Restoration efforts are underway

Poor Pennsylvania: her forests are crisscrossed with power lines, petroleum pipelines, access roads. Her mountains are scraped bare, blown up, developed into ski resorts and condos. As we hiked through the state, we heard explosions from the nearby military reservation, and gunshots from shooting ranges sometimes so close that we tied brightly colored shirts and surveyor’s flags to our backpacks. And the other day, Zippy and I hiked through a Superfund site, a barren hillside ruined by extraction, then terraced like an old landfill. Below was a former zinc smelting plant, still visible in the hacked-up valley, still making exhaust and alarm noises. In the pits where minerals had been removed were factories, churches, and houses. Rivers ran through all of it, making us wonder what was in the water besides water.

A few days ago, I observed some similarities between the worn state and my own state of mind. It actually surprises me that it took this long for me to get a bit run-down. Long-distance hiking, much as I love it, is not a lifestyle that naturally balances me. I’m at my best when I have an even mix of solitude, J., friends, and strangers, in interactions both deep and superficial. (Don’t knock small talk, it nourishes sometimes. It is a simple way to establish a human bond.) But out here, it’s mostly conversation with J., with my own brain, and with nature.

Earlier, I had thought that this might encourage enlightenment or insight. But I realized that my own thoughts aren’t necessarily the best constant company. And when the portion of nature one chooses to traverse gets especially rocky, cold and windy–or, alternatively, rocky, hot, and muggy–nature isn’t such a pal, either. So I get irritable and, well, have been observed to curse at rocks and stab an innocent leaf or ten with my trekking pole. You can ask Zippy about all this.

As for him, he was wearing down too. I could tell he was in need of a break because the moment he sat down anywhere indoors, his eyes glazed over, his shoulders slumped, and all energy drained from his body. He erodes physically; I erode emotionally. So it’s time for a break. A restorative effort.

Fortunately, I’m writing from a quaint, surprisingly affordable Poconos bed-and-breakfast about three miles off the trail. We’re taking a zero day: that’s when a hiker doesn’t hike at all, just rests them bones. Yesterday, we let ourselves sleep in, lounging in the tent until the sun and a perfect breeze through the blueberry bushes roused us. We took our time with morning chores, and ambled down the trail. We laughed and breathed and lacked rush. We strolled into town mid-afternoon, immediately locating a shower, laundry, and pie. We found a meeting. We slept in a kind church-basement hostel. Today we ate strawberries in a local bakery, went to the mall to watch “The Great Gatsby,” and cuddled in our little rented cottage-for-a-night. I massaged J.’s sore legs, caught up on emails, put in a few calls to faraway friends. A couple days ago, we met my high school friend Vicki and her husband and little boys at a road crossing, to catch up at a McDonald’s PlayPlace and to let the little ones hike around in the woods with us for a few minutes. And… I am going to have my mp3 player sent. It’s time to surrender to the joys of technological enhancement of natural surroundings.

I cannot speak for the Superfund. So far the restoration efforts there seem like just a bit of topsoil, a few brushy trees, and the cessation of further pillaging. Maybe my efforts at self-restoration so far are only this much, too. Much restoration will happen while walking, just as nature must slowly heal herself through growing and wilting and letting the seasons turn. But, so far, it has felt heavenly.

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Tomorrow we hike again. We hope that when we wake up, our feet will feel just a little less bruised, and our spirits will be refreshed for the next part of the journey.

850

That’s approximately how many miles we have walked. It’s over a third of the trail. It’s an impressive number that pleases and amazes me. And it’s time for a check-in.

First, a physical. My toes are permanently puffy, but the bottoms of my feet are things of wonder. They are leathery, calloused and tough. It is as if they are becoming shoes (though I can’t imagine hiking barefoot). Sometimes I run my hands over them in pure enjoyment. My legs are scratched and tanned (with a farmer’s tan line along the ankle, and neck and shoulder lines to match). My hands look older than usual, with dry skin around the knuckles. They are extra dark on the side that holds my hiking poles. My face is thinner, as is my waist, but my legs are the same–I need these huge quads to climb and scramble up rocks. My butt is pure muscle; I’ll have to enjoy that while it lasts, as I’m sure it’s unattainable in the real world. And miraculously, I am pretty much injury-free. So grateful that my body has risen to the challenge of walking every day. I thank my body every time I remember, and ask it to continue to move so well, and I try to pamper it with tea tree oil, baby powder, and Glide (an amazing substance that nearly eliminates the need for moleskin).

Mentally, I’m enjoying myself. I don’t have butterflies each time we reenter the woods. That always used to happen when we’d take weekend trips or section hikes, but no more. In fact, I often look forward to escaping the roads and masses of people, to getting back into the green tunnel of trees where my sole purpose is to move northward.

Towns no longer automatically send me into control-freak anxiety. I’ve gotten used to the routine of town trips and am better able to enjoy their comforts. And best of all, since spring has pushed winter farther away, my joy has increased.

Spiritually, not much has changed. As I hike, my head has a constant news feed of mundane thoughts and observations: mile numbers, water levels. I pray when I remember to; singing ones are best, easiest to continue without interruption. (Saint Francis of Assisi’s song is my favorite.) I don’t breathe through my nose deeply and consciously unless I remind myself, and even then it doesn’t last long. I am not transformed. I am carry the same flaws and oddities. There is magic all around, which I appreciate and admire. But am I more connected, with other people in our linear community, or with nature? I can’t say. Perhaps the changes will not be apparent until we finish the trail and attempt to reintegrate into society…

As for J., he has a touch of poison ivy on his knee, and another on his ear. I don’t know how he managed to swish those two unlikely body parts in it, and nothing else, but it’s not too itchy so far. He’s burned off his reserves–gotten quite slim–so he valiantly stuffs himself when we hit town so that he will have energy to power up the hills. In general, he’s on cloud nine and has been ever since our paws hit the ground. Hiking is his calling.

As a team, we are always in negotiations. Zippy’s natural hiking speed has increased, which I discovered when we began hiking along with Clark Kent about a week ago. Clark Kent is a touch faster than I had been used to, and when he sped off ahead, Zippy zipped right along with him, while I sweated up the hill in astonishment. My natural speed has not increased. Instead I have honed my ability to hike without thinking of my speed in relation to others–to not focus entirely on results and comparison–so I am better able to enjoy my surroundings as we go. In poor weather, we hike close together, but on better days, we each go our own pace and meet up at springs and landmarks. We derive great pleasure from zipping our sleeping bags together at night. It feels luxurious, despite the tent.

We have also discovered the joy of the Zero Day. Though we had gotten off the trail for multiple days before (two weddings and a blizzard), we’d never just cooled our heels in town for a whole day. In Daleville we sprung for a room at the Super 8 with Clark, and it was wonderfully healing.

Our next section is Shenandoah National Park, which is going to be lovely. Zippy and I hiked it together seven years ago, so it’s redolent with shared memories. And once we pass Harper’s Ferry, WV–the psychological halfway point of the trail, I’m told–it’s going to be all new. Neither of us will have hiked any of the rest of the trail before. It’ll be into Pennsylvania and the North.

There come those butterflies again!