Lost in the Woods

Before I headed out with my boyfriend Roy on our short but steep section hike on the Appalachian Trail (A.T.), I had read a few books and listened to several YouTube videos about hiking the A.T. Between going off-trail to relieve yourself to heading down the wrong trail to just not paying attention, you can end up getting lost in all the information. So many options! I figured that the odds of getting lost on our journey were slim to none since Roy was a veteran, having hiked 531 miles of the A.T. (yes, he is a bad ass). We were also only going to be on the trail for two days, so how lost could we possibly get?

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Being lost is relative. Being lost is not being sure of where you are in relation to either your hiking partner, your pack, or the trail you “thought” you were on. I can’t tell you I was ever actually lost on the trip, but I know I definitely felt lost several times. Perception is reality and there were many moments where I wasn’t sure where I was.

This is what I learned about being lost in the woods:

Plain sight

Water is essential for life. On day one of our hike, I was clambering across a slide of fallen trees grabbing onto roots above for dear life, when one of my two water bottles fell out of my pack. It slid down about 10 feet off the trail into the slide area. Roy and I looked at it for a bit. Roy thought about taking off his pack and going after it. We weighed our options and, although it was in plain sight, the downside of retrieving it was too great. We had three bottles of water remaining between the two of us. Although it was in plain sight, it was lost.

Wrong trail

After we found the shelter we were going to camp nearby for the night, we hung our packs in the shelter and went off to look for water. Before arriving at the shelter, there were some double blue blazes indicating a trail to either water or another destination. There was a sign at the top that read: “Wesser Creek Trail.” The guide book had indicated that there was a water source within a tenth of a mile of the shelter. Somehow, I had confused “creek” and “water”. We headed down what seemed like a six-inch-wide trail. I was glad we didn’t have backpacks on as the trail was precarious. There were several switchbacks and a few blue blazes, but no indication of water. I was exhausted and just wanted to get into my sleeping bag. I felt guilty for having lost a full bottle of water earlier. Roy soldiered on for a few more switchbacks, but by now, we had gone at least a half mile more and the shadows from the trees were lengthening. We gave up and started hiking back up to the shelter. As I contemplated not being able to find water and what that might mean, we ran into a young guy running (yes, jogging shorts, t-shirt and no pack) on the narrow trail. We asked about the water source and it was down the main trail (white blazes) about a tenth of a mile. We may have been on a trail, but it was the wrong trail. Creek and water are not the same.

Naked

No. I was never naked. Meaning, I was never without clothes. But when we went down the Wesser Creek Trail, I felt lost from my belongings. When I thought we were venturing off for 10 minutes to find water, I wasn’t concerned about being without the pack. As we went down our precarious detour, I started getting nervous about our packs hanging in the shelter. They were hanging so that mice would not get into them. There was a warning about bears in the area. I started to get anxious and concerned that when we arrived back at the shelter, that there would be a full-on party of bears and mice tearing our packs apart. Had I left anything uneaten in my pack that would attract bears? After carrying all my earthy things all day, I felt naked without the pack and nervous that we would be stuck in the woods overnight without our things. We arrived back to the shelter to find everything intact. I felt lost from my essentials.

Separation

As we descended down the mountain on the second day, we started to get warm as the sun came out. We stopped to take off some of our layers and Roy decided to change into shorts. About a quarter mile down the trail, Roy realized he didn’t know where his cell phone was. He headed back up the trail to see if he dropped it when he changed. I stood and waited. He returned. No phone. He realized that it might be in his sleeping bag located in the bottom of his pack. I decided to head down the trail while he unpacked. I knew his pace was much faster than mine and I didn’t want to slow us down. I soldiered on down the trail. Pretty soon, I couldn’t see any white blazes marking the trail. I started to panic. I turned around to walk back up the trail. I started yelling for Roy. I figured that he should have caught up by then. As he arrived down the trail, the white blaze appeared again. He confirmed that I should have turned back to make sure I was on the trail. For those five to ten minutes of separation, I felt lost. Without my hiking partner and white blaze to guide me, I felt lost.

The hike is a great metaphor for life. Things may be in plain sight, but you can still be lost. You may be temporarily lost, on a detour, down the wrong path, but you can still find your way home. You may feel lost from something you feel is essential, but you still have you. You may be separated and unsure of your next step; it just might require doubling back. The greatest gift from the experience is that regardless of where I thought I was or wasn’t, I could rely on myself to find my way out.

Beginner’s Guide to Backpacking on the Appalachian Trail

This is actually the over fifty’s guide to backpacking on the AT. For me it’s actually a guide to returning to the woods after forty plus years. I have hiked a multitude of places, from Mount Saint Helena in Napa, California, Tent Rocks in New Mexico and Machu Picchu in Peru. None of those hikes were with a twenty-pound backpack. They were all day hikes; rather like a scenery stroll. And they all ended where I was sleeping comfortably in a cushy bed with running water, a flush toilet, and a solid roof over my head. The last time I had a backpack on was when I was at Camp Merrowvista in Ossipee, New Hampshire and I was sixteen years old. Things have changed. More importantly, I have changed.

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My boyfriend Roy attempted hiking the entire Appalachian trail in 2015. If you are unfamiliar, this is no small task. It can take upwards of five to seven months to complete the 2,190 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine. Roy made it 531 miles before a medical issue derailed his attempt. This brought me to wanting to experience the allure of the trail.

Here are my findings:

Water

This is a whole different ball game when it comes to backpacking versus day hiking. Though towns are close to the trail, it isn’t the point to hike and drop back into civilization. There aren’t handy convenience stores, faucets, or water fountains out on the trail. Carrying five to ten days of water is not feasible. Roy bought me a Sawyer Mini Water filter about a month before we went backpacking. I threw it in my closet and figured I’d be carrying my water with me. Nope. Water is the heaviest item you are carrying, so you should try and keep enough for one day. Make sure you know where the springs or water sources are along the trail. It’s not like a road trip, where you can stop off at the next exit to refill on water and use the restrooms! We had several empty water bottles to help filter from our bladder bags when we refilled at a water source on the trail. We were fortunate that the water source was a cistern on the trail versus a spring along the trail. It would have been a process and a lot more time consuming to retrieve water from a natural source. Sawyer filtration systems are very easy to use and are highly recommended by practically every A.T. thru-hiker. Don’t leave home without a water system at the ready and located water sources.

Guide

I was fortunate to be guided by a seasoned hiker like Roy. He knew that we needed the most recent A.T. Guide Northbound 2018. Roy had ripped out the page we needed for our hike. It showed the elevation, the location of the shelters, and water sources along the route we were taking. If we didn’t have the guide, it would have been impossible to know where the next water source or shelter might have been. You wouldn’t go on a road trip without a GPS or paper map. Make sure you have one that is most up-to-date before you head out. On the A.T., the white blazes on the trees and rocks are your guide. However, there are blue blazes (indicating a trail to a water source or shelter) and double white blazes (indicating some type of change coming up, such as a fire road crossing) as well. These indicate when you are off the main trail or if there is a change coming up. You might wonder why you need the most updated guide for the trail, but there are changes each year as trails become rerouted due to damage or are remeasured by volunteers. In contrast, my previous day hikes were trails that were heavily marked with frequent mileage indicators. The A.T. has very few signs, so the guide is invaluable when heading out. I found it frustrating, in retrospect, that I didn’t know whether I had walked a half mile or not. Most day hikes have a lot more signage with progress indicated along the way. It would be very easy to get lost rather quickly if we didn’t stick to the white blazes.

Clothing

My daughter Natalie is an experienced backpacker, as is Roy. Both kept warning me about not having ANY cotton clothing on the trip. Cotton will absorb sweat like a sponge and will not properly insulate. Boy, am I glad I listened. I opted for everything to be nylon or polyester, except for my wool socks. I tried a few shirts on that were merino wool but that particular material irritated my skin. In my practice hikes, I tested out several sets of shirts and pants to make sure nothing rubbed against my backpack. I cut every tag off every piece of clothing that I took with me. I get aggravated by anything rubbing against my skin. I didn’t want to be looking for a pair of scissors two miles in. I had a total of three (yes, three) jackets. One rain jacket for rain and wind. I started off the hike wearing a jacket since it was 40 degrees and windy at the start. I also brought a fleece jacket, which I changed into once the wind died down, as it was still cold. Finally, I wrapped myself in a puffy down jacket at the actual campsite since I was no longer exerting myself as much and needed to retain my body heat. I had a base layer under my hiking pants, which I kept on the entire trip to stay warm. The only thing I didn’t wear that was stored in my pack was my extra underwear. So my entire list was three pairs of wool socks (one for each day hiking and one pair to sleep in), two pairs of underwear, one short sleeve shirt, one long sleeve shirt, rain paints, convertible hiking pants, base layer pants (long johns), sports bra, bandana, buff, wool hat, cap, fleece jacket, rain jacket and down jacket. My advice is to try them all out with your backpack in different temperatures and weather conditions. Being as comfortable as possible is key.

Food

I figured that I would be starving the whole time we were backpacking. I’m not sure if it was nerves or exhaustion, but I ended up not eating that much. We had some peanut butter crackers, trail mix, and oatmeal bars. I think it’s easy to overthink and over-carry on food. We probably brought back about half as much as we started with. But gratefully, nothing went wrong on the trip. If we had been stranded for some reason due to injury, we would have needed all the food. We cooked a rice package for our only dinner on the trail and didn’t even bother cooking the ramen we brought. Having a hot cup of tea at the end of a daylong hike in our campsite was restorative. Coffee, the next morning, when it was 38 degrees was important as well. There is something about a warm beverage that makes everything feel better. Before you head out, make sure you’ve tested your burner and cookware. I’m not sure I would have been able to figure it out on my own in the waning light of day. Warm food makes a huge difference out on the trail.

Light

I had a light attached to the end of a cap for my entire trip. I knew where that hat was whether it was in the tent, in my pack or on my head. We hiked at the end of October and the sun was setting around 6:30 PM. I did not want to be stuck hiking, eating, finding water, or unpacking my sleeping bag without a light. It was critical to be able to see at night, especially when trying to go to relieve yourself. There were warnings about black bears in the area and being aware of my surroundings was critical. Have a light and know where it is always.

There are more must-haves like a backpack, tent, sleeping bag, and air mattress. Trekking polls were invaluable as well. If you take anything away from this at all, test out everything you are planning to take with you in as many ways possible. You don’t want to find out five miles into your trip that your hiking shoes are uncomfortable, your backpack is too small, or that the tags on your clothes won’t stop rubbing your skin. When you head out backpacking, you have your entire life on your back. Thankfully, we only went out for a two-day hike, but getting the right combination of necessities can make the difference between a miserable and wonderful hike. Make sure you have the right basics for you.

Machu Picchu: It’s Worth It

I traveled to South America in 1988 with my first husband, Orlando. Besides visiting his native Colombia, we planned to make a trek to Peru and its treasure, Machu Picchu. The issue at the time was Peru’s internal terrorism and most of Orlando’s extended family recommended against a visit to Machu Picchu. Ironic that we spent an extensive amount of the month-long visit in the long-standing democracy (until recently) of Venezuela and ran into most of our issues with the police/army of Colombia. Perhaps we should have taken the bet on traveling to Peru, but we instead stuck to Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil.

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Suffice it to say, Machu Picchu has been at the top of my bucket list for the last thirty years. A very dusty bucket list since I’ve had children, a career and am no longer married to a bilingual adventurer. So I learned Spanish myself. When I saw photos of the classic photo taken atop Machu Picchu by a college friend, Lisa, about two years ago on social media, I reached out to find out how she had accomplished such an extraordinary feat. In addition, I have a co-worker from a past job, Claudia, who is a native of Peru. Without these wealth of resources due mostly to social media, I would probably not have had the wherewithal to head south of the equator to finally check off the item at the top of my bucket list.

 

This is what you need to know traveling to Machu Picchu:

 

Remote. I have traveled internationally several times over the last few years. I have taken Uber rides to far flung Colombian villages, like Guatapé, some three hours outside of Medellín, Colombia. No need for a bus token or much Spanish. Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley and Ollantaytambo are all very remote with mostly gravel and rutted roads in between. You will not be able to get an Uber or taxi ride to the train station at Ollantaytambo or Agua Caliente. I point this out because, unless you are hiking the famed Inca Trail (I did not), you will need to have transportation set up in advance. I was on a tour with REI, so all of the transfers were set up well in advance. In addition, outside of tour buses and tuk tuks, you won’t see many other vehicles on the road. Be prepared.

 

Water. The water in Peru is not potable for US travelers. Every hotel and restaurant served bottled water. Most hotels instructed us to brush our teeth with bottled water. Basically, your stomach isn’t ready for whatever parasites and bacteria living in the water versus the water you drink every day in the United States. It’s not bad; it’s just different. I was amazed that every place we went to served drinks from a bottle without ice. Funny that when we arrived at a buffet restaurant right outside the park with self-serve drinks, most of the kids had put ice in their glass along with one of our tour group. When we pointed out the error, she came back without ice in her glass. It may just be the custom not to serve ice with drinks in Peru, but avoiding ice and tap water is important. I, for one, was guarding my digestive health to make sure I summited Machu Picchu successfully. Be prepared with plenty of bottled water.

 

Transportation. We took the train from Ollantaytambo to Agua Caliente (Pueblo de Machu Picchu) the morning of hiking Machu Picchu. I made the mistake of sitting opposite the direction the train was traveling. It’s a pleasant 90-minute ride but facing backwards may have led me to be a bit queasy later. What added to my queasiness was the insane, harrowing bus ride up to the actual archeological site. It’s about 30 minutes long and the full-size buses ride up switch backs and hairpin turns on a gravel road with no guard rails, inches from a precarious thousand-foot drop–as well as passing buses running down the mountain! It was a really bad movie scene waiting to happen! I don’t normally get car sick, although it may have been the anticipation of finally arriving at Machu Picchu. I do have one recommendation: keep your eyes shut. And the only other way in is hiking for several days on the Inca Trail. Don’t forget that you come back down on a bus on the same road you went up. If it sounds sobering, it is.

 

Altitude. I remember focusing on the fact that Machu Picchu is at about 8,000 feet in elevation. That, in hindsight, is not the issue. Cuzco, the closest major city with an airport, is at 11,500 feet. When we strode up a short flight of stairs upon arriving Cuzco, you feel it. You are out of breath. You start to get a headache. For some in our tour group of ten, you get sick. You feel dizzy and can’t stand up. Cuzco and its altitude is a bigger obstacle than Machu Picchu. Seems counterintuitive that the big city is at a higher altitude than what was once misnamed “the Lost City of the Incas” (it was never lost but the Spanish Conquistadors never found it). Apparently, altitude sickness is random. You may or may not get it. Just know that Machu Picchu is much lower than Cuzco. Acclimate in Cuzco and Machu Picchu will be a breeze.

 

“Steps.” I remember that by the end of my trip, I was sick of “steps.” There are “steps” everywhere in the various archeological sites we visited from Pisac, to the Saltpans of Mara, to the 250 “steps” up Ollantaytambo. I use quotation marks around the steps because they are not a set of steps that you would expect in any given public building with an even uniform height to the steps, singular material such as wood or metal, and, of course, a nice handy railing in case you want to grab on for balance at some point. Well, on the initial approach up to Machu Picchu there are “steps”. I’d guess there were about a hundred or so. There are many tourists in varying phases of fitness on those steps either going up or coming down. There are no railings, no escalators, no elevators (yes, I did sheepishly ask a few times during my tour of Peru). The steps are uneven, nonuniform, and disjointed. Poles might have been useful but having help from our guides and some fellow friends was invaluable.

 

AweThere are few sights in this world that bring tears to my eyes. The Golden Gate bridge, Yosemite Valley and the New York Skyline come to mind. On that approach just a few short weeks ago, to see that view? I had tears in my eyes. That breathtaking view of an ancient village built in the 15th century, nestled into the shear edges of mountains. The engineering feat in the middle of an impossibly steep mountain range. The civilization that masterminded the moving and shaping of the landscape without beast or wheel. The sheer beauty of the extraordinary backdrop. It is breathtaking. It is magical. It is inspiring. It was completely worth the thirty-year wait. Machu Picchu is awe-inspiring.

 

I am so fortunate to have traveled with my REI cohort of ten to Machu Picchu. A fantastic group of tenacious and fun hikers with knowledgeable, helpful guides. It wasn’t easy or simple but worth the wait for that awe inspiring view.