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At Last! A Trail Name!

The past few days have brought some significant milestones in these early days of my AT thruhike. I’ve crossed my first state line; taken in expansive views from high points like Blood Mountain, Standing Indian Mountain, and Mt. Albert; and passed the 100 mile point from the trail terminus at Springer Mountain. I’ve hiked on beautiful spring days and hunkered down in a trailside shelter to avoid a major rainstorm.

Now that we’ve been on the trail for over a week, my fellow thruhikers are starting to feel comfortable introducing themselves by their trail names in place of their real-world monikers. I’ve chatted in recent days with Zen, Down Dog, Mama Bear, Cornflake, Osprey, Yellow Beard, and Viva.

I started my hike with a proposed trail name of Artemisia, given to me in a bar in Pennsylvania as a reference to the geyser in Yellowstone, but while it was pretty, it didn’t feel right.

So I was positively delighted today when I was given my trail name by another hiker, a speedster who passed me at a rapid clip. I caught up with him twenty minutes later while he was stopped, adjusting his pack. He soon got out ahead of me again … but again, I caught up before long.

After several iterations of this, I came up behind him and he said, “Here we go again, the tortoise and the hare!”

While he went jackrabbiting off down the trail, I thought about myself as the tortoise. Slow and steady? Yup, I like the sound of that; I get passed a lot on the trail in the mornings but somehow end up covering more ground than many other hikers by nightfall.

Like the tortoise, I carry my home on my back.

And I’m pretty sure that if you rolled me onto my back while I had my pack on, I wouldn’t be able to get up again.

And so, just like that, today I became Tortoise.

3 a.m. Thoughts on a Hike Transformed

Sitting on an Amtrak train in Charlotte, NC, in the middle of the night, I find myself awash with unexpected feelings that I find hard to articulate.

I got a beautiful note the other day from an old friend. She has been reading my blog and wanted to express her support for my AT thru-hike, even though she’s not in a position to contribute money.

I replied, of course, that her thoughts mean far more than a donation would, and I meant it. There are parallels between her situation and mine that bring tears to my eyes. She is going through some terrible times right now and it seems she is drawing some comfort from my writings.

I can’t begin to describe how odd this feels to me. A motivator in trying to be open about my struggles with depression is certainly the hope that my story can help others. Still, somehow it feels very strange to know how strongly my words are resonating with people, and how much hope they seem already to be bringing to their lives. How much hope I seem to be bringing to these people who are themselves so wonderful, so caring.

I find it a little uncomfortable to see this evidence that I actually do have an impact on others’ lives, far beyond a level of which I feel worthy. It sits strangely to know I am, in many ways, already accomplishing exactly what I set out to do, but on some level never really believed was possible.

I’m not talking about the physical journey of the hike so much as the emotional one.

I hadn’t realized, when I posted a few links to a fundraising page, that doing so would completely transform the nature of my hike. The generous response from friends, acquaintances, and people I have never even met has taken what is, at its core, a fundamentally very selfish thing and morphed it into something imbued with all these levels of meaning beyond just my own happiness.

I now feel a tremendous obligation to the many kind people who have shown support that I make it all the way to Katahdin, whereas before
–just a week ago!–this trip was just something I was doing for me, with no consequences beyond personal satisfaction.

Over the next six months, I will be hiking the 2,185-mile length of the Appalachian Trail. I am dedicating my journey to HIKE for Mental Health, an organization that directs donor contributions to mental health research and the preservation of wilderness trails. At the time of this posting, I am 89% of the way to my dollar-a-mile fundraising goal. Learn more and help me get there.

Almost Time

All planning complete,
all logistics done, I am
now growing nervous.

I benefit from
abundant experience
of backcountry trips,

But I am also
acutely aware that
this is different.

I cast myself on
the waters of the world, and
Hope they bear me up.

My Appalachian Trail adventure begins this week at Springer Mountain, Georgia.  It will end when it ends.  I don’t know when that will be, but I hope I know where it will be: Mount Katahdin, Maine.

Thoughts on Depression and Time Spent Outdoors

Three days ago, on March 26, I announced that I would dedicate my 2014 Appalachian Trail thru-hike to HIKE for Mental Health, a nonprofit that directs donations to mental health research and preservation of wilderness trails. While building my fundraising page, I hesitated over what dollar amount to set as a goal. I settled on $500, which seemed a modest but attainable figure.

I vastly underestimated the generosity and caring of my friends, family, and readers. Together, we surpassed that $500 goal in just two days. I decided to step it up and go for a new reach goal of $2,185, or one dollar for each mile of the AT.
That new goal seems unattainable to me, but perhaps that is fitting: for many people, the very notion of walking all the way from Georgia to Maine must seem like an unrealistic fantasy. Lots of things are like that, though, unimaginable right up until you try.

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Frequently Asked Questions About My Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike

Why am I taking time off work to go for a months-long walk in the woods? To address that question, and others that I'm hearing a lot, I present this FAQ regarding my 2014 Appalachian Trail thru-hike.

"Thru-hiking the AT"? What does that mean?

"The AT" is hiker shorthand for the Appalachian Trail, a long-distance footpath stretching through fourteen states along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains. The trail runs from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin in Maine's Baxter State Park. "Thru-hiking" refers to hiking the full length of the trail in a single, continuous journey.

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A Few Minutes in the Life of a Coyote

In the wild, coyotes hunt small mammals like mice, voles, and ground squirrels. It's great fun to watch coyotes at work in the winter months, when they use their keen sense of hearing to detect prey under the snow. Yesterday I had the chance to photograph a coyote as it trotted along a nearby trail in the Upper Geyser Basin.

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Beehive Geyser

“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center.  One of our biggest and most exciting geysers is getting ready to erupt.  Beehive Geyser is larger than Old Faithful, lasts longer, and is usually only seen once a day.  It’s going to be erupting sometime in the next fifteen minutes.  Head on out toward Old Faithful and turn left if you’d like to see this magnificent geyser.”

… That’s how I announce an imminent eruption of Beehive Geyser on the visitor center PA system.  Usually, I then proceed to watch out the window while visitors head outside.  Beehive is beautiful even from indoors, but there’s always a part of me that longs to go out and enjoy the eruption with the crowd.

Yesterday, though, my co-worker Ranger Landis sent me out to watch the geyser and talk about it with the thirty visitors who happened to be in the right place at the right time.  He kindly covered the visitor center desk so that I could enjoy the roaring, powerful eruption at close range, standing on the boardwalk just across the Firehole River from Beehive.

It made my day.

It was an important reminder to be thankful for generous gestures from friends and strangers—and to be more giving myself.  Never doubt that small acts of thoughtfulness and kindness can carry tremendous meaning.

Beehive Geyser erupts on January 10, 2014.

Beehive Geyser erupts on January 10, 2014.

A New Year in Yellowstone

Could there be any better way to start a new year than by spending January first in Yellowstone?

I worked today at the West Thumb warming hut.  My usual duty station is at Old Faithful, but this winter I’m covering lieu days for the regular West Thumb ranger once every week or two.  This involves taking a snowmobile over Craig Pass, crossing the Continental Divide twice on each seventeen-mile trip.  I hadn’t realized how much I would enjoy working at the little wood cabin on the shore of Yellowstone Lake. Read more

Lion Geyser

Image

Framed by lodgepole pines
Lion roars, sprays water high
Into foggy air.

Wolves in the Neighborhood

There has been quite a bit of excitement here at Old Faithful since yesterday afternoon, when a lucky group of park visitors saw a group of wolves kill an elk in the Firehole River not far north of Biscuit Basin.  I was on duty at the visitor center both yesterday and today, and so have not been out to view the kill myself yet.  I got to see some dramatic photos taken by snowcoach and snowmobile guides, though, and all I can say is WOW. Read more

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