Saturday, July 28, 2012

Lessons Learned on a Mini Trip

About a month ago I had a near nervous breakdown about the Trail while visiting my brother and sister-in-law in New Jersey and I knew this marked the completion of another stage of preparation for the AT.  Upon first deciding to do the Trail, I felt the I need to read, a lot, and gain more and more knowledge, which I did until I was comfortable with what hiking the Trail meant. Then I got really, really stressed out. So I felt like I needed to put the books down, close the forums, and get out on some trails to work on my body, which I did until I had built up great stamina and endurance. Then I got really, really stressed out... again... and may have cried... just a bit to Evan and Katelyn when I was visiting them. I had the know how and the ability but I knew that wouldn't walk the trail for me. I knew I needed to get out and see where my preparation had gotten me, if any where. But nay, I have a job (sure looking forward to not having one of those while on the trail). Don't get me wrong, I love my job as a Custom Framer at Michael's. For an art student, it is a great part time job and I wholly enjoy it. Still, it seems to get two days off in a row is a mighty difficult thing. Until...!

Some how, miraculously, I got a Friday and Saturday off work. In the past 11 months my job this has not happened, so I took full advantage of it. My mom was able to take Friday off and we set out for a one night backpacking trip. I fully intend to have her meet up with me several times throughout my hike so I've got to break her into the game slowly.

We began at Woody Gap, about 20 miles North of the trail's official beginning point at Springer Mountain. Our ending mark for the first day was the summit of Blood Mountain, which is the highest peak on the AT in Georgia. The ascent up to Blood Mountain Shelter is a good 8 mile trek. I was expecting to die. Here's why: The day before (Thursday) a friend and I had hiked the 7+ mile Vineyard Mountain trail on Allatoona Lake, right near home, and, as a pre-game to backpacking, I carried a full pack. About 5.5 or 6 miles in, I was so lacking in energy and water and so, so over heated in the wicked humidity and heat, I was on the verge of vomiting. I count this trail as a tough little booger, for sure, but I only assumed that the highest peak in Georiga's section of the AT would be a lot worse.

To my pleasant surprise, I nearly bounded the 8 miles up the side of Blood Mountain on Friday. Maybe it was the adrenaline, or maybe it was just the fact that I made sure to east enough and keep eating enough to keep my energy up. Lesson #1: Eat! A lot! On a normal day, I don't eat much or often. When backpacking, I have learned that I can eat whatever and whenever and it's only a good thing. Lesson #1 is because of Lesson #2. Lesson #2: Hiking IS NOT Backpacking. Backpacking is like hardcore hiking, but not the other way around. I can bust out 12 to 14 miles a day hiking and do it with fair easy, but with 25lbs. on your back, its a whole different game. That's why I nearly bottomed out on the lake trail. It had been so long since I had backpacked that I forgot that it is much more demanding, and, like I said, that you've got to eat!

So we made it to the Blood Mountain Shelter with only the best sort of rain on the way up, light enough to cool you and the air but not heavy enough to slow you down. The shelter has a cement floor and rock walls, but the wooden roof and support beams were redone in 2011, more or less because the joint was rotting away. It was a really nice set up and just outside was a rock formation even taller than than the shelter itself. No one else stayed at the shelter that night but everyone who stopped by climbed up the rock to see the view. I struck up an interesting conversation with a guy named Will who stopped by for a short hike on the way back to Sandy Springs from his grandmother's farm just outside of Blairsville. He had attempted a thru-hike a few years back but had run out of money in Pennsylvania, but he had a lot of good advice to give me. Which brings me to Lesson #3: Always engage strangers! Even just this over nighter showed me that this is probably the very best part of the trail. There was a lot of spirit lifting beauty to be seen at every switch back and mountain top, so that is saying a lot.

After dinner my mom and I drank wine from a box (she requires certain luxuries) and we suffered through a frightfully chilly night. Even during the day time it was 20° cooler on the mountain top. After a while a busted out my hammock (brought just in case I needed to sleep in it) and wrapped myself up in it and finally was able to sleep. Lesson #4: It's better to be too hot than to be too cold. I foolishly anticipated temperatures based off of what I had been experiencing at home and packed a sheet to cover up with. Dumb. I now know that it is definitely worth a bit more weight carried to be warm enough. Even if it seems too hot for a bag liner, I am sure I could have worked out a leg out, leg in system.

We woke to a beautiful morning and no hot breakfast. Lesson #5: Bring back up matches! Or, better yet, watch what you do with your matches. Don't throw them into your pot all nilly-willy when you just cleaned it out with water. Yeah... So I ate a Snickers bar. Backpacking 101: you can eat a Snickers bar whenever and however often you want, even for breakfast. After that sad realization, we started the day's hike, another 8 miles. Two miles in, we hit Neels Gap, which North Bound thru-hikers hit on their 3rd to 5th day on the trail. The guys who work at this shop and outfitter are awesome and they are willing to go through your pack for you, chucking out and sending home the things you think you will need but are really weighing you down. I'll be hitting them up in the months to come for sure.

We set out for Tesnetee Gap and not too long in my mom was dragging, like really, I mean even more so than she was before. I could feel some blisters trying to form, my boney hips were getting it good and the collar bone I broke almost a decade ago was beginning to bug me but due to my training it didn't slow me all that much. In her old age, she claims, her joints were getting to her. I could visibly see her pain, as her knee began to hurt her more and more. She's tough and I am proud of her for doing so well, but I bet it will take a while before I can get her out on the trail again. For me, there were points where the shine began to fade and I started getting cranky in my head, cursing inclines in stead of conquering them. Lesson #6: Take a break when your body says to. As soon as I took a break, aired out my feet and got some food (aka energy) in me, I was loving on the mountains again even as they seemed to endlessly go on.

At long last, we reached  Tesnetee Gap and struck up a conversation with a middle aged guy with a pick up truck. I had previously offered my mom a deal: I walk the last mile of our trek, to Hog Pen Gap where the other car was parked, alone and come back to fetch her down the road. But this stranger swore the last peak was impassible in this heat and asked if we wanted a ride. Before I could politely decline and tell him our plan, my mom had already accepted, thanked him and gotten her pack halfway in the bed of the truck. It appeared she wanted this badly, so I gave up the last mile for the ride. On this Trail this guy would be known as a Trail Angel, someone who offers a hiker a ride, gives them food or money, or who simply in some way helps out a hiker in need. So we rode up the road a bit in the bed of this guys truck and he dropped us where the car was parked, thus ending a 16+, two day trip. A stellar way to wrap it up, even though I had to shave off the last mile.

I hope to have several other mini backpacking trips just to get more accustomed to trail life. During my two days out, as I was laying in the pitch black mountain night, I had a fleeting thought, "I can't wait to be back at the car." This is not because I wanted to leave the trail, but because I wanted something that I knew, something comfortable, a natural human yearning. Before I get on the trail, I want to break down this barrier that makes the wilderness out of my comfort zone. I want to know it like I know my car. I want to pitch my tent and cook a meal as automatically as I plug in my music, pick a song and throw my car in drive.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Lists

I am currently reading a book by Zach Davis, a funky thru-hiker of the 2011 season, called Appalachian Trials. Yeah, it took me about 30 pages in to stop by mind from automatically seeing 'trails' instead of 'trials'. But, for anyone looking into the trail, this guy has a very new approach to preparation. As expected, of course you want to put a lot of thought into good gear and get your body in shape, but that doesn't prepare you at all for the hardest parts of the trail. This, as I anticipate, would be the multiple mental break downs had after days spent hiking endless miles in rain, snow or heat, evading life threatening lighting storms, running across large animals beyond human control, wrapping up the 100th blister, cooking up yet another batch of chicken ramen, and the unmatched filth that one lives in for months on end. Appalachian Trials focuses on these moral downs, the most dangerous pit falls, as the most important part of preparation. Being mentally and emotionally ready for the low points is what keeps someone on the trail, according to Davis. In his book he suggests creating a series of lists to have on hand that remind you why you're on the trail, what the trail will do for you, and how you will feel if you don't complete the trail. I can see how after a long and terrible day, your perspective can be changed by reading all the reasons you wanted to do this and all the reasons you will hate yourself until the end of time if you give up. So I've taken his advice and filled out my lists, which I will review often both before and on the trail.

I am Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail because...
1. I want to revert back to a more simple lifestyle
2. I love and respect Mother Nature and want to know her better
3. I want to jump start a new life for myself
4. I want to do something that many other people are not doing
5. I want to discover who I am with out the influences I have always had around
6. I want to discover who I am in the toughest moments of my life
7. I want to meet more people like me
8. I want to disconnect from mainstream life
9. I want to challenge myself with the seemingly impossible
10. I want a real education
11. I've graduated, now is the time, might as well
12. I want to say I've done it
13. I want to be that friend or family member that people I know think of, talk about and worry for
14. I hate working in retail, at a computer desk and never want to be in the food industry
15. I need to figure out what I love most and how to do it for all of my life
16. I want to escape
17. I want to learn how to love

When I successfully thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, I will... 
1. Think I can do damn near anything ever
2. Have bragging rights til the day I die
3. Have months and months of good stories to tell at bars, parties and social gatherings
4. Be wholly self sufficient and know that I can rely fully on myself, nature and God
5. Have a better grasp of who I am as a person
6. Have a more clear idea of what I want to do with my life
7. Have a skill set I am proud of and feel every one should have
8. Know I can live a more simple life than the modern day monster of America can handle
9. Have met a large amount of incredible people and had awesome, once in a life time experiences

If I give up on the Appalachian Trail, I will...
1. Not want to come back home and face my old life
2. Have no choice but to fall back into my old lifestyle
3. Have to settle for that old lifestyle forever
4. Experience extreme shame, grief and misery
5. Prove to myself that I am what I've always been afraid to be
6. Never want to try anything big and scary again
7. Feel I never deserve anything big and exciting again
8. Fail, fail, fail

The numbers denote no level importance and these will grow on and on, but for now, this is how they stand.

Monday, July 23, 2012

On Loving and Leaving

A long time personal fact that I simply accept: I have been wrought by genetics and life experiences to have scaling walls of inaccessibility. My newly "official" boyfriend knows this well from the past months he has patiently spent watching me dive in and out of his grasp based on my mental state of mind, but never my feelings for him. After a perfect alignment of influences only the quirkiness of life could orchestrate, I have for the first time realized I want people to flow in and out of my life with the same intensity I let places flow through me.

Ever the traveler and nature lover, in October of 2011 I decided to fully buy into the escapist lifestyle.  I easily committed my mind, heart and body to the grueling feat of hiking 2,181 miles over the 14 states that make up the Appalachian Trail. This means leaving the only home I've ever known and all the friends and family I have. All of this is given up daily as I work toward my goal and on that Fall day I gave it up nearly without thinking, instantly grabbing onto the idea as it popped into my head. Why, then, did it take me months of deliberation and hearty efforts at fooling myself about my feeling to make myself take a chance on a boy who has captured my heart? To let him in seemed a more treacherous trial which I feared more than 6 months of living alone in the wild. My default setting is to flee from the closeness of others and keep tight reigns on any unruly emotions that do dare to arise in me. This characteristic is often met with the soft berating of more open hearts reminding me of the optimists' most idyllic cliché, "It is better to have loved and to have lost than to have never loved at all." This Hallmark money maker creates a deep sickness that grows in the center of my gut when I hear it, not only because of its utter fool-hearted cuteness, but because, I fear, more than love itself, that it is true.

This is one of man's greatest uses of fear: to be able to stack them against each other, see which looks as if it will hurt your life the most, and hinder you from living the way you've always believed you would. I have laid my fears side by side and watched as they trailed off in the distance. For the first time, I have seen the paths they create for me. So I am mounting up on this greater fear, using it as a vehicle to either tear down the walls around my heart or to swoop down out of the sky and rescue my heart, taking it to more fertile land.

I have a lot of questions in this endeavor: Am I setting myself up for a hard beginning of the trail as I leave behind a boy I've come to love between now and then? Will the stresses of life, his two jobs, my one job and last semester of college, pull us apart and render this all for not? Maybe, most namely, will I eventually decide that this path of the loving optimist is not for me and go back to responding to its romantic motto with the same pessimistic quip I have for years: "Easier said than done."? These are, of course, only questions time can answer. And I am sure it will.

As for now, I have a boy who can some how over look the glaring hang ups that render me low on the "ideal mate" ladder and a dream that keeps me crushing out the miles in 67% humidity on 92˚ days.

Here comes a rambling tale about love and leg work.