….but I did it.

As some of you have probably assumed, I’m back from The Long Trail. I’m back, and I finished it. It’s been an unusual month, because I’m moving, so my time to re-acclimate from the hike was disrupted by the chaos of packing, but also because of the emotional state I’ve been in since my return. I have a few half-written blogs about my experience on the trail, and I will complete and post them as the inspiration comes to me, but first, I’ve decided to start with the ending…

When I stood at Journeys end, touching the obelisk that I so fervently anticipated, through eight months of training and 29 challenging days in the Vermont Wilderness, I felt…. nothing. I thought to myself, “maybe it’ll hit me when I’m home. I am here. I did do it. Maybe I’ll feel something when I get home.” I hiked the last five miles with someone I met at Buchanan Shelter, and continued seeing through the remainder of my hike; trail name: “Sail On.” We stood at the small monument, steps from Canada’s border, wondering who maintains the well-defined space between the two countries; the space we can now see for miles. Sail On said that he didn’t know how to feel about the finish; a statement that made the anti-climactic nature of this whole experience feel more normal to me. See, he doesn’t know how to feel either.

We got to Journeys End parking lot before our ride. Sail On was riding back with me and my family, because, as it turned out, he was from Maine too, but had, as he put it, “no exit strategy.” We drank some water, had a snack, and Sail On changed into his “good clothes”; a pair of pants he’d saved until the end, a t-shirt and the red and black flannel I had come to identify him by. I maintain that Sail On was a faster hiker than me, even though he said it was because he was an earlier riser. When I passed a South Bounder on the Trail I’d ask, “did you see a guy with a white beard and black and red flannel?” “Yeah, he’s about five miles ahead of you.” “Of course, he is.” I’d roll into a shelter around dusk (or just after), and there he was… “you made it.” We should add “you made it” to my list of trail name options, because I heard it from many who left the shelter before me in the morning and ended at the same place. It came with various inflections, but always accompanied a sense of pride. It made me feel like I had accomplished something and someone else knew it too.

We were sitting there at the Journeys End Trail-head, waiting. We hiked every step we were required to hike. We climbed every mountain we stood in front of. All we had to do now, was wait. A few more minutes and it’s home-bound on four wheels. He looked in my direction and said what I was thinking, “I mean… we could… just start walking.” We laughed, threw our packs back on and started down Journeys End road; Canada on one side, U.S on the other side, The Long Trail behind us, in more ways than one. We got close to the end of the road, when we were picked up by my sister, mother and grandmother. We drove towards home, stopped for trail-less food, and laughed through New England. To me, it felt like just another supply stop though. Soon, I would be dropped off in the woods and go back to a life of trying to catch up to Sail On before dark. The first emotion I felt that day, was when we dropped him off at his car. The last tie to a life I’m leaving behind. My friend.

Another trail-mate “Green Trousers”, and I have checked in on each other since our return. She and I started talking before the trail, on The Long Trail Women’s page. There, I learned that she was already following my journey on Instagram. I knew we were starting our hikes around the same time, so I left her a note in a few log books along the way. It turns out that she started a day or two before me, but we caught up to each other right before Peaked and Styles Mountain, after she took a day in town. I was waiting for a friend to drop supplies and I hear, “I think that’s Kelly.” Then louder, “Kelly?” From that point on, we leap-frogged each other until App Gap, when she went back into town, and I kept on. When she finished the trail, she sent me a Facebook message asking how I was doing, and returned the question with, “it feels like I never left.” She didn’t really have to tell me what that meant, because I knew. Hiking, sleeping, the food, the relentlessness, the healing nature of it all, the struggle of it all; day after day after day. I had a couple people hike with me for a few days, while on the trail, and they probably come closest to understanding both lives, but even that doesn’t account for how you view something over time. How different day 2 is from day 27. Step after step after step, tree after tree after tree, mushroom after mushroom, and brook after stream after spring. There were some sections where you didn’t see summits at all, or people at all, and it was still just step after step after step, day after day after day. Everyone at home is as they were before, and so am I, but with this experience I can’t explain, so I don’t. The only response I could give to questions about this hike was, “It was really hard, but I did it.” When you get back, if you can’t explain it, the only thing to do is to go on as normal, and it literally starts to feel like you never left at all.

I didn’t know how to make the transition back to my pre-hike life, and even though you blog readers warned me about the emotional aspect of the return, I really didn’t see it coming. I felt a sense of melancholy and anxiousness; like I didn’t belong at home anymore. My first full day back, I was standing in my bathroom, after taking a shower. Everything felt so easy. Too easy. On the trail, you have to work for everything you need. From the moment you wake up, you start packing all of your belongings, and work to get to the next place you’re laying your head. You have to work to stay clean and dry, work to keep your feet in reasonable shape to prevent blisters, and work to use the privy. Its work to make a meal, and work to get through nights that are cold or rainy and nights that find you in shelters that are too full, or worse- empty. You have to work through fear of the outdoors or unknown, and then after a while, the unknown becomes known and you have to work to stay sane and motivated in the known; in the knowledge that tomorrow will likely be as hard as today and require as much work. Get up and pack your stuff, again. Hike, again. Find a water source, again. A place to lay your head, again. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a positive experience, but you have to fight for it. When I got out of the shower, I looked towards the hallway where my full pack still sat and started crying. I didn’t even know why, nor do I have the words to explain it now, it was just too easy and I didn’t belong.

My partner came to my side, and said nothing, but embraced me tightly. All I could say was, “I didn’t expect this.” As a hiker herself, all she said back was, “I did.” In the community that evening, everything was loud and fast, and I felt genuinely nervous. Defeated. I was supposed to be better. I was supposed to gain clarity, be one with nature. Stronger. More emotionally intelligent. Why did I come back more anxious and afraid?

As you know, in the past, I have used physical activity as a tool to combat stress and anxiety. Well, like any hiker returning from a long-distance trek, I had abused my body. My knees and hip started to hurt a few days into the hike, mostly on the descent. Somewhere around Mt. Ellen, the knee pain just stuck around. Somewhere around Belvidere, my toes started tingling at night, and somewhere around Hazen’s Notch, every step hurt. When I got home, and my body realized it could rest, my knees locked up, and I could barely get up and down the stairs. One toe stayed numb for three weeks and my hip hurt to sleep on. I went from training five days a week, to hiking 10 hours a day, to nothing. It wasn’t just the lack of activity though. I spent nine months with this hike on my mind. Everything I did was in preparations for it; training, researching the trail and equipment, writing the blog, Instagram. It became the thing I talked about most, the thing I cared about most, my identity. All of the sudden, it was over. It was over, and I couldn’t explain it in a way that would explain it. My life became packing and moving, and healing. Moving is stressful for anyone, and regular life has had its own stressors too, so as I said to start, it’s been an unusual month for me; a hard month for me. Through it all, I lost part of my identity. A fat girl on a long walk came to the end of her walk.

The truth though, at the expense of sounding remarkably cliché, is that life is a long walk. It’s full of ups and downs, and adventures and lulls. Adapting to change isn’t easy, but I have to believe things are put in your path when they are needed. I needed the hike to prove to myself that I was capable, that I could start something hard and finish it. I needed Green Trousers to remind me that people back home were rooting for me and watching my journey. I needed Sail On and the “you made its” when I got to the point in my hike where it physically hurt to go on and I wanted to quit, and I needed you all to tell me that it was ok to feel a little lost when returning from an adventure like this.

I am recovering, day after day after day. I’m figuring it out. I feel stronger this week than I have since I returned, because I’ve allowed myself to process this for what it is and give it the acknowledgement that it takes to move on from it. But it’s also because I have decided not to resist my pre-hike routine; work and friends and family. That sense of self that permeates in me, can’t be drowned by this transition, or any transition. I’ve decided not to baby my strains and sprains, and not to stop myself from finding a new adventure. Who knows what that entails, it may not even be a hike. I’m on this walk nonetheless, and I’ll keep going, step by step by step, regardless of where it takes me.

So yeah, like I said, I’m back and it was really hard, but I did it.

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Oscar the Grouse.

The stench of thru-hiking gets to you after awhile. All of your food has a distinct smell. All of your clothing has a distinct smell. Like old sweat meets forest meets new sweat. Not the food, of course. If your food starts smelling like old sweat, you should probably go home. Your food has a certain smell too though, like the contents have unified and mixed with plastic. One guy out here said that all of his food smells like BBQ sauce, and he doesn’t even have any BBQ sauce. I don’t know what mine smells like, it’s nothing in particular, but I would know it anywhere. It smells like trail food. This post isn’t about how I smell, or how my food smells. No, it’s about trail names, actually. In order to get to the part about how I got my new trail name, I have to tell you about the day I was trying to figure out what kind of stench a hiker has.

I was hiking up Mount Lincoln and I noticed a fly buzzing annoyingly around my ear. There are long hours to hike out here, up and down mountains, and sometimes the only escape from the isolation and physical challenge, are your own thoughts. So, when one single fly won’t let you have them, it’s enough to drive you mad. Van Gogh mad. The fly followed me for a long time; definitely a long time for the life of a fly. He must have relocated his whole family. That old sweat forest cologne put him in a trance. He was mine. Or more accurately, I was his. Just before I pulled out the knife, ready to prepare a package for my girlfriend, I got distracted by a thought about some cartoon character that embodied this fly attachment. I couldn’t put my finger on it. “Was it Pig Pen from Charlie Brown? That should be my trail name, Pig Pen.” “No, he had the cloud, but that’s not the one I’m thinking about.” “Was it a newspaper comic?” “Who the hell was it?!” “Well, whatever is it, that should be my trail name. So, when I explain how I got it, I can say that my smell is so bad that I get followed by flies.”

Eventually the fly moved on, and so did I.

Even though I didn’t come up with a trail name that day, I knew that I’d get one eventually. A few ideas had even been thrown around already. My friend Marge, who joined me for a few days on the trail, said it should be “Three Miles Left”, because I say that throughout the hike, to make myself feel better. If there are nine miles left, three seems more bearable. If there is only one mile left and you’re expecting three, that last one will zip by.

Then there was “Lipstick.” I’m a bit of a femme, or at least I used to be. I’ve always liked the outdoors; camping, and kayaking. Even hiking, I just didn’t feel physically capable of long distances. You were more likely to see me with bangles than hiking poles though, so when someone acted surprised by my love of the outdoors, I’d say, “don’t let the lipstick fool ya.” I guess I’ve traded in my heels for something with more of a tread, as of late, so it’s a little less surprising these days. Through my training, I started choosing the sporty or efficient over the flashy and studded, and Donna always responds the same way, “who are you and what have you done with my girlfriend?” I joked that I was still going to wear lipstick on the trail, and she said that should be my trail name. Yesterday I told her I tossed the lipstick at a supply stop 22 mountains ago and she said, “who are you, and what have you done with my girlfriend?”

Well, I guess “lipstick” is out.

That brings me to “Lightswitch.” Lightswitch isn’t my trail name, but it’s the trail name of a guy I have leapfrogged a few times out here. Marge and I met him at a shelter on a rainy day, and we shared a bit about our stories and what brought us on the trail. I told him about my Dad’s death and the transitions I’ve encountered since then, most of which have left me feeling fragile, and in search of some strength and adventure. It seemed as if he was in search of something too, maybe solitude; an escape into the wilderness. You meet a lot of people out here in passing. Most of the time you never really see them again, so I was surprised when I saw Lightswitch, about a week later. We both ended up at Birch Glen Camp, before Camels Hump. I was meeting my sister and her husband the next afternoon, and he was meeting his girlfriend, so we both had some extra time that morning. He told me he had a trail name for me, but it was going to sound worse than it was. That’s probably a metaphor for life in some way, but go on… “Grouse.” You know the birds that wait until the last minute, and bolt out of the the trees when you hike by and startle them? He said they were a symbol of empowerment. I said it’s also kind of fitting, because I too wait until the last minute to move.

Lightswitch and I hiked together, slowly (for my benefit, I’m sure), and shared some stories about our life and our trail expirience. It felt like the kind of interaction that was made for the trail. The one that pops into your journey, gives you some perspective, and leaves it just as quickly. I think I felt free to share my life or ask questions about his, because we both knew we’d be leaving it in the mountains.

We got to the point in route where I was meeting my sister, and we had a little lunch on a large trail rock, before he carried on. After he left, I kept replaying something he said, something about the happiest people being unapologetically themselves. It had me thinking about how that just might be the key to self discovery out here. You have no choice but to be yourself unapologetically. At least you dont if you’re an overweight girl who is hiking beyond her capacity in order to reach her goals. I can’t hide the sweat. I can’t slow my breath. This is me up a mountain. This is what you get. Grouse. As I sat there on the rock, I said to myself…

“Grouse. I like it.”

“It kind of reminds me of….

… OH MY GOD! IT WAS OSCAR THE GROUCH!!!”

Prickly Little Pests

I made it passed the 100 mile mark. Can you believe it?! I’m currently sitting at The Inn at the Long Trail’s breakfast table. (At least I was when I wrote this.) I’m staring down a plate of cinnamon pancakes. When I get on the trail with a full belly, I might regret the pancake decision, but right now, I’m standing by it. These pancakes are the best thing I’ve had in… well, in at least 15 days. Food has been a bit of a barrier for me on the trail. I just don’t have an appetite. I have to force myself to eat. In my regular, non-thruking life, I’m counting calories so I don’t go over some daily allowance. It’s a different life out here. I have to purposely stop every few miles and take a fistful of almonds to the face, just to keep on. Soon I’ll go back home, and have to runs a 5k just for looking at a cupcake through a bakery window… but for now, I’m counting calories to make sure I have enough.

I didnt take a zero day, to be at the Inn, but certainly an almost zero, and I’ve been eating since I got here. Potato spuds, Cavappati Alfredo, Nachos, pancakes… and let’s not forget one Long Trail Ale. This Inn has rejuvenated me in a lot of ways. Laundry, shower, real bed… and food, food, food. It won’t eliminate the trail food barrier, but it’ll give me a bounce back for today.

Food hasn’t been the only barrier out here. I feel like every day comes with a new one; the blisters feel better, and then your back hurts, but as one trail friend said, “at least they seem to come one at a time.” Some barriers were expected… blisters, mice, difficulty sleeping, mosquitos and pack weight pain in my shoulders. Then there were the unexpexted, like getting a face full of spider web with every step you take, particularly after a rain storm. Itsy bitsy spider has taken on a whole new meaning. I thought it was just a jingle. We were learning, you guys. We were learning.

The most unexpexted barrier of all… freakin’ porcupine. Those prickly little sons a b’s will eat the bench you’re sitting on. No one told me. None of y’all told me about the porcupine. Everyone says “you’re going backpacking, watch out for bear.” Not Vermonters. Vermonters laugh when you mention bear. “I only know the sound a bear makes when its running away” is the joke out here. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still bear bagging. I’m scared as shit. I don’t want to hear the sound a bear makes running towards me or away, but apparently, if you ask a long-trailer about trail barriers, porcupine trump bear. Who would have thought? They are attracted to salt, (sweat) and will chew your shoes, walking sticks, anything they can get their prickly little paws on. The other night, there was a pack of porc’s circling my tent. I felt like I was about to be initiated into some gang against my will. It’s a consent reminder of how irreversibly sweaty I am out here. When you attract porcupine in your sleep, you’ve got real problems.

Barriers or not, I’m doing it! One foot in front of the other, I’m hiking The Long Trail. I might just get to the end after all. Unless, of course, the porcupine eat me in my sleep.

Here we go!

The day is here! Well, the week is here. My mom wont let me tell you the exact day that I’m starting my hike, because she thinks i’ll be tracked and murdered. I know, know, the trail is safer than town, but she’s a Mom, what can I say? I will tell you that I’m off to Vermont tonight, to camp with my partner, for somewhere between 1-5 days. Then, we say adieu and I head off on my own.

She’s been really patient with all my last minute jitters. I might be panicking a little, and she might be able to tell. I didn’t realize that I got a free-standing tent, and we tried to put it up yesterday. I started vibrating with anxiety, “what if I don’t have a place to stake it?!” She slowly puts the tent back together and tells me not to worry, she will take care of it.

“What does that mean?! I’m leaving tomorrow!”

“I have a plan, but I don’t want you to freak out, so just trust that Ill take care of it.”

“I need to have a plan for myself.” (There’s that Type A Kelly coming out to play.)

“Ok, we got the wrong tent, but its ok, I’m going to go get you a new tent tomorrow, before you get out of work.”

“What? How will you know what to get? I don’t know how much money to give you. How do you know what to get?! WHAT ABOUT WEIGHT?!

“See. This is why I didn’t want to tell you. I’m going to take care of it.”

She did, of course. She has done so much for me, in preparation for this hike. Too much, really. All of the people close to me have. My family had a little party, and they all wrote letters to me. My youngest sister took those letters and wrote them on a tiny scroll, so I could take it on the trail. My older sister, Mom, and Grandmother are picking me up in the end, and they have all encouraged me the whole time. I even have a few friends who are going to meet me at certain sections and hike a bit. I know it’ll help. I know it will keep me going; keep me strong.

In my panic, I started thinking about the training I could have done, or the people I could have gotten advice from… but whether I like it or not, we are here. The training is over, the conversations have finished, and the only thing left to do now, is hike. So, I’m off. Thanks for being part of my training journey, and I hope to post along the way, if I can. Ill leave you with my tentative itinerary. It could change, of course, because as I have said before, I have no idea what I’m doing. See you on the trail!

Note: If you are a Long Trail/AT hiker and see any itinerary red flags, feel free to shout it out!

Long Trail Itinerary Total trip: 273 Long Trail miles, 8.6 side trail miles

Day 1-Total Day: 6.1 miles

*Williamstown approach, Pine Cobble Trail- 3.3 miles to the start of the Long Trail

*Continue hiking 2.2 miles to Seth Warner Shelter

Day 2- Total Day: 11.5 miles

*From Seth Warner Shelter, continue 11.5 miles to VT9 (camp off-trail)

Day 3- Total Day: 10.1 (Start of Division 2- Resupply)

*From VT 9, continue 10.1 miles to Goddard Shelter

Day 4- Total Day: 9.1 miles

*From Goddard Shelter, continue 9.1 miles to Story Spring Shelter

Day 5- Total Day: 11.2 miles

*From Story Spring Shelter, continue 3.6 miles to Stratton (Start of Division 3)

*Continue 7 miles to Willis Ross Clearing, .6 to Stratton View Campsite

Day 6: Total Day: 12.5 miles

*From Stratton View Campsite, continue 12.5 miles to Bromley Shelter

Day 7- Total Day: 12.8 miles

*From Bromley Mountain Shelter, continue 3.5 miles to Mad Tom Notch (Start of Division 4- Resupply)

*Continue 9.3 miles to Lost Pond Shelter.

Day 8- Total Day: 10.1 miles

*From Lost Pond Shelter, continue 10.1 miles to Greenwall Shelter.

Day 9- Total Day: 8.8 miles

*From Greenwall Shelter, continue 1.5 miles to VT 140 (Start of Division 5, meet Marge)

*Continue 7.3 miles to Clarendon Shelter.

Day 10- Total Day: 6.1 miles

*From Clarendon Shelter, continue 6.1 miles to Governor Clement Shelter.

Day 11- Total Day: 4.3 miles *Killington Mtn

*From Governor Clement Shelter, continue 4.3 miles to Cooper Lodge

Day 12- Total Day: 7.7 miles

*From Cooper Lodge, continue 7.7 miles to The Inn at Long Trail (Resupply)

Day 13- Total Day: 12.7 (Start of Division 6)

*From The Inn at Long Trail/U.S. Route 4, continue 12.7 miles to David Logan Shelter

Day 14- Total Day: 12.6 miles

*From David Logan Shelter, continue 7.2 miles to Brandon Gap (Start of Division 7)

*Continue 5.4 miles to Sucker Brook Shelter

Day 15- Total Day: 11.4 miles

*From Sucker Brook Shelter, continue 11.4 miles to Emily Proctor Shelter.

Day 16- Total Day: 12.2 miles

*From Emily Proctor Shelter, continue 5.7 miles to Cooley Glenn Trail (Start of Division 8)

*Continue 6.5 miles to Battell Shelter

Day 17- Total Day: 7.3 miles

*From Battell shelter, continue 7.3 miles to Starks Nest (2 miles further to off-trail camp)

Day 18: Total Day 13.3 (Possible 11.3, depending on Day 17)

*From Starks Nest, continue 5.1 miles to Bean Trail (Start of Division 9)

*Continue 8.2 Miles to Hump Brook Tenting area (Pay site)

Day 19- Total Day: 4.2 miles (Camels Hump)

*From Hump Brook Tenting area, meet Kourtney and Bory (Resupply)

*Continue 4.2 miles to Bamforth Shelter

Day 20- Total Day: 11.8 miles

*From Bamforth Shelter, continue 5.3 miles to U.S. 2 Parking Lot (Kourt/Bory depart)

*Continue 6.5 miles to Buchanan Shelter

Day 21- Total Day: 9.7 miles

*From Buchanan Shelter, continue 3.7 miles to Mtn Bolton

*Continue 6 miles to Twin Brooks Tenting area

Day 22- Total Day: 9.9 miles *Mansfield

*From Twin Brooks tenting area, continue 9.9 miles to Sterling Pond Shelter (Pay site)

Day 23- Total Day: 7.3 miles

*From Sterling Pond Shelter, continue 7.3 miles to Bear Hollow Shelter.

Day 24- Total Day: 7.4

*From Bear Hollow Shelter, continue 4.1 miles to VT 15 (Division 11)

*Continue 3.3 miles to Round Top Shelter

Day 25- Total Day: 14.7 miles

*From Roundtop Shelter, continue 14.7 to Spruce Ledge Shelter

Day 26- Total Day: 8.4 miles

*From Spruce Ledge Shelter, continue 8.4 miles to Tilston Camp. (Division 12)

Day 27- Total Day: 11.7 miles

*From Tilston Camp, continue 11.7 miles to Jay Camp

Day 28- Total Day: 7.5 miles

*From Jay Camp, continue 7.5 miles to Shooting Star Shelter

Day 29- Total Day 4.5 miles

*From Shooting Star Shelter, continue 4.5 miles to Journeys End

Dear Eleanor,

The tallest peak on the Long trail is Mount Mansfield, 4393 feet. I’m sure that’s a regular Saturday afternoon for you more experienced hikers, but my first post-Long-Trail-training hike was Burnt Meadow Mountain, standing in at 1575 feet. I couldn’t make it to the top, because of snow drifts, but truth be told, I was tired and winded anyway. More than winded, I felt done. Like, I did it. I took steps up a mountain. I’m a hiker. Everyone can go home now. Because Mount Mansfield is the tallest peak on The Long Trail, she has been the goal peak lingering in the back of my head, as I train. She’s my Eleanor. The unicorn. The unattainable. The 1971 Ford Mustang Sportsroof. The fable creature who is impossible to capture. I went back to Burnt Meadow Mountain recently, with my partner, to see if I have made any improvements; to see if I’m any closer to the unattainable. I made it to the top and though there were still some tough spots for me, it was easier. I don’t normally go back to the same mountain. Im sure I’ll cycle through them at some point, but I’ve been trying to pick a different mountain every week, so I can use my training as a way to keep pushing myself. I’m glad I went back to Burnt Meadow though, because it didn’t just provide me with insight on how far I have come, it also provided me with a few laughs.

As we head down the mountain, there was a rustle in the woods. It got closer and closer, and I thought to myself (as I usually do) “this is it, this is the day we are going to be mauled by a bear.” My partner grabbed a stick. Not a stick, a tree. It was a tree. I started running and thought she was tailing me, until I heard screaming. I had it in my mind that she was back there defending my honor, in some kind of inter-species duel, as she yells, “OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD!” I get back to her, and she’s flailing her arms, bear-less, and covered in fire ants. When the screaming stopped, she said, “I hope I didn’t scare that bear.” The look in my eyes quickly goes from panic to more of a “are you kidding me?” She explains that her intention was to use the stick (tree) to make noise enough to deter the bear from approaching. She recovers from the ant invasion enough to continue walking, and says “what did you think I was going to do, physically fight a bear? I don’t want to take a long dirt nap right now.” (Long pause) “I have to buy contacts.” Well folks, we bought another day, she needs contacts. (Small pause) “I feel bad that I disrupted that ant habitat.” To be clear, she isn’t avoiding death to buy contacts, but I wanted to show you how her brain works. It’s not unlike her, actually, to be a log-toting, bear fighting, little lady protector… but only in the least restrictive way, of course. We wouldn’t want to scare a bear or disrupt a habitat. She also quickly pointed out that I would be neither a lady protector, or a bear fighter, because my instincts were to run, and that’s just what I did.

We all know how I respond to threats of safety, I’ve written about it in multiple blogs. I’m not proud of myself, but as my grandmother always says, “whatta ya gonna do?” I am who I am. One time, I was with a group of children, who were being attacked by Guinea Hens, and still ran. I worked in Recreation program at a shelter for survivors of domestic violence (yes, I know, that makes it worse). We took the kids on a field trip to a local farm, and the Guinea Hens started to revolt. My instincts, as they are, were to run. I got about twenty feet away, remembered the children, and turned back to see my boss fighting off Guinea Hens and bleeding from the leg. I ran to help her, but the damage was done. We all knew who the hero was. I told my partner this story, as we continued down the mountain, trying to reassure her with this wisdom, “if I didn’t save a group of homeless children, I’m sure not saving you.” Of course, she responded as she does, by saying that although my first instinct is to run, in both scenarios, I stopped myself and came back for the fight. She’s right, I suppose. If there is a space somewhere between fight or flight, that’s likely where you will find me nesting.

Oh yeah, I guess I should stop here and say, you know that girl I was telling you about, back when I realized I was Titanium? Yeah, she’s back. Actually, she’s sitting next to me now, in a book store. I can see her face in the reflection of my lap top, and I keep stopping to look at her. She’s very expressive when reading, it’s like you can actually see her mind expanding. She keeps laughing in her book, which intrigues me, because she’s reading a finance book about living simply… but we all have our things, I guess. For those of you who didn’t read that post, it involved a brief romance in the fall, that ended abruptly and felt unfinished. Well, I guess it was unfinished for both of us. The truth is, we have this habit of finding each other. I’d like to think that this time is the one that counts. If you’re still struggling with the mustang reference, her name is not Eleanor, just to be clear. This post isn’t really about her. Well, in a way it’s about her, if added to a list of fears to conquer; Mount Mansfield, failure, commitment, vulnerability, trust… but again, we’ve all got our things. It’s about the things in your life that are too hard. Or at least seem too hard, until you fight harder for them.

I’m looking at my long-trail calculator, with 39 days before the start and a half a month more before I meet my Eleanor. It’s upon me. These mountains are still tough, and maybe that won’t change. I think I imagined that at this point in my training, I’d be running up a mountainside without breaking a sweat. Well, I’m not running up them, but I am getting up them. One after the other, I am getting up them. When I started this adventure, Eleanor did seem unattainable, but I have started using her to calculator to my progress, and I gotta say, she’s starting to feel less like a Ford Mustang and more like a Ford Explorer. I’m learning that when you start believing you can do something, it stops feeling unattainable. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure I’ll reach the top of Mount Mansfield chanting “Eleanor” through my tears, but that’s a story for another blog. This blog is just an Ode to Eleanor; a letter, if you will.

Dear Eleanor, You’re no unicorn. You’re just a mountain. Stay right there. I’m coming for you.

Tuesdays with Laurie

I have written this before, in my post about break-ups, that it’s incredible how a friend can say something in passing, that changes your direction. It’s even more enlightening, when a person steps into your life as a stranger and changes the way you think, or makes you appreciate the world around you. If you listen, if you embrace those moments, you’ll realize that there are so many people in this world to learn from. To grow from. This is a story about a woman I meet with once a week, who, whether she knows it or not, has taught me a great deal about appreciating the world I live in. I wanted to change her name, for confidentiality purposes, and because we happen to meet on Tuesdays, it felt like “Laurie” was most appropriate.

I think the definition of “elderly” has changed over the years, and I certainly wouldn’t want to insult the woman I have come to respect, but I guess for description’s sake, Laurie is an elderly woman. An avid reader, collector of books and self-described recluse. She’s cultured in a way you wouldn’t expect an older, reclusive, American woman to be cultured. Don’t mistake my usage of the word “cultured” with education, that’s not meant to insult older American women. Perhaps “progressive” is the right word; ahead of her time. She’s attempting to read though the books she has in her apartment, with a plan to donate what she doesn’t want to keep. We all have a stack of half-read or will-read books, right? She’ll admit that she gets caught up in the books she has already finished, but wants to read again. I really like that about her, actually. As for my roll? I’m a book messenger, of sorts. I’ll take them to the library, or a local community center. In fact, I have even left a few in one of those little library boxes you find on trails. I like the idea of another hiker picking up one of Laurie’s books. I will admit though, that with little persuasion from Laurie, I have even read a couple. Every time she gives me a book to donate, shes says, “read it if you want… at least read the first and last page. If you have a pull for more information, read the book.” It has me wondering what she would think of the first and last paragraph of this blog post. Even though she will likely never read it, I’ll try to finish strong.

Laurie used to live in Chicago. She once told me that she looks back on her experience there and recognizes that she didn’t use Chicago the way the city deserved to be used. During one of our visits, she looked out her window and asked me if I knew what happened with the restaurant across the street. She can usually see the neon open sign from her living room chair, but it hadn’t been on in over a week. It turns out that they were still open, but their sign was in repair. That conversation gave me an aching new perspective of Laurie’s day. For whatever reason, Laurie is not in a position to use Maine either. It’s the sunrise or the sunset, whichever is the case from that window, but not both. She can see the cars that drive down the main street in her town, but she can’t see the people walking in and out of the shops two blocks over. It’s a reminder of the things we take for granted; a simple walk across the street, to see if a diner has closed. She uses her space quite well; stacks of books and magazine and pictures of her great nieces. The TV playing “Rocky Mountain Vet”, or anything else that will give her joy in 700 square feet. But her curiosity is resolved to the confines of her apartment, to the confines of the words in her books. Laurie told me that someone once suggested that she was a book in your past life. “I’d like to think I was the ink.” I didn’t have to ask her what that meant. The book is just a vessel. It’s the ink, the words, that are filled with possibility. The writer decides if a book exists or doesn’t exist. But ideas, insight, those things can come without our permission. They are free.

My visits with Laurie are short, but every week I leave more enlightened than the last. She has been seeing a physical therapist for a leg injury. After eight leg raises, the therapist asked why she didn’t do ten and Laurie said “because I don’t think like that.” It’s not if you can do eight, why not do ten. I made a plan to do eight.” She compared that logic to her sister’s advice, when they were kids. “She used to say, let’s run to the end of the street.” “Why? Why the end of the street?” Why not just run until you want to rest?” I laughed and told her that I use that logic while I’m hiking, “just get to the next tree.” She said, “yeah, well at least the tree will be there to hold you up.” Laurie went on to say that if she had used that logic, maybe she would have been as active as her sister. “She did start crawling uphill at nine months after all.” Not Laurie though. Laurie didn’t defy the odds when it came to child development, and as an adult, she describes herself as someone who is “not the save the world type.” Its sounds pessimistic when you read it like that, but that’s not how it read in person. It’s realistic. She’s an older lady who has lost the mobility of her prime, but she is also not sitting around saying, “I wish I had.” Every time I leave Laurie’s apartment, I appreciate the world a little more. Not just because of what she doesn’t have, but because of her eagerness to utilize every corner of what she does have.

Maybe the lesson here is that we don’t always have to meet some expectation of success. Ambition and discipline are positive characteristics. They move you towards success. It’s in the search for success though, that we can miss the ordinary, the simple. Maybe it should be about enjoying your life, enjoying what’s in front of you. For me, it’s about balance. I have seen such beauty in the world, since I started training. Beauty by way of mountain tops, beauty by way of unwavering support from the people who love me, and encouragement from the people who I’ve met along the way. There have been times when I’ve needed to tell myself just to get to the next tree, and there have been times when I’ve stopped purposefully, and looked at nature in ways I have never looked at it before. I do wish Laurie could see what I have seen though, just as I can tell from every book suggestion, that she wishes I have read all she has read.

Laurie’s sister got to the end of that driveway as a kid, and metaphorically, she has in her adult life as well. Laurie took the road less traveled, or at least the road traveled slower, and she seems to be ok too. She’s a person who knows her limitations and speaks of them freely. So freely, in fact, that it just borders self-deprecation. It’s something else, though. It’s self-awareness. Self-awareness, as anyone who has crossed paths with it will tell you, is war with yourself. Acknowledging your own faults and making changes, or worse, accepting them, is an internal battle between intelligence and insecurity. Ignorant bliss is a far more pleasant path to pursue. Laurie chose the path of resistance, and I don’t know if she’s better for it or not, but I am certainly better for having met her. Laurie said she hopes she was the ink in her past life, but the truth is, if the plot is about her and me, she’s already the ink.

The Guy with the Bow Tie

I have been trying to make a conscious (somewhat unsuccessful) effort to loosen my grip on control; letting the circumstances or challenges of my life guide me, knowing that everything has purpose, regardless of the outcome. If you get a flat tire that makes you late for work, but you learn something from the tow truck driver, than life is happening exactly as it should be. We tend to focus so heavily on the things that are disruptive to our day, that we miss the lessons or experiences that come with them. I drove to Vermont last weekend, to clear my head and to give a section of the Long Trail a shot. While in route, I decided to bring that concept with me, and just let myself be led by the circumstances of the weekend. My initial plan was to stop at the Green Mountain Club, to get a copy of the Long Trail Guide. Apparently, the Green Mountain Club is closed on weekends… so starts my trek up and down the beautiful Route 100, to find a bookstore that had a copy, do a little hiking, and maybe some soul searching along the way.

You may remember me telling you about my camp friends. I’ll likely speak of them often, and anyone who has spent their younger days working at a sleep-away camp, will understand why; we are bonded. The staff came from all over the world. One camp friend, Hilary, lives in California. In summer of 2013, she was going to a wedding in Vermont and had the idea to follow it up with a camping trip. Our friend, Marge, lives in New York and I am in Maine, so we are equal distance from Vermont. So, the three of us met in Vermont, at a lovely river-side campsite, in the Green Mountain National Forest. A campsite that I have since come to know like home. That is when it all started. I met Vermont. I met the Green Mountains. I met Route 100. A year later, I met the Inn Keepers. Two years later, I met the General Store clerks who I talked about in “Why the Long Trail”, and last weekend, I met the Guy with the Bow Tie.

Since that first camping trip, Marge and I have “met in the middle” a few times a year. We meet to campout or find some dive bar where we meet locals, drink Long Trails, and talk about our lives. One time we found the exact mid-way point between her house and mine. The exact middle spot between us. It was someone’s driveway, but that didn’t stop us from taking a picture there. Over the weekend, I stayed at a motel in Mendon, that Marge and I have stayed at before. My solo-Vermont soul searching weekend standards are not that high, I knew that motel was clean enough and cheap enough. The motel clerk asked me why I was in town, and I explained that I am hiker, practicing for a Long Trail thru-hike. How about that y’all, I’m reporting as a hiker now. He then told me about an “easy” mountain trail, just down the road. He said “45 minutes in total”, and “those are the kind of hikes I like, the easy ones.” I took the directions and thanked him, but to be honest, I wasn’t really looking for easy. Well, easy enough, I guess, but comparable to what I’ve been doing in training. Maybe even a little harder, I am on the Long Trail after all. Instead, I decided to find a hike that was a bit more challenging, and I headed towards Brandon Gap. The hike I found was marked as “Moderate”; two miles with an elevation of 1300 feet, not what I was up to before the injury, but certainly a post-injury moderate for me. My hike intel was a little off, and it turned out to be 1.2 miles, with a 400-foot elevation gain. I was finished by 9:30am, and barely broke a sweat. I figured, what the hell, I’ll head for the motel clerk’s trail and maybe find that book along the way. Two easy trails are the same as one moderate, right?

I stopped at a few bookstores with no luck, and continued down Route 100, but didn’t realize that I was driving away from the trail. When I turned on my GPS, I saw that I was in Waitsfield, VT, 47 minutes away from my intended location. I thought to myself, if there are no accidents, then I’m definitely supposed to be in Waitsfield, VT right now. I found a small bookstore called “Tempest.” Walking in, I see piles of books; an organized mess, like you see in most used bookstores. I was greeted by a slender man, with a checkered blue and white shirt, a tan vest, and a multi-colored bow tie. The Guy with the Bow Tie. If Bill Nye morphed with the villain from Charlies Angels (the movie), he would be the Guy with the Bow Tie. From his first sentence, I knew not to let the mess fool me, this guy knew exactly where everything was. He took me the hiking section and shared that the only version of the guide he had was a first edition. Trekking along Vermont with a vintage copy of The Long Trail Guide? Heck yeah. I asked him the difference between the first edition and the latest, and he said “well, one is that there are no shelters listed on it.” If any of you have read…well, just about any of my blog posts, you know I need a shelter list. The Guy with the Bow Tie did tell me where I could find the latest guide, but not before sharing a bit about Waitsfield, VT.

I was blocked on my first trail by a sign that said hikers couldn’t go any further. When I shared that with The Guy with the Bow Tie, he said, “let me guess, some older lady bought a glass house on the top and she doesn’t want you blocking her view?” I said, “actually, it said something about protecting the birds”, and he said, “yeah, there’s that too.” He went on to tell me a story about how he leads a boy scouts troop, who were told they couldn’t use a trail anymore, or the cabin they had on it, because a woman just purchased the land, and her insurance said it’s a liability. “I told her that’s too bad, because the boy scouts really get a lot out of exploring those trails.” She said, “well you can’t use the cabin, but I will give permission for the boy scouts to use the land, if they clean up debris left from other hikers.” He wasn’t sure how it would be possible for the boy scouts to earn their keep, considering that she was refusing the public access to the land. Who would they clean up after? He gathered the boy scouts and said “listen, we get to use this land if we help clean it up, so this is what I want you to do. I want you to eat a bunch of candy before we go. That way, if you’re stopped by an old lady on the trail and she asks you what you are doing there, you can take the wrappers out of your pocket and say, “we are just cleaning up the land.” Circumstance led me well, and The Guy with the Bow Tie and I spent a little more time on small town banter. The universe worked pretty well for him that day too. He usually doesn’t open the bookstore on Sundays, but he had a biography to edit. He figured he was doing work anyway, he might as well do it from the store. Look at him now, now his story is being shared with all 230 of my blog readers. He’s basically famous. If you happen to be in Waitsfield, VT, stop in and let him know. I left the guy with the Bow Tie and headed towards the gear shop that he told me might have the Long Trail Guide. Not only did they have the Long trail guide, but they told me that they will act as a supply stop for Long trail hikers. The universe just keeps doing it’s thing.

I found my way to the motel clerk’s “easy” trail. He said 45 minutes in total, 1.9 miles. I calculate my time- 30 minutes up, 15 back, add 30 minutes for summit basking. I gave my sisters the details and expected return time… good to go. I don’t need supplies, it’s 45 minutes. By my calculations, I should meet the summit at .95 miles. I hit .95, no summit. Ok, well, maybe its 1.9 out and 1.9 back, I think I’ve got that in me. I reach 1.9 miles, no summit. I’m starting to think my motel clerk is a professional hiker, who ran up this mountain. 45 minutes. Pfft. At 2 miles, I hit a ski-slope overlook and wonder if this was the spot he was directing me to, or if I’m on a different mountain entirely. At this point, I’ve reached that moment that I think all hikers reach, if they don’t know the mountain that well. What if I turn back, and the summit was right around the corner? Someone close to me once said, “you know you’re getting to the top, when the trees start getting smaller.” Well, the trees seem to be getting smaller (I don’t actually know if that’s true or not, because I didn’t look at them when I started). 2.10 miles. “I’m not even sure if I remembered that advice correctly, to be honest. Do they get smaller? Do they get thinner?” 2.20 miles. “Or was it that they no longer look like trees? Shit. What exactly did she say?” 2.40 miles. The sun starts to set, and I know that if I don’t turn back now, I will be hiking back in the dark, and because I thought it was a 45-minute jaunt, I don’t have the proper supplies for that. I get back to my car and I decide to do a little research. Turns out, I was just walking the AT, you guys. I’m glad I turned back when I did, I really don’t have the time to go to Georgia right now.

I quickly realized the lesson in all this. If you believe that things happen as they should, your stress level will diminish, by default. Think about all the times in your life when you feel wronged or disappointment by something, but you never connect the dots. You didn’t get a call back for that job you really wanted, and though you accepted one that paid a little less, it’s there that you met your closest friend. Sometimes we focus so heavily on what isn’t working that we can’t acknowledge everything that has worked for us because of the things that didn’t. Even circumstances that result in regret have purpose. They must, right? However, while circumstance may lead you, you have to put a little work in too. You can’t sit idly by and blame it on the universe, or God, or fate or whatever drives you. I let circumstance lead me that weekend, and because of that, I hiked a part of the Long Trail, I met The Guy with the Bow Tie, and I know way too much about the culture of Waitsfield, Vermont… but maybe next time I shouldn’t wait for the universe to tell me to bring a flashlight… on an unfamiliar mountain… at 4pm.