Monday, December 22, 2014

Letting Go Of Attachment

Attachment. We are so good at it. It's the stuff that makes up everything from a "best" friend to a "favorite" shirt. It is human flaw at its sneakiest because friends can move on in life and shirts can rip or be out grown. We are taught to attach from the get go and it feels good. But then we take that notion and apply it to things and places and ideas and people that we have no right to tie down as "ours". We try to possess the intangible and then suffer from the negative feelings when we find out that our plan isn't going to work out the way we thought. Imagine that, a whole wide world in which we are a tiny, insignificant part and that world doesn't write out the exact story we wanted it to. It's a very likely scenario. And man, does it suck when things fall through after you've got you heart set on them. That job you wanted, that trip that didn't pan out like you wanted it to, that person who let you down because its turns out they are their own person, with their own thoughts and hopes and decisions to be made.

We take it hard. We pour ourselves into these things and then have a void within us when it doesn't work out. We even take it hard when it does work out, just not quite the same way we pictured it would. If I hadn't of completed a thru hike of the Appalachian Trail, I would have been devastated. All that I put into it. All the preparation, all the physical labor, all for naught. I can't even imagine what I would have felt. Thankfully, I finished. Still, I didn't do it in the way I had planned. At the end, as we all walked through the 100 Mile Wilderness, a great sadness came about me. Somewhere in the boring stretches of the Mid-Atlantic states, there was a pine tree covered part of trail that I hadn't walked. It was eating away at me. I had walked over 2,000+ miles and I was worried about 80 I had't walked. My trail family had totally forgotten all about this. All they remembered was that I had made my way back to them. When I voiced this sadness, they didn't understand. It was so minute. It was trivial in comparison to all of the miles I had walked. But to me, these little miles of flat land and corn fields mattered. I finished, but even though I did, I was attached to the way I thought I should have finished. It took me weeks to feel proud. Weeks wasted feeling negatively towards myself.

Even worse than beating ourselves up over things not going our way, is when we live our present lives in fear of it not working out. Our attachment can foster negative feelings of insecurity and fear and worry before anything has even happened! We know something is coming down the pipeline and we sit there and fret about it instead of enjoying the moment we are in. How stupid of us! But we are so good at it and we all do it so much that it doesn't even seem like a silly thing. It's normal. I know I am a professional at doing this and I have seen the destruction of it in my own life. (I have recently spent a staggering amount of money on my car and it has all come straight from my PCT thru hike fund making me realize that I have to accept the potential possibility that I may not have the money to hike once April comes.)

But how do we engage in completing a goal or following a dream or building a relationship without becoming attached to it? How do we pour all we have into these things without it becoming unhealthy? Practice. Constantly reminding ourselves that attachment is unfair to all and bad for us will help us avoid it. Its something we have to practice in our lives on a daily basis. I have been struggling on many fronts of attachment lately but I think I am gaining a bit of control over it, just by recognizing it and remembering that I cannot control these things. So there is no use in letting them squaller my positivity in life.

Life has a way of working things out for us. We may not get what we want but often times we get what we need. We just have to take a close look and get a clear view of where the line denoting selfishness is drawn. Our plans are often fantastical to an extent. I mean think about it. Who really ever factors in road blocks to their grand plan of things? No one! You just deal with them as they come. You accept the task in front of you and trudge on. With time, we begin to see that the way we wanted things to be, the way we thought that person should have acted, are not as crucial as we believed they were. What is important is how we reacted or responded to what was presented to us and a healthy response is one that is devoid to excessive attachment.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Discerning Direction and the Heart Chakra

Most who know me remember that time I thru hiked the Appalachian Trail. It was a big thing. One that's hard to forget. One of those things that changes you as a person and changes the way you view the world.

A while before I set out on my journey northward, I set a new goal for myself. I wanted to make a change in my life that was pretty major and really important. I wanted to be better at loving. I had failed throughout my entire life up until that point at having even a remotely serious relationship. I had made up plenty of excuses why things couldn't progress. "He wasn't my type." "It wasn't meant to be." "I needed to focus on other things." All of it, of course, was just a bullshit excuse for the fact that I was an Ice Queen with stone walls around her heart. Poor fellas never stood a chance at scaling them.

But I saw this unfortunate trend in my life and was saddened by it. Who wants to living the the safety of a stone fortress if you're all alone? Thankfully, one last relationship made it into the story of my life before I set out on the Appalachian Trail. This man taught me what love was. It wasn't getting gussied up for cheesy dates. It wasn't saying or doing the right thing at the right time. It wasn't gifts or words or actions. It was a connection and a decision.

We had an intense connection that brought us close over time and resulted in feeling love for one another. But I love brussel sprouts and Modest Mouse and driving into the sunset. What made this actual love was that we simply decided to love each other; to open up, be vulnerable and love each other. I can't help but love the taste of brussel sprouts (weird favorite food, I know) and the music of Modest Mouse because that is my personal taste but to really love another human, it requires making a vulnerable decision to act on your honest feelings.

But as humans, that is so hard to do, particularly for an Ice Queen with a fortress around her heart. I was scared; of getting hurt, of it not working out, of losing somehow. It's rational, but it was a proven failed way to live and love. So for the first time, I trumped the fears and dove in head first. Not because I can just overcome my fears as if they were nothing, but because this guy had taught me how easy and forgiving and understanding love was. It wasn't going to hurt me. Love is one thing worth the struggle, worth the risk, worth the effort. Done right, love would only ever bless my soul. 

We embarked on a love done right. A simple, true, understanding love free from fear and jealousy and negativity. Better known as a relationship with good communication. It wasn't always perfect and it was doomed from the beginning; he traveled for work and I was set to be living in the woods for half a year. But that almost made it easier. We held as tightly as possible for as long as we could and then one day we had to release each other out into the world to live the rest of our lives. It was hard and it hurt but it was beautiful and it was right. When you love something you are willing to let it go. Same for a person. If life so calls, I hope to never hold back a lover because I am unable to join them.

Before taking a step on to the trail, I set a goal for myself, a goal I will always be striving towards. I wanted to love as well as I could. I don't want to be afraid of falling in love. I went on from that perfect love to thru hike the AT and I failed to an extent to love properly during that part of my life. A piece of the perfect love puzzle was missing and I was never able to live up to my potential as a lover the way I wanted to, the way another lover deserves. Sometimes I do better than others in having an open heart but I have made great strides since my days of storing my heart is a fortress. Still, I am working on being better. 

In my life right now, I have so many paths ahead of me in the future. I need help discerning where I should go so I have been working to open my heart chakra in order to better feel out my direction in life. Tonight, in my meditation specifically working towards a more open heart, this phrase came to me. It is a mission statement of sorts and it is the exact sentiment I charged myself with working on as I set out for the AT. It is still in my heart and mind and came back to me tonight and I am glad it did. All of that being said, this is all this post is meant to be about. 

"My goal is to love deeply, quickly, simply and purely
with an acceptance of the temporal nature of life."

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Good in Suffering

It feels so good to have sore muscles some times. When you've gone out and had a great time, had a little too much fun and built some good memories, sometimes it results in sore muscles for a few days. You wake up a bit stiff but it feels good some how. The pain is nominal and you wouldn't trade it for the experience your gained. Other times something bad happens. You go a little too head first into your activity and you get a little beat up. You loose your footing, take a fall, let the concentration slip just enough that it doesn't turn out well. Things bleed or break and hurt enough that you'd like to take them back. You want to go back in time and be more careful, more aware, but you can't. What's done is done and it takes a good amount of time to recover from it. Sometimes that is all that will help: time.

My heart is a muscle, one of my favorites, and it is sore. Not from pumping too much blood or beating too quickly, but from doing what hearts are made to do, from sticking to a promise to myself to accept and give love openly and freely no matter the shape or form so long as it is a positive interaction. It is sore but it feels good in a strange way. It will take a few days to heal but it will be fine. My concerns lie with the one that is more than just sore, the broken one. If you've ever had a friend end up in a bad situation, you know the feeling. You want to heal the broken bones inside their body, but you can't. You want to realign things so they work properly again, so the pain is gone, but you can't. But time will.

The only thing I can think of that is worse than suffering is watching someone suffer.

That is why we put down our dogs when they are too old. That is why we pull the plug when there is no hope left. It is hard to suffer but it is far harder to watch someone or something we care for suffer. We will do most anything to help but sometimes, all that can help is time. The very nature of suffering is temporal. It passes by us just as it washes over us to begin with. Remembering that is key to dealing with suffering. Suffering is a season, and just as Winter will turn to Spring, suffering will end.

The Dalai Lama puts it bluntly:
"Our attitude towards suffering becomes very important because it can affect how we cope with suffering when it arises".
 - Dalai Lama, The Art of Happiness

I carried the Dalai Lama's book entitled The Art of Happiness with me during my first weeks hiking the Appalachian Trail. I had a lot of sore muscles and tendons and joints and it was a reminder to look past those ailments and see more, to see my road to Katahdin. By seeing our suffering as more than just pain, we can harvest the lessons within it. It hurt to walk but I knew that walking was what I needed to do. Sometimes feeling pain is just our lot in life. Sometimes we can do something to fix it. On the AT, I learned stretches that helped my Achilles and stretched out my groin muscle. Sometimes we can't do anything about the pain. There was no solution to my muscles ripping apart within my body from overuse and then growing back bigger and stronger as each day passed. It was pain that must be endured. Some things must simply be endured.

How do you help someone endure something that could be completely broken when all you really want to do is realign everything so that it is fixed? Sadly, you can't.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Owning Up and Honoring Impressions

Some may remember the time I claimed some where on this blog that I was going to write a book. Yeah, well, it's been a year since then and things are... well, moving along quite nicely, considering. Considering I don't seem to believe in myself or the work itself, things are going great. It's a year later and I still haven't bought into the phrase, "I'm writing a book." First off, it sounds pretentious. There is nothing special about me that warrants me the right to write a book in the least. I am very unspectacular! I just like to write, a lot. Secondly, its not a book until it is a book. I'd rather call it what it is, an extremely sizable and detailed written account of a very intriguing time in my ordinary life. I just hate saying to people, "I'm writing a book." But sometimes I do because they get confused when I say, "I'm writing an extremely sizable and detailed written account of a very intriguing time in my ordinary life." I feel sheepish to make such a great claim. Of course, I would love if one day it was a real book, bound in my hands with thousands of like copies sitting on book store shelves across America. But, it much more likely may end up being a 98% complete Mircosoft Word document taking up space on my computer.

Anyways, this little beast of a Word doc is growing by the day. It began not long after my return as a highlight reel of the best stories. When I ran out of those I went on to the second best stories. Then I began to bring in some characters in a more meaningful way. All of these stories were aligned chronologically and this was 'Manuscript #1'. I tediously read through this half inch thick stack of papers, making preliminary edits and taking note of where the story gets lost and what needs to be filled in. This comprehensive, start to finish, description of my thru hike is what I call 'Manuscript #2', which has recently been edited by my mother. I needed a fresh pair of eyes and an outside opinion to catapult me into 'Manuscript #3', the dreaded 'Manuscript #3'.

She came back with the growing stack of papers binder clipped together and inside were corrected comma splices, silly mistakes circled to be revised and then the tough news. "It's great," she said, because it could legitimately suck and she would still think its great because she'e my mom, "but it needs more heart." I knew immediately what she meant because I had known that before I even printed it out. It needed more of the love, more of the suffering, more of the blissful happiness. More about the people and who they were and what they meant to me. It needed more of the things that I suck so much at in life; vulnerability, openness, honesty, truth.

So here I stand. I had a grouping of stories that was a skeleton. I went back and built muscles, organs and skin over the skeleton with a second draft. The third time around, I am faced with bringing it to life. Facing feelings from the past in order to represent an honest truth about my time on the Appalachian Trail. I wasn't always pleasant and though I regret it, I can't change it. I must accept it. I must accept the things I can't understand and realize the importance of the impression left on me by those that were with me. These impressions need to shine through in the book and in order for them to do so, I must go searching for the truths behind them. How did I fall in love with Gonzo, a character so uncomfortably different than I? Why did I treat him so badly? Did I treat him especially badly or are lover's quarrels just more intense when you are both hiking in a cold, down pouring rain, on an empty stomach, down a treacherously steep mountain, with 1,500 miles of weariness behind you? I have to find the answer to all these questions. And then I must write about them.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

"First Times" Make Life Worth Living

I walked out of work after successfully working on my road bike for the first time ever. With my first foray into bike touring on the horizon, knowing how to fix my bike is a must. It took me hours to do what a bike tech had done in 45 minutes but I had done it myself (with only a tiny bit of guidance) and that was what mattered.

As I approached my car in the parking lot outside, Jack stood next to his car in the space beside mine. He was pulling mounds of gear from the back seat and transferring it to the trunk and when we spoke I could immediately tell he was excited. "You should come" he said, "it's going to be awesome!" The sheer disorganization brought on by his excitement lured me in. "Pigeon Mountain. We're climbing. Come with us!" I didn't know where Pigeon Mountain was and I am a sorry excuse for a rock climber but moments later I was in the back seat of Jack's car sitting next to Bradley, Brittany in the front seat.

We drove northward up the interstate, the only direction worth going when you already live around Atlanta. Our path takes us up and over to the northwest corner of our state. We pass communities that are barely a cross roads and weave between valleys and mountains. It's a route I spent months photographing while in college and have not returned to in quite some time. As we speed further away from civilization, Jack pulls into a gas station. "Best Burger Around" it boasts. "Guess we'll have to fight for it", Bradley jokes. He and I jump out of the car to go buy some beer. We walk in and head straight for the refrigerated windows in the back but they hold no beer. It's takes us a while to find our prize, a whole row of refrigerated windows behind the cashiers counter. Bradley orders a twelve pack of Budweiser tall boys. The woman behind the counter pulls out an eighteen pack and sets in on the counter. Then she pulls out a pair of scissors and begins to preform surgery on the box of beer. First she snips the handle, then she starts down both sides. When the belly of the box will open up enough, she pulls out several beers and places them on the counter. Then she turns the box on its end and cuts the last line and it pops into two pieces. Twelve beers are stacked in one half of the box, placed in a bag and handed to Bradley. The remaining six are placed in the other half of the box and returned to the refrigerator. We thank her and are otherwise silent as we walk out the door, but are in fits of giggles by the time we are at the car. We finally realize how far out into nowhere we must be if this is a standard beer purchasing practice.

Jack pulls off the main two lane highway and the roads shrink in size from there until we switching back up the tight turns of the one way road on Pigeon Mountain. He stops and he pops a beer before he even pops the truck to get the gear out. "It's not a far hike in," he assures us. We all throw on our packs. Jack and Brittany both loaded down with the weight of gear needed by experienced climbers. Bradley and I loaded down with the weight of beers.

We throw down our gear in front of a beautiful, sheer wall. A ledge of some sort makes an easy start but it fades into a long stretch of crimps and pinches before disappearing under a big boulder holding the anchor on top. Brittany is harnessed up and tying in just moments after the anchor is set. We consistently joke Brittany about how often she says she is "psyched on climbing", "psyched on yoga" or whatever it may be at the time. It's a funny little thing she says but it's tapping in her ability to concentrate great amounts of psychical and mental power into selected areas of her life. The word to describe people like Brittany is driven, but thats not quite all with her. It misses the fun, the spunk, the contagious good energy of begin around her. While she is ready to go, the rest of us are taking a beer break. Bradley notes the division in our priorities. We start in on this first route; Jack belays Brittany, Bradley belays Jack, I belay Bradley and he returns the favor. I am the novice among us all. Bradley only started climbing a few weeks ago but he possessed upper body strength before and I am way behind with that. I make it half way up and then the harder holds get the best of me. Backpacking leaves you with no upper body strength to rely on. But I am happy because I have never been clinging to the side of the world before, brought there by the strategic placement of hands and feet.

We move about thirty yards down the trail and there is another wall. This one has a crack running down the center that even to me looks just the way it's suppose to. You couldn't have built a better crack in a wall if you tried. Brittany and Jack jump in on some trad climbing. This requires a ton of gear, heavy gear with strange names and and strange shapes. Brittany starts a lead climb up the crack. When leading there is no rope above you and no one below you belaying. You simply set pieces of gear in the crack and clip the rope that is tied to you into the gear. Brittany places pieces of gear in several locations as she ascends the wall. Correct placement is crucial and if these pieces slip, she falls. It's happened before. Six months ago she broke her back on a wall just outside of Chattanooga but a healthy mix of positivity and fearlessness has served her well in healing. This is her first time leading trad since then. It's a good wall though and she's a great climber. She reaches the top and sets an anchor for Jack. This is his first time ever leading a trad climb, so the rope at top is a safety net in case his gear fails. Brittany is technically belaying him but gives him way more slack than usual. He sets his own pieces, everything holds, and he makes it to the top with a quickness. By this time it's getting dark.

We pack up and return to the car and Jack suggests a trip to the overlook. We all agree. I don't know what the overlook is but in my experience with overlooks, they are well worth it. On the top of the mountain there is a gravel parking lot and a big open view off the side of the mountain. We pull in facing the twinkling lights of little towns below us but that's the ugly part. I open the car door, take a few steps and just lay in the dirt, content to look up forever. The night sky is crystal clear and the katydids sing their rhythmic song of the southern night. It's the kind of setting that makes you realize that the universe is built for the purpose of your exploration, for your happiness, for your constant failures and eventual successes. Why do we rob ourselves of this gift? Why do we not cash out on the promise of this beautiful world? Why can't we trust the universe?! My mind swirls with the sky as Bradley and I try to answer these questions but we can't because we are human beings and we only know what centuries of scared, untrusting humans beings have taught us.

After a while we pile back into the car but Jack has one more stop in mind. We zip down most of the mountain and pull off to the side. "It's muddy but it's safe," he tells us when Brittany and I express a bit of concern about caving. As we approach the mouth of the cave a blast of cold air over takes us. I suddenly wish I had wasn't in shorts and a tank top but as soon as we descend into the cave, the natural AC brings it down a few notches and it's a crisp but manageable temperature. Everything is slick. What rock isn't slick with sticky mud is smooth as a bowling ball from so many feet, hands and butts sliding over it. The initial climb down spits us out into a great open room. I have never been in a cave before but it's all I imagined it would be. Stalagmites and stalactites rise and fall from the floor and ceiling like drips in history. We can only see as far as the beam of our head lamps. Ahead of us and behind us is pitch black darkness. Jack leads us through a series of twists and turns as if he once lived here. After a while, after crawling deep enough into the belly of the cave to build anxiety, we came to a tight squeeze. "Beyond that, there is a waterfall," Jack tells us. But the rest of us are wholly unprepared for army crawling into the abyss. We turn back and the trek back up to the surface of the earth is a exciting as the trip in. Some places I recognize, other times I fear we are lost. Somehow Jack brings us right back to the mouth of the cave where we came in and when I hear the sounds of life above land, I am both surprised and relieved.

We climb out of the cave and my glasses fog up in the humidity of the night. One last time we pile in the car. Jack lights out for home, windows down, music up. My outstretched hand surfs the wind as we weave down out of the a mountains at twenty miles over the speed limit. I watch the night sky, the shooting starts and the barely visible Milky Way as they fade out somewhere beyond the light pollution. At that point there is only one thing to do. Have a dance party in the car. Bradley is free styling over beats. Jack and I nearly loose out voices singing heartfelt songs. It is incredible what you can do with a seven hour period when you've got friends ready for an adventure.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Knowing What You Want and Why I Respect Farmers

I want to be living a perfectly romantic life. Like, you know the way the movies roll out a cast of characters and they’re living in perfectly decorated apartments? And their hyper interesting lives become intertwined with an equally beautiful person in the push and pull of falling in love? Yeah, nothing like that…

I want morning mist. I want the sun filtering through the trees. I want fresh eggs from my chickens out back. I want to have to do the morning chores before breakfast. I want to work in the dirt and earth. I want to jar the leftovers that aren’t eaten or sold at market. I want goats and goat milk and goat cheese. I want to have a desk that is only for writing. I want to have a window that looks out into the fields, over to the mountains, or down into the valley. I want to visit the same bank on the same river or the same grove in the roots of the same tree over and over until I have the spot memorized. I want to live by the seasons. I want to have to prepare for winter.  I want to pray for spring. I want to play all summer. I want to work throughout the fall. I want to rely on the land. I want to create and build and subsist on a much of my own makings as possible. I want to gather as much as Mother Nature will create or build for me in the wild. I want to scrape by just above hungry, just above cold, far above content, far above happy. I want to return to the earth, live on her time and poke away at letter keys to describe it all.

Friday, August 22, 2014

One Year Later: First Appalachian Trail Anniversery

It has been 365 days since I summited Katahdin. It is true! Today, August 22nd, is K-Day! What a year it has been since that incredible day. I remember being so ready for it all to end and yet I did not know how unprepared I was.

When I first began thru hiking the AT on March 3rd, 2013, I definitely KNEW that I was unprepared. I wasn't sure what coming my way at all. But it is funny to think that in reality I was exponentially less prepared on the day I finished. I had no idea about the torment I was walking into with the post-trail life. It was nice for a moment but then I soon missed my trail family with a severity I can not put into words. I failed over and over at settling back into the routine of "regular life", which felt like fighting the current of a river I was thrown into and could not escape. The months directly after the trail were quite possibly as hard as many of the months on spent the trail themselves. From September through February, I battled a strong lack of direction and misunderstanding of my own life, like I was living someone else's.

I felt aimless and alone. It was my own fault and it was everyone else's fault. I couldn't talk clothes, or make up, or popular music, or movies. They couldn't talk demolishing buffets, or mosquito hell, or bad bog experiences, or great poop stories. I had gone from a family worth dying for to a separation I didn't know how to over come. I dealt with it by bring memories back to life in a written form. If I had no one to talk trail talk with, at least I could keep these thoughts alive on paper.

But things change; hurt lessens; time pulls out the old and brings in the new like the rolling tide. I quit working so much and, subsequently hating my life, when I got a job at REI. I was seeing growth and opportunity in my writing. Most importantly, I began to build another family. Co-workers is a lack luster term for the people I share my job with. It doesn't suffice. They are becoming a whole other family. They have reminded me that I can have brothers and sisters in all stages of life, not just living in a tight, migratory pack in the woods.

We ride our bikes together; we plan big trips together; we drink beer together; we share our dreams and ideals with each other. To have a family again is an incredible feeling. I have always had an amazing family by blood; supportive and loving and fun. But to find strangers and make them into a family because you share life together is one of the most beautiful parts of being a human being. We can (and I have) had so many families over the span of my short life. They help us through life and make it, much of the time, worth living.

Still, there is something special and deep and raw about my trail family. The ease at which we can pick up and feel like we are there all over again. Like we hold the key to a secret world we used to exist in and when we travel back together it is like Neverland; no time has past. It is a beautiful feeling to reminisce. It is one of the great powers of humanity that we carry such strong memories with us for so long. To dive into this world with a brother or sister I made on the trail is a treat I relish.

So today, being my first Trail Anniversary, my world was rocked when I got to spend part of the day with Duffle Miner!! We had last been together while sitting outside of the Kroger in Waynesboro, VA, waiting for the shuttle of the aqua blazing company to come pick him and Jean Genie up. I sat with them until he arrived and then we said out final goodbyes, not knowing if we would cross paths again during out hike. Now he was headed up to the Kennesaw REI to buy a new pack. His was both beautifully and horrendously disheveled by its days on the trail. I had the honor of fitting him for his pack! It was a reminder of how great dealing with experienced hikers always is because they actually know the feel of a pack and can make the decision for themselves. It took no time and then we headed off for lunch and coffee; several hours of catching up, of trail stories, of updating each other on other hikers. The perfect way to spend K-Day!

Maineiac, Mud Mouth, Yard Sale, Gonzo and I on Katahdin.

Maineiac, Me, Duffle Miner, Gonzo and Jean Genie doing the Damascathon in Virginia.

Mud Mouth, Ocean Spray, Twilight, Umble, Maineiac, Me, Yard Sale and Gonzo on Katahdin.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Shining Rock Wilderness and Loving the Struggle

Some times you are sun burned and briar scraped, yellow jacket stung and starving, with two skinned knees and dirt caked calves, and still some how hiking feels so good. Good is vague. It feels relaxing, like suddenly turning and letting the tide take you down stream instead of futilely fighting the current. Head up, toes up, bobbing over smooth river stones, effortless. It feels like it is the one thing in the entire world you want to be doing. Above all other actions, hiking in this current moment is what keeps the world turning.

But not always…

I just spent three days backpacking in the Shining Rock Wilderness in North Carolina with Lucas, a fellow green vest at REI. Lucas and I both went to the same university for our BFA degrees. We first met years ago in a sculpture class, in which he excelled and I brown nosed my way to a passing grade. The end of summer, after so many trips and vacations have already passed, can be a slow time at REI. So when Lucas and I discovered that we both had the same three consecutive days off, we decided to make good use of them.

We met up Sunday after work and sorted out our gear and headed out early Monday morning, taking my favorite route up through the Nantahala Gorge.  Several times in my life I had been driving up US 19 just outside of Andrews, NC and I have gotten a migraine. I don’t know what it is about the valley that does that to me, but it happened again. Just before the valley narrows into the hairpin turns up through the gorge, I stopped and let Lucas drive. My blurry peripheral vision wasn’t up to the task. We stopped for a final pee break in Waynesville, NC and I barfed up all the berries I had eaten on the ride up. This is stage two of my migraines, stage one being the part where I think I’m going blind. Stage three is a wicked headache, but I know well enough by now how the cycle goes so I was able to stop it before it got too bad. Needless to say, by the time Lucas cut the engine in the gravel Big Fork parking lot I was ready to be on my feet among the fresh air.

In backpacking, all situations call for a snack break. Come across a beautiful view: snack break. Find a great campsite but it is too early to stop: snack break. Getting psyched for a big climb: snack. Just finished a big climb: snack break. In our case, got to the trail head: snack break. I had a ton of food in my pack. For all the times on the AT that I had to be careful to not eat all my food or tried to only bring the lightest foods, this trip was making up for it. I had massive protein shake mixes made up for each morning. I had an entire jar of Nutella (which I never once had on the AT even though it is very popular). And I had a bag of Campbell’s soup. Not even freeze dried! So daring! I would have never even considered such a weight wasteful dinner while thru hiking but the other day in Publix it seemed like the only edible option. (Plus, the weather called for rain and how great would a bag of Creamy Thai Style Chicken and Rice Soup be after hiking in the rain?!)

We filled our bellies. Me on my classic trashy backpacking goodies that I can only rationalize eating while in the woods and Lucas on his incredibly healthy and energy packed collection of nuts and dehydrated fruits. I never would have imagined that one could eat like a vegan king while backpacking, but I have seen it with thine own eyes, now!  We set out into the damp, grey day and went right at a fork and then went up, forever. As if my soft, fleshy body wasn’t already going to have a hard time from being out of practice, the weight of my pack and the steep climb right off made a really strong point about it all. This junk is rough! But I heard voices ahead of me and knew it must be the peak! Why else would so many people congregate?! I finally inch up to the source of jabbering and Lucas is standing at the edge. A young guy tells a bunch of rowdy boys to shape up because a lady is in their presence and I thoughtlessly spew out a curse word or two about this not being the top before my brain realizes that just beyond Lucas and a few guys our age is a gaggle of kids. The young guy who is apparently much more well mannered than me realizes that I am not actually a lady and hustles the kids forward. I feel bad about it for a while and then get over it when I realize that a bunch of twenty something year old white guys in the woods with a bunch of inner city sounding high school kids can only mean one thing: wilderness therapy.  Suddenly my sailor’s mouth doesn’t seem so bad.    

After a short break at the overlook that wasn’t the top, we push on and on up this mountain, over coming the group of kids and finally level out in Berry Land. Blueberries and black berries everywhere. We stopped every time we saw them and gorged ourselves. In less than an hour and a half I had to stop eating them from lack of space in my stomach. Never in my life have there ever been too many berries before this moment! We reach a spot that must be on the map so we stop and pull it out. This happens a million and over times over the days we are in the Shining Rock Wilderness and sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t. The trails are narrow and wildly overgrown. Navigation is hard. We eventually start taking trails that look like they drop in elevation in hopes of finding a campsite worthy of Lucas hanging a hammock, something more substantial than the briars and blueberry bushes all around us. With the dark clouds above and the distant rolling thunder, I would prefer to not pitch my tent on a bald any how.

We take the first site we find and it’s a good one. I get stung by a yellow jacket collecting wood and yip and yelp around for a second before swearing off the search altogether. A fire turns out to be impossible because all the wood is too damp, which makes the sting all for nothing. Darkness falls and we sit enjoying the blackness even if a fire would be a tad better. Coyotes cackle and howl in the distance and I am grateful that I used the last remaining light to pee and promise myself that I can make it until morning to do it again. I go to bed and sleep wonderfully in my old room. Hovering one inch above the ground on my Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad, drooling on my thankfully waterproof clothes bag, enclosed in my claustrophobically small Fly Creek tent. It’s so familiar and I revel in it. I still had a pair of earplugs in the pocket of my sleeping bag so I didn’t even have to listen to the coyotes howl at the full moon all night.


In the morning we wake up and take off on beautiful trail that abruptly turns to overgrown briars again. It gets small and then wide again and then we loose it and find it and walk through head high brush some more. Eventually there is a river and a father and a daughter. He knows the way, or seems to at least, so we follow but they are slow. She is small and unable to ford the rushing waters alone and his pack is about 80 pounds and is a pure caricature of what a backpack is supposed to look like. They lead us over and down the river a time or two and he gives us directions and we set off on a trail that could be intended for man or may just be a rabbit path. There are many of them and we make a series of educated guesses until we are obviously lost. We begin walking down stream as best we can, sometimes on a trail and sometimes hoping over rocks in the water. An Aussie appears, who is a big fan of “hocking” and it takes me just a little extra time to figure out that he is saying “hiking”. He tells us to keep picking our way over the stones until we find a bridge downstream. We do and find the bridge that we somehow missed before. My feet had stayed dry the entire time until one last rock hop. It was technical and when one toe went in just a little too deep I gave up all hope and tromped across with splashy ease, ready to be on a discernible trail again.

The bridge led to a path that lead to the Blue Ridge Parkway, the overlook staring straight at Looking Glass Rock. Exhausted and miffed at the trail, we threw down our packs and dove into out food bags. I kicked my shoes off and answered a women’s questions about our trip as I wrung the brown, dirt water out of my socks. The sun had come out and we baked on the asphalt as cars came in and out of the pull off. I felt as hiker trashy as ever, both of us pack-sploding and stinking right in front of a great view of Looking Glass’s sheer, rock face. Grand moments like these make the difficult parts of backpacking grand as well.
We set out again and chose a trail that looked nice. It was nice, very nice. Very beautiful and everything you want a trail to be, but it led us right back to the Parkway. So we decided to road walk to where we thought we were supposed to be.  Thankfully, BRP road walking is not normal road walking. I felt like I was back in the Doahs. The grass was so green on the shoulders of the road and the sky was so deep blue above us. We walked past dripping cliff faces and up against breath taking views. We made a game out of walking on the railings that separated the road from the edge of the world.

Eventually we made it to the busy parking lot that marked the beginning of heavier trafficked (aka better maintained) trails. It was glorious. We beasted past all the day hikers with their cars sitting in the parking lot a quarter mile away and made it to a quieter place way up on a ridge. I love looking over the side of a mountain and seeing how far and high I’ve have made it. It makes the human body seem capable of so much more than we use it more on a day-to-day basis. That night we climbed up onto a ridge and camped under a grove of tall spruce trees that had spent decades of their lives making the softest, spongiest ground one could imagine. A sleeping pad was hardly needed. The dead, lower limbs of the trees also made for excellent firewood. Instead of having to go out and collect firewood, all we had to do was take a few steps and harvest it off it a nearby tree. It was the most ideal firewood situation I have ever seen. We quickly had mountains of wood, more than I thought we could use, but Lucas insisted. The sun was directly ahead of us and was pouring through the cracks in the needles of the trees as it fell lower in the sky. As it disappeared it became very chilly. The entire trip was like a journey back into spring. For a tent camper, that’s just perfect. A little bit of chill is the best you could ask for. But for hammock camping it is less than ideal. To make matters worse, Lucas left assuming that it would be August in the Mountains like it was back home so he didn’t have any warm layers. Come to find out, it’s still April up here. I brought mine thinking I wouldn’t need them but I know how much of a baby I am about the cold. Babies need base layers year round! If I had known it was going to be as cold as it was, I would have brought my down jacket. We sat and fueled the fire until the stones around it radiated heat and finished off the last of our whiskey. 


By the first light of day Lucas is up and rebuilding the fire because he barely slept due to the cold. I sleep in as he burns up the entire spruce forest and when I awake I feel guilty about being a ground dweller for once. On the AT, I was the one in a puddle, as Gonzo swung soundly above the sopping ground. We ate and packed up between shifts of hunching by the fire and headed back down the ridge for sunshine. The trail dumped into an intersection and we chose a wide, open trail with great sun light. It led us into the heart of blueberry country. And not, stand in the trail and pick the berries off the tall bushes among briars and weeds. I mean, a bald covered in short blueberry bushes where you can lay down among the rows of them and be sheltered from the wind, soaking up the sun as you pluck the millions of fat, succulent berries one by one. True blueberry country! We stopped and filled an entire tin with berries and sat and filled ourselves as well.

We continue up the trail and several times come to a place we have been before and simply choose a different direction to take. Lucas knows of a good campsite but when we make it there it is still early in the afternoon to stop. We bust out the food bags, as it customary, and we eat in the beautiful, open spot. This always makes a solid campsite feel like it was put to good use if you are unable to stay there. We hit the trail again and are approximately parallel to the trail that brought us from the car up into the mountains. That’s means this time we are going down and it felt so nice. Until I got my foot caught in a root. One of the ones that are so perfectly arching out of two spots in the ground that you can only assume it’s a cruel joke. Getting one foot caught would have been okay if the other foot wouldn’t have also gotten caught while trying to make the saving step. I would pay a large sum of money to have the footage from the GoPro that SHOULD have been strapped to Lucas’ head at that moment as he watched me dive down the steep trail.

It was a good fall. The best I have ever had despite having backpacked well over two thousand miles. I soared and eventually land on my knees, hands and elbows. The trail is so steep that I am still on an incline, just a lesser one, and I am crunched up in a strange rendition of Child’s Pose that no yoga teacher would let fly in class. The weight of my pack is holding my head down and making it seem impossible to right myself and once I realize that I am okay, I am laughing so hard that I couldn’t sit up anyway. Lucas more and less rolls me over and asks if I’m alright and some how he isn’t laughing. Maybe he feels bad or maybe it looked really serious but I can only expect that I would have barely been able to hold it in if I had just seen some one attempted to jump and fly off of poorly chosen part of a mountain side.

I stand up, brush myself off and wipe off the dribbles of blood with my bandana. We keep on at a brisk pace but this time I am being more careful of where I step. Our plan was to find a campsite fair closer to the car so we could make an easy exit in the morning. We located one right on the creek. The whole time we had been making jokes about how we wanted the perfect campsite: good trees, good flat spots, a creek or river beside it, easy firewood, a cooler of beer. This was good enough. It was only mid afternoon though. I laid out my sleeping pad and stared up into the trees a while. Lucas sat on a rock in the creek with his sketchbook until the mosquitoes drove him away. By that time I had finished off the jar of Nutella so we sat on my pad and made a game of throwing things into the empty jar. We did this for ten minutes and then we were out of ideas.

When backpacking, there are only three things that make sense. Eating, Sleeping, Hiking.  If you’re not doing one of those, it can be difficult not to become antsy. Only an hour and a half until it’s a reasonable time to cook dinner, I told myself. We had already been there and hour and even by then the sun had began to shift. We had come down a good ways from the 5,500ft elevation of the night before but still there was a chill in the air. I could tell Lucas was already worried about it. We knew the car must be close and when he asked me how I felt about hiking on, the part of me that was counting the seconds until dinnertime was already packed and ready to go. Another part of me wanted a last night in the woods. We threw everything back into our packs and were car bound. As soon as we started walking I suddenly realized that this was what I wanted to be doing. Not going to the car, really, but moving. I just wanted to hike. I don’t know why, after being so beat up, it felt so good to just be hiking. I relished it immensely. 

We reached the car and entertained the idea of driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway until we found a nice place to camp but little else seemed to be lower in elevation and thus warmer than where we were already. It was only six o’clock so we eventually decided to head home instead of stay out another night. It is only a four hour drive back and we busted it out in record time, which is lucky for us because my pit smell alone could have killed us if it had taken much longer.
The next day at work Lucas brings me a still warm loaf of blueberry walnut bread. Mountain fresh berries, picked the day before. It’s perfectly sweet and perfectly tart.


This trip reminded me how much I love the ups and downs of backpacking. It can suck so much and so quickly turn into everything you want it to be. Backpacking is like life but in a compressed amount of time. You always end up looking back on the difficulties and can take them for what they’re worth, great experiences that shape you and make the good times good. Can I string together 2,663 miles for a thru hike of the PCT? I’m still not sure if I can or not, but a very least I should start thinking about hiking shorter trails like the Benton MacKaye Trail, Long Trail, or John Muir Trail. Just to feel sun burned and briar scraped, yellow jacket stung and starving, with two skinned knees and dirt caked calves. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

PCT: Please, Carlie. Try.

How long can you ride the wave of a major accomplishment?

How long is it a viable description of your life?

How long should you wait until you let it go?

When is it okay to begin looking into the future again?

When is it that you bring into focus a new endeavor?

When is it that I will attempt a thru hike of the Pacific Crest Trail?

This last question has been haunting me. Two thousand, six hundred and sixty three miles have been haunting me. The blistering heat of the Mojave Desert and the bone chilling cold of the snowy High Sierras have been haunting me. Dramatic views of our arrestingly beautiful country have been haunting me. Living out the story of humanity in the rawest form, carrying my life on my back again and once again relying on the good hearts of my fellow humans has been haunting me.

When I set out to thru hike the Appalachian Trail I had only been backpacking twice, a collective three nights and four days. One of those times included hiking up and over Blood Mountain in August without enough water, which I can truly say is a mistake you only make once in the muggy dog days of a Georgian summer. Still, this is did not clue me into the tribulations and suffering that a successful thru hike requires. Hiking two thousand, one hundred and eighty five miles seemed doable because I hadn't done it before.

With the thoughts of the PCT slipping in and our of my thoughts, all those AT miles give me reference to the PCT miles that could be in my future if I so chose. (I am claiming nothing at this point in time!) And five hundred MORE miles than Springer to Katahdin feels more than just scary, more than just crazy. It feels IMPOSSIBLE. I was so ragged out and worn down at the end of the AT that I was finishing on pure grit and stubbornness.

Could I do that all again?

Could I convince myself to suffer all over for another beautiful experience of thru hiking?

Could I muster again those character traits that helped me finish the AT?

Would they hold out for an extra five hundred miles and last me through the PCT?

Would I be able to do it?

Would I regret not trying more than failing?

I think the only question out of any of these that I can even being to speculate on was the last. Surely I would regret never trying to thru hike the Pacific Crest Trail. There are so many other life changing journeys in life that I could embark on. I have proven myself in the backpacking world, and yet there is something that draws me back to hiking a long distance trail. That "something" lies somewhere on a scale between the security of having done it once before and the fear that I only finished the first one on a fluke. If I can do it twice, on two different trails, then surely I will have conquered long distance backpacking, right?

The problem is that I think I might be content in my life right now. It is a strange feeling for a restless dreamer. I really love my job. I'm not grinding my way through college anymore. I like where I live. I'm not living in squalor, over taken by boys in their early twenties. Things are going well besides the small fact that I don't have a dream that I am currently working towards. The PCT could be that next dream but I fear that leaving behind a great life at home makes it easier to quit. If there is little to go back to then there is no reason to leave the trail.

Do I wait until I am unhappy in life to hike again?

Do I prepare to leave in 2015 and see if I become unhappy?

Do I choose to hike despite loving my life at home?

Did my lack of connection to home really help me on the AT?

Did I simply not see my happiness before the AT? Or...

Did I walk myself right into a happiness while on the AT that I won't soon want to leave?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

My Greatest Sin

Throughout my life I have done many things that I should one day take stock of and ask forgiveness for. Sometimes, I think that time may never come and as I grow older I have become increasingly okay with this. But there is one sin of mine which weighs on me more heavily than the others, one so bad I must right it immediately. It is a heinous blemish to my otherwise reputable character. It holds me back from believing I am a beautiful person. I fear it has the power to wreck my life if I am unable to gain control of it.

My greatest sin is that I am not happy. 

Or grateful. Or satisfied. Or aware for that matter. Not enough, at least. I find gold and yet can only seem to complain that the bank is too far away. I am not unhappy. I am not ungrateful. I am not unsatisfied. I am not unaware. I am simply a typical human in this blight ridden world of 'me' that we live in and I deeply resent myself for it. 

To set the record straight, I am by all 'usual' accounts very happy. I enjoy my job more than I even would have thought was possible considering the meaning of the word job. I am lucky enough to have multiple life-spicing hobbies that give a higher purpose to my existence. The people I surround myself with are generally the type of people your mother was talking about when she told you "it takes all kinds", and I mean that in the best way it can be taken. I am doing well even measured against the typical American life. I am doing wonderful if you factor in the hardships of being born in so many other places of in the world. I am doing outstanding if you're the sort that believes that the energy that my body is made from could have just as easily ended up becoming a plankton instead of a human being born in America to middle class parents who raised her to make good enough choices to one day be living a happy life of her own. 

Yet still I complain about how far away the bank is from the location which I stumbled upon my pot of gold. Why? Why do I do myself the disservice of focusing on the negative? Why after all the good I have fallen into do I forget? Why I have been able to achieve and see and experience so much do I forget? Why can I not remember that the most beautiful part of life, the most satisfaction is in knowing contentment in the present moment? I don't know why I go on with this charade of needing things before they come in their due time. I will surely once again reach the high peaks of life, both literally atop the some vast mountain range and emotionally in the throws of celebrating the successes I will come across. If only I could teach myself to remain aware and satisfied in the mean time, grateful and happy with life as it is this very second. 

Maybe this will help.

10 Things That Made Me Happy Recently:
1. The shimmering reelection of the sun off of the creek onto the undersides of the leaves on the trees above. 
2. The early morning glow of the sun shinning on a man standing at a bus stop.
3. The blue sky reflecting off of the road after a summer shower.
4. A day full of small, yet meaningful connections with strangers. 
5. An evening sky displaying innumerable textures. 
6. A recognition of a job well done.
7. Finding a new band whose sounds and words resonated with my soul.
8. Having the courage and swallowing the pride needed to reconnect with a friend. 
9. Meeting a thru hiker (Denali) at work (aka REI) who is currently on the trail and the feather affixed into his hair.
10. Breaking a writer's block and producing a sliver of honesty.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Repossession of a Lost Trade

Co-worker: "Carlie, so what do you do besides work here?"
(No one at REI just works at REI)
Me: "I write. I'm uh... a writer."
Co-Worker: "Oh, I thought you when to school for photo or something."
Me: "Oh yeah, but... psh! No, I'm not a photographer."

Cue the panic of suddenly realizing that I  have unconsciously under minded 5 years of my life and lots of money!

The transition is complete. I have fully switched over from identifying myself as "a photographer" and now view myself as "a writer". Being a student of photography, you optimistically begin to call yourself a fully fledged photographer when truly you have yet to dedicate your life to it beyond the guidance of schooling. Now that I have been a year and more with out the influence of college, I find where my passion lies by watching how I spend my time. Despite my photography degree, I'll admit that is it not spent behind a camera. It is spent over a key board.

It has taken me some time to swallow this pill once and for all, but the honest truth behind it is that it comes with a sense of relief. To know that I am not bound to a path I chose at the wise age of eighteen is relieving. Imagine that. The satisfaction that I have found in the many, many writing projects that I have taken on since my return from the AT has solidified my newly chosen path. On top of these amounting projects, I find that there is a need for pointless expression of personal thoughts. This can only mean one thing.

The return of Love and Legwork.

When I was in high school I wrote poetry. Avidly so. I even helped start a poetry club, which was impressive for a little rebel who adamantly refused to take part in anything extra curricular. As college was placed on the table and the time came to choose a degree, I, being eighteen and knowing everything, knew that there was nothing more that I could be taught about writing. So I chose art. I was also half heartedly part of an art club. My friends and I would smoke weed in the parking lot after school on every other thursday and then return to the art room to doodle, listen to music and laugh about things that weren't funny to anyone else. I liked art a lot and I had a natural inclination for it, but still there was room for improvement, even in the eye of my over inflated ego. I chose to study art.

I chose to study photography for its immediacy. With out anyone even realizing it, you could flash an entire story in front of their eyes for them to read in only a matter of seconds. No consent required. No flashy cover was needed to make them pick up the book and give it a shot. The best part was, I didn't even have to write the entire story. I only had to leave them with enough information for them to speculate answers to all the questions I had left them with. It was like a game and it was all very attractive to me.

In studying photography I learned to view the world in a new way. I learned to see the haunting beauty in a decaying building, the honor in a worn out human. I learned the power of lighting. Of its ability to turn an ordinary man into Dionysius as the morning sun falls across his face to set him ablaze as he waits for the bus. I learned the power of timing. Of waiting patiently for a scene to unfold as so the fog lifts just enough among the pines as to catch the light all the way to the horizon. Most of all I learned to see. In learning to see I leaned to write.

As it happens, I went to art school to become a writer.

Being a writer, I have chosen to carry on this this blog beyond the AT.

Maybe one day it will even turn into "Lessons of the Pacific Crest Trail".