All Weight Matters
As many of you know, I set out for a hike on the Appalachian Trail recently. I made my list, my pack was packed, my shoes were tied and my course was set.
We were dropped off by a shuttle and the plan was to hike north back to where our vehicle was parked in Front Royal, Virginia. We got dropped off, LITERALLY on the side of the road where a section of the AT crosses the highway. The shuttle driver never got out, no picture was taken to commemorate the start of our trip, nothing…very anti-climatic. Confused and disheveled, I gathered my pack and poles, tried to pull myself together, only to look like a scene out of Wild with Reese Witherspoon when she’s trying to get “Monster” on for the first time and she ends up falling over. While my scene wasn’t quite that dramatic, it wasn’t far removed.
With pack finally settled on my back and poles in hand, we hit the trail. Within 2 minutes, we were at a steady incline and Ken and Kendra (and Violet her Mini Australian Shepherd) were hitting their pace well in front of me. My thoughts went to “I must be going slow, so I better pick up my pace.” Um, nope…my legs weren’t going to move any faster. So again, I thought to myself, “Ok, the first 10 minutes of anything is always the hardest, so just settle in.” Before that 10 minutes was up, I knew I was in trouble.
“This Weighs Nothing”
As I was packing and preparing for this trip, I did my do diligence with regard to making sure my backpack was weighted within the limits of a 5-6 day trip. The heaviest weight of course, was my food (and the Bear Barrel it was packed in) a total of around 15lbs. All other items were small and weighed 3lbs or less. Hammock 2.5lbs, sleeping bag 3lbs, cookware 3lbs., then came all of the smaller items that were anywhere between 3 – 12oz (stuff that “weighs nothing”). All of this totaled up to about 42lbs, which is an average weight for a 6 day hike. This is fine, UNLESS YOU ONLY WEIGH 126lbs!!!
As I was trailing further and further behind (we’re still in the first 10 minutes of the hike) the weight ratio occurred to me and it was at that moment that I started to lose my mind. If I recall, my first actual though was, “what the @#$#@%! have I done!!”
Altitude & Attitude
Ok, so I’m no stranger to physical challenges and mental toughness isn’t one of my weaknesses, so, ‘mind over matter, right? FALSE!
As I’m trudging along, I know it’s time to get my head right. “Angie, you can do this, it may be hard, but you can do this.” Ok, check. “Yes I can, let’s go!” And then my subconscious speaks up. “You have 6 days of this!” “What an ass!”….and so begins the head battle.
Thoughts like this ping pong back and forth for the next whatever seconds, minutes, hours that came. Did I mention we’re still going up?? Oh, and here’s something else I didn’t think about…ALTITUDE!!! I am breathing like I have never worked out before IN MY LIFE!!! I am thinking, “What is wrong with me??!!” Meanwhile, Ken and Kendra seem to be on cruise control somewhere about 100 -200 meters ahead. “I’m never going to catch up to them!” “Get your attitude right, Angie.” “I want to stop and take pictures.” “No, don’t stop, you’ll get further behind.” “Why am I so far behind??!” “Oh, your pack is too heavy, remember dummy? and your legs are SHORT!” “No EXCUSES, GO!!” “Oh my God, just shut up.” “God…yes! Let’s pray!!”
The battle continued…
The Power of Habit
Because we had an 11 hour drive just to get to our destination, that time offered an opportunity to listen to podcasts and books. Ken had recently downloaded, The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg. A book I highly recommend reading. In the book, Charles discusses how cues (triggers) make our habits unfold automatically. A cue can be a pattern of behavior that consistently triggers a certain routine. The Basal Ganglia is a part of the brain that is responsible for our habits. So with this knowledge, I think to myself. “Ok, this hike is very different from your normal daily habits, so let’s give your basal ganglia time to understand this is now your new habit for the next several days”. “My reward will be an awesome accomplishment of 62 miles on the AT!!” “Ok. good…makes sense.” This worked for about a mile. “Awesome job, Angie, only 58 more miles to go!” “I totally hate you.”
Total Self Reliance
Short of a helicopter dropping a line in to rescue me (yes, that thought crossed my mind briefly) or my husband coming to my rescue (I had no phone service so that wasn’t happening) I had to rely solely on myself.
When you’re faced with challenging times, you draw from your other life challenges you’ve experienced to get you through the dark days. In my life, I have had many challenges so my bank had plenty to offer me that could help pull me further up the trail. (yes, we seem to be still traveling upwardly!)
Don’t Ride the Bus Alone
Many of you have had a lot of life struggles so you know where I’m coming from. Two of my greatest life struggles was my mom leaving when I was 9 years old and my brother passing away suddenly 2 months before his 31st birthday.
After my mom left, my dad seemed to be drawn to these women who were horrible to his kids. He married twice and both were abusive. The second step mom (his 3rd wife) was exceptionally abusive and for 8 years my brother and I both suffered from her mental and physical abuse and we watched our dad allow it (which was honestly the hardest part).
Children who grow up in abusive homes either become victims or survivors. Since I was a dirty faced little towhead country kid growing up in rural Arkansas without a mom, I’ve always known I was a survivor. My step-moms abuse set a course for my life that only made me a stronger person. It made me fierce, stubborn and gritty. My brother who was two years older than me, looked out for me as best he could but he was going through hell right along with me for almost as many years.
In 1998, my brother suddenly passed away from a work related accident. I can’t tell you how much of my heart I lost that day but a piece of it died along with him. At 30 years old, he was just getting started in life. He wasn’t married and didn’t have kids but he left me a legacy of love, acceptance and toughness that I may not have ever achieved without him. For that, I am forever grateful to him.
So I cleared my head and focused on the task at hand. Arm in arm with my brother beside me on the trail, I found some enjoyment from the front row of the struggle bus and the hike seemed to get a bit better that day.
By the morning of day 2 my heart lightened a bit. The weather was beautiful and the sun shone brightly. The morning air was crisp and we woke up to deer meandering near our campsite. Although I had not slept well, I finally started to feel like I could accomplish this enormous task.
As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I decided to use a hammock to sleep in. Neither Ken nor I had ever slept in a hammock and stupidly, we tied the front of our hammocks off at the same tree. Of allll the trees around us we tied off to this cute little tree. It wasn’t a papa tree or even a mama tree, it was just a wee tree, probably just a bit older than a toddler tree. When Ken was thrashing around in his hammock trying to get comfortable, it shook my hammock and when I went to thrashing about in mine, it shook his. Needless to say, we didn’t make that mistake again!
With some crappy coffee and a good breakfast in our bellies we were ready to set off for a 12 mile day! By this point I was getting a little help from my friends to get my ‘Fat Bastard’ on my back. After a plethora of curse words that I called my pack over the course of day 1, Fat Bastard seemed to fit her best. After all, everyone needs a trail name, right?
Ken, Kendra & Violet, and me and the Fat Bastard set out for a great day of hiking! Day 2 was my favorite day!
Postcards to Keep Me Off the Edge
Steve and I met in a bar in 1990. I was a waitress and he was a patron. The first night he met me, (for him) it was love at first sight. For me, it took a little more convincing. After we started seeing each other regularly, one thing we used to do was write little notes on bar napkins and pass to each other. This was our thing and I’m sure I still have them tucked away somewhere. Over the years we’ve mostly kept the tradition but often forget to take the time and do it.
All of my gear had been strewn across our dining table for the last month. Without my knowledge, Steve had taken the opportunity to tuck little love notes in different places in my gear for me to find. These became very valuable to me and helped me know how much he missed me and was thinking of me. I was pretty far from home so this little act of kindness and love meant a ton. I’m still working on forgiving him for the extra weigh those notes added however!!
I hadn’t had much cell service but I had had an opportunity to text Steve and tell him of my struggles. While we didn’t get to exchange much, he sent one phrase that kept me going, “your strong”. I chose not to correct his grammar but when I would think about that phrase, I fixed it in my head but more importantly, he helped ‘fix my head.’ Anytime I felt tired or was hurting from my pack, reminding myself that I am strong helped push me onward. Steve held my hand all day that day.
When the Rains Come Tumblin Down
Shortly after we broke camp on the 3rd morning, the rain set in…and it stayed. Just when you think you’ve brought yourself out of hell, you find a new level of fresh hell. Yes please! I’d LOVE another challenge!!!
I’m prepared though, right? WRONG!
I had a pack cover so my pack would stay dry and I had a poncho so I would stay dry….my poncho worked great but my pack cover, not so much. Little did I realize that my pack was taking on rain water during the hike that day. No, I couldn’t tell that it was getting heavier, it was already so heavy I couldn’t feel my legs so whats some extra water weight!
The highlight of this day was a lodge (Skyland Lodge) we found along the way. It was a beautiful place with a restaurant and a coffee bar. We scored big time here!! The restaurant had just closed for breakfast and wouldn’t open again for a few hours (naturally) so we hit the coffee bar. “I’d like an Americano and a chocolate croissant and a blueberry scone….make that 3 chocolate croissants and blueberry scone!”
We pulled off our wet boots and wet socks and proceeded to campout….and our stockings we hung by the chimney with care. I’m totally not kidding. We laid our socks out to dry like a bunch of hicks. Violet nestled up to the fire to dry and rest, and I sat and dared anyone to try to move us! That was the best coffee EVER!! I found myself wondering how long it would take Steve to come pick me up from here.
Know When to Fold Em
We eventually had to peel ourselves out of the comfy lodge and get back on the Trail. I’m not sure how many miles we got in, but because we had spent so much time at the lodge we had to push on pretty hard. The rain never relented and the temps continued to drop. By the time we made it to a shelter we were sopping wet and the wind had chilled us to the bone. Supposedly, you can only get so wet and thats about as wet as you can get, right? WRONG! I promise I could have rung out my skin!
There had been a short discussion of pressing on 4 more miles to make our next day a bit easier. However, after a short consideration we collectively decided to stay the night in the shelter. Honestly, they would have had to drag my ass out kicking and screaming to get me to go one step further!
We emptied our packs to set up for the night and thats when I discovered how much rain water had been traveling with me. The saddest part was that my sleeping bag was wet. Ken built a smoldering fire out of sawdust and we all hung our stuff up to dry. My sweatshirt had gotten pretty wet so I was literally shivering I was so cold. Fortunately, I had some dry clothes. We all changed and thankfully, Kendra let me crawl into her dry (and warm) sleeping bag!
Farts & Snores
Everything dried out enough for us to go to bed and try to get some rest. The plan was to start out as early as possible (before breakfast) and get a good 4 miles in…that would get us to the next shelter.
Now, a shelter is for everyone along the AT. They’re basically 3 sided structures with a fire place or a fire pit and a long wooden platform to throw your sleeping bag on. Not the most comfortable place but you’re out of the elements to a degree and that’s most important. Not long after we entered the shelter, a man in his 70’s entered. Just let that 70’s part sink in a minute. He was as wet as the rest of us and decided that he too would be staying the night. This was especially lucky for Ken because he had some additional warmth next to him that throughout the night provided him with the melodic tones of snores and farts. Ahhh nature…
One thing about me is that I will take as much as I can but when I’m done, I’m done. This is especially true when it comes to waiting for a check in a restaurant! It literally puts me in an anxious state when a server takes their time bringing a check to the table after we’ve long finished our meal. Now, I am a pretty patient person but when I’m done, I’m done. This hike was no exception.
I had dealt with a far too heavy pack, my second toe on both feet is longer than my big toe so those suckers had taken a beaten and were sore as hell (we eventually stopped going up and then started several sharp descends). My pack would not stay on my hips and had worn pretty intense hot spots on both hips and that started ON DAY 1! We were not only wet but now we were so cold we could see our breath. I was struggling to keep my fingers warm and according to the forecast Kendra pulled up, the weather wasn’t going to get any better.
Mentally and physically, I was done.
We packed up early the next morning and set out to get the 4 miles in and stay ahead of the rain. After a couple of miles, Kendra mentioned to me that while it might take some convincing with Ken, she thought we should pull off the trail when we get through the next 9 miles. 9 miles ahead the AT would cross an area where we could resupply or come off the trail. I don’t remember my exact words but I think I responded to her with. “Kendra, if I wasn’t so dehydrated right now, I’d be crying. I’m done.”
When we caught up to Ken, he mentioned he thought we should pull off the trail! Hallelujah!! He actually had no idea we were about to attack him with the very same suggestion.
I’d like to say I floated those last 10 miles but no, I did not. I plodded along as best I could and tried not to fall too far behind. That was probably the hardest 10 miles of the whole trip.
So, it’s a thing to have a trail name. A trail name can come from something you experienced along the way or something that fits a certain characteristic of yours. You typically get your trail name from someone else you’re hiking with. Ken’s trail name last year was Chief but he wasn’t too fond of it. Kendra noticed I always referred to him as Boss since we was the man with the plan and in charge. He kind of liked that name and ended up sticking with “Boss” as his trail name. Kendra’s name came last year as well. She was going through a job change and could take an “Opt Out” option with this job change. This came around the same time Ken started planning their first AT trip. She thought, why not go?! When she ordered her first REI package for the trip, on the outside of the box it said #optoutside. That confirmed her trail name for her. Violet even has a trail name. Often, she was “Dirt in the Skirt”, but that kid can consume some junk food on the trail so “Junk Food” suits her well also.
I went through a few different trail names over the course of the week (as you can imagine). One being “Long Toe”, another being “.01 mile – bullshit”. Apparently, no one can tell how much further we have to go and the markers say .01 mile….”bullshit” was always my response. However, I have to say that the one that came up on the last day seemed to be the most fitting. I’m not sure if Ken or Kendra said it first but it made me tear up a bit. (or I would have had I not been so dehydrated).
When listening to the book, The Power of Habit, there was discussion about a characteristic that some people carry that help them continue to be successful, even when going through the most difficult challenges. Not everyone has it but those who do, never lose it. It exists in them as much as the blood that runs through them. Not having it is not an option. Not persevering is not an option. That characteristic is grit. So, my trail name became True Grit. I have to say, I am pretty proud of that name.
End of the Line
And so our AT adventures ended on Friday. We cut out about 19 miles early so a loose calculation was that our trip was around 41 miles of the AT. I am not disappointed as a matter of fact I think it was pretty perfect timing. By the time we got home on Saturday I as able to see some of the Beale Street event and I got to spend some much needed time with my husband.
Since I don’t have a mom to celebrate with on Mother’s Day, Steve has always been very proactive in celebrating me as a mom. If I had stayed on the Trail I would have missed a Sunday morning breakfast in bed, an afternoon with two of my children and a couple’s manicure and pedicure.
I learned a lot on my first AT adventure and it’s definitely an experience for the books! If you ask me if I would go again, I will likely tell you that asking me right now is not a fair question. If you ask me if I had fun, you will get this well rehearsed answer….something I put together during my early miles of misery.
“I enjoyed the experience but not all aspects of it were fun.”
Happy Trails y’all!