My first backpacking trip began at Max Patch in June 2015. Amy, Linda, and Harper Lee were game for a trip that was the first of many more to come.
What set that trip apart from all of the others (aside from being my first) is that we began during a thunderstorm, which was terribly dangerous on a mountain with no trees. We all knew that we needed to get off of the bald as quickly as possible.
What we didn’t know was that the only sign for the AT was a four-by-four post with incorrectly labeled north and south arrows. Someone had used a sharpie marker to indicate north to the right and south to the left. Because we were in a hurry to get off the bald mountain (no trees! lightning!) we rushed in the direction we assumed to be north, toward Hot Springs.
It would be the next day, after we had already hiked six miles south, that we would realize our mistake. Without cell service, and knowing that we would not reach Hot Springs on schedule, we relied on the kindness of strangers to relay a message to our ride asking to be picked up in the very place we had been dropped off two days before.
That afternoon, while waiting to be picked up, we scowled at the mislabeled post and scratched the correct directions with a tiny pencil. It was a pathetic but satisfying way of showing our frustration.
Imagine my surprise when I returned this May after dropping off Low Gear at Lemon Gap to see a new post, correctly and beautifully emblazoned with the north and south direction markers. It made me smile to remember the chaos of three years prior.
Still, this was a melancholy visit to Max Patch for a variety of reasons, at the same time I enjoyed the best part of an advancing afternoon. I had just sent Low Gear on her way, and she was happy to be rejoining the culture of the northbound thru-hikers making their hopeful way to Katahdin. I wished I was with them, but I knew I had other things I had to accomplish before fulfilling that dream.
The better part of the day was spent on a blanket enjoying the clouds. I watched the hikers go by, envious of their hard-won miles. When I felt a few drops of rain, I packed up and made my way back down the mountain.
I recorded the songs of the eastern towhee, a vireo, and a turkey. I made my peace with leaving the mountain and remembered the hikes of three years before: the first, when we went the wrong direction, and then the one we completed later that year on my birthday, when we triumphantly arrived in Hot Springs on schedule. (That morning of my 41st birthday was one of the most beautiful I ever recall on the trail.)
Anyone who backpacks has a special mountain, I wager. Perhaps not the favorite, perhaps not the most difficult, but meaningful, nonetheless. Max Patch will stay in my memory as a reminder to always check which direction I’m headed before traveling too far, too fast.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been looking for ways to be helpful to others, which is a new experience for me. At first I joked that it was a way of improving my karma, since I’m trying to buy a house. But karma doesn’t work that way.
As Krishna says to Arjuna in Chapter Three of the Bhagavad-Gita, “Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life. Do your work with the welfare of others always in mind.”
While helping a friend move mid-May we drove an hour back and forth through the countryside and I passed a sign bearing a verse that I’d never encountered, though raised Baptist. It too echoed what I was thinking about in the Gita, but came from Paul’s Epistle to the Galations: “Be not weary in well doing.”
I cannot claim to have ever done work so selflessly, or without complaint. In fact, my desire to hike the trail had a corollary selfish motivation; I wanted to run away from the anonymous “other people” I encounter every day. I wanted to escape our current political climate. Perhaps I also wanted to shirk the tasks of maintaining a household. However, living in someone else’s house combined with parenting a near-adult led me to consider what the true path of this summer might be.
Trying to make a new home come together compelled me to find ways to spend my newly opened schedule. I wanted my new days to be meaningful; perhaps they could even be as worthwhile as hiking the Appalachian Trail had been. And so we come to the reason for this post: sorting out what selfless work is and what it means to be engaged in well doing.
A trail friend I’d met in Georgia needed transportation from Gatlinburg to Davenport Gap, so I drove down to help her and two other hikers get back to the trail. A friend of several years was moving, so I helped drive and carry boxes for three days. It felt good to be useful, and her gratitude made my heart soften in unexpected ways.
Later that same week, several hiking friends needed rides to Trail Days in Damascus, and many of them had made it as far as Erwin, Tennessee. Erwin is a fifteen-minute jaunt for me by car, and Damascus is an hour ride up the road. But I had promised them I’d help once they made it past Max Patch.
I know most of the roads and gaps between Max Patch and Damascus, and I often call this my home area. I am grateful to have backpacked nearly all of the miles in this section and was thrilled that folks I met in Georgia were getting ready to pass through for the first time.
Trail Days is quite possibly the biggest event involving the Appalachian Trail (AT) that happens close to where I live. I usually try to make it up for the parade, and this year was no exception, especially since I was taking Low Gear, On Star, and Eric back to Erwin afterward. (Click here for a brief clip as the class of 2018 walks by.)
Every year Damascus hosts a gargantuan celebration of the Trail with vendors, hiking celebrities, and services catering to thru-hikers, but exciting for anyone in love with the AT.
Tent City, where the hikers make their home during Trail Days, is home to a variety of tribes, such as the Trash People and Riff Raff, the oldest and rowdiest. After speaking with a couple of trail friends, I’m still a bit in the dark about how the groups stack up with each other, but then, I think these are intricacies of the thru-hiking experience that you only gain if you stay with the hiker trash bubble as it makes its way north to Katahdin.
My first introduction to any AT tribe came at Plumorchard Shelter in Georgia on the coldest night of my April hike when I met “Tune-Up.” A spokesperson and leader for the Trash People, Tune-Up explained that the Trash People regularly pack out trash to preserve the trail and generally try to keep a good vibe going. He hung prayer flags inside the shelter, commenting that the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) frowns on the practice.
That evening I learned that the ATC is not universally revered by the thru-hiking community, and it opened a number of questions for me that I’ll be working out for years to come.
Around the fire, he spoke in glowing tones about Miss Janet of Erwin, whom most thru-hikers know either directly or indirectly to be a saint of the trail, the Trail Angel of all trail angels. The closest I came to her was picking up Ron Rico from her house on the way to Damascus, and from the car I saw hikers mulling about on her carport, several in fact I remembered from weeks before at Plumorchard, Tune-Up among them.
Over the days I shuttled hikers to Damascus (and those preceding) I experienced frequent realizations that I was not on the trail anymore, that I was no longer hiker trash (smelled too good for that!) and that I could no longer lay claim to belonging in a community that had moved on from Franklin, NC after I had left it.
It was humbling, but also ratcheted up my respect for thru-hikers, and helped me sort out how my next hike would play out, if I could be fortunate enough to hit the Trail again in years to come. (Section hiking is as good as it gets for now, but I’m hankering for the whole enchilada once my kid takes flight into college.)
It’s hard to explain what the appeal is to people who know nothing about the Trail, have never experienced the thrill of knowing that everything you need to make it for a few days is in a backpack that you carry everywhere you go. The peace that I find when I’m in the deep woods is incomparable. When I’m there I trust that the Trail will provide all that I need, and only when it is time.
Off the trail, I am reminded that every day we are given opportunities to help others realize their dreams, to serve a force beyond ourselves, which inevitably sustains all beings. Still trying to work out what selfless means in this context, when it feels so good to be helpful and when my own life is made better as a result.
This was the post I dreaded from Day 1, and knew I would need the courage to write: the plan not executed, the plan so perfectly laid.
After everything, the moment when every piece of gear in my pack is necessary, when every fault has been found and repaired or replaced. The food has been separated into plastic bags and mail drops are ready to go to the post office; reservations have been made and weeks of hiking plotted.
Family and friends have been notified that this NOBO (northbound hiker) is now a SOBO, once she makes it to Harper’s Ferry, the symbolic near-halfway point of the Appalachian Trail. I had even decided on where to eat breakfast while waiting on the Appalachian Trail Museum to open on Tuesday morning.
I cried myself to sleep for three days once I knew my path was diverging from the Trail. The morning after those three days I was calm, as if I had accepted the death of a loved one. I decided it was like a death, those nights when I lay quietly trying to conceal my weeping. What was I crying for? Who was I mourning if not that other “me,” the one without responsibilities, with no schedule except the one that indicated maildrops and shelters?
The truth is, I woke up after those three days with a deeper sense of my real direction, moving forward. I had been naively imagining certain parts of my life to be separate and distinct from one another. I had compartmentalized my “trail life” from my “home life.” My kid said I was using my frequent road rage as a way to justify going back on the trail, or vice versa. I was going to sleep at 7:30pm, like I did when I was in a tent. There was a wildness about everything I did, and I was obsessed with the weights of things.
Frequently I packed and unpacked my pack, eager to be heading out again.
I wasn’t coping with being back home, partly because we weren’t really at home, but staying with my kid’s father. Three cats and three adult-sized persons were inhabiting a small home and it was hard to move around since our stuff lined the walls, filled the garage, or was stacked in boxes around the bed.
I shared that bed with my child, not really a child, and the cats piled in too. My pack was beside the bed, and every night I pored over my hiking calendar, deciding how often I could stop, wanting to clear most of Virginia in 40 days. And I would have done it . . . I know I would have.
But practically, I began to also look at our housing options when I came back. Though I planned to move us closer to the college where I taught (and where my fifteen-year-old was also completing his first semester) it was clear that pickings were slim. The reality sunk in, that we had to buy a home, given that we had two cats and very little money for pet deposits and $700 monthly rents. A mortgage would be half that, provided we could find the right house.
Fortunately, a good friend of mine had been working on the perfect house, a petite cottage close to the college and just the right size. Its modest stature and sunny windows appealed to me, and so I began the difficult process of trying to buy a home.
As the first day of realization turned into the second day, I knew that this was the right thing to do, and that my child came first.
It was hard living with other people. It had been hard renting for a year while trying to sell my house that we had lived in for almost ten years. Here I was, preparing to commit once again to a house and mortgage, but for all of the best reasons.
It was time for me to accept that the trail would wait, but that my kid would not be fifteen forever. His success in college was partly dependent on my finding us a reliable, affordable home where we could stay until he finished school, and there was no reason to commute more than the ten minutes this little blue house was away from our school.
This morning I pulled all of my maildrop bags out the boxes so that we could organize the Epic and Clif bars by expiration date. My son agreed to go on a backpacking trip with me–the first ever for him–and there will be many day hikes. We will have plenty of snacks.
I have texted all of my hiking friends to let them know I will be home when they pass through the area, and I can shuttle them to town or take them to Trail Days.
I have told my Dean that I am around this summer so my work as a new Chair can begin in July, on schedule.
My kid and I are going to the beach with my aunt and uncle, the same beach my family has visited since my father was a child.
I am thinking about volunteering at The Nelsonville Music Festival so I can see George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic, The Decemberists, Ani DiFranco, Tune-Yards, Wooden Shjips . . .
I will be able to work on preparing my manuscript for publication, deadline end of July.
Most importantly, I will be able to snuggle these cats:
Every day now, I go to my office and talk to loan officers and work on planning my classes.
I let go a little more. I know this is the right way to be.
The trail is wherever I put one foot in front of another. It is wherever I begin, each morning.
Tonight, while waiting and hoping that this house purchase goes through, I ponder which book I shall read first. For the first time in two years I am not reading about the trail, but instead choosing books from my shelf that I’ve wanted to read for months (or years).
When it is time, I will begin again. And fortunately, I will know what to take, what to leave, and where I’m headed.
Best of all, I will know that I have a home to come back to that fits two adult-sized persons, two cats, and an indeterminate number of books worth finishing.