Just a few more days and miles to go, and I am both getting pre-nostalgic (when you miss something before it’s over) and extremely excited to hug J after nearly a month apart… Here are a few from the photo roll. Much more (or shall I say, much Muir) later!
In less than a month, I start my three-week trek of the John Muir Trail, 215 miles through the High Sierras of California, from Yosemite National Park to the summit of Mount Whitney. I’m hoarding shelf-stable food like a doomsday prepper, and eyeing the other things I ought to be doing and mostly kind of not avoiding them.
I’m excited. I hollered for joy when I finally got my permit. And I’ve seen the photos: this hike is gorgeous. J. did it last year (the PCT follows the JMT for all but ten miles of its length) and reports it’s the most beautiful section of the PCT. I’m stoked. And I’m totally confident and chill about it…
…sometimes. Other times, the mere thought of it sends my intestinal tract into fight or flight mode.
You might guess my nerves stem from doing it “alone.” By my own choice, I’m doing this solo. I think the experience will be precious, and may be insightful. What kind of solo hiker am I? Time to find out! My major treks have been with J., my newlywed, my wonderful miles-centric man. I love hiking with him, and I enjoy making big miles too, but I have a suspicion I also may enjoy stopping more often to observe birds, flowers, lakes, bugs, etc. I have three weeks to do this hike, which would probably take only two weeks hiking Zippy-and-Diddo style. So I can allocate a bit of time here and there, for chatting or lounging or extra side trips or drawing or recovering from little pains or waiting out foul weather. And alone doesn’t really mean alone, mind you. 45 other people start their JMT thru-hikes every day, plus there’ll be lots of day hikers.
So what’s the problem? Maybe coming clean about my sources of nervousness will help me cope with them and accept them and forge ahead anyway. Because I gotta, and want to. So here they are:
1. Weather. El Nino is bringing rain to California, finally, and I am grateful, and willing to be wet a lot for the relief it brings to that bedroughted state. But I gotta roll my eyes a bit. During J.’s PCT hike, it rained on him maybe six times total, and only one day all day. And that trail is ten times as long as the JMT. It was a drought year. I had been expecting that kind of weather. But it sounds as though the trail may get above average storms and rainfall and all kinds of hijinks that make one not want to be on a pass at a certain hour. It sounds like crappy AT weather, which I am SO OVER. And I get nervous around severe weather. Although the odds of harm from it are far less than from getting in the car and driving to the store anyday, I think that growing up in Minnesota with tornado sirens reminiscent of World War II air raids had an impact on me. When my dreams want to suggest chaos, they throw in a tornado. No tornadoes in the Sierras, thankfully, but I sure don’t care for lightning in my general vicinity. Plus… will it SNOW??
2. Navigation. I’m nervous about using a map and compass. I have some experience with maps, but my confidence is not great. I bought my own Brunton TruArc compass, which I have named Saint Brunton in an obscure nod to Saint Brendan the Navigator. And I am reading a book about using it. These things come annoyingly easily to J., but I have to study like it’s frickin’ trigonometry, highlighting and taking notes and rereading and praying that the info sticks. I’ll have the ebook with me on the trail (as well as guides to knots, at which I am equally stupid, and first aid, and wildflowers and birds and geology, at which I am much, much better), but I would like to not be dependent upon a device. This weekend J. and I are gonna go practice in the woods, which is some comfort. I still have several weeks to work on this. And the JMT is well marked. It’s just that I want to do some side trails to fun things like monuments and hot springs, which may not be as well marked or maintained. Of course, I can always turn back from a spur, but I feel the responsibility of knowing where the heck I am at all times.
3. …Um, actually, that’s pretty much it. Huh! Not bad, maybe. That surprises me. I am grateful that I feel fine about my hiking abilities, my gear list, being able to carry the weight, my travel plans (which were a logistical BEAST to figure out, a beast which I vanquished!). I can cook food, pitch a tent, be a grown-up, put on the right amount of clothing. Laundry is an unknown, but who cares? I’ll tote a ziploc and a few drops of Dr Bronner’s soap and utilize copious rinsing (away from water sources, of course, cuz even biodegradable soaps can mess up lovely frogs). So… onward? Onward!
P.S. I hope you join my for my journey. I’ll try to be a good blogger. However, I’m not sure how much updating I’ll be able to do while on the trail. My internet access will be much more limited than on the AT, and I’ll have fewer opportunities to charge my phone (and hence, type and post). So we’ll see. But thanks for reading!
It is done!
Yesterday, we climbed to the summit of Baxter Peak, the highest point in Maine, on top of Mount Katahdin, the Greatest Mountain according to the Penobscot, and finished the Appalachian Trail.
The dawn was clear and chilly; one of our going-away gifts from the trail was a final night spent tossing and turning, too cold to sleep deeply. So at earliest light, we arose and started up. The sun was behind the Greatest Mountain as we climbed… first past a stream with cascades, then two miles of uphill rock and root hopping, then we rose above treeline, and began to climb in earnest. Boulders with abrasive grit, hefting our bodies over and around and through, avoiding drops and crevices. It was not a climb in which one could contemplate falling.
At last we crested the mountain’s shoulder and found ourselves upon the Tableland, a mile of plateau that is home to Thoreau Spring. (He hiked and loved Katahdin too, apparently.) We dipped our bottles in and drank straight from the spring, the only time we drank untreated water on this journey. We figured: if not on a mountaintop, when? Plus, if we got sick, it’d be too late to derail our hike. So, a communion with the pure, slightly metallic water just a mile short of our peak, which sat above one final rock scramble.
We reached it alone. There was the weathered wooden sign, the one we’d seen photos of for months. We hugged, and touched it at the same time. It was surreal, like watching ourselves do it. We sat in the sun and summit breeze, gifted with a bluebird day at the end, and laughed. I told Zippy I could not have done it without him, and though he certainly could have done it without me, he said that I made it better. We will always have this to look back upon, to have survived and thrived by the grace of companionship, trail magic, and the little benevolent part of the universe. We wished someone could take pictures of us together, and in another gift, two men came up from another trail and obliged. When there was nothing left to see or do, we turned our backs to the Northern Terminus and headed down again.
Baxter State Park is easily more wild and rugged of trail than the Hundred Mile Wilderness. When Governor Percival Baxter couldn’t legislate the area’s protection back in the twenties, he purchased it with his own wealth, piece by piece over decades, and donated it to the state and citizens of Maine, under the condition that no new roads or development be built in it. The “forever wild” clause, as it is beautifully described. It was a perfect, memorable endpoint. And I was impressed by how many American families, of all shapes, sizes, and ages, had decided to spend their July 22nd clambering over its highest point. We must’ve passed eighty of them on the way down.
The day before, we’d taken it easy. There were only 13.5 miles of flat, calm terrain between the last shelter in the Hundred Mile Wilderness and the special northbounder base camp at Katahdin Stream Campground. Between the endpoints was Abol Bridge, from which we could see this amazing view of tomorrow:
From the little, overpriced store nearby, we bought one last day’s supply of junk food, lunch, and some quintessentially Maineiac treats: Gifford’s ice cream cones, the dubious Moxie soda (flavored with gentian root), and a Whoopie Pie to split on the summit. We sat around until we were finished sitting around, then got it done: forded one last river, stumbled across the last decaying, tippy bog bridge planks, washed out our shirts and wore them dry, and finally, registered for our hike with the Baxter State Park Ranger, a friendly young man named Yves. (We are very close to French Canada here… sometimes both flags are flown over stores, and the airy murmur of French can be heard.) He handed us yellow receipts indicating that we are northbound thru-hikers number 41 and 42 this year.
We encamped, and it felt like a holding pen, a walk-in site separate from the tourists’ reserved spots, there with Hurricane and NBC (No Big Climbs), who would also summit the next day, just an hour before us. Racehorses at the gate. We dined on the last packet of instant mashed potatoes, crawled into the tent under a full-ish yellow moon, and from there you know the story.
So, we were thru-hiking… and now, for a little while anyway, we are through hiking. We caught a ride to the tiny town of Millinocket with a couple of friendly day hikers, who stopped at a pond on the way so we could all soak our toes on the sandy beach. We got fed, a bed, and conked out promptly. We hopped on a bus headed to Bangor, mostly because J wanted to go to the town mentioned in “King of the Road:”
Third boxcar, midnight train
Destination Bangor, Maine…
We are holed up in an inexpensive hotel for two nights of transition, decompression, and the scheming of our next moves. We have no reservations and are traveling, of course, sans car. In a way, it is like backpacking: you never know what to expect when you arrive at the next shelter. Only there are no white blazes to guide us. We are now hiking through seas of people and cities. We are curious what emotions will show up as we make our way from here, no longer bearing the identity of Hiker, just two more dots in the crowd.
I do look forward to washing vigorously every single item in my pack, my shoes and insoles, and the pack itself. A shower is going to occur every day. Lotions will be applied. Vegetables will be consumed.
Also, I intend to post a few more AT-related journal entries: one of mostly photos, and one with a bunch of trip statistics, because I’m a Virgo and dig that kind of thing. After that, the website will go back to being general musings, and I won’t be offended if you unsubscribe.
Of course, it’ll pick back up again next May or so, when we start our next hiking adventure: the Pacific Crest Trail! Part of me (my toes, perhaps) can’t believe I am already able to fathom doing something like this again. But it’s true.
Thanks to friends of friends at Koinonia Farm, while hiking through New York we had a chance to take a day of rest in a Bruderhof community located very close to the trail. (Check out some basics on their Christian communal groups on Wikipedia if you aren’t familiar; I wasn’t very). I cannot express the sincerity and volume of their hospitality. I think they’re trying to show how god’s love must feel, to make us wonder that it comes despite our having done nothing to deserve it. Perhaps they are following the “love your neighbor as yourself” dictum… except sometimes I am not that good at loving myself. In any case, we were met at the road and brought to their lovely, immaculate home.
(They are so clean and orderly that the next day when I hung my camp towel on top of one of my trekking poles and stuck the pole in the ground outside the building, I returned in an hour to notice that a drying rack had been set underneath the towel, with the pole relaxing on the top rack.)
They were gathered under some big trees in a circle. We had arrived in the midst of an end-of-year celebration for their schoolchildren. The children were honored and asked to shake hands with elder members of the community. (There is also more handshaking there than anyplace else I’ve been. They would put politicians to shame.) Then the young men wheeled forth coolers full of ice cream with strawberries ladled on top, and handed them out to everyone. Everyone sang songs, people asked us questions and welcomed us, and then we went to bed.
Our host’s sister and her niece, about twelve years old, hiked with us the next day. They are excellent hikers. They put on tennis shoes along with their regular attire of long dresses, plain work shirts, and wide-brimmed cloth hats over their braids, then gracefully and swiftly moved down the path, jumping logs, scrambling up boulders. It was a treat to have local experts along on the hike: Jodie pointed out wintergreen leaves and a raven’s nest, and Carrie and I mused on flowers we were trying to identify.
It was so interesting to observe at least the surface of another community, another culture. Their subtle accents, perhaps due to German origins and/or their exile time in Paraguay, evident when they say foam, light, or settlers. Their children nimbly climbing trees. Their singing together at every gathering–and there are many gatherings. (And it was with disbelief I watched as everyone did so… the guys are not secretly wishing they could go home and watch Monday Night Football? They really want to sit with their families and sing in three-part harmony simple and cheerful songs about hiking, rambling, being on the sea, loving each other, and the moon? It seems so.) And their desire to impart to their younger generations the urgency and drive with which they were founded in Germany in the 1920s, a unity born both of newness and of persecution.
They sent us off the next morning with a dozen freshly baked oatmeal-raisin cookies, a loaf of braided bread baked golden brown with sesame seeds on top, and a feeling of immersion in kindness. We are very grateful. These are the unexpected Trail experiences we will never forget.
Big news! Zippy and I have joined the AT Class of 2013. We have been saving and planning and training and dreaming for the better part of three years, and now we are as ready as we’ll ever be to hike from Georgia to Maine, from Springer Mountain to Mount Katahdin. It’s called the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, or the AT, and thousands of pilgrims have trod the 2,100 mile footpath since 1948. We are quitting our excellent jobs, saying goodbye to our wonderful friends and community, and walking.
On the first of February, we will haul our belongings south and east in a Beverly Hillbillies style caravan, stash everything somewhere, hug our families, wait for the thaw… and go. It’s exciting and a little scary, which typically means it’s the next right way to go.
I have already hiked about 300 miles of the trail, mostly in Virginia. The green tunnel, the crush of azaleas, the blessing of water crossings, the lumpy campsites, the broken sandals, the spirit of the people gone before, the line of energy. One can walk back and forth between seasons, descending into spring blossoms, climbing back into closed buds. It will be our home for four or five months. And as we walk, my heart will be imagining a home ahead, where the seasons will cycle in place. A settling place, from which to venture, and to which to return, from adventures to come.
On the Trail, I am going to carry a tiny notepad in my backpack and do something on one page each day. Maybe it’ll be a sketch or a few words. Maybe it’ll be mostly raindrop crinkles and peanut buttery fingerprints. Maybe it will be one long, blank prayer. At the end, I may sew the pages together and re-create the trail in paper, an interior map.
I’ll also keep an online journal during the hike. I’ll post it here on Sideways Gaze, and probably also on an established trail journal website. Do subscribe if you’d like to follow along. I would love to have you with me.
Here’s what happened.
The Telecommunications show was a wonderful evening, the culmination of months of work – organizing, publicizing, installing, and, oh yeah, actually making the art. That Friday in July was a haze of hot summer light, live music from Aran, loved ones walking in under the big rolling garage doors of the bakery to eat struan rolls, drink tiny cups of iced limeade, and look at the giant painted satellite dishes mounted on the robins-egg-blue gallery wall of Le Petit Outre and tell me kind things.
Afterwards, back at home, on the couch, out of the fancy dress, I wondered why I did it. The whole show. Is it about selling? Bragging? Keeping up? Battling obscurity? Making cultural commentary? Giving folks’ eyeballs a good time out of pure generosity?
No? Then what?
As so often happens after a period of intense focus on a single artistic pursuit, I crashed. Didn’t want to touch art with a ten-foot paintbrush. In fact, I broke up with it. Art was like a bad boyfriend–here, then gone, then pounding at the door drunk in the wee hours, then dumping me into a wet vat of rejection. Emotionally draining. Codependent. Nope.
Instead, I hiked. Every weekend this summer, Zippy Morocco and I walked into the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the Jewel Basin, Glacier, Yellowstone, the Bitterroots, the Pintlers, and the national forests, and slept out with the wind and the animals. It was beautiful, and it was tiring, and we came out of the woods strong and dirty and alive.
But now that the snow is creeping deeper into the valley from the mountaintops, now that the days are so short that a backpacking trip would be more like a sitting-in-the-tent-waiting-for-dawn trip, I am homebound. And from the quiet and the stillness and the restedness come nudgings to make things again: little whispers from my ex. But to steal a line from Twelve Step programs, I must detach. I am not an Artist; too fraught. I am a person who sometimes makes art. As such, what next?
Hesitantly, the experiment is to reengage, but keep it classy. Art, you work for me. No drama, no fuss, and don’t even think about getting near my ego. A logo here, a poster there, maybe a flight of holiday cards. A loaf of communion bread, a crush of dried spearmint leaves for a friend, a dance step in the forest.
And what for? The same reason a child draws, I suppose; she feels the energy flowing, knows she can hold the crayon, and lets it move. That is all.