Why Are We Doing This? Why Am I Doing This?

I was almost at the top of a ridge. I picked my way over rocks. The scent of honeysuckle and wildflowers surrounded me, filled my nostrils. Buzz of bees and notes of birdsong. Scrabbling in the brush just off the trail. Breeze and tall grasses. Dappled light cast shadows of fern leaves swaying across boulders. The path narrowed, the traverse shortened, I could see the final clearing up ahead, had already passed several of the expected false summits nearing the top.

I stood in the middle of the trail, leaned over my hiking poles, and wept.

At the essence of my tears was gratitude for the poignancy of being alive. A rush of the full range of experience from bliss, heartbreak, grief, happiness. Meditation sometimes brings similar tears when I move through the longing for connection that sits next to the ecstasy of remembering with connection that is always there.

The Overstory by Richard Powers played in my earbuds, a book about the intelligence of trees and about human nature. The meaning felt heightened while walking among the trees in nature.

It was a description of the character Dr. Patricia Westerford as she worked on a scientific study that stopped me in my tracks.

She works all day in the woods, her back crawling with chiggers, her scalp with ticks, her mouth filled with leaf duff, her eyes with pollen, cobwebs like scarves around her face, bracelets of poison ivy, her knees gouged by cinders, her nose lined with spores, the backs of her thighs bitten Braille by wasps, and her heart as happy as the day is generous.

I had been noticing shame about feeling so happy and content. The trail doesn’t have to feel grueling to be valid.

I had just started listening to audiobooks and music on the trail. The first 800 miles I spent mostly with my own thoughts when not in the company of others. Except once when I listened to Sundhara Chalisa, one of my favorite versions of the Hanuman Chalisa by Krishna Das. I didn’t have my earbuds handy that day, so I played it directly from my phone. No one one had been around for hours. Soon after I started playing the song, another hiker passed. I turned the music off and went back to my thoughts and walking meditation. I didn’t want to be rude.

On my mind were the threads of answers to the common trail question and discussion, “What made you want to hike the AT?” And then the follow up, “How did you get the time off?”

Why are we doing this? Why am I doing this?

I have variations on a short elevator speech type synopsis that I offer up when asked. I tend to tangents and mosaic. I don’t want to make anyone feel trapped with a long, meandering answer that might be interesting to me but hard to follow for others.

The elevator answer.

I’m a home care Physical Therapist. I drive to see people in their private homes and at assisted living facilities. I help people who have just come home from the hospital or physical rehabilitation center. I see a largely geriatric population. The wisdom of experience my patients impart to me often includes, “Don’t wait. If there is something you want to do, don’t wait for retirement. Do it now.” I work for a wonderful company, Waveny LifeCare Network in Fairfield County, CT, who worked with me to allow the time off.

That is usually where I stop with my answer. There are so many more layers and memories that come forward.

An exploration of my origin stories.

My first camping trip was a weekend with a grade school friend and her Dad somewhere near Harrisonburg, VA. I sat in the safe cocoon of my tent, soft light filtering in, and felt inspired to write in my diary about the experience of being in nature. I don’t know what I wrote. Then it rained. A lot. We escaped to a nice hotel, sloshed in dripping and bedraggled. Ate a hot meal in a too air conditioned formalish dining room. Stayed for a night. The overriding memory for me was the feeling of being inspired to write, and the comforting feeling of being in my tent.

During the summer of 1998 I rode my bike across the US from Seattle to DC. I knew about the Appalachian Trail, but at the time hiking didn’t seem fast enough. My brain raced too wild and fast for walking. I needed more speed, and the attention to the present moment required to make split second decisions. Some anxiety was coming up for me around not being able to find a bathroom, not having conveniences. I decided that not only was I not going to have a convenient bathroom necessarily, I would be camping outside. The bike ride also was the start of a commitment to finishing projects. I had some artistic projects that I wasn’t able to finish. “What is something you can finish?” I’ve always been physically strong, knew I had a good chance of being able to finish the bike ride. And I did. Every inch.

After I rode my bike across the US I began to deepen my studies of yoga and meditation. I was able to finish yoga teacher trainings. There was a time when I didn’t think I could participate in a silent meditation event. I didn’t think I could sit still and be with my thoughts that long. In addition to practicing sitting meditation, I began taking longer and longer walks with my dogs Bonnie the yellow lab and Simon the black lab. Walking meditation of sorts. Being with my animal family members and being in the woods helped me to be with my thoughts for longer and longer periods of time. And to walk, rather than craving higher adrenaline activities.

Growing up I spent many after school afternoons exploring my local woods, the brackish ponds, and the shores along the James River around Newport News, VA. 

Bear Mountain, NY has been a repeating destination. The first time I summited Bear Mountain, NY I was a passenger on the back of a motorcycle. The second time I rode my bicycle from NYC to the top. The third time I hiked to the top on the AT. The first time I was in the area was with my parents as a child to visit West Point, my father’s alma mater.

A college boyfriend was an Eagle Scout. We camped at Crabtree Falls near the AT in VA. Part of the trip included him showing me his completed Eagle Scout project, a wooden table with bench seating, an eating area. We camped by the Falls, found sassafras root and made tea. Later we looked up sassafras and discovered it is a carcinogen. When I think of us looking it up I imagine being on a phone, but this was the late 80s/early 90s so that is impossible. Where could we have looked it up? A dictionary? Encyclopedia? Book of botanicals and herbs?

In the late 90s and early 2000s one of my go places for skiing and snowboarding was Stratton Mountain, VT. I also love the walk from the base of the lodge up the mountain to the fire tower where the AT crosses. I would look at the blazes and arrows and dream about longer journeys and who was taking them. Pulled by unseen forces. Much later I learned of the AT history around Stratton. Benton MacKaye, the original visionary behind the Appalachian Trail, is said to have climbed a tree at the peak of Stratton, and planned the footpath from the vantage point.

Earl Shaffer who is known for being the first thru hiker of the AT is said to have wanted to walk the military out of his system.

I had been experiencing significant compassion fatigue at work, burnout. I worked throughout the pandemic, didn’t succumb to COVID. In a way I am walking off the pandemic.

Physical challenge has always been my favorite antidepressant and anti anxiety solution. I wanted to see what a thru hike would do for my outlook and energy level.

I’ve had some of the best sleep of my life outside in a tent. At home in my normal routine I’d been spending increasing insomniac middle of the night hours staring at my phone, doomscrolling. I wanted to jolt myself out of that rut.

In general, I’ve gotten my mind to such a sweet space, I looked forward to being with my thoughts for long stretches.

There are so many reasons for this pilgrimage, as individual as each of us on the trail. Other reasons a and descriptions I’ve heard. Unsupervised summer camp. Perfect setting for mind expansion. To regain hope in humanity.

The tears ended. I felt cleansed, continued walking.

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