but there will be trees missing and new traffic lights.
We did the 700 mile round trip to Connecticut this week for Thanksgiving at my brother’s house. He’s a great cook and graciously agreed to host 15 of us who found his Northwest Connecticut home to be the middle place between our starting points in Pennsylvania, Maine, Boston, and southern Connecticut. My brother lives just 10 minutes away from the town in which my husband and I lived and raised our family for 30 years in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s… and my other brother lives right down the street from our old house. Just a stone’s throw away from our old village of Collinsville (a sweet old mill town on the river) is the larger town of Farmington where we all lived together in our growing-up years.
Our Thanksgiving group was made the better with the addition of my brothers’ partners, a niece and three nephews, my brother’s partners’ daughter and her boyfriend, my sister, my son, my sister’s husband, and sweet “Hamlet” (otherwise known as “Brownie,”) a French bulldog.
The table was full: two turkeys, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes- everything that you’d expect, with some nice seasonal additions like broccoli casserole and roasted whole carrots, and one “interloper item:” a saffron rice dish with orange peel, almonds and cranberries. (I made that.)
We had pie and listened to a playlist that my nephew had lovingly curated and titled “Old People Music” with plenty of Little Feat, Crosby Stills and Nash, Bonnie Raitt and James Taylor. We laughed at clips that we called up on the giant tv screen from some of our favorite movies – “My mama would say, ‘Harlan Pepper, if you don’t stop namin’ nuts’…” (Best in Show). We drank Old Fashioneds and wine and laughed.
We went for a walk in a nature preserve. The rain stopped and delivered a beautiful rainbow.
It was just right.
On the morning of the second day, my hubby and I took a drive to our old town. It’s a strange sensation- I can’t quite put my finger on it. Driving down the street where we lived for so long I felt disconsolate. Wistful. The house- a 1920s red bungalow- looked ok. The hedge between “our” yard and the neighbors had grown huge and unruly. The copper rain chain that I had reluctantly left in place on the front right corner of the house was gone. The brick patio still needed to be leveled and repaired, and the hemlock in the back yard that was one half of our hammock support had been cut down. I gathered all of these observations silently as my husband drove us slowly down the narrow neighborhood road. Good news: the maple tree that we planted just before we moved in the front yard was doing well.
We wandered around the small town, first skirting its perimeter- we drove past the town dump, that Saturday morning gathering place where all important community news is shared; we drove over the newly restored town bridge (the historic 1895 truss bridge had been removed for a couple of years for repair and had recently been reinstalled), and we were sad to see a new 8-foot tall fence blocking access to the river underneath the bridge. That spot had long been a favorite swimming hole on hot summer nights. It was a rite of passage to jump off the bridge into the water below, though not particularly safe.
We drove through town observing the new traffic light at the crossroad and went up the steep and winding hill to the town cemetery, my favorite place to view the sleepy village that squats at the river’s edge. Some day I will be buried in that cemetery.
It’s a strange thing in an hour’s drive to entertain memories, observe changes, and reflect on the narrowing window of time left in one’s life. There is, in this retrospective, the remembering of misteps, the recognition of rewards, the living with decisions that we made in good faith, and a few “what ifs?” There is the bond of our life together that was crafted somewhat haphazardly- though some might want to call it “Spirit led.” There is an appreciation, now, for the friendships, strength, and vitality of our younger years that we did not fully understand as precious, then. And there is regret at some shortness of vision, and an occasional yielding to convention when a different way might have been better.
I think, in all of it, that we did the best we could. And life, in return, was gracious and generous.
We did “go home.” And, we will be back. But there are still many miles to go before we sleep. Grandchildren on a different coast. Hikes to take, gardens to plant, beaches to walk. So much, yet, to unfold.
Mine was modified, so, for those of you who have done the REAL 75 Hard, forgive me. I did the “Soft 75.”
For 75 days in a row (no cheating, no skipping) I did these 5 things:
Drank a gallon of water each day
2. Followed a vegan diet and had no alcoholic drinks
3. Exercised once per day (that’s the “soft” part- in a REAL 75 Hard, you exercise TWICE per day.)
4. Engaged in a session of study and prayer (“REAL” 75 has you read 15 pages of a non-fiction book each day; I did bible study and Morning Prayer each day instead)
5. Took a progress photo.
Here’s the bad news: other than the 18 pounds that I shed, I feel the same.
The water was the hardest part. Running to the bathroom every fifteen minutes is a hassle. My skin isn’t plumper, my wrinkles haven’t disappeared, I don’t feel more energetic.
It’s not hard for me to not drink, though I will admit to timing this experiment to allow some imbibing at Thanksgiving. (I started on Sept 6). We’ve been eating vegan in our household for 11 months now, so that was a breeze. The weight loss came from not drinking and a more intentional pattern of more-veggies-fewer-starchy-carbs. The 75 Hard protocol has you choose your own diet. Just no cheating, or you go back to Day 1.
I am good for a morning walk each day, and on the weekends, a hike or afternoon stroll with hubby. I’ve been back at the gym for about a month, now, in the mornings; it is too dark and cold out there now for a walk, and I’ve got a new fitness focus on trying to rebuild some muscle. I’m training for a long hike with my daughter in April. So regular exercise was not too hard for me. 75 days without a rest day, though, was a little bit of a challenge. There was one day when I left the house at 6:30 in the morning to get to an appointment (skipping the gym that morning) and did not get home until 8:30 PM that night after all of my engagements… and, in my suit and stockings, put on my sneakers as soon as I got home and headed out for a dark walk. That was the only rough day.
The progress photos were humiliating and I’ve deleted them all.
75 Hard is supposed to yield physical benefits but, even more, it is supposed to build endurance, self confidence, discipline and make you feel like a million bucks.
I feel like half a million, I guess, and, honestly, I don’t think that if I added another workout per day, that it would have made a giant difference.
Learning? Take aways? I’m always up for a challenge. I thrive on them. I already lead a pretty disciplined life. I love Morning Prayer and this was a great tool to get me to commit regularly to the discipline of daily scripture study. (You might think that daily scripture study is a given for someone in my position, but the truth is that unless you get up at 4:15- which I do now- the day gets away from you and your calendar fills up.)
This has given me a chance to take back some control of my life from the exciting demands of my position which, if I let it, would keep me busy 24/7. It is important to name some of the priorities for yourself and what makes you thrive… and then build the rest around that. A healthy diet, exercise and prayer is important to me.
A gallon of water each day, drunk to the point that (as my grandmother would say) “makes my back teeth float?” Not so much.
If you know me, you know that I love a challenge. There is something about setting some goals, and trying new behavior patterns for a time that I find invigorating and a doorway to spiritual growth.
In the past I have taken on the challenge of training for and running five different marathons and two duathlons. The training alone was challenging and, as one running friend told me, she likes to think of the actual races as the “victory laps.” My running days are over, I think, but I still love the feeling of coming home from a run (the actual running? Not so much.)
I’ve taken on lots of different dietary challenges through the years, too- multiple 21-day cleanses, juice protocols, a year of vegetarianism (2002), a year of No Alcohol (2020) and, most recently, a year of Veganism (2022).
Right now I am finishing up a version of “75 Hard,” a protocol that demands a strict adherence to a workout-dietary-study-wellness protocol for 75 days in a row. I’m on Day 69, today. (To be honest, I’ll be glad when, on Day 71 I can drop the “gallon of water a day” part of this challenge and resume a more natural 8 glasses per day regime! My bladder is fully flushed, I can assure you!)
In concert with my love of hiking and the out-of-doors, I’ve taken to having a 5-day solo hiking retreat on the Appalachian trail each year, and in 2022 I resolved to sleep outside at least one night per month (a few of those have been in my tent in the back woods but.. they still count! I loved my Jan 2022 camp out in the snow!)
All of this is to say that in the eleventh month of the year, I am already looking ahead to 2023 and setting my sights on the next challenge.
One of the ideas that I have is to respond to both a spiritual and practical nudge that I have been feeling for some time: I want to simplify. I’ve long been fascinated with tiny-house living. I don’t think that is exactly what I (we) need -we’ve joked that if we had TWO tiny houses, we might be able to make it work- but I am interested in cleaning out closets, shedding extra stuff that I’ve been toting around for decades and paring down to the essentials. You’ve probably heard of something called “Swedish Death Cleaning” https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/The-Gentle-Art-of-Swedish-Death-Cleaning/Margareta-Magnusson/9781501173240 and everyone has heard of Marie Kondo’s de-cluttering method that got us talking to our clothes, thanking them for their service, rolling t-shirts up into tidy origami shapes, and evaluating items in our various collections depending on whether or not they “spark joy.”https://konmari.com
I’ve been carrying around a lot of stuff for years. Our girls’ prom dresses (our girls are in their 30s, now). Our son’s bottle collection from grade school. My father’s broken wooden paint box. More than 100 white dinner plates. A crystal cake plate with giant glass dome. Kitchen gadgets that lie, unused, in drawers and cabinets. A teapot collection. Salt dishes. Liqueur glasses. You get it.
If we are ever going to “get small” and “simplify” in our (eventual) retirement, then a year of sorting through, donating, and shedding might be in order. I think of the refugee families that might benefit from a few dozen dinner plates! The young folks who might be able to alter an early 2000s prom dress and get some use out of it. People who are in the process of setting up a household who would benefit from those “occasional” items that we drag out for entertaining: platters, dishes, table linen.
There are some things that I will not part with: my mother’s Tiffany pins from her engagement and wedding, my grandmother’s teapot entrusted to me by my mother, a family heirloom oil painting of Blackhead on Monhegan, my cast iron skillet, my tattered Book of Common Prayer and the bible that got me through seminary. A few things like that.
I’m starting with an easy project. A test-run for what is ahead in 2023’s year of simplifying: the great pocketbook giveaway.
On Saturday I cleaned out the guest room closet and shed 12 pocketbooks, all headed to their glory at Goodwill. I loved each of these bags, but I just don’t need them. I have a lovely new bag that will serve me well for many occasions, and I saved two evening bags (one black patent leather and another pink quilted one) for those nights at the opera or fancy weddings- all of which are too far and few between. I also saved my large brown leather “doctor’s bag” that I bought in Florence more than 20 years ago while traveling with my mom and sister. It’s a keeper. The rest can serve happily in someone else’s good hands.
So, for now, I’m a dozen pocketbooks lighter. Stay tuned for 2023!
This is not an exhaustive list of imparted wisdom, but in these recent days I’ve been thinking about my mom as I wander through my own life; these are moments of recollection that make me feel like I am stepping on her shadow.
What have I taught my own children?
How to ice a cake
Where the silverware belongs in a table setting
That Moses did not write the Pentateuch and David did not write (all) the psalms.
I pray that this is not an exhaustive list. I am glad that I’m not yet reduced to a shadow, and that I have time to teach other things, like:
Lately, I’ve been looking to the end of the year and anticipating the completion of my year of following a vegan diet. People have asked me if I will continue to eat this way or if I will celebrate 2023 with a cheeseburger and fries. Some days, that cheese burger sounds pretty great… and other days it makes me squeamish. See, I think that some of my thoughts and feelings about feeding off of animals have changed… but all of my taste buds haven’t, necessarily. I love the taste of long-smoked, tender BBQ brisket. The thought of eating eggs (chicken fetuses in the making) grosses me out. There’s nothing like a warm beef or lamb stew with a cloud of whipped potatoes on a cold winter night. And, drinking cow’s milk, knowing that calves are separated from their mothers at birth so the lactating moms can benefit the dairy industry and feed us instead of their babies- makes me sad.
I am not sure what the health benefits are that I have enjoyed in these 10 months of eating a vegan diet. I already had low blood pressure and a low, steady heart rate. My weight has increased in the last 10 months, but that has more to do with the summer’s gin&tonics and “vacation abandon” than the vegan lifestyle. I have been eating more carbs than are good for me, but that’s always been my Achilles heel. (who doesn’t love bread, rice, pasta, couscous and bread? Oh, bread, too…Did I mention bread? Homemade bread with butter, French bread, whole grain bread, oatmeal bread, pita bread, naan, brioche, sourdough…etc ). My energy is really good, but.. it always has been. My sleeping is great… but, I’ve always been a good sleeper. My skin is the same, not better or worse. I don’t have a super-vegan “glow” about me, but I don’t think I look pallid, either.
What have I missed?
And some of the long-simmered, homey, comfort foods that I love to prepare and eat: chicken pot pie (the “real” kind, with a crust), pot roast, apple pie (crust made with butter).
I have missed all sorts of shellfish that we usually eat in the summer like clams and mussels and oysters, fresh haddock with buttery breadcrumbs on top.
And, I’ve missed some “fun foods” that just aren’t as good in their vegan equivalents- like pizza and ice cream.
There is NO good vegan cheese. None.
I have enjoyed some great meals in these past 10 months and the creativity in vegan cooking- even with its limited options- is exciting. I’ve done a lot of “ethnic cooking”: Indian, Middle Eastern, Thai, Japanese, some African stews… there’s so much wonderful vegan food that comes from outside the American diet. We’ve always enjoyed cooking and eating from around the globe, but in this year, I’ve been leaning more towards Indian and Asian cuisines.
So, there’s no plan yet- for 2023. And maybe we’ll just see what evolves without any strict rules about what we will or will not eat.
The environmental and ethical reasons for following a vegan diet echo in my mind and are persuasive. The supposed health benefits of following a vegan diet (better blood work, lower weight, etc) are probably a good idea for someone in their mid- 60s. And I need to remind myself of these things when that idea of a plate of brisket looms in front of me.
So, we’ll see. I don’t think that it’ll be meat, veg and starch X3 meals/day beginning on Jan 1. I don’t see many sausage egg and cheese biscuits in my future. But a bowl of real ice cream? A wedge of sharp cheddar? Linguine with clam sauce and some grated parmegiano reggiano? yum.
Last month when I was doing a few days on the AT, I reflected that while one always hopes for an “incident free” and “safe” hike, the best stories come from mishaps and mistakes encountered along the way. In fact, “trail names” are often derived from when something goes wrong. Earlier this spring I met a thru-hiker whose trail name was “Wrong Way.” It doesn’t use up too much grey matter figuring out what happened to him along the way. He was good humoured about it, recounting to me not one but several times that he had stepped back onto the trail after a lunch break, or a visit in town. or just a pee in the woods, only to head back down the path in the direction that he had just traveled. Wrong Way.
Several years ago, now, when we arrived in Pennsylvania, we were given a number of gifts to welcome us to the Commonwealth. One of them was a book titled 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Harrisburg (PA). If you look it up, you will see that this is one in a series of books that details hikes and walks around major metropolitan areas. It’s a brilliant concept and a great way for new residents to discover trails and parks in their area. Spoiler alert: the phrase “several years ago” should serve as a tip for where this blog entry is headed. It is now 2022. The book that we received was published in 2006.
It is a bad idea to hike from a guidebook that is 16 years old.
And to be fully transparent, we have had problems with other hikes in this book for reasons of its age: a hike that we took on the 4th of July had us looking for “a piece of orange surveyor’s tape tied to a tree” as a trail marker. Guess what? 16 years later that tape wasn’t there, and we ended up scrambling down a super steep rock field for about a half mile, crabbing our way down and across the mountain like two old goats with shaky knees.
Yesterday’s hike brought some unplanned fun that included a rock scramble, a water crossing, a descent into a sunless forest and, best of all, a long passage of bushwhacking uphill through a tight thicket of mountain laurel. “Just keep climbing towards the sun,” I told myself, as I moved on all fours up and over and under and through wiry shrubs so dense that all but a tiny speck of blue sky was occluded by leaves and stalks and trunks.
In my years of hiking, I have been trained in the “Leave No Trace (LNT)” and the “Ten Essentials” principles. The first, LNT, is about good stewardship of nature, respecting the environment, and leaving the natural world as pristine as possible for the next traveler. (learn more about LNT at https://lnt.org/why/7-principles/ ) The Ten Essentials are geared towards hiker safety and making sure that one’s trip into the wilderness is as safe as can be. It is focused on traveling with what you need to assist with what you may encounter. The Ten Essentials include: Navigation device, Headlamp, Sun Protection, First Aid, Knife, Fire starter, Shelter, Extra Food, Extra Water, and Extra Clothes. https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/ten-essentials.html On our various outings, I usually carry the 10 Essentials. (I’ve learned a lot from “Jester” who has a podcast for Section Hikers titled, appropriately, “Jester, Section Hiker” and an Instagram page on “Hiker Safety.” I commend them both to you!) Sure, a five-mile hike in Central Pennsylvania in the middle of the day that never takes us more than 3 miles away from a road should not require a shelter or headlamp, but to be honest, on yesterday afternoon- and other times that I’ve been lost- I was glad to know that if I had to spend the night in the woods, I was set. Yesterday- full transparency- I was only carrying 6 of the 10 Essentials. I did not have my headlamp, sun protection, fire starter or extra clothes. I did have my smart phone and my GPS tracking device, first aid, a knife, an emergency blanket (shelter), snacks and plenty of water. (Note to self: put the missing items in my pack.) What ended up saving us yesterday were our electronic devices and three apps: Google Maps, Strava, and Far Out. “Find my Car” also helped.
So what happened?
After all this build up, it had better be good! Bears! Cliff hanging! A groundnest of bees! Wild boars!
Nope. None of that.
It was really just a case of missing landmarks, going off trail and needing to forge a path back to the car that had not been trod by other humans- ever.
The day was sunny and bright. There was not a cloud in the sky. We had just arrived home after a week in California loving up our grandchildren, drinking wine, playing at the beach and wedding dress shopping with our youngest. We sat in our house on this beautiful day, each of us with our eyes fixed on our computer screens, tallying up the number of emails that we’d received in our week away. I don’t know whose idea it was, but we both came to the realization that we were still on vacation, and it was too nice outside to stay inside. And so, we ate a quick lunch, picked a hike from the aforementioned book (we’ve been working our way through the 60 hikes and have about 15 of them crossed off), and set off, later than we should have. The trailhead was about 50 minutes from our home. The hike was a modest 4.5 miles and the book said that it was “moderate.” It was a loop trail that went down along the shoulder of a ridge into a holler to a reservoir, and then back up another way on a gentle ascent through a mature forest. The guidebook entry started out by saying, “If you have any doubts about what mountain laurel looks like, this hike should alleviate those doubts forever.” Check. I got to see plenty of mountain laurel up close and personal on this hike. (For those who are keeping track, this was hike # 54, “Rocky Knob,” somewhere near Caledonia Park in Michaux State Forest.)
The fact that it took us an additional 30 minutes to find the trail head should have been our first warning. The directions in the book named a road that we could not locate. We drove up and down that very road twice looking for the alleged trail head giving up too soon both times, and only when Google Maps finally kicked in (no bars for most of the trip) were we able to see that we were, indeed, on the right road… it had just lost its sign. We started off on this short hike at 3 PM, about an hour later than we probably should have.
As we studied the map later that night, at home, it appears that we zigged early, when we should have zagged. None of the landmarks that the guidebook mentioned were evident, but the trail was so clear, and it was even marked with the same orange blazes that we had been told about. And so we traveled downhill to the west when, apparently, we should have been traveling to the east- something that sounds so obvious and easy to figure out but… it wasn’t.
This was one of those trips when we realized that we were lost when we were really lost. Really, really, lost. Like down in a dark forest gully crossing a stream with just a hint of sun peeking through the ridge waaaaay up yonder and a thicket of mountain laurel and a near-vertical rock climb away from what might have even been close to getting us on the right path again towards civilization. Did I say that there was mountain laurel? Growing up in CT where mountain laurel is the state flower, our father scolded us any time that we would sit on the back steps and pick at the leaves of the flowering shrub that grew at our elbow, as we were disrespecting nature- and the state. (My father was a state senator and took his vocation seriously.). He would not have been pleased to see me stomping over, wriggling under, and roughly pushing back large boughs of the stuff yesterday as I scrambled towards the sun.
Devotees of the Appalachian Trail, we knew that we were not far from the simple one-lane, well-blazed, hard-to-get-lost-on-friend-of-a-trail, and so, as we emerged from the thicket of mountain laurel and found ourselves standing under a power line tower on top of a ridge, I called up my Far Out app which showed with its GPS beacon exactly where we were: about a half mile from an AT shelter, two miles from our car, and within a few yards of intersecting the AT which would bring us back to the intersection- where we started- on the Rocky Knob Trail.
Yeah- no broken bones, no wild animal encounters, no new scrapes or scars to remind us of the 1st of September when we nearly hiked the Rocky Knob Trail, Hike #52. This could be, in fact, with a tip of the hat to the Bard, “Much Ado About Nothing,” but, thank God for that.
If anything, this is a cautionary tale to go prepared for anything- even when you think it’s going to be a “moderate” hike up a “gentle ascent” on a gorgeous late summer afternoon. And, it is also an urging that with the appropriate preparation, there is no reason not to go outside and explore God’s great creation. There are some marvelous trees, insects, wildflowers and forest creatures to study. Even the mountain laurel is worth a close-up view.
Until next time, be safe!
The Old Goats.
PS I ordered a new revised edition of 60 Hikes within 60 Miles of Harrisburg this morning. It is from 2016. Here’s hoping.
PPS There are no pictures of the sunless forest because… that was a little panicky moment and I wasn’t into taking pictures, I was into getting out of there.
Note: the title of this blog and some references in its body have been changed since its first release on Aug. 19th. A friend wrote to enlighten me about the term “gypsy” (The original title of the blog post was “psalms, gypsies and rain,” ) and in her email she taught me that use of the word “gypsy” could be construed as a racial slur. I did some research and learned that “gypsy” is a slur used against people who originate in South Asia and who live a dispersed and itinerant lifestyle across Europe and North and South America. They speak a language called Romani that is related to Hindi. (Oxford dictionary). My friend also told me that the Roma people currently face discrimination as refugees from the Ukrainian conflict as they flee to places like Moldova.
I am grateful for the learning and apologize for any disrespect.
Note: this is long. Longer than I had intended.
This past week I’ve been on an AT (Appalachian Trail) adventure. Since Covid came to us, I have not made my annual retreat at the monastery that I usually visit, but have instead, taken to the woods. I love the AT. Its 2,194 miles offer plenty of space for contemplation, physical challenge, appreciation of the out-of-doors and opportunities to meet other pilgrims along the Way. It is not specifically a spiritual route, like the Camino de Santiago or St. Cuthbert’s Way or the Inca Trail… but for me, just being out of my element and in God’s creation is inherently spiritual and opens plenty of opportunity for an encounter with the Divine. This year’s retreat-hike offered some different notes. Before I share some highlights, a couple of preliminary comments:
Yes, I travel alone. No, it’s not as safe as it could be, but there are others on the trail who are also on their own and it is common to camp together at the end of a day of solo hiking. I carry a Garmin satellite communication device (with an SOS button that will call Search and Rescue if I need it) and a cell phone. One tough lady from Utah that I met this time scoffed at my Garmin saying, “yeah, the SOS button only works if you are conscious to push it.” Thanks, lady. There are some “tricks” that women hikers, specifically, use to stay safe. One, which I used this week, was to tell (when asked by a single man where I was headed that day,) “Oh, I’m not sure yet how far we are going today… I’m waiting for my husband and his buddy to catch up with me, I’m a bit ahead of them…” (Clearly, there was no “husband and his buddy” behind me, but no one except for me knew that.)
My “spiritual agenda” for this trip was to read through the psalms. I brought a packet of the psalms and a pen and my reading glasses to read and journal my way through. I had figured that a disciplined 30 psalms per day would get me through the whole psalter by the end of the trip… and… I didn’t get to the end. Spoiler alert: I’ve read them all before, of course, and will enjoy continuing my project of reading, praying and journaling now that I am “off trail.” It’s a good project.
The section of the trail that I covered this time was in Maryland. Glenn and I drove to Harper’s Ferry, WV last Saturday night and spent the night at a motel. In the morning I set off across the footbridge into MD, headed north, and he drove back to PA. The MD section of the trail up to the PA border is just 40 miles. Doing it over 4 nights and 4.5 hiking days is leisurely, allowing plenty of time for reflection, hanging out in camp and enjoying the vistas along the way. Along with following some of the blue blazed trails to overlooks and water sources (the springs are always at least half a mile downhill from the shelters) I figure that I logged about 45-48 miles, total.
On the AT (and other backpacking adventures) you carry everything that you need with you. Everything. This includes a “sleep system” (sleeping bag or down quilt and pad and tiny inflatable pillow), a “shelter system” (I have an ultralight one-“man” tent that is rain-tight and just big enough for me and my pack), a “cook system” (I carry a small propane fueled backpacking stove that is used only to heat water), and food (I drag along a heavy bear canister filled with all of the food that I will need for the entire trip. There are dehydrated vegan meals, snack bars, dried fruit, granola, Gatorade packets, and… instant coffee- yuk.) Many people use the “bear bag” method of tossing a line up into a tree and suspending their food bag in mid-air at the end of the day, but I prefer to carry the big durable plastic container called a “bear vault” because 1) I am too tired to go looking for a suitable bag-hanging spot at the end of the day 2) I have a bad line-tossing arm 3) I like the peace of mind that no bear (or racoon or skunk or groundhog or mouse or rat or …) is going to eat my food. Other supplies in my pack include a first aid kit, a map, a water filter, a rain cover for my pack, raincoat, a jack knife, and a toiletry kit with a small titanium spade for digging “cat holes.” I pinned a small pewter pin of a pilgrim-traveler that I bought this summer at Canterbury Cathedral to the outside of my pack- to remind me that this was, indeed, a pilgrimage, a walk in search of/to/God. There is something that I love about the efficiency of backpacking- carrying everything that you need and not one thing more- has its own spiritual lesson of independence and inter-dependence.
Some themes that were highlighted on my hike:
This was an important spiritual and yet, surprising aspect of my trip: the emerging of a pervading, deep, aching, empty loneliness that I experienced a couple of times on this trip. It is surprising because I’ve felt this way before on other solo trips and thought that gaining experience in solo hiking would help me to overcome it, but… no. Pulling into a designated stopping point at the end of the day, tired from a challenging rock climb or steep descent down a hillside of refrigerator-sized boulders, setting up camp and completing all of the camp chores (put up the tent, find and filter water, get out the stuff to make dinner)…there then descends a creeping and profound sense of hollowness, homesickness, and uncertainty that is alarming, exhausting and overwhelming. I wish I understood the chemistry behind this. I’ve been studying the limbic system and how it responds to our emotions (the old flight-fight-freeze response) but this is something different. It is a mixture of anxiety and exhaustion and a deep discomfort that I know could be alleviated easily by a short car ride home and dinner with my husband and a cuddle with our cats. This loneliness has been the place of deepest spiritual growth for me, as I have had nothing other than God to turn to and say (“Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me, O Lord, make haste to help me.” Ps. 40:14) The psalms have a lot to say, actually, about those who feel alone and who are despairing… but I’ve never really felt that they applied to me- certainly not my upper-middle-class-white-privileged-bougie-hiking-girl-discomfort. No, the psalms were written by those in exile, those under occupation, those in physical danger… who cried out to God for help and salvation. But sitting alone in a soggy tent at a camp site at dusk with rain (again) pelting down and fearful of being alone… suddenly the psalms- and God- seemed like a good thing to cling to. I prayed that night for God to send another hiker to this desolate campsite so that I would not be alone all night… but that didn’t happen. I had journeyed on to this site because it was an open field that offered a chance to sun-dry my tent (if the weather forecast changed) but the rain persisted. The friend that I made on the night before stayed at a different shelter to sleep out of the rain, under a roof. When she appeared the next morning, hiking up to me as I shook out my tent’s sodden rain fly, my heart leapt, and we decided to camp together at the end of the subsequent days. The loneliness factor goes beyond the consideration of introversion/extroversion (I am an extrovert who prefers the company of others). It touches on themes of self-sufficiency, what I need to feel comfortable, and how I make room for God in the space of my days and relationships. An extrovert whose boxes are ticked off by being with others, connecting with people, exchanging ideas and stories, can create a tight circle that fences out contemplation, self-awareness, and interaction with God. A wet night in a tent with a tight stomach and a feeling of desolation turns out to have borne some spiritual fruit…?
Rogues, Guns, Danger
I am not naive enough to think that everyone out on trail is well-adjusted, harmless, wholesome, and benign. But when I ran into a AT Ridge Runner (a sort of “safety patrol” that offers help and advice to hikers) who cautioned me against staying at one shelter in particular, I was reminded of the dangers of the trail that come in the “two-footed” variety. (Many people fear snakes and bears and other wildlife when instead, it is the two-footed animal that poses the most significant threat.) The Ridge Runner looked at me and said, “Hiking alone is ok. Camping alone in groups is smart.” She went on to tell me about a “gypsy family” (her words- see the “note” at the beginning of the blog) that had taken up residence in one of the shelters just .2 miles off of a road. They had two little dogs and the man (there were a man and a woman, apparently) had waved a gun around at some hikers who thought that they might stay at that shelter. In addition to this couple, there was a man wandering the woods in cutoff jeans and sneakers (no shirt) carrying two garbage bags and raving and ranting at hikers in different campsites. He would circle tents and shout obscenities and mutter strange words. This guy was apparently seen just a couple of nights before at the camp site where I had stayed alone overnight. Ugh. He also approached a shelter early one morning and removed his pants and attempted to sexually assault a male hiker asleep in the loft. These are real- and unfortunate- dangers of hiking the AT. One woman that I met on my first night of hiking told me that she carried a gun. When her husband urged her to take a whole box of bullets with her, she resisted saying, “Honey, if I need more than the 7 bullets I have with me in my gun, there’s going to be a problem.” Carrying a gun on the AT is problematic, especially if you intend on thru-hiking the whole trail as pistol permits are not even available in all 14 states that the AT crosses. To have a gun opens the opportunity for it to be used against you, as well. I considered the structure of our society that would drive people to set up housekeeping in a primitive shelter, and the despair of people in our culture with mental illness who need care and tending.
Remember the Trees
After a couple of days of dodging rogues and re-arranging itineraries to avoid certain shelters and campsites and running through lots of disaster scenarios in my head, it did occur to me to Remember the Trees. Pause on the trail and look up. Study the vistas. Marvel in the mosses, the rocks, the wildflowers, the fog, the tiny creeping snail on a rock. Julian of Norwich had her hazelnut (“And in this he [God] showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘it is all that is made.’” from The Showings, Julian of Norwich) but I had a tiny, tiny snail/slug, no longer than a quarter inch, climbing slowly up a rock in the middle of the forest on a sunlit August morning… this slug – perfectly and wonderfully made, translucent, miniature- was just doing what slugs do. Perfectly, beautifully, without rushing, and in harmony with its surroundings. Honestly, if you didn’t believe in God before, to have studied this teeny bit of biological wonder and invertebrate construction as it (he/she/they) made their way up that rock just might make a believer out of you. I do marvel at the diversity and splendor of creation and, through that, of the Creator. And so, I slowed down, forgot the gypsies, and enjoyed God’s beauty. At one point I came upon a small deer who was busy eating some green shoots off a small sapling. The deer was blocking the trail and had no intention of giving up her breakfast so I could march on by. I clicked my hiking poles together and spoke a few encouraging words, but she was not interested in moving. I didn’t know if she might charge at me or kick me if I passed (it was not in a spot where I could have walked easily off trail around her) and so I stood, and watched, and waited, and was reminded to send a prayer of thanksgiving for this beautiful animal.
Feral Living and its Commodities
I grew up as a “tomboy.” That’s an outdated term in this age of gender fluidity, but to be a “tomboy” back in the day meant that I was a girl who liked doing “boy things” like fishing and catching frogs and snakes and building forts and playing in the woods. I didn’t like dresses or dolls or ribbons and bows as a kid. That seems so ridiculous, now. As a mother of two daughters and grandmother of a little granddaughter, I am delighted that none of that matters anymore and that anyone can pursue whatever their heart desires, stigma-free (ideally). In any event, the “feral living” that backpacking delivers is not anywhere near out of my comfort zone. Sleeping on the ground, drinking (filtered) water from a mountain spring, eating granola perched on a rock and wiping my mouth on my sleeve, sweating through my shirt and hat, and pulling three-day-stiff socks onto dirty feet for another day of hiking- it’s all cool. Fun, even. (Knowing that a shower awaits me at the end of the week at home is good, too.). And, as one makes one’s way in this feral lifestyle, there are particular commodities that are prized: Sunshine. Fresh running water. A level, rock-free campsite. A rain-tight-shelter. It’s pretty simple what joy can be wrought from the relief of a smooth path after an hour of boulder-hopping, or how a white pvc pipe jutting out from a rock formation in the middle of a nowhere- hillside can mark a water source and bring relief to a parched thirst. It is a wonder to have an arduous uphill turn suddenly into an easy downhill and to be rewarded with a cool breeze blowing across one’s face. It is a simple and not very complicated life of elemental pleasures on the trail.
And the Hiking
The section of the AT in the Mid-Atlantic region is considered to be some of the easiest hiking that there is on the entire trail. Having just completed several days of walking the backbone of Maryland’s South Mountain and traversing up and down rocky hillsides, I would say that it may be easy compared to hiking Mount Washington or the other “Presidentials” in New Hampshire or dragging up and over the Smokies or the Shenandoahs… but/and…it was hard enough for me in my un-conditioned state. Pennsylvania is said to be “the place where boots go to die” and is nicknamed “Rocksylvania,” but I would offer that Maryland has its own share of rocks. Big ones, small ones, medium sized ones, sharp ones. There are also green meadows, streams, fields of ferns, impressive old-growth forests, and pine needle strewn paths. There are no climbs over 1,000 feet (that’s baby talk in mountaineering) and enough road crossings (at least one per day) that one never feels completely out in the back country. There is a beauty in moving though this space that, for me, is at its holiest in the early morning when the sun has just come up over the ridge and slants through the forest illuminating the weaving of a spider’s web, a wet leaf on a tender sapling, the Kelly green moss on the forest floor. It is sacred and soft and quiet. It is in this space that I pray, “For God alone, my soul in silence waits, from God comes my salvation.” (Ps. 62:1) and “Oh God, you are my God, eagerly I seek you…therefore I have gazed upon you in your holy place, that I might behold your power and your glory.” (Ps. 63: 1a, 2)