I was in my 30s when I decided to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. I would backpack from Georgia to Maine and climb Mount Katahdin even if I had to crawl on my hands and knees. However, as is so often the case, life happened. Eventually our children were grown and on their own, and I had retired and taken a break from volunteering.
In March 2009, at age 61, I stood on the top of Springer Mountain, Ga., the southernmost trailhead. Wearing my mother’s wedding rings and my father’s World War II dog tag, I took my first step north.
During those years of preparation, I had the following hanging above my desk: “The journey is the destination. The journey is about the whole experience. It teaches us, makes us strong, lets us touch enlightenment if even for a moment. It’s not solely about achieving a summit, but also everything that goes on in your heart, body and mind.”
I had two goals by the time I set foot on the trail: Every day I would hike north, and every day I would carry my full pack.
It has been six years, but not a day goes by that I don’t think of my journey. Memories are as vivid as ever:
• Carpenter, George and Gracie, Houdini, Frog and Hog, Saint, Aquafresh, Lion King. They are some members of my thru-hiker family; we still use those names among each other.
• The tears on Springer Mountain. My first step north and my husband Roger’s first step back to Minnesota.
• White blazes painted on trees and rocks. They assured me that I was on the right trail.
• Hobbit. She gave me my trail name of “Journey” on day 2.
• Robo. He gave me an ultimatum — get rid of my schedule or he would burn it.
• Eleven consecutive days of rain, slipping and sliding. Mad Chatter appeared with his face covered in mud! After falling several times, he decided “to become one with the mud” and smeared his face with handfuls of the muck.
• The cozy night in a 12-person shelter with 20 other hikers. Days of rain, cold, snow and mud. Shelters are not full until every hiker is in.
• Rattlesnakes in the middle of the trail. There is absolutely no mistaking that sound.
• Zero Day in town. “Real” food, ice-cold milk, running water, flush toilet, mail drop, phone service. It was hard to leave civilization after 24 hours, but I was ready for the quiet and simplicity of trail life.
• My love affair with the Shenandoah Mountains. Tourist food — eating my way through the “Shennies” and stopping at every restaurant that was easily accessible from the trail.
• Night hiking and setting up my tent at 1 a.m. It was in the Shennies that hikers Gorgonzola and Denali finally convinced me to overcome my reluctance of hiking in the dark.
• The nights in Pennsylvania when the throbbing of my feet was so bad I was unable to sleep. The sharp, angular rocks of “Rocksylvania” did a number on feet and ankles.
• Open-air composting privy vs. cathole. I’ll take the privy.
• Simplify and pack light. My entire kitchen was about the size of a one-pound coffee can — stove, fuel canister, lighter and spoon all tucked inside two small pots.
• Cleanliness. Sometimes I was lucky to get a shower, other times clean clothes. Heaven? Being able to get a shower and clean clothes on the same day.
• Hike a half-mile to the nearest creek or spring, purify two quarts of water, carry two quarts of water back to camp. Never, ever waste water.
• MSR Hubba. I love my tent. It was my home and kept me dry through the worst storm I have ever been in. Mother Nature at her most terrifying and her most spectacular!
• Thru-hiking the AT north — “Walking with spring” so to speak. Each day we watched spring move up the mountains, beginning with green in the gaps and valleys until it finally reached us on the ridges.
• Beads strung together by my granddaughter Ava. They spelled out “Good Luck,” and still hang on my backpack.
• Trail magic and trail angels. Cold sodas, chips, cookies, Red Truck and Green Truck grilling hamburgers at a trail/road crossing; a hot day, a dry creek and there along the trail a cooler with jugs of water.
• Those special days with Time Traveler (my daughter Carrie), sharing the trail experience and becoming a part of my trail family.
• New Hampshire. It was early morning and I stood at the top of a boulder scramble looking for the best way down. A feeling — a voice — “It’s time to go home” — not “I want to go home” but “It’s time to go home” — subconscious, guardian angel, my parents? It was there. There were times when I would say I was done and wanted to go home, but it didn’t last. Ten minutes later I was fine. This experience was different. Somehow I knew that this was real and I had gotten what I needed — wanted — from the trail and the entire journey.
• Five and half months, almost 1,800 miles, four pairs of hiking boots. My journey was my destination. I learned that I can accomplish a lot just by putting one foot in front of the other — that the tortoise is the one who had her act together. Trail angels, trail magic, my trail family … my faith in the basic goodness of the human race has been strengthened. Wilderness areas soothe the soul and they need to be protected. Life can be enjoyed without a lot of stuff.
And oh, yes, there is a new saying on my desk: Blessed are the CURIOUS for they shall have ADVENTURES.