Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Worst Day Ever

I'm writing about“The Worst Day Ever” to get it out of the way. We were recently asked what was the most memorable experience, and our immediate response was “Well, worst memorable experience or best memorable experience” because worst was easy. We are still scarred by it.

You must understand, every hiker ever, wherever they have hiked, has a horror story. Whether it is due to weather conditions, animal encounters, getting lost, or getting hurt, no one is unique in their bad experiences. We all tell the stories with the utmost detail and intensity, but we’ve also heard it a thousand times from others. I guess I’m suggesting that this story isn’t actually as badass as I make it sound as I tell it because we are not unique in the experience. But you know what, that’s crap. Just because so many people make similarly bad judgment calls and end up in a bad situation, it doesn’t make our particular experience any less intense.

It took place on the North Carolina-Tennessee border. We had just spent a night at an awesome bed and breakfast/hostel with two of our favorite southbound hiker friends. There were a couple of reasons why we set out that next morning in spite of the imminent bad weather blowing through. 1) The hostel didn’t have any space for that night and was in fact overbooked and 2) there were a few other hikers in the hostel that were driving us absolutely crazy. Sometimes you just meet people that you don’t click with and these people sucked. We even left the place a little earlier than we originally planned just to get away from them. (For the record, on the surface these people were perfectly nice. There were several things that just rubbed us the wrong way. But I feel bad complaining about them, I’m sure they are good people. But I look back on them with a lot of malice.)

(This is a photo I took of the hostel/bed and breakfast that was so great)

Anyway, we only had something like, 8 miles to go for this day. We were heading up to a shelter that we’d heard rave reviews about for hundreds of miles. It was an old barn that had been recommissioned as a shelter for hikers. It was supposed to have the best views and was so big it could sleep as many people as was ever necessary, which was great because space could be an issue in places that only slept 6-8 people. It was going to be a short day, which should have meant an easy day.

As you might expect, it was the opposite of easy. The last 2.5 miles of the hike that day was on a bald. A bald is a mountain that naturally doesn’t grow trees. In the southern Appalachians there is no treeline like you find in the north. So, the only times you get 360 degree views is when there are just meadows on tops of mountains, and these are called “balds”. What would have been an awesome view for over 2 miles turned into hell. There were 70 mph winds blowing sideways without trees to break it up. It was raining initially, but the windchill made the rain freeze to your clothes, hair and body. You were soaked within minutes because the wind drove the rain into you, all on one side (so really half of your body was dry for a while until osmosis took effect on the fabric of your clothing). I was bracing myself hunched sideways, my backpack acting as a crappy parachute trying to carry me away with the wind. My hands were so frozen that I couldn’t hold my hiking poles for fear of frostbite on my fingers, so I held them under my arms like a rifle. We were all running on the wet, icy trail and we could only see 15 ft in front of us.

This lasted for probably about 45 minutes, until we got to the shelter. When we got there we were all freezing, soaked and completely shaken up and it was only 2:30pm. There were two people already in the old barn. One was a guy who was doing a “wilderness experience” on the trail. He started somewhere in North Carolina, tried to live in the woods hunting and gathering but found it too difficult to sustain himself. He hiked north and stopped and worked at different hostels for room and board. He also hiked barefoot. He had a pair of Keene sandals, but those were just for emergencies. He had hiked in the day before when it was nice weather, saw the awesome view, took a picture of it (which he showed to us on his iphone...I know...wilderness?), and decided to not hike out when he saw how bad the weather was that day. In hindsight this guy was pretty wacko, but at the time it was awesome because he had collected a bunch of dry firewood and was an expert at making fires. The other guy was in his 60’s and from Alabama. He was clearly pretty well off and had a lot of adventures in his life. He had been hiking for 4 weeks on the trail north and planned to do one more week. He just arrived from the other directions, which was similarly horrible.

We all put on our dry clothes and set up our sleeping bags. Sol and I were the only ones with a tent, which we planned to sleep in to capture our heat. We were lucky, since this old barn had tons of cracks between the wood, and there was a big door opening that had no doors, which let in the wind (and by the morning, the snow). We all were sleeping on the second level. On the bottom level there was a narrow hallway and we set up tarps like walls on two sides to create a wind block and built a fire between them. We all hung out around that fire until dark, only leaving to get food or (god forbid) pee. We went to bed at like, 6, and used all of the tricks we had learned to save heat. We were wearing all of our dry clothes, we had our sleeping bags (at this time they were rated to 20 and 30 degrees but the temperature was well below that), and we lined our sleeping bags with trash bags that we kept in our packs for extra waterproofing to act as extra insulation. We had picked up some handwarmers from a shelter in Virginia a couple hundred miles earlier (you think in terms of miles, not time at the point), and we threw those in our packs. We also boiled water on our stove and put it in our water bottles and threw those water bottles in our sleeping bags. We were comfortable enough to sleep all night.

The next morning we woke and all of our stuff that was outside the tent was frozen. Solid. Our boots were frozen, our clothes were frozen, our packs were frozen, the condensation on the tent from our breaths = frozen. It had been lightly snowing and there was a film across most of our clothes as it blew into the barn. It was miserable. At this point, the guy with no shoes was calling people to get a ride off of the mountain and we were all ready to jump on that bandwagon. There was a hostel south of the mountain that offered rides to-and-from the trail that he had just worked at for a couple of weeks, and then there was the hostel just north of the mountain that we had stayed at the night before. In the end, it worked out that the hostel we stayed at was able to pick us up. The husband that ran the hostel/bed and breakfast was dropping off a truckload (literally) of hikers at the top of the mountain. Poor suckers. On his way back, he swung around and picked us up on a road that led up to just about a quarter of a mile from where our shelter was.

(We were afraid that our camera was frozen -and it was- but I took this one picture of the experience the next morning through that open doorway from the second floor of the barn)

We had an hour to kill, but we were in pretty high spirits at the promise of warm coffee and being inside. We all paced around the barn, with our frozen boots on, trying to thaw them out. It was the most painful thing I had to do. I was almost in tears, it was miserable. In the end we got our ride back to the hostel and it was awesome. There was one other hiker there already heading south who decided, due to the continually crappy weather, to solicit a ride to the next legitimate town along the trail. We decided to hop on that train, since we were more interested in forward progress than waiting around for the weather to clear up in a couple of days. We were broken and beaten and we just wanted to hang out in a hotel, with our own rooms. We ended up staying there for two days, drinking a ton of beer, watching a ton of tv and eating a ton of McRibs.

(This speaks for itself. Hotel. Beer. McRibs)

Other of our least favorite things:
-Getting a wet butt. This happened from the rain falling down my pack cover and dripping onto my butt or from my water bladder leaking from my backpack.
-Butt chaffing. The wet butt didn’t help with this.
-Putting on wet boots.
-Being cold at night. Waking up in the cold may have been worse.
-Bugs buzzing around your head all night, and people snoring all night and mice scurrying by your head all night.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Adjusting after the AT

I am excited to begin writing on this blog again. After finishing the AT it seems like a cool medium to share different things that I learned with my friends and family. I figure I’ll use it as a way to answer all the questions that each of you are asking, as well as just talk about different things I’ve learned as they are revealed to me.

Since being off the trail people are always interested in the superlatives: What was the best part? What was the worst part? What was your favorite state? What was the scariest animal encounter? I’ve been fielding these questions, many of which I don’t have a clear answer for, as best I can. Some have obvious answers that stand out bright and clear in my memory (most likely because I am scarred by them!), with others I find myself sounding like a politician deftly maneuvering around the question, talking about several related (slightly off) topic points that I am more comfortable with. It’s just really hard to figure out what the best part was! It’s really easy to figure out the worst part. These posts will come in due time, I’ll try to do about one a day until I run out of topics. So far I have a brainstorm list of things I’d like to write about. They include (off the top of my head):
The worst day ever (as expected)
The best day ever (this will probably be some rambling about how I can’t figure it out)
The things they carried (everyone asks what we packed, and it changed over time)
Trail lingo (there is a whole vocabulary accompanied with the AT)
The least wilderness-y wilderness experience (about how many people hike the AT to have a wilderness experience, but how I think that is impossible on this trail)
Trail culture (the elusive and difficult to explain subculture surrounding the trail. this might also warrant a Trail Names post)
The lessons I’ve learned (still figuring this out)
A typical day (also a popular question)
Sausage fest 2011 (life as the only female for 3 months)
What 500 miles felt like, and 1000, and 1500 and 2000
NOBOs vs. SOBOs (the difference between those who hike north and south)

Anyway, if you have other ideas shoot them at me and I’ll write about it. Maybe one with our recipes and food ideas, or one with the towns we stopped in.

For the first post I figured I’d address the question of “Is it hard getting back into real life now that you’re done?”

The short answer is “no”. I know, disappointing. It’s been over 3 weeks since we’ve finished the 5 month journey, so maybe it is too soon to tell? But still, there was no shock to the system, no pained re-figuring out how to function in a house and with cars. There is a slight chance that it just hasn’t hit us yet that you can’t just stop walking 20 miles a day after 152 days and feel like everything is normal.

I figure part of the reason that the transition feels so smooth is that we were pretty connected during the trip. I would email, facebook and text every time we got to a town, which was at least once a week. I would even call and text from the trail if I felt like it and we had service. We were also constantly receiving letters from people on the trip, and we were taking videos of the journey with the rest of the world in mind. Therefore, we were very cognizant of the world beyond the trail and vicariously interacted with it as we documented our trip.

Another reason that it is an easy transition is that we were such lazy slobs whenever we went to towns, we really never forgot what not hiking felt like. We’d hang out in a hostel or hotel and watch tv all day, order pizza and drink beer. It felt like any other weekend that you just wanted to relax. We also bought an AM/FM radio in Front Royal, VA so we listened to NPR in the morning. Between tv and radio, we were more tuned in to news than I was in college. We also were up to date on all the new South Park episodes this season. We also caught a couple Republican debates. We heard all about the Occupy Wall Street movements around the country. Really, we didn’t miss any of the headlines, we just felt a serene sense of detachment since it was so far from our present worldly concerns. It was great (not so great now).

Finally, hiking by the end just felt so normal! It was like having a job. A job you enjoyed. A job where you set your own schedule. Yes, we did have people point out to us how lucky we were, “You can take a vacation day whenever you want!”. And some hikers, I’m sure, cringe at calling it a job. However, I’m just trying to express a certain feeling where you wake up early in the morning and you know you have stuff to get done (i.e. hike 20 miles). You can’t dilly-dally too much or else you won’t make it to your goal. You push through rough times (rain, cold, wind) in order to complete the objective. You are tired and go to bed, wake up and repeat. Then you get time off (i.e. going into towns for a night or a day) and you freaking love it like it’s TGIF every time. Ya know what I mean?

Luckily I never got sick of hiking. I literally would be walking, my poles clinking next to me as I took my steps, watching the trail disappear before me as I walked forward through an ever-changing landscape of woods, thinking “I can’t believe I’m not sick of this.” I really wasn’t. Ever. I was bored sometimes and in a bad mood, but we’d stop and change things up a bit and continue and everything was good again. I wasn’t itching to finish by the end, but I was also ready for it to be done. I think it was probably just the right timing to finish the trail and 1) not be jerked out of a different sense of reality brought by hiking for so long and 2) not be overdue for my life back in civilization, which I’m sure carries its own consequences.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Hilarious collision of worlds

As many of you know, my boyfriend, Sol, and I just finished hiking the Appalachian Trail (from Maine to Georgia). After five months of hiking, I subjected my wonderful and supportive rugged outdoorsman to a weekend hanging out with all my college friends in NYC. NYC just 2 weeks after finishing the Trail smacked us in the face with a very plugged-in, metropolitan lifestyle after nearly half a year in the same clothes, with no electricity, wandering through the woods. Needless to say, he was a little out of his element, but he's always a good sport and truly does appreciate the company.

Before we left NY to head up to visit his parents in Maine, we visited our friends Priscilla and Brad. Priscilla gave me two books to read, one about Chelsea Handler's evil pranks and one by Mindy Kaling about life in general. In the past she has given me some great Chelsea Handler literature. Absolutely hilarious, dirty and girly stuff (some of you had the opportunity to hear me read portions aloud when it was just so ridiculous)....not exactly Sol's normal reading repertoire.

However, during our 2 day drive from NY-NH/NH-ME, I started reading "Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)" by Mindy Kaling, who plays Kelly from The Office. It was so hilarious from the very beginning that I started reading it out loud to Sol as he drove. In those two days I read the entire thing to him in the car. Hilarious, because some aspects of it are so far from anything he ever cared about or thought about, but a lot of the stuff is just straight up funny enough for both of us to enjoy. And each time I picked it up, he insisted I read it out loud to keep him entertained. Anyway, there was the most epic paragraph ever, and I had to share it with you.

Imagine Sol driving his Subaru outback, me reading, the car on the back roads of Maine. We've made it to page 163 at this point. So you can get an idea of the type of stuff we're dealing with, this section of the book is called "The Best Distraction in the World: Romance and Guys" and the sub chapter is called "Guys need to do almost nothing to be great". Also, imagine me reading it with the sassiness that I imagine Mindy had while writing it. Here is the paragraph:

Forgive me, but being a guy is so easy. A little Kiehl's, a Bumble and Bumble, a peacoat, and Chuck Taylors, and you're hot. Here's my incredibly presumptuous guide to being an awesome guy, inside and out. Mostly out, for who am I to instruct you on inner improvement? Let me say here that if you're some kind of iconoclastic dude who goes by the beat of your own drum, you will find this insufferable. I totally understand this. Buy why are you even reading this book at all? Shouldn't you be hiking the Appalachian Trail right now or something?

Amazing moment. Thanks Priscilla, thanks Mindy.

Here's a photo of Sol, in all his glory, hiking in the AT in VA. For anyone who reads Mindy's book, specifically this chapter, you can decide for yourself how well Sol fits into her "awesome guy" vs. "iconoclastic dude" breakdown.