five days on the Appalachian Trail
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)