Friday, September 27, 2013

Church on the Trail

I went to church three times on the Trail in addition to a partial worship service another evening.

The first time was in Erwin TN.  It was a very small, dying church.  It began with 6 people at the front singing 4 hymns, never making eye contact with the 11 people sitting in the congregation (5 of them being first time visitors - all thru-hikers).  They didn't give us page numbers so we could sing along.  We just sat and watched them sing.  Then the preacher did his thing, in his frenetic, judgmental style.  And he went on and on until someone broke down in tears, begging for repentance at the altar.  Not to mention, the preacher completely misquoted scripture to make his point.  I left there with tears on my cheeks as I was praying for my fellow thru-hikers to not condemn all of Christianity based on that service.

The second service was in Waynesboro VA.  It was a small, but growing church.  Nondenominational.  In a strip mall.  They served coffee.  It was full of young families.  Drums, electric guitar, bass (but not too loud).  All the stuff I'm used in my church back home.  People talked to me and the other hikers I brought with me.  We were welcomed.  And yet, sitting in someplace that felt so familiar, comfortable, and homey, I felt out of place.  It was like I was an observer just passing through.  In many ways, that's exactly what I was.  But I wasn't just watching THEIR service.  I was witnessing the changes in ME.  The changes that realized that all that vibrant, hip, modern, cool way of doing things was not where it was.  It was church, and it was structured, and it... just didn't quite fit me anymore.  Well, to realize it never really DID fit me, but now, it was even more so.  God is cool, I love Jesus, and I really don't have anything against the church as a whole (in fact, I support it), but, somehow, I still don't know how to fit in. I liked what I saw them doing and what i heard them saying, but somehow, again, I was changing.

The next service was during Trail Days in Damascus VA.  One of the churches offered food and activities throughout the festival.  In the evenings they would have a live band out front playing covers of classic vinyl, 60's, and country/bluegrass.  It was fabulous, and I brought several hikers in to dance and party.  After that band was done, they invited us for more "live music" in the back room.  OK, I knew that it was going to be a worship service, but they didn't tell anyone that.  I tried to tell a couple people what they were walking into, but it didn't sink in on time.  We all got back there, and after the first two songs, they started to realize they had been duped into attending a religious service.  Don't get me wrong - it was very much like the worship in Waynesboro - modern music, lyrics on the screens to sing along with, dessert and lemonade in the back, even lighting cues.  But my hiker-buds were tricked into it.  By the third song, they were mocking those trying to worship.  I took a step back, away from everyone.  I didn't like that the Christians had not been forthright in inviting hikers to a worship set.  I didn't like that the hikers responded with open mockery.  I was caught in the middle, understanding both sides, wanting both sides to see each other for the good they were, and in that moment, seeing the flaws in both.  What to do?  I decided to start singing along in worship.  The lyrics were "Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest."  One hiker saw me and walked over.  "Are you a church girl?"  I said that I was for all practical purpose though that's not the phrase I usually choose.  "Can I ask you a question?"  Sure, I say.  Pause.  And then what I deem to be a completely honest question.  "Who is Hosanna?"  Huh, um, yeah.  This chorus I'm singing would make no sense to anyone outside of a certain knowledge level of church-goers.  So I explain it's a Hebrew word that is a exclamation of praise, much like the word "Hallelujah" is often used  - both religiously and secularly.  Ah, he says, thanks.  And then all the hikers decide at once to leave. They've had enough. They don't ask if I want to go with them because, well, I don't truly belong in that group either.  But I follow.  I'm somewhere in no-man's land between church and hiker trash.

The last service I went to was the day before I left the Trail in Rangeley Maine.  It was a small, mainline church.  Traditional music, robes, acolytes, pulpits.  The woman pastor explained the meaning of the color change in the linens on the altar - they had entered "ordinary time" after pentecost and before advent (google the liturgical calendar if this intrigues you).  We sang hymns accompanied by a piano.  The regular piano player was out on vacation and the pastor thanked the gal who stepped in as back up.  Then something unusual happened.  The pastor had three different people get up from the congregation and share how God had transformed their life... instead of a sermon!  After the service, Odie and I were invited to the coffee hour afterward which was a celebration for a person who was moving out West and leaving their congregation.  To be honest, I can't say that I agree or disagree with this particular church's doctrine or theology - they didn't go deeply into anything that day.  Perhaps that is a flaw.  But what I did see was a community where people were genuinely acknowledged, allowed to share and be celebrated.  They spoke of personal God-stuff. They laughed and cried together.  Yeah, that's what I wanted.  That's where I want to belong.

I know I only saw two hours into the life of that church, and every community has it's flaws.  Being back home in my church now, I am reminded of why I like my church, but also how I've changed and don't quite fit back in yet, or how I have never completely fit in.  It's not something wrong with the church, it's just I haven't adapted to their hike again.  I long to be hiker trash AND a part of the church.  I long to live all the facets of who God made me to be AND be fully accepted by a group of people who love Jesus they way I do.  Somehow, I always just find myself standing in between, on the fringe of, but never truly a part of any group.  Maybe I'm too much the devil's advocate, always running to the opposite side of a listing ship.

I'm sure my feelings say more about me than it does the church or anywhere else I'd like to be on the fringe of.  But I'm also guessing maybe this is how most people feel - they're just looking for a place to belong.  They want to be all of who they are and still be accepted.  I know that can happen with Jesus; that's been my experience.  I'm just not sure it can ever fully happen with humans.  So, I keep standing in between with everyone else who doesn't fit in.  Maybe that, in and of itself, can be a community.  Hmmmm.

No church here, but I did sleep in this "sanctuary" at the hostel in Hot Springs NC.  Just me and Odie on a pile of yoga mats in the middle of the floor.  

I forgot I went to this church service on the porch of someone's home in Hot Springs NC.  This was a cool service too.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Appalachian Apparitions***

I'm seeing many hikers posting their Katahdin pictures on Facebook.  They are all finishing up.  Some have even made it back to their prospective homes.  It occurred to me what a phenomenon traveling home really is.  Here we are - a few thousand people with backpacks all converged on a path 18 inches wide in the middle of nowhere.  People sometimes see us, at road crossings or the town laundry or in front of the beer cooler at the gas station.  But, we're really quite ethereal.  We fade back into the woods.  We cross the road, the lucky car to be there when we appear does a double take, and then we're back in the woods.  "Honey, did you see that?  Was it a person?  Was it Sasquatch?"

Apparitions.  Shades of reality.  Now you see us, now you don't.

And as we all end our treks, we fade back into the world.  Our moment of glory, our months of hard work, the buggered few we hiked with and fought with and slept with - we all go our separate ways, by plane, train, bus, or thumbing it.  Some had families waiting at the end.  Most had a beer and a Facebook post.  Some stayed for several days, not ready to fade into urban obscurity.  And as quickly as we had begun the Trail - just started following white blazes - that is how quickly it ended.  Put away the pack, take out the purse.  Put away the pants and socks you wore for 6 months straight - no one wants to see (smell) that here.  Speaking of which, don't forget to put on deodorant; oh, and shave your pits if you're going to wear a sleeveless shirt.

It's not that I disagree with any of these social mores.  It's just that... I'm not used to them.  It's not automatic anymore to grab a new (clean) pair of underwear.  I find it strange to actually own more than 1 pair.  I only started wearing underwear again on the Trail when I put a hole in the crotch of my pants and didn't have a sewing kit to fix it.  That's unheard of here in middle class suburbia.  I have to remember not to inspect my feet while sitting in the kitchen having breakfast.  That's uncouth.  Unhygienic.  And just kind of gross.  Yeah, I get it.  I just have to think through it.

I was at a high school volleyball game - and there was a lost and found.  I saw a cool hat.  Score!  I put it on.  Then someone reminded me that the hat wasn't mine and someone may be looking for it.  I couldn't just take it - that was stealing.  It never occurred to me like that.  I just figured the lost and found was like a hiker box - take it if you need/want it.  Put something back in if you don't need/want it for someone else.

And so as the Northbound class of 2013 thru-hikers graduate back to reality and forward to the next chapter in their lives, we all fade away from an elite class of bad-asses who climb mountains before breakfast, to simply... just another person on the bus.  One moment you see us, the next you don't.

Sometimes, you end up in a cave - this was part of Mahoosuc Notch

The view from this shelter was AMAZING!  But I'm giving you a glimpse of us hikers.

Patchouli sighting!

AWOL and me.  He wrote our guidebook.  This is at McGrath's Irish Pub in Vermont.

This is Miss Janet - mama of all hiker trash and has the BEST unmarked, white cargo van ever.  Love her!

Sometimes, you find yourself rock climbing when you mean to be hiking.  At least I had the ropes!

Mt Moosilauke - the precursor to the White Mtns.  Beautiful.

Wouldn't you want to be here?

This picture just looks like a ghost bird.  I feel a kinship - we're all apparitions.

Sifting sh... erm, compost from the privy.  Doing a work-for-stay.

I'm about to die according to the sign.  Why am I smiling?

Again, who wouldn't want to be here?  Y'all are missing out.

Evidence of lots of hikers.  This garage was pretty rank, I must admit.

***FYI, I stole this phrase from an article in some long-distance backpacking magazine I saw at some hostel.  Credit to whoever came up with that, because it wasn't me.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

In lieu of my Katahdin picture

When I was a kid and before I learned the lesson that human children MUST grow up to be human adults, I used to want to be a moose.  Yes, I grew up wanting to be a moose.  I mean, if you think about, who wouldn't?  They're majestic.  They're brave.  They look somewhat unassuming, but they can kill wolves or bears or just stomp over human adults before breakfast.  They are the Chuck Norris of the antlered mammals.  So, as a kid, I would pretend I could shape-shift into a moose. 

Then I grew up, and realized, no, human children don't grow up to become moose.  They have to grow up and become... a contributing member of society, an insurance carrier, a responsible... adult.  *gasp* and Ugh.

So, I go hike this really long trail on the east coast.  I cancel my car insurance.  I get rid of a lot of my worldly possessions.  I quit my job.  I choose to be unemployed and homeless for 6 months (and less than clean).  I make Maine within walking distance of Georgia.  I rival the Canadian goose in its migration patterns.  Yeah, and I fly a little short of the original goal.  I land in Rangeley Maine, a sleepy little town with a sports bar and a quilt shop.  I do not get to stand atop Mt. Katahdin and get my obligatory picture of me triumphantly waving my trekking poles by the sign.  And that's important.  It's THE picture of all pictures for thru-hikers.  You made it to Katahdin.  Congrats.  So, what do I get in lieu of my Katahdin picture?

Well, I get to be a moose. 

Sure, it may be a fairly anti-climactic, unassuming picture.  But in the grand scheme of things, I just fulfilled a childhood dream.  For 6 months, I lived in the woods: majestic, brave, and unassuming.  And in Rangeley, Maine, it seemed only appropriate that this be my final picture of my trek.  I grew up and was a moose.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Back to the "real" world

Having a few days with friends in Boston is a good thing.  They didn't have much warning that I was coming so they weren't able to take off work.  During the day, I'm on my own.  But in the evening, they hang out with me.  They are even going through all 2000 pictures I took while on the Trail.  That is a sign of true friendship.  Two THOUSAND pictures.  We're on evening #3; we might finish tonight.  So, here's how it's gone so far since my horrific bus ride.

Evening after bus ride:  Jaime and Dan took me to Five Guys hamburger restaurant.  I realized I would now need to start counting calories - well, LIMITING calories - no more hiker hunger satisfaction for me.  Back to sedentary metabolism, preparing for menopause and learning how to not eat... anything.  I failed - had a huge cheeseburger and a whole bag of fries.  OK, will start the permanent diet tomorrow. 

By 9 pm I was really tired - afterall, the sun had gone down and "hiker midnight" had come and gone, but we were hardly home yet, and I hadn't seen them in a year so I should stay up and talk with them.  They went to bed at 11:30.  "Goodnight Sarah!"  "Goodnight Jaime!"  "Goodnight John Boy!"  Doors close, and I'm all alone.  In a room that could easily sleep 2 more on the floor and a bed that could hold 2 people.  Yeah, 4 people should be sleeping in this room.  Why am I alone?  I realized I hadn't really slept by myself in 6 months.  It was kinda' lonely.

Day 1:  wake up and cry; wonder if I made the right decision; look at weather in Maine about every 30 minutes on the internet; look at Facebook to see if anyone posted new pics from the Trail every 15 minutes; call friends and family to let them know I was off Trail and where I was.  cry more.  In between, I walk around restlessly in the four walls of Jaime's house.  I could go outside, but it's all cars and road, and I don't know my way around the streets.  I should go get clothes, but... well, I have clothes on, and they've been good enough for 6 months. 

I realize around 2pm that I hadn't eaten anything.  I open the cupboards and am overwhelmed by the choices.  Now, the kitchen is not a strength of mine to begin with and I'm usually at a loss of how to put together all the individual ingredients staring back at me.  Today was total overload.  I saw peanut butter- what a comfort.  I grabbed jelly (it was even strawberry).  And though they didn't have tortillas, they did have a flat bread product.  Perfect.  Tomorrow, I will try to begin to eat like a normal human.  Today, this seemed productive enough.

Once Jaime and Dan get home, it's OK.  We all make dinner together.  We get through about 600 pictures.  We all go to bed, and I'm alone again.  It's not quite as weird tonight.  Deep breath.  I can do this.

I learned something about myself - I love community and being with people more than I even realized.  I need to go home.  I was thinking I would do a little more traveling before I went home.  I thought that would be a good transition back to real life.  But no.  I think I need to go home and be surrounded by friends and family.

Day 2:  wake up and determine that I will be somewhat productive today.    Maybe yesterday was a needed zero day for me.  But first, I needed to have a good cry.  Then, I put on my shoes and start walking toward the consignment shop to buy clothes (after checking for Trail pictures on FB and the weather in Maine).  The shop was closed, and I realized that if I wasn't traveling around for a bit that I really didn't need clothes, so I kept walking.  I passed several people on the sidewalk.  I began asking every one of them where the Walmart was - just so they would have to stop and talk to me.  I knew where it was, but it was a good excuse to interact with strangers who were also walking on the same sidewalk as me (we had that in common at least).  I found Walmart and a grocery store.  I walked around the grocery store for an hour, talking to my mom on the phone, trying to absorb all the various food choices again.  Wow, canned goods - so heavy, and yet... I don't need to worry about that anymore.

I get the brilliant idea to make dinner for Jaime and Dan tonight.  First attempt - get overwhelmed, buy nutella, go outside and sit on curb and eat it.  Ah, that feels normal.  I look for packs leaning on the wall outside, or bearded men with filthy shirts.  Oh, this is not normal.  Deep breath.  Go back inside - learn to cook a real meal.  Second attempt - not too bad.  I ended up with ravioli, pesto sauce packets, salad fixings, and a brownie mix.  Not exactly cooked from scratch stuff, but still, not too shabby in my book.

Before I went on the Trail, I was a night owl - rarely went to bed before midnight of 1 AM.  I'm realizing how much of that is because of artificial lighting.  How quickly my body moved back to wanting to stay up late.  I was certainly cured of hiker midnight.  I went to sleep a little after 1 AM. Part of that time was spent online looking at car insurance - something I will need to purchase before I do too much else when I get home. 

Day 3:  Woke up this morning ALMOST feeling normal.  Felt able to make decisions on how to get home and when.  Made actual plans for this weekend (no I won't be home quite yet).  I haven't even been on Facebook yet today (that will be next).  Rather, I looked at some fun classes I could take when I got home.  I looked at a few places to see if they were hiring.  I compared a couple more insurance quotes.  Huh, it's like I'm a civilized human being again.

And sadly, the Trail is already starting to seem more like a dream than reality.  It was "this thing I did".  It's not so present.  Oh dear, now I get to cry again.  Better go do a Maine-weather check.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

All good things come to an end

Well, at some point the Trail has to come to an end.  I made it GA-->Maine; all 14 states; just shy of 2000 miles (1,965.5 to be exact).  I didn't quite reach Katahdin, the terminus of the AT.  Remember that little setback in the ER in Massachusetts?  Well, after getting my full pack returned to me in Gorham NH, and hiking for a few days with that, I realized that my back was not as healed up as I was hoping.  Maine is a very remote place, and I was realizing going into the 100 mile wilderness may not be the best idea with my back still not completely healed.  I certainly don't want to deal with MRSA in the wilderness. 

So, a bittersweet end.  I felt I needed to make a long-term decision for my health rather than the desire to stay in the woods for another 3-4 weeks.  So, yesterday, I got a ride to Augusta ME where I could pick up a bus to get to Massachusetts to stay with friends for a few days and regroup.  Now what?

The bus trip was... quite honestly, terrifying.  Here were so many people in such a small space, and NO one was talking to each other.  20+ people with 20+ silent, impenetrable bubbles.  Why weren't we talking?  Plus, we're flying down the interstate.  How can anyone see the trees or rocks?  What if there was a moose by the pond we just whizzed by?  Do all of these silent people not care about seeing a moose? 

Then, we got to the city.  It was after dark.  Wow, so many lights, so much stimuli, going by my window oh so fast.  I couldn't take it all in.  I had to shut my eyes.  We went through a tunnel, brightly buzzing with fluorescent lights, trying to comfort the claustrophobic (like me).  The bus spit me out at the airport where my friends were going to pick me up.  All alone, surrounded by concrete and echoes of engines reverberating off the road above me and beneath me.  People passed me, and I'm sure they were choking on my sweat-vinegar-pack-stench as much as I was choking on their perfume and hairspray wafting behind them (which, by the way, masked the laundry detergent). 

This world... so familiar, so foreign.  I've stood at this very spot previously at this airport.  I know about manicures and business suits and mascara and patent leather.  But it's been so long since I've seen it.  It all seems very... overwhelming. 

Yes, I'm a little lost - not having white blazes to follow now.  The path isn't quite as clear and there are many forks to choose from.  Which one do I choose?

But, ahhhhh, the Trail provides.  My friends came, and they were a comfort.  They asked about the Trail and my stories and I could begin to process the meaning of all the monotony that was the green tunnel of the Trail.  I  could start to share maybe a glimpse of why someone would want to sleep in mouse-infested shelters, eat peanut butter every day for six months, walk every day with every step having a pain in the knee, forsake the comforts and conveniences of tunnels and lights and manicures and perfume.   

I'm going to continue blogging because it's my way of processing this experience of the Trail.  If you keep following along, you'll keep hearing stories, and I'll post more pictures.  And someday, I'll get back to Rangeley Maine and I will walk those 220 miles north to Katahdin.  I think I've actually already finished the Trail - as Odie said, "Some people don't need the WHOLE Trail (and some need more than one trail)", but other people need a photo to prove the accomplishment.  And I would like it as well.  Maybe after I get the Katahdin photo, I'll swing back to Vermont and finish the Long Trail.  Or fly to Europe to hike the Camino.  Or...  *sigh*  Where are those white blazes?

Monday, September 2, 2013

Perception is Reality

I'm in Maine!  After 1900 miles and 13 other states, I'm on the home stretch.  Yesterday, I traversed Mahoosuc Notch, known as the "darndest" mile on the trail.  It takes an average of 2 hours to go through 1 mile.  It's all bouldering mostly over, but sometimes under (and through), large rocks.  Odie and I hiked with Kentucky, a section hiker who plans to finish up Katahdin next year.  It took us 2 hours and 50 minutes.  In the guidebook, this mile is is described as either the most fun or most difficult mile of the Trail.

Now I ask you, if you had a choice, would you choose to take the most fun mile or the most difficult mile?   What if you didn't know that they, in fact, were the exact same mile?  Would you choose it to be fun or difficult?  Or, maybe, both?

I LOVED the Mahoosuc Notch.  It was challenging, remote, beautiful, used ALL your muscles (not just the legs) as you hauled yourself over a rock, clinging to a small ledge enough for three fingers, or using a (hopefully well connected) tree root to lower yourself down a sheer slope.  In fact, I loved it enough to do it twice.  Once through northbound, then back through it southbound.  I mean, lwhen will I be this way again?  I better get my money's worth now.  Second time through... I'm guessing it was about 90 minutes.  Odie made me promise to get to the trailhead before him (he and Kentucky climbed the Mahoosuc Arm and back down a side trail) or else he'd worry.  So, I made it a challenge to go through as quickly as I could.  Fun!  The darndest mile on the Trail - twice in one day.  Yup, I felt pretty hardcore.

So, we all chose to to make the Mahoosuc Notch the most FUN mile, rather than focus on its difficulty.  That worked pretty darn well.

Now, let's fast forward another 3-4 weeks and another 300 miles.  Summit Katahdin.  Get the obligatory picture with the sign.  Look around and... for the first time in 2185.9 miles do NOT follow the white blaze.  Do NOT go North.  Huh.  Now what?

I'm observing that many people came out to the Trail to figure out what they would do next (including me, to a degree).  And as Katahdin looms in the not so distant future, many are becoming very nervous.  They only have 300 miles to figure out what they gave themselves 2200 miles to figure out.  And they haven't.

As for myself, I have no idea what I will do when I descend from Katahdin.  Heck, I don't even know HOW I'm getting home - greyhound, airplane, hitch?  Then, when I get back, I suppose I should find a job.  I've considered the ministry.  I've considered health coaching.  I've considered bartending.  Is it possible to do all three?  I think so, but not sure.

I may not know what's around the next corner, or in the valley after Katahdin.  There's only one question I can ask myself:  Shall I choose to consider this next Trail after Katahdin fun or difficult?  Or both?