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!


14 comments:

Kevin said...

Thanks for sharing with us.

sage said...

Interesting--I don't get the chance I once did for solo hikes, but I cherish even the afternoon by myself out on a river or trail. Coehlo is a good companion. Have you read The Pilgrimage?

@cooperhill said...

I hike (day) alone all the time and do trail work alone as well. Now backpacking alone is a totally different thing. I tried it for a few overnights and it was tough. Kudos for sticking it through.

TwoAndFourTrax said...

Thanks for sharing. Very cool story!

Kevin "Tonto" Wallis said...

Thanks for sharing your experience with us. I really enjoyed the blog post. You have a lot to be proud of.

Anonymous said...

Becky! I am so proud of you and really just happy for you.
This alone trip will provide you with deep inner strength when you need it in the future...you will always be able to go back to where you walked head long into your fears...Congrats! I am honored to call you, friend.

Sarah Molbert said...

Dear Ms. Becky,
I realize you probably have no idea who I am but we have met once. I went into pack and paddle to buy my very first backpack and when I was looking at the shoes, you appeared and we began talking about curly hair haha! I as well have really curly hair and you suggested a book for me to read about curly hair although right now I can not think of the title.

Your blog has inspired me to write to you because I as well have lived and have been living similar experiences. 2 summers ago, I set off on a European adventure for 3 months by myself, with only a backpack and very few plans. I remember people asking and telling me the same things you wrote in your blog and I remember not being able to answer them because I was not able to put my thoughts and feelings into words until now. You have described them perfectly.

I now have been living in Spain for almost a year and once again arrived alone searching for something out of my ordinary. I wanted a change, to see life from a different aspect, and to not have any influence from life back home. Arriving alone, to most people, seems utterly scary but in my opinion is a time to test yourself and to step out of your comfort zone. I must say this year has been absolutely fabulous with many triumphs and challenges. I love the quote you posted from The Alchemist and when I return to the States, I will buy it.

You have touched my life and put my thoughts and feelings into words and for this, I am truly thankful. Today, I have to write a summary of my year and you have helped me tremendously. I am so proud of you for having the courage to wake up one morning, pack your backpack, grab your dog and head out on such a wonderful and life changing adventure. You are an inspiration for all and I thank you for sharing with us. I hope to meet you sometime soon! I will be heading back to Lafayette in 5 days and look forward to coming to pack and paddle to see the new "goodies". My name is Sarah Molbert and I'm 23 years old :) Thanks again and God Bless!

Sarah Molbert said...

Dear Ms. Becky,
I realize you probably have no idea who I am but we have met once. I went into pack and paddle to buy my very first backpack and when I was looking at the shoes, you appeared and we began talking about curly hair haha! I as well have really curly hair and you suggested a book for me to read about curly hair although right now I can not think of the title.

Your blog has inspired me to write to you because I as well have lived and have been living similar experiences. 2 summers ago, I set off on a European adventure for 3 months by myself, with only a backpack and very few plans. I remember people asking and telling me the same things you wrote in your blog and I remember not being able to answer them because I was not able to put my thoughts and feelings into words until now. You have described them perfectly.

I now have been living in Spain for almost a year and once again arrived alone searching for something out of my ordinary. I wanted a change, to see life from a different aspect, and to not have any influence from life back home. Arriving alone, to most people, seems utterly scary but in my opinion is a time to test yourself and to step out of your comfort zone. I must say this year has been absolutely fabulous with many triumphs and challenges. I love the quote you posted from The Alchemist and when I return to the States, I will buy it.

You have touched my life and put my thoughts and feelings into words and for this, I am truly thankful. Today, I have to write a summary of my year and you have helped me tremendously. I am so proud of you for having the courage to wake up one morning, pack your backpack, grab your dog and head out on such a wonderful and life changing adventure. You are an inspiration for all and I thank you for sharing with us. I hope to meet you sometime soon! I will be heading back to Lafayette in 5 days and look forward to coming to pack and paddle to see the new "goodies". My name is Sarah Molbert and I'm 23 years old :) Thanks again and God Bless!

clone collector said...

what a beautiful experience. thanks you for sharing it. so inspiring ~

Romy said...

yay Mrs. Becky! you rock!

Anonymous said...

Bravo!!!

Dodie said...

Thank you so much for sharing your story. I want to solo hike the AT when I retire in three years. My family says they are not going to let me but I have time to convince them that I'll be fine! I just have this feeling inside me that I need to do this and I know I can. I hope my story comes out as wonderful as yours. :)

lissadell greene said...

Fantastic! I followed your AT adventures several years ago which was just fascinating.
Congratulations on doing this for yourself. You are an inspiration:)
Namaste.

armywifey said...

I LOVED this story Becky and I can relate to so many of the feelings you expressed. You guys are incredible people, I feel like my life is already so enriched by you, John & Amy & we've just barely met. God has truely blessed your life, keep living it to the fullest!!