Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Free Floating

I want to share something really cool with you.  But for you to really experience it, here’s what you need to do.  Get a backpack.  Put a blanket at the bottom of it.  Put 20 pounds of bottled water or canned veggies on top of that.  Shove another blanket around said bottles and cans (this keeps the cans from digging into your back).  Put on the backpack.  Get on the treadmill.  Walk for at least 30 minutes, maybe at an incline.  Enough so that you are slightly fatigued and the heart rate is up.  Stop.  Take the backpack off. 

Go do it.  I’ll wait.

OK, what happened?  For me, I get this wonderfully transcendent floating feeling as my arms just want to raise and I feel like a huge weight has lifted off of me.  Oh yeah, it HAS.  I took the 20 pound backpack off.  And suddenly I feel so much lighter, floaty, like I might just levitate a couple inches off the ground.  Where just moments ago, I was grumbling at how heavy my legs felt and having to plop one in front of the other, now I was literally taking the stairs two at a time, almost leaping and dancing my way up from the exercise room.  Not to mention I have to sing the words 'free floating' in a Tom Petty style while bouncing up the stairs with my arms above my head.  So weird.

But it’s a wonderful feeling.  I’m not sure what this tells me about myself, God, or the universe around me, but I’ve decided I like the idea of experiencing free-floating from time to time.  I’ll try not to get addicted to it as I’ve already learned that it takes a little longer on the treadmill at a slightly steeper incline for me to get that same feeling.  Wow, it really does sound like a drug (I just need a LITTLE more, man!)

There are other times I’ve experienced that completely empty, weightless feeling.  That transcendent floating above your body.  Like when you’ve had a really good cry.  Just sobbed and snotted all over until you were so dehydrated and spent there were no more tears left.  Yeah.  Like that. 

Or like when a moment of unexpected sheer beauty takes your breath away.  That moment when nothing else exists but you and the wild dolphin swimming around you.   Or the energy you feel when standing in a spring thunderstorm, and that moment where you are simultaneously one with the grandiose scene ALONG with realizing just how small you are when compared to such strength as the wind and lightning.   So large yet so small.  Yeah.  I love that.

Not that I want the grief or pain to sob like that too often.  Nor do I want to actually be struck by lightning.  And I do want to build up my stamina so I can carry 30 (or closer to 40) pounds with ease for longer and longer periods of time.  So, that free-floating feeling seems to only come with trial, or at least with a price.  But perhaps, that is the gift in the pain or exhaustion.  It is the gift of being completely emptied and filled simultaneously.  It makes those moments of overly hard work, or painful emotions, or sudden shifts in worldview possible.  And even, perhaps, enjoyable. 

Friday, January 25, 2013


So, last night, I spent several hours putting everything together that I thought I would bring.  It didn't seem like much when I laid it all out in little, various colored stuff sacks on the floor.  I was quite proud of myself. 

Then I put it all in my pack.  That wasn't so bad except I was somewhat surprised at how quickly it filled up.  I got everything in - including food and water (as if I had just stocked up on both), but it was REALLY stuffed full.  I couldn't quite get the top shut all the way.  But you couldn't tell once I put the small pouch over the top.

OK, not too bad, right?  I mean, once I get used to packing things every day, I'll become more efficient.  I'll find all those little wasted places that I could put something small.  I already recognized that I could put things in smaller bags and that would pack easier.  So, I didn't panic until...

I tried to lift the pack to my back.  Holy. Freakin'. Cow.  Huh.

My denial was telling me that I just needed to do more push up's because CLEARLY, I wasn't used to lifting 30-33 pounds.  Um, yeeeeaaaaaah.

Then I got on the scale.  What the...?!?!?!  42 pounds.  Yup, my pack was 42 pounds.  I've been talking a good game all along thinking I'd be at 30 pounds.  I've been walking on the treadmill with about 22 pounds, and I'd up that amount here soon.  Yeah, you bet I'll be upping it if I gotta carry 42 pounds.  Did anyone else notice that's almost double what I'm on the treadmill with now?  Yeah, I noticed.

So, what to do?  Well, I've decided I just have to go with a down sleeping bag, and I'll figure out how to keep it dry.  That'll save me over 1 pound.  I can get a silk liner instead of the really comfy fleece one - that saves me almost 1/2 a pound.  Do I really need that 2nd layer of insulation?  Leave the gloves - use socks on the hands - it's only until they get warmed up anyway.  And really, I never use Pepto Bismol OFF the trail.  What makes me think I'll need it ON the trail?  (No, I'm taking Pepto, maybe a few less tablets though.)

I had just decided I would take my slightly heavier, but much more comfier, air mattress instead of the hard closed cell foam sleeping pad.  Why?  Because I sleep SOOO much better on the air mattress.  But now... gotta rethink that.  That is almost a pound.

I say all of that to say this... sleeping bag #5 is being shipped to me as we speak.  Thank God for REI's return policy.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Happiness Brownies

I love my sister.  For Christmas, she gave me a piece of paper that said she would do “something” to help me prepare for the Trail.  So, I went to her house the other day with my little alcohol stove and 1 liter aluminum pot, and she gave me “happiness on the trail”, aka just-add-water-brownie-mix.  Once she saw how that worked, her little mind was a-whirrin’ on other recipes for biscuits and peanut butter cookies.

She taught me that I can bake on the Trail.  Little piece of tin foil spattered with a little olive oil, put in aluminum pot over less than an ounce of denatured alcohol set on fire, and a few minutes later, TA-DA!  1 trail-made brownie.  Or what we are calling Happiness on the Trail. 

Everything I carry weighs something, so I’m hesitant to take anything more than I absolutely need.  However, sometimes it’s worth the weight to have something that will make the trip more enjoyable.  Happiness brownie and biscuit mix will be one of those things.  I’ll have to carry extra fuel (denatured alcohol) and the mixes themselves.  But here is what it will give me…

Every time I make a Happiness Brownie, I will be reminded of the good time my sister and I had figuring that out.  It will remind me that my sister is supporting me in this crazy endeavor in a way that ONLY she can.  She bakes.  She likes to make people feel at home.  She’s using both of her loves to make ME, her sister,  feel a little more at home on the Trail. 

Every time I make a Happiness Brownie, I get to share that memory with anyone else on the trail with me.  They get to taste my sister’s hospitality from over 1000 miles away.  I get to create community and home and comfort on the Trail for someone else.  And I get to create yet another memory with a newfound friend that I get to tuck away in my brain next to the day I spent with my sister and bro-in-law shopping for dry mix ingredients and eating a fabulous meal at their home.

I must admit, I was tempted at first to simply have her give me money toward a pair of hiking boots, or something else ever-so practical, uncreative, and simply financial.  Ewwww.  I’m ashamed to say I had that thought now that I’ve written it out loud.  Please forgive me.

Sure, I may have a little less in my checkbook at the end of this because I didn’t have her pay for my hiking boots.  But what have I gained by her gift?  So much more so than I could ever describe or put worth on.  I have memories, stories, knowledge, and comfort.  I have the assurance that no matter how transient my life is, there is something akin to home. 

And without that experiential knowledge of home for myself, how could I have ever created a comfortable oasis for someone else?  I’ve learned and grown because my sister and I bake a couple of brownies.  Thanks sis!

P.S. I found this artwork, and I thought it appropo.  Thanks to the artist, John Szymkowicz (hopefully you don't mind me posting a link to your website). 

Friday, January 18, 2013


Everybody’s got opinions.  And that’s a good thing.  I have purchased a lot of my gear based on the opinions of others.  It seems that just when I feel confident that researching and reading reviews and testimonials on a certain something means that I am making the universal best choice for a pair of socks that everyone can agree on, I come across a glaring contradiction.  Someone ELSE has an opinion.  Suddenly, that pair of socks has fallen from grace.  They don’t last.  They are too expensive.  They aren’t eco-friendly enough.  They aren’t light enough.  They aren’t warm enough.  They simply do not measure up in someone’s opinion.

Likewise, we all have opinions on how we hike.  You can hike fast.  You can hike meditatively.  You can hike socially or monastically.  You can hike ultralight.  Or dirt cheap.  Or eco-friendly.  You can hike with all the best gear.  You can hike with great hygiene.  Or be a damn dirty hippie.  But one thing is true.  You can NOT hike ALL of those things at once.

When I first began looking at gear, I wanted small and as light as possible.  Then I realized how expensive that was.  Not to mention the irony in needing to buy all new gear in an effort pare down how much crap I have.   After that, I found a “pat-on-the-back” website for those people who hike the AT for under $3000.  So, I decided to go with dirt cheap and DIY.  Then I had to admit that I just don’t have the know-how to make my own backpack or sleeping bag, nor did I have the time to get myself properly educated before I would have to leave for the trail.  Next, I started finding eco-friendly equipment – recycled polar fleece, non-fossil fuel made fabrics, biodegradable, locally-made, fair trade, etc.  Well, that also has a steep learning curve as well as potentially steep price tag. 

In other words, everything has limitations.  Nothing is enough.  I want an indestructible, waterproof, breathable shelter that can fit 2 people plus gear, and keep me safe from ticks, mosquitos, mice, and bears.  And I want it made with all natural materials by a local artisan.  And I want it under 1.5 pounds.  And under $100.  Are you laughing at me yet?  You should be. 

I’ve got limitations too.  I cannot be all things to all people in every moment.  And that doesn’t make me less lovable, less acceptable, or less worthy.  I love Smartwool socks – my feet are happy every time I put them on.  The person I talked to at REI last week hates them.  But that person’s disdain does not lessen Smartwool’s lovability, acceptability, or worthiness in my eyes.  Even if they are more expensive than other socks, even if they don’t last as long as other socks, I will still love them.  And tell everyone they should buy Smartwool too.  That’s my opinion.  I guess it just depends on whether you trust me enough to buy into Smartwool as much as I do.

So, last thought on this.  Given my limitations and imperfections, I am clearly not the be-all, end-all.  But that does not make me less lovable, acceptable, or worthy in God’s opinion.  The question is will I trust God’s opinion of me enough to buy into me as much as He does?  Or will I constantly strive to be… enough?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

FINALLY - my reasons

My reasons for hiking the Trail:

An Oasis in Ein Gedi, Israel

1.       I was praying in church several weeks ago for a “sign” that God was OK with me hiking the Trail.  A pastor was up front speaking.  I got this feeling that I needed to listen carefully to what was being said (I often call this “God biffing me upside the head to pay attention”).  Honestly, I don’t remember a lot of what he said, but I heard THIS phrase:  Portable Oasis in the Wilderness.  That’s when I decided that I needed to walk the Trail.  I needed to prepare as much spiritually as mentally and physically.  I needed God to be my Oasis so that I could truly offer Him as an Oasis to others.  And when you carry your home on your back, that home HAS to be portable.  So would an Oasis.  I think the Trail is a grand metaphor for so much that goes on in our lives spiritually.  I’m looking forward to seeing that metaphor unfold.  My goal is to be a portable oasis for others that are weary and thirsty on the Trail.  The water and rest I have to offer is God’s love and grace.

2.       I want to find boldness.  Life is too short to fear.  Yet, I do.  I fear rejection or disapproval.  I fear failing.  I fear pain.  In short, I fear myself and others.  How silly.  If God is for me, what does it matter who is against me (even if it’s myself)?

3.       I want to learn that the world doesn’t fall apart when I’m not there.  Yeah, that’s narcissistic of me to think.  I realize this.  But, there you have it.  I guess I’m narcissistic.  I cognitively understand this concept.  Yet, I think I need to experience it.  So, I will let it go.  Don’t blame me if the zombie apocalypse happens while I’m out there.

4.       I want to learn contentment.  I can entertain myself fairly well.  I don’t mind being alone.  I don’t mind being with others.  But, I think there is a deeper level of being “OK” when one has very little control of their circumstances and environment.  Contentment in a hail storm will be a fun lesson. 

5.       I want to learn to focus on what’s directly in front of me.  I too often get caught up in the future and in the planning.  Or I’m caught up in the past and what that means now.  If all of that is stripped away, and all I’m left with is the bubble of my head lamp, or the tree root to avoid in the next step, then I may get better at seeing the less tangible objects that have true importance.  I will have less distractions and learn to focus more on God and people.

6.       I want to practice walking TOWARD something rather than walk AWAY from something.

7.       I want to practice leaving the unnecessary things behind. 

8.       Lastly, I want to learn to be vulnerable.  I try to be an open book.  I’m much better than I used to be.  But, you can see that I needed a full post of explaining before I could post these reasons.  I can tell you my failures, but I can’t tell you my dreams.  Walking the Trail is a physical manifestation of a dream.  Every step feels foolish to me because I so want to do it.  And I can’t do it surreptitiously (I can’t just disappear for a day and make up an excuse of where I was).  And this hike is huge – what happens if I fail?  My dream fails… in front of all of you.  *gulp* 

If I could be bold, be content, be vulnerable, be present, be non-narcissistic, and do all those things because of the grace God has given me, well, then perhaps, I could be a suitable “portable oasis” for God to travel with me for the sake of other weary travelers.  That is my hope.

So, what do I learn from this?  It means that I’m pretty darn determined to stay on the Trail.  It means that boredom or fear or misery are not reasons to get off the Trail.  It means that minor illness or injury are not reasons to leave the Trail.   It means that I may stay on the Trail, even when a few of you may think I have a good reason to leave, and you disagree with my decision.  Of course, God may have other plans and I’ll have to determine that when the time comes.  Or, I may just outright fail in my reasons– don’t think that possibility isn’t always looming in front of me.  So, without having too much hubris, I’m going to speak much less from here on out about the possibility of failure.  You can be assured it’s there in my brain.  However, my focus is going to be on becoming this Portable Oasis in the Wilderness.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Probable Unnecessary Explanation

Wow!  I’m due for another post.  Weeks go by sooooo quickly!  I’ve been reading a really good book by a fellow Madisonian called “Appalachian Trials” by Good Badger (hint: that’s his trail name).  He had never been backpacking his entire life when he decided to take on the AT.  In his book, he goes through his preparations and planning, his actual hike, the things he learned on the hike, and then post-hike lessons as well.  My last post hinted a bit at the post-hike, i.e. post-trail depression and that fear of who will I become while I’m emulating Grizzly Adams.

Today, I think I’ll talk about some of my reasons for being on the Trail.  This should be a lot more uplifting than speculating on my post-trail fears.  However, let me also start out by saying that my admissions to these reasons are actually MORE scary for me to tell you then it is for me to talk about my failures, my depressions, my fears.  Why?  Because now I’m letting you in on my dreams.  I’d much rather talk about my shortcomings.  Those are much more obvious, and I don’t have to suffer from laughter, rejection, or awkward silence as we all sometimes experience when we dare give light to a deep-dwelling dream.

You see, other people know us.  At least, they THINK they know us.  They know what we show them.   But we have all become less than ourselves in this world.  We have learned to hide, to polish off, or even sometimes to amputate parts of ourselves in order to fit in, to look, well “polished” instead of the diamond in the rough.  And often, that can be a good thing.  God forbid I was the same person and personality from years ago!  However, sharing dreams and hopes and desires is probably the most vulnerable thing a person can do.  You put something like that out there in the world, and it’s likely to get lopped off.  Or at least chipped.  And that by the people who love you most.  Not because they are mean, nasty people.  But rather because they are simply closer.  Close enough to accidentally chip into your dream, to knock it over, to step on your toes.  Because they are close.  And that’s good.  It just means that it’s painful.

So, before I go into some of my reasons for being on the Trail, let me editorialize a bit further.  If you are going to regularly read this blog, I may say or discuss things that may come as a bit of a surprise to you.  Does that mean I’ve been “hiding” from you all these years?  No, probably not.  It just means that, over the years, I’ve found that certain aspects of my personality jive better with certain people, and other parts of my personality jive with others better.  So, I tend to downplay varying interests or actions around varying people.  Some might call this two-faced.  I call it adapting. 

Let me give you an example.  Here is something you might be able to expect in future posts: I might use the occasional swear word… right alongside musing some profound mystery of God’s love.  I might get the opportunity to share a cigar or a stiff drink with someone on the trail… I have found a cigar and stiff drink often opens up the conversation to talk about the more meaningful and spiritual things in life.  I might be awestruck by a beautiful sunset in one paragraph, and then mentioning specific reasons some people should not hike naked on Hike Naked Day in the next (which, by the way, is June 21 – no, it’s a real day!).  So, in other words, I may sound really “super-spiritual” one moment, hyper-intellectual in another moment, and totally bawdy and immature the next.  Personally, I don’t see a problem with that.  However, experience has taught me that many people do.  When I’m in different groups of people, I can adapt.  But this blog is a general call-out to all humanity, so you’re just going to get whatever is in my little brain at that moment in time. 

Fair warning – nothing is off limits – Bon Jovi, Star Trek, belly-dancing, hookahs, CS Lewis, country music, Thoreau, the Bible, zombies, hippies, spirits, body checks for ticks, and flatulence.  It’s all just a hodgepodge of quirkiness rolling around in my brain together.  And I totally see me thinking about such things while walking 2200 miles.

OK, enough editorializing.  You have been warned.  Tomorrow I will post my reasons.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

My Biggest Fear (or "We Band of Buggered")

My biggest fear is leaving the trail.  Whether leaving is at the terminus at Mt. Katahdin or somewhere further south, that is my biggest fear.  Because when I leave the Trail... then... well, what?  I'll have achieved (or worse, failed at) something huge.  And then?  What could possibly top that?  And who could possibly understand what I went through?  Yes, I'm sure you all want to hear my stories, but you didn't experience them with me, so... well, there is a bit of a disconnect.

I think back on some of the other "big" events in my life.  I think of one specifically.  It was a defining moment in my life, and it's taken well over a decade to move beyond.  It was a time that I got somewhat "stuck" in.  In some ways, I'm still moving beyond it.  Ghosts from that time still dance about the edges of my dreams and pull me back to that place and time.

I think on another "big" event in my life.  This particular one has taken me another set of years to move beyond.  It's possible I have not yet begun to shed the hidden layers from this particular event.

Going back even further in my personal history, I remember I wrote a musical in high school.  A few months later, I remember lamenting to my sister at Denny's (I was working the lunch shift I think) about the fear that this may be the crowning achievement in my life.  Now what?  What if a cheesy christian musical is the best thing I could ever do?

Now what?  What if hiking the A.T. is the most ultimate experience and journey of significance I could have?  Really?  Is it all downhill (hehe, no pun intended) from here?  At almost 40 years old?  Is it time to enter my years of yearning already?

Now what?  I summit Mt. Katahdin, kiss the signpost, get a splinter, and then...  hike back down.  Get a job.  Gain weight.  Shave my legs again.  Become... someone I never was before, but now, I'm REALLY not now.  How many years will it take me to move beyond all of what I became on the Trail?  And who else can really fathom that?  Except for the band of buggered few who also leave the Trail - dirty, tired comrades who also experienced a lightning storm on a ridge, or freezing rain and wind on top of Mt. Washington, or raccoons stealing your food 2 days before your next town stop.  Only those who live through it can really share the experience.  But I will be separated by miles and money and the circle of friends and family they will go back to.  I fear I may be alone.  At least, very much feel that way.

Of course, that is when I am the center of my own universe.  But when I lift my eyes to see a larger picture, a more Divine picture, I see that most probably feel similarly lonely most of the time.  We are so separated - from others, from ourselves, from our Maker.  Everyone is buggered, so to speak.  I may be alone in feeling an experience, but there IS a band of buggered few, those weary, broken people who have, fortunately or un-, experienced something with me.  I will be grateful for those, and do what I can to step into the isolation and be a beacon - both for them, and myself.  And maybe even for God on occasion   I can't help but think He is lonely too at times.

So what is after Mt. Katahdin?  I don't know.  That still scares me.  I'm a little afraid of who I may become on the Trail.  I'm afraid of who I will fit in with afterward, or how.  I'm afraid the struggle will have only begun.  What I will struggle to do is continue to remind myself that I am not isolated or alone.  That there is a companion closer than anyone could ever be.  And He is the ultimate experience.