On every job application I have ever submitted, I call myself a “team-oriented” person. I say “I like to lead, when necessary, but in most cases I prefer to work with co-workers toward a common goal.” Conversely, (and I’m cringing as I admit this) I hate it when someone tells me I can’t do something on my own. It could be something small, like if I want to walk down the street to get an ice cream at night. Or, when I told my parents I wanted to go to Hawaii for college. In retrospect, I know it’s silly to be a lone female walking down the street sans sidewalks, in the dark, past the biker bar to get ice cream, and I also know that I am a family focused, homebody of a person who doesn’t do well with distance or change. That being said, the moment someone tells me no, I pretty much lose touch with the reality of the situation, and to say that I’m defensive is an understatement.
On the fourth day of our month long hike, we woke up in the morning with the birds. Whenever we wanted to wake up early, we would agree that if the birds were chirping, it was time to get up. On this particular day we were planning to hike into Harper’s Ferry, and we were excited for all of the possible treats and delicacies of our first “town day.” We never grew sick of our Cliff bars and mountain house meals, but there was something special about looking forward to something extra sugary, deep fried, or frothy.
When we had packed up all of our things, I decided to take another glance at the guide book before setting out–we were expecting a light day (6 miles) and we planned to stay at the campground in town. Because there hadn’t been any service through all of Maryland, we hadn’t had a chance to make a reservation, but assumed that if we called when they opened, something would be available.
One thing to know is that I am NOT a math person. I turned to Jess with a fearful face and she said, “what??”
“I messed up my math…” I replied timidly.
“Yea, um, it’s 10 miles not 6.”
She shrunk, deflated. “Crap.”
On our first day we had hiked 10 miles, even though we planned to do 5. We pranced into the woods, excited, full from a gigantic dinner the previous night which we gladly followed with a supersized breakfast of eggs, oatmeal, and the fattest, freshest bacon I have ever had. After leaving Jess’s aunt, who so graciously dropped us at the Mason Dixon line, we smiled big as each step took us further and further away from civilization. It only took a quarter mile for us to get lost. And it wasn’t because the Appalachian Trail is poorly marked–it’s not. There are 5’ by 3’ rectangles donning trees almost every quarter mile.
We took a wrong turn onto what must have been part of the AT several years ago. We had maps, and a guidebook, and high spirits, but after five miles of trudging down an untamed forest road, it was clear that we were lost. Our trip was approximately three hours old, and already we had to turn our phones on. Using the GPS, we ripped through the backwoods, and eventually we were forced to scale a boulder wall while carrying foreign, 38 lb packs (zero percent exaggeration). It was stupid.
Eventually we came to a trail. Exhausted, Jess leaned up against the tree behind her and as part of her exhale, she said, “I wish there was just some way to know if this was the AT….” We stood on either side of the trail, looking anxiously from each other, to our left and to our right. We couldn’t decide which way to go. Breathless, I tried to find a suggestion, and after several minutes, I raised my gaze up above Jess’s pack and onto the tree.
“Jess,” I said, smiling bright pointing to the tree behind her. “We are idiots.”
She pushed her pack off of the tree and pivoted to find a white blaze just a few inches above her head.
There was no end to the laughter that ensued.
On the second day we hiked 12 miles, and even though we struggled slightly, we felt okay. Day three presented two options: 9 miles or 14. It was only 2pm when we arrived at the first shelter, and because all we heard from thru-hikers was “pushing miles,” we decided to be heros. As we approached the second shelter, my feet had never hurt more in my entire life.
As we started our trek into Harper’s Ferry on the fourth day, it was clear that we had overdone it. Jess’s right knee screamed with every step, and my right achilles was sore enough to warrant concern. It began to rain, and when we stopped to adorn our packs with their covers, we each popped a few ibuprofen. Less than three hours and eight miles later, sitting against our packs on either side of the Shenandoah river towpath, Jess was in tears, and because the campground had no vacant campsites, we were immobile, broken, and even more homeless than we were before.
For the next four days, I spent every minute waiting for Jess to turn to me and say, “this is no fun, I’m done.” She was hurt so it would have been justified, but I definitely wasn’t ready to quit.
I wavered back and forth between frustration, physical pain, and empathy. From the hiker hostel in Harper’s Ferry, I wrote “Jess has a knee injury that has put a damper on things, and although I am experiencing some troubling pain in my achilles, I think I have a better ability to evaluate pain. I am tempted to throw up my arms and say ‘why can’t I have some tougher friends?’ but there is more to this than the number of miles we can cover in a day, week, etc. I hope that it is actually more about the journey and the time…just away. Although I do want to challenge myself physically, I think that should be secondary to the nature, thoughts, reading and being.”
Sarcastically, I wrote this next bit: “We ARE challenging ourselves in other ways also–my patience is being tested” and then after a pause of guilt, I added, “as well as [my] humility.”
I told Sean and my brother that I thought Jess might throw in the towel. I was feeling them out, but they both said “well you’re not going alone” before I even asked. It was infuriating that they didn’t trust my instincts, but I pretty much knew that at least one (if not both) of them would come into the woods and drag my butt off the trail if I even considered it. So, I held my breath and hoped desperately for Jess’s recovery.
On day 10, Jess and I set out to hike the last 10 miles of the “roller coaster,” and at the midpoint of our miles we passed a gentleman that gave me the creeps. He was wearing all of the normal, dirty hiking attire that was too big for him. He looked weary and his hiker hobble was more like a shuffle or a drag. Thinking back on these moments, it doesn’t seem like the fear that rose inside my stomach was justified–he looked very similar to all the rest of the hikers we encountered. He WAS traveling south which meant that he was not a thru-hiker, but so what? He could easily have been completing a section hike, he could have easily been walking slow because he was injured just as we had been mere days before, and maybe he was even sick which would explain his need for long pants and a jacket. Nevertheless, as I climbed into my hammock that night I pulled out my journal and wrote:
“Probably the hardest day of hiking I have ever encountered. Jess didn’t love it, but she powered through. I thought that the challenge was exactly what I wanted. I can’t wait for more. I am so excited to be out here.”
I remember pausing briefly. Exhaling a reflection, and continuing with this:
“I’m excited now, but last night wasn’t very fun. It rained, and my fly leaked on my face all night. This was all after I had a bout of paranoia that something or someone was in the woods nearby. I definitely prefer sleeping near other people. I talk a big game but I’m not sure I would want to sleep in the woods on my own…I know it would take some sleepless nights to get past it. I am so thankful that Jess is here with me, and besides Sean I can’t imagine anyone else I could do this with. Right at this second I pretty much assume that the creepy guy from this afternoon will wind up in our camp tonight. Maybe I have no reason to be scared, but I am anyways.”
I think that this entry was me admitting I was wrong without actually owning my previously egotistical thoughts, but it wasn’t until we had been off the trail for a week that I actually put it into words. After returning from our trip, most people had a ton of questions. “How many miles did you cover? Did you see any bears? Where did you sleep? Were you scared?” I answered these questions over and over again–and I was so thankful that people were asking because it was all I wanted to talk about.
My boss, Amanda, turned to me during my first shift back at Ann Taylor and said: “Didn’t you and your friend get annoyed with each other?” My first reaction was to immediately say “no.” “We each had moments of pure anger and frustration. We had ‘freak outs’ about life, but not really about each other. Usually we just kept quiet until the other person got themselves together…there was never actually a fight.”
A questioning expression fell over Amanda’s face. “I mean,” I said. “In the first week Jess got hurt, and I was pretty upset that we might need to get off the trail, but eventually I realized that it wasn’t about how many miles I could cover on my own, it was about what we could do as a team.”
I couldn’t have done it without Jess–partly because my brother and husband wouldn’t let me, but mostly because I wasn’t ready to be all alone in the woods. We were not individuals out on that trail, we were a team. We did exactly what we could as a team. And HONESTLY? I was hurt too. If I would have gone faster, I may never have recovered, and then I would have been the reason we were getting off the trail.
On the trail, I discovered all of these things about myself and about ways I can live a happier, more successful life. Off the trail, I’m realizing that it’s not easy to live in this image for every minute of everyday. I want to be the person who is “team-oriented” but sometimes I let my ego get in the way. I want to feel light, fluffy and confident all the time, but sometimes I need to stand in front of a mirror and scream all the the things that I like about myself…sometimes, I need a reminder. I’m learning that if I want to be a certain way, it might not always come naturally…sometimes, it takes work. I’m not proud of everything that I do everyday, I’m certainly not proud of every action I’ve ever taken, and it’s not all happy, gushy, perfect all the time, but I’m so damn relieved to finally know who and what I want to be.