My backpack weighs 31 pounds, and it barely fit into the trunk of Jen and Steve’s Honda. I don’t think they believed I was actually going through with this until I called and asked for a ride up the mountain. Jen gave me that look, that pitying, tight-lipped smile, but she helped Steve and I load up my things, and then they bought me lunch before dropping me off at the trailhead. Jen cried, and Steve gave me a can of pepper spray and an awkward side hug.
So here goes nothing. I’m at Springer Mountain, Georgia, with zero miles down and only 2,190 miles to go.
See you on the other side.
I can feel my heartbeat in my feet, but I made it to the first campsite. I’m exhausted, but in that good I-did-a-hard-thing kind of way. I had trouble setting up my tent—broke a nail just getting it out of the bag—but there was another group at the campsite and some nice college kid saw me struggling, jogged over to help, and then had the whole thing up in under a minute. He looked at me funny, and I’m sure he was wondering what I was doing all the way out here instead of lounging on my sofa with a glass of chardonnay and an Oprah’s book club novel, but he didn’t pry.
Well, I pooped in the woods today. You would have laughed at me as I hunted for the perfect spot, then deposited and buried my own waste like some dainty, purebred housecat.
I laughed at myself too.
I’m already behind schedule. I wasted hours repacking my bag yesterday to redistribute the weight, as one hiker told me it would be less strain on my back to move the heavier items to the center. So I took everything out and repacked it as tightly as I could, which took forever. The hiker hovered nearby the entire time, obnoxiously commentating on all my belongings, and when he finally left, I sat down to write, only to find I’d somehow buried my journal. So, I unpacked my whole bag again, rummaging through my gear like a madwoman, just to then see the journal had been sitting on a rock next to me the whole time.
Even in the cold spring air, I was red-faced and sweating.
My feet are killing me, but I think I’ve finally broken in these fresh-out-of-the-box hiking boots.
I fell asleep last night listening to the crickets and thinking about you.
I met an interesting hiker today who said this was his second thru hike. He looked at least 10 years older than me and called himself “Pinetree.” All skin and bones with a long scraggly beard, he looked like a castaway stranded in the woods, though I got the sense he liked the solitude. He’d jutted out his bearded chin at me and said, “Nobo?”
“What?” I huffed out.
“North bound? Oh. Yes. I am.” I had to pause and catch my breath after each sentence. “Just getting started.”
He looked me over and clicked his tongue. “You’re carrying too much weight.”
I was momentarily offended before realizing he meant my pack. “How?! I left so much behind. I need all of this.”
He was quiet, chewing his lip. “Give it a few more miles. You won’t feel that way then.”
We continued walking; his stride was twice that of mine, but he slowed and matched my speed, and we hiked in companionable silence until I stopped for lunch.
He kept walking. “When you’re ready to let some of that go, you’ll feel much lighter. Trust me.” Then with a final, “take care out there,” he disappeared around the next bend.
His reprimand irritated me, but the frustration kept me going for a good four or five more miles.
I envied him: so confident and free.
He reminded me of you.
I pulled eight ticks off my legs yesterday. There were probably more where I couldn’t see them, and that thought kept me awake all night, tossing and turning and twitching in my tent until the exhaustion pulled me into fitful sleep. I dreamt that my hiking boots jumped off a cliff, and I had to walk the rest of the trail with my feet covered in orange plastic ramen noodle wrappers.
I met some thru hikers from South Dakota (which I had completely forgotten was a state) who were both in their 80’s! We talked the whole way, and it helped the miles pass quickly.
They told me the secret to longevity is to never stop moving.
I’ve been making better time; today was my record so far—14 miles. A rather uneventful 14 miles, though I did see a porcupine, which was interesting. I always thought they’d be…spikier…?
At the shelter, I removed three shirts, a book, and a tube of lotion from my backpack and left them in a giveaway box. It made a surprisingly noticeable difference.
Well, those 14 miles about killed me. I slept late today, then took two ibuprofen before even getting out of my tent. My back hurt, my feet hurt—even my earlobes hurt.
The last thing I wanted to do was put those boots back on my swollen feet and walk.
Regret tastes sour and so do the dry ridges of my dehydrated gums.
What am I even doing out here?
I hiked 18 miles yesterday but took today off. I needed to replenish my food, as I guess there’s going to be a good stretch before I reach another town (I’m still learning how to read maps and plan ahead). I bought groceries and some new clothes, as my pants are starting to hang on me, then checked into a motel and took the first real shower I’ve had since leaving Georgia. I stood there until the water ran cold, then laid down on the sheets and passed out until my grumbling stomach woke me up. I ordered a large pepperoni pizza and ate the entire thing myself.
Then I called the pizza place back and ordered another one.
Made it into Virginia. It’s been raining for three days. The trails are slush, my boots are filthy, and I feel like a wet rag.
I want to go home.
I made a small group of friends who have sort of pulled me into their circle and let me tag along the last 50 miles or so. Melons is a vet tech from Florida, whose cleavage makes introductions before she does. Huckleberry is a lanky 22-year-old who wears his pants rolled at the ankles and hikes in crocs. Seems impractical to me, but he says it’s comfortable. Aunt Jemima is a hulking middle-aged Norwegian man who loves breakfast food and lugs around a flat top campfire griddle. He’s made us pancakes almost every morning, and it’s become one of my favorite parts of each day. Easily the largest man I’ve ever met, Aunt Jemima often smacks his head on low hanging branches as we hike, eliciting a string of game-like sound effects from Huckleberry like “doink” and “boing.”
Their company has changed everything, and I’ve laughed more in the last few days than I have in years.
Today was HARD. The terrain was rugged and uneven. I made a game, tracking how many hours ago I could go without tripping.
I never actually made it a whole hour.
Melons, Huckleberry, and Aunt Jemima decided to take a detour; Huckleberry’s family lives nearby and invited everyone to stay for a few days, but I wanted to keep going.
We all exchanged contact information, then parted ways.
You don’t feel the blisters until you stop.
I’m tired of hearing my own breathing, tired of TREES, tired of freeze-dried soup, tired of having nothing but time to think about everything I should have done differently in my life.
I don’t know who I thought I was, why I ever thought I could do this.
I almost quit yesterday, and then I met an angel.
I was 7 miles into the day, feeling like there was no possible way I could make it to the next shelter, nevertheless all the way to the tip of Maine, when I walked straight into a spider web, tripped over a rock, then faceplanted in a patch of ferns. I was so angry, I hurled my backpack against a tree, pulling a back muscle in the process. Then I sat down and just sobbed.
Everything hurt; I was sunburned, hungry, and ready to call it quits and admit to the world that I couldn’t do it.
Then the next thing I knew, I was on my back, staring up at the floppy, wet tongue of a gigantic Great Dane. I struggled to sit up, and when I did, it nuzzled its massive head into my shoulder, and without thinking, I draped my arms over its neck. I realized then it was the closest thing I’d had to an embrace since Steve’s stiff-armed goodbye hug.
Shortly after, I heard someone whistling and calling for “Karen,” then saw a gray-haired woman heading down the trail. She took one look at me—at my pack thrown into the ferns, my scraped-up knees, and her dog (which was indeed named Karen) with its head on my shoulder—then looked me right in the eye and asked if I liked lasagna.
She introduced herself as “Zippy” as we walked a side trail up to her place. I could smell oregano before I saw the cabin. She’d made two bubbling-hot pans of the best lasagna I’d ever had and never asked if I wanted seconds of anything, but just continued to load food onto my plate the second I’d cleared it.
After dinner, we sat on her couch and talked about the hike—the solitude, the friendships you make, and the boredom too. I’d gone a few days without really talking to anyone and when she asked why I was doing it, it was like a dam broke within me, and I cried—ugly, shaking sobs that rattled our teacups on the side table. She let me cry, let me talk.
I told her that hiking the AT was never my dream, that I never wanted to put my life on pause to traipse up and down mountains and live out of a backpack for half a year.
Then I told her about you—how this was always your dream, your adventure, how you begged me to hike it with you…bought me my own gear and everything…because I had told you I would.
Then I told her how every time you brought up the hike, I shut you down—put you off with a “maybe next spring,” and “things are so busy with work right now,” or “how about when we retire.”
How naïve I was to think time would wait for us; sometimes hearts stop beating, and they never start up again.
I know I can’t blame myself for that, but I blame myself for giving you the false hope that I’d join you when I never had any intention of looping my arms through that purple backpack you hung in the garage next to yours. You waited for me, and now it’s too late for you. We should have been doing this together, and now you’ll never have the chance.
This hike has been hard—the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, but you would have loved every minute of it. And I would have loved to do this with you.
I felt lighter the next day than I had the whole trip. Even with a belly full of lasagna.
How am I STILL in Virginia?
I left a multitool, some too-big hiking shorts, and an extra flashlight in a shelter box.
This muggy dog-breath summer air is making my skin crawl…
I dropped the gasket of my water filter in a creek today and stood staring into the brown trickle for several minutes trying to find the thing before I realized I was standing about a foot away from a coiled-up copperhead. My blood turned to ice—a momentary reprieve from the suffocating heat—and then I spun myself away from the thing with the agility of a woman 20 years younger.
So, I didn’t get bitten by a snake, but I never did find that gasket.
You wouldn’t believe who I ran into today: Melons, Huckleberry, and Aunt Jemima.
I must be that slow of a hiker.
Melons gave me a big hug, squished me right in between her giant bosom. Huckleberry was wearing real boots—said he’d lost his crocs in a river and had to walk a mile and a half in socks before he could buy new shoes. Someone made Aunt Jemima an apron with a picture of a giant backpacker flipping pancakes. He said he wears it every morning.
Almost through Pennsylvania.
I know I’ve complained a lot, but today was one of those days where all the blood, sweat, and tears felt like they were worth something. I woke up before sunrise, made hot coffee, and climbed to an overlook where the valley stretched below, still shrouded in shadow. I watched the sun rise and shed light on each curve and dip of the land. Birds chirped all around me, leaves danced in the breeze, and I felt you there with me.
For the first time, I couldn’t wait to get moving.
Did I tell you I’ve been given a trail name?
We’ve made it to New York! Melons and I hitchhiked into town today and got pedicures, mostly just to see the looks on the beautician’s faces when they saw our feet (that and I was dying for a foot massage). I picked out some bright red nail polish and sunk down into a massage chair, but when I peeled my socks away, my left pinky toenail came clean off and landed right in the sudsy water.
I didn’t feel a thing.
The poor lady painted the nail-less stub of my toe anyway, and now you can hardly tell anything is missing.
The terrain has been fairly steep the past few days but absolutely gorgeous. We’ve made it into Vermont, and the gang and I stopped for a much-deserved night at a motel. The motel served scrambled eggs at the continental breakfast the next morning, and between the four of us, we must have eaten two dozen eggs. Aunt Jemima wasn’t impressed with their pancakes, but he still ate enough for a football team.
I’ve made it to New Hampshire. From Georgia. WITH MY OWN TWO FEET. I can hardly believe it. There have been so many days when I’ve wanted nothing more than to give up and go home, but now that I’m getting close to the end, I’m almost afraid. What happens when it’s over?
I beat my own record and walked 24 miles today. Every muscle in my body is screaming, and I barely have the energy to hold up this pen, but I just had to say one thing: I’m sorry.
I’m sorry you never got to see what I’ve seen or walk where I’ve walked, but I hope you know that I have carried you with me every step of the way. I know it doesn’t change anything, but wherever you are, I hope you know that you are what has pushed me through these mountains.
We’re in Maine! We celebrated crossing into the last state with way too much beer, and Huckleberry, in his inebriated condition, forgot to pack up his food. Well wouldn’t you know, around 1 in the morning, I started hearing this huffing and rustling, and I thought maybe it was Huckleberry getting sick, so I ran out of my tent to check on him and came nose to nose with the ugliest black bear I’ve ever seen. It was missing one ear and had a ragged scar across his eye.
I froze, panicking—what was I supposed to do again? Run? Play dead? Scream? I just knew I was about to be mauled to death, when suddenly Aunt Jemima stepped down from the shelter, walked up to that bear with his chest puffed out, and started yodeling. Yes. Yodeling. Deep, reverberating, melodic howls. I’d never heard anything like it in my life, and that bear must have thoroughly hated it, because it took off.
I slept like a rock knowing that ugly bear was off telling all his friends about the terrible yodeling monster I call Aunt Jemima.
Tomorrow, we hike Mount Katahdin—the last leg of the Appalachian trail!!
It was a grueling trek up 4,000 feet of rocky elevation, but I made it.
I MADE IT!!
There’s a picture of me, Melons, Huckleberry, and Aunt Jemima, our arms outstretched at the big wooden “Mount Katahdin” sign, and I’ve never seen such a wide smile on my face.
I looked confident—free.
The four of us lingered at the top for a while, reveling in our victory, then the others left me alone:
So you and I could have a few moments to ourselves.
And that’s when I set you free.
I lifted the cap on the small, cylindrical urn I’d carried with me through sunshine and rain for the past 2000 miles, and I sprinkled your ashes into the wind. You spread your wings and flew over the mountain, settling yourself in the rocks and rivers and valleys of beautiful, wild Maine.
We’re thru hikers now, you and me.
And I couldn’t have done it without you.