The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5
We exchange a good laugh about the Fisherman’s camp and continue walking.
I send a telepathic check-in to home base: I’m ok, Hon. You know I am a survivor no matter what. Hope you can feel my soul speaking to you.
I imagine Paul is happy to wake up this morning having had no knocks on the front door from police delivering bad news. Knowing the Steam Team’s darkest night is over may provide relief both to us on the trail and to those who care about us. I find it funny that our darkest night involved sleeping with a light on the whole time.
The terrain changes from the abundance of browns to tall, wispy lime green grass and blue sky on the horizon as we climb higher and higher. I think the bright blue is a good sign at first.
Looks like the top of the mountain is just ahead. We’re almost there.
I remember on the trail plan that at the end of Laurel Prong Trail we will turn left back onto the AT.
The top, the top of the mountain. I can see it! –or so I think.
The girls await my caboose at a trail marker post.
When they see me approach, they turn right.
Why not left!?
Sunshine points out that the trail post says Laurel Prong continues this way. To the right. There’s more Laurel Prong to hike. We are not to our official turn yet.
“Sneaky trail,” says Stalker C.
Yeah, it is!
To the right we go. SunFloJo lifts the mood, “Isn’t this beautiful?!”
From the back of the line, I quietly huff, “Breathtaking.” –which had a funny double meaning if anyone had heard it.
I look right and down over the mountain side trail we just climbed. That is an impressive view of how far we’ve come today.
To my left is the mountain ridge and a majestic crisp sky. Between me and the ridge is soft flowing grass. I mentally immerse into the beauty. We are on top of the world.
I pause to look across the sky at many mountains in the distance and contemplate how this mountain is among its friends. This is an overlook without a drive or pull off parking spot. There is no road. We’ve earned this glorious view by climbing.
While one foot follows the next, I enter a prayerful time of reflection while thinking a lot about my relationship with God.
I sense my Higher Power say:
What if you spent more time with Me? What if you stop trying to make things fit and simply give it all to Me? Give me your marriage. Give me your work, your children, your journey. You don’t have to figure it out. All you need to do is do the next step and then the next step after that. The supernatural comes from Me. Allow and invite me into your whole life, not just your heart.
I ask: But why haven’t you moved in our finances? Why are things not better in Paul’s work and body? What do we need to do to improve our situation?
Have you asked Me in faith to handle those challenges?
Verses come to mind as if I can hear the Word more clearly from this elevation.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9
Trust in the Lord with all your heart; and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths. Proverbs 3:5-6
And then my mind hears:
What I’m saying is make room. You chose the name Surrender for a reason. Make room and allow Me to direct your path.
I ponder the many ways I have not asked for God’s help in recent years. I think about what it would mean to make room for supernatural blessings. I think about my friends who say, “trust the process.”
My mind hushes. I seek time with God. My mind churns to a pleasant blank nothingness while feeling fully embraced by love.
We march on with heat friction between our backs and backpacks. Sweat drips down faces, necks, and arms.
The trail changes to extra narrow. We enter a path about five inches wide of dirt between billowing grass. I am unnerved by the grass brushing my calves.
Please don’t let anything climb up my leg or inside my pants leg! I make noise and swish the ground with my trekking poles.
I am torn whether to look left to the poetic mountain tops or to keep my eyes on every spec of dirt in my path.
Look! A bright orange salamander type creature ahead of my feet. That is cool.
I am careful not to squish him. I step over it and then nearly step on a fuzzy orange-yellow furry caterpillar type guy. There are some brightly colored things up here that don’t seem to have camouflage options.
I take in a deep breath and exhale. The air grows thin. I repeat the deep breathing.
Keep walking, Surrender. Keep breathing too.
Then trail changes again. We begin a rocky edge along the tip top of the mountain. We step up and over many rocks to make our way, big and small rocks.
I encourage my ankles to remain strong. The slightest slip could cause me to slide left off the cliff and down the side of the mountain. The trail is narrow with nothing but empty space to my left and a wall of rock just taller than me to my right.
The narrow footing is a challenge. If we run into anyone going the opposite direction, then we will have to cling to complete strangers to figure out how to pass one another.
The Steam Team walks close together now. Everyone wants to make sure we get through this ridge. No one talks. Concentration is high.
I think about how snakes might like to sun themselves on the rocks to my right and how much I hope they don’t choose to do that here today. I hope we make enough noise to keep such creatures away.
A large rock blocks our path. As she scales it, SunFloJo slips. My heart skips. The girls gasp.
SunFloJo falls wisely toward the rock wall side and hangs on to jagged stones until she regains footing.
Sunshine Rat asks, “Are you ok?”
“Yep. I’m good.”
“Good save,” I say.
We are a tired, dirty crew. Flies buzz around my greasy head. I notice Stalker C bats flies from her forehead too. I am kind of surprised flies hang out at this altitude.
We pause to put our sleeping buffs around our heads. That keeps flies at bay somewhat but not completely.
I step with my trekking pole and the pole sinks. I slide down with the pole face first into rocks. My belly saves me by catching on the rock I was trying to climb over.
“Surrender!” Sunshine Rat sees me go down.
I glance at the cliff to my left. “I’m ok,” I say but don’t believe.
Surely, we are near the AT intersection. Surely.
“Wanna rest a minute?” SunFloJo asks me once I crawl over the rock.
I nod. The girls hike ahead.
The two most senior of the group need a break. Tiredness is becoming a liability.
SunFloJo and I sit on a 3-foot log that somehow is stuck on this short-width trail. I try not to think about the rocks or critter holes behind or under me. My feet touch the edge of the mountain. Hopefully whatever lurks nearby stays at bay.
From our seated position we face the deep valley and mountains as far as we can see. Falling to our death is easily possible. I cannot see how far down the mountain is below my feet.
Far, very far. Steep, very steep.
Yet how beautiful is this?! When in life have I ever had the opportunity to be wedged on the side of a mountain this high up? Um, never.
Overcome, I sense dry tears could flow. I am too dehydrated for wetness to form in my eyes.
“Are you tired?” SunFlo asks.
I nod and wipe sweat with my shirt collar. The sun is intense.
“We’ll just sit a moment. We have plenty of time.”
I drink the water we purified earlier this morning. I’ve been thirsty for a while. I’m not sure how I’ll be able to make my ration of water last if the rest of our day is like Laurel Prong Trail has been.
SunFloJo hands me a dried mango slice. I eat it without hesitation. It tastes good, sweet. I need nature’s sugar.
We breathe and rest for a few minutes. We can not afford any more stumbles on this stretch.
Regaining some strength, I share, “I’ve tried to throw my anger and sadness off cliffs, over waterfalls and into fire this whole trip.”
I pause, “Not sure how many more opportunities I’ll have.”
“Do you feel better?”
“Maybe lighter emotionally.” I continue, “I’m happy for our son. He’s going to go live his dream. I would never choose the risks and lifestyle of a military career for him, but it is what he wants. I’m going to miss him.”
“You have a baby and everyone warns you that they grow fast. Man, that’s the truth…. And maybe I need to let go of the non-profit dream. Perhaps I’ve laid the foundation and someone else will rise to take on the next steps. Maybe I need to make room for others to carry on the work. I am going to be open about whatever is next. I’m giving God back the dream. We’ll see what happens. When it is time to quit, I trust He will make it clear. It is so hard to turn away from doing something you love.”
More listening. We stare at the valley and mountains.
SunFloJo is completely still. I sense that I have however long I need on this log.
I can talk with God, her, or both. It doesn’t matter to her. She could say something. That would be ok.
But she doesn’t.
“And those girls.” I point to the right although the girls are well beyond us, “They are so smart, young and have such good attitudes. Lord, please don’t let them settle for anything that holds them back or weighs down their spirit. They are encouragers. They are free from restraints. Keep them free. Keep them blessed and upbeat like they are right now.”
I wipe my face. This is a new sensation; crying without tears because my body can’t produce any.
SunFloJo asks, “That’s really more about you, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” I choke on air, “It is.”
I say, “I remember being like them.”
“I hear you, sweetie. Me too.”
We stare and breathe, taking in the moment.
Guess we better get going.
I stand. SunFloJo hands me her last piece of dried mango. That should be enough fuel to get me to lunch. My legs went to sleep while sitting on our awkward perch. I fight through the sleepy muscles and get my feet moving.
Soon the rocks change back to tall grass. We are no longer on the edge of the mountain.
It takes a little while to catch up to the girls.
“We see it!” Sunshine says about the trail intersection we’ve been looking for. “Just up ahead.”
The four of us approach our last trail marker.
Sun rays filter through the trees to shine gently on the intersection spot. This is where Laurel Prong Trail dead ends into the AT making a very big T.
It is finally time to eat lunch. We have not seen another human all day so we make ourselves at home in the intersection which is perhaps the widest path we’ve seen today. SunFloJo spreads out her sleeping mat for seating. I sit on a stump with my pack on the ground next to me. Stalker C is to my left with her legs stretched straight out on the ground. She starts to munch some chips.
I go for protein from Teriyaki Beef Jerky. I tear pieces of a tortilla to eat and unwrap ginger candy to hopefully boost my body.
Sunshine sits on the mat with SunFloJo. She offers insight about the time she and Stalker C were alone, “We had a little moment.”
Stalker C rolls her eyes, “I kinda lost it. I am not going to make it much longer. My body and attitude are done.”
My head tilts.
Sunshine adds, “Her foot issue is getting worse. But maybe we won’t go up any more mountains from here. It looks pretty straight in the direction we’re going next.”
“Lies,” Stalker C says. “The trail lies. Can’t trust it.” She swats a fly, and then another. She shakes her head. “I’m losing it.”
“Oh, Honey,” SunFloJo laughs. “We just had a moment where Surrender was breaking down and then talking about how great your two girls’ attitudes are.”
Sunshine snickers, “I wasn’t having a very good attitude the last few miles. That trail marker back there saying that it was another mile before we reach the AT just about sent me over the edge. I wanted to jump off the mountain for sure.” She sighs. “Alas, but now we’ve made it.”
Stalker C says, “We couldn’t believe how positive you two were being when we had to scale those rocks!”
“Us? Positive?” I say.
SunFloJo requests half chuckling, “Tell what you were hoping for their lives, Surrender.”
We laugh through the dirt and sweat on our bodies about how I hope they’ll maintain positive attitudes like they have today and be wise about sticking with positive people, to never let negativity hold them back.
Stalker C scoffs and her shoulders go back, “But now I’ve lost it. I’ve got a bad attitude.”
Sunshine Rat offers, “Stalker, you’ve had a great attitude. This is tough. We just lost it a little for a moment. We own it. We’ve got this. We’ll work it out.”
I smile. We are all humans on a mission managing the best we can with our minds and bodies. I look south down the AT as far as I can see, “Homestretch now.”
SunFloJo says, “I think it is funny that we were having separate meltdowns at the same time while admiring the opposite two.”
Laughter cleanses us.
After our revelation, we take time to breathe. I adore how our unique foursome respects quiet time. We are our authentic selves through strain, laughter, and peace. We value reflection time unanimously.
I stretch and recline for a few minutes.
Sunshine Rat breaks our silence, “Stalker C, we haven’t hit our goal yet. We’ve only got one trail left,”
Sunshine turns to the older of us and says, “We thought we’d meet our dream mountain men this week and be swept off our feet.”
Stalker C says, “That’s right. We’ve gotta bring home our true loves from this graduation trip to our parents.”
We continue eating. Deer join us to nibble grass nearby. I appreciate their regal confidence. Rosemary and her friends have become a sporadic spiritual presence for us. I imagine them saying, “Hello there. Just checking in on you girls.”
Zippers close and last gulps of water enter our bodies. We load our backpacks. “Don’t be afraid to pull your straps,” Sunshine says.
“We’re not afraid,” Our voices tell the universe.
We turn south on the AT.
I am delighted by the immediate difference in terrain. The tall grass is soft. The path is not hilly or rocky, it is mostly just dirt beneath my thankful feet. Trees tower above forming a skinny tree version of a canopy with plenty of light rays offering warm touches along the way. This is how I envisioned the trail would be before we came.
We walk by a small graveyard without pausing to read any of the crumbling headstones. Then we enter a thicker section of the forest. Our legs walk faster than we have on any of the other sections. I remain the caboose, but I can see each team member easily in this stretch.
The tree canopy thickens. The path becomes lush, there’s so much beauty! Ferns cover the ground as if it could be a fairy playground in a child’s movie. I imagine magical creatures hopping among the fronds.
“Hold up,” I say.
I pull out Ben’s camera and take pictures of “us on the trail” in rows, in pairs, in hiking mode, and of course a group selfie. Once the moment is captured in post card worthy fashion, we carry on.
Ferns feather the ground as far as we can see on either side of the trail under the tall trees. I feel good. I sense the miracles around me.
Fallen trees decay and look wet here and there along the way. Sun rays filter through the leaves for a while, but our wooded room grows darker. There was a forecast for possible rain today. I am ok with rain if the trail keeps on like this. Dirt or mud below my feet is welcomed over rocks.
Silence blankets our group as if we enter a state of Zen walking. We are spaced about four feet between each of us. SunFloJo peeks behind her to make sure I bring up the rear ok. I truck along well.
I begin to think of a mental gratitude list. I’m grateful for each of my children. I think of their qualities, personalities, and talents. I thank God for bringing them into my life.
Jacob leaving for basic training in the Air Force will hurt this momma, but oh how awesome it is that he will go do what he longs to do. He has wanted to be in the military since middle school. If he were here, he would zoom along this trail. His body is fit and ready for his next phase of life.
Ben is going to high school. Where has the time gone? I love his humor. I wish he were hiking with me. I miss him.
I am thankful to work with children, young people, and families. How many people at my age or older have dreams that they wish they did and now regret not doing? We went for it. After eleven years and 6,433 students served in some way, how can I say that this dream was a mistake?
I think of Paul and how he helped me get ready for this trip. He could have given me a hard time, but he did not. He provides for us in unique little ways. Like the way he gathers school supplies for the boys every August, labeling each boy’s items with their name. Or the way he helps keep the laundry going or how he makes breakfast on weekends sometimes. That man makes the best scrambled eggs.
He may be wondering how I am doing right now with no cell phone and knowing that tonight is the night that we will be furthest from help. In my mind, I send him an “I’m ok” telepathy message. We’re going to get through this. We’ll be fine.
I am Surrender, and I am beginning to surrender. I feel it.
Thank you, God, for the opportunity to be fully present here.
The sky turns even darker, and I don’t care. Somewhere in my bag is raingear when I need it.
The bear bell rings. And rings again. Stalker C contorts her arm and elbow to reach it. We must be too quiet for her taste. She is not taking chances.
Sunshine Rat, SunFloJo and Stalker C lean their packs and bodies against a rock. I catch up and lean also.
“Girls,” Sunshine checks her boob-o-meter. “We have been walking at a 22-minute mile pace for the last 2 miles!”
“That’s amazing.” SunFloJo acknowledges and then wanders into a thicket to pee.
“We’ll be at Rapidan Camp before we know it,” I say.
Rapidan was built for President Hoover, his family and guests. I’ve been looking forward to seeing it since looking it up on the internet. How many times do you walk to a historic site and then walk away from a historic site without the aid of a car or other transportation?
“It’s after 2pm now. We’re making fairly good time,” Sunshine says.
Stalker C’s face says what is on her mind. She remains concerned about sleeping in the woods tonight.
Eh, we can do it. We are a team.
But this is not going to be pleasant smell wise. Sweat is building up. I am sorry for the stink in advance, SunFloJo. Two people in a one-person tent makes me nervous only to be trumped by the thought of anticipating the fear we may experience when it becomes completely dark among the trees.
Deep breath. We can do this.
Sunshine says, “I feel like I could carry on farther than I ever thought I could if the trail was like this all the time.”
We agree wholeheartedly, “Right?!”.
A gentle drizzle of rain reaches our arms. The forest protects us from getting more wet for a while.
When the drizzle increases, we each pull out our rain gear.
I wear my plastic hood on my head and then spread the rest of the jacket over my backpack. This is a perfect set up for light rain. The rest of the Steam Team dresses similarly. We journey on looking like floating jackets and ponchos.
We pass a guy who is headed quickly in the opposite direction. He pauses to tell us that he is supposed to catch up with other AT hikers who are having burgers tonight. He left one friend behind who is having foot problems. She will catch up with him and their friends soon. I can tell the idea of having burgers is a big deal to him. He does not want to miss it. I picture the group of young, attractive, dirt covered hikers including unshaven guys like him meeting up later to chow on meat with whatever condiments happen to be around and loving every moment.
The rain continues.
Then we see increased light because we arrive at a road. It is Skyline Drive. Huh. We are going to cross a perfectly good road that leads to civilization in order to continue our trail on the other side. Sigh.
So far, we are the good kind of tired. The gentle rain feels like a friend you have not gotten to spend this much time with in a while.
The road is on an incline. We turn to look both ways before crossing. When we see a beautiful person coming down the hill, we pause.
She is tan, wears navy athletic shorts, has two dark hair braids and may be limping. There is something striking about her olive skin and deep brown hair.
“Hi,” she says.
“What is your trail name?” SunFloJo asks.
She winces, “Sacagawea.”
“My foot is killing me,” Sacagawea says. “We’ve been walking since March. In the last town back, I had it checked out. I have a hairline fracture.”
“Oh!” The Steam Team all chime in making the connection to the last guy we passed.
Walking since March rattles around in my brain.
SunFloJo continues, “We passed a guy headed that way.” She points behind us. “He said you all are meeting someone for burgers tonight.”
“Yes!” She lights up.
We say farewell. Sacagawea heads into our beloved canopy trail. I say a prayer for her foot.
The Steam Team crosses the road and enters the next forest. Soon we see a trail marker post.
We depart the AT and head left down the mountain via Mill Prong Trail.
The rain is steady. I am excited because based on my memory of the map, Mill Prong is not a far stretch down to Rapidan.
I declare in my mind that Stalker C will get through this night. No bears or reptiles will get us. She is tense. I want to tell her not to worry, but I don’t think that will help.
I am so glad I decided to continue today.
I carry my water bottle and drink as we descend. I have had no urge to urinate today which by now is not a good thing. I am probably somewhat dehydrated.
As if a different picture clicks in our Viewmaster, this part of the trail is beautiful in new ways. We descend over and around mossy green rocks. There are gradual twists and turns leading into a valley of bright greens and browns.
Down, down, down.
I am not going to think about how my feet hurt from the number of hours we have been walking. Cannot be too much further.
Down, down, down. We cross over streams of water.
Hearing the rain and watching a rushing stream of water is almost too much joy for my Aquarius born soul. The sounds combine to create a forest symphony.
Almost out of drinking water, we pause to purify and refill water bottles from a creek.
Oh, this is the real thing now. We are roughing it! We will get water from the land–a gift from the earth.
Hmmm…should I trust SunFloJo’s aqua straw to purify my water or should I have her purify AND then add a purification tab that I have in my pack?
I think it over as she attaches my water bottle neck to her purifying straw. For a moment I consider how awful it would be to have diarrhea out here tonight if something fails with the purification process. Um…Exhale. Dismiss that thought.
I choose to trust her straw and leave my emergency tabs in my backpack. I brought the tabs only as a last resort if for some reason we become separated.
We do not fall into the creek as we steady ourselves on rocks to reach the water flow with our bottles. I consider not falling a big bonus.
The creek rocks are slippery. Injury right now would be terrible. At this point, we would not be able to walk out of the woods before dark. And it already feels like near dark or late dusk due to the weather.
After crossing the first stream, I attempt to get back to my gratitude thoughts like earlier. I say thanks to my Higher Power for every person I can think of…for food, for shelter, for clothing, for my life back home. I am not quite as meditative as before, but close.
I sense that some of the anger I could not shake before this trip is releasing, breaking up slowly like bad plaque in arteries. I visualize releasing tension several times.
And I picture letting go of Jacob, our first-born son. He is determined to protect and fight for our country. What a noble and brave young man. He was only ours to raise for a while. He is his own being. He is created for a purpose greater than what I can imagine or what I can offer from the home that helped mold him for this time in his life.
Down, down, down through the trees. Around. Down, down over rocks. Around. Down, down, down through an increasingly wet wood. Raindrops collect in my hair and drip onto my nose and lips. This is taking longer than I anticipated, but that is not a new feeling this week.
There is more water to cross. This stream of water is bigger, and the rocks look shiny. We pause before crossing to sit on two long tree trunks that have fallen.
“I’m kind of done,” Stalker C says.
Exhaustion sets into our bones. What we can see of the sky is grey. Drizzle continues. The stretchy buff around my head absorbs some of the rain drops before the rest slip into my eyes.
Sunshine says to her dear friend, “You can do it.”
We sit quiet with shoulders slumped.
Sitting on the log while still wearing the backpack is affecting my body. I wiggle to deal with an odd sensation. I share, “I think my lady parts are numb.”
Stalker C snorts a little laugh.
I continue, “How is that even possible? Nothing else is asleep; just my downtown area.”
SunFloJo crosses the mini river with zero slippery rock issues. She is off to scout ahead of us a bit.
Sunshine Rat chuckles, “Can you imagine that phone call? Doctor, when I sit on rocks my genitals fall asleep.”
“Yeah, then don’t sit on rocks the doc might say,” Stalker C shakes her head. I know she is tired; we are all tired.
In fact, I may be too tired to be tired right now. If we do not get swept away by this water source, this will be a good day. I cling to the meditative nature of this afternoon. I have had time to sort thoughts and cherish beauty.
Stalker C says to Sunshine, “I want you to cut off my foot. Like right now.”
SunFloJo appears at the other side of the creek. We stand up, but my girly numbness continues.
I am last across the creek, relieved that I did not stumble. The water moves quickly.
“Here,” I give one of my trekking poles to Stalker C. The pole might help her take pressure off her toes. I can manage with one now. We are still going downhill. The rocks are only about half as plentiful as when we were back on Lewis Falls Trail. How long ago Lewis seems. Was that really this morning, just earlier today?
The trail beat beats on. Mill Prong was only supposed to be 1.8 miles. We are well over that by now. Anticipating that we will see Rapidan soon, I carry the camera in my hand.
Our protectors, the trees, thicken, making our path even darker. Somehow, we still walk downhill over more rocks and turn on more twists.
We start to see piles of scat on the trail. It’s like we’ve entered nature’s public restroom.
I remember on the map that there is a horse trail somewhere around here. I know what horse poo looks like. Some of this is horse.
And some of it is not horse.
Stalker C eyes the piles.
I give her body language that says “Nah, that’s not bear. Nothing to worry about.”
But I remember the scat chart from Cub Scouts and the paw print chart too. Scanning my memory, I am fairly sure that is bear poo. And bear paw prints.
Yeah, I’m totally sure.
Stalker C quizzes me. She looks at a pile then looks at me.
I respond, “Deer.”
She looks at another.
SunFloJo is looking at certain piles with interest. She knows what I know.
Sunshine Rat is ahead of us. I see her side stepping to stay balanced down the wet hill.
Stalker C looks at what SunFlo is looking at.
I shrug my shoulders. Bear. Shh! Definitely bear.
And another pile. And another. All bear. Oh my goodness.
Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed,
for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.
JUNE 2, 2016
“Birds are loud in the wild,” new friend Sunshine Rat said yesterday; a fact that remains true this morning.
The smell of fresh air whispers through the tent vents. My limbs feel nearly paralyzed, but my bladder screams for attention. I begin the physical journey to get on my knees, unzip the tent, gingerly attempt to stand, stumble, stumble again, then steady my stance.
Ouch. Everything hurts. I trust my body to rebound and take steps toward the bathroom. The grass is soft and damp against my toes along the edge of my flip flops.
After splashing my face with water, I return to open the big brown bear box. The metal is cold to touch. I find the s’more remains and sit down to eat a graham cracker before dismantling my travel home.
SunFloJo crawls out of her tent. We practice telepathy for a few minutes. She wonders about my status, my plan. I nod hello. A simple good morning acknowledgement is all I have figured out so far. I am thinking over the situation.
I appreciate the silence, though it feels like we have a conversation. I am not a morning talker in the city or in the woods.
SunFloJo walks to get coffee for her and Sunshine from the Big Meadow camp store.
Upon return, she sets coffee cups with lids over the embers still warm from last night. Sunshine will be happy to find coffee when she wakes up.
SunFloJo murmurs in my direction, “How ya doing?”
Moment of truth.
Slowly I dare to say, “I think I can do it.”
“Really?!” Her face is sincere, “I am thrilled. That is great news.”
“Benadryl is a pal. Semi solid sleep made a difference. Thank you.”
SunFloJo does not skip a beat. She shares her morning research, “I learned at the camp store that they don’t have places to store things, but we can rent campsite #2 and leave stuff in the bear box. I bet that will be helpful to all of us. Now that we know what we really need, we can leave the rest behind.”
“Wonderful,” I say.
“But there is a catch. We have to put up a tent so the site appears occupied.”
She continues, “Do you think you and I could put up your tent at site #2 and then sleep together in my tent tonight?”
SunFloJo’s tent is the same size as mine, built for a party of one. I think about what a tight fit that will be for two people and how smelly we will be after another full day of hiking.
Then I think of not hiking with the weight of a tent, “Yes, I think we can do it.”
We can do anything for one night, right?
“I’m going to start unloading items into campsite #2’s bear box now,” I say.
“And we’ll switch shoes,” SunFloJo states.
I will not argue. My toe pain was out of control yesterday. I do not think I can do that again. Wide toed hiking boots? I’m in.
We get busy unpacking, re-packing and setting up campsite #2. We leave behind every ounce of weight that we can.
I debate leaving my emergency urinal but decide to keep it in my bag. It is light compared to the other items I toss. I take one change of underwear, one pair of shorts, and one pair of socks just in case I rip or mess my current Boy Scout clothes beyond the ability to wear them. I leave all but one bag of food. I can barely eat when exhausted anyway.
The girls awaken. We compare items and select any duplicates that can stay behind.
Stalker C says to me, “You’re going?”
“Good!” And then, “Thank God for Benadryl.” Sleep helped her too.
Sunshine Rat emerges wearing an emergency foil blanket wrapped around her. The foil is remarkably lightweight and only cost $1.59 at REI. I have one too, but it is on my leave behind list. Sunshine Rat smiles when she finds her coffee.
I am thankful to drop 10-15 pounds of stuff and hope I do not miss or regret leaving anything here.
A deer munches on grass next to campsite #9 in time to say good morning to Stalker C. Later a different deer eats near the bathroom. I suspect Rosemary and her representatives are expressing their solidarity with us and our adjusted plans. Sunshine Rat tries to get close to the deer for pictures.
I scan nature’s beauty across the horizon. The green is so alive in Shenandoah. Surely, I can come alive too.
Campsite #2’s ghost tent is set up. The bear box is half full.
It is time to get back on the trail.
This is another no turning back type moment. I try to visualize sleeping next to random trees tonight. By nightfall we should be somewhere between Fort Mountain and Cat Knob along Laurel Prong which is the trail after we visit historic Rapidan Camp. I hope we can find the fire ring.
As a child and then as an adult with kids, I took tours of caves like Mammoth Cave in southwest Kentucky. During the excursion Park Rangers turned off the lights and told us to look at our hand. It was so dark that you could not see your hand at all. That is the type of dark I anticipate tonight minus a Park Ranger being available to flip back on the earth’s light switch.
I am not sure our headlamps will cut through the heavy darkness that will surround us. And if the mini lights do work, I am not sure I want to see animal eyes that might watch us.
SunFloJo’s boots are laced around my ankles. I wear the red backpack and adjust the straps, remembering both YouTube videos and instructions from Dick.
“We are not afraid to pull our straps,” we say in honor of Dick’s lessons.
“Don’t be afraid,” Stalker C says with her mouth in the shape of an “o” that reminds me of a Shirley Temple facial expression. Everyone’s backpacks are in position now.
Sunshine nods, “Yep, just pull those straps. Don’t be afraid.”
Are we really doing this?
Surveying the body language of the group, I think everyone is a little nervous about tonight.
Stalker C reaches back to ring her bear bell. Her eyes widen when I look her way. SunFloJo consults her map one more time. She zips all but Flat Kevin’s head in a pocket so he can see the journey from her backpack.
We pass 30 other campsites and cross the blacktop heading toward Big Meadow Amphitheater. We look for our first route of the day: Lewis Falls Trail.
We find the sign and enter the woods.
Ten steps onto the path, day hikers pass us immediately. Something catches my eye.
Was that a gun?
Sure enough, one couple is packing heat in their matching holsters and carrying small water bottles. They are out of sight quickly. I am glad.
The trail has lots of jumbled rocks underfoot. My feet manage much better today. And SunFloJo seems to sail along in my magic boots. I say silent prayers of gratitude.
Sunshine Rat says, “Let’s play a game.”
“It’s The Centipede Game because we see so many of them along the trail.”
Sunshine continues, “Every centipede is 1 point.”
“A dead centipede is .5 points.”
“A deer is 50 points.”
“Bears are 100 points,” Sunshine says despite Stalker C’s “no” head shake in protest.
We decide a snake is -50 points.
“Chipmunks are 5 points.”
The consensus is that every time we reach 52 points then that equals 1 beer in the Tap Room at the end of the trip. I am not a beer drinker, but goals are probably a good idea.
I hang at the back of the line. SunFloJo and Sunshine Rat lead. Stalker C is just ahead of me.
Every few minutes the front of the line yells back, “1 point.”
“.5” and so forth.
Over rocks, along a mountain ridge…
Don’t twist that ankle! Whew. Caught my balance. Thanks for the help, Trekking Poles.
More rocks, and more straight down yet I still feel we are at a high elevation in the forest. I keep an eye out for the waterfall this leg is named after.
Hands fly up and a jubilation cry occurs when we hear “52!” from the front of the line.
Like an accordion we fan out and then shrink closer to one another as the front of the line either rests or slows down to allow me to catch up. I overhear new topics of conversation.
“What do you think the pattern is, SunFlo?” Sunshine Rat asks.
“Could it be distance in-between?”
Sunshine, “I don’t think so. The spacing between marks varies.”
I eventually realize they are talking about the blaze trail marks on the trees. I have been wondering about those too.
The “blaze” is a vertical rectangle painted on occasional trees that come in various colors to assure that you are on the correct trail. The White Blaze is the Appalachian Trail. We have seen yellow or blue rectangles on some of our connecting trails.
“Steep rocks,” Stalker C warns me of what is coming up.
Have they not been steep already? I grip my poles tightly.
“I think we’re almost there,” SunFloJo calls out to encourage me. We have been “almost there” about four times so far.
Down, down, down. Up and over bigger rocks that I belly crawl over. Repeat.
And then we arrive at Lewis Springs Falls. I expected us to be at the bottom of a waterfall right where the water pours into a creek or river, but we face the middle of the rushing falls. If a waterfall wore a belt, we could touch it.
Above us, we see where the water tumbles over a large rock to begin the falls.
Below us, I cannot see exactly how far the water descends.
I am careful not to step too close to the edge that is comprised of wet rocks.
The dirt path is a comfortable two and a half feet wide at first, then narrows to about one foot wide.
We pass people posing for pictures at the trailhead map post. I glance back a few times until I can no longer see the parking lot. Green leaves and underbrush close in around us. I watch the Steam Team backpacks bob forward. My mind spins.
This is like letting go of the side of the pool in the deep end for the first time. We are going to tread water or die.
We follow Lower Hawksbill Trail. Light glistens through the leaves and tall trees.
Ten minutes in, I know that my pack is too heavy. I thought I had it down to the lightest amount possible! I could have done better. I rethink the contents. It is too late to do anything about what is inside. Hiking is such a learning process!
I extend my black trekking poles and grip their handles to keep me steady. They seem awkward at first. I am not sure why people use them, but I trust those reasons will become clear eventually.
We wind through the woods. A family of jovial day hikers approach us. They are probably happy because they do not have heavy backpacks, I think.
The oldest man in the group smiles eager to share, “We saw a bear up ahead.”
And they are thrilled about this? I guess so. They are coming out of the forest. We are going in.Great.
Stalker C’s large eyes glance my way. Her lips tighten. I look toward the endless woods.
SunFloJo sets down her pack as the family walks on toward the exit.
This interaction reminds SunFloJo to take out the bear bells. She attaches a bell to my pack. It hangs from one of my zipper pulls.
Did she pick me because I am obviously going to be at the back of the group when we run for safety from the bear?
We continue back in stride.
Jingle, jingle. Step. Jingle.
I do not love the constant ringing near my ear. No wonder bears do not like bells. And while I would never say this out loud, I would not mind seeing another bear from a distance. Tricky, I know. But we are on an adventure, right?
Jingle. Jingle. I do not want to complain, but it works out well when Stalker C says, “I could carry that bell if you want.”
We rest a moment. I move my bell to hang from her bag.
We continue hiking through twists and turns. My shoulders hurt.
Every few feet, Stalker C contorts her arm behind her so that she can gently ring the bell. No bear is coming near this group. She will make sure of it.
We see the first concrete sign trail marker post that directs us to turn slightly right and uphill. Our feet lean in what looks like 70-degree angles with our bodies as we head straight up toward the top of Hawksbill Mountain: elevation 4,050 feet.
I have looked forward to seeing Hawksbill Gap, the highest peak in Shenandoah National Park since seeing pictures of it on the Internet. In my head, I cannot wait! But wait I will because walking up this trail seems longer and longer than it looked on the map. Sweat drips down my back. It is a steep climb!
Stalker C and Sunshine Rat are up ahead as the better, younger climbers.
SunFloJo and I walk slowly a bit to conserve (my) energy. I feel like I am carrying the weight of an eight-year-old on my back. How am I going to do this until the end of the week?
Somehow our conversation lands on talking softly about love and love lost, about friends and fizzled relationships. We have lived long enough to have had our share of humans stroll in and out of our lives.
“When it comes to people, I’ve gotten better at loving and letting go. People either want to be with you or they don’t,” I say.
SunFloJo offers, “I try to appreciate the moments we had and not stress about the fact that those moments were too few.”
“Perhaps we were lucky to have had those moments at all.” I say then add, “Maybe.”
We giggle at the maybe part.
I continue, “Also I am working on loving people around me without expectations.” It is easy for me to do that with friends and work acquaintances. I think about how much harder it is to let go of expectations inside a marriage. Maybe some expectations need to be there while others do not.
“Ah, letting go of expectation can be powerful,” SunFloJo says. “And tough to do.”
“Yes, there could be a lot less disappointment. I am working on detachment from what I expect and or anticipate.”
“It’s a process,” she says.
Our conversation seems profound at the time and distracts me until I recognize my struggle to breathe as the elevation changes. I lean the poles against my body while I wrap my hair into a ponytail to gain air flow around my neck. I grow quiet as my central focus becomes how to breathe my way to the top of this mountain.
Stalker C slows down to listen to the older folk conversation, but we are done with our ramblings by the time she is on par with us.
I visualize the photos we will take when we get to the top—if we ever get there!
Sunshine points out the Salamander Trail post on our left side. This shows us where we will turn on the way back down. She has a good eye. I would have missed that marker in the trees.
Then, finally, we see the Hawksbill cliff as the sun becomes brighter with less trees above us. First goal achieved. We make it to the top!
Large rocks line the edge. A gigantic valley is below with many mountains in the background. It is a clear day. You can see miles stretched beyond us.
We pause to guzzle water and take in the 180-degree view. I hope we stay on top of the world here for a while.
It is so beautiful.
We pause at the first overlook. I leave my trekking poles in a tiny shelter near the edge with a wood carved sign labeled Byrd’s Nest 2. Then I climb a short distance over rocks to the highest overlook. And by climb, in this case, I mean cling to the large, jagged rocks with my hands, arms, feet and legs so I can roll to the other side without plunging into the valley.
This is the main overlook. It is better in person than online. There is a manmade rock wall around it and a stone floor on the viewing deck. We place our packs in the overlook area.
“Shall we do lunch here?” Stalker C asks.
I say, “I think that would be great.” I do not care that the sun is shining directly on us, although it feels much hotter than it did earlier. We grab food bags and stare at the view. We munch quietly and drink more water. I start with a pack of almonds.
Other hikers come and go from the woods. I wonder if we are in their way, then decide I do not care since all of them manage to take pictures without our physical presence being an issue. Most are day hikers with small packs. We help a few with their group photos and they help us.
One older gentleman wearing a plaid short-sleeved button up shirt pulls two ceramic blue birds from a satchel. He positions them on the leading edge of the man-made wall. He takes a few pictures, most with the birds included in the landscape.
SunFloJo asks, “Are you taking those pictures for someone special?”
He says, “Yes. I have a friend with MS who cannot hike. I take pictures back to her to enjoy.”
My heart twists at the thought of him showing his friend pictures of the fragile birds and gorgeous horizon after his trip. I imagine her smile as he tells her about the experience. I think about Paul and how he probably could not hike this far these days. The incline would have been too much for him.
The man returns the ceramic birds carefully into a towel and his bag. He continues, “She is quite the lady.”
Then a set of three couples who are probably all in their sixties arrive. I read the body language that one of the ladies would like a photo of their whole group. I offer to take their picture. They are standing on the less safe natural rock area. At first, one husband grumbles about his wife, “Oh she’s got plenty of pictures!” He is overheated and cantankerous. I have seen this behavior in men from our family a few times regarding picture taking.
“We travel together a lot,” one woman says about their group while standing too close to the edge and trying to take a selfie.
“Watch your step,” I caution.
Gravel and dust fall behind her. She gasps at the near fall and steps to find better footing. I ask, “Do you have any pics of all six of you together today?”
The other two men express this would be a good spot for a photo. The grumpy bug husband gets on board reluctantly. I take a picture of them with the majestic view in the background. The wives are pleased with having a photo they can frame when they return home. They turn to walk back toward the trail.
Next, a gorgeous taupe color dog and her family arrive as we rest against the rock wall. The dog has a pink collar and leash. Her name is Annabelle. Sweetness oozes from her.
The Steam Team says a collective, “Aww.”
The dog owner says, “This is our 9,000-dollar dog. We found her starved, sick from rat poison and a snake bite a few years ago. We had no idea it would cost nine grand to get her well, but she’s been worth every penny.” Annabelle smiles and pants at her owner’s loving words.
In-between visitors, I stare at the vast view.
Is this the place where I can toss my anger off the mountain? I try to reach a peaceful state of mind but keep thinking about how some humans can be ceramic-love-birds-photo-taking-good-attitude people and some humans are habitual-complainers-exhaust-those-around-them people. The contrast sours the rest of my meal of cheese and crackers with grapes. I am too hot to eat anyway. I feel thankful for Annabelle’s visit. Dogs are along for the ride and generally happy to go with the flow. I needed her energy.
Here you go, Lord. Please take the angst from me. I surrender. And I am Surrender on this trip. Help me let go of anger. Here are my disappointments. Here are my expectations. Here are the times I try to control the fantasy of how I think life should be. Take it all please. Amen
Stalker C, SunFloJo & Sunshine quietly stare too. We all face some type of life transition. I wonder if they are working through similar thoughts. SunFloJo has been contemplating retirement soon. Stalker C and Sunshine just graduated college and are headed to grad school in different parts of the country.
I want to suggest we sleep here tonight, but I know we have more miles to walk before nightfall.
“Do you want me to read Deb’s next letter?” I ask the group.
A unanimous “Yes” ensues.
I dig out Deb’s ‘During the Journey’ envelope and read,
“‘Day 1: Munchkins: The munchkins were happy people who were industrious and well intentioned. They did whatever they could to help Dorothy and her crew to reach their goals. Who are the munchkins in your life? How do they help you reach your goals?’”
We take turns answering.
“My church youth group supported me a lot,” says Stalker C. “My family was not big into church, but I liked going. We hung out and they encouraged me. They’re one of the reasons why I got a social work degree.”
Sunshine and SunFloJo both offer that their families have been supportive of their career and life decisions.
“I am blessed with friends who encourage me,” I share. And I think about how Paul helped me plan for this week. This is not my first hair brained idea over the years.
With a mutual sigh about leaving, we load our gear, grab poles and head back down the path. We turn right onto Salamander Trail.
It looks like a deep dive through thick branches from here. The path is narrower. I squirt bug spray on my ankles, legs, arms, and neck.
I am pleased about going downhill until the steepness of the path begins to fatigue my feet. The path is filled with rocks; jagged and varied. My magic boots are not feeling so magical. Now we face 120-degree foot angles while maneuvering over rocks. My toes are on fire!
We curve along mountain edges and then encounter more downhill strain through daytime darkness. The trees are thick.
Down. Down. And still straight down. More rocks and more rocks. Oh, my goodness this hurts!
I refuse to cry, but there is no way to hide that I cannot keep up. Every step causes sharp toe pain.
Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.
SunFloJo checks on me. I suspect she is concerned about me having a heart attack. I do not speak. My focus is on walking through the raging fire in my shoes.
“What specifically is going on?” She asks.
I tell her. She speculates what might be the problem.
“Yes, I clipped my nails before we traveled,” I admit, embarrassed that we are trouble shooting my toe issues.
There is no solution in sight. Today is day one of full-time hiking, how on earth will I make it to Saturday?!?
My shoes are size 9. SunFloJo’s shoes are 9.5. Her shoes also are wide at the toe end. Mine are not wide. She offers to switch shoes.
But I do not want to change shoes. I like my “magic shoes”. With the amount of metaphoric fire and pain going on, I am concerned about swelling if I take off the boots. And what happens to both of us if we switch shoes mid hike? Will my shorter shoe then hurt SunFloJo?
For now, I hobble behind the group. I will not give up today even if my toes become as bloody as they feel right now. We are deep in the woods. The only way out is through.
At the bottom of Salamander, we see a white Appalachian Trail mark on a tree. This is the first time we have seen what hikers call the White Blaze. The White Blaze is a white rectangle painted every so often on a tree, so you know you are on the right path. We turn from our side entrance trails onto the official AT trail. We pause to take a picture of SunFloJo with the White AT Blaze. This is her dream! She is living it!
I am so happy for her and happy to rest for a few minutes.
After the AT turn, we meet a chunky guy. He wears blue jean shorts and a cotton blue t-shirt. This is not the hiking attire I have seen on AT YouTube videos. We ask if he is a thru hiker or day hiker.
“I’m doing the whole thing,” He says. That means he is a thru hiker. Wow. “Started in March from Georgia.”
Sunshine asks, “What is your trail name.”
He wipes his brow and says, “Endurance.”
We ask why that name and he says, “Because I’m proving to myself that I have the endurance to do this.”
He inspires me. He is not allowing extra weight to hold him back. Endurance blows by after chatting. Soon I do not see him ahead of us.
The trail becomes enchanted at this point. We are on more level land. The forest is lush with seas of ferns, soft tree branches and rocks surround us under a canopy of tall skinny trees. I think about the Hobbit and scenes from the Shire in Lord of the Rings.
The Steam Team grows weary. Occasionally we find large rocks or moss-covered tree logs next to the trail where we say, “This looks good” which means there is enough booty space for each of us to rest. We sit for a few minutes and lean our backpack weight onto a rock or tree.
Sunshine Rat has a Fitbit attached to her bra. We ask her to check the mileage because this 5.1-mile Day One hike is feeling long. We all wonder, how much longer until we stop for the night?
Sure enough we have hiked well over 6 miles already according to her Fitbit.
Could it be that the trail markers and trail plan are incorrect about how many miles we will walk today?
So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
JUNE 1, 2016
It is Zero Dark Thirty.
My body stirs. I am unsure if I have slept hours or minutes.
Did I bring the flip knife into the tent with me? My hands survey the darkness.
I promised Jacob that the knife would be in my pocket, but I forgot to get it out of my bag.
My eyes open to the nothingness. I hear a creature!
Maybe two? Three creatures?!
Little snorts and sniffs graze outside the tent near my head. I guess these animals are not opposed to the scent of moth balls. I roll my eyes.
Sniff, sniff, sniff.
Leaves rustle under whatever kind of paws they have. Sniff, sniff.
My body freezes. What if it is a skunk? And it startles? What if it sprays a horrible stench?
Or, what if it is the type of animal that will run away if I make noise?
What should I do?
What if I turn on my flashlight? Maybe that will create a shadow showing me what it really is?
But–what if knowing what it is will make me feel worse? Knowing could be scary.
Nope. No shadow images. Thanks. I do not need to know!
I shiver in the cold night air. My arms cross inside Paul’s wind breaker style golf sweatshirt.
Is that a stick in my back? Ouch. No, it just hurts to sleep on the ground!
While I am five feet ten inches tall, the borrowed sleep pad is two feet five inches long. Not much padding is under this body. I visualize the much longer pad I saw at a store for $59.99. That was too much to spend when a borrowed pad was available.
While the nocturnal visitors continue to scurry near me, I think about the budget at home and how the boys wanted macaroni and snacks the week I said no to $59.99 for myself. My mind wanders on to thoughts about the timing of bills and the cash left behind that should get the guys through this week. Jacob is going to work a summer lifeguard job. That will help.
Arms tight and legs curled in an effort to find warmth, I fall back to sleep.
I awaken to chirping birds. My body hurts when I roll over inside the tent.
The birds are loud.
Anxious excitement arrives. This is it! Time to hike. It is about to be the real deal with no opportunity for escape to a nearby parked car. We are going into the woods!
I learned yesterday that Dick and SunFloJo revised the plan so that we will drive to our hiking end point today to meet Dick. That is where we will leave the car. Then Dick will drive our group to the start point for drop off. This way we will end hiking the trail back at our car.
Genius new idea? Yes, but this is not what Paul is picturing back in our family room. I think about him looking at our trail plan, probably reviewing it repeatedly. I can feel his mind visualizing our steps. He thinks our car will be at the starting point, not the end.
My phone no longer works in the national park so there is no way to update him. I trust that a search team would check both ends of the plan for our car and clues if needed. Let’s just hope we do not get lost. I am fine. Everything is fine.
When we purchased gasoline yesterday, I sent the last text to say I love him and the boys. I shared that I was putting the phone away until the end of the trip. I turned off the cell and put it in SunFloJo’s glove box.
I do not know what time it is. I recall that my backpack is in disarray. I have got to fix that. Maybe I can quietly do this before anyone else is awake.
The sound of my tent unzipping does not seem to disturb the young girls’ tent, but it turns out that JoAnn and I are unzipping in unison. We crawl out of our tents both with the same need to pee.
We do not talk. We stumble around looking for a good spot. My back is on fire from the hours spent on the ground. My legs are numb. Also, I am not a morning person. I wave her toward the direction she seems to be interested in anyway and I head the opposite direction toward the parking lot.
Urinating in the light of day is something to figure out. I wander a bit. Decisions, decisions.
I take care of business in the grass behind a dumpster. Success. Who knew that figuring out how to pee outside would feel like such an accomplishment?
The stream runs under the dumpster and out the other side toward the parking lot and road. I will pretend like I do not see that if anyone happens to walk by. Next time I will do better in the grass somewhere deeper in the woods. I am building confidence in this new skill.
I walk back to camp quietly. The girls continue to snooze. Good, I need the picnic table space to spread out supplies. I will take down my tent, hopefully sort through my backpack, and then they can have the same space to organize if needed. Keep sleeping girls. I notice SunFloJo is back inside her tent.
But first I need to peek at the fire pit.
Darn it! The broken hot dog IS present in the ash. It did not burn up.
Uh oh. We were lucky no bears came overnight. –No bears that I know of anyway. Now I feel bad for lying. And I feel relief that we survived the night. I really believed the hot dog must have burned up. I walk the dog pieces back to the road and throw the remains into the dumpster. Good riddance.
I disassemble my tent. SunFloJo’s hand emerges from her tent. She tosses out the car keys. No words. She knows what I am up to. I appreciate that. Hoping I do not disturb her too much, I am happy to soon hear her snore again. Sleep all you can, I think. No doubt we are going to need every ounce of rest we can get out here.
Grass, trees, and the lingering fire scent smell fresh in this new day. My tent is rolled to fit into its little bag. My backpack is dismantled and reassembled. Anything I might not need goes into my overflow tote bags and into the back of the CR-V.
As I work, I look down toward who I will now refer to as Shut-Up-Guy. He is up, out of his tent and packing his bag. He has an interesting look. He is thin, about 5 feet 7 inches tall, has bright white hair, and I think he may be Asian. Maybe. At one point he grabs what I recognize is a mini-shovel and heads north into the woods. He is gone a long time. Must be his poo time I suppose based on YouTube lessons. Ugh, I really hope I do not have to figure out the shovel thing on this trip.
When I put things back in the car, a park ranger in an SUV stops to ask if someone was in our spot last night. I had not thought much about it but as a matter of fact, “Yes.”
Shut-Up-Guy was in our spot. So, we were supposed to be in 1A1 by ourselves. We certainly would have had more room if he had not been there.
No idea what the ranger is going to do about it, but now I feel better regarding our first night that included minor noise and nervous energy.
Inside the car, I change into my outfit for the rest of the week: Paul’s Boy Scout pants, dri wick shirt formerly belonging to my sons, Fruit of the Loom Cool Blend underwear. Then I place the knife into my cargo pant pocket.
Back at the picnic table, I open my last Pepsi can and sit down to munch on a Pop-Tart for breakfast. I stare into the trees and listen to SunFloJo sleep.
Thank you for the beauty of nature. Please bless our trip. Keep us safe from injury and danger. Guide us and take care of our families back home. Thank you.
The girls come out of their tent as I finish breakfast. I feel organized. Ready for the day. Let’s do this. It’s almost time to meet Dick! We told him we would see him at 9am.
“Do you know what time it is?” Stalker C asks the very relaxed me.
“No idea,” I say. Isn’t it lovely? I am awake with the birds and that is all I know.
The girls observe that my stuff is packed. I whisper, “I don’t want to be late for Dick.” Sunshine and Stalker C giggle.
Shut-Up-Guy grumbles a monotone “Good morning” toward us as he gathers items and leaves camp with supplies on his back.
The girls shared that they slept off and on through the night. They had layered up for cold, but it turned out the layers made them too hot. Also, they were closest to the mystery tent guy and it occurred to them that stranger danger could be an issue.
SunFloJo comes out of her tent as the girls begin packing up. “What time is it?” I ask.
“That’s all?” Wow. I have been up a long time.
Stalker C and Sunshine Rat softly scoff at my surprised face.
We will have ourselves together in plenty of time to meet Dick.
Sunshine, Stalker C and I sit on top of the picnic table. We reflect about the trip so far. Sunshine brought a lightweight journal.
“Thank you, Sunshine. I do not want to forget the details of what we see and do along the way. In just 24 hours so much has happened already and so much is ahead,” I say as Sunshine writes notes about our adventures.
Rosemary the deer returns to camp briefly. She walks near our picnic table and nods toward Stalker C.
Everything back in the car, we drive to the camp store before leaving Loft Mountain Campground. SunFloJo and Sunshine get morning coffee. The building smells of fresh cut wood.
“Delicious,” Sunshine says about the coffee. Stalker C and I pour energy powder packets into water bottles.
The sun gently tickles the tops of our heads as we put on hiking boots for the day. The guy from the store comes outside to chat with us. We exchange where everyone is from. He is originally from Ohio. He and his wife moved here ten years ago.
My mind leaves the group conversation. I internally marvel at a quick mental list of things like: Wow I slept outside last night. I am not taking a shower today and that’s kind of weird. Today I get to hike to the highest peak in the Shenandoah Valley area. And perhaps most importantly, I hope Dick is not a serial killer.
Oh wait. What time is it? Will I ever get used to having no clock with me?
Perhaps we are too Zen hanging outside the store overlooking another mountain view. Sunshine asks, “Are we running on time to meet Dick?”
The store guy says, “It’s about 9:05am now.”
The Steam Team stands up!
Somehow with plenty of time to get ready we are late. We are supposed to meet Dick in the parking lot of Lewis Mountain Campground a few miles down the road.
On the way to Lewis we try in vain to get the girls’ cellphones to work. There is no signal. I borrow SunFloJo’s phone and send a text to Dick that says “On our way” but the screen icon spins indefinitely and I am not sure if it goes through. Calling does not work on any of the phones either.
As SunFloJo picks up speed on curvy roads, I eye Stalker C who may be getting a little nervous about going into the woods where the bears live. Me too, Sister!
“Are you worried about the bears?” I ask.
She nods yes.
“At least there are not grizzly bears here. Black bears generally will leave you alone,” SunFloJo assures us.
“Good to know,” says Stalker C.
“Generally,” repeats Sunshine.
SunFloJo shares that one time in Colorado she encountered an injured mountain lion on a trail, “He was beautiful, but dangerous to the average human.” She was able to go for help and a rescue team came and nursed him back to health.
“And there’s no mountain lions in this part of the country,” I look at Stalker C. “We’ve got this.”
We make it by 9:20AM. Dick has not left us.
“I received your text,” says the elderly and in great shape Dick.
Dick wears a pressed Hawaiian short-sleeve button up shirt and khaki shorts. Every remaining hair on his head is neatly in place. His large white truck with extended cab has plenty of seating.
Dick stands at the back of the truck as we clumsily put our backpacks and hiking poles into the truck bed. I sense he is sizing up our lack of experience.
I slip into the backseat. My bag has been packed for hours at this point. I savor the cushioned seating while it is available. It is going to be days before I have a comfortable seat again.
Outside the truck, the girls fumble with their socks and extra items. They make last minute decisions about what goes with us and what to toss back into SunFloJo’s car.
On the driver side visor there is a sticker outlined in red that reads “Hello My Name Is Dick”. I snap a picture of the sticker. I brought Ben’s old camera to take a few images of the experience. I wonder what Ben is doing this morning on his first week off from school. Probably sleeping. I bought this cheap 35mm camera for Ben when he was ten years old. That was the year he went to Boy Scout camp and lost his glasses at the bottom of the lake. I smile at the thought now while remembering how upset we were that insurance only covers glasses if the glasses are available to repair or replace. The fuzzy, hard to read 35m screen shows that I have a full battery. That should last the week.
I stifle nervous laughter while thinking, What in the world are we doing here?!
Once loaded Dick begins the drive. He points, “When you end your hike you’ll come out of the woods about here. The quickest way to get back to your car is to shortcut through those trees. Look for the steel grate on the ground and turn left. Then go through the next set of trees and you’ll arrive 30 minutes sooner than you would have if you walked along the road.”
I could not visualize or take mental note of his instructions. If I am the one in charge of that cut through at the end, then we are already lost. Hopefully, someone else caught Dick’s logic. No one asks him to repeat it.
JoAnn sits in the front seat and is in interview mode, “Tell us about your hiking experience, Dick.”
His deep voice shares, “I have hiked the whole AT once. Did it in sections. Took me 13 years to finish.”
We learn that Dick was an international traveler for work. He trained people all over the world on “something” that he would not share when we pressed. So we conclude inside our own heads that he is former CIA, FBI, etc. Don’t be vague, Dick. We’ll make stuff up to fill in the blanks!
Now retired, Dick is the president of Hiking Helpers.
We arrive at the drop off point. My heart leaps. We are really going to do this!
In Hawksbill Gap Parking Lot, I put my backpack on right away. I am confident in how to do it with the extra back support because I watched the YouTube video of how to wear it properly.
Sunshine Rat and Stalker C; however, have more questions for Dick about their packs.
And Dick has more answers than necessary while my shoulders grow weary.
But the comfort and confidence built was nice to observe as Stalker C & Sunshine learned what each strap was for, how to put the pack on securely, how to put in their Camelback water containers, thread their water tubes, and more.
I should sit down on the ground, but I am afraid I could not get back up. If I take off the pack, I risk a lecture from Dick about how to put it back on.
SunFloJo asks, “What is the number one mistake that AT hikers make?”
I am going to topple over in the sun if this conversation continues.
He replies, “Not having enough water or not drinking enough water.”
We have a way to sterilize river water so we feel prepared.
Dick instructs the girls, “Don’t be afraid to pull these straps.”
He points to both of their arm areas where the straps hang and continues, “Just pull ‘em. They will help you make the pack more compact and these straps right here will help lift the pack and make it more comfortable on your hips.”
He emphasizes again, “Don’t be afraid to pull ‘em.”
“One last thing”, he says 25 minutes later I am guessing. Dick takes our “before” picture. We pose as a foursome wearing our backpacks.
We combine our cash and leave money on his truck seat to say thanks for the lift. We are grateful to him both for transportation and advice.
Sunshine Rat says, “You are the bomb, Dick.”
Dick says, “I’ve never been called the bomb before.”
He offers to take more pictures and more poses, but we are ready to go. The highest peak of the trip is waiting for us
We take our first steps onto the trail.
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Courtney takes note of multiple roadside food options, “This looks like a good exit.”
JoAnn darts off the highway. The four of us strain necks to compare restaurants along the hilly terrain.
In a JCPenney parking lot we point back and forth around us, “Maybe this one.”
“No, not that one.”
Then we all say at the same time, “Maybe Applebee’s.”
JoAnn does a 360 degree turn with the Toyota.
“Whoa!” The girls hold the backseat as we spin.
The young ladies have not driven with JoAnn before, but I have. Wild driving here and there is guaranteed.
An arm leans forward to point, “Applebee’s is over that way.”
JoAnn parks safely. She scans the console. Finding Flat Kevin, she says, “Kevin! You can come inside with us.”
As we step outside of the vehicle, we stretch legs and arms.
Inside the restaurant, JoAnn holds Kevin so that his likeness can observe the menu.
“Hmm, Flat Kevin is going to have barbeque and water,” she says then dances Flat Kevin over to lean on the table’s kiosk tablet. “Kevin will play some electronic games while we wait.”
I notice that Courtney and Rachel plan to split food. “Ok, no wings this time,” Courtney says. I admire their agreeable relationship.
Rachel says, “Tell us more about Kevin, JoAnn.”
JoAnn talks about Kevin and his wife Erin, “They chose to enjoy a large family with five children. Kevin coached their kids’ baseball and soccer teams. When Erin became more of the breadwinner, Kevin chose to stay home with their little ones. He has loved every moment of being a dad and husband. It is so hard to see him sick. And their kids are still quite young.”
Courtney turns to our guest, “Thanks for going on the trip with us, Flat Kevin.”
Food arrives. We munch with noticeable focus. No one says it, but I suspect we all consider the importance of savoring this meal before heading onto the trail. The group is relaxed with one another. Conversation is easy. Silence is acceptable.
Walking back to the vehicle, an observation slips out my mouth, “I can already tell this is gonna be a supportive group. Not a sh*thead among us.”
Rachel repeats with a smirk, “Not a sh*thead among us.”
“Seriously,” I chuckle. “I think we will work together well.”
Courtney agrees, “We’re off to a good start.”
Look, I love Jesus, but I cuss a little.
JoAnn places Flat Kevin on the dashboard so he can watch the road.
The backseat takes a nap.
I watch out the window while thinking about the prior weekend.
FLASHBACK: MAY 19
Paul says, “Are you going to the Women’s Conference at church this weekend?”
“I didn’t sign up. Originally Jacob was leaving on the 24th so I didn’t want to be gone two of the days right before he left.”
“You can go now,” he says.
Given the amount of time I am away from home each week and that I am leaving on a trip soon, it is odd that he is suggesting it.
He says, “I think it will be good for you.”
MAY 20, 2016
I know Paul is right, so I go. Best friend since birth Amy and her 14-year-old daughter Maggie are coming too. I save them two seats and send a text.
Glenna–FRONT RIGHT SIDE, 4 ROWS FROM THE STAGE.
The auditorium is packed. The crowd of ladies swell as the music builds.
So many people are here, but I feel alone. I am empty and numb. Life seems so messy. How did I let things get this difficult?
One of my favorite local singers, Ashton, steps to the microphone. She sings Hillsong’s I Surrender.
…Find me here
Lord draw me near
…Drench my soul
As mercy and grace unfold
I hunger and thirst.
…I know you hear my cry
Speak to me now
I want to know You more
I want to know You more
The church lights are dark which I appreciate when tears flow. I think about the word surrender in-between droplets.
Do I want to know God more or do I want Him to fix my problems?
A sea of worship arms raise across the room. The women are pumped for the music, an inspiring message and fun after party stations. I am standing but not praising. My head bows just trying to get through this feelings fest.
Upbeat songs play by the time Amy and Maggie scoot into the aisle. They give me a quick hug. They may not see my wet face and I am glad. I love them dearly. There is not one day in my life that I can remember without Amy in it. Our moms knew each other and went to the same church when we were little. We were born two months apart. And now two of our own children, Maggie and Ben, are just 9 months apart.
I continue to think about the word surrender. What a complicated word. What does it even mean in the spiritual sense anyway? I barely listen to the rest of the program.
After the service, we find a variety of activities, food and desserts. We play around in a photo booth and paint pottery. I make JoAnn a mug with a sunflower on it. By the time it is fired in the kiln and returned to church I can give it to her as a “thanks for the trip” gift next month.
JoAnn sees a sign, “Hershey’s ice cream!”
We hit another exit.
“Do you see where the ice cream shop is?” She asks.
The car riders are fully awake now. JoAnn drives up the hill behind a star shaped complex with several stores inside and a gas station outside. We see there are no buildings up there. JoAnn turns to speed down the hill back toward the complex.
She goes too fast. There is a curb with a sizeable drop off! She stomps the brakes just short of flying over the large empty space that could have damaged the car (or worse) and ended the trip early. Whew!
Rachel and Courtney laugh softly.
I am slightly more terrified of JoAnn’s driving than bears at the moment.
We go inside what appears to be a roadside food court to discover that the Hershey’s ice cream consists of pre-made frozen milkshake cups in a cooler.
Rachel and JoAnn purchase two cups and put them in the self-serve milk shake machine to stir. I eat a Reese’s ice cream sandwich and toss the wrapper.
We find the restroom, pass up the tourist items available for purchase like wildlife tea towels and collector spoons and mugs, then are back on the road.
We arrive at Shenandoah National Park! Excitement and nerves fill the car. Trees are lush and tall all around us.
I feel scared because within what seems like mere minutes, I must figure out how to sleep outside in a 1-person tent.
Our plan is to check in the first night at Loft Mountain campground, cook hot dogs and go to bed. I think the three gals are interested in a little beer too. Not my thing, but I bet that will help folks sleep.
The CR-V approaches the Ranger Station entrance.
Ranger Anita, according to her name tag, welcomes us with instructions. We pull over for a moment and each fill out an official Backcountry Use Permit. The form is in triplicate and has a bread wire through a hole on one end. It is from the U.S. Department of the Interior for the National Park Service.
I feel pride over such a legit document. The form number is 10-404. We write our name, home address and general hiking plan for the week.
Oh. Is this like leaving breadcrumbs for a future Search Party? Probably.
We pull off the top layer for Anita and attach the remaining individual tags to our backpacks. I try not to think that these tags could be the first item used to identify our bodies if things do not go well. I see the thick forest from here and marvel. We are going in there.
At the intersection beyond the Ranger Station, we see a male and female hiker. They look exhausted and dirty. He is limping. Maybe they are attempting to hitch hike? Not sure.
“I really need to pee,” Courtney says.
“We can pull over,” JoAnn says.
“Nah. Not quite ready to pee outside yet. I know we’re going to have to soon, though.”
Rachel and I make eye contact. We are not quite ready either.
JoAnn says, “Oh, honeys. I have perfected peeing outside.”
Of course, she has. Ah, if only we all felt the same.
Driving along Skyline Drive we see a spectacular view of mountains stretching far and wide. Our elevation is over 3,000 feet and rising. There is a blue haze everywhere with sprouts of bright green, white and purple blooms.
“Look!” I point to a groundhog scaling a small rock wall along the road edge.
“I bet we see a lot of creatures,” Rachel says.
“What’s everyone thinking their trail name is going to be?” JoAnn asks.
“I still don’t know yet,” Rachel responds. “How about you?”
JoAnn says, “I am SunFloJo because I love sunflowers, and I love how sunflowers lean toward the light.”
I offer, “Courtney, I think because of your amazing investigative skills you could be Stalker C. You impressed me at the speed you found Dick’s picture on the internet.”
Rachel says, “I like that. Court, you really can find anyone online in like 3 seconds or less. It’s a superpower of yours.”
Courtney says, “I’ll think it over, but I could lean that way. Sounds good.” Then she asks, “Glenna, how about you?”
I exhale. “Well, one of the reasons I need to go on this trip is to let go and embrace life changes coming up. Sometimes I try too hard to force things to fit.”
I add, “I’ve been thinking about the name Surrender.”
There is a group murmur and collective head nod.
We continue taking in the beauty of the mountains and valleys around us. The sun drops into a sunset position creating ribbons of soft blue and gold light everywhere.
Rachel ponders out loud, “I love how the sunshine is flowing through the leaves.”
Our jaws open and eyes widen. SunFloJo, Stalker C and Surrender all say together, “Sunshine!”
And that is how Rachel was given her trail name Sunshine.
I share randomly, “Sunshine is so much better than Rat. Before I knew Rachel’s full name, she was in my phone contacts as Rachel AT which looks like RAT if you read it too fast.”
Stalker C makes a note of that comment and will sometimes call her friend Sunshine Rat thereafter.
“Hey,” I say. “All our names begin with S.”
SunFloJo says, “Ooo. I like it!”
Stalker C says, “We can call ourselves the Steam Team.”
“Yes!” In unison we agree.
Then the dashboard begins blinking an orange light.
SunFloJo looks at me. I look at the dashboard.
We are almost out of gas! We are not quite to our campground yet.
SunFloJo has an “oops!” look on her face. She glances at me in a she might laugh kind of way. Funny, not funny.
She makes a speedy U-turn.
“How far back is the last gas station we saw?” I ask turning toward the backseat.
Sunshine says, “That exit was a while ago.”
I check my phone, “I don’t have reception.”
Stalker C is on it. “One bar.” She searches.
We are on fumes going back down Skyline Drive, back past the ranger station and down the hill toward the last town we saw. The dashboard gas light is increasingly brighter orange in my mind.
Stalker C says, “Got it. There’s a Bear Country Store & Deli with a gas pump .9 mile from here.”
“Good,” I say.
“They close at 7:30pm.”
It is 7:25pm. SunFloJo and I look at one another. She steps on the gas—what’s left of it!
We see the store! A giant faux bear is propped on top of the building.
I run inside to tell them we are there in hopes they won’t turn us away.
We made it. Whew! We didn’t even notice this place on the approach to the park the first time. JoAnn pumps the gas from the one and only pump.
Inside there is a tiny closet with one toilet and mini sink restroom. This might be our last porcelain toilet for a while.
There are two large barrels with checkerboards on top inside the store waiting for visitors to play.
Sunshine buys a bottle of local wine. I soak in the community feel of the place as the shop owner vacuums their welcome rug. There are posters and invites to summer events tacked to a bulletin board. I notice at the register a town newspaper dedicated to “The Most Wanted” people in the county. The front page is covered with many square pictures of faces, with names and a list of their alleged crimes. Watch out for those guys and gals.
Sunshine and Stalker C pose for a picture outside with the store sign. The sun is getting low now. We better get moving.
Retracing our drive back into the park, we see the hiker couple possibly still looking for a ride. We have zero space or seats in our vehicle to pick up anyone. We trek on.
Stalker C shares that she is most concerned about bears on the trail. I respond with info from YouTube about how to make noise if we see a black bear and suggest we do our best not to get in-between a momma bear and her cubs because that is the main time that a black bear might become aggressive.
“Yea, we’re lucky that there are no grizzlies here. I read they are more aggressive,” I say.
Stalker C eyes me.
We enjoy the ascension views all over again.
Then I say, “Look! A Bear!” I am serious, no joke.
SunFloJo slows and stops the CR-V. Two wee black bear cubs cross the road. Their much bigger momma follows. I know from my side of the car there is no point in trying to get a picture as the bears climb into the brush and trees left of the car. From the driver’s side SunFloJo takes a few pictures.
I am not sure if this was a good thing to happen to soften Stalker C’s fears or a bad thing to make her bear fears worse.
The vehicle hums along again. We are in a wondering state of mind thinking about the bears and the nature around us.
Stalker C says, “I really would like to see a deer.”
“Aw,” I say.
SunFloJo, “Any special reason?”
“One year ago today, my grandmother Rosemary passed away. As we left the care facility the first thing we saw was a deer. The whole family thinks of her now when we see deer.”
“It’s her spirit animal!” SunFloJo says with confidence.
“I hope we see one,” I say to Stalker C. “Especially today.”
…. If you have the faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.
MAY 29, 2016
We leave in two days!
Hmm. Maybe the exercise is helping. I felt physically better working at the store last night even after working all day at school too. My legs might be getting stronger.
I have another retail shift to work today. Then it is time for more trip prep.
I race home to practice setting up the 1-person orange tent in our yard.
Paul sits in a lawn chair next to my scattered supplies and a 5 x 7 size paper worth of instructions. It is an open book test for me. He is hands off, but there if I need him.
After the second time putting up the tent, I get inside and roll back the door flap.
“Take a picture.” I pose one knee up and chin on my knuckles.
I text the pic to Highway 2246 girls with the caption “This is for Plus Size Hiker Magazine” something that does not really exist.
Laughter emojis and hearts reply.
Semi confident, I secure the tent fabric into a tight little roll and place it on the dining room table along with other camping supplies. The dining room has turned into a staging area worthy of way longer than a week. It appears I could be gone for two months given the number of items in the room. I am having a hard time figuring out what I need versus what I can withstand carrying.
The doorbell rings.
It is Deb! She offers a bag full of treats for the hiking team. Cheez-whiz, crackers, nuts, Slim Jims, a question/answer book for the drive so we can get to know one another better, granola, and what I know is one of JoAnn’s favorite snacks: a big tub of peanut butter filled pretzels.
Deb holds a set of sealed envelopes. She says, “And these are reflection questions for the beginning, during and end of the journey. In the last envelope is a gift card for Cracker Barrel when you’re on your way home.”
Reflection questions? Cracker Barrel? You can always count on Deb. I wish she were going, but I know she will be cheering us on in spirit.
Deb says, “I shouldn’t interject my thoughts into your trip, but I’m doing it anyway.”
“Are you kidding? I am so glad. This is the perfect bag. Love the reflection questions idea too. And you know I would not say that unless I mean it.”
I add, “I will miss you.”
We pause. I ask, “Should we hug?”
She and I are not random huggers as a rule, but it does seem like the right time to do a farewell hug.
She nods, “Ok.”
On my porch, we do a quick hug and laugh at our awkwardness.
Her eyes say she is a little worried about our safety.
Me too. I look at her, “I will do my best to live through the experience.”
She replies, “You better.” And adds, “I want to hear all about it when you get back.”
I hesitate, “Hey. Um. You would help Paul get through the transition if I don’t make it, right?”
“Yes, I would.” She is my logical friend. I know she, together with my best friend could get Paul through the worst if the worst happens.
“About him,” Deb offers. “This is another stepping in where I shouldn’t thing.”
I nod. Go ahead.
“He’s been helping you prepare for the hike?”
I think I know where she is going. And, I’ve been thinking similar thoughts.
She confirms my guess, “Maybe helping you prepare is his way of providing. Some guys show love by trying to excel in a career but don’t know the first thing about how to do these types of supportive things.”
“I hear you. And it’s true.”
I sense she is concerned about having crossed a friendship boundary. “It’s ok. I’m glad you said it.”
MAY 30, 2016
Today is Memorial Day. I am thankful for a day off to pack and repack.
I spend 7 hours portioning and obsessing over what food to place in each of my gallon size clear Ziploc bags. There’s beef jerky, trail mix, pasta bags that just need water, fruit roll ups and more. I attempt to imagine what I will feel like eating on the trail. What will my body need or want?
I use a Sharpie to label daily allotment bags E, F, G, H in case anyone else uses A, B, C or 1, 2, 3. Then I add a Before bag and an After-Bonus bag. 6 bags should be enough!
Proud, I text pics of the finished bags to the team.
Courtney—US TOO! WORKING ON FOOD BAGS.
JoAnn—PACKING RIGHT NOW!
I direct text to Courtney —SHHH! AND NOW I’M MAKING SNAKE REPELLANT MOTH BALL BAGS!
Courtney—GOOD! THANK. GOD.
For better or worse, I’ve come up with a snake deterrent plan. With gloved hands, I put old fashioned moth balls into sandwich size Ziploc bags. I poked holes in the bags with my extremely sharp flip knife, then put them inside 2 sealed gallon size freezer bags.
There is a perfect small compartment in the bottom of my borrowed backpack where the snake repellant invention can stay during the day. Hopefully, we will not smell moth balls during the day since they are double bagged. At night I will pull out the smaller bags with their vent holes and drop them around our tents. In theory, it is a smell barrier. I make 6 snake repellant bags in total.
I try to sleep. This could be my last chance for good sleep for a few days.
In the morning may be my last good shower for a while.
My mind races about what it will be like to sleep outside in total darkness.
Paul is unsettled next to me. We take turns tossing and turning in our sheets. No one is reaching deep sleep tonight.
MAY 31, 2016
I sit at the kitchen table. Paul holds onto the kitchen peninsula with one hand while he packs his lunch bag with the other hand. His legs are unsteady.
“You can do this,” he says. “Recite the hike plan without looking at the papers.”
I manage to say the trail name twists and turns out loud. He gives me a satisfied head nod, “You’re ready.”
He leans in to give me a soft kiss that lingers a bit and a hug. Then he is off to work.
With only 2 hours remaining, I struggle to commit to how much to pack. What is vital? What can I leave behind?
I wear the hiking backpack and take a selfie in our bathroom mirror. I post the pic to Facebook with the caption “About to get real”.
My pack is too heavy. Maybe I could repack it after the first night? I need time to think, but I am out of time.
I grab two extra tote bags. One tote is for a change of clothes after this ordeal and the other is an empty bag so I can compare notes with others and lighten the backpack before the hike officially begins.
Courtney and Rachel are going to park in my garage. JoAnn is coming to pick us all up here.
The air outside is warm and still smells like spring. The grass is bright green and thick because we have had plenty of rain.
The boys are awake and curious. Their legs trot around like youthful horses in and out of the stable that happens to be their home.
At 9:40AM the young gals arrive.
Courtney says, “I’m not good at going in reverse.”
I ask, “Like reverse in a car?”
She says, “Yes.”
I remember what it was like to be a young driver. I back in Courtney’s SUV and make the keys accessible for Paul in case he needs to move it while we are gone.
10:00AM –On The Nose!
JoAnn drives her silver Toyota CRV up the hill to our house with windows rolled down and speakers belting out the song “Born to Be Wild”.
The street thumps to the song. We feel the vibration in our limbs. She is more than ready. She is pumped!
JoAnn hops out of the car, leaving the music turned up. We load our bags.
I ask our sons to take a picture of the four of us plus Flat Kevin by the car. We pose with pride and anticipation of the adventure that awaits.
I give Jacob and Ben hugs, a good long squeeze for each of them. They watch as I settle into the passenger seat and put on my seatbelt. They stand in the front yard and wave as we ladies hit the road with “Born to Be Wild” on repeat.
Courtney and Rachel get comfortable in the backseat. Hitting the highway, JoAnn turns down the music to give us her 4-1-1, “Let me know if anyone needs it cooler or warmer air, whatever, just say the word ladies.” Courtney likes it cool and that’s good with me too.
JoAnn says to me, “You’re designated navigator. I don’t like to listen to GPS telling us what to do all the time.” She hands me a small square piece of paper with directions on it. I read it. I understand the first set of directions, but later I will need to turn on my phone GPS with the sound off when directions get tricky.
The hum of the road surrounds us. JoAnn is a get after it type driver. We are on track to arrive by nightfall.
I encourage the girls to open the goodies from Deb, “Open the red bag.”
“Oos and ahhs” overcome the vehicle as they dig into the snack contents.
JoAnn says, “Pass me the peanut butter pretzels!” She eats half of one side of the pretzel bite with peanut butter then tosses the other pretzel bread only side into a cup. She is the healthiest and most fit 60-year-old I’ve ever known.
We begin flipping through the conversation starter books. Rachel says, “Pick a page number between 1 and 150.”
JoAnn picks 54. Rachel reads, “If you could select someone to be commemorated on a stamp, who would you pick?”
“Hmmm. I have to think about that one,” JoAnn says. “There’s so many great people to choose from.”
“Court?” Rachel asks.
“Ok. If you could spend time with anyone famous who would you like to meet and why?”
Courtney thinks, then says, “Probably Oprah and Gayle. That would be fun.” She adds, “When my mom asked why I want to go on this hike I told her I didn’t want to miss a chance to hang out with the Oprah and Gayle’s in my life. You two up front are like that to me with all your wisdom.”
JoAnn and I roar with giggles and in unison say, “Who gets to be Oprah and who gets to be Gayle?” I don’t think we ever decide. I add, “I am honored.”
“Glenna?” Rachel asks.
“If you could hang out with a president past or present who would you pick?”
“Mmm. That’s tough. One time I was at Mt. Vernon and felt all hot and bothered over George Washington. The jawline, the deep thoughts. It got me.”
“History is tough, though. There’s so much icky stuff that we don’t know or that I’m learning about the more I read,” I say not wanting to commit to one president.
We nod in agreement.
“Oh, the journey envelopes!” I point those out to the gals. There is a different envelope for each day of the trip.
“Do you gals want to open the ‘Beginning the Journey’ envelope from Deb?”
Everyone agrees we do. Inside the first envelope I read out loud:
“Beginning the Trip:
Off to see the Wizard. What an incredible journey! Dorothy (and Toto), the Scarecrow, the Lion and Tin Man. The Wizard of Oz is so many stories combined. One of adventure, trust, friendship, adversity and resiliency, not to mention finding one’s way in unfamiliar territory.
It is tempting to assign each of you a character. But as in life, we are never all one thing or another. We are never fully courageous or completely lacking discernment. We are comprised of all these characteristics in varying degrees at different times.”
Passengers look at one another. Eyebrows raise and “oos” are heard regarding that deep thought.
“So, as you follow the yellow brick Appalachian Trail, remember each of you has great courage, are wise, show tremendous compassion and have great capacity for insight and awareness to find within yourself.
Be cautious of the Wicked Witch. And May the Munchkins be with you!”
I write the answer to “what’s on my mind” on Facebook:
Calling all friends who have back country skills and equipment! I have an opportunity to hike part of the Appalachian Trail coming up very soon on a shoestring budget. I would welcome and take good care of any items you might allow me to borrow. Need: a less than 5 lb. 1-person tent, a trail worthy backpack, sleeping pad, lightweight sleeping bag. Plus, anything you know from experience might be helpful.
I click “post” then grab my son’s empty L.L. Bean backpack. I put a couple text books inside to add weight to the pack, lace up the stiff new Swiss hiking boots, and begin going up and down the hill outside my house. We leave this month. I’d better do anything I can to get my body ready. From the trail plan, I know that climbing hills is going to be a tough part of the experience.
Three times down and up my perfectly paved suburban sidewalk leads me to take a break. I sit on the porch with my love handles drinking water while out of breath. Then I begin the descent and climb again and again until I am certain Netflix calls my name to go back inside the house. Sweat is overrated.
MAY 7, 2016
Today is Saturday. I am at my second job. A beautiful spring day is outside through the window and beyond my grasp. I miss the boys.
My supervisor gave me a quarter raise above minimum wage last week like it was exuberant cause for celebration. I try to be grateful. I tell myself: this is a season in your life. Carry on. Having to clean bathrooms at the end of each shift when the body already aches is the most humbling. I have gagged more than once.
I convince myself that the small additional paycheck helps with groceries for two hungry teenage boys. They are worth it.
Some of the worst moments here are when people I knew from better employment years come into the store and eye me with questioning eyes or pity. They are in a rush on their way to a bridal shower or stopping by for luxury beach accessories on their way to Florida. They complain about trivial things like a broken nail or how on earth they could possibly pick a fine china place setting pattern from so many choices. Today a guy visiting the customer service desk asked me, “Didn’t you used to be my boss at…?”
“Yes,” I smiled and did not offer one bit of explanation.
I hustle upstairs to my locker on a ten-minute break in hopes of a text or sign of life outside the walls of me saying “Would you like a gift receipt?” and “Would you like to purchase the item of the month?” to every single customer. You never know when the next customer might be a Secret Shopper who will report back about our store performance to the general manager.
I unlock my phone to find texts from JoAnn. Yes! Texts on break breathe life into me.
She sent a picture of a picture.
JoAnn—THIS IS FLAT KEVIN! HE IS GOING WITH US!
Flat Kevin is a 2D image of JoAnn’s nephew. She cut the background away from a candid photo of Kevin and laminated the remaining shape of his body. He is tall with dark hair and a kind smile. I recognize the wide bright eyes that JoAnn and many in her family seem to have. She says Flat Kevin will fit into her backpack perfectly. I guesstimate he is about 5 inches tall from the text.
JoAnn fills me in about his story and why he is going. The real Kevin is 44 and the father of 6 children. His youngest is 3 years old. Kevin is fighting Renal Cancer. He has gone through a round of Interleukin so far. She tells me Kevin is living life as best he can right now. JoAnn is dedicating her hike to him. We will take a bunch of pictures with Flat Kevin during the hike so she can share those pictures with him after the trip.
My heart acknowledges his struggle. I have nothing left to internally complain about today. I text back my support for Flat Kevin on the trip and she continues with more news.
JoAnn—GUESS WHO ELSE IS GOING WITH US?!! DRUMROLL….
No idea. JoAnn knows I am on a work break, so she does not leave me in suspense.
JoAnn—COURTNEY!!!! AFTER GRADUATION SHE HAS A LITTLE BREAK WHERE THIS TRIP WILL FIT IN PERFECTLY.
So, she WAS interested in going. Cool. Courtney is a nice addition.
Courtney and I ran a Girls Circle® group for 5th grade girls together during the winter. Before the students learned our names, they called her the “blonde one” and me the “dark haired one”.
Courtney has an old soul in a 22-year-old body. She was a reliable partner. I enjoyed her occasional surprise over what some of the young girls had to say. One of my favorite moments was when the girls mentioned that the next day school was going to have “the talk” with them about puberty. Their parents had to sign a consent form for them to participate. They asked Courtney if we knew what this means. Courtney replied, “Yeah, Glenna and I went to that class a long time ago.” The girls burst into an exchange of giggles.
The retail break time clock is ticking.
A group text pops up.
Courtney—MY ROOMMATE RACHEL WANTS TO GO WITH US ALSO!
JoAnn—OH WONDERFUL! WE HAVE FOUR SEATS. THAT WORKS!
The car is getting crowded, but I do like even numbers on trips.
Courtney—GLENNA, RACHEL IS TO ME LIKE DEB IS TO YOU. WE COMPLEMENT ONE ANOTHER.
Oh wait. I recall some difficult stories with one of her classmates.
Glenna—RACHEL’S NOT THE “CRAZY ONE” IS SHE?
Gotta verify. I am too old for petty, jealous girl stuff.
Courtney—LOL. NO, RACHEL IS NOT THE CRAZY ONE, BUT WE ARE TRYING TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO TELL THE C.O.
I pause, then send a text to Courtney directly. I know that Courtney was involved in and valued her past experience in high school church youth groups, so this idea might go over ok.
Glenna—DO YOU WANT ADVICE ABOUT TELLING THE C.O.?
As a personal rule, I attempt not to give input without asking if people want advice first.
Glenna–BEFORE YOU TELL HER, PRAY FOR A GOOD TIME AND AN EASY PATH FOR COMMUNICATION. THEN HOPEFULLY A CONVERSATION WILL OCCUR NATURALLY, NOT FORCED.
I have been to the movie of dealing with a few Crazy Ones over the years. Jealousy filled and irrational relationships wear me out. I have found that God has a way of working out the crazy upfront when you take the time to ask. So, perhaps I will pray right now too.
Please help Courtney and Rachel tell the friend that they are going on a trip without her. Soften everyone’s hearts involved and allow there to be a peaceful exchange.
And please work out the crazy circumstances in my own life too.
Then I think about how even if Rachel is not the Crazy One, she is still an “unknown” for me. I hope she is not someone with a bad attitude. I do not like when there is a dud on a trip.
The time clock makes the punch back in sound.
MAY 8, 2016
Jacob hands me the Mommy Boot Camp notebook I made him. For the last month he has been completing household tasks along with preparing his body for basic training and working. The home version boot camp is not because I want him to clean or repair our house (a nice benefit), but because I want him to know how to do things when he is living on his own.
We tried to teach him life chores as he grew up, but he is a dismissive one. He often surprises you later that he was paying attention at all.
Mommy Boot Camp has been a bit like Karate Kid’s “Wax on. Wax off.” He has done laundry, yard work, made calls to get information, wrote paragraphs about the dangers of drinking and driving, cleaned the crevices of our 6 panel doors, reviewed articles about youth who made big mistakes while abroad, prayed, looked up helpful life Bible verses, swept, mowed the lawn, drove his brother to appointments, was left alone with a banana and condom (while also having conversations about the benefits of waiting), folded clothes, Googled various topics like how to reduce anxiety, wrote down the Serenity Prayer, did countless sit ups, pushups and more.
“Mom, I’ve learned and done everything you asked.” He continues, “Now I’d like a few weeks off to relax before I’m gone for most of the next 6 years.”
“Ok.” I hug him. My tall handsome boy smells faintly of manly cologne.
I go to a quiet spot in the house to let a few tears pass.
MAY 13, 2016
May 31st is 18 days from now. My mind is racing about all I need to prepare and what I need to learn before we depart.
I realize that I have never put up a tent by myself. Maybe I helped once or twice in the past by holding a tent pole for someone else while they did the real puzzle work.
Fortunately, there is YouTube and Google. I search for videos, articles and how to information about hiking the AT: what food to pack, how to select and put on a proper hiking backpack gear, how to protect yourself from the elements, how to keep bears and critters from your campsite, how to sleep in the deep woods at night (Eek! It is going to be DARK!).
Sounds like the most important things are to not leave food out to attract animals and to not be smelly yourself. And by smelly, I do not mean smell good or fragrant with normal wash products. It is important to have as little scent as possible.
Oh, and apparently people have trail names. You can have a special name just for the hiking experience. Given my recent life challenges, I could use a departure from reality. I ponder what my trail name will be.
News breaks that a man, age 49, was bitten through his tent by a bear while sleeping along the Appalachian Trail in the Smoky Mountains. Through his tent!?!
It was just two days ago that I felt peaceful that I probably will feel safe enough at night once I am inside a 1-person tent. The dark will remain outside. I will zip up at dusk and not come out until daylight. That was my solid plan.
And now I am thinking, bitten THROUGH his tent by a bear?! I yi yi. He was inside.
I group text the story to Courtney, Rachel and JoAnn.
JoAnn—THAT GUY PROBABLY HAD FOOD OR AN ODD SMELL IN HIS TENT.
JoAnn—ALSO, I’M BRINGING BEAR BELLS AND A BEAR BAG.
Courtney—I’LL GLADLY CARRY A BEAR BELL.
Rachel—DOES THE BEAR BELL ENCOURAGE THE BEARS TO STAY AWAY FROM US?
JoAnn—BEARS DON’T LIKE BEAR BELLS. AND AT NIGHT WE PUT ALL OUR FOOD IN A BEAR BAG AND SLING IT WITH A ROPE HIGH OVER A TREE BRANCH ABOUT 200 YARDS FROM CAMP. I’VE BEEN PRACTICING.
Rachel—OH, OF COURSE. BELLS, BEAR BAG, ROPE, GOT IT. THIS IS ALL NEW TO ME! CAN’T WAIT, LADIES!
JoAnn has been practicing. Good to hear.
JoAnn—IF YOU’RE GOING TO WEAR DEODORANT, MAKE SURE IT IS UNSCENTED. NOT EASY TO FIND, BUT THERE IS A BRAND CALLED TOM’S THAT MAKES UNSCENTED.
IF we are going to wear deodorant? I add to my shopping list:
I do not think I can give up deodorant. I also do not want any rodents or bears curious about me.
At an after-school club I tell co-worker Maria about the trip. I know she is an outdoor person. Maria had many adventures around the globe in her 20’s.
“I think you’ll love it,” Maria says. “And you need to read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods.”
“Is it a book about the AT?”
“Yeah. You will learn a lot of tips.” She continues, “Like cotton is rotten.”
“You don’t want to wear anything cotton. Cotton stays damp and gross. You need to wear things that are synthetic. Synthetic materials dry fast.”
“Really?” I’d already been planning cool cotton attire and a couple of my favorite summer outfits. Do I own anything NOT cotton?
“Oh, yeah. Very important. No cotton.”
Once again, I am re-thinking what to bring and what to wear.
I stop at the Half-Price Bookstore. I already looked online to see that A Walk in the Woods is checked out of the library.
Ah-hah! Half-Price has a few copies. I use a bag of change to purchase a copy of the book plus a blank journal and head home. I want to keep thoughts and lists for the trip in one place.
I walk down the neighborhood hill and back up several times.
I am in bed reading while thinking I should still be cramming exercise into the day. My legs are sore. I wish I had more time to prepare.
My eyes enlarge. On page 6 of A Walk in the Woods, the author is preparing for his AT hike. Included in his prep is awareness that:
“…there is the little-known family of organisms called hantaviruses, which swarm in the micro-haze above the feces of mice and rats and are hovered into the human respiratory system by anyone unlucky enough to stick a breathing orifice near them—by lying down, say, on a sleeping platform over which infested mice have recently scampered….”
In YouTube videos I remember seeing occasional AT platform shelters in the woods where the above quote could be a problem if we sleep on one at night. No thank you. I vow to stay in my tent. Two, I need to add buffs or handkerchiefs to my packing list! I will cover my mouth, nose, ears and all orifices while sleeping.
In the back of my journal, I make a page for my packing list:
Buffs to cover face at night
Synthetic, quick dry clothing–No cotton!
Food –what kind of food?! (need to research)
1-person tent (need to find or borrow)
Some type of pillow (or use rolled up clothing at night?)
Travel toothpaste and brush
Other items TBD
I turn off the light and pull the covers over my head. I try to comprehend what pitch-black dark will be like out in the woods at night.
MAY 14, 2016
This is really JoAnn’s trip. I remind myself of that. She has been planning to go since September.
The timing fit and the boots fit, but the origins of this trip are hers. I vow to respect that.
JoAnn turned 60 in November. She was super busy around that time and so was I. It bothered me that I did not get to properly celebrate with her on or near her birthday. But I have an idea about how to have a celebration moment for her while on the AT.
I message her husband, Steve, on Facebook to ask what her favorite candy bar is. He replies Babe Ruth. Perfect.
I saw a Pinterest video recently about making a little cake of candy bars attached to a small round Styrofoam piece. I can pick up miniature Babe Ruth bars and a small floral Styrofoam half ball from Wal-Mart. Oh, and I guess glue would be best to get the wrapped bars to stick to the Styrofoam. I can pack the completed “cake” in a Ziploc bag with a birthday candle. It will be a sweet moment while on the trail to celebrate.
I read about the importance of minimal weight supplies on the trail. You carry everything on your back: tent, change of clothes, food, etc. It is best to be as light as possible. I think this small cake idea can be lightweight.
I do not want to wait to the last minute to make the cake, so I begin working on it. It takes a while for the candy to stick to the foam, so I upgrade to a strong epoxy tube of glue. Soon the cake takes shape.
I text a picture to Courtney and tell her the mini birthday celebration for JoAnn plan.
Courtney—LOVE IT! VERY SWEET IDEA.
Glenna—THE TUBE OF GLUE SAYS HIGHLY FLAMMABLE, SO WE’LL HAVE TO LIGHT THE CANDLE AND HAVE HER BLOW IT OUT QUICKLY.
Courtney—YES! NO EXPLOSIONS ON THE TRAIL. I’LL HELP YOU ON THIS.
I am beginning to call this trip Highway 2246 in honor of our decades. Two are in their 20’s, one is in her 40’s and one is 60 years old.
MAY 15, 2016
I am struggling overnight and this morning thinking about Jacob’s departure to basic training next week. Tomorrow he has a last briefing with his recruiter. I connect online with other military moms. Turns out a lot of them are crying too. Knowing there are other moms like me out there makes me feel somewhat more normal and not as alone.
Only 1% of young people join the military in the USA. No wonder I do not have any local friends going through the same thing at this moment. This is not as common as I thought. There are few brave young men and women who sign up to protect and defend our freedom.
MAY 16, 2016
Surprise! The recruiter said we get to keep Jacob around a little longer due to his emergency appendectomy recovery time. The USAF Surgeon General wants to give him an additional 90 days to heal. Now we wait for a new ship date.
This was a practice round.
I pause to adjust.
I think about it briefly, then decide I am still going on the AT.
A group text begins as often is now the case with the 4 women of Highway 2246.
Courtney—I’M LOOKING AT OUR HIKE PLAN. WE END AT A DIFFERENT PLACE THAN WE BEGIN. HOW DO WE GET BACK TO THE CAR?
JoAnn—PEOPLE HITCH HIKE ALL ALONG THE AT. THERE’S A LOT OF GOOD PEOPLE WHO WILL PICK US UP AND TAKE US BACK.
I receive a direct message from Courtney–&^%$? IS SHE SERIOUS?
JoAnn might be serious.
Or she might be joking. I do not know.
Texting takes a timeout as heart rates increase.
Then we read:
JoAnn—I’LL RESEARCH AND GET BACK TO YOU.
JoAnn—I FOUND A REGISTERED DRIVER. HE’S AGREED TO DRIVE US. AND HE HAD A LOT TO SAY. TALKED MY EAR OFF. SOME OF IT WAS HELPFUL.
Courtney—WHAT’S HIS NAME?
Glenna—SO HIS NAME IS DOUBLE D…
I do not finish.
JoAnn—LOL. DICK PROMISES TO BE ON TIME. HE’S AWARD WINNING IN HIS TRANSPORTATION AND AT GUIDANCE.
Rachel—WELL, WE CAN’T QUESTION DICK THEN.
Courtney does her own research. She texts a picture of Dick within minutes. I am impressed by her rapid fire online investigative skills. In the photo Dick has white hair, a white beard and is holding up an award.
Glenna—I FEEL SAFER ALREADY.
Not really. But I am going with the flow. Surely JoAnn speaking with someone in advance rather than hitch hiking is a good thing. He is “registered” whatever that means.
Courtney—DOES ANYONE KNOW THEIR TRAIL NAME YET?
JoAnn—I THINK I’M GOING TO BE SUNFLOJO.
The rest of us do not know yet. We have a little time to figure it out.
My mind wanders.
My heart is heavy. I need to de-burden, defragment, and cleanse my soul.
Fresh air will be good.
I hope to find the tallest mountain ridge and spend time with God. I thought the delay in Basic Training date would help me feel better, but there is so much more going on with our family. I have no words, but I feel the stress in the space that has opened up further in my mind.
MAY 17, 2016
Paul and I watch Appalachian Trail YouTube videos. There are a lot of them.
How to cook on the AT
How to pack for the AT
Let’s talk Food on the AT
How to prepare physical endurance for the AT which totally makes me feel like a slacker at this late date!
And my favorite title: Preparing for My Thru Hike So I Don’t Die.
I watch and re-watch How to Pee Outside along with other ladies’ guides to peeing in the woods. This is vital information. I eye my backyard wishing the neighbors did not live so close. I do not plan to practice before going (pun intended!). I will be ready when there is no other choice.
I have a backup plan just in case I cannot manage to go when it is time or if I must figure it out at night.
This girl will not squat over mystery grass in the dark! So, I bought a guy version portable urinal. It is lightweight and has a smallish opening with a lid. I am confident in this Plan B because when I was in China several years ago, I cut off the top of a Pepsi bottle, made it work, then dumped the pee in the hole in the floor for waste. That is a whole other story involving dress clothes that did not work well in that country. If you have ever been to China, then you know what I am talking about.
Paul and I watch one video and then watch another and another. In-between he gives me tips or encouragement.
He is getting into this. He prints out enlarged 8 ½ by 11 pages of each part of our hike plan. He walks me through each page with a different color highlighter to mark each turn on the connecting paths.
I share with him, “JoAnn has taken classes and she told me she has an official AT trail guide map, but I’m glad for the blown-up versions so I can anticipate the experience up close on the map a little in advance.”
He knows I am visual, and he appears to want me to come home if lost. I will have more landmark names in my head than I need thanks to him.
Paul says, “Let’s go over it again. You follow the trails and make the turns with your finger. Describe each turn. You flip the pages. Let’s make sure you’ve got this.”
I begin, “We hike the Lower Hawksbill Mountain Trail first. We will climb the mountain to see the view from the highest peak in the Shenandoah National Park. Then we take Salamander Trail down the mountain to connect with….”
We practice the whole thing late into the evening.
I am amazed how much energy he can put into helping me with something like this.
MAY 19, 2016
I am tired. The next payroll week looms as I wait for invoice payments to arrive this week.
Semi-facing the inevitable, I meet with a local career strategist, Dr. Angie Taylor.
Angie asks, “So how long have you been struggling with your finances?”
“Three years, maybe four.”
Angie states, “Glenna, you know the definition of insanity, right?”
“Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?”
“Right. The non-profit is like your baby. You don’t want to let go, but you’ve got to do something different. It sounds like your spouse’s earnings are not going to change and you’re not in a good position to sell the house.” She sighs, “If you have to answer right now, what do you do from here?”
Defeated I say, “Get another job or different part-time job so I can pay the mortgage on time.” What I do not say is that the paperwork and effort to change course, though, seems daunting.
“Alright, let’s talk about how to go about doing that.”
We brainstorm how I can make room in my schedule and obtain new sources of income. Resentment brews in my heart.
Angie is wise. I am grateful for her time, but why do I have to do this?!
MAY 21, 2016
I have begun to meet people to collect supplies. Today I meet with Amy K, who used to live and have outdoor adventures in Alaska.
“Here you go,” Amy K hands me a 45 Liter backpack. It has many pockets to discover. Best of all, it is red, my favorite color.
“Inside is a sleeping pad that you roll up and hook to the outside while hiking. You don’t have to blow into it at night. Open the valve and it will inflate on its own.”
“Wow,” I say.
She unzips a side pocket, “This is a little ring of flatware. And, I don’t know if you’ll want it, but this contraption becomes a chair if you fold it right. Sometimes a bit of back support is nice when resting in the woods.”
“I wish I could go,” I see the sincerity in Amy’s eyes. She is another person we know that has knee problems at the moment.
“Maybe next trip,” I say. “If this goes well for JoAnn, she plans to do many sections.”
“Yes, I hope so.” Amy and I hug. I leave grateful for the pack. It is perfect. I already feel one with it. It has compression straps which I know from videos will help distribute weight evenly.
I stop at other friends’ homes. The support and willingness to share has been greatly appreciated.
I return home to try out the growing pile of borrowed equipment in our dining room.
Paul is there looking through the boys’ closets. “This will fit you. And this will too,” He says.
He has a stack of shirts and shorts which are made of synthetic material.
“This is great. Thanks,” I think about the savings but am a bit sad that I’ll be wearing all boy clothes. I have stopped at a few thrift stores and not found any trail clothes that will work.
I share, “I’m a little concerned about creepy crawling things and would like to have pants on the main hiking days, but I’m not sure what pants will work.”
Paul thinks for a moment then takes my hand to our shared closet. “What about these?”
He holds up his old pair of Boy Scout pants. For a few years he was one of the leaders for Jacob’s Cub Scout group.
I laugh, “Let me try ‘em.”
My brain connects the outdoor pants with images I’ve seen in AT videos. The pant vents, cargo pockets and zippers make sense for the first time.
“Tah dah!” I spin around once and stretch in the bedroom. No seams rip. That’s a good sign.
“They fit well,” he observes.
That settles it. I toss my new-found clothes in the wash and then hang them to dry. I have pieces of clothing from each of my guys and none of it is cotton.
MAY 26, 2016
I wake up at 5am to walk the neighborhood hills wearing Amy K’s backpack for an hour.
In my early morning thoughts, I face that I haven’t cared much if I live or die in recent years.
Now, surviving the AT is fresh motivation. I want to both live through it and not hold back my group.
It feels good to want to live.
I see this quote in a devotion book while getting ready for work. I dwell on it for the day.
When we are no longer able to change a situation,
we are challenged to challenge ourselves.
–Viktor Frankl, survivor of 4 concentration camps
MAY 27, 2016
Courtney and Rachel stop by the non-profit office. They come to collect excess equipment that caring friends have said we can share.
This is the first time I get to meet Rachel.
Courtney walks into the room, “Whazz Uppp?” She has been working out this morning. Her hair is in a ponytail. She wears her favorite Cross-Fit t-shirt.
“Hi.” I am wading through end of the year student survey data. A bit of spring air wafted in when the girls opened the door.
“You must be Rachel.”
“Yes, I am.” Rachel is a tall brunette with a sweet smile.
I fan out little plastic bags with fabric inside. “These are buffs from Deb’s mom. She thought she would want them when she went through chemo, but she did not. They’re all brand new.”
Rachel says, “Ooo. There’s a bunch.”
Courtney says, “Tell Deb I’m grateful for these. Nothing is allowed to crawl in my nose while I sleep!”
I agree, “Same here.”
Rachel chooses a turquoise blue. “Look, Court, it matches this backpack.”
Perfect. JoAnn had dropped off a few of her family backpacks to choose from. The girls load up.
“Yes, we’ll have to color coordinate a little bit on the trail,” Courtney smiles. “We’re off to buy food for the trail next.”
“Oh yeah, it is hard to commit to food choices,” I say.
Rachel shares, “It’s like you have to be ok with the fact that what you pack could be your last meal or something.”
We chuckle. “I’m committed to get through this, ladies. Yet, I have some doubts.”
Courtney says, “I am right there with ya.”
I offer, “I bought snack size peanut butter tubs, crackers, organic marshmallows—yum, tried some—cashews, ginger chew candy, packs of noodles that we can cook quick on JoAnn’s stove. Oh, and beef jerky in a few flavors.”
Courtney says, “Jerky is life. I’m all about the jerky.”
“We’re gonna need protein,” Rachel says.
“I hope we don’t see any snakes,” Courtney offers.
We all agree. I type into my computer and say out loud, “How to repel snakes.”
Rachel says, “Research. Good idea.”
Not as many articles or tips come up as I hoped. “Hmmm.” I point at one short piece of information, “Looks like snakes do not like moth balls.”
“I don’t know much about moth balls,” Courtney says.
“Well, they are kind of toxic for humans,” I say. “I’ll put some thought into it, though. There might be a way to incorporate them safely into some type of snakes-stay-away-system.”
I walk the girls out to their car.
It is time for me to leave for the day too. I welcome the warm afternoon sun.
On the way home, I stop at Wal-Mart.
I walk around the camping aisles for general inspiration and stop at the knife case.
Jacob has asked me a few times to take some type of protection. I purchase a light weight yet menacing looking knife that flips open easily.
This metal will be clipped in my pocket during the trip because you just never know what might happen.
The twists and turns over varied terrain and elevation changes are listed as if the line dashes on the map are no big deal. Easy peasy.
23 MILES – IF all goes as planned.
MAY 04, 2016
I wait for the right moment. I pace from the kitchen to the laundry room to the family room.
More pacing. There is no right moment.
Paul rests on the couch. I eye him. After all these years, I remember the butterflies we shared when we pretended not to look at one another the first time we met in the Young Adult Sunday School class.
He had been a visiting college intern in his last semester. I was there that day because my campus minister challenged me to go back to my home church one last time before moving my membership officially to the church where I had been attending for months. Being there was me fulfilling a promise.
If I had my way, that day was just a formality. A box to check, then move on.
But someone caught my eye. Everything changed fast.
While dating, we celebrated our total opposite personalities—bragged about it even. I would say things like, “He likes a home to be organized.” Then he would say, “She likes a home to be clean. This should work out perfectly.”
Once married, simple differences like how to set up house overflowed into differences in how we view the world. Even though we see things somewhat similar, it became cumbersome to constantly translate the nuances. Over the years, we evolved from both wanting to prove a point when we tried to talk or argue to me agreeing with whatever most days. I grew tired of expressing, “We are saying the same thing.”
I still adore his broad shoulders. I like the way he smells like Lever 2000 soap–and sometimes after shave when we can afford it. I appreciate the way he nurtures and cares for our kids. The pictures of how lovingly he looked at both newborns are forever in my mind. He acts like he is going to be fine with Jacob leaving soon, but I am fairly sure he will struggle when departure day arrives.
I am both mad at him for 23 years of reasons and mad about him at the same time. Down deep, I love him in a way that is eternal no matter what. Our shared faith has been the foundation that did not crack although the metaphoric home built above the foundation is not as strong.
It is time.
“I need to talk with you about something.”
He hesitates, “Oh boy.”
I take a deep breath and tell him about the trip opportunity. Then I get serious.
“Look,” I say. “I’m dealing with a few things.”
“Ok,” he says.
“My brain is fried. I need this hike to take me out of my comfort zone. I need to get away. Like, deep into the woods away both mentally and physically—something I can’t believe I’m saying.”
He turns off the TV.
I continue, “I am incredibly sad. Sad because Jacob is leaving. I am in denial that Ben is old enough to go to high school. And I’m angry.” Pause, “Angry at you.”
He says nothing but listens with his temples pointed in my direction.
“I am mad because it seems like you never made a solid effort to get a better job when I switched to non-profit work. I could totally accept if you tried and failed, but not trying is hard for me to accept.”
Shoot. I said the word never. We agreed long ago not to use trigger words like ‘you never…’ or ‘you always….’
We are silent for about 30 seconds. He has not moved.
I go for the summary, “So, two main things: One, I’ve got to let go of this anger toward you. Going through the motions of being nice when I do not feel nice has worn me out. I need a break.”
I exhale. “Two, I am super sad because we have to let go of Jacob. He is so young.” My eyes become wet.
“Basic training means we are not going to be able to talk with him for weeks. Then there may be times where he deploys to fight a stupid war that most Americans do not seem to know is still happening. Technically this kid is joining during a time of war. This is not like moving to a college dorm. Signing up for active duty is a change much more abrupt and final feeling. This feels like a sacrifice. I’m struggling with why our son? And, why anyone’s son or daughter?”
Paul is either tuning in deep or blocking my words to protect his own feelings.
I sniff. My tears are a steady stream now. “Plus, I may have to let go of the organization that I worked all these years to develop. I love what I do. It does not seem fair. Worse, I find myself mad at God for not providing. We have had too many years of financial strain. I picture going on this trip, sitting on top of a mountain, throwing my dreams off the side while saying ‘Take it and do your will, Lord. Take it. Take it all. I cannot carry these burdens anymore.’”
I whisper, “If word from the mountaintop is that I am supposed to let it go, then I will. Someone else can lead. Or, we’ll close the doors.”
Then Paul looks at me for the first time, “Go.”
He has an understanding look on his face—not at all the look I expected. “Do what you need to do and have fun.”
I expected him to give me reasons why I should not go hiking given my lack of experience. No doubt, he would have multiple valid reasons.
I take a breath. “Ok.”
His kindness and acceptance are a terrifying miracle. Um, maybe you should talk me out of this, Babe.
“I’ll send you a text of the hiking plan. If you want to help me plan or gather things, I’m open to your ideas.” Long ago the man was in the Army National Guard. I know he has outdoor survival skills knowledge.
Later I tell the boys. Ben-Just-Ben shrugs, “Ok”. Jacob says he wishes he could go with me, but he is pumped about going to Texas soon.
I text JoAnn—I AM IN!
MAY 5, 2016
A group of us are going to celebrate Cinco de Mayo and our friend Deb’s birthday at the local Cancun restaurant.
After working professionally together for over a decade, Deb and I have accepted in recent years that we have become good friends.
I have not had a chance to tell her about the AT trip. It would be fantastic if Deb were going too. She would be wonderful addition to team camaraderie.
Last night and this morning, Paul and I began making a list of supplies needed. He also began giving me tips like, “Don’t set up your sleeping bag on a tree root. Look for a soft spot or spread leaves out underneath where you rest.” I have been thinking about details while still processing in my own head the fact that I am going at all. There is lots to do and not many days to prepare.
Deb, JoAnn and a social work intern, Courtney, are already seated at a long table when I arrive. There is room for other guests who will come and go as part of the birthday celebration. A boxed cake is on my end of the table.
We exchange happy birthday greetings and food orders arrive. We also celebrate that Courtney is about to graduate May 14 from Xavier University.
My mind quietly thinks about the AT trip while people joke and chat. I do not plan to discuss the trip at all today since this is a gathering for other reasons. I want to tell Deb on my own when I get a chance.
One of the silent things I ponder is that the cost of this trip is an issue. I can’t make purchases. We have no credit cards and the debit card is stretched to the penny each month. I consider who in my neighborhood and friend circle might allow me to borrow equipment.
Knowing where my mind might be, JoAnn interjects, “Hey Glenna. You’re going to need a good pair of hiking boots.”
Deb says, “For what?”
I am surprised. JoAnn must REALLY be over the top excited about this trip.
All eyes turn to me. I answer, “Well, within the last 24 hours I’ve agreed to go on an Appalachian Trail section hike with JoAnn. We’ll be in the Shenandoah National Park area for almost a week.”
I look at Deb. My raised eyebrows ask if she would like to go.
Reading my nonverbal cue, Deb says, “That sounds fun, but my knees could not do that.”
Courtney, though, looks more than intrigued by the idea. She asks about the dates and if other women can join the team. Is she interested in being part of this idea?
“Are there bears in that area?”
JoAnn answers Courtney, “Oh yes. We will have to put our food in a Bear Bag, then use a rope to throw the bag up and over a tree branch away from where we set up camp.”
My eyes widen.
“Snakes?” Courtney asks.
“Yes, some poisonous. Some not.”
I start to think that Courtney going on the trip could be good. She is young and probably could run for help if we need it.
Then an opportunity-to-help-look comes over Deb’s face. She says, “Boots! A few months ago, I stopped by a shoe outlet in Louisville. There was a $7.50 sale on Swiss hiking boots that were originally priced $110. I don’t hike. They were not my size, but I couldn’t resist knowing that someone I know surely will need them especially for that price! What size do you wear?”
I reply, “9.”
Deb says, “I had no idea why I couldn’t resist those boots. This must be why. I will go home tonight and let you know what size they are.”
The table oos and ahhs. “This may be divine,” JoAnn says.
Then Courtney offers, “My sister is into this kind of thing. She has hiked a lot and has all the equipment. I can ask her for advice.”
I will welcome all the advice and divine intervention I can get.
As we are in line to pay for our food Deb says to me, “This will be good for you to get away after Jacob goes.”
I nod, “Exactly.”
I receive a text from Deb with a picture of the boots—SIZE 9!
I have agreed to go on an Appalachian Trail section hike May 31 through June 4.
Sounds simple enough: take long walks, camp overnight, repeat 4-5 times, then go home. How hard could that be?
But I am 44 years old, overweight, stressed out because life is not going as I planned, hoped, or dreamed. AND, I have never gone pee or poo in the woods.
Never. Not once.
I am in research mode to prepare for the hike. So far, I read that an Appalachian Trail hiker carries 30-40 pounds of equipment on their back. I already have that much extra in fat that I carry around my waist and hips every single day. Is it possible that I can carry more than my own fat for nearly a week in the woods?
Neither friends nor family would describe me as an outdoor person. Once upon a time I was a Cub Scout Den Mom for 8 years for our two sons. I did not lead the outdoor activities. I outsourced what I did not want to do or what I had no clue how to do.
I asked other outdoorsy type parents to lead lessons that involved sweat. Or trails. Or fires. Or bugs, fishing, snakes…yeah, pretty much anything having to do with outside was outsourced. I was great at sending emails, keeping a schedule, carpooling, and leading a craft or two. I rocked soap carving and enjoyed taking 6-10 young kids to new places. Guess it is my turn to take a field trip. Yet this is exactly the kind of field trip I would have avoided as a Den Mom.
Cub Scout days are long gone. I hold onto contact information and scout files as if we could start back up at any time. I have a plastic bin filled with Pinewood Derby Car race supplies. Each year I think I will donate them to some younger mother but have not gotten around to it. There are extra car decals, paint, weights, glue, officially licensed Boy Scout of America wheels, a scale and graphite powder which I am not sure is legal in the BSA rules, but everyone used it on race day anyway.
Our children are on the cusp of being grown physically. I am 5’10. In the last year both sons have become over 6 feet tall. Somehow, I am now the shortest person in family pictures.
Jacob turned 18 years old a couple weeks ago. He graduated high school last summer at 17 because he was determined to serve as soon as possible in the United States Air Force. He wanted to clear his path to depart months ago, but the wait game has been challenging. We have taken no less than 5 trips to a Military Entrance Processing Station two hours away from our home. For months I have run back and forth to schools and doctors getting letters and documents together. Jacob finally has a date for Basic Military Training coming up May 24.
I feel sick and stressed inside. Is Jacob ready to be an adult? He is by far the child I have worked the hardest to support and coach along the way. My shy boy is becoming an adventurous man. What scares me most is his propensity to learn the hard way as a rule. When he was little the moment after I told him not to touch the hot stove, he proceeded to lay his hand flat on a burner. I am shocked by his no fear and eagerness to leave so soon. Older and wiser friends who have already been through this say I should be proud that he has the confidence to go. I try.
Last month Jacob had an emergency appendectomy. When he was recovering post-surgery, I considered it a privilege to stay overnight in the hospital with him. I stared at his sleeping face as the rain poured outside and the parking lot lights gently shone into his room. What a bookend moment it was. I thought about how the same month 18 years prior I stared at him for hours overnight in a plastic crib after he was born in the same hospital. Now he is departing soon for Texas and who-knows-where in the world after that. He is brave.
Then there is Ben-Just-Ben. He is our youngest, 14 years old. His real name is Benjamin, but he announced after coming home from kindergarten years ago that he is no longer the full name of Benjamin. With a small hand cutting motion he stated, “I am Ben just Ben from now on.” This guy, once the cuddliest child ever, is close to 6’2 tall and begins high school this year. High School?! Wow. One minute you are trying to keep the calendar straight for school age children. The next minute you grieve them leaving home.
I am a risk taker of sorts, but now it is our kids turn to take risks. No matter that them leaving is completely normal and healthy, it hurts. Down deep in my stomach and soul there is a grinding and twisting that I feel these days. I must figure out how to work through the tears of this life transition.
It does not help that other parts of my life are unstable. I run a tiny non-profit with 7 staff members. We teach positive coping and life skills to children in grades K through 12, and for parents of preschoolers. Being a small organization means I wear lots of hats. The pay is not great and sometimes the boss, aka me, simply does not get paid.
My reward is seeing children who once struggled in the classroom then learn new strategies and succeed. It is hard to imagine doing anything else because I love what we do so much. With new skills and knowledge people can make better choices and, in some cases, break negative cycles that have been passed down for generations.
The desire to build the non-profit began in 2005. I thought I heard clearly from God that this was what I was supposed to do. I was confident that if God put the dream in my heart that He would provide. Yet as some of my students say about other things: the struggle is real.
I adore my staff. I am so proud of the work they do. Most of them have spouses who are the main breadwinners. They do not seem to feel the same pain that I do trying to cover the mortgage and decide whether to buy groceries or pay the gas & electric bill.
My husband, Paul, is a loving, caring spouse and father, but striving to make a good salary has never been an actionable priority for him. We have been married 23 years. He agreed that he would seek a better job or salary when I left the corporate world and took on the non-profit, but to date the steps necessary to improve his pay have not happened.
No matter how much I say I believe in him, he will not believe in himself. He is an intelligent person. I admire his brain, but he is plagued by self-doubt, a touch of OCD and depression—in my unprofessional opinion. Basically, I am married to Eeyore. Loyal and loveable, lack of growth mindset, Eeyore.
Worse, his body is failing him. He is tired all the time. I am not the type of spouse that would say, “Get off the couch!”, but I am thinking it.
Especially due to finances, something must give. I am not sure what.
In addition to non-profit workshops, marketing, administrative duties, taxes, payroll, school activities, orthodontist appointments, plays, proms, sports, home duties like cleaning, oil changes, laundry, grocery shopping, etc., I also have a side retail job. I wish the retail money helped more than it does. I barely notice the tiny additional funds, but I do notice how much my feet hurt. My brain feels squeezed. Too much. This is all too much.
FLASHBACK: APRIL 5, 2016
I am in-between school day workshops and an evening parent workshop. I receive a text:
JoAnn–WOULD YOU LIKE TO MEET AT THE PUB RESTAURANT? I HAVE A LITTLE TIME BEFORE A GIG NEARBY.
Heck yes, I do! I love JoAnn. She is one of my favorite people on the planet. JoAnn is a high school social worker. We collaborate from time to time on projects and how best to serve students.
JoAnn is 5’2 tall. She is 17 years older than me, but in much better shape. She runs marathons and any 5K event she wants to around the city.
We connect well spiritually, and we laugh every time we are together. In the last few years, we call each other “soul sis”. Like me, she grew up in an environment with a functioning alcoholic father and hard-working mother. I sense we both work in the Urban Appalachian town where we do because it is a lot like coming home for both of us. The culture is familiar. We “get” the unwritten rules.
I arrive at The Pub. JoAnn has already portioned out half of her pot roast and mashed potatoes dinner onto a side plate for me. One, yum. Two, this is a good habit I have seen her do with food. She is a half eater. I am an eat the whole plate and may I have some more eater.
I ask, “What’s your gig tonight?”
“A compass reading class over at REI.”
That does not sound like social work continuing education to me.
“Tell me more,” I smile.
“I’m starting my AT adventure this summer,” she announces proudly.
I have no idea what REI is either, but start with, “What does AT stand for?”
“Appalachian Trail,” she says. “Oh, I love to hike.”
I have never heard of the AT, “How long is it?”
“The whole AT goes from Maine to Georgia.”
“Wow-“ How in the world?
She reads my face. “Oh honey, I’m not hiking the whole thing this year,” she laughs. “I’m doing a section hike as a recon mission to see if I can handle it. Then I might do more sections each year until I complete it. I have been planning and plotting this adventure since September. I have taken several classes to prepare too.”
Is there anything JoAnn can’t handle? Seriously.
“Who is going with you?”
Then I ask, “When are you going?” And more questions all the while thinking that maybe she should ask me if I want to go.
I do not dare interject that idea. Clearly, this is her thing. She has a plan.
Look at me. I feel the pinch of my too tight pants. I would not be a good hiking partner. I would literally weigh her down.
But…the thought of going sounds amazing.
My mind wanders. This could be the escape I need to be me-just-me for a week. I could be challenged away from my normal struggles. Lately I feel an ugly angry inside. On the outside most people may think all is well with our family, but the reality is painful. We live in a nice house that we no longer can afford. Our slow pay credit score makes me feel trapped. Moving is expensive. We have old cars that break down constantly. We are blessed with two amazing kids who each wear one pair of shoes for a year straight. Our water has been turned off a couple times and the boys knew when I rushed to scramble to get it turned back on.
JoAnn interrupts my thoughts, “Would you ever be interested in hiking sometime?”
I look at her. My head tilts, “Yes. If the opportunity comes up. Maybe after your recon mission success, then we can plan a different section hike sometime. Let me know how it goes.”
FLASH FORWARD: MAY 03, 2016
I’m driving to work. The cell phone rings. It’s JoAnn. I put her on speaker.
She says, “Crazy idea. Do NOT feel like you have to answer right now. Sleep on it at least one night….”
“My friend who was supposed to go on the AT hike with me hurt her back. There is no way she can carry the backpack required so she can’t go.”
There is something about the way JoAnn lovingly pronounces “AT” that I admire.
She continues, “Would you like to go on the trip? I have a mini camp stove and a bear bag already. I can text you a pic of our hiking plan so you know where we’ll be going….” She trails off. Pun intended.
Meanwhile, I am thinking, What in the world is a Bear Bag?