Taking a casual walk in the woods can seem mundane enough. There shouldn’t be much to it, one would think. Simply put: one foot in front of the other. When it comes to walking in the woods on the Appalachian Trail, you might think it’s pretty easy. The trail extends from Georgia to Maine and crosses 14 states. More than 2 million folks hike a portion of the trail each year; a much smaller percentage complete the approximately 5,000,000 steps required to complete the entire trek. Well, if 2 million folks can survive a piece of the A.T., so can I.
I haven’t backpacked since I was at Camp Merrowvista in Ossipee, New Hampshire. Deciding to leave the comforts of a Hampton Inn and venture out overnight into the woods was nausea inspiring. I was nervous. Thoughts rushed through my head. Maybe I was too old. Maybe I was just too klutzy. Maybe I didn’t have the staying power to make it back to the starting point. Maybe we needed someone to meet us at the end with the car and refreshments. I am obviously writing this, so we all know I survived. But the venture educated me as to my abilities. And it truly was a life affirming challenge.
Here are my discoveries from my walk in the woods:
I have hiked in Utah, New Hampshire, California, New Mexico, and Oregon. I have never seen so many roots in my life while on the A.T. In lower elevations between 2,000 and 4,000 feet, the entire trial felt like a web of roots. When we started off on our 6-mile trek up to Wesser Bald Shelter from the Nantahala Outdoor Center, I was immediately struck how lumpy and bumpy the entire trail seemed. This was in stark contrast to my training ventures on the sandy trail Roy & I hiked out at Fort Macon, North Carolina. The problem you ask? Roots get wet. Roots are slippery. Roots catch the toe of your shoe. Roots blend in under a coating of fallen leaves. Roots are uncomfortable to sleep on. And roots can be handy when the trail evaporates to rocks for places to grab onto. There are roots on the A.T. Roots can be obstacles but sometimes they are the way only through. Grab hold.
I have seen rocks before on a trail. In Arizona and New Mexico, there is a lot of scrambling on rocks when you hike. I did not expect to be scrambling on rocks on the southern A.T. I had seen enough Youtube’s on the White Mountains and the 100-mile wilderness in Maine to know that the Northeast had plenty of rocks to scramble. I did not expect them on my hike to Wesser Bald Shelter. When you see a white blaze on a rock (there are approximately 165,000 over the entire A.T.), you know you will be scrambling. I managed to scramble down on my hands and knees. I drug my butt down steep slabs. I adapted body movements to what I believed would help me survive. Rocks on the A.T. are not just in New England. It’s best to embrace them as a challenge. It doesn’t have to be pretty.
You are likely thinking I am naïve….or nuts when I say my next statement. I did not expect to get dirty while on my walk in the woods. I planned on staying upright and strolling through the autumnal trees. You know, an afternoon stroll. When we came upon a section of the trail that seemed to disappear under a slide of fallen trees, leaving only roots and a slab of rock visible, Roy made his way across by holding onto the roots of the trees above. There was a sliver of footing for Roy. I had no idea how I planned on getting across. I remember thinking, “I’m not grabbing onto a root; it’s covered in dirt.” I remember Roy telling me to grab the root. I reached out grabbed ahold. There will be dirt. In retrospect, this was completely irrational to think I would not get dirty on the A.T. or that I wouldn’t have to grab onto a dusty, muddy, dirty surface. Or even that the rain pants I wore on the first day wouldn’t have mud splashed on them. I’m sure you won’t make this mistake, but I did. You will get dirty on the A.T. It’s like stomping in mud puddles as a kid. It’s freeing to let go and get dirty. There will be a faucet, eventually.
We were on the trail the last week of October. The leaves were about to peak in color. There was a ton of leaves on the ground. There’s a lot to be said about observing the Fall beauty from a distance as opposed to being an active participant. The first day of the hike, they were soggy and wet. This is an optimum surface for sliding regardless of your shoes. I slipped. I would catch my breath and slow my pace. The leaves are a mask for what lies beneath. It’s a handy cover for the roots and rocks that lurk beneath. You never know what is lurking below the surface. Day two of the hike, brought wind and sunshine and the leaves mounded up higher. They were beautiful but still camouflage for what lies beneath. If you hike in the Fall, there will be leaves and hidden scary things.
I could not believe that as we were four miles into our hike, I saw a tiny orange snake skitter into the leaves as I was scrambling up rocks. That I didn’t panic, and backtrack ten yards is beyond me. I don’t like snakes. I’ve had an irrational (OK, maybe it is rational) fear of snakes my entire life. Somehow, I just kept going on. I was amazingly calm. “Roy, there is an orange snake.” He wanted to see but it had slithered beneath some leaves. I guess it could be a copperhead, but I kept on my walk in the woods. Later at the shelter, there was a warning about black bears. Roy suggested I not read the warning. I didn’t. He later told me that the warning was about bears foraging in the area. Roy put all our food in a bag and put it up on the cables provided. I kept imagining those bears grabbing our bear bag and taking all our food as I recalled Roy recounting a story about a couple who lost all their food to a bear. I started “catastrophizing” about losing all our food and praying I didn’t smell delicious as I tried to sleep in our tent. It’s amazing what you can hike and sleep through, if need be.
The wind was howling through the night as we camped. The moon was glowing and all I could see were the leaves’ shadows from the tree branches swaying in the wind. I imagined a branch breaking and landing on top of us in our tent. The trail the next day was covered in small branches and leaves that took flight. I was just thankful it wasn’t rain. I’d rather be hiking in wind and sunshine than rain and lightning. It’s amazing what you are thankful for when walking in the woods.
The elements dictate the outcome. You have no control over the elements. Surrendering to control over what surrounds you is the way. I discovered that on this journey. It may have only been twelve miles but learning to let go is transformational. It sure was for me!