First Steps

It’s difficult to capture what it feels like to be on this trail. It’s exhilarating, and routine, and tremendously difficult, and breathtaking. It’s also beautiful…more beautiful than I had imagined. There’s so much variation in the landscape, changing hour to hour and day to day. As I shoulder my pack for the first time each morning and look around for the first white blaze of paint on a tree or rock all I feel is excitement, even in the rain, I know that these marks are going to lead me somewhere new, maybe somewhere unexpected. It’s typical for me to have a general sense of where I’ll be staying each night, and any major landmarks along the way, but I never know what the walk will be like or how it will feel. It’s nothing short of an adventure. It pulls me back into a thousand childhood daydreams where a mysterious wizard shows up at my front door and lays down a path for me to follow, a path that leads to mountains and dragons and unexpected wonder.

This month I pushed myself extremely hard. My husband and I closed on our house yesterday (!!!) and I knew I wanted a few days at home to start house projects, but mostly I wanted a few days at home to relax. This meant that I didn’t take a day off, or a day under 10 miles, for the last 24 days. I tried! I had a plan one day outside of Port Clinton, PA to just walk 5 miles or so, but it was sunny and clear so I went 16 instead. Highest single day: 21 miles. So, this is well deserved rest, but soon it’s back to the trail.

Trail Conditions

I haven’t seen the “green tunnel” of the AT. Maybe later in the summer, maybe as I head south. What I have seen is a chameleon trail, which is to say, a trail that is constantly changing and shifting. I walk through pastures, up small cliffs, down forest roads, over rocks and more rocks, through rhododendron tunnels, across bridges and streams. It’s never the same, and it’s never boring.

Pennsylvania Rocks (jk it’s the worst)

“Rocksylvania” is no joke. The southern half of the state was beautiful, then suddenly it was still beautiful but with a rocky hellscape of a trail built by Satan himself. The rocks are medium to large. Some are loose, others are embedded in the ground sharp side up. Every step you have to decide, do I step on the very sharp rock, or do I step on the pile of loose sharp rocks. Walking along my trekking pole got stuck behind a rock and before I could stop it had snapped in half. Another casualty of the rocks just as my insoles, and feet had been earlier in the week.

I was feeling really weak. I would go 10 miles or 15 miles and be completely exhausted. My feet would throb at the end of the day, new blisters, slow pace. Because I’m flip flopping the majority of my time on the trail has been spent in Pennsylvania – 280 of the 320 miles. I harbored thoughts that maybe I’m not cut out for this after all.

My worst day on the trail was in the middle of these rocks. It was rainy and cold all day. All day was rocks and rocks, then big exposed rock fields with huge pieces that would shift under my feet. It was a long one, 16 miles. And in the last three I was checking my map again and again, watching each half mile tick by unbearably slowly. It was the only day I was close to tears while hiking.

I wrote this haiku:

Oh Pennsylvania
My feet can go no further
Fuck you and your rocks

Then, a week ago I arrived at the Delaware Water Gap. This meant that I was finally, definitively, finished with Pennsylvania. I have never been so happy to be in New Jersey, and so far it is my favorite section! It’s lovely, and the trail is a delight.

Trail Names & Interesting People Along The Way

NOBO (northbound) hikers who started in Georgia are extremely fast. They blow right by me, doing long days that I can’t yet imagine. But there are lots of section hikers and other flip floppers like me, still getting our trail legs. The first day of hiking I met Blue (trail name for his entirely bright blue colored hiking outfit), as he says I blew past him on the first big uphill making him feel like the slowest hiker in the world. After that we ended up staying in the same place each night for almost this entire month, although at the end of the first week we also met Sandy (trail name short for Lord Sandy, Foremost Tomato Baron in all the Land after a funny bottle of brown sauce found in a hostel) and after that the three of us would plan our days to pretty much stay together. During the day we all hike by ourselves, maybe catching up to each other for water breaks or lunch. But it feels really great to know that at the end of the day I have people to talk with that I enjoy to be around.

Other wonderful people I have met…Thanksgiving, Baby Steps, She Said, Ready Spice, Two Tents, Downhill Dave, Who’s Your Mama…the list goes on and on. Most shelters have log books where you write notes to people, or just record your own name and experience that day. I look through them every night for names I recognise, interesting stories, and funny trail names (“Dirty Mike and the Boys”, or “Mandatory Fun”).

Sandy & Blue

…10/10 Shelter, 0/10 cow. Hope it becomes my next burger”

I have a trail name as well! For the first couple of weeks I was called “Happy” which I liked but never felt quite right, and…there are a lot of “happy”‘s on the trail. So my name has shifted into “Hop Skip”, as in, Hop Skip and a Jump, or after my tendency to look like I’m actually skipping when I’m going quickly down a hill, or a very delicious mixed drink from my good friend Jake that I crave every hot day out here.

Trail Magic

Take note: my favorite trail magic is beer.

A very close second is to pick me up with many snacks and sweep me away to a grocery store, Cabelas, and hotel for the night like the incomparable Meagan Concannon. Although in the end, everything/anything is appreciated. If you’re taking a day hike on the AT bring along a little something if you can to give to thru hikers, they will love you for it.

Downhill Dave saves an otherwise lackluster day with not one, but TWO craft beers at the William Penn shelter

A Few Anecdotes

Late one night a hiker shows up at the Tumbling Run Shelter with a grocery bag of food, and a whole box of pizza. The grocery bag is easily hung on the bear pole, and he designs a remarkable way of hanging his pizza box. The knife hang. That night the temperature was in the mid 20’s (the coldest night I had this month) and in the morning Mr. Pizza Box was offering us slices, possibly frozen solid, for breakfast which we universally declined.

This last week of hiking I was joined by my brother Josh! We had a few long and difficult days and he did really great. Pretty soon I’ll convince him to just hike the rest of it with me. This photo is from the last day, sunny at last, hanging out with Jake the miniature donkey, a shelter celebrity for 26 years.

Red Spotted Efts are everywhere. Over the course of two days Josh and I counted 114! These wonderful creatures are juvenile newts. They stay this bright orange color walking across the forest floor for 2-3 years before transforming to a muted olive green mature newt and living in a pond. I can look forward to rainy days primarily because that means the efts will be out and about.

After a month I have my routine, I know where and when I can push myself to go faster and further, I know how to pack up my wet tent, I know what foods I want (or don’t want!) to eat, I have my trail name, adjustments have been made to my pack, everything that was making me nervous before leaving are now non-issues.

Now all I feel is excited to start walking again.

4 responses to “First Steps”

  1. Awesome!

  2. Carolyn Maconi Avatar
    Carolyn Maconi

    Keep on writing and walking! Love keeping up with your adventure, and really hope to see you in VA!

  3. Amazing chronicle. Looking forward to reading more. Thank you for sharing your trip online, Caroline. It is inspiring and I wish you the best in this flip-flop through hike on the AT.

  4. Enjoyed your posts, Carolyn. Thank you for sharing.

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