Monday, June 24, 2013

a self-revelation

Several days ago, I was hiking in an attempt to outwalk an ominous looking cloud.  There were reports that thunderstorms from Tropical Storm Andrea (was that her name?) were producing heavy rains, hail, and possible tornadoes.  I had taken precautions the night before (and found a 2-person tent to share), but the storm had stalled out.  Instead, we got hit at about 9 AM.  About 90 minutes after I had started hiking.

The people I had camped with the night before were all faster than I was because my knee was starting to hurt so badly.  They had all gone on ahead of me when the skies opened up and the wind suddenly flared.  I heard what sounded like tornado sirens going off in the valley below me though I didn't see any funnels.  The skies were ominous and dark.  The rain just pummeled me.  The wind was so strong, it ripped the belt off of my poncho which left my poncho flailing around my, making it even harder to navigate the rocks or to keep dry.  I wanted to move faster, but my knee twinged with pain with every step.  Needless to say, I was not in a good place.

As I struggled to walk, I became more and more afraid.  I thought about what would happen if I slipped and tumbled down the hillside or had a tree fall on my head.  It could be days before anyone found my body.  I'd be lying there all alone, no one would know where I was.  The folks hiking with me weren't close enough to wonder when I didn't show up at the next place.  They'd just figure I had stopped to wait out the storm and keep on going.  No one was behind me that was expecting to see me further up.  I was alone.

Now, it wasn't the dying or the pain or the weirdness of being injured on the side of the hill that frightened me.  It was being alone.  I was afraid of facing all that weirdness alone.  I really needed to get to a place where I would be with people.  I climbed up to a road and hitched to a wayside, and then to the nearest hostel.

Funny thing is that I'm not alone in feeling that way.  Several days ago (after I had survived the thunderstorm, and got a brace for my knee), I was talking to a hiker who had actually gotten off the Trail with no intention of coming back.  He said he had hiked for almost 2 weeks without seeing any of the people he had gotten to know earlier on the Trail.  He was SOOOOO lonely, and he just couldn't stand it anymore.  So he left.  Went home to his girlfriend.  Then, two other hikers called him and convinced him to come back.

So I started asking all the hikers which ones had either gotten off the Trail to visit home or who had a loved one come visit them on the Trail (maybe to take a mini-vacation from the Trail, only closer to it than their home is).  Almost every single person had done that at least once, if not multiple times.  Huh.  It had never occurred to me that I might need loved ones - not just to help with stuff like mail drops or goodie packages or a phone call.  No, but I would need loved ones to simply be just that.  Someone who loved me so I wouldn't be alone.  Let's just say I definitely had the "Virginia Blues".

I stayed in a hostel a couple of nights ago.  It had a phone on the wall with a sign: "No hiker hikes alone.  Call your support.  It's free here."  Interesting thing is that I didn't take advantage of that.  I was too busy looking for the hole in my sleeping pad and getting my food ready for the morning.  Internally, I was fretting because I knew that I'd be losing my current hiking buddy in the next few days and I'd be alone.  Again.

What I'm realizing is that I don't want to need other people.  I should be better than that.  I should be self-sufficient, self-reliant.  I shouldn't be an imposition on others.

But that's a load of crap.  People need people.  And try as I might to be better than that, I'm still people.  My damned self-sufficiency keeps me isolated from others as I strive to be needed, but not to need.  This needs to be fixed.  Finding that balance of being in community without being a drain to that community.  Previous to this Trail, any thought of asking for help was a mark of shame upon my very soul.  No self-respecting Midwestern, middle class, liberated woman should need any help.  I should be strong enough to handle anything.  But the Trail has this desire to help.  It's a community unlike any other.  Maybe you are hiking alone.  But you are never alone.  And loved ones back home are as much a part of this journey as any other.

I don't know yet what will need to change to recover from my DSS (damned self-sufficiency).  I'm sure I'll still be Midwestern, middle class, and liberated.  But, perhaps, I will allow people to be needed by me as much as I try to be needed by them.  Perhaps, someday, I will grow past my DSS enough that the previous sentence won't even be necessary.  It will simply be a matter of being rather than a matter of need or of efficiency.  It will be a place of abundance instead of being just sufficient enough.

I needed people that day on the mountain in the storm.  I needed to realize I was too weak, mentally and physically, to keep hiking.  I needed to be OK enough in that weakness to admit I needed a ride, admit I needed a break, and admit that I needed to yellow-blaze past 30 miles of the Trail.  And, no, I have no intention of going back to hike those miles, just to say I walked past those white blazes.  That is part of the healing process away from my DSS.  Yup, I may have failed walking those miles.  Yup, I took a car (that's what yellow-blazing means - hitching down the Trail instead of walking).  Yup, some people may be disappointed in my choice.  Yup, I needed some medical TLC.  And Yup, I needed impose my needs on others so they could help me get back to the place where I could continue my journey on this Trail.  I am so thankful for the couple that gave me a ride to the wayside, to the employee who gave me a ride to the gap where I could easily walk to the hostel, and to the owner of the hostel who convinced me to take a day off to just heal.  As I tried to earn my "day off" by doing laundry and cleaning the hostel, he told me to stop and simply take a nap on the couch.  Begrudgingly, I obeyed.  That was a much-needed nap.  And when I awoke and was considering hiking out because I 'should', two hikers I knew from before showed up, and that was what convinced me to take the rest of the day off, go into town and get the knee brace.

And ALL of that is what has allowed me to shake off these blues and continue hiking.  What a journey.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Wild life

The promised bear picture.  Not the best - too much undergrowth.  He was only about 20 feet from me.  Not at all afraid of me.  Nor me of him, for that matter.

These tiny little guys were all over the trail for several days - bright orange.  I'm sure I stepped on a few.  Oops.

Also, not afraid of hikers.  In fact, I think she wanted lunch.

Beautiful.  Somebody told me what kind it was - can't remember.  Something like a Friary? Hmmm.

This was in the shelter I was going to stay in.  Stayed in my toncho instead.  We named him "Rod".  He was as big as my hand.  *gulp*

Saw several box turtles too.  So cute. 

I think I posted a picture with ME and the wild ponies.  Well, this is a pony toying with two hiker dogs.  Very funny.  If they got too far away, the pony would slow down so they could catch up.  

Another beautiful butterfly.

Stayed at a farm.  The night before they killed a few chickens for dinner.  This one survived so I could take its picture.  I think it seems lonely?

This rat snake was eye to eye with me, sitting in a tree.  He wasn't bothered by me snapping pictures.  I think he's trying to pose.

There are some big slugs down south!  Ewwww.

The air was deafening with the cicada song.  But within a week it was all done.  They were born, ate, mated, and died.  Here's a shell of one.

And, of course, the wildest animal of all on the Trail... hikers!!!!  Yikes!  Here we are in a hostel.  I think most of us were showered at that point.  We still smelled.

Monday, June 17, 2013

All in the last 2 miles

A couple days ago, I was hiking - imagine that!  It was at the end of this day that I had to face all of the fears I or others had for me on the Trail. 

I had done 19 miles and the shelter was only 2 more miles away.  It had rained in the morning, but my poncho had dried out and I had put it away.  I knew more rain was on the way, but I was hoping to get to the shelter before that happened.  It really sucks to have a water laden poncho that you need to stuff in your backpack.  One, it gets everything wet, and two, it weighs more.  My feet were really tired and my knees were "tweaking".  My left knee was actually giving me shooting pain across my patella when I stepped wrong.  First fear - injury.  I had been walking on very stiff knees that past few days and I was getting quite concerned that my knee was getting worse.  Only two more miles to the shelter, and I could take some ibuprofen and massage my knee.  But I was trying to outwalk the rain as well.  That was when I realized I hadn't sat down since I left this morning.  19 miles with no real breaks (other than to inhale some food while standing up or still walking).  So, rain or no, I decided to sit and take a break. 

There was no real place to sit down, so I just decided to plop on a really big tree root and stretch my legs across the trail.  It seemed fairly pleasant at first until I felt the wind shift directions and it was cold.  I looked up... dark clouds were above my head where they weren't just a moment before.  Crap.  That was the cold front.  The temp started to drop, and the breeze instantly chilled me as it dried my sweat.  No good.  I had heard stories of people getting wet in the rain, cooling off, and getting hypothermia.  Really not good. 

But my legs were so tired!  Surely, I wouldn't get hypothermia if I just sat here a while longer and made sure I wore my poncho, even if it would get wet all over again and be annoying.  I looked down.  Deer tick.  On my arm.  Crawling around.  Crap.  First deer tick I've ever seen.  On MY arm.   Thoughts of Lyme Disease.  So much for sitting here.  Apparently, this was not the place to take a break.  Might as well get up and keep walking and hopefully outwalk those really dark clouds.  Oops, another knee tweak.  Well, guess I'll only hobble along.  Hopefully, this wind won't be too cold.

The rain hasn't officially started, but my camera is tucked safely away in a plastic bag in my backpack from early today.  There weren't any sights anyway worth taking the camera out.  Surely, in the last two miles...  A half mile from the shelter, I turn the corner and...

Bear!  A adolescent, judging by its size, which means mom is probably not too far away (in fact, what is that sound to the other side of the Trail?).  Crap.  This bear doesn't seem too bothered by me.  It just moves off the side of the Trail several feet, then turns to look at me.  I raise my arms above my head and scream "Boogely!" (which was the only scary word I could come up with at the moment).  The bear just tilted its head  in curiosity (probably what I would've done too if someone did that to me).  Well, what was I going to do?  It was about to start pouring rain, and I didn't have a camera available anyway.  Here I was, 20 feet from a bear, and I couldn't document it to prove it to anyone else.  *sigh*  Onwards (and upwards).

It starts raining, but I'm so close I don't bother with the poncho.  Hypothermia shouldn't be a problem.  I get to the shelter.  There's still room (thankfully), so I start pulling out all my stuff.  The guys there ask me if I can identify snakes.  Yes, some, I answer.  So they show me a picture.  I'm 95% sure that is a copperhead (a poisonous snake in the south).  Yeah, OK, they say.  They threw that snake out of the shelter before I got there.  It was actually curled up right where I'm putting my stuff out.  Oh good.  I pull out my headlamp and start shining it in all the crevices and rafters of the shelter.  I'm not really afraid of snakes, but I had never really thought of the possibility of a snake curling up in the shelter.  Now I will need to add another routine to my setting up camp... shine the light for snakes.

All in the last 2 miles of a day's hike: cold front, rain, deer ticks, bear, and copperheads.  Oh my.

The next morning, I got the opportunity to see another bear and I did get pictures of that one.  There was more undergrowth even though it was still only 20 feet from me, so they aren't amazing pictures.  The computer I'm on right now won't let me upload photos, so I'll have to do that later.  I'll also have to post the picture of 3 inch wide wolf spider from last night's shelter.  Yeah, I decided to put up my tent/poncho instead.  Wolf spiders aren't dangerous, but that's just a really big spider to be sleeping next to.  I suppose, it's better than a copperhead.

Oh, and as for the tweaking knee.  I stopped doing 20+ mile days.  I got to a hostel and took a day off.  I now have a knee brace, and another hiker gave me 3 days worth of prescription naproxen.  My knees feel a lot better, and I hope to not have to wear the knee brace for the whole rest of the Trail.  Thankfully, it wasn't an injury that could have potentially taken me off the Trail. I just need to slow down a little.  The last few days have been under 15 miles.  I'll try kicking it up to 17-18 for the next several and see how I do. 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Wasting the Day at the Chinese Buffet

Well, I'm finding myself in town, waiting for my cell phone to charge so I can make more calls to friends back home.  In the meantime, I might as well type something up here to those I won't be able to call. My original plan for the day was to be 'kidnapped' by a fellow thru-hiker who has her car here for a bit to go see some of the historic sights a few hours away.  Due to her schedule with family obligations and my desire to not be off the Trail for 4 days, it ended up not working out.  So, now, I find myself in town, wondering if it's worth it to hike out today, or just wait until tomorrow.  No matter what I do, I'll end up feeling like a drowned rat with 24 hours of hiking out because of the rain, so staying a day in town is just delaying the inevitable.  But they have a really good Chinese buffet here, so it may be worth it.  No, really, this is an amazing Chinese buffet.  I don't say that easily.

Since I'm finding myself with a little time before my phone is charged, here's a few sayings I've heard (or said) multiple times on the Trail.  These just give you an idea of the nature of how some of us out here hike, plan, and just do our day...

1.  "The Trail provides."  Everyone says that.  If you need something, just say it.  Somehow it will almost always be provided.  Yesterday, I was concerned about hitching a ride into town.  When I got to the trailhead, an older man came up to me and asked if I needed a ride.  I asked where he was from.  He said the hostel in town.  I asked which hostel.  The only one, he said.  Ah, well, funny, that was exactly where I wanted to go.  To make it even better, he had root beer and nutty bars in the back of his van.  I didn't even have to stick my thumb out for a ride.  It was already there, waiting for me.

2.  "How's the Trail look today?"  "Well, there's an up, then a down, then an up, then a down, then another up..."  Next day, same person asks, "How's the Trail look today?"  "Well, there's an up, then a down, then an up, then a down, then another up..."  Following day, same two people, same conversation.  At some point, don't you think they would catch on?  Perhaps not for one VERY good reason...

3.  "It doesn't matter.  The Trail is ALWAYS up."  Yeah, you can look at AWOL's guide.  It's an awesome guide.  But I don't care if the guidebook says you're descending.  The Trail is ALWAYS up.  When you think you are done with the up's for the day, no, you're not.  When you glace at the book and see if "all downhill" into town.  Oh no.  You WILL be mistaken.  The Trail always goes up.  Both ways.  In snow or rain or heat or bugs.  Sheesh, I've turned into the proverbial grandparents.

4.  "I have 39 hours of hiking worth of Snickers bars."  "How many Snickers is that?"  "39."  It would be an interesting study to see if there is a correlation between type II Diabetes and hiking the Trail.  Oh, and by the way, this is an exact conversation.  Snickers is the highest calorie candybar for the weight that it is.  Why carry dehyrated veggies?  Those are too low in calories.  Silly me.  However, guess what I bought at the grocery store today?  Yup, Snickers (in addition to my healthy food.  I use it only as a dessert).

5.  "How far are you going today?"  The answer to that question has morphed over time.  It used to be a definitive answer: "I'm hiking 13.8 miles to such-and-such shelter."  Now that we have gone over 1/3 of the Trail, the answer is less definitive.  The answer is more like, "I'm heading 20 miles or so, maybe I'll stealth camp, but if the weather holds out, I might just keep going another 5 or so.  I'll just listen to how my body is doing."  Gee, have we all let go of some of our control issues out here, or what?

OK, enough quotes.  Here's a few more pictures.  This was from my first camera - so it's from Georgia and North Carolina... (sorry if any are repeats from a previous post)

Just a really cool tree somewhere in NC (if I remember right)

I slept in this cloud the night before.  I took a picture of it as I got above it.  In NC.

Just a gorgeous picture.  That's all.

Wild Willy airing his stinky feet out on top of Beauty Spot.  I had just woken up from a nap.

Just before my camera died (hence the partially blacked out view).  This was at Mountain Harbor Hostel.

Day 1 in Wisconsin, before getting on the Greyhound.  Gosh, I don't know if you see it, but I feel like I've changed.  Such a long time ago. Wow.

A more recent picture (in Erwin TN).  I have joined the hiker trash.  Yes, mom, 'hiker trash' is a compliment.  That was a few hundred miles ago.  I've changed since then even.  Not so much in looks as in... hmmmm, soul-being?  

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Rain, Rain, and more Rain

Today was a good day hiking.  55 degrees and a hard, steady rain starting at 6 AM or so and ... (runs to look outside)... yup, still going.  I heard that there is a tropical storm that is causing all this rain.  All I know is that I had a really fun day hiking.  With all the rain, the trail itself was a stream.  My shoes were squishy for several hours.  Even though I had my "toncho" on (combo tent+rain poncho), I was soaked completely from head to toe.  But, man, I had a blast.

I felt like I was channeling my inner child.  My imagination ran away with me.  I was hiking with Buckeye Cornelius, and we kept exchanging various comments to describe the hike.  Things like:

"Going through this river is our only hope of escape.  The bloodhounds can't pick up our scent from here."

"How'd you like those class II rapids back there in the gap?"

"You were causing too much wake in no wake zone.  Better slow down your hike."

"Wow, I didn't know the AT crossed the ocean."

For a while I kept my hood up on my toncho, but then I took it off just to have the rain soak through my hair and stream down my face.  It was... cleansing.  I can't explain why, but it just was.  Such a beautiful rain.  So much fun.  And so transcendent all at the same time.

Apparently, we'll have more rain tomorrow just like today.  And tomorrow, I'll be camping.  Tonight, I had a warm shower, a warm house, and warm beef stew to come to.  Tomorrow may not be quite as much fun or transcendent.  But who knows?  I may have to continue avoiding the bloodhounds searching for me (of course, I am innocent, but the corrupt bloodhound owners are framing me) while I'm camping too.

By the way, I DO realize that I am imagining.  This is not bonking or too much time on the Trail.  It's just letting my imagination go free for a bit.  I'm not crazy... yet. :-)

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Bugs, Sweat, and Tears

Summer is here.  We went from a high of 50 degrees to 90 degrees in a matter of 36 hours.  So much for transition.  I've had to a least double my water consumption, and I've noticed I pee less.  I now feel I fully understand "hiker stink".  The straps of my pack have this moldy, vinegary, sweaty odor. Yes, very pleasant. 

I've noticed another thing with the heat.  Hikers "bonk".  In others words, we run out of energy - be it from needing water or food, having a low blood sugar, not sleeping well the night before, or just pushing too hard for too long on any given day.  "Bonking" is when you just hit the wall and do something completely irrational and not "like" you.  I've seen people throw their packs, their trekking poles, curse the sky, curse the mountain, curse the tree their passing.  My particular version of bonking is to throw a good ol' fashioned two-year-old tmper tantrum.  I have no words to say.  Tears just well up and I sob uncontrollably, whining and groaning and flailing my arms around in the air.  Yeah, it's humiliating to say, and I'm not proud of it, but that's my "bonk".  It lasts for about 3-5 minutes, and then I figure out that I need to eat or drink or rest.  At first, I was thinking I needed to better control myself.  But then I was thinking... when else can a grown woman throw a temper tantrum and no one else will think ill of her?  It was like, this is my chance.  Now, of all times, I get to just have a good cry, don't have to justify my emotions, and just simply let it all out.  It's really quite cathartic.  No, I'm not purposefully dehydrating myself to have that moment, but when it happens, I'm just going to let it happen.  It happens to all of us out here.  So, that's the tears.  Let's move on to sweat.

Not much to say here.  Sweat stinks.  And there's no way around it.  I hike uphill, and suddenly I have rivulets running down my nose, dripping from my chin, stinging my eyes.  I literally wring out my shirt in the evening.  And, of course, then I put it back on (ewwww) and then get chilled as it dries.  Really?  I'm sweating because it's so stinkin' hot, and I'm STILL getting chilled?  Seriously.  Thankfully, my shirt is wool so it doesn't hang on to the stench like synthetic clothes do.  Sigh, my shorts are nylon.  Wow, they are potent - even after washing. 

But, to save the best for last... the BUGS!  At first, I had my own personal paparazzi of gnats.  They swarmed around me everywhere I went.  I felt special because I couldn't see the mass of gnats around anyone else (even though I knew they each had their own gnat fan club).  It was like I was famous in the gnat-world.  And that's all fine and well.  But then we got the noseeum's.  We have noseeum's in Wisconsin, but they don't bite there.  They do here.  You can't even see them (hence, the name), but then you just feel this sharp biting pain, followed by itching.  Little buggers.  My legs are covered in those little red splotches from those vampires.  There is just nothing sexy on the Trail, in case you were wondering.  Speaking of vampires, there's also mosquitoes, though they aren't quite in full force... yet.  Oh just wait.  And for waiting, we'll get the flocks of black flies coming up here soon too.

One cool thing with insects if the cicadas.  They all emerged a couple days ago, and the forest is LOUD with the cicada song.  The trail is dotted with holes from where they crawled out of the ground.  Their song sounds like the whirring police siren - only it is constant, starting at sun up until dark.  Amazing.

Oh, and there are just all manner of other strange bugs out here.  For instance, take a look at this picture.  Here I was squatting by a tree to do my business, and there THIS thing at eye level.  It's not like I could run away!  Do you see the 3 inch stinger/probe/alien appendage on the end of these thing???  It's like it was waiting to do a spinal tap on me.  And here I was with my pants down in front of it.  It wasn't bothered by me, and it didn't move.  So, once I got over my repulsion and once I covered up my cat hole, I did what any other hiker would do... take a picture. 

So, bugs, sweat and tears is what the past few days have been about.  I know that sounds absolutely miserable.  And in some ways it is.  But in others, it is absolutely amazing.  There is so little that is "comfortable" out here, that you start to redefine "comfort".  You redefine what is "disgusting" - I used to find all manner of bugs repulsive.  Now, I only worry about what can hurt me - noseeum's, mosquitos, ticks.  I don't wory about the cicada shedding its skin on my bug net as I sleep, or the crickets jumping off my legs as I walk through the tall grass, or the millipedes that cross the trail and are just really "ugly."  You redfine what is "ugly" or what "stinks" or what merits a temper tantrum.  And then, when you do find something beautiful or comfortable or magical, you can really, really appreciate it.  I'll admit, the bug pictured above scared me half to death when I first squatted by it.  But, as I kept looking at it (some people read magazines while on the toilet - no such luxury out here), I started to see its exoticness and its beauty.  I still think it may be an alien capable of spinal taps, but at least it's a beautiful alien.