Lessons and Observations from the Appalachian Trail

There are times in life when plans materialize through series of events that look nothing like what was originally “the plan.” The “carefully thought out, well-orchestrated” plan.

I deem it a safe assertion to suggest that most folks who put into action the plan of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail do so with the strongest conviction that anything less than completing this goal, this original plan, means something like failure. That missing the mark of being among the elite 10 or so percent who complete all 2,181 miles of a traditional thru-hike in any given year makes them less than elite.

I will freely admit at the beginning of my trek, what seems like three years but in actuality was a mere three months ago, I was among the number of those who held all thoughts along that vein. And that now, I am not. The trail remains a remarkable teacher.

I will not complete the Appalachian Trail. Not this year, maybe not next; maybe never. But I will complete the journey on which I set out. This has become known. My plan has existed long before my feet touched Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, on April 23. Only now have I embraced it. This is not to say that I have arrived, but I am well on my way. More so than I could ever have imagined.

I am in Maine. Monson, Maine, to be exact.

One might ask: how does a so-called thru-hiking gal find herself somewhat cockily telling the world about slowly making her way north in traditional fashion, proceed to seemingly fall of the face of the planet as far as technological communication is concerned, and reenter the normal sector but for a blink to say, “Guess what? I’m yellow-blazing the heck out of this trail, I’m more than okay with it, and I hope you are too!”?

The path has looked something like this: I’ve known for quite some time that I wanted to head farther north. Those who have been following my journey know that I have struggled with significant injury and lots of time “off trail” along the way. This has put me behind what was to have been my original schedule. Several weeks ago, somewhere south of Damascus, Va., the notion of heading up the trail grew legs.

Sitting in a shelter one gloomy morning with an ankle injury from lots of downhill plodding through thunderstorms, I said to my friend Floyd, who I met on trail at Icewater Springs in the Smokies, “I’ve laid aside the notion of getting to Damascus for the 4th of July. I’d simply like to be near a phone so I can call my family during their annual reunion.”

Floyd is a guy named Jason, a math professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona. He finished the trail in 2009, and returns each summer as a guy “just out for a walk.” His reply to my suggestion was something along the lines of, “Well, Groceries, I can do ya one better: I figure all we have to do is get to my car at Hometown and Black Betty’s house in Franklin, and we can just show up at that reunion and pitch our tents in your Daddy’s front yard.”

And so, that’s roughly the way things went.

I’ve since spent time with family and loved ones. I went to that reunion and splashed in the creek with four-year-old cousins. I went to Pittsburgh and met my best friend’s baby. I visited Vernon, New Jersey and saw New York City for the first time. And the most curious thing of this most non-traditional detour is that I remained on the trail the entire time. This is what it’s about for me. To me, this is the stuff of life. This is the plan.

I have now embarked upon what is a strange sort of “flip-flop,” a term thru-hikers use to denote starting northbound or vice versa, flipping to the other end of the trail and heading in the opposite direction, eventually ending up at the point at which they left the trail.

Northbound hikers often choose to flip-flop to avoid the harshness of Maine and New Hampshire weather in the later months of the year. This was part of the basis of my decision. I think it is a good one, seeing as how yesterday, Maine weather already began to resemble a crisp autumn day in Colorado.

Along the vein of the nontraditional, I’ve nixed the idea of flip-flopping in normal fashion, which typically involves beginning at Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Instead, I have resumed my hike at the Kennebec River in Caratunk, Maine. I will hike north to Katahdin through the 100-mile wilderness. This allows me the opportunity to become acquainted with the personality of the trail in Maine while still being afforded the excitement of approaching Katahdin from the south, rather than having a rear-view mirror vantage point of this colossal beast of a mountain.

The trail in Maine as I have experienced it thus far is all rocks, roots, and beauty. Even the 37-mile bit from Caratunk to Monson, which is relatively calm terrain, involves some serious hand-over-foot climbing and river fording. It is simply sublime. I’ve swam in mountain lakes, slept under the stars to the most inexplicable soundtrack of loons and bullfrogs, and experienced honest and extreme forms of hospitality.

It has been far too long since my last blog entry. As such, it is difficult to capture the whole of the experience through less words than might quickly prove cumbersome to a reader. Even so, please entertain the following musings and observations. They are in no particular order, but are numbered just for fun:

1.) Prior to my hike, I would never have envisioned the need to become savvy in the art of hitchhiking. I would have been the first to suggest a mental evaluation for any single gal who thought, “Hey, I think I’ll hop in a truck with some random dude and hope for the best.” My outlook has changed dramatically, as I‘m certain my grandmother would cringe to know. Hitching is a necessity for AT hikers, and most people are genuinely good. However, when planning to hitchhike solo from a town stop back to the trail head, it is never a good idea to inform one’s family of said plan by saying, “Don’t worry, I’ll let you know I’ve made it there safely.” This promise holds the assumption that cell phone reception will be at the ready to deliver the news of safe arrival. Often, this is not the case.

The one and only time I chose this foolish strategy, I did not have cell phone reception for days on end. Only when I finally located a group of hikers who had a minute bit of reception that they were gracious enough to lend to me, did I learn that there in fact was not a search party out for me, and that my family has become accustomed to my inconsistency in communicating while on the trail. Even so, this was not a good or smart idea.

2.) When encountering a rattlesnake up close and personal, the most effective self-defense move is to coax it off the trail: With one’s mind. I gained this most useful insight while hiking just north of Erwin, Tenn. I was mindlessly bopping along, eyes one foot in front of the next, until I realized that my very next step would have been directly onto the mid-section of timber rattler: a six-footer with seven sets of rattles. This is precisely the moment in which I realized I can run backwards. I popped off my pack some yards away, and engaged in a 45-minute standoff with this most beautifully dangerous specimen whose space I was invading. Thankfully, I kept my wits about me. In truth, my first thought was, “Well, this is certainly blog-worthy.” My subsequent thought was, “This has the potential to end very badly.” I had the wherewithal to compose a note which read “Standoff with timber rattler, directly north on trail, 3:40 p.m. ~Groceries” for any potential north bounders coming along behind me that day, and to snap a picture.

I knew that fellow hikers Floyd and Longjohn were at most 10 minutes in front of me. Thinking that they could hear me and might assist me in coming up with a strategy, I blew my emergency whistle three times. Nothing. When my reptile friend finally decided to slither off the trail and allow me passage,
I hiked the next adrenaline-filled 50 yards very quickly, only to find Floyd and Longjohn relaxing at a stream crossing, eating Reese’s Pieces.

3.) Sometimes, emergency whistles are completely useless.

4.) I’m fairly certain I’ve come up with an idea for multi-million dollar business venture. It will be a line of candles geared toward the hiker community with scents such as “Smelly Hiker Chick,” “Mountain Mildew,” and “Raspberry Bear Scat.” If I get extremely creative I might also go so far as to make these into gift sets: ya know, include a soundtrack to help ward off the post thru-hike blues. The tracks might boast such titles as “Deflating Thermarest Mambo,” “Tornado Versus Tent Tango,” and the ever-popular dance party rendition of “Shelter Snore-off.” It’s gonna be big.

5.) The term “trail community” is tossed around in hot potato fashion among hikers. It’s a difficult phenomenon to understand or explain, but the term is not overused. I cannot reiterate enough the strength of the bonds formed on the trail, or the swiftness with which this occurs. The agile way in which chance meetings with those who had long been filed amongst the ranks of fond memories still blows me away.

Take for instance “Why Jay Brave.” We knew each other for all of two days back in April. Then, one evening in the Smokies, at Peck’s Corner Shelter, I heard the most melodic voice calling out through the rain and realized it belonged to her. What a sweet reunion! We spent the evening laughing and reconnecting like the long lost friends we were. Yet another chapter to the story occurred upon arriving to the Lakeshore House in Monson, Maine. Haggard from just having hiked in from Caratunk, what an amazing sight it was to witness Why Jay descending the stairs: Unbeknown to either of us, we had decided to do the same crazy flip-flop we had briefly discussed at Standing Bear Farm Hostel just outside of the Smokies.

Then there’s John Brown, the godfather/guru of the trail of whom I wrote in a previous post. At a town stop along the way, I was delighted to open my e-mail inbox to read, “Groceries, I do hope this is you. I’ll share more at a later time; for now just let me know I have found you.” and to be able to respond, “Dearest John, indeed you have found me.” To this day, I can only surmise that he must have typed in Groceries@email.com to have tracked me down, as I do not recall providing him my contact information.

I could go on and on (and I am!) but the last bit I’ll share to this effect occurred just last night. Sitting in the Laundromat at the Lakeshore House, my eyes caught sight of two familiar faces. It was Luke and Laura, whom I had not seen since a day past the Nantahala Gorge in North Carolina. Immediate hugs were in order. We spent some time catching up, after which I felt compelled to call our buddy Longjohn. The timing was impeccable, as Longjohn informed me he had just that day gotten off trail in Atkins, Va. and returned home to Alabama.

What happened next is something none of us could have planned in greater fairytale fashion. I put Laura on the phone with Longjohn. During that conversation, the details of she and Luke’s decision to flip-flop emerged. They were having an incredibly difficult, downtrodden day and feeling very alone. In a trail register somewhere in Virginia at a shelter of which neither could recall the name, the pair had scrawled “Luke and Laura were here, if anybody cares.”

Longjohn remembered the name of that shelter. I witnessed Laura’s eyes well up with tears as she heard him say, “I knew you wouldn’t see it, but under that entry I wrote, ‘Luke and Laura, I CARE! Love, Longjohn.’” Priceless. Words fail.

6.) River and stream fording is fun. Leeches and black flies are not.

7.) If 10-year old Bella at The Lakeshore House ever tells you that your dimples are “like, 10 feet deep,” and that she wants to put pudding in them, you should believe her. She will. If she suggests that you need a pedicure, you should probably believe that too.

8.) I have been carrying my home on my back for the past three months. I don’t know how turtles do it. Except for the slow part; I’ve got that down pat.

9.) I need a Sherpa.

10.) After a while, it’s nice to have a bed to make, trash to empty, and a floor to vacuum. A little work-for-stay action can be a welcome relief.

11.) If ever you should find yourself at the southern edge of the 100-mile wilderness in Maine, do not rush past the sign warning you of certain death should you fail to carry an ample supply of Pop Tarts and Ramen noodles on the trek. Instead, walk a few yards west. At the edge of a serene pond is situated a massive flat boulder that is perfect for sunbathing, listening to the loons calling, and using the mossy end of it as a water slide into the pond. Enjoy. Savor. And stay for the stars.

12.) Hiking the Appalachian Trail is the single most selfish thing I have done in my entire life. I’ve checked out of “normal” life. I’ve bid responsibilities farewell, and neglected important relationships. Simultaneously, this trek is and will be the best gift I could possibly give to myself and those who love me. The woods are healing. The trail doesn’t change a person so much as it connects them to who they’ve been all along. In this sense, hiking the AT is also the most selfless decision I’ve ever made. My hope and intent is that when this journey ends, I’ll be equipped to give in ways the past couple of very difficult years have not afforded me the capacity to do. Sure, the “real world” seeps in, and there are hard decisions to be made along the way. This remains the natural course of things. Every step taken forward is, well, forward. And that matters.

13.) To tag onto No. 12, I really dig these lyrics by Missy Higgins:
“I wanna know where children would go.
If they never learned to be cool.
‘Cuz nothing’s achieved, when pushed up a sleeve.
Till nobody thinks you’re a fool.
So goodbye for awhile, I’m off to learn more.
About who I really was before….
I’m goin’ north.”

14.) My favorite shelter/lean-to graffiti to date is the saying, “Leggo your ego.” Unfortunately, there is a lot of ego to be had in these hills. Again, the trail doesn’t change a person so much as it makes them more of who they’ve been all along. I will never be the fastest hiker. I likely will never gain the knack of knowing what it takes to carry only a 15-pound pack for long distances and hike 40 mile days for weeks on end. This does not mean failure; not in any sense of the word. Anyone who begs to differ should go spend some time in a lean-to with some poignant graffiti.

15.) I am enjoying every minute of this trail. I also miss Colorado, family and loved ones with a fierceness. Even so, I cannot say that I am “homesick.” Home, to me, has always been a liquid notion. As the great Rich Mullins sang, “I’m home anywhere, if You are where I am.” Such truth.

16.) Hike your own hike. Trite but true.

17.) If ever I’m feeling gloomy or having a particularly rough day on the trail, all I need to do is look to my food bag for inspiration, and remember why my name is Groceries. That is something to smile about.

I don’t pretend to know the entire plan, but I’m embracing it as it unfolds before me. I’m trying not to get ahead of myself, and in the way of the unfolding.

Though I cannot say when, I can say with as much certainty as I can muster that someday, in the not-so-distant future soon, I’ll be back in Colorado.

When that time comes, I think I’ll head to Mile High Mountaineering to show the guys there what several hundred miles on the Appalachian Trail looks like on one of their packs. Here’s a word picture in the meantime: AWESOME.

Then, I’m thinking of putting on som
e snowshoes and heading out for a walk.

I hope you’ll read what I have to say about that too.

Trek Boldly,
Groceries

“We shall not cease from exploration. And at the end of all exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” ~T.S. Eliot

About the author

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Maria Icenogle

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