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.


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.

Along came a Samurai

So… I’m back at it. My hip still hurts, but I’m taking it easier this time, and starting slowly; trying not to overdo it, stretching before and after exercises, and holding off on the pack training for a little while longer. As I begin the journey again, I have noticed that I lost a few things during my injury-break. I lost some endurance, to be expected, but I also lost some courage. I realized that the more time I spent training by myself, the less fearful I became. I told you in my post, “It probably wasn’t a rattlesnake”, that I have some unusual instincts when it comes to safety, but this is different. This is more people-focused.

On the first real training (again) day, I decided to go with a familiar, populated, trail around a small island. Mackworth, for anyone reading this from Maine. I know the rest of you are reading “island” and are probably picturing some secluded place where Leonardo DiCaprio is running around trying to save himself from himself, but that is not what’s happening here. The only thing separating this island from a residential area, is a quarter mile bridge. It’s really not that serious. I know this island too. My mom has been taking my sisters and I there since we were kids. There is a section of the trail where they encourage children to build little structures out of sticks, and stuff they find around the trail, to house the island fairies. My mom used to tell us stories about the fairies and gnomes who were living in the tress. I know what you’re thinking, but no, it wasn’t the stuff nightmares are made of, it was some real fairy-tale type shit.

So, I start walking around this very familiar trail, and right away, Samurai.

In the distance, I can see what is clearly a long sword, and the silhouette of a Kamishimo. (Yes, I googled “Samurai’s outfit” to get the name of that, and I’m pretty confident that you’ll google it now too). As I walk on, I can’t help but wonder if he is professionally trained, because I really don’t have the skills or the time to fight a Samurai right now. I walk a little further… yep, that’s just a regular boy. A teenage boy with a long jacket and a walking stick.

As I carry on, I see this guy who’s wearing jeans, a Carhart jacket, and work boots. I don’t know about you guys, but on the days that I decide to find a trail to walk, I don’t think to myself, “better grab the steel toes.” Naturally, I convince myself he’s got a bunker somewhere on the island and decide to tail him. By “tail him”, I mean that I was already walking in that direction. Everyone was. He looks back at me, I smile awkwardly and tell myself to “be cool.” Where the hell is Alex Cross when you need him though, amirite? Turns out, just a guy on a walk. Probably on his lunch break. I mean, he did have an iced coffee in his hand, so that should have been my first clue. It was from Starbucks. I don’t know. For some reason that just makes him seem less threatening. Thank God he didn’t lead me to a dungeon full of girls I’d have to save though, because I act tough, but I’m really not even about that life.

So, yeah, I made it through Mackworth, but don’t even get me started on the off-leash trail I accidentally walked through the following day… it was like the final scene from any one of the Twilight films.

Man, I make a lot of movie references.

The point here is, I’m going to be walking more than 273 miles, by myself. I guess I still have some work to do, in terms of learning how to hike and travel alone, and this injury has made me feel like I’m starting from scratch. One of my blog readers commented that the trail is a safe place. You have to walk miles just to get to it, which is a lot of work for someone to put in just to wear your skin on their skin, you know what I mean? Plus, you have trail angels and other hikers who look out for each other. The rational part of my brain knows that I will be safe, but the part of me who has watched one too many true crime shows, is preparing for anything. Samurais, Construction Workers, Gnomes… anything.

It probably wasn’t a Rattlesnake.

When I told my mom about the Long Trail, she responded (without hesitation), “you should buy a gun.” The look on her face did not seem like the universal look of parental concern. It felt more specific to me; like she wanted to say, “I know you, and this isn’t going to be good.” In fact, people close to me have been giving me a lot of speeches about safety lately. As I sit here and reflect, I realize that those speeches started long before talk of the Long Trail. It’s possible that safety awareness isn’t my thing, and I’m starting to think that everyone knows it.

Don’t get me wrong, I have a keen sense of danger. It’s just that I only feel those instincts when nothing is happening at all. Have you ever seen that episode of “New Girl” where they explain how Winston either dramatically over-pranks, or dramatically under-pranks? They show a clip of him as a child saying, “let’s pour orange juice near her shoe.” Then another one saying, “lets hit her in the throat with a ski.” That’s me when it comes to safety awareness. The other day, I was hiking a new England mountain in the winter, and I thought for sure that I heard a rattlesnake. A rattlesnake, you guys. A rattlesnake.

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, my Dad used to look after my great aunt. In her later years, he wasn’t comfortable leaving her alone overnight. He was going to visit his Mom and brothers in Phoenix one year and asked me to stay with her for the week. The first morning, I heard a car come down the long driveway, and turn around. Second morning, same thing. On the third day, I called my dad, “look, someone’s casing the joint. I’m sure of it. I don’t know how I’m going to protect her. Am I supposed to carry her out of the house? I found a Machete, but that’s all I have.” He was like, “you found a Machete? Where did you find a Machete?” “In the garage, Dad, focus. At 5:30, every morning, someone pulls into the driveway and pulls back out shortly after. I hear them, but I also saw tire marks when I went out to get the paper.” (It was a dirt driveway, and you could tell someone had turned around). He paused. Even though he didn’t say anything in that pause, I could feel the weight of disappointment settle in the air. It was the kind of pause that asks, was I really responsible for raising this person?

So, you see tire marks, when you go out to get the paper?
“When you go out to get the paper, that someone delivered, you see tire marks.”
“YES!” Oh.
“Put the Machete away, Kelly.”

As I said, if I’m not being overly-cautious for no reason, I’m not being cautious at all. I’ll find myself deep in an unsafe situation before I realize that I’ve made some bad choices along the way. Like the time I decided to go Geocaching in the woods. During hunting season. Wearing beige. I didn’t realize what I had done until I was a mile into the woods, and started hearing gunshots. I immediately looked down at my clothes like… oh, crap.

I don’t know how I got like this. My sisters are cautious people, and so is our mother; low-risk choices, safe drivers, use words like “golly.” Ok, so I made up that last one, but I’m trying to paint a picture here. Actually, I wouldn’t put it past my mom to throw in a “golly” or two, to be honest. My sisters- though golly-less, are still incredibly cautious. My dad used to buy a bunch of fireworks around the fourth of July and we would set them off in the yard. Kristina’s favorite fireworks were the snappers. You know, the ones that you just throw on the ground, so you can hear a little “pop”? Lots of risk there. My dad and I would take different kinds of fireworks and tie them together like, “screw it, let’s just see what happens.”

(Wait. Scratch the first sentence. I just figured out how I got like this).

Kristina would respond with a terrified and somewhat high-pitched voice of reason, “Ummmmm? You guys?!?” Kourtney took more of a neutral stance. She’s both cautious, and a bit of a risk taker. Except when it comes to stairs, for some reason. Kourtney turns into a 90-year-old woman if she sees someone standing within 15 feet of a set of stairs. “Hey, watch the stairs, you’re gonna break your neck”- as she shakes her cane at you. (Yes, that’s right, she acquired a cane in this story). Otherwise, Kourtney’s the kind of person who educates you on the risks involved but also lets you be who you are. To the fireworks, her response probably looked a little like this, “Kelly, did you know that nine people had their hands blown off from fireworks, in this state alone?” “But here, might as well tie in this Cherry Bomb too.” Meanwhile, in the background, there’s Kristina- snaps in her hand, fear in her eyes, a quiver in her voice… “Ummmm? I don’t know about this, you guys!”

The more I think about it, the more I realize that my sisters and I are all a reflection of our Dads behavior. We just responded to it differently, as we grew into adulthood. When we were kids, my Dad put egg whites on his mustache and chased us around the house saying, “I need a tissue.” I thought it was real and started gagging, while Kristina yelled, “Dad stop!! You’re gonna make her throw up! DAD!” That became our primary response to his shenanigans; “DAD!!” During a BBQ at his house, I walked away from the table, and he quickly poked a hole in my coke can, so when I drank it, it poured down my shirt. “DAD!!!” When Kristina got her first job, at a coffee shop, my Dad went through the drive-thru and tried to order jelly. Just jelly. “DAD!!” Then there was the time my Dad pretended to cut himself with a fishing knife. He had strategically opened a ketchup packet right beforehand, and I think you can imagine what happened next. “DAAAADDD!!”

It looks like his pranks had no limits, but rest assured, he wouldn’t actually harm us. Well, except for that time I fell off the snowmobile because he purposely took a corner too fast. Or that time he tried to “snow plow” Kourtney while snowboarding (that’s where you kick snow back at someone), but he got too close and clipped her board. She called it a “flip, roll” type of crash. He basically tripped his daughter on a ski slope. He waited for her to catch up to him, and he tripped her. On a ski slope. But there’s something to be said about intent, right?! The intention of giving us a funny childhood, and toughening us up at that same time… and I wouldn’t trade a minute of it, but here we are now… the living, breathing, result of my Dads fearlessness is a 35-year-old woman with a sensitive stomach and no rational concern for her safety. What can I say?

I’m realizing that I have to start thinking in terms of safety, because, presumably, the risks will be greater on the Long Trail. So, against my instincts, and with the help of my camp, I have developed some training ground-rules. They include: not training at night, buying reflectors for my clothes (just in case), telling at least two people where I am and what time I’m expected back, not going out on a mountain unless my phone is at least 50% charged, and bringing supplies, even on short hikes- water, extra layers, and some form of defense. My friends were not impressed when I said, “I’ll bring these”, as I tried to flex my biceps. So, I guess I’ll just get a knife or something. One friend even told me to bring Wonder Bread bags for my feet. A real New England Grandma move, but whatever.

The point here is, the further into training I get, the more this hike seems possible. I have never been more dedicated to something in my life. I don’t want to ruin that prospect by falling off a cliff or being eaten by a rattlesnake. (That’s how that works, right?) I don’t want to worry the people who care about me either. So, I will take their suggestions and be more cautious. Except for your suggestion, Mom. I’m not buying a gun. Clearly, I’d just end up shooting the paperboy.