle arrived. Dave regretfully informed me that I just missed karaoke night when we chatted about how I had the place on my bucket list. Oh well. Lemme get in the shower and crawl into bed, maybe.
They say out here, ‘The trail will provide’ but to repeat that would be an understatement of just how transformative the next 24 hours would be.
First, the guys at Station 19E are just great. Very welcoming and laid back. And that particular day, all the hikers they attracted were the same. I felt some tension leave my shoulders at the first smile. The place was somehow not packed to the gills either, I ended up being the only girl (which I am always fine with) so I didn’t have to rush out of the women’s shower for the next hiker. This was amazing because I could really take the time to wash all of my hair and my BAHA port, which had gotten infected living under my sweaty Buff for so long. No crowds meant I could get my laundry done quickly, and I managed to find a pair of shorts in the loaner box, not a guarantee when you’re a chunky gal. While waiting for laundry I was greeted by the friendly face of another hiker I had been hiking around for some time, squashing that feeling of isolation. Then it was time for a beer. For a proud beer snob, Station 19E is a beautiful oasis, and I was hooked up with a tasty brew I could lounge in the sun with. The weather had become warm and sunny and perfect. Once the laundry was done, it was time to get food, because while I embrace the hiker trash life, I am still too much of my grandmother’s granddaughter to enter an establishment without a bra. I do eat well on the trail, so when I am in town, I go with what I want, which isn’t always a salad. I asked how the Reuben sandwich was, being brought up on NY diners makes me skeptical anywhere else, and Dave was more than happy to show me that it was right up to par. A taste of home! With that first bite, my homesickness I didn’t realize had been there eased back into the shadows. The final bit of icing on the cake was a happy accident. Their karaoke DJ had stopped by to test out some new equipment. ‘You’re the karaoke girl, right?’ I was asked. Um….YES! A few of us on trail, including the one hiker also there, had been talking about karaoke since before the Smokies. I am a musician, after all. Making music, especially singing, is such an emotional release for me. I sang my heart out, not giving a damn if it was perfect like I normally would. The trail had afforded me an opportunity to let me get it out of my system and I grabbed on with both hands.
I awoke the next day a different person. After an amazing breakfast (yep, hiker hunger is here!) I returned to the trail somewhat late with a short hike in mind, and a goal to get there before the rains came. All morning I chatted with Mama Nature, thanking her for the warmer day and petitioning that she hold off on the rain till my afternoon break and water stop. No sooner had I bit into my Snickers when the first drops fell. Very well then. A little more than a mile out, I was going to find out just how fast I could hike. I threw on my pack cover, but held off on my rain jacket. I could either get wet from the rain, or wet with sweat when I ran up the climb. No more isolation in the hood, I chose the rain. I showed up a little while later to the shelter a little soaked, but any lingering negativity had been rinsed away. I smiled, satisfied with how my body performed, and ready to greet the challenges of the next day.
They also say out here, ‘Never quit on a bad day.’ Sometimes, you gotta hang in there just a little longer.
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