If you’re hiking or traveling through Virginia on either route 81 or the Appalachian trail there is a small town called Front Royal along the way. A lot of AT thru-hikers spend at least a few hours in Front Royal, probably because it’s relatively hiker friendly. Lodge owners will offer you rides to and from the trail and no one looks at you sideways in your current state of filth.
Yes, all of that is wonderful. And yes, Front Royal, as I remember it, is quaint and cute despite being a tad rough around the edges. Yes. Yes. Yes. BUT, the real prize (in my professional opinion) is the ice cream joint in the center of town, C&C Frozen Treats.
The establishment itself is not much to get excited about. We’re not talking that new-agey, modern, pull on the bright pink lever to pour your own strawberry-banana blend. The outside is plain–the logo garners an old-fashioned pink rocking horse and there is nothing super fancy about it. Don’t be confused, this is my favorite ice cream shop of all time.
I am a sucker for catchy tag lines on menus and instructions. I am the person who reads funny instructions aloud to her friends: “Oh my gosh, that’s funny! Listen to this, it says,’Instructions: It’s lotion. For your body. If you need help with this, you need a different lotion.’” Scoff scoff, chuckle chuckle. So, when I was surveying the possible flavors at C&C treats and I came to the sign that said “Don’t read this sign or you will HAVE to try PICKLE ice cream.” I was done for. I started and finished the sentence before I could even comprehend the consequences. The man behind the counter looked at me and his ears rose an entire inch. This is when I noticed him for the first time.
The owner of C&C Frozen Treats, William Huck, is a character. He makes all of his own ice cream from scratch and he gets a kick out of inventing weird, crazy flavors. After I tried the pickle ice cream (which was delicious by the way) he told us about his plans to make an entire ice cream based Thanksgiving feast. He could barely breathe as he told us about it. Queue eye bulge.
Willam Huck LOVES making ice cream. I have never seen anyone so excited about their job and I have yet to stop thinking about his intoxicating charisma. I just think so many people, including myself, are looking for what he has.
A lot has happened since I visited C&C Frozen Treats for the first time. The life that I had planned for myself fell apart. For six months I tried to pin my old life back together. I stopped hiking. I stopped writing. I rediscovered depression and crippling anxiety. Soon, I was separated from my husband and eventually we got divorced. We had relocated so I moved back to where we came from, and I went back to the job I had left two years prior.
In August of 2015 I was in the wake of hiking the Appalachian trail for an entire month. I had an excitement for life that I didn’t know was possible. Despite that experience (or maybe because of that experience?) everything completely collapsed. I was miserable. For months, I collected reasons why it was my ex’s fault. It felt good to be angry and victimized. “How dare he! I can’t believe him! Can you believe that? Unbelievable!” I said to myself and to anyone who would listen. That worked really well until it didn’t work anymore. Eventually, I needed something new. Soon, I started collecting evidence that placed the blame on me. I deserved to feel terrible. “How dare I? What kind of person does that? I must be defective. Marriage isn’t for me.”
I sat in my misery for what felt like a really long time. I only did the things that were absolutely necessary. I showed up to work (as a body) and I paid my bills (most of them). When I came home from work I crawled into my twin bed, poured myself continuous glasses of wine and watched Netflix from my iPad while I scrolled through facebook on my iPhone. That was it. I had lost everything: my marriage, my life, my apartment, my integrity.
For months I tried to get myself to go on a hike but I could never actually get in my car and go. Eventually, the shame in not going grew to be larger than my desire to be in bed. After driving for over an hour, I arrived at Hawk Mountain and I almost didn’t get out of my car. The voice inside my head said, “You don’t know where to go, you don’t know what the trails are, it’s pretty cold out, you’re not dressed warm enough, you’re probably not fit enough to do this” and on and on and on. Step by step I did all the things. I got out of my car, went into the visitor’s building, bought a day pass, and followed a hoard of people to the trail. I still had no idea where I was going. That’s when I met Dan.
Dan is a volunteer who offers suggestions to people who want to hike the area surrounding Hawk Mountain. Without his help, I almost guarantee that I would have hiked to the nearest vista (~.25 miles away) and turned around to go home. Instead I went for a beautiful 6 mile hike and on the way out, Dan and I walked back to the visitors center together–we talked about hiking, teaching and potential careers (he’s a professor at a nearby university) before exchanging e-mails. Dan definitely doesn’t know it, but he saved my life a little bit.
Courtesy of my new friend Dan, I had a whole list of nearby trails that I was excited to hike. Because I told him I would, the next weekend I hiked the Pinnacle on the Appalachian trail. Two weeks later, some of my friends from high school and college got together to go backpacking in central Pennsylvania. I had forgotten how wonderful it was to sleep outside. Soon after, I visited the Catskills for my first ever winter backpacking trip. I also met a wonderful man on that trip who I accidentally fell in love with (I wasn’t supposed to fall in love).
I just kept saying yes to the trips after that. We have hiked all over Pennsylvania, many times in the Catskills, in the Adirondacks, and in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We went to Colorado and hiked eight 14ers while we were there. I hiked to the top of a mountain in -45 degree weather. I slept outside in -17 degree weather. I have hiked in the snow and in the rain and in a white out. I have used snowshoes and crampons and an ice ax. We call ourselves “The Mitteneers.”
It has been less than a year since I met Dan at Hawk Mountain and I have done endless amounts of hiking and backpacking. I have wanted to share it all, but I couldn’t get myself to actually sit down and write. The voice inside my head took over and he said “what’s the point? Only your friends and family read it anyway. You’ll never make any money doing this, Caitlin. What if you say something that makes you look bad, Caitlin? It’s okay, just go on the trips, that’s enough.”
It’s not. It’s not enough. I love to hike and I love to write as much as the ice cream guy loves to invent new ice cream flavors. He shares his passion in a store front and I keep mine all to myself. That man does not care that people might not like his wacky flavors. He makes them anyway. It looks like a pretty wonderful way to live. Why do I let my integrity and passion be muted by insecurities? I am who I am because of the choices I’ve made, and right now, I choose to be free from the voice in my head.
So! Here I am. This is me. I would like to tell you a little bit about the hikes I go on, the gear that I use and the people I meet along the way. Cool? Cool.