Friday, May 28, 2010
Alone On The Appalachian Trail
Recently, Becky Williams and her puppy Boone took a two week solo hike on the Appalachian Trail. In the following blog, Becky describes their journey together.
People have asked what was I seeking, wasn’t I afraid and what was my trip like. Anyone who has taken a big trip will understand that these are sometimes difficult things to define. In thinking it through, I believe that there were three threads that ran true throughout my trip: 1 - Facing Fear, 2 - Being Present, and 3 - Staying Found.
My husband John and I hiked the entire Appalachian Trail (AT) a couple of years ago and, while we were on the trip I was always a little in awe of the women starting their hike alone. Women you may know like Emily Starr Philips or Nancy Hall from the LA hiking club made me wonder - could I do that? John and I have been married since I was 18 years old, so I have never had to face my fears of being alone. This was my time to do it. I did bring along my puppy Boone, who was a constant source of companionship, a warm body to snuggle with and at the very least, a good bark. Not to mention good picture material!
What I immediately noticed about hiking alone was the incredible sense of being home on the trail. A lot of what we fear in day to day life is more in the stories we have heard or our imaginations running wild. Things could happen, but they could happen while I’m at home or driving to work. I have decided to use good judgment, but to live my life and enjoy it.
Taking some measured risks also tests and builds our faith. Long distance hiking always involves hitchhiking into town for re-supply. When I had to hitchhike, I spent some time praying about the people who would pick me up as well as for good judgment in the moment. Every time I had a great experience. Once it was a young couple dreaming of a thru hike of the AT themselves. Another time it was a couple about my age who were just finishing a 2 day trip. Yet another was a retired church-going couple from town. All these encounters may seem like risks to some, but the flip side are the opportunities for new friendships and positive encounters.
Another fear is things that go bump in the night. When hiking the AT, you will frequently camp in areas where others are camping also. On this hike I actually spent at least 4 nights totally alone. In one span of time, I went for over 48 hours without seeing another soul (outside of Boone!). One of the nights I heard the footsteps of a large animal. My heart started racing and panic was welling up. I had to fight myself into reason. I made myself think - there is nothing in my tent an animal would want - I am safe. Normally I would have yelled to scare it away, but luckily I had Boone to make all the noise for me. The animal (probably a boar) left and we went soundly back to sleep. I will agree that hiking with others is safer, but hiking alone gave me a different perspective and an opportunity to stay present and examine myself.
On a normal hike with John or other friends the constant buzz of people creates a lot of entertainment on the trail. This hike, however, was about introspection. I brought the perfect book along for this – The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. A quote from the book is, “No heart had ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and eternity.” This perfectly describes why I took the hike. To accomplish this, I had to stay in the present moment. Not looking back at my past successes or failures and also not planning ahead for the next day or week. Simply trying to live in the moment. I found this difficult. Even though I was not making business or family plans, I could occupy my mind with plenty of things - how far to hike, what to eat, where to sleep - or even tasks of taking care of Boone, camp or journaling. One day during a rest, I was trying to catch up on my journal and my pen quit writing. I took that as a reminder to just be present. This time I heeded the reminder by lying on my back and looking up in the trees. It was breathtakingly beautiful. I was enjoying God’s artistry when a scarlet tanager flitted into the scene. Wow - wouldn’t want to miss that!
The lesson about being present also ties into staying found. On my last day of hiking, I found myself daydreaming about life when I get home. Just like my pen running out of ink, I took this as a reminder to stay present. As you may or may not know, I can be stubborn – and on this occasion, I just didn’t feel like it. I wanted to daydream. My route took me up, up, up out of a gap for 1 & 1/2 miles to an observation tower on the AT. I was following 2 guys and chatting. When we reached the tower, I realized it was too steep for Boone, so took off hoping to get to the Nantahala Outdoor Center in time for a late lunch. I daydreamed down, down, down the trail and came fully aware when I saw a road. My heart sank as I realized I was back at the original gap I started from.
My daydreaming cost me a very steep 3 mile up and down. Lesson noted, I started back up. I just could not stay in the present, though. I ignored my spirit telling me to stop daydreaming, just knowing that I could not possibly make the same mistake twice. I went up and over the field where the tower was and then down the trail to NOC. Daydreaming my way down, I became really sick when I saw the same road again. This could not be happening! Some other hikers came along and asked where I was from. I replied “Groundhog Day.”
I was so very confused. I knew I didn’t go down the same trail again - how could this have happened? Through talking to them, I realized I had followed the 2 guys up a trail on an old road which parallels the AT (then down, then up again). I then had taken the AT south where I came to the gap for the third time. Now I was 6 miles out of my way on an eleven mile day - big bummer. As with almost everything in life, there is beauty beyond the pain - if you are open to it. This turned into the best day of hiking on the trip. The group I met in the gap were incredible. I hiked the rest of the way in to NOC with a fellow past thru hiker - with the trail name “Corsican.” We talked of my trip and what it meant to me, of God and the beauty we were surrounded by.
The experience of these two weeks was incredible. I faced my fear of being alone and found there wasn’t much to be afraid of. I (for the most part) stayed present and fed my soul. I tested hiking, camping, and navigation skills and gained confidence and hopefully became a better hiking partner and partner in life with John. I have realized I can hike alone - I loved this experience. But my futures plans revolve around adventures with my Pack & Paddle friends, most importantly - John. You were missed partner!