Overmountain Shelter

A Lifetime In A Year

For over a year I have carried pieces of the Appalachian Trail in my heart and my mind. When I was on the trail for six weeks last fall, the WordPress app stopped functioning, so my good intentions of keeping this website updated fizzled with every passing day. I journaled in my tent or in shelters every night, desperately attempting to capture each day in handfuls of words that could never accurately portray the emotions or experiences I was having. These paltry attempts are now the skeleton of a story I will try to recreate over the coming months.

Not a day goes by without me thinking back to the trail in New England. To say it was the happiest time of my life would be an understatement. Every day since I came back last October, I have attempted to squeeze myself back into a life that often feels confining and unfamiliar. In the mornings before work, when I halfheartedly wake up and force myself to drive 10 minutes to a local trail, I find the woman I became last year for just a bit. My husband patiently deals with my morose days, the times I talk about aching to be outdoors, my disappointment with corporate life, feeling like I’m not contributing anything worthwhile to the world. Even though he doesn’t understand it, he encourages me to hike and go on trips, telling me to “find my happy” knowing how vital these times are to my existence.

This past year, I was lucky enough to set my feet on the AT again in Shenandoah National Park, and also from Hot Springs, NC to Damascus, VA. Neither of these sections were easy for me. Shenandoah took place in July, where bugs destroyed every inch of exposed skin on my body, the summer heat was so intense during the day that we woke up at 4 am to get going, and my trail legs seemed to have disappeared altogether. But new friendships were made, old friendships were rekindled, and another 100 miles passed beneath my feet. Hot Springs to Damascus also presented some challenges with a tropical storm, days of rain, and a chest cold that took weeks to go away. But once again, there were friends along the way, foggy days gave way to sunshine with many beautiful moments, and another 200 miles was finished.

No one could have anticipated what this past year would bring, the devastation, loss, confinement, grief, and fear. In the midst of those very real things I somehow managed to find more joy and adventure than I would have thought possible given the climate. Living within driving distance of Great Smoky Mountains National Park translates to weekends that hold endless possibilities. While the term “social distancing” became part of everyday vernacular, I found adequate space in campgrounds and backcountry sites, breathing fresh air that stirred through the leaves as I slept. With over 900 miles of trails, the park offers solitude even on the busiest weekends. There were countless miles enjoyed alone beyond sight of another soul to stir the necessity for precaution. The outdoors providing a safe, welcoming space is not a new concept in my life, but my need for wild places was driven home with every quarantine guideline released by local governments. Once again, I retreated to the mountains and they filled every need.

AT Journals: Great Barrington, MA to Dalton, MA

Day 8: Zero in Great Barrington, Mass

I woke up this morning and felt utterly exhausted. The past 7 days have caught up to me. I could have pushed it and headed out, but I decided to honor my body and take a rest day. This isn’t ideal because I am a go go go type of person, but if I can get to feeling better, I know the miles will come easier. 

A short walk to McDonalds for a breakfast sandwich confirmed I’m doing the right thing. The knee was hurting right off the bat, so today’s agenda includes drinking a lot of water, stretching, foam rolling, eating nutritious food, elevating the knee, sleeping, and possibly another soak at the community center. The chores were taken care of yesterday, laundry and resupply, so today will be much more chill. I’m still early on in this journey and don’t want to flame out at the beginning. At this point I know I can’t physically do the miles I’d originally hoped, but I want to stay out here and soak up as much beauty as possible. So if that means resting more often, then that’s what needs to happen. 

Perhaps one of the lessons I need to learn on this section is how to slow down. I really suck at this. My calendar is always full and I worry a lot about wasting time. Having friends pass away over the years has instilled this intense desire to not take a single day for granted. So I fill the empty moments and plan things in hopes that when my time is up, I can look back and feel like I lived. 

Sara Bareilles has a song called Chasing The Sun that talks about the huge cemetery in the center of Queens. Whenever I’ve driven past, I’m struck by the millions of graves, all the lives gathered in that place. There’s a line in the song that says, “All we can do is try and live like we’re still alive.” Every time I hear that line it blows me away. How many of us choose not to live? It’s easy to waste away in front of a TV screen, to become so absorbed by the cities we reside in that we completely lose connection with the land we originate from. “From dust we came, and to dust we shall return.” 

Hiking has enabled me to reclaim a connection with the land, to feel part of nature. As I walk through the woods and see bears and frogs and salamanders, I realize that I too am wildlife. My needs are the same as theirs: food, shelter, water. When Cheryl Strayed signed my copy of Wild, she wrote “Trust your wild heart.” And, my God, I want my heart to stay wild in every sense. Let this world never tame me. 

Mary Oliver knew. She walked the woods, quietly, alone, listening not only to the birds and the wind and the river. “Tell me what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life.” She gave herself to nature and lived a private life because the heart can be more easily listened to when it is not drowned out by the noise of city traffic and corporate churning. 

The word “wild” is often used as a negative descriptor. But for me, it means to be free, unencumbered, to run with hair flowing in the wind, to traverse mountains, embrace what has always lived inside the heart, and to become air, wind, water, land, and spirit. 

Helpful Tips: Great Barrington, MA 

  • Travelodge is centrally located near a Price Chopper, Dollar Tree, South Berkshire Community Center, and restaurants. Laundry is $5. Hiker rate if asked. 
  • Would suggest going to Dollar Tree to resupply before hitting Price Chopper because they have some of the same things, plus freeze dried fruit! 
  • The Aegean Breeze Greek restaurant across the street from Travelodge is excellent! 
  • The Book Loft is a delightful bookstore to spend some time in and feel human again, next to Price Chopper. 
  • They do not sell Smart Water bottles in this town because they are single use plastic. However, you can buy a container of bleach at the Dollar Tree to clean everything out. 
  • There is no outfitter in this town. If you need any gear or Sawyer Picaridin bug spray, be sure to mail it to yourself. 
  • The community center is behind the Travelodge. There is a day use rate of $7 if you tell them you’re a hiker, which includes use of the pool and hot tub. A towel is $1 extra, so borrow one from the hotel. 

Day 9: Great Barrington, MA to North Wilcox Shelter, 13.8 miles

Today was my hardest day yet, not because of the terrain, but because I felt spent and tired, the weather was hot and still, and finding water was tricky because everything was dry. If it hadn’t been for a kind soul who left a water cache in one of the parking areas, I would have had to drink beaver pond water. The water sources were so disgusting, orange and slimy, standing water, or ponds. Not good options.

Because of a 3.5 day food carry and the extra water, my pack felt like a ton of bricks and my knee pain was just awful. I finally let myself cry for the first and only time on this trip, then kept moving. All there is to do is keep going. Every step gets me closer to my destination, so I must keep moving. Tomorrow looks more challenging than today, but I’m taking my chances and not carrying extra water, just a liter at a time like I usually do.

I’m at the shelter by myself tonight, down a hill .3 miles, so that’ll start my day off in the morning. I have higher miles planned this section because of where towns are, 14.8 tomorrow, then 18 the day after because the terrain looked reasonable. I hope I can handle it. I need to make it to the post office In Dalton by noon on Saturday so I can pick up the resupply box Rob sent to me. Another reason to push forward.

I saw 9 toads, 6 red efts, too many frogs to count, and a garter snake. Aside from a couple of views, today was a tough slog past a few ponds. Rain is in the forecast for tomorrow and I can only pray it doesn’t break me. I hope that sleep will give me a fresh outlook.

Day 10: North Wilcox Shelter to Upper Goose Pond Cabin, 15 miles

September 12. A new day dawned to rain falling steadily on the tin roof of the shelter that I had all to myself last night. I woke joyfully to large puddles of water, which meant the streams would hopefully be flowing again. Instead of getting me down, the rain provided some hope after the heat and dryness yesterday. I set out with my waterproof socks on, rain skirt, and umbrella lashed to my pack strap.

Somehow today didn’t feel as hard as yesterday. I was in a better headspace and the air was cool, the woods were peaceful, and there were red efts everywhere!! So I started counting to see if I could beat the CT record of 77 in a day. I’m happy to report that I counted 187 today, every single one, and managed not to step on any of them. As crazy as it might seem to count newts along a trail, it was a happy respite from counting dollars at work. The task also kept me alert and was a nice distraction from the knee. I finally broke down and started the medicine my doctor gave me before I left. I’m still limping down the trail, but maybe now I’ll be able to limp farther and move a little faster.

The trail passed through farm fields dressed up for fall, glowing with goldenrod and fading milkweed, with touches of burgundy and sienna as plants prepare to breathe their last sigh before winter’s sleep. Boardwalks led through marshy sedge and I finally found two wild apple trees right on the trail! There were small spotty apples all over the ground, but I knew they’d be good to eat, so I knocked a couple down with my trekking poles and had a sweet, delicious snack that was better than any grocery store apple could ever hope to be.

There was also a little AT trail stand today at one of the roadside farms where I was able to buy a can of root beer, which was exactly what the moment called for. It’s one of my trail cravings and I knew it was a sign when they had it.

Being able to indulge my curiosity for nature has been one of the best aspects of being able to walk the AT. There are plants, fungi, and little creatures everywhere that beg to be investigated, and I have all the time in the world to do so. I mourn the days when I will no longer be able to revel in the vibrant beauty of a violet mushroom or the stark brightness of an orange salamander. The verdant greens are gentle on my eyes as they readjust to understand what natural color feels like.

Today I met a thru hiker named Noodle on his very last day of hiking the entire trail. He summited Katahdin 3 days ago and was finishing up an 8 mile stretch he’d had to skip. I freaked out and made a big deal about it and congratulated him, asked him how he’s feeling. This is a huge moment, enormous. He said he’s dreading going back to his life at home because no one will understand what he’s done out here. The feeling is so real. Hikers come back to the trail for the rest of their lives to be understood by the other people who are just as crazy as they are.

My destination tonight was Upper Goose Pond Cabin, the stuff of legend. Even though Upper Goose is over a half mile off the trail, I could not be more happy that I stopped here. This will be the highlight of MA, hands down. The cabin was gifted to the AMC and the NPS by a sporting club years ago with the express use of catering to AT hikers. It is run by two caretakers during the season (each pair gets one week per season and there is a waiting list of people who want to do this). The cabin sits overlooking the pond. There is an area for cooking, bunk beds upstairs, a kitchen, living area, and deck to sit on. The caretakers bring water up in jugs from a spring for the hikers. Ours also made a roaring fire in the living room and boiled water for tea. Tomorrow morning there will be a breakfast of pancakes. I feel so delightfully spoiled!

I’m here with 4 other hikers, one who is a NOBO section hiker like me, one who is a SOBO section hiker, and two who are thru hiking SOBO. The conversation around the fire was all about the trail and once again I found myself feeling so utterly, contentedly at home with a sense of belonging to a community. I’m snug as a bug in a rug inside my sleeping bag, even though it’s starting to smell like a garbage dumpster. Hiker stank is real!

Tomorrow will be my longest distance yet in this stretch, 18 miles. This is the length I was hoping to do on a daily basis, but fate had other plans for me. After a thousand foot climb in the morning, it should be smooth sailing. Weather outlook is good, and I’ll be closer to Dalton where I’ll pick up a mail drop and meet up with Julia again.

Day 11: Upper Goose Pond Cabin to Kay Wood Shelter, 18.3 miles

I woke to the smell of fresh coffee and laid in my bunk for awhile before heading downstairs to eat pancakes with everyone. We ate by the morning light and another northbound thru hiker named Sonic had joined us in the night. So far it had been me, Cole, Keeper, Moose Man, and a local out for his first section ever. Breakfast was filling and warm, just what I needed to start the day. Before saying goodbye and leaving a small donation, I headed down to the dock and watched the sun rising over the trees as mist hovered above the water. Such a peaceful spot where the cares of the world felt so very far away.

I was the first to leave and as I got on the trail I could tell that the anti inflammatory medication my doctor had given me before I left kicked in. What a massive difference in how I felt. The pain was mostly gone and instead of limping, I was able to actually walk normally and speed on down the trail. For the first time in weeks, I felt like myself with my usual pace and I reveled in it. I know the pills will only last me 6 days, so I’ll see how badly the pain returns afterward. I will never take walking for granted again!

Today was easy in terms of terrain. I had one mountain to climb and the rest was rolling forest and dozens of muddy sections with slick, mossy bog boards. I only slipped off once!

The trail passed by several beaver ponds that had formed these gorgeous habitats filled with bird life and water lilies. I saw kingfishers, common yellowthroats, and other warblers that were too hurried to let me get a good look. No beavers though in spite of there being some lovely mud structures with freshly chewed sticks on them. I’m dying to see a beaver swim through one of these ponds! Where is the master who created this masterpiece?

The terrain was smooth with pine needles, then laced with slippery tree roots, then strewn with rocks big enough to twist an ankle, then crossing lots of small streams on top of boulders, then precariously balancing in bog boards to avoid muddy swamps. The variety of ground my feet have walked over never ceases to amaze me. How boring a sidewalk is with its hardened strict lines and unceasing repetition. What have we done to ourselves by lining our streets with such dull repetition when nature provides us with such interesting variety? Safety, blah blah blah. But what imagination is borne of square manmade blocks when beautifully gnarled tree roots exist instead?

I got one decent view of Greylock today and it looks so much closer than it did a couple of days ago! It still boggles my mind that I am walking over a mountain range from state to state. Tomorrow I walk 3 miles into Dalton, MA where I’ll spend the day resupplying and resting before climbing up and over to Cheshire, then onto the slopes of Greylock where I’ll spend a night before summiting.

When I finally reached the shelter tonight there was a woman there with a man who had hiked in with no jacket, no water, and wearing Crocs on his feet. I didn’t know what the situation was, but he might have been on the spectrum and had wandered in completely dehydrated so she’d filtered some water for him. When he left an hour and half later, it was because we encouraged him to get home before dark because he was starting to shiver and only had his cell phone for light. He said he lived 3 miles away and we could only hope that was true.

Angela is a 40 year old solo female thru hiker who is flip flopping and planning to finish in Harpers Ferry. She left her job, left her city, and needed to get away from the news and life and figure some things out for herself. I asked her about the women on trail and she said there have been more this year than ever before. No way! She said there were camps at night where it was just women and it was so awesome. I am beyond encouraged to hear this!

I can relate to needing to leave the news behind. My anxiety level about the state of the world had gotten beyond a manageable level and being out here has been such a healthy escape from the toxicity of politics. I haven’t checked the news and when I’ve had a TV available, I haven’t turned it on. I don’t miss it a single bit. I’ve also been hard pressed to find anyone out here who has an Instagram account I can follow because they’re all off the grid. This is why people do this, to get away from all the garbage, the shit that is clogging up our lives and separating us from nature and real human connection.

Today marks a quarter of my time on the trail and it has gone by in a blink. How on earth can I go back to ordinary life after this? Maybe I’ll be ready, it’s hard to tell. I miss Rob and my cats and our dog. I miss hot showers and my bed and my garden. But I don’t miss so many other things. I am aware that I am changing, that this experience will impact my life. At the moment I’m not sure how.

I’m addicted to hiking, to being out in nature and feeling unfettered and free. I’m addicted to trees and sky and newts and frogs and butterflies and bears and beauty that is singularly experienced where only feet can tread. Oh the painful withdrawal that must happen when one is separated from these things, the rending of the heart that must take place. I don’t know how I will prepare myself for it, or how I will make those around me understand what walking this footpath has meant to my wandering heart. Maybe it’s not for them to understand. Perhaps this time is meant to for me alone and that’s ok too.

Day 12: Kay Wood Shelter to Dalton, 3.2 miles

Today was so interesting. The walk down into Dalton was short and when I walked over the bridge into town, I was greeted by a very colorful lady wearing bright clothes, carrying a big umbrella. She started giving me all this advice about where a hiker should go in town. I told her I was headed for the Shamrock Inn and she very forcefully told me I shouldn’t stay there. Apparently there’s “more than meets the eye going on down there, if you know what I mean” and she also said I should not leave anything in my room that I wouldn’t want taken. This didn’t sit very well with me, so I decided that I’d head in Pittsfield instead and stay at the Econolodge, which was cheaper and closer to resupply stores.

I walked to the post office, picked up my package and asked about the bus to Pittsfield. The clerk didn’t know and suggested asking a business owner. So I went to the coffee shop, had a cup, and asked about the bus. They didn’t know. So I walked down the street and found the stop. Some other folks came along and waited as well, but they didn’t know when the bus came. Apparently the bus is on its own schedule and no one knows anything around here. While I was at the bus stop, a man who’d been in his car in front of the Shamrock Inn came over and asked if I was a hiker, then handed me a bruised apple “for nourishment.” It was a kind gesture, but I got a weird vibe and just wanted to get out of this little section of town.

Thank God for Julia, my MA trail angel who lives in Pittsfield and came straightaway to whisk me out of there. We had a delicious breakfast of pancakes at the local diner before heading off to shop. We also stopped at the Pine Cone Hill outlet because we both have a weakness for fine bedding. They sell this brand at Hildreth’s in the Hamptons and I’m always drooling over it. I found a lovely pillow cover that will be sent home as a memento from the AT and a reminder of the kindness I’ve experienced on this part of the trail. I’d like to point out that I hadn’t showered yet and was wearing all my dirty hiker clothes. The term “hikertrash” exists for a reason.

I did laundry and washed my clothes twice. I’m sure they’ll still smell like death the second I start sweating tomorrow, but I tried. Unless you’re just entering town to buy food, the chores can take quite a while. Tomorrow I’ll walk through Cheshire, but my next town destination will be in Vermont!!! I can’t believe I only have 3 days left in MA.

I’ll be staying with friends in VT and I can’t wait to see them. The next few days will be lots and lots of climbing, but knowing a warm hug lies on the other side is extra motivation to keep going. I still have no idea how the knee will hold up, but hopefully I’ll at least have another state down before it gets rough again.

I’m thankful for a bed and fresh food today, but I also am ready to be back outside. The noises of town are disquieting, so much harsher than the gentle symphony of nighttime bugs that sing me to sleep every night.

AT Journals: Cornwall Bridge, CT to Great Barrington, MA

Day 4: Cornwall Bridge, CT to Rt 7 past Balter’s, 12.1 miles. 

The day started with a cup of coffee at my new favorite country store and a hitch to the trail. Standing on a corner with my thumb out was a new, humbling experience. Why are so many people passing? Do I look menacing and gross? Ooh, a truck is pulling over. I quickly limped my way uphill to the pickup truck where a sort of nice man asked where I was heading. When I mentioned the AT trailhead up the road, he pointed to some random trail leading off into the woods, and said, “You mean that one?” Um, no. I had to politely argue with this man about where the AT trailhead was, because of course I wouldn’t know. Me, the dumb, frail waif who just hiked out of there yesterday. In spite of this awkward exchange, his kindness was most appreciated and I’m so grateful that he stopped because I couldn’t handle the idea of walking uphill on a road for a mile. The elevation profile map for today looked like a beast and I needed every advantage I could get. 

All I can say is that today was really, really humbling. The first 5 miles were great. I was riding high and handling all the hills with a super positive attitude. Then, I think I crashed a bit. I need to get my lunchtime nutrition dialed in because granola bars and skittles are not giving my body the fuel it needs to do what I did today, which resembled a jagged roller coaster. I just don’t seem to want to eat anything that would actually benefit my body right now. Definitely tapped into the mental reserves in a big way. 

At some point, the knee started doing its usual thing and the miles felt longer and longer. I hate going slow, hate it, hate it, hate it. And yet, in order for me to be out here, I am being forced to crawl over these mountains at a snail’s pace, gently picking my way down every hill, tenderly stepping so as not to jar the leg. Part of me is infuriated because I’ve never hiked so slowly in my life. (I’m not even what many people would consider a “fast” hiker!) The other part of me is like, “Lady, you’re almost through Connecticut on a lousy leg and you’re doing this, so shut up already.” The doctor said I wouldn’t do permanent damage by hiking on this, and I keep hoping it gets stronger. After all, this is only the 4th day. Baby steps…literally. How is this only the 4th day?? HOW?

I haven’t seen any other women out here yet. There are groups of Princeton students doing freshman orientation by hiking parts of the trail, and there have been some women in those big groups, but in terms of female hikers on a section or thru hike, nada so far. The impact of this on my psyche is interesting. Granted, I’m hiking in shoulder season when there are fewer people out here to begin with, but there’s something about seeing someone like yourself doing something similar that gives you the boldness to take it on. The guys are fine. The men will always be here as they always have been, not having to worry about things like periods, creeps in town, constantly having your ability underestimated simply because you’re a woman, or getting assaulted while hitchhiking. Lucky them. For me, it’s the women who’ve done this trail before that inspire me to hike. 

Liz Thomas recently posted that she’s seeing a lot more women on the PCT, which she believes is a positive effect resulting from Cheryl Strayed’s writing in Wild. That is amazing! The supposed statistic on the AT of women to men hikers is around 40/60, but a thru hiker I stayed in a shelter with the other night thought a more realistic number would be that about 15% of the hikers out here are women. I don’t know what the real number is, but regardless, it shows a disparity between genders and makes me question, why is this still a thing?

So in spite of the lack of ladies and the lousy leg, the beauty out here is beyond. The mushrooms, my gosh, the gorgeous fungi that cover the forest. I can’t stop and take pictures of every one of them, but I want to because I have seen so many that amaze me. Part of me wonders if I didn’t have to go so slowly due to the injury, would I be taking notice of all this beauty right at my feet?

Today I pushed a bit farther than I wanted to. I kept feeling ok about the distance and thinking to myself, it’s only 2.2 miles to the next campsite. Well, when I got to the Belter’s camp, I looked at it and gave it a big fat NOPE. There were widow makers everywhere and a stiff wind was blowing, causing trees to rub against one another and make loud, creaking sounds. (For those who don’t know, a widow maker is a tree leaning against another tree that looks like it could fall on your tent and crush you like a bug in the night.) The entire day, the wind has steadily blown and I’ve been listening to branches fall around me, little ones, big ones, enough to make me jump every now and then. So when I got to this campsite, it was surrounded by lovely old pines that had dead limbs hanging all over them, dead limbs half fallen and snagged on other trees, dead trees that had fallen sideways and were leaning on other trees. Trees were waving and gasping with each gust of wind that came through. The forecast tonight calls for more wind and rain, so I dialed the nearest hostel owner and he picked me up at the next road crossing. Sometimes, you just have to make a decision, and that was the one I needed to make in that moment. 

Plus, I was able to eat an entire chicken parm sub for dinner, and all is right with the world. Until tomorrow…

Day 5…Rt 7 to Riga Shelter 13.1 miles (.1 to shelter) 

Continuing the theme of having entire huge old houses to myself, I stayed at the Hanta Yo hostel last night and had the whole place to myself. The door didn’t lock, it was drafty, and windows and doors suspiciously didn’t lock or close. The shower looked so dirty that I ended up washing off in the sink and managed to avoid touching any surfaces. Keep in mind I’ve literally been sleeping in the dirt every night. But, it was the perfect place to avoid the evening storm and I was thankful for a roof over my head when those first heavy raindrops sounded with mighty thwacks against the old house.

The town of Lakeville, CT is adorable and I just can’t get enough of these pretty New England hamlets. I want to move up here in the worst way. Rob needs to meet Norm Abrams and be a furniture maker out of Boston or something. Before I hit the trail, the hostel owner took me to the market in Salisbury so I could resupply, which saved me from having to walk all the way into town later. Salisbury is a beautiful place where apparently Meryl Streep has a home, which is why everything in the market cost double (or more) than what I pay for the same things at home. A celebrity tax perhaps? Cream cheese and a box of crackers was a whopping $9! I grabbed a sandwich from the deli, along with a few other needed items before heading out to the car. I was eager to get back on the trail.

Today has been my favorite day so far. I think I hit the SOBO hiker bubble because I saw 9 of them and was able to talk with each one. Also, lady hikers! Finally. Having human interaction made a world of difference! The first ones I met were by Great Falls, and they were so kind to provide information about water up the trail and some of the conditions I’d run into. The morning was made complete by the gorgeous plumes of water cascading over Great Falls in the town of Falls Village. What an incredible spot! I could have sat there all day, and allowed myself to explore a bit, climbing up on some of the rocks and resting beside the water, allowing hte crashing sounds to reverberate through my whole self. It’s always hard to tear the body away from such a force, but I was compelled to move on, knowing there were many more miles to go.

In the woods, I saw a bear cub running up a tree!!! I heard the little cub and saw it scrambling to climb as I scanned the area for the mama bear. I never did lay eyes on her, but the top of a nearby maple was swaying and shaking like there was something quite large taking roost. I hung out for a while in hopes that I’d get a glimpse, but she stayed put, determinedly out of sight. The encounter made my whole morning and I walked away with a big smile on my face for no one but the trees to see. People always ask if I’m scared of bears out on the trail, and while I have a healthy respect for black bears, I’m more fascinated and appreciative when I see one than anything else.

Finding water is a challenge out here due to how dry the weather has been. The Riga shelter I’m staying at tonight has no water, so I didn’t cook and snacked for dinner just to make sure I have enough to get me to the next stream in the morning. I’ve been told that tomorrow will involve some rock climbing. Lord help me. I’m only 5’5” and some of these boulder scrambles have challenged my short legs. Sometimes not knowing what lies ahead is a blessing. There are a few ladies here tonight with their daughters. They’re hammocking, so I have the shelter to myself, which is always a blessing because it means not sleeping next to a snorer.

The knee update is that it still sucks and hurts with each step. I am never unaware of it. Every night I have new knots in my leg muscles because I’m walking in weird ways to compensate. Right now I’m digging a tennis ball into an achy calf, which feels about as good as it sounds, but doing that seems to help release the muscles. Next time I need to find a massage therapist who hikes and trick them into doing a section with me. 
In spite of this nagging pain, there is so much happiness in this adventure. I know I haven’t been out long enough to dread the next day like some hikers tend to do after months on the trail. Only having a short time to be out here really makes me appreciate every moment that much more. 

Day 6…Riga Shelter to Hemlocks Shelter 10.4 miles (.1 from shelter, .3 to/from another shelter)

The morning dawned with a red sunset that I got to view from the comfort of my sleeping bag. The scenery from Riga Shelter was the best I’ve experienced at a shelter on the AT and I laid there soaking it in before unzipping my cozy bed and feeling a rush of chilly air run up my legs.

Today there were 3 mountains to summit, Bear, Rate, and Everett. Everett was the stuff of legend, and it turned out to just be steep and not nearly as bad as I imagined it to be based on what I’d heard. I’m finally in Massachusetts!!!! Crossing another state line feels so amazing! The Sages Ravine area was simply gorgeous, all mossy with a cool, crisp river running through. The soft moss and wet, deep vegetation reminded me of the Smokies and made me realize how much I truly have come to love those mountains and miss them when I’m away. 

I was really drained of energy today, so every climb seemed to challenge my fatigued muscles more than usual. I’ve been thinking about it all day, and if the knee isn’t better by the time I get to VT, I’m not going to do the entire Long Trail, just the AT portion of it. The northern portion is said to be pretty difficult and not as well maintained or marked. I can come back and do the that part when I’m not nursing an injury, and I can head back down south and keep hiking into North Carolina and Tennessee and see how much of those I can finish. 

The summits today were hard won, but glorious. Rate Mountain in MA captured me with her expansive views and I can’t wait to see what else the state has to offer. There was a good half mile stretch of trail that was rock on the side of a massive cliff. I could see the same lakes I’ve been seeing for days, but from a different angle. Vultures flew below me and the sun glinted gently on charcoal feathers as they lazily sailed through familiar skies. I met a father and daughter who were hiking the trail SOBO. He’s a artist, a painter, and asked if he could take my picture because he’s painting hikers they meet along the way. We talked for a while and I couldn’t help but envy the memories those two are making together. What an incredible journey to look back on. As I headed on, part of me wished I’d asked for his info. I’d love to see the painting.

After Rate came Everett, and boy what a steep climb that was. The breezes and views gave me all the strength I needed to climb up rocks that had pieces of wood screwed into them, steps of sorts that created a ladder which aided in getting a body up the steep incline. The summit was such a thrilling feeling. Every time I hit a summit that takes some effort, part of me wants to scream a little and just yell from the exhilaration of it. My daily life is ruined forever after this.

Tomorrow is a town day and I’m so excited. I’m going to send a couple of things home and buy some more meds for the knee, maybe some advil and some kind of muscle rub. There are a few things I’m not using yet that I don’t want to send home, like my mittens and waterproof socks, which I know will come in handy soon. The weather has been stellar for a week, how lucky! Rain is in the forecast though, so that’ll be interesting. I can’t imagine what some of these rocky, granite climbs would have been like in the rain. 

Last minute tonight another sobo thru hiker named Loner rolled in to the shelter. He’s hiked the PCT and a zillion other trails, so talk turned to gear and questions about upcoming towns. There are no strangers out here. Hikers support each other and help each other out, give advice about water, aches and pains, best places to eat in towns, and who to call for a shuttle. Talk is easy, and completely void of the social anxiety that often comes at parties and work events. Also, it’s not weird at all sleeping alone in a shelter with a middle aged man. This is simply home. We’re all home and everyone is welcome.

Day 7…Hemlocks Shelter to Great Barrington, MA 8.9 miles 

I am so exhausted. Like “hit a wall” exhausted even though I’m really enjoying being out here. Right now I’m in my puffy jacket and rain skirt with a pile of laundry next to me, waiting for the washer to open up so I can clean my clothes. It’s 6:49 p.m., which means I should be in bed in about 10 mins. Being at a hotel is strange and wonderful all at the same time. A bed, shower, and clean clothes make me feel human again. It’s odd in a shelter because you hear EVERY single sound. Every breath, every time someone turns over on their squeaky sleeping pad, every slight movement in a sleeping bag, every snore, fart, belch…all of it. Ear plugs help a lot. I always thought it would be weird to sleep with strangers, but it’s not out on the trail, plus no one’s a stranger out here. 

When I got up and out this morning, all I could think about was town. I passed some more lovely views where the clouds still hung low below the peaks. Mount Greylock could be seen standing prominently in the distance. I use an app called Peak Finder where I can hold my phone up to a scene and it shows the names of the mountains I’m looking at, which is incredibly satisfying when you see how far you’ve gone.

The trail was downhill and then mostly flat today so I hightailed it as quickly as I could. A woman I met during my naturalist classes at Tremont lives nearby and graciously offered to pick me up and bring me into town. Julia was as angelic a trail angel as ever there was today. I can’t even describe the amount of gratitude in my heart for people who assist hikers on this journey. We had lunch, caught up on life, and then went on a search for bug spray and a legit outfitter in town. In spite of all the resources here, there was none to be found. So Rob was able to put some things together for me at home and throw them in the mail so I can send my lousy heavyweight bear bag home. I hate the ursack with a passion. It’s a $90 stuff sack that is bear proof and it weighs half a pound. I haven’t needed it at all, so I’m going to use my clothing bag until I get my legit stuff sack in the mail. 

Julia and I went food shopping too. I don’t eat most red meat or seafood, so I was looking for plain packaged chicken in a foil packet and there was none to be found. I was also looking for small cans of frito lay bean dip, also none to be found. I’m still trying to figure out how to add more protein to what I’m eating and it’s been tricky. I managed to finagle some things together for the next three and a half days until I get to Dalton. The food bag feels so heavy, so I’ll be figuring out what weighs the most and eating that first. I was literally looking at snack cakes and figuring out which ones weighed the least! 

The knee is just not getting any better. I’m pushing through, but it’s also eating away at me a little. Tomorrow I’m planning to do around 13.5 miles and I can’t even think about how it’ll feel. Tonight I was able to go to the Berkshire Community Center and soak in a hot tub for a half hour. They have a hiker rate and provide a towel. Not having a bathing suit with me, I stripped down to boyshorts and a sports bra and walked straight past a group of older women doing water aerobics in the pool. Ask me how much I cared. Most days I am self conscious to a fault when it comes to my body. I hate my thighs, oh the cellulite. Reading about Anne Lamott and her relationship with her thighs, who she affectionately calls “the aunties” helped me view my own with more compassion. Today, these beat up legs deserve a medal for all the work they’ve been doing. I don’t give a fig what anyone thinks. Is this what it’s like to be 40? I hear no one gives a sh*t in their 40s, which sounds fabulous.

Soaking in that pool felt incredible. I had the little hot tub area to myself and just floated until I felt like I was sweating underwater. Then I jumped out to cool off, but decided to hang around just a bit longer to soothe these aching muscles. The hotel has ice so I iced the knee when I got back to my room. All the towns have hiker rates, reduced prices, which feels like such a luxury. All we’re doing is walking through, and we stink, but people help us out anyway. I know I should probably glance at work email even though I’m on leave, but my body is so so so tired right now. I can’t make myself do it. Town chores take up every available minute. It’s peaceful being out here, but relaxing, it is not…in the best way possible.

Kent, CT

AT Journals: Mt. Algo Shelter to Cornwall Bridge, CT

Day 3…Mt. Algo Shelter to Cornwall Bridge 14.9 miles (2.6 miles in/out of Kent, .8 into Cornwall Bridge, .1 from shelter)

The day dawned bright following last night’s storms and I left early so I could get into Kent to figure out why my phone wasn’t charging. I think the port is dirty, and after blowing on it, the phone started charging again. As much as I hate relying on my cell phone so much, this small piece of technology has become an invaluable tool for keeping shopping lists, navigating, and communicating with loved ones.

Kent is adorable, but gives the vibe of a wealthy Connecticut town. For the first time, I truly felt like hikertrash, but I think they’re used to seeing homeless looking vagabonds roaming their streets. My first stop was the gas station to buy a new phone cable. As soon as I walked in, someone asked me if I was hiking the AT. Alone? Wow. Well, good luck to you. I was an oddity at this time of year when most hikers have made their way south or finished the trail north. I left the station, and headed for the welcome center in town where two backpackers made of artsy metal greeted me and beckoned to the bench outside a locked front door. After sitting for awhile and waiting for the bathrooms at the welcome center to open up at 8 am (which they never did), I brushed my teeth on the porch and spit behind a bush (because I’m not a savage). Luckily the IGA and post office were a stone’s throw away.

Every step in town feels like it steals your energy because deep inside you know how hard the trail is going to be when you return. Walking on pavement is a jarring sensation for joints that are used to the give of soft earth. The small grocery store had everything I needed and I zoomed through the aisles reveling in the options. Knorr sides, mac and cheese, deli meats, tortillas, skittles, so many choices! I headed outside to switch the food into Ziploc bags which compress better in my pack and are used for cooking. My hurry surrounded by empty boxes warranted a few odd glances from customers walking in.

Across the street, I enjoyed a cup of coffee at a local shop, feeling the warmth of the hot beverage on my fingers through the paper cup. A group of union contractors were having a passionate gripe session about whiny clients, crappy bosses, and the difficulty of life in general. I eavesdropped unabashedly, knowing that entertainment this rich only comes along once in a blue moon. I love the northeast so much. People just throw their feelings out there, propriety be damned. No point beating around the bush if one is displeased. But everyone in the north also seems to know the drill, you vent, get it all out, swear a bit, and suddenly one feels like they can survive the work week until the next gripe session. Southerners wouldn’t be caught dead talking like this in public. This type of gossip remains behind firmly closed doors, while in public a “can do” attitude and a “yes ma’am” with a painted smile are on display. Being in this part of the country, I’m home. I’m to unwind and find myself again.

After the coffee, I headed back to the main road and began the walk back to the woods with cars speeding past on my left, and a grand meadow to my right. As soon as I was back on the trail, my breath exhaled like I’d been holding it just for town. I wonder, how much of my life is lived holding my breath? I walked through the dew-soaked meadow before hiding behind a tree and changing clothes. When one is in the woods, you get used to changing in the open, going to the bathroom with a view, and having all of nature at your disposal (using Leave No Trace principles, of course). Being in town was nice for a bit, but it’s crazy how easily the trail starts to feel like home. This is where I belong now. Or maybe this is where I belong always.

The AT couldn’t make up its mind today on whether it wanted to kill me or cut me some slack. The climbs and descents were insane. I’m not used to this. Without the leg injury, a boulder field is just another pile of rocks to navigate. With the leg injury, a boulder field could present an even more serious injury if I’m not careful. The danger of the trail adds a sadistic element of fun. No sane person would be out here walking over piles of rocks with a heavy pack on their back, which is perhaps why hikers gravitate toward one another. We recognize our own crazy in the faces we meet.

Here are some examples of the trail today. There is a white blaze in every one of these pictures…see if you can find it.

In between that insanity was 5 miles of relatively flat walking beside the gorgeous Housatonic River. Perhaps a concession of ease after navigating the rocky gauntlet that was the trail. Just before the river I met a lovely retired man who used to work for Hofstra University. He was a kind soul out for a walk and asked if he could join me for part of the way. We talked for about 2 miles and I got the sense he wished he could keep going. It was so nice to have company for a bit and be with another person who truly appreciates the beauty out here. I will never cease to be amazed at how people open themselves up to hikers. The simple act of walking sparks internal recognition, desire, and maybe a wish that they too could leave everyday life behind for just a few moments to travel this path.

Before ending the day in Cornwall Bridge, I had another 1000 ft climb, a steep 500 ft descent to the road, then a mile downhill into town. I was toast by the time I got there, TOAST. My knee ached terribly as I limped down the pavement and I know I’ll be hitching a ride back to the trail tomorrow. No way I’m waking up that dreadful hill before hiking up another mountain. Thank goodness the country store was still open! They were so kind to me the second I walked through the door and asked for ice cream. The owner said they had some soup left from the day’s batch and would I like a cup. YES. He also asked which type of sprinkles I wanted on the ice cream cone, bless him, so I asked for rainbow. I sat on the porch, eating hot homemade soup and the first of many ice cream cones in the cool fall weather. This is bliss. A New England country store, kindness from strangers, and the promise of a hot shower.

The house I’m staying in, called Amselhaus, is perfectly charming, right out of a Currier & Ives painting. I have this whole lovely place to myself and I’m just dying! This stretch of trail will ruin me forever with it’s adorable historic homes that make a hiker feel more human than trashy. Who on earth do I think I am? The nerve. I am unashamed to admit that a shower and warm bed never felt so good.