1,163 Miles

Over the course of three months I walked from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia to the summit of Katahdin in Maine. 1,163 miles. 259,112 feet of elevation gain and loss. To put that elevation in perspective: The elevation I have gained and lost so far on the Appalachian Trail is equal to hiking up and down Mt. Everest nine times, and I’m only half way through.

I do feel a huge sense of accomplishment. I still have the southern part of this hike ahead of me, but making it this far, summiting Katahdin, finishing all of the most difficult terrain of the trail…it’s a thrill. I feel stronger and more confident than I ever have in my life. I have a clear sense of what I need every time I resupply and every time I make a plan for where to hike and how fast. I’m still drawing and painting every day and cannot wait to share these sketchbooks with the world. I love being out there in the woods but it is not without challenges.

In southern Maine I wanted to give up. It rained, and when it wasn’t raining it wasn’t always sunny so typically everything in my pack remained damp. Then it would be 90 degrees and humid, and I would be parched. And the terrain was unbelievably difficult. Big rocks, long uphills, or flat and rooty and unpredictable. In the end it wasn’t really about wishing for sun or wishing for rain, wishing for less elevation change or more, every option has challenges. In the end it was about knowing that every day would bring something to overcome, and that having a good day of hiking isn’t about the day itself. Having a good day is about the strength of my own will, my own attitude, my own maintenance and preparation. And when the bad days come, and they sure do, I can feel all of that pain and not have it overwhelm me. I have faith that things will get better if I let them. It’s a huge victory, this realization, and I hope to never go back to how things were before.

Hiking this trail already has so many emotions layered over the experience itself. It’s hard to even get it out onto the page. I could write about how peaceful it can feel when you’re walking down a path alone in the woods. I could write about how I would occasionally think that it wouldn’t be so bad to break an ankle, at least that would mean I wouldn’t have to fucking hike another day. I could write about swimming in lakes at dusk, seeing bears in the woods, losing my glasses when I slipped down a small rock face in the rain, the sun on my face. I could write about the awe and the panic and the gratitude. I could pour it all out here and even that wouldn’t capture the feeling, or what it means to me.

I’m so glad to be home in New Hampshire with my dog and my husband and many different kinds of clothes to wear. But my overwhelming feeling right now is exhaustion. Every part of my body hurts and my mind has felt foggy and slow for days. I can feel myself coming out of it, feeling my way back into a different kind of routine, but it’s not about falling back into the same rhythms. Doing this hike has changed me, and will continue to change me. I have a certainty now that I am strong and clever enough, I can do this and so much more.

Hurricane Elsa

All hikers knew that hurricane Elsa was coming. I woke up to deeply overcast skies, and the promise of rain was fulfilled in the early afternoon. It started all at once, a heavy downpour, and then it didn’t stop. At times the trail was a river, about 6″ deep, with no way around. But I was already so soaked that it made no difference to just walk through. There was a river to ford and normally I would take off my shoes and socks but on hurricane day I just walked right across, knee deep. It was absolutely absurd. I was a little miserable but everytime I submerged my shoes in a puddle I thought was much more shallow I had to laugh. What a bonkers thing to put myself through.

It was a long day and almost dark by the time I got to the campsite. I walked all the way up to the shelter, harboring some hope that no one would be in there….that hope was destroyed immediately. There weren’t just one or two other hikers, there was a crowd! I probably could have squeezed in but I don’t like sleeping shoulder to shoulder with strangers, and besides, the smell was unbearable. So I sloshed my way back down to the river where I saw some other tents. There was no good spot. Any flat area at this point was just a puddle, and the rain was still coming down in sheets. I set my pack down, definitely feeling cold at this point, and took a deep breath. My tent has an inner section that the poles and stakes attach to, and a rain fly that goes over the top. It’s impossible to get it set up in the rain without getting some water inside, but with enough speed even that can be mitigated! So, I dug out the components of the tent and put the damn thing up faster than I have ever done it before.

Still, once it was put together it was definitely wet on the inside, mostly due to the fact that it had rained the night before as well. And I was soaking wet, and everything was wet except for my clothes and sleeping system which lives in a contractor trash bag, but the contractor bag itself was covered in droplets of water. It was a mess. I got inside the tent, somehow managed to change, got my sleeping pad up as a dry raft in the middle of all that water. I warmed up, slowly, helped by a hot bowl of ramen. The next day dawned without a cloud in the sky. I put on my wet clothes and my wet backpack and made my way towards Monson. My shoes even dried out enough that when I had to ford a river in the afternoon I made sure to take them off.

This is roughly what my life looks like now…

5:00 – No alarm needed. When it’s bright enough to see and the morning chorus starts my eyes snap open.

5:30 – Lay in my warm sleeping bag, scroll Guthook, see what the terrain and the weather is supposed to be today. Dawdle. When it’s windy or rainy it feels totally impossible to leave the bag, doubly impossible to put back on my wet sports bra and shirt from the day before.

6:00 – Time to leave the tent, hobble around until my ankles loosen up, and pack everything up. I like to do this first, all at once. In 20 minutes I can go from laying in my sleeping bag to having my backpack completely packed.

6:30 – Crouching on a rock or a bench like Gollum I scarf down a granola bar, drink as much water as I can, filter out a fresh liter with which to start my day, and put on my hiking shoes. If I have an easy day ahead of me I’ll take a long breakfast and make a ‘protein mocha’: instant coffee and carnation instant breakfast mixed together. Before putting on my pack I do some easy stretches.

7:00 at the latest – Time to hike. The miles fly by in the morning. I try to knock out at least half of my daily mileage before 11. I don’t take a lot of breaks, but I make myself stop approximately every 6-10 miles for more water, or a small snack.

12:00 – Lunch time! I like to take my lunch at shelters where I can sit down on a bench, or vistas, or riverbanks. I usually take about 30 minutes, get off my feet, eat a bunch of snacks, and filter more water. If there’s a specific thing during the day that I want to sketch I try to get there around lunch so that I can eat and draw at the same time.

12:00-4:00 – Afternoon hiking is harder than morning hiking. If I have enough battery life I listen to audiobooks or podcasts or music, but it still goes slower after lunch. The last mile of every day, no matter the overall distance, feels neverending. I could hike 8 miles or 20 miles and that last mile will test my endurance every time.

4:30 – Set up camp. Like in the morning, I like to do this all at once. Pick out my spot, put up my tent, sleeping pad, clothes. If there’s a good water source I will get into it every time and wash my legs and arms and feet before changing into my camp clothes. Other hikers sometimes tease me about this habit.

5:00 SHARP – Dinnertime. I always have to force myself to wait until after 5 to start cooking.

6:00-7:30 – Hang out with camp friends, do a crossword, look at Guthook some more, do a Guthook check in for friends and family, do my nightly yoga routine, sketch, or paint previous sketches, flip through the trail log, leave an entry, write about the day in the trail log I keep on my phone, charge my phone if needed, filter more water. Always filter more water. Hang a bear bag….or not.

8:00 at the latest – Hiker midnight. By 8:00 everyone will be in their sleeping bags, or in their tents. Sometimes I listen to audiobooks some more. I rub Joshua Tree Healing Salve onto my poor feet, checking them for new blisters, new aches. Inventory bug bites and bee stings.

9:00 – Time to turn the phone off and fall asleep practically before my head hits the pillow.

Loneliness and Friendship

Most of the time I am not lonely when I’m on the Appalachian Trail. It only really happens when the rest of my day is difficult. When I’m cold and wet and tired and I haven’t seen anyone I know in a few days, I lay in my tent at the end of the day and miss my partner and my friends and my dog. But then I’ll get up the next day, or the day after that and things will feel better for no particular reason. In truth, most of the time I am surrounded by people. Every night I show up at designated shelters or campsites. Sometimes it’s just me, sometimes there are a few other thru hikers, sometimes there are camp groups, section hikers, day hikers. After so much time spent in isolation, quarantine, then with limited numbers of close friends, I have had to relearn how to small talk, relearn how to make friends out of strangers. Almost every night on the trail there will be someone to talk to about small things: the trail, the weather, life stories, food, and what the next day will hold. But I like it best when I can find people I get along with and see them consistently.

At this point most thru hikers are doing the same mileage, albeit at slightly different paces. This means that sometimes I see the same group of hikers each night, even if we don’t hike together during the day. Near the end of this half I fell in with a group of NOBO hikers who started in Georgia: a group of three guys (Yak, Pneumonia, and Skeeter) a couple finishing their thru from 2018 (Pacer and Chaser), two guys that I knew about before meeting because of the amazing sprinter van I would always see at trailheads (Captain America and Rapture). I hiked faster and maybe a little further each day so that we could joke around while eating dinner. Then I would lose some or all of them for a few days, and see them again having lunch by a river, or sitting up at a viewpoint. I would think that I was going to have a night to myself and then be pleasantly surprised when I show up to camp to people I already know and like.

Seeing these groups is wonderful, but I’m still an outsider. A “dirty flip-flopper” as Yak would put it, although after keeping up with them for days they decided that I’m alright even though I’m obviously confused about which direction to go. Still, all of these boys are at the finish line, and I still have hundreds of miles to go. My original trail family (“Tramily”) of fellow flip floppers Sandy and Blue broke up weeks ago. Trips home at different times put us hundreds of miles away from each other. Then, miraculously, Sandy and I met up again in New Hampshire. This is what I like the best, having a hiking partner, knowing that each night we would be in the same place. At this point Blue was back in Michigan for weddings, not to return until late July, but I still had my tramily in Sandy. We hiked through the white mountains and southern maine until a string of extremely difficult and wet days and a broken phone put Sandy over the edge, sending him back home, to finish the hike in sections over the next few years instead of all at once right now. It was extremely sad to watch him leave, and to finish the last 200 miles without my friend. But I know that we will remain friends outside of this adventure for years to come. That is the magic of a trail family.

The Best Day

I keep a trail diary on my phone, writing in it every night so that I can remember everything. Otherwise the days would blur together – hike, sleep, repeat. Most days are relatively uneventful, but I will always be glad of this record to remember the good days, and the best days. This day was the best day of hiking so far on the trail, maybe the best day of hiking so far in my life: Franconia Ridge.

Trail Journal: 6/21/21

“This was it. The perfect day of hiking. Extremely difficult, stunning weather, ridges, and views and variation. The day started at Liberty Springs Campsite then went up to Liberty, then Lincoln, Lafayette, Garfield, down to Galehead Hut, up South Twin, then over Guyot to this campsite. Sandy, a day hiker, and I waited just below Lincoln summit because of the high wind and rain gusting around.

It stopped raining after a few minutes but the gusts weren’t dying down so we decided to just go for it. Most of the way up Lincoln the clouds started to clear in patches, showing a bit of the trail, or a distant peak, and then huge patches started to clear, all the way up to Lafayette with the clouds streaking up and over the summit. The whole ridge was like that, misty, then clear.

And by the Lafayette summit it was blue skies and full visibility for a little bit, and then most of the way down that ridge too. I took a million pictures because I knew I could never describe what this was like, it was so surreal and gorgeous. It was intimidating to look from that ridge over to Garfield and know that is the destination, actually just a stop between here and the destination, and crazier still to look back on that whole ridge at the end of the day.

I felt really tired but also flowy on the way up and over Garfield, with the weird bunker thing at the top and all clouds up until I started hiking down. Going down the other side felt great but it was a very long few miles to get into Galehead.

At Galehead I used my hiker pass to score free potato dill soup and gingerbread cake with icing. So hungry today, I also had a tuna packet and some other small snacks and was still hungry! I even found my mom’s name in the register from 1984.

I was dreading the climb up South Twin but it turned out to be the easiest one of the whole day. Must have been the soup. And there we had HUGE VIEWS, it was totally clear we could see 360 degrees and the only peak in a cloud was Washington and even that was minor. Sat up there for a while with Sandy and nickels just watching it go by. Looking back at the ridge we just went over was extremely intimidating and satisfying.

Then the last stretch and spur trail to Guyot was so easy and such a treat to take a spur and have it be stunning. The Guyot shoulder had such amazing views all around too. And this campsite was down a steep hill after the intersection but so pretty. The three of us squeezed our tents onto one platform.

Right now it’s windy and thunderstorming out so I’m just hoping our stakes and ropes and everything holds up! Just got another thunderclap. Thinking it’s about 5 miles away and getting closer. I love being in my tent right now. So comfortable except for the not so slight anxiety about the tent situation. Also the ramen I made tonight was the best I’ve put together so far. Everything is just lining up the way it should right now. I want to remember this when I’m thinking about not doing the second half of this. FUTURE CAROLYN: you have to finish this trail, you have to.”

Summer Plans

Part two of the hike will commence at the beginning of September. For now I am taking the rest of the summer off. I am going to sit in the sun by the lake. I am going to play with my dog. I am going to do numerous house projects with my husband. I am going to relax.

Then, I’m going for a hike.

3 responses to “1,163 Miles”

  1. Great story and great writing. Good luck on the second half SOBO.

  2. This post randomly showed up on my Reader tonight, and I’m glad that it did! Great read, and loved hearing your experience on a trail I’ve always wanted to hike myself, but never had the time to devote to. Enjoy your time relaxing! Cheers from a fellow hiker!

  3. Your humanity is evident.

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