March 31, 2018: The Start [to not die slowly]
There is no way to prepare for drastic change. I almost typed ‘prepare for transition’ — but beginning to hike over 2,000 miles, and to start a chapter of life completely unlike anything normal — is not a transition. It’s drastic. Sudden. In that surreal, numbing kind of way. Your brain can’t react strongly because nothing has really changed that much, yet. Or it’s going to change so slowly that you cannot grasp it all at once.
On Saturday March 31st, near the top of Springer Mountain, GA, it was sunny and warm. There were other hikers, their dogs, a representative from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) and an ATC Ridgerunner called Mountain Squid, who was taking names of thru-hikers beginning their journey that day.
I’d been here before. In 2012 I attempted a thru-hike after college with a friend. This is familiar.
Fourteen hours earlier, at 3am, I had finally gone to sleep. The entire previous day and night had been spent in a frenzy of preparations: cleaning out my apartment, packing food, shopping, seeing friends. So I knew what I was doing, where I was, why I was there. Despite the significance, it was just an afternoon, and a hike with my dog.
My plan was to hike 2.8 miles to Stover Creek Shelter [no I did not hike the approach trail from Amicalola Falls. You go there and tell me that you want to hike up hundreds of stairs with 30 pounds on your back] and be ready for my first full day of hiking the next day.
I tried to take in each moment and step during those first few miles. I did smile as I realized that the manifestation of this trip and project was unfolding in front of me.
Stover Creek shelter was my stop for the night. It was crowded. The shelter was full and there were a dozen or so tents pitched around the area. The place was buzzing with conversation and activity. So much ahead and all hikers can do is set up, cook, sit, sleep and take a step the next morning.
I found myself not wanting to camp at the shelter. I wanted to be alone to processs this drastic shift in my life. Lack of sleep and a very busy schedule had left me feeling numb to my emotions. I wanted solitude to process.
I also felt unsure as to how I would begin conversations, and start recording. Do I ask first? Or record until something good comes up? Interview questions, or something more organic?
When I feel a [healthy] resistance within myself, I try to push harder. I knew that I ddin’t want to talk to people, but I knew more deeply that this project is part of the reason I am out on the trail; it’s part of the reason people have been so supportive of this trip. My desire to collect stories is important no matter how I may feel in the moment. I decided to stick to that and walked up the hill to the shelter.
Once I set up my tent, me and my dog Sadie walked over to the shelter to cook with other hikers. The conversation was full of introductions, questions, gear-related commentary and sweet talk to Sadie.
I introduced myself as Blueberry. This is the trail name I received in 2012, for wearing entirely blue rain gear: pants, jacket, pack cover. Today I only hike in a black rain jacket. My set up was a bit zealous six years ago.
Camp became quieter as hikers ducked into their tents or fell into their hammocks. Soon, only a few were left in the shelter. I started talking with a few of them about why they started hiking, and what they were excited about. One hiker, Jonathan, mentioned an inspiring poem.
The moment felt right and I’d struck up enough of a familiarity with the remaining hikers that I felt comfortable to ask,
‘Would you mind if I recorded you reading that poem?’
We talked about what lead us to our respective decisions to hike. We shared stories of how friends and family had reacted. At least in this conversation, maybe it was th anticipation and freshness of the journey, but we all seemed to want to feel, and be shaken up by something big that we brought on ourselves. Change that we invite seems easier to manage. The poem speaks to a yearning for a full life, and that desire is fitting for the first night in our new lives as hikers, walkers, sojourners up the mountain range.
Listen HERE [working to get a smoother listening experience. This will open in a new tab.]
I won’t wrap it up so cleanly though. Perhaps its my previous experience on this trail, or the questions behind this project, but I didn’t walk away from the poem feeling I’d found an answer First of all, I’m not lookinmg for answers. What I found that night was right at thee end of thee recording - if you caught it: ‘I’m young but I’ve never regretted taking a risk.’ We’ve only just stepped out and there is a lot ahead.