The Mountain So Nice She Climbed It Twice

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Crossing into Hanover, NH at dusk
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New Dave at the Mt Cube Sugar Farm- a maple syrup factory that houses and feeds hikers pancakes for free!
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Weird Horse, me, and Nerd Alert hike Mt Moosilauke in blowing mist and dresses.
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Realizing Franconia Ridge is the best place on earth.
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Wayne, Julia, and I on Mt Lafayette
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The view from my illegal campsite on Mt Garfield
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Sunset from the Lakes of the Clouds
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Mahoosuc Notch, where a moose gets lost and dies every year
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PB and Weird Horse crossing the Kennebeck
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Feeling jubilant and self-conscious
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With an empty backpack on the Table Lands
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Climbing Katahdin was my last bit of Recon.
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I started and ended at a beautiful waterfall
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weird Horse, Juice, and PB (they hadn’t climbed Katahdin yet)
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A great gift from a great mountain.

In the end, we won’t be able to analyze our lives and how we’ve lived like we do to those who came before us. Nor, of course, can we remember what has happened to us to the detailed extent a posthumous biographer of Vincent Van Gogh can. My Facebook posts alone would tell a patchy story about my life since 2009- but I’m not interested in data-mining.
However, I was given for but a moment the gift of turning time into a physical being, a line with definition (hint: it’s about two feet wide). And I can think about my time on the Appalachian Trail as marked by miles to which memories are attached; I hope I journaled enough to recall the day, the weather, my emotions and bodily wishes (always food), and what I saw and heard.
Last time I checked in with my beloved readership, I was on the tail end of a retrospectively scary run-in with Lyme disease. And we were in Vermont. Alright.
If you’re ever looking for a good backpacking trail but don’t want to commit to more than a month – try the Long Trail. It’s beautiful, mountainous, and apparently as rugged on its northern half as the hardest pieces of the AT. Up until Manchester Center, VT, however, the trail was a blur. I was quite weak, appetiteless, drowsy, and grumpy as hell. My feet hurt. I was sure I was dying – I wouldn’t make it to the next campsite, let alone Katahdin. In Manchester, a new pair of shoes, a huge burrito at Cilantro, and a good night’s sleep and a pint of Ben&Jerry’s at Green Mountain House Hostel renewed my motivation. I felt more able to appreciate the beauty of the Green Mountains, and was confident that maybe I actually could finish this thing. After that, there were still moments in which I experienced an unpleasant mixture of despair, hunger, exhaustion and the dangerous realization that it’s actually pretty stupid to walk from one nowhere to another – everyone else was skipping parts of the trail, so why shouldn’t I?
I didn’t cheat. I walked every inch – and the best inches were definitely saved for last. The White Mountains were incredible; towering, rocky, jagged, no softness to them and they certainly gave me a few hard knocks, but so serene. Despite warnings from other hikers that I was likely to die somewhere on the boulder fields of the Presidential Traverse (really, never ask a hiker about the trail ahead), I loved being above the tree line again. I didn’t miss Colorado quite as much for the last 500 miles of the trail. My dear friends Wayne and Julia from Toronto came to Lincoln, NH after the first two days of rainy mist in the Whites and I got to hike up Franconia Ridge with them. That ranks as one of the most rewarding days on the AT. It ended at a stealth campsite on top of Mt Garfield; I shared dinner with Nerd Alert looking back at Mt Lafayette and feeling like I’d actually achieved something. A few days later we began our approach to Mt Washington, the highest peak in New Hampshire notorious for having the worst weather on Earth. The White Mountains are famous for their expensive ecological hut system (I guess it’s one way to make money and they really are quite luxurious and well-designed). Of course, a thru-hiker can’t afford a $150 night on the trail – but the kids who work at the huts will often let a hiker wash dishes for a night under a table in the dining room, or organize the bookshelves for a huge plateful of leftovers. The night before climbing Mt Washington, the highest peak in New Hampshire, my trail family (Juice, Weird Horse, Peanutbutter, and Nerd Alert) stayed at the Lake of the Clouds Hut. There, hikers can either do work for stay or pay $10 for a night in the aptly named ‘Dungeon’. I got to clean up after dinner in return for a huge meal, a place to sleep and a fantastic sunset. The next day, up and over Mt Washington and the rest of the presidential traverse, and the last mountains of the Whites were spectacular though very difficult, especially with that everpresent drive to finish soon.
I was glad to be out of New Hampshire, and quite exhausted. I was totally unprepared for the first 100 miles of Maine. That short section boasts “the hardest – or most fun – mile on the AT”, Mahoosuc Notch, which is a mile of gigantic boulders jumbled together with no path, just arrows painted into caves filled with permanent ice. That alone would have been fine, because I was with great company. But the next 10 miles were perhaps more unforgiving, and that day it took nearly 10 hours to do 12 miles. We’d lost Nerd Alert (or rather, she left us in her tracks), but I still had Juice, Peanutbutter, and Weird Horse. We decided we needed to take it easy for a bit, and knowing we could still finish on time gave me the courage to take a half-day off with the gang. Turns out Andover, ME has one of the best hostels on the AT – the Cabin of Honey and Bear, two trail legends/octogenarians who cook a huge meal for their guests every day, drive you to the trail, and have a huge library of VHS tapes for lazy twenty-somethings to explore. Needless to say we spent two nights there. After Andover, the real feeling of relief came. The terrain evened out, rocky but flatter, and we finally got our blueberries! The northern half of Maine went by in a real blur. Some of my favorite hiking on the trail: the Bigelow range, Moxie Bald, Sabbath Day Pond all stand out for me as some of my happiest days both on and off trail. Then of course the final 114 miles deserve their own essay, but I’ll just say that the 100 Mile Wilderness, though remote, was only difficult because I hugely underestimated how much food I would need, which prompted me to hike a 33.4 mile day with some intense new friends so I could gorge myself at the Abol Bridge camp store (I spent over $100 on food there I think). Other than that it was a perfect 5 days. I hiked it almost entirely alone so I could think about all I’d been through. Views of Katahdin reminded me every day that I was almost finished – a deeply troubling feeling that I guess would have been sadder if I hadn’t been so hungry!
Impulsive as ever, I summited Katahdin the day before I was supposed to hike that esteemed peak, for fun, because Ranger Ed told me he thought I could do it despite having already hiked 10 miles that morning. And then the next day I summited again while waiting for my parents – The Mountain So Nice She Climbed It Twice. Both days had long open views and sun, threatening clouds that only once opened up on me but added to the drama of Katahdin’s peaks. Alone the whole time, I sang a bit, cried a bit, and smiled for the whole hike above the tree line as I realized in tiny spurts of consciousness that I was done with the trail.
I guess I’m still not convinced I got everything out of my experience that I could have… So if you ask me if I’d like to hike another trail, the answer is certainly yes.

And thus into the final quarter

I could get used to this…
So much has happened to me in the last few weeks. Good things, bad things, and strange blips with silver linings…
First of all, soon after my last post I completed Project Catch Wonderland (who has asked to be called Weird Horse from now on). I entered New York State on a lovely June day, hiking with New Dave. We got glorious overloaded banana splits at Baleville Creamery and hiked to a little waterfall and camped. The next day we started hiking together, moseying along, when I got a text from Weird Horse: she was going to “slow down” for me – could I catch her? Well, I left New Dave behind so I could put in a long day with no idea where I could camp unless I went farther than I ever had before; by the end of the day I had climbed the famed Bear Mountain, seen the NYC skyline from a few different view points, gotten slightly lost, and hiked 30 miles. The NEXT day I hiked another 24 to finally catch up, and the reunion was joyous and the pizza was extra large. Hiking partner for the rest of the trek: check.
A couple of days later my dear friend Janine texted me from Sweden and said she had a colleague in Connecticut who was willing to take care of us for a night. We hiked into Kent (I was running on fumes at this point and so stinky) and Don picked us up and took us to his beautiful house in Ridgefield, where he and his wife Terry fed us a beautiful dinner, let us do laundry, and regaled us with stories of camping on the St Lawrence River (why am I hiking again?). They drove us back to town the next morning, and we got (expensively) coiffed by thankfully undisgusted stylists. And we hiked on. Connecticut, despite being a short state at 52 miles, took us four days to cross because of the heat wave that came two days later and slowed us to a crawl of apathy and “we’re-never-gonna-make-its”.

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With a pizza this big you just hope the food coma doesn’t catch you until you’re done.
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Terry, Weird Horse, me and Don back in Kent
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Nouvelle coiffure šŸ™‚
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Rand’s Field with a 4-mountain ridge in the distance (which we of course hiked)
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Cookie Monster and us with the signs she made for us in Dalton after burgers and great conversation
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Wildflowers on Mt Greylock
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Adult Jenga.
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I’ve never loved a hot tub this much
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Julia, Drew (in the back), Will, and me with the much-craved Kombucha
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Sunset from Harmon Hill- first night in Vermont
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Bromley Mt – we are back in the mountains!

At this point misfortune creeped in in the form of lethargy, drowsiness, nausea, and lack of appetite: it seems I had caught the dreaded Lyme disease! I was feeling terrible. Really, I was an unpleasant hiking companion and frequently panicked that we would never reach Katahdin, let alone the next campsite. I probably lost a few pounds and my hiking was certainly not helped by distaste for nourishment. However, Weird Horse convinced me to call my doctor and ask for a prescription for Doxycycline, as we’d be getting to town that day and I could try to take it. We arrived in Dalton after 20 agonizing miles, and were picked up by Cookie Monster, an old friend of my dad’s who is an accomplished hiker (she leads winter hikes in the White Mountains and has enviable biceps to boot). Not only did she take us to dinner in Pittsfield, but she gave us about 50 homemade cookies (chocolate crinkle and M&M chocolate chip), and took me to Walmart to get my medicine. Thank you for that Cookie Monster!
Bad luck next: a stay on my pack snapped on a mountaintop and duct tape has been under much tension since then. At first I was quite angry, but ZPacks has awesome customer service and is sending me a replacement as I write this. I can’t stay mad at a pack that weighs under 20lb!
Our next stroke of friendly luck came two days later, from the summit of Mt Greylock, the highest peak in MA and apparently the location of JK Rowling’s North American school of magic. We were unable to find a place to stay and get clean in Williamstown, but my grandmother called Brad, a friend’s son, and soon we were hanging out in our very own tiny guest cottage, taking shower after shower, enjoying adult Jenga, celebrating Brad and Julia’s son Drew’s 7th birthday – AND taking a dip in a brand new hot tub.
Even though these events were close together, and maybe it seems like Weird Horse and I are a bit spoiled (a shower every 4 days? It’s like we’re not even backpacking!), I have to say that every single ounce of help we get is deeply appreciated, so unique and formative for this journey. A home-cooked meal, a cookie, a brief respite from the elements – these things are brought into sharp relief when you delete the hubbub of “real life”. I’m so grateful to all my friends out there for whom it’s not even a question of “if” I can make it, but “when”. It’s a cliche, but I really do have a new love for running water, and a simple offer of a place to stay or get clean really makes me believe that maybe I can do this. By next week I will have just two states to go.

On gear

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Proof of Rocksylvania – Knife’s Edge Rocks
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Juice at Wolf Rocks
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Crossing the border on the Delaware RiverĀ 
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We were told to expect bears in NJ – we saw this family .3mi across the border
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Sunfish Pond, a lovely glacial lake in NJ
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Monster (from Germany)Ā 
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Firetower in NJ, I’m really loving this state!

I’m entering New England now! I love New Jersey, goodbye dear Rocksylvania! I’ve hiked with cool new friends – Clementine and Juice (Funtimewithtrees.wordpress.com). Tomorrow I get into New York State, and then Connecticut and Massachusetts are a hop, skip and a jump. My feet hurt every morning but I sleep so well out here, in my tent on my egg-carton sleeping pad. I wake every morning a new person.

I sort of guessed that a request for a gear spiel would come in after my last hasty post, so I admit that it’s time to attempt a brief history of Recon’s AT thru-hike thus far, as told in pounds and miles.
As many of you know by now, the first 150 miles of my hike were not easy. My wonderful father (trail name: St Paddy) came out for the first three days to see me off. Being the stubborn Kenneys we are, neither of us really felt the need to adjust gear at Neels Gap, an outfitter that’s the first major quitting point on the AT (20% at 30mi in!), where a former thru-hiker will “shake down” your pack and tell you what to send home. Obviously, a chance for unblooded hikers to learn a lesson – including me, if I’d been less proud. I started off with a 65L Osprey pack, a great piece of gear although it tempts one to overpack. By the third day I had decided to downsize to my own 50L Osprey Aura, which fit my personality better (hip-pockets! Bells and whistles!). But my pack was still close to 45lb, filled with too much food (about 3 weeks’ worth), gadgets, and a 5lb Biolite camp stove that is amazing for every outdoor activity EXCEPT backpacking. At the Nantahala Outdoor Center, 9 days after I started and many agonizing days of severe pain everywhere imaginable, I sent home all the gadgets (paperback>Kindle) and my stove (Jetboil stoves are fantastic) and got my pack “base weight” down to about 21lb from around 30. Oh – and the next day I found out my Asolo boots were a size too small for my weird feet and bought men’s Keen Voyageurs, a shoe I never wish to part with. Huzzah to wide toe-boxes! And a big thank you to Tom, the chew-smackin’ gentleman who fitted me for them. I practically RAN into the Smokey Mountains, and like I said, started to have a great time.

It became a game. How much can you drop? I sent home clothes, my big trail journal, learned you only need one bra and two pairs of socks, and suppressed my innate tendency to hoard for future emergencies. I got to about 18lb base, perfectly respectable, with enough room for lotsa food.

And then… I went Ultralight. It’s this heavily judged thing where you shell out an insanely disproportionate amount of cash to plummet your base weight. I chose to go Z-Packs. They make all their gear out of Cuben fiber, which is both durable and lightweight. I got the Arc pack, 40Ā° down sleeping bag, and two-man Duplex tent. That dropped about 6lb from my pack. What a lovely change! It’s helping me do 20+ miles a day and work on project Catch Wonderland, who is less than a day ahead of me (2 weeks ago she was a day and a half ahead!). It feels great to hike like this! I feel strong, motivated, and on track. When I catch Wonderland she and I will push each other to finish this long and magical trail.

To my family and friends out there, thanks for all your letters and notes thus far. I’ve loved getting mail at my stops along the way! I’d like to invite my followers to come walk with me a bit, although I realize most people would have a very long drive just to hike a few miles. If you’d like to support me in any way, please let me know – though extra help doesn’t seem to be necessary at this point, it’s of course always welcome. Love to you all!

7% in 7 days!

I’m past the halfway point, finally! Made some new friends

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Hiker Xing
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I didn’t know I needed new shoes until Rocksylvania
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Clementine posing on Table Rock
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Cornfields before Boiling Springs, PA

but my main goal right now is to catch Wonderland (she was 30mi ahead last week, now she’s 10…) and finish this long trail with her. Pennsylvania lived up to its reputation – it’s SO Rocky, but it’s lovely and the rain might finally have given us a break. I’m gonna keep moving today to enjoy the lovely weather. A long-winded explanation of hiking gear and how much fun I’m having playing with lightening the load and being an “ultralighter” is not really in order on this blog. I talk enough about stuff with the rest of the smelly gear-heads out here that I don’t want to bore any of my lovely followers off-trail with it! Although, if you do have any questions please don’t hesitate to ask! I’ll give you a spiel that will make your ears fall off.

Anyways, the point is that I’ve dropped some of my pack weight and am thus already ahead of my projected second-half schedule- so I’ve updated the list of addresses in my last blog post! So bear that in mind because I’ll no longer get mail from you amazing friends!

Half-Gallon Challenge

It’s been a while since I last wrote. Close to 300 miles in fact, although that sort of thing doesn’t impress me as much as it once did. 1000… Now there’s a number worth mentioning! And yet by next week I’ll have different milestones to celebrate, such as the official halfway point at Pine Grove Furnace State Park, PA, where thru-hikers are offered a claim to fame with the “Half-Gallon Challenge”, wherein one obviously downs 4 pints of ice cream in an hour. The real question is, which flavor of ice cream do I most want to taste…twice? Just kidding. Beyond that there are new states to enter, a welcome change since Virginia was 560mi long and offered beauty but little feeling of progress. I look forward to the low ridges of Rocksylvania so named for the dread of “walking on forks for 80mi” (former thru-hiker warning, hopefully exaggerated). I may take a train from the AT directly into New York City, and feel so lost that I end up hiking in Central Park and get arrested for cooking ramen in my JetBoil on Wall St. How will I feel at 2/3? 3/4? When I climb Mt Washington and don’t get blown off?

What’s happened in the last 300 miles? I got to see my dad once, my mom twice, I saw a black bear in Shenandoah National Park, hiked with Creature every day (he’s ahead of me now…hope I’ll catch up), watched Charlie’s Angels in a hostel in Waynesboro, VA with a pint of Ben&Jerry’s cinnamon roll ice cream, upped my mileage to the point where 23mi is not daunting, and even showered like 4 times. Well, maybe 3. I really am loving this trail.

I’m in the plane to Washington, DC from Indianapolis right now, thinking about what I’ve achieved so far and excited to start hiking tomorrow. I didn’t tell anyone in Bloomington that I was coming home; which was totally vindicated by the fantastically cinematic double-takes I witnessed in my friends as they saw me walk toward them, and by the extreme joy I felt with each hug from someone who thought they’d never see me again. Karolina and I got to hike together for a whopping 6 days, or 95 miles of sister-bonding and me showing off on my turf (and parading my recently-graduated genius sibling through campsites, pubs, and other hiker haunts). I loved every minute of it, except maybe the last hour of our 14mi slog through unending rain out of Harper’s Ferry; I’d been looking forward to finally hiking with someone I’ve known forever, to sharing this singular experience with her so at least someone would really understand why I’m out here – but it was definitely time to take a break. I was starting to get sick of the rain, was definitely getting shin splints in my right leg, and hadn’t taken even one day off in 600mi. So, we got picked up off the trail by Karolina’s friend Andrew, and spent the night at her friend Taryn’s house in DC (you guys, THANK YOU), and flew home last Tuesday. We surprised both our boyfriends by getting an earlier flight – the $75 upcharge was worth every cent for the look on Arne’s face when I incongruously rang the doorbell 6 hours before he was supposed to pick me up…and I spent 4 whirlwind days at home drinking wine and Indiana beer, visiting all my beloved friends at Feast and beyond (and getting showered with treats all the while: local strawberry salad, espresso ice cream, kombucha, cold brew coffee…), and walking around lovely Bloomington in May with Arne, the face I most needed to see.

Now I feel as though I can look farther down my road, reassured that people back home are rooting for me and that 1055mi of hiking is impressive. It’s important for me to remember that poignant cliche, “take it one day at a time”. Every future obstacle looms ever higher with each unreliable hiker rumor about its difficulty, and yet it’s really just walking, and the day I climb Katahdin or any of the myriad mountains I have ahead will be just another day, with a beginning and an end and stops for snacks and potty breaks and waterfalls. In other words, it’s doable. Tonight the amazing Andrew will take me back to the AT, my own personal river that will feel as familiar as my Keens do on my feet, and I will bust into the second half of this trail with the knowledge that it does have an end, and I will make it there. Someday.

Now I’ve been asked for updated addresses and dates I expect to arrive in certain towns. I will for sure visit these places and check my mail! Thanks to all my supporters who cheer me with even a postcard. Please address mail as “Hold for Thru-hiker Maia Kenney”, and as long as it gets there before the date I’ve listed, I should get it!

Boiling Springs, PA: 6th June. 1121mi on trail.
Post Office, 3 E 1st St Boiling Springs, PA 17007
Port Clinton, PA: 6 June. 1217mi on trail.
Post Office, 6 Broad St. Port Clinton, PA 19549
Unionville, NY: 13th June. 1346mi on trail.
Post Office, 1 Main St. Unionville, NY 10988
Kent, CT: 19th June. 1467mi on trail.
Backcountry Outfitters, 5 Bridge St. Kent, CT 06757
Cheshire, MA: 24th June. 1577mi on trail.
St Mary of the Assumption Church, 159 Church St. Cheshire, MA, 01225
Killington, VT: 2nd July. 1704mi on trail.
Base Camp Outfitters, 2363 Route 4, Killington, VT 05751
Glencliff, NH: 6th July. 1790mi on trail.
Hikers Welcome Hostel, 1396 NH Rt 25, PO Box 25, Glencliff, NH 03238
Caratunk, ME: 27th July. 2038mi on trail.
Northern Outdoors, 1771 US 201, The Forks, ME 04985

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Oceanic clouds form The Priest
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Getting drenched has its perks: Creature, Rachel, me, and Wonderland after a soggy reunion
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Feeling good in Shenandoah!
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Sharing a Clif Bar with my favorite section hiker
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Elation has 3 zeros
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Stretching on her last morning without a shower. Miss you already!

Spring on the AT

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Maggie (Rubiks) and I at the 500 mile markerĀ 
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Sunset and wild ponies in Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia
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Eastern Red-Spotted Newt on a rainy morning
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Shelagh and I enjoying a farm-to-table salad at Woods Hole HostelĀ 
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Post-thunderstorm view from Dragon’s Tooth
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The Wheel- my favorite yoga pose in the best possible place for it -McAfee Knob
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Wonderland and I on our way down into Pearisburg!

The mornings are no longer silent, dead affairs. I wake up at 6:14, take out my earplugs, and listen to about 15 different species of birds… Goldfinches squeaking, owls hooting obscenely loudly, grouse thumping (which at first I thought was gas explosions underground)…woodpeckers constantly hammer, and one morning we were rudely blasted awake by a whippoorwill demanding we leave his territory! The forest is rising to spring, and I’ll gladly take the bugs if it means soft green leaves, little white flowers, redbuds, and of course the birds. I thought I’d be chased by spring the minute I started the trail, probably because it was 80Ā° and sunny for our first three days out, but of course winter came back with a vengeance more than a few times to remind me that these really are mountains, and that 6000ft of elevation invites blizzards without much warning.
Weather is more important to us out here than at home…I’m usually bored to tears by small talk of forecasts, but here I appreciate every person who has actually checked what’s coming. If it might rain at night, I’m more likely to sleep in a shelter so I don’t have to break down a wet tent, but I sleep so deeply in my tent that I want to take advantage of every clear night.
We aren’t exactly playing “survival of the fittest” on the Appalachian Trail. We are well-fed most of the time and usually within reach of town every three days or so. We always have enough food in our packs and that’s not counting trail magic, which is unexpected and rather caloric (and deeply appreciated). In town we feed in a frenzy of pizza, burgers, and whatever else we can fit in before we feel nauseated, and regret until two days of hiking when we forget what green vegetables taste like.
The last few days on the AT have been absolutely stunning, when it hasn’t been raining. The Virginia Triple Crown consists of three of the best views I’ve seen on the trail so far: Dragon’s Tooth, McAfee Knob, and Tinker Cliffs; pictures don’t do them justice. My new friend Wonderland and I hiked them in dramatic chiaroscuro post-thunderstorm lighting, laughing up and down the hills, giddy with the glory of this amazing trail. People talk about the “Virginia Blues” as if this were the boring, 560-mile filler state no one wants but everyone has to get through – but I’ve loved every step; even the soggy, rocky, or painful steps are worth it. I feel simply privileged to be on the trail every morning.
I want to take a second chance to thank my supporters, because I’ve been very lucky in the last few weeks! My parents’ neighbor Mary Jo in Bloomington sent me a sweet card and beer/fruit money – thank you so much! My amazing Aunt Shelagh visited me in Pearisburg from Durham, North Carolina; we stayed in the lovely Woods Hole Hostel (http://www.woodsholehostel.com/#2804), and I felt so lucky to see and talk to her (and do farm chores with her!). My boyfriend’s sister Eva in Bonn, Germany sent me a pound of Toblerone chocolate with the instructions to enjoy it in the mountains (done and done). And today I received a package from my dear friend Franka in the Netherlands, with stroopwafels and milk chocolate! You all make my walk so, so much sweeter. Next week I’ll see my parents for the first time since I left, and then my sister is coming to hike the Shenandoah Valley with me! Life is good.

I do believe in magic, now

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Just before climbing Jane’s Bald I had to visit this historic barn/AT shelter
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Three-legged dog at Lake Watauga
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Going off-trail in search of a cold CokeĀ 
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Lake Watauga in the early Tennessee sun

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We had seen clouds of smoke from 4 miles away, hiking around Lake Watauga. When we got to the source we found the awesome US Forest Service fighting a wildfire. Someone camped in a no-camp zone – a bear sanctuary that was off limits to any activity but hiking straight through, and burned a mile of forest (and shut the AT down for a while). The carelessness of that person, and disregard for the safety of forest life, worries and scares me. Where is the Lorax when you need him?

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Becky and Gray Ghost signing Crisscross and Sunray’s Katahdin Swiss flagĀ 
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Breakfast on Fisherman’s birthday with (left to right) Gray Ghost, Becky, me, and CrissCross

Now that I’ve solved my pack’s weight problems, and figured out how to feed myself well between resupply (although I always seem to run out of trail mix early, and thus spend a day or two panicking about starving in the woods), I feel I can “look about myself”, as Dickens’ Mr. Pip would say. It has taken some time to feel truly present in this experience; perhaps the literal transience of my journey made me feel like my mind couldn’t catch up with my wandering feet and was being pulled along in this trail-river. Except now I think I’m more of one human unit than I’ve ever been before. Simple thoughts about when to stop walking, where to sleep, and when and what to eat, trump distant looming Mt Katahdin, and now that I’ve learned how to experience this hike in the moment, I can begin to appreciate other things.
More important than I could have possibly imagined are the people out here. My main interactions are with hikers (of course) and those rare gems, trail angels. I had thought that once I saw a hiker and passed him or her (or was passed) I’d never see them again. And yet, here I am leap-frogging with people whom I’ve known since my first week, and have come to know as actual friends! Maria is an Argentinian-Canadian ultra-hiker, cyclist, and runner who quit her job as a paralegal to take her sweet time in the woods (she says she won’t finish before me but she hiked 33mi yesterday) – and I relish every opportunity to hike with her and analyze our trail lives together. I miss her often, because I have a little family now, and I hope we can stay together for as long as possible! Maggie is a soft-spoken ceramics teacher and americorps hero from Atlanta whom I’ve spent many hours befriending since meeting in a crowded Smoky Mt shelter and who is always game to up the mileage and talk about anything. Fisherman is a Swiss architect who dropped all to come out here and try this crazy thing – and we celebrated his birthday American-style last week (more on that later). CrissCross and Sunray are a couple from Switzerland who also quit their jobs (car mechanic and chef) to come out here and brave the AT, and they have been with Fisherman since the beginning (their blog is in German and has great pics: thruhike.wordpress.com). The trio gladly adopted Maggie and me when we could prove we could keep up (they are FAST) and we have now made three towns together! Yesterday we hiked 26.2 miles into Damascus, VA on the anniversary of my last marathon, a fitting challenge on a rather hot day that made the burger and Bell’s Two Hearted that much more delicious… I don’t want to miss this group by leaving them behind while they rest today, and anyways my feet are in need of a little healing after such an intense hike!
After a $2 breakfast of all you can eat waffles and eggs at Woodchuck Hostel in Damascus, I can tell you about THE trail magic that we got last week.
Preparing ourselves mentally for a 4mi, 2000ft climb up Roan Mountain, we came into a little gap where we met a couple just setting up a table full of hot dogs, soda, homemade chili and cookies. I was having a great day, but CrissCross and Sunray had too much food (going to Walmart on an empty stomach will do that to ya) and took the time to unload their packs and ask the couple, Gray Ghost (thru-hiked 2014) and Becky (Ms GG) to give the food to other hikers. Instead, they told us to sit down and eat and offered to take the food and give it to us the next day after we’d hiked another 18 miles into Roan Mountain, TN. We thanked them profusely, stuffed ourselves, and hiked on. The next day, when they met us, they surprised us beyond belief. They took us to Smoky Mountain Bakery (fresh sourdough bagels! California-style woodfired pizza!), then took us to their beautiful cabin on Roan Mt, and treated us to the most wonderful evening with burgers, beer, and chocolate cake for Fisherman’s 29th birthday. Then we slept in the basement on the most comfortable beds, clean, full, and so warmed by the kindness shown by these two generous people. After sausage biscuits and gravy the next morning they dropped us back on the AT amidst hugs and promises to write and update them, and we moved on up the ridge.
So what I want is to dedicate this post to Ms GG, Gray Ghost (check him out on trailjournals.org), to Arne, my family and friends at home, and to all the other people without whose belief in what I’m doing out here I would probably already be in Bloomington, definitely the worse for wear.
I’m overwhelmed by the love floating out here in rural Appalachia – by the relationship between former and current thru-hikers, random curious strangers whose questions about the trail come with an offer of a few beers, and the never-ending ridgeline peppered with views of forests and blue distant mountains. I promise to pay this friendship forward when I can, and to carry the memory of it even after I finish the trail and am reunited with “the world”.
Now it’s time to hike the 560mi of Virginia…

The belly of the thru-hiker is never full

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Early morning post-storm glow on Sugarloaf Mt
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Bonfire before a huge storm at Little Laurel Shelter
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Ghost the dog hiked for 2 hours with me, until I had to shoo him home
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5500ft on Big Bald- right before an even bigger, scarier snowstorm
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So happy to see friends from home!
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Vortex Doughnuts in Asheville – a thru-hikers dreamland

At some point in the last few weeks, the Appalachian Trail has become a journey dictated almost entirely by food. When can I eat breakfast? Snack 1? 2? 7? Dinner? When will I run out of food? How many days to make it into the next town to pig out on “real” (greasy and extremely caloric) food and buy more tuna, oatmeal, ramen? It’s impossible to envision the AT as a whole entity, and so instead, hikers break it into little 4-8 day blocks that wrap mileage, trail difficulty, weather, and the ever-looming fantasy of the next great feed, into a neat package with a goal at its northern end. From Hot Springs, NC I hiked for 4 days to get to Erwin, TN, a distance of 69 miles. I battled through a day entirely consisting of uphills, two days of 20-40mph wind, and one night of 21Ā°F blizzard (and a day hiking through its aftermath). But I did it gladly, and got such gorgeous views and some needed time to myself. I met yet another batch of kind strangers, notably a huge handsome dog whom I named Ghost, who hiked up and down a tough mountain with me (and whom I had to scare off so I wouldn’t break down and just steal him). And I finally earned my trail name- I’m Recon now! I got it for exploring a rather sketchy (or just diy?) store called Mom’s that was just off the trail. I think it’s fitting. Just have to start answering to it.
Yesterday I made it to Uncle Johnny’s Hostel in Erwin, where I waited for my two dear friends Kassie and Ashley to drive all the way from Bloomington for a weekend in Asheville. I can be extremely patient with the prospect of Feast Bakery Cafe’s finest treats in my future…Today is my first “zero-day” since I had to regroup at the NOC, and I am already relishing the prospect of leaving the pack alone for a day. We just got coffee and donuts at Vortex in Asheville and I’m in a deep carb coma. We still have to do a short day hike in the Asheville area, check out Wicked Weed Brewing, go to REI, and hopefully have a bonfire at our lovely campsite tonight!
My family sent me so many goodies that I’m worried my food bag will be once again completely full- although I’m sure I’m up to the task of chomping through most of it by Monday afternoon. Kassie and Ashley will take me back to Erwin tomorrow and hike for a bit up the side of Roan High Knob, and go off to explore Boone while I continue on my merry way.
Things are looking up; I’ve made it 350 miles in less than a month, and I’m feeling strong and ready to take on bigger miles and longer days soon! I’d like to try out a 20mi day this week (once I’ve eaten some of my heavier food). The Virginia AT is 500 miles – I’ve heard that hikers hit a wall around halfway through, but I will find more things to look forward to! Family from Durham coming to Virginia, the prospect of going to my sister’s graduation in May and all the loved ones who will gather for the event (a whole week off!) – it’s all pulling me along on this strange journey.

Great Smoky Mountains

I have made it to Hot Springs, NC – Maggie and I hiked 18 miles to get here! We are staying at Laughing Heart Hostel, where I picked up a lovely postcard from my Aunt Shelagh (thank you!). Tonight we are chowing burgers at the local tavern and washing our clothes of dust and sweat – and my hair is CLEAN.

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Entering the Smokies from Fontana Dam in the early morning
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Siler’s Bald Shelter in the Smokies- cozy but windy.
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This lovely family of 7 hiked the AT last year, and came up from Texas to feed thru hikers in Brown Gap! I ate 3 hot dogs Ā 

The trail has completely changed for me. I’m having fun now! I haven’t changed much myself psychologically, although I hear that after the first 200 miles you achieve your first set of “trail legs” – I have indeed noticed my streamlined calves and my trimmed waist, and 18 miles haven’t fazed me as much lately (am I ready for 20?). But this last week I’ve started to actually enjoy walking; my feet don’t hurt and my pack was not more than 23lb through the Smokies. Now that my gear and shoes are in order, I can look around me and find serious pleasure in the forest, the knobs, balds, the endless ridges and bubbling streams…the only way to take my mind off the beauty is the thought of food. Hiker Hunger is a condition that develops over the first few weeks of the trail and turns into an eternal flame that is kindled by a few miles and can only be dimmed with a Clif bar and trail mix. Out here, I can hear my body telling me what it needs, and it’s been a struggle learning to heed it when it tells me to stop walking, or that its discomfort needs to be addressed, or that it’s time to EAT.

I was warned about the Smoky Mountains, told they were dangerous, bear-infested peaks that would test my mettle twenty times over. Instead, I found mossy, piney forests full of wind and delicious spring water, misty mornings and deep sleep. In the Smokies, thru hikers are only allowed to sleep in designated shelters so as not to disturb the forest, and I must say I appreciated the warmth and companionship of a stone building filled with fellow hikers. One night, I stayed with two girls who are making a documentary about female thru-hikers (they interviewed me! Check them out! Thruatdoc.com), and the next, the rain chased me into a shelter at 6000ft after a day of missed misty mountain views, and I met Maggie, with whom I’ve spent four days now moving through the most gorgeous terrain I’ve seen on the AT (maggiehikes.wordpress.com). I think the Smokies were a turning point for me: I’ve adjusted my attitude towards the trail from a goal-oriented slog to a slow crawl through a great American tradition that I can put on pause for a day in cute mountain towns where I can score a burger and a beer. Stay tuned for my first real town experience in a few days (Hot Springs, NC). I’m thinking about setting up an indiegogo account for people to send me petty cash for gear replacement and food, so I’ll keep you all posted, but until then, if you want to help me out, send me your kind thoughts and a postcard to my maildrops.

Are we having fun yet?

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The view from Rocky Bald
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North Carolina border- after a freezing snowy night
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Silver Bald- got to leave my pack at the bottom of the hill.Ā 

This trail and I have gotten off to a rocky start. It is absolutely stunning here on the AT, and every time I stop to look out at the mountains from the ridges we walk I’m floored by the natural beauty of this walk. Every mountain, knob, and bald has been worth the climb, and the views are to be nabbed now, before we enter the “green tunnel” of forest once the foliage comes in. Plus, in the gaps (low points in between climbs), there’s often “trail magic” – treats brought by kind locals who just enjoy talking to journeying strangers. I’ve scored some serious goodies (beer, breakfast burritos, Cokes, candy…), and with this hiker appetite there’s no limit to what I can put away! Now, I could be proud that I’ve done In 9 days what most people have taken almost three weeks to hike, especially with a crazy cold from a freak snowstorm – but I don’t believe there is a medal for wearing out knee cartilage.

I’ve been hearing from every possible source that I’ve been going too many miles each day- but today I finally believed it. At the Nantahala Outdoor Center Outfitters I did what’s called a “shakedown” – an employee went through my entire pack and we sent home 10lbs (!!) of stuff that I lightened or didn’t need. I love my biolite stove (seriously, EVERYONE who likes camping should buy one) but it is not for a solo thru-hiker. Later on, after a gigantic burger – yes I’m a carnivore again – and a local beer, a lovely hiker named Firecracker told me my feet are looking too destroyed (I have quite a few sores) to continue in the boots I’m wearing. Looks like tomorrow I’ll be buying a new pair of lighter hiking shoes. And it’s time to slow down the pace until I feel a bit stronger.