More on that later.
I set out from home around 6:30am to take the long drive up to Sloatsburg, NY. After stopping to grab a bite and some supplies at WaWa and fill my gas tank, the drive was about 2 hours and 15 minutes, but the trip there is always part of the excitement for me. I've loved long drives since I was a kid, and it's probably why I enjoy hiking--which can often be exciting and challenging but is usually just as monotonous as driving on the NJ turnpike (okay, the scenery is much better on a hike).
Once we arrived we set out from the Lake Tiorati parking lot at Harriman State Park and took the trail about a mile and a half to the Fingerboard Shelter. It was clear very early on that the past 9 months of working out 6 days a week have had a huge impact on my hike. My heart rate still rises, which is good, but I don't feel like I need to stop every time I get a little winded. I feel stronger carrying my pack, which used to feel like I was going uphill while giving a six year-old a piggy back ride. This made the whole weekend a much more pleasant experience.
Once at the shelter we set up our tents, hung our bear bags and enjoyed lunch. I had two sandwiches on whole wheat flat bread: one peanut butter and jelly and one tuna fish. Breakfast at 6:30am seemed like a long time ago at that point, so I was very hungry despite my periodic dips into my homemade trail mix. Then we split up into two groups--one group went on an easy hike and the other (the group I chose) went on a more challenging hike. As I've mentioned before, one of the major differences (at least for me) when hiking with a group as opposed to hiking alone is that I don't really pay much attention to the route and mileage. I know that we took the red dot trail, Appalachian Trail, and the Long Path at various times but I don't quite recall the order or mileage.
At one point on the Appalachian Trail we did go through a section called "The Lemon Squeezer," which gives a hiker the true feeling of being between a rock and hard place. You hike through two very close boulders that I'd estimate to be over 7 feet high, and once you've been squeezed out you can opt to scramble over more boulders or take "the easy way" (quoted because that is actually written on the trail). I chose to scramble. I'm not sure how I would have managed if I hadn't watched another hiker do it first, as the scramble is at an odd angle, but a more experienced hiker showed me an effective way to approach it, first by throwing our packs and poles over the top (an easy tip I learned a while ago, but always seem to forget), and then I was able to manage it pretty well. Being 5'9" has a lot of advantages when it comes to scrambling.
Once back at camp we all made dinner; for me it was instant mashed potato black bean burritos that I must say were pretty good. I use trailcooking.com for my backpacking recipes and I haven't been disappointed yet. One of our fearless leaders brought an apple pie concoction and all the makings for s'mores, but we couldn't get a very good fire going since all the wood was wet from recent rainfall. I love eating around the campfire, and for one-night and even two-night trips, I find it worth it to forego canned beans or ramen noodles and try to enjoy some actual food. Due to the lack of fire, however, we didn't use the s'mores ingredients, so we decided to head up to the shelter to see if anyone wanted to lighten our load for us (well, our leader's load). The first two young men we asked weren't interested, but the third, who was getting ready to sleep in the shelter, immediately agreed to taking the treats off our hands. He was with another two men and we soon learned they were AT thru-hikers. We genuinely tried to compose ourselves and hide our excitement--at least that's what I was doing. I've met several thru-hikers during my hikes along the AT in NJ and NY, and each time I get a longing, almost jealous, feeling. "Drop," "Tetris," and "Grey Goose" were very friendly and didn't mind all of our questions...I'm sure the s'mores helped.
Their tales of the trail re-ignited a dream I've had since I very first heard of the AT. However, having recently graduated college and finding myself very untethered to commitments like school and obligations like boyfriends, the dream has taken a more significant form in these last few days. Since I met those three thru-hikers, I have had a night of solitude in my tent, a day hike on the AT the following morning, and a long drive home from New York--my gears have been turning ever since. It occurred to me that perhaps there is a reason I didn't get the so-called "dream job" that I truly swore I would get; after all, the principal's final words to me were, "We want you on board." Yet somehow, two other applicants have now filled the open positions, albeit two applicants who are more qualified and experienced than I.
Once home I started thinking about the logistics of the AT and the primary, and possibly only, roadblock I haven't been able to solve is the issue of time and money. If I were to actually land a job as an elementary school teacher, I'd be working until June, too late to set out from Georgia, especially if I need to make it back by September, but money would not be as much of an issue. Substituting for another year, of course, is a possibility. I could save enough money and not be obligated by time; however, it would be a disappointment to my pride. I didn't spend 9 years--yes, 9 years--in college so I could spend a year doing something anyone with 60 credits can do. I started thinking about my writing degree and wondering if I should use that for the next year and apply for freelance writing jobs, especially if I could find something that would pay for me to document my time on the AT. Now I was onto something. I began Googling "get paid to hike the AT." Of course, nothing came up, but I somehow wound up on a site that listed "environmental educator" job postings--now I was cooking. Through my online searches, I have now accumulated over 6 openings for seasonal stints as an environmental educator in various wilderness locations in the northeast, many of which are right on the AT! Most of them take place from late August to early November and provide room and board. The logistics of a thru-hike come spring would still be mountainous and probably not even feasible for as early as Spring 2013 (although I like to think that within the next 3-5 years, it's possible to make it happen), but there is a magnetic pull drawing me down this new path of an "environmental educator."
I know it sounds like a pipe dream. I know my mom will be a wreck. I know the odds are against me, as something like only 1 in 4 people who set out actually make it to Katahdin, but this isn't just something I've wanted to do for over two years; it's something I feel compelled to do. Something I have to do. And it's selfish. I've always said that hiking the AT for 4-6 months is a selfish act, and I still feel that way. My only justification is that the people I love and who love me will support my abandonment of them if they understand how desperately I must do this. After watching my dad lose his "retirement years" as a result of early-onset dementia and spend his days in assisted living at age 64, I've learned a valuable lesson at an early age: don't wait for tomorrow because tomorrow may never come. I know that if I don't do this within the next few years, and let's say something terrible happens that prevents me from ever doing it or even if I just get a job that prevents me from doing it, I will always regret it. I've hiked a lot of trails all over the country, but when I'm on the AT I feel this cosmic attachment to it and the attachment is very real. It's not just something "in my head;" it's a calling.
I know it won't always be fun or easy. But I also know that it will make me the woman I'm destined to become. I hear that after a thru-hike, people live a more minimalistic lifestyle. I hear they are more tolerant of common annoyances like inclement weather and long walks to the car or waiting on lines or dealing with bothersome people. I hear they are more appreciative of warm, dry beds; hot showers; and comfortable footwear. Right now, I'm satisfied with who I am, but I long for more freedom upstairs--less noise between my ears. I've learned that nothing worth anything comes easily. If I have to walk over 2,000 miles, take over 5 million steps, suffer through countless blisters, I'll do it if it will result in my becoming the absolute best version of myself. I'm not too naive to understand that there is a good chance I'll get through the first hundred miles and change my mind just like the majority of people who set out on the same journey for the same reason--but at least I'll know I tried.
And so, for my mother's peace of mind, what other fool-hearted pilgrim is willing to join me for a long walk in the woods one spring?