Two Dogs Becomes No Dogs :: Facing the Fear of Solitude in the Smokies
It’s been a couple of weeks since my last post and encompassing two weeks out here in a post is so impossible. Similarly to my last post, amazing is the best descriptor. We’ve continued to meet so many awesome people (several trials bloggers!), log many miles and some high mileage days, weather the wide array of elements including nearly a solid week of rain, and truly appreciate the beauty of this place and the opportunity to be here. I also have a whole new appreciation for a sunny day. I’ve had some trials certainly, and I find the eternal optimism ingrained in me by my mother has shown through, countless times, day after day, allowing me to see the bright side no matter what. I continue to approach each new day with a smile and a vigor to experience the Appalachian Trail in every way possible. I have also felt the influence of my father, who has taught me so much about staying strong, being tough, and persevering through whatever I need to. My parents have been these incredible rocks for me over the years and never before have I realized the depth of their influence on the woman I’ve become.
Over and over again I return to my Appalachian Trials lists, especially the one I posted about why I wanted to get out here and hike in the first place. I’ve tried to think through each of them separately and I realize that im out here satisfying each item on that list, truly. One of my goals was that I wanted to face my fears. This broad statement encompasses so many things, ranging from bears and rattlesnakes to leaving behind my life, the people I care about, and my source of income. The most recently addressed, and perhaps a more important one for me, is the fear of solitude. Even this alone can take on many different forms. I personally saw this subject from a few different angles: being “alone” in the woods; going on an adventure in a new place without the immediate support or comfort of home in the form of loved ones, essentially doing something out of my comfort zone; and specifically being a woman doing something independently.
I feel that over the past couple of years I’ve tried to force myself out of my comfort zone, to practice my independence, to be ok out hiking and camping on my own. I think I was successful in proving to myself that I could do it, though my stomach still tied into knots at the sound of a snapping twig. After a month of hiking the AT I can say that, although my senses are certainly keen to the sights and sounds around me, especially around my tent during the nighttime hours, I no longer let those fears take away from my enjoyment of tenting on the trail. I love the nights that the dogs and I are able to stealth camp and have a piece of the woods to ourselves for an evening. My life as a woods dweller has allowed me to evaluate the root of my fears, and being surrounded by the unknown day after day has turned the sounds of night into a new normal for me. I do believe in having a healthy fear and, ultimately, respect for the woods and all that entails, but I feel better knowing my existence in the outdoors doesn’t revolve around them anymore.
As my hike approached Great Smoky Mountain National Park, I had a huge realization. Though I had done plenty of solo camping, I had never done so without my dogs, or at least Griffin. So, yes, I am comfortable on my own, but the dogs have had a way of keeping me within my comfort zone, they were my security blanket so to speak. I admitted out loud that, without the dogs, I wasn’t sure that I would have the same drive to do a long distance hike at all. Yet here I was, hiking the Appalachian Trail, waiting in a parking lot in Fontana for a shuttle driver to take my dogs away and leave me utterly alone. GSMNP doesn’t allow dogs at all, so I would spend close to a week without them, backpacking truly alone for the first time in my life. I could be negative and fearful of the situation, or I could use the positivity and toughness ingrained in me to approach this week with an open mind and an open heart, and to experience the Appalachian Trail from a different perspective. Instead of focusing on the dog’s needs, I would be given the freedom to focus only on myself and to really see what I was capable of.
So, I started my hike across the gorgeous Fontana Dam on an absolutely perfect day and started the day’s trek. 13 miles. All uphill. Thank you Smokies for the wonderful introduction. There were no dogs to talk to and no dogs to pull me up these enormous mountains. So, I talked to myself and got myself up the damn mountains. Just as was lost in thoughts of how I would explain my normally blatantly obvious trail name, Two Dogs, a section hiker walked past me, stopped, and said, “Hey! Aren’t you the girl with the two dogs?” Thank you sir for rescuing me from my own thoughts that were beginning to label me as just a girl alone in the woods. I was still Two Dogs, at least for now.
As I reached the shelter, at the top of the last leg tearing climb of the day, I realized my next move was to secure a shelter spot amongst a group of strangers, another experience I had yet to have. I picked a corner on the top row and found I had made a handful of new friends by sundown. Tunes and Bear planned out their 18 mile day ahead while War Horse and Hardware showed me pictures of their beloved dogs back home. Though I missed mine more than ever, I realized what a wonderful week I had ahead of me where I would be free of the worry of caring for my monsters and would instead be able to spend time focusing on hiking MY own hike and getting to know more amazing people along the way.
On day two, with the requirement to stay in shelters through the park, I planned for 12 solid miles. The day was gorgeous and the terrain more varied than the first day of climbing. I covered ground fast and realized I didn’t want to stop at 12 so I made the decision to press on the 6 additional miles, making that my longest day so far! 18 miles and I could still walk at the end, who knew I had that in me. The last few miles that day I crept up on a couple guys I had met during my first few days on the AT, Zephyr and Gecko, and would continue to hike with them and their third hiking buddy, Squirrel, all the way through the Smokies. Another first for me, as I would typically weave my way through groups so I could have more time on my own. I would leave camp behind the guys, giving myself the morning to myself and the goal to catch them, and then I would spend the afternoons in the company of my newfound trail family. Together we enjoyed Clingmans Dome, the highest point on the AT, and we crossed the 200 mile mark.
A few days in, we took a nearo in Gatlinburg and I was able to thoroughly enjoy a grungy hiker hotel room, wander around town, eat real meals in restaurants, and enjoy a couple solid beers at the local brewery without having to worry about where the pups would be allowed and whether they’d be patient enough waiting outside for me. Ahhh, the freedom. It was also awesome to see so many familiar faces and realize that I was truly becoming a part of this amazing and unique community of people.
After thoroughly enjoying our stay in town we headed back to the trail and a day of steady rain and supposedly gorgeous views masked by a thick layer of Appalachian fog. It was a tough one mentally, just putting one foot in front of the other, and I was grateful to have my friends close by. It kept morale higher having them, even if just to be a sounding board to one another about what a crummy day it was or to reminisce about the fun we’d had the previous day. Though its hard to return to the trail under those type of conditions, I always find myself getting antsy after an easy day or a day off. My body isn’t programmed to sit still anymore and I find myself longing to get my legs back in motion with dirt under my feet. Well, pretty much with dirt everywhere.
After thinking back on my week in the Smokies I find myself returning to my goal of overcoming the fear of solitude. I feel as though I’ve more than done so, even after only a month. I’m no longer afraid to be alone in the woods, I’m no longer afraid of the darkness and what it entails, I’m no longer afraid of walking away from the life I was living before, and I’m no longer afraid to be a woman out on her own. Though I still maintain a healthy layer of caution in regards to all of those things and an acute awareness of my surroundings, they no longer consume me or define my experience. As we go through life its almost as if we’re programmed to have fear of the darkness, of change, of solitude, and of the unknown and in turn we avoid them like the plague. I’ve found that, instead, by embracing each of those as an inevitable, perhaps even welcome, part of life has given me so much freedom to experience the most amazing things, to meet the most amazing people, and to live the most amazing life I possibly can.
Two Dogs, Mooch & Diva
P.S. Though I loved my week of solitude, I feel pretty great waking up to these faces every morning again…
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Hey Two Dogs! It’s Viking! I was looking at my friends blog on Appalachian Trials and saw this, it’s really well done. I’m off the trail at the moment by the way, broke my foot and one of my toes right in the Smokies, had to walk almost 40 miles on it but I somehow managed. It’ll be over a month recovery but I’m glad I found this! Happy hiking to you, Mooch and Diva!
I can totally relate as I have two dogs myself and have never hiked without them. My whole reason for hiking is always with the dogs and for the dogs. So awesome to hear your story and it gives me courage for myself, as one day I want to hike the AT and will have to do the same thing with my dogs as you did and hike “alone”.