All the Zero Days

WWJD

In 2016 on my first ever long distance hike (organized by a Meetup group, the Maryland section of the AT) I met another female hiker about my age. Like me, Jenna was a single mom, working a full time job, and making time when she could to section hike the Appalachian trail. She was, in my estimation, a hiking machine. Long legs not withstanding, she took the rocks in Maryland like a mountain goat. She was my hero, and on subsequent section hikes with her, she cemented her hero status in my mind. Her pace and her attitude (especially while hiking with popped blisters) was something to which I aspired.

When her schedule or the weather couldn’t allow her to access to the Trail, she would day hike the James River trail system in Richmond, starting at dawn and walking until her body told her to stop, often logging more than 30 miles in a day (with quick stops at local breweries in between).

I was supposed to hike with her as she finished her final section of Virginia, having completed the entire length of the AT from the Tennessee border to Pennsylvania. Never had I needed my own brand of “zero days” so badly; school had just started, my parents were on a two week trip to the Republic of Georgia visiting my brother, and I’d been managing three children’s extracurricular activities without the extra support. High school band, Boy Scouts, dance class and physical therapy every night of the week were taking their toll. So was my job. Commitments to my design clients and activities at my day job had to come first. I made the difficult but necessary decision to bail on Jenna’s section hike. It was a gorgeous fall weekend, and as it passed, I knew I’d made the right decision, but my heart grieved. I wouldn’t have another free weekend until February.

Then I took a second look at the calendar, and the weather. The following weekend my kids’ dad was scheduled to have them again. There was a tropical storm on the horizon but it wouldn’t hit until Sunday afternoon, when I’d be driving home. My work schedule was lighter that week. I could go, guilt-free!

I chose a section that was manageable for me – Snickers Gap at the Bear’s Den Hostel in Bluemont, Virginia, to Harper’s Ferry, 21 miles over two days, camping at what was reported to be one of the nicest shelters on the trail. It would be my second solo hike, requiring me to hire a shuttle driver and find a place to stay Friday night, neither of which I’d done before. Fortunately, I had been to Harper’s Ferry the year prior (on my first section hike with Jenna, in fact), and past experience with a group had given me the confidence I needed to do all those things on my own. I stayed at the Town’s Inn, just as I’d had the year before, and I reached out to my hiking resources for a very reasonable shuttle driver named Mark who could drive me to my starting point for $25.

As I sat outside in the balmy evening breeze sipping jasmine tea on the Town’s Inn stone porch, I struck up conversation with a weary-looking hiker who appeared to be in his thirties. He was from the Philly area and had been out for a week, hiking northbound from Shenandoah National Park, and he was looking worse for wear with his knees taped up with KT tape. He told me he’d started that morning at the Blackburn Trail Center, a cabin owned by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club that I’d be passing on my hike the next day. After 13 miles in one day, he told me, he was ready to pass out in his bed upstairs, and he looked the part. I asked him about trail conditions, and water sources at the shelter where I was planning to camp. He confirmed what I suspected: after a month without rain, all the streams were dry, and the spring at the shelter was but a trickle, with a long, steep climb to get to it. “Fill up at the spigot at Blackburn,” he recommended before dragging himself up the stairway to the comfort of his private room. A few minutes later, I did the same, taking myself down to the basement of the inn, where hikers on a budget can get a cot and a shower for $35 a night.

The innkeeper lives just above the basement, is a bit of an insomniac night owl, and wears loud shoes. I didn’t get much sleep, but I did wake up early enough to have the cook make me a scrambled egg before driving to the Harper’s Ferry Cavalier Heights parking lot where my shuttle driver was meeting me. I saw the sun rise over the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers as I drove out of town. Mark took me through the back roads of the northwestern tip of Virginia, some of the most beautiful countryside you will ever see. It’s difficult to believe this is such a short distance from Washington, D.C.’s suburban sprawl and legendary highway (and legislative) gridlock.

We talked about hiking and the impending weather. Mark said he’d had a couple of cancellations, which was hard to fathom; all the forecasts we’d both heard had the rain starting on Sunday afternoon. We pulled into the parking area of Bear’s Den, and he expressed shock at the lack of cars and tents. Typically on a Saturday morning in October the grounds would be filled with cars and people out for a weekend of outdoor recreation. The weather was warm and sunny. What did they know that we didn’t?

According to one hiker there, the rain was going to start at midnight that very night. This was the first we’d heard of it, but I started to question the wisdom of camping out and hiking into Harper’s Ferry the next day in the rain. I had a poncho in the event of drizzle, but I was not prepared for hiking in a soaking downpour. One of the benefits of being a section hiker is cherry picking the weather. I avoid hiking in rain at all costs; even on a hot day, rain can mean hypothermia.

“I wonder if I could make it the whole 20 miles?” I mused aloud to Mark. I wasn’t more than half joking. I’d hiked 20 miles once before, and even without the weight of a pack, the mileage had been beyond my limit. I hit a wall around 15 miles; around ten miles is my sweet spot. I waved goodbye to Mark and headed to the trail at 8:00 on the dot, with every intention of enjoying a leisurely pace to the David Lesser Shelter about 11 miles away.

The moment I stepped onto the Trail I felt at home, as if I were being welcomed by an old friend, or putting on my favorite pair of jeans or old slippers. I’d never walked this particular section before, but somehow it felt familiar, probably because so much of the Trail in this part of the state is so monotonous; it is referred to as the “long, green tunnel” by thru hikers. This particular section around Bear’s Den is known as “the roller coaster” because of its series of back-to-back ups and downs.

Fortunately I had only the last three hills of the roller coaster to contend with for the first 4.5 miles of my hike, none of them much more than 500 feet of elevation, and a nice view at Raven Rocks promised. The temperature was warm but breezy, and there was not a cloud to be found in the brilliant blue sky.

A lot of non-hikers in my life worry about me going out alone, and I regularly reassure them you’re never really alone on the Trail. Although the bubble of southbound thru hikers had already passed this area, a few stragglers were still trickling through; I saw at least two couples who had started in Maine. I also passed a few section hikers who had started in Harper’s Ferry and were headed south for several more days. There were also day hikers and trail runners, most of whom were just doing out-and-back hikes up to the overlook at Raven Rocks. I met a man with a dog named Mercy, a young female runner who warned me of a snake, and an Asian woman in her late 50s who give me a huge peeled and cored apple that was a delicious treat when I got to my first stopping point two hours in. Trail magic is great! More than one passing hiker commented on my JMU tshirt and asked if I was a student – perhaps another form of trail magic? I also picked up a great pair of sunglasses, a Columbia rimmed hat, and a clean empty ziplock bag; unintended trail magic probably dropped by accident. God provides, I thought to myself as I picked up each item.

The sunglasses in particular would come in handy after lunch.

About four hours into the hike I made it past the “roller coaster” for a mile or so of ridge walking, which is mostly level and easy walking. I rewarded myself with lunch, took off my pack and shoes for a brief rest, and a look at my map and my pace. I was close to 6 miles behind me, another 5 or so ahead of me, mostly downhill, and at this pace I expected to get to camp around 2 or 2:30, with plenty of daylight left.

While I ate lunch I seriously started to consider the feasibility of hiking on to Harper’s Ferry. What if there was no one staying at the shelter because the prospect of rain kept section hikers away? What if the rain really was going to come at midnight? What if the spring was dry? Besides, the idea of hanging out alone at a shelter waiting for nightfall for five hours with nothing to do didn’t appeal to me. I don’t like camping without other people around, and there were definitely fewer folks on the trail than I’d expected.

What would Jenna do?

I chuckled as I thought about that Christian cliche that had been popular in the late 90s – WWJD? What Would Jesus Do? Jenna would probably laugh hysterically at the thought of becoming part of the WWJD acronym.

Jenna would press on like the badass that she is, I thought. But Jenna was also taller than me, better conditioned than me, and more experienced. She took herself backpacking about once a month; I hadn’t logged any miles since July. It didn’t matter what Jenna would do, because right then it was my feet on the Trail, and my hike to hike. The real question I had to ask myself was, what would Christy do? What would Hopper do?

Hopper decided not to decide. Instead, she put on her shoes, took a pee, adjusted her pack, and swiftly headed off along the ridge line, intent on seeing if she really could make it to camp by 2. If yes, she thought, then maybe depending on how she felt she could press on the other ten miles.

Hopper was pondering this when suddenly, she found herself airborne, and just as suddenly crashed on the ground. Hopper, who earned her trail name because of her ability to hop down rocky declines with ease when she had a destination in site, had tripped over a rock in the middle of the most even footing on the trail.

The first thing I heard was the crack of my glasses breaking. “Shit!” I said. I was careful not to move right away, doing a quick body scan to see what hurt. My knee, my hand, but not too bad. My 20 lb pack pinned me to the ground, so I unbuckled everything and wiggled out. My pinkie finger was very swollen and bruised but moving. My knee was skinned and bleeding. The side of my face where my glasses had been had a small bleeding cut, and my glasses, on the ground a few feet away, had broken on the corner and could be repaired easily with duct tape. Which I cursed myself for not bringing. I got out my first aid kit and patched them together with tiny bandaids. They were a little loose but definitely still on my head. I cleaned my wounds, drank some water, and decided the adrenaline that was pumping should be put to good use. I set my sights on the next waypoint, the Blackburn Trail Center about two miles ahead.

My glasses were so loose they kept sliding down my nose. It was irritating and slowing me down, but I thought of the sunglasses. I put them on over the glasses, and they held everything firmly in place. I thanked God for providing in advance the tool I would need to get through this minor difficulty. He must have known, I thought. Then I got irritated at the thought of a God who knows in advance that we will stumble, provides for our comfort after the fall, but can’t be bothered to remove the damn rock that would trip us up in the first place.

Then I thought of all the possible ways I could have fallen, or not fallen. God didn’t just know about that one spot, I meditated. He knew about every possible trip up and stumble I might potentially face, depending on my choices. And He knew every possible outcome, simultaneously. His intervention couldn’t interfere with my choices. It could only take the form of giving comfort and making use of what was around. I didn’t have to pick up those sunglasses left on the Trail. I didn’t have to credit God either. But there was a force out there I could thank. So I did.

Doubt also started to speak, especially as the Trail got rockier and steeper. If I had tripped over a rock when I was “fresh” and had just eaten, how the hell was I going to stay upright at mile 15, when fatigue would be setting in? How would I handle hiking in the dark for the last two miles into Harper’s Ferry? What was I trying to prove anyway? I ruminated on other options: pressing on to Keys Gap seven miles up, and calling Mark the shuttle driver. It was an option.

Adrenaline did what I had hoped, carrying me to the Blackburn Trail Center in about an hour’s time. There was a very steep quarter mile access trail down the side of the mountain, and I did not look forward to going back up. I briefly considered not stopping at all, but I needed another snack break and my water was getting low, with no prospect of reliable water for the remaining 13 miles. I took the advice I’d been given the night before and headed down to the beautiful property maintained and operated by the PATC.

What a welcome site after the steep descent! I was greeted by a section hiker named Michelle who was headed south to Shenandoah. She had gotten a late start from the David Lesser Shelter, only 3 miles away at that point, and had decided to stay put until the next day. “Why kill myself?” she said. I told her of my fear of the rain, my choices, to camp at the shelter, push on to Key’s Gap and call a shuttle, or hike in the dark all the way to Harper’s Ferry. She was surprised at my pace and determination. I couldn’t tell if she was impressed or thought I was crazy; maybe both.

I ate second lunch (hummus and crackers, small apple, fun sized Snickers bar, and a jelly packet). I unpacked my bag to refill my water bladder, which was almost empty. Stopping here had been a good decision. After repacking I took another look around the property, checked my GPS map and the time, and set my sights on climbing back up the gnarly hill to the Trail and the shelter in an hour. It was an ambitious and nearly impossible goal, but adrenaline was still flowing, and with each step I became more determined to get to town and finish my whole hike in one day.

The “long green tunnel” is not so green in October, especially after a month without rain. I was hiking what I knew to be my best pace ever along the ridge line. More than once I felt evaporating water from the canopy above sprinkle down on me like a sun shower – miraculous to me, as there was still not a cloud in the sky. Surely it wouldn’t really rain that very night? I pulled out my phone and took it off airplane mode to check the forecast. According to my weather channel app, clouds would roll in around midnight and rain chances became significant around 5 am. I would not camp, I decided.

Shortly before I arrived at the side trail to the shelter, I passed a young man whose wife had dropped him off at Harper’s Ferry. He’d started that morning at around 9:45, he said, and she was picking him up at Bear’s Den, where I had started. So my plan was doable, he agreed, if I didn’t mind hiking in the dark. “This is about the halfway point,” he said. Encouraged, I pressed on. I came to the shelter trail and checked my clock. 3:30. I’d done 3 miles in an hour and a half. Not bad. Keys Gap was another 3 miles ahead, all downhill. I should get there at 5. That would give me about two more hours of daylight. I had another quick snack and kept moving.

At Keys Gap I checked the time. 4:45! I was going at phenomenal pace! I started to think about how far I would get before sunset. I was racing the sun, and I knew it was a losing race. I was definitely feeling the fatigue in my body now. My hips hurt, my toes hurt, my shoulders hurt. I’d hiked 14.5 miles. My physical wall was looming. Surely I wouldn’t be able to keep the pace?

Another backpacker stopped by as I was resting on a log, thinking of how great a shower at the Econolodge would feel. I told him of my plan, as he, too, had come from the direction I was headed. “The path is fairly level and easy for the next little stretch,” he said, “but then there are just lots of rocks.”

I groaned. I am not a fan of rocks while going downhill, regardless of what my trail name is, and I really didn’t want to be navigating rocks in the dark. “What’s it like at Loudon Heights?” I asked. Loudon Heights was the next major waypoint, about 3.5 miles up the Trail. I calculated that the sun would be setting about the time I got there, and I’d have 30-40 minutes of twilight hiking before needing to pull out my headlamp. “I think that’s about where the rocks stop,” he said. We wished each other luck and both took off.

He wasn’t lying about the rocks. The 3.5 miles from Keys Gap to Loudon Heights were physically and mentally challenging. Was I just trying to satisfy my ego, I thought? Did I make a mistake not calling the shuttle? Maybe Jenna would have called. There was no reasonable place to camp between here and Harper’s Ferry, though, so there was not much choice but to keep putting one sore foot in front of the other as swiftly as possible to make the most of daylight. I didn’t even eat snacks, just drank water to stay hydrated. At least I didn’t feel dehydrated, I thought to myself. My pace didn’t lag, even on the rocks, and I made it to the Loudon Heights sign just as the sun was beginning to set through the trees. There were still plenty of rocks to contend with, though.

As the light grew dimmer, a young buck crossed my path and stared at me from the woods on the other side. I had a little conversation with him as I continued on. I took out my last snack, a DumDum lollipop. By the time I had finished it, the light was all but gone, but my eyes had adjusted and I could still see. The downward trail became steeper, a sign that I was nearing ever closer to the great Shenandoah River that had cut these steep banks millennia ago. I started singing “Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you!” at the top of my lungs. No chance of passing day hikers at this time of day, and no self-consciousness even if there had been one.

Suddenly, I could hear the cars crossing the bridge. I could see lights in the distance through the thick trees. I heard the unmistakable whistle of the train crossing the Potomac in town. Although my pace had slowed in the dark on the steep rocky path, I was encouraged. Soon, I could see the river through the trees, and the bridge where Route 340 crossed. Not long now. I checked my GPS.

According to my app, I was not on the trail.

I stopped there, looking at the river and the bridge, knowing exactly where I was, but feeling very lost. I had no idea how to get down to the base of the bridge from this cliff.

I looked around for white blazes. I found them. The trail I was on did not match up with my GPS, but I carefully kept my eyes peeled for white blazes as I made my way down the bank. Had it been daylight I’m sure the trail would have been clear. Finally I found my way to the base of the bridge, the rumbling of traffic and civilization. It was solidly dark now, about 7:30. I hiked across the bridge, my eyes blinded by car headlights, and I sang all the verses of Amazing Grace. ‘Twas grace that led me safe thus far, and grace would lead me home.

20 miles. 12 hours. 20 lbs of gear. It was a personal best for me, and I felt like a badass thru hiker for a day. There was no room at any of the hotels nearby, so I took the three hour drive home to my own bed and a soak in the tub. I fell asleep with a smile on my face, and texted a hiking buddy in the morning to share my success.

WWJD got me there. Jenna, my hiking hero, did what heroes are supposed to do: she had unknowingly inspired me to exceed my own limitations and ultimately become my own hero. Really, I have no idea what Jenna would have done. But now I know what Christy, “Hopper,” can do when she puts her mind to it.

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All the Zero Days

Embrace the Brutality

Last night at about 4 am I found myself sobbing. Ten days ago I gave up Facebook. Not permanently, but a 30-day fast. (I could write pages on why, but that’s not what this post is about.) I’m pretty sure the sobbing is part of the withdrawal process from what I must admit was, is, an addiction.

Being away from Facebook has shown me I turned to that social media platform almost constantly throughout the day when I had feelings of disconnection and loneliness. Whenever I felt alone, I’d check the feed for updates on what was going on with friends and acquaintances. This didn’t take care of the loneliness itself, just the fleeting feeling of loneliness, which of course always returned, sometimes only moments after logging off.

To a lesser extent, I was triggered to use Facebook when I had the desire to share a thought, insight, frustration. I was a prolific poster and reposter of stories and memes. I wanted attention. I wanted to be relevant.

The irony is that using Facebook, the great global village predicted by my media theory classes 20 years ago, has not solved my loneliness problem, but has made it worse. It’s been nine years and I must honestly say my relationships (except with my parents) are more superficial than they have ever been. I have a lot more friends than I did nine years ago, but fewer friendships.

Is it any wonder, then, that after I stopped using my loneliness “crutch” I’d end up sobbing at 4 am? I’m surprised it took ten days.

Fortunately I instinctively knew that doing something creative, like writing, would help. So here’s what I wrote:

It is about 4 am as I type this, and I’m feeling desperately lonely with no end in sight. I have heard of this being a pretty common hazard of the trail, and one of the main reason thru hikers quit even after making it more than half way to Katadin. The way I feel right now, I would quit in a heartbeat if that would end the hurting.

But I’m not on the trail.

I’m in my bed. In my house. With air conditioning and the promise of a hot shower and fresh eggs for breakfast. With my children sleeping in their rooms down the hall, my boyfriend a phone call away, my parents planning dinner tomorrow night. There is nothing to ‘quit.’ No escape from loneliness.”

After that, I slept a deep, restorative until 7:30.

This morning I googled “combating loneliness as a thru hiker” and the first hit was a post by CDT and PCT thru hiker Russell Mease:

http://www.unconventionallife.net/fear-of-loneliness-the-1-killer-of-thru-hiker-dreams/

According to Mease, hikers on the CDT have spawned a catch phrase, “Embrace the brutality!” That applies to the physical challenges, as well as the mental ones.

That phrase cuts through my hopelessness.

It is not, “Give in to the brutality.”

It is not, “Get over the brutality.”

It is not, “It’s not THAT brutal.”

“Embrace the brutality” is the ultimate declaration of acceptance. And my time spent with alcoholics working a 12-step program of recovery has taught me that acceptance, not resignation, is the key to all our problems.

Loneliness is brutal. It registers as actual physical pain in our brains. It triggers primal fears related to survival, because humans through anthropological and biological adaptation are social animals. It is also a universal experience; we are not alone in our loneliness. And research is showing social media is making the problem worse.

Last night I made the mistake of googling “loneliness” and what I read gave no practical solutions, other than to find people with similar interests, or join a bridge club. Like I have time for a bridge club. I have three school aged children in three different schools with three different sets of after school activities on every single day of the week. And I am not the only parent, or single parent, in this situation. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who was sobbing at 4 am last night.

Loneliness is not something we can just wish away. It’s not something we can just “get over,” or “give in to,” or minimize. Before I went to sleep, I prayed. I surrendered the loneliness to God. I said, “Please help me, because I am powerless over this.”

Today I recommit to embracing the brutality. If I were out on the trail, I would give myself short goals and then celebrate when I achieve them. I would take time to talk with other hikers I meet on the trail, and practice unconditional love and curiosity and openness. I would wake up early and go to bed early. I would regularly refuel my body, and I would savor every piece of food I put in my mouth. I would take brief rests every few miles. I would sometimes curse and swear and cry. I would pray. I would take zero days.

I can do all of those things as I embrace the brutality of everyday living, including the loneliness. Simply being able to call it what it is and admit my feelings is a huge step.

All the Zero Days

Going Fast vs. Going Far

There’s a quote that goes something like this: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” That quote was in my head when I began last weekend’s 26-mile trek in southwest Virginia over Sinking Creek Mountain, Brush Mountain, and Dragon’s Tooth – my first “semi-solo” hike on the Appalachian Trail.

There’s another hiking axiom I’ve heard, as well. “Hike your own hike.” Ever since I started hiking again three years ago in 2014, I’ve struggled with hiking my own hike when I’m in a group of hikers. Sometimes, I am capable of keeping up with my companions, but more often I have a slower pace. My natural tendency is to think I should just go alone rather than hold anyone else back.

Fortunately, others don’t feel the same; on my first long distance hike from the Pennsylvania/Maryland border to Harper’s Ferry last fall, the group leader stayed at my pace while the others took the long miles in stride and out-paced us by at least a mile. He was happy to do it but I felt guilty almost every step of the way. He could have gone faster if he had left me alone. But I wouldn’t have made it over the mental hurdles that hiking alone would have thrown at me on that trip. I’ve had a lot more practice and conditioning since then, and I thought I could handle “alone” just fine this time.

So, this weekend I got a taste of both alone and together, and my ultimate lesson is that alone has a bitter aftertaste when it equals fast.

My plan was to meet my group (who had already been hiking since dawn Friday morning, and some of them since Wednesday) at the shelter where they planned to camp. The closest parking area was about three miles down the hill, which means I had to hike up three miles, alone, to the Sarver Shelter. (Side note: Google “Sarver Shelter” and you’ll find several stories about the ghost that supposedly haunts the ruins of this homestead.)

Those three miles up, alone, were lovely. I was truly hiking my own hike, getting a sense of my own natural pace, resting when I needed it without the shame I often feel at getting winded faster than the more seasoned hikers. I stopped and took photos at scenic overlooks, or interesting wildflowers, knowing I wasn’t irritating anyone with my camera. (I’ve been on hikes with people who do get irritated by that sort of thing, especially if it keeps them from maintaining their steady pace.) Being alone meant I wasn’t carrying the burden of someone else’s judgement.

However, I was carrying the extra unnecessary weight of something else – my own ego.

Three miles alone is very different than 16. And as often happens, there were aspects of my physical hike that mirrored the mental one. I was physically carrying my ego, in the form of a 2 lb, 1 oz bear vault. (That doesn’t count the weight of the food.)

Ounces equal pounds, pounds equal pain – another trail axiom. After three miles uphill on day one, I didn’t feel the pain. But after about seven miles on day two, I felt that pain for every one of the 10,000 steps I took to catch up with my group, alone.

Why on earth would I add two extra pounds to my gear? The reason made sense at the time; I didn’t want to hang a bear bag, which for me requires the help of other people. The canister would afford me complete freedom from waiting for everyone else to be awake to get my morning food. (Also, the last time I tried to be the one to get bear bags down, I cut off circulation in my finger. So it scares me.)

Thanks to the bear vault, I could wake up early without disturbing anyone else, and could get an early start on the trail alone, so that I wouldn’t lag so far behind at the end of the day. That was my plan.

It was a sucky plan.

I got about a 30-minute head start on the rest of the group, and the first wave of them overtook me at about 2 miles, while the second wave caught up with me at 3.5 miles. Downhill from that point, I flew down the mountain to our next stopping point, earning my new trail name “Hopper” because the guy following me – trail name “Rudy” – had to jog to keep up as I hopped over the rocks.

If you want to go fast, go alone. But expect to get blisters. Expect to get winded. Expect that bear vault and ego to get heavier with every step. At the bottom of the hill, not only was I winded and ready for a good, solid snack, I needed a serious break, and something for the hot spots on my big toes. The extra weight and speed gave me a pain I’d never experienced before, and I wasn’t adequately prepared to handle it.

Fortunately, Rudy was. He generously offered me some of his KT Tape to wrap my potential blisters. It’s like a medical tape, and it works great to keep friction from forming a blister on your feet if you use it before you have a problem. After wrapping my toes and having a snack and refilling my water bladder, I still needed more rest, so as the group went on, I stayed behind, alone, to relax, to receive “trail magic” (an orange, from a couple who does trail maintenance), and to hike my own hike.

IMG_0449

The next 2.5 miles were the most brutal I’ve ever hiked. After a short downhill stretch, it was a 1,500-foot elevation gain. Also, the weather was unseasonably warm for April, reaching into the upper 80s, humid, not a cloud in the sky or a breeze in the air.

I thought I could handle it. I thought it would be no different than the 1,500-foot elevation gain I’d accomplished the day before as I’d hiked alone into our designated meeting spot. I thought wrong.

I made it up that mountain checking my GPS every half hour or so and being depressed at my slow progress. My pace had slowed from a 20-minute mile to something more like a 90-minute mile. The ache in my shoulders was indescribable, and nothing I did to adjust the pack helped. I was sweating and stopping to catch my breath every 50 feet. I was praying a lot.

I was thinking about when my son was born: 36 hours of the most physically grueling experience I’d ever endured. I had wanted to go drug-free, which I did because I was so committed, and I told myself, if I could birth three babies drug free, I could make it up Brush Mountain. With a quarter mile left to go, I jokingly said to God, “If this is like labor, I’ve gotten to the point where I’d be begging for an epidural!” I rounded a turn and started another steep climb, and as I looked up, I saw Rudy, sweating and smiling.

He had heard the clicking of my hiking poles and had come down to help me carry my pack the rest of the way to the top. I almost cried.

According to Rudy, my pack weighed more than his (and he’s a big guy) – around 30-35 lbs. If his estimate is correct, I was carrying at least a third of my body weight.

There’s no weight limit that’s set in stone, but guidelines used by most backpackers are that individuals in good health should be able to carry about 20% of their body weight. A more experienced backpacker may be able to carry 25% of their body weight, and a very experienced and well-conditioned backpacker may be able to carry as much as 35%. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Gender and age make a difference even when a hiker is in really good shape.

I had about 5.5 miles left to go carrying that pack, despite the brief reprieve. Sure, it was mostly downhill. But even downhill miles are heavy, and hard on the feet and knees. I rested on the top of the mountain while Rudy and our leader, “Flops,” went on ahead to catch up with our other two companions. I put one foot in front of the other and trudged down, doubting myself more with every step. Then I ran out of water.

I was trying to figure out the logistics of quitting. There was a parking area and road at the bottom of the hill, about a mile from our designated camping spot. Maybe I would have cell reception and could call a shuttle to come pick me up. There was no way I’d be able to make it up the next hill to the shelter. Sweat was pouring out of me; my clothes were soaked. My tape-wrapped toes were starting to ache again. I couldn’t even imagine having energy to set up my tent and cook my dinner. I kept thinking about the next day, and climbing the dreaded “Dragon’s Tooth” peak. It wasn’t as long a hike, but the way I was feeling in that moment, I didn’t believe I could safely climb the summit and climb back down. Not with 35 lbs.

I had made up my mind. According to my map, there was a small camping area and stream near that parking lot. I would stay there for the night, and hope that one of my companions came back to check on me when I didn’t get to the shelter. Just as I’d made that decision, the area came into view, and the sound of rushing water urged me onward. And there were tents. Familiar tents. Familiar shirt colors. “Is that you guys?” I yelled? I didn’t wait for the answer. “I love you!!!!” I shouted as I nearly ran down the hill with a big grin on my face.

That afternoon, I baptized my sweaty, soaked body fully clothed in the creek. “Hopper” came up from the frigid water a new woman, refreshed by the spirit of community. I changed into dry clothes, and ate whatever snacks I wouldn’t need the next day, starting with that heavy orange. I expressed my doubt about being able to continue tomorrow, and Rudy said, “Well, you don’t have much choice.” He was right. There was no cell phone signal there in the hollow. “Don’t worry,” he said. “You’re going to sleep like a log and wake up feeling like a million bucks.” I hoped he was right.

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I considered leaving my heavy bear canister and some of my gear behind, hidden by the side of the road; I could come back for it later. I considered leaving my wet clothes and Jetboil stove and fuel as trail magic for a hiker in need. One of the other hikers, “Inferno Man,” offered to carry the bear canister. “Nah, I packed it. It’s my responsibility to carry it out,” I said. He was visibly relieved.

After replenishing my calories and enjoying our companionship by the fire, I crawled into my tent. I left the flap open and stared at the stars. Rudy was right; I did sleep like a log. I did wake up feeling like a million bucks. I wasn’t even sore. I replenished my water, ate breakfast, and started to pack up as the others started out. Vlad, who was prepping for a hike in Europe requiring the ability to carry 50 lbs, offered to carry my Jetboil and my stuff sack of clothes. Inferno Man took my sleeping bad. I had eaten some of my weight the night before, and burned much of my trash. My once-heavy pack was now a reasonable weight and felt more like a day-pack.

The hike up and down Dragon’s Tooth was not easy, especially the rock scramble down. There was a lot of cursing. But I was not alone. This time, I hiked with Inferno Man, who was nursing a sore calf muscle, and our conversation made the miles fly by quickly. We climbed the rocks at the top, which I would have been unable to do without him spotting me and guiding my feet. His presence on the rocky path down gave me the encouragement I needed. About a mile from the end of our multi-day trek, we caught up with Flops (so named because she had hiked in flip flops due to the ugly blisters on her heels.) She jogged down the last stretch of the journey and I speed-walked to catch up with her. I was like a horse headed back to the barn. Flops stopped about a mile from our final destination to change into her flip flops, and I pressed onward, leaving her and Inferno Man behind to keep each other company. I started running down the hill like the trail runners I had seen. If you want to go fast, go alone. I made it to the road, a half mile to go, and there, at the base of the shelter, was a the hostel shuttle, dropping off two hikers.

He offered me a ride for the last half mile to the hostel, where Rudy and Vlad were waiting for us. I jumped in and didn’t even take off my pack. I couldn’t believe I had made it! I was so pleased with myself! My homecoming at the hostel was glorious.

Until it wasn’t.

While I was reliving myself on an actual flushing toilet, Rudy had gotten in his car to pick up Flops and Inferno Man. As they pulled up the driveway, Flops shouted out the window, “Next time you get a ride, wait for the folks behind you!”

A double serving of humble pie.

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

I want to go together. I really do. As much as I enjoy my solitude and solo activities, I’m desperate for companionship, encouragement, comraderie, support, shared memories. I love being of service to others when I can get out of my own head for half a minute and see those who are around me. I guess years of believing I’m not good enough, that no one could ever actually want to be my friend, have warped my basic social sensibilities. I hate that.

But fortunately, I learn from experiences. I learn from pain. Last weekend, I learned that I need to lighten my pack. I learned that I don’t have to try to be a super hero. I learned that we all have liabilities, whether it’s a heavy pack, or blisters, or a pulled calf muscle. I learned that people are worthy of trust. I learned that I need to focus on being trustworthy and reliable to others.

I learned that I can go far, if I go with others. If I wait for others. If I ask others to wait for me.

Next time, I will have at least two less piece of gear – my bear canister, and my ego. Hopefully the lighter load will be a little more manageable, for everyone.

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All the Zero Days, Tending the Temple

Thoughts On Hiking

This past weekend I went on a 10 mile hike in the Shenandoah mountains with a group of seasoned hikers. The weather was perfect, and the majority of the journey was under a beautiful, shady canopy of trees. There was a lovely waterfall, an old 1930s cemetery, an abandoned homestead, sweet mountain laurel in bloom, and a cozy cabin for thru hikers on the Appalachian trail, infused with the smell of hickory smoke from the previous night’s fire.

Unfortunately, as an amateur attempting to go at the pace of a seasoned hiker, I lagged behind a lot and was more focused on catching up than seeing the sights around me. Heck, most of the time just breathing was a challenge! But, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and got to see just how much I could push myself, which is something I would not have done on my own, without the guidance and “peer pressure” of the folks who were more experienced than I.

One of my good friends says, “Stick with the winners.” Meaning, surround myself with people who have already achieved the goals I wish to accomplish, and be frugal with the time I spend with folks who may have good intentions or are really fun, but are mired in their present circumstances. Fortunately, I have several “winners” as companions on my spiritual journey. While the pace they set may leave me panting and aching, it’s worth the effort to keep up, sometimes.

And sometimes, it’s not.

I’ve found that spiritual journeys are a lot like hiking journeys. What makes the hike “good?” Certainly the scenery is a factor, and the weather. I love being able to linger and take pictures and immerse myself in the moment. When I go at my own pace, I get to have a relationship with my own journey, and ultimately with myself. But on my own, my progress is slower (which is not necessarily a bad thing).

Another facet of a good hike is physical exertion. It makes me stronger, and healthier. There’s the rush of adrenaline. There’s the pride of accomplishment, of knowing I stretched myself and have grown. If it were not for the leadership and guidance of a community (of hikers, or seekers of God), I’d probably miss out on the growth opportunities inherent in any activity involving more than just myself.

A balanced life is one which I have a little of both. Sticking only with the winners can be exhausting, especially mentally. It’s only human to get caught in the trap of “better than/less than,” and being only with those who’ve “made it” (or appear to have “made it” a bit more consistently than I) can be inspiring one minute and demoralizing the next, depending on how my attitude is doing.

The times I’ve journeyed alone are often when I’m able to internalize and “own” the lessons those winners have mastered. Maybe it’s a few days of sitting with my feelings and journaling about a painful incident in my past, instead of spilling my guts to anyone who will listen. Maybe it’s getting to know new people at a Meetup group, instead of stewing at home wishing one of my comfortable, “broken in” friends wasn’t busy with kid stuff or husband stuff or house stuff. Maybe it’s riding a motorcycle for the first time, or climbing a tree like when I was ten, or learning to trust that God will always, always lead me to places that are good for me, even if that’s away from the seasoned winners for a spell. They got seasoned because they, too, had time alone with themselves exploring new landscapes and revisiting old haunts with new eyes.

It used to be when I was “hiking” my spiritual journey on my own, it was a self-imposed isolation filled with self-pity because “no one understands me.” Others were either too controlling, too smothering, too boring, or just couldn’t keep up. What an arrogant piece of work I was! And if loneliness got the better of me and I “hiked” with a group, I was critical, judgmental, resentful of having to accelerate or slow my pace. And needy. And afraid of abandonment. And insecure. Really insecure.

Today I crave being with people so that I can grow. I crave walking the road less travelled on my own so I can heal and recharge. Some hikes are healing hikes, some hikes are growing hikes. Today I get to choose.