NEW CHAPTER: Alta Trails Empowers Women thru Backpacking

I don’t remember going on my first hike….probably because I was just a few weeks old and strapped to my mom or dad’s back. I distinctly remember crying and whining on most of our family hikes as a kid. In fact, one time I sat down and refused to budge until my father hiked back and came to pick me up in the car. And yet somehow in between the tantrums, I fell in love with hiking. And then I fell in love with backpacking.

The first backpacking trip I ever went on was with my dad when I was 13-years old. After that, I went with my boyfriend when I was 17-years old. I hiked with my brother when I was 18, and when I was 19, I spent three weeks on the A.T. with a guy and a girl from college. I did not go camping without a man until I was 20-years old and solo thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. I am forever grateful for all the men who introduced me to backpacking; however, I can’t help but wonder, where were the women?

Backpacking has changed the way I think about myself and the world around me. I feel free when I load up my pack with everything I need to survive. I feel strong when I climb high into the mountains. I feel awe when I look out across the valley below. In the woods, I feel like the most confident, capable version of myself.

I am not alone in these feelings, and spreading them brings me great joy. That is why, this year, I am launching an affordable and accessible backpacking program for women and girls called Alta Trails.

Alta V1

Alta Trails aims to facilitate the spiritual and emotional development of women and girls and to promote women’s involvement and leadership in outdoor adventure, namely backpacking.

Alta Trails leads one and two-night backpacking trips for groups of women and girls in the beautiful mountains of western Virginia and North Carolina. When we are not hiking, our trips focus on teaching essential backpacking skills, embracing self-love and acceptance, and exploring our personal faith journeys together. (Important side note: When I say faith I don’t explicitly mean Christian faith or even religious faith. I just mean exploring YOUR beliefs, whatever they may be.)

During our time in the woods, Alta Trails participants will learn to pitch a tent, filter water, cook over a camp stove, build a campfire, and practice Leave No Trace® principles. No previous hiking experience is required, and we supply all the necessary gear.

Each trip centers around an intentional theme that relates women’s empowerment, self-discovery, and spirituality. For example, how do social labels influence our sense of personal and group identity? Or what does it mean to live confidently (which literally mean “with faith”). Together, we will reflect on the weekend’s theme so that we grow not only in our knowledge of backpacking skills but also in our understanding of ourselves.

Now, I am not the first person to propose an all-women’s backpacking trip. But programs such as Outward Bound and NOLS are often across the country and cost thousands of dollars. Alta Trails wants to make backpacking accessible to ALL women by providing close-to-home trips that cost less than $100 (with scholarships available) so that all that you have to do is clear your weekend schedule and show up.

I am incredibly excited to be announcing Alta Trails to all of you, and I hope you will continue to follow our progress this autumn. At the time, I thought thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail was risky, but now I’m starting a business which is even harder and even more exciting. Get ready for the next chapter of Emma/Wonka’s adventures; it’s called Alta Trails.

Support Alta Trails

There are many ways in which you can support Alta Trails and our efforts to empower local women and girls through backpacking:

DONATE USED GEAR! Alta Trails provides full equipment rentals to any participant who needs it. But in order to make that a reality, we need more gear. So if you have old gear that you no longer use, please consider donating it. Or check out our wish list!

CONTRIBUTE TO OUR SCHOLARSHIP FUND! Every girl should have access to the world of outdoor adventure. For just $80, you could sponsor a camper for a full weekend trip. Additional donations will go towards gear purchases and trailhead transportation costs. Donate scholarships now!

COME ON A TRIP! If you live in northern Virginia, stay tuned for registration information for our October trips this year. Or contact me to schedule a trip for the spring (or winter…but warm weather is nice)!

SPREAD THE WORD! Like our Facebook page and subscribe to our email list to receive our newsletter and to stay up to date with the three pilot trips we have this coming October. Tell all the women in your life who could use a breath of fresh to contact me about a spring trip.

 

 

 

Walking the Labyrinth

As a young child, praying was a chore. I learned to recite the Sunday liturgy and entertained myself in church by testing my memorization skills. The words felt abstract, empty, and robotic. When I prayed by myself, it began like a thank-you note to my grandmother, “Dear God, Thank you so much for _____. I think it’s great when you do ____. You’re super cool. Amen.” My mind inevitably wandered, so I thought that I wasn’t doing it right. At meals, I dreaded being called upon to pray because I never had the right words. Some of my peers could poetically string together praise and thanksgiving in one beautiful breath. But adults never told me that I was good at praying, so I reverted back to reciting empty, memorized words.
Then I went to Shrine Mont camps. These overnight camps are run by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and perfectly combine the goofiness and fun of summer camp with the love, prayer, and reflection of a church community. But church at camp feels different than church at home. At camp we worship every day; sometimes we pray quietly, sometimes we yell at the tops of our lungs. Sometimes we worship in the outdoor shrine; other times we worship in the pool or on a mountaintop or in a pavilion. Suddenly, church becomes fun. It is engaging. It is meaningful.

closing worship
A laughter-filled closing worship at St. G’s Session IV in 2010 (I’m third from the right)
One of my favorite camp activities became walking the labyrinth. The labyrinth is a stone pathway resembling a maze, but unlike a maze there is only one path to follow. The first time I ever walked it, my counselor told me, “There’s no right or wrong way to do it. You can walk at your own pace and think about anything you want. Don’t be afraid to let your mind wander and simply appreciate the beauty around you. Take your time and enjoy it.”
I stepped slowly, one foot in front of the other. I felt the pebbles crunch beneath my sneakers, the breeze flow through my ponytail, and a purposeful silence filled the group. I felt close to God.

labyrinth
The Shrine Mont Labyrinth (Photo courtesy of Shrine Mont website)
The Episcopal catechism defines prayer as “responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.”

For me, the Appalachian Trail was a 2,189.1 mile long prayer. Similar to the labyrinth at Shrine Mont, my steps felt meditative and important, and I felt closer to God. Instead of following a stone path, I followed white blazes. And instead of a 30 minute camp elective, it became a four month life experience. Without any official opening lines or any closing Amen’s, walking became a continuous conversation with God. No longer did I stress about finding the right words to capture all my feelings; instead, I omitted words all together and let my raw emotions speak for themselves. Finally, prayer didn’t have to be structured or articulate; it could truly be a response to God.
This summer when I returned to Shrine Mont camps as a counselor I was delighted to learn a new call and response. If anybody at any point shouted, “What are we doing!?” The entire camp responded, “WORSHIPPING!” Our meals, games, hikes, and everything in between were worship.

Presumably, I ought to be able to maintain this continuous, open relationship with God in my everyday life. Yet, for one reason or another, it’s hard. Classes haven’t even started at Duke, but already I am focusing on materialistic, superficial priorities. “What should I wear today?” “What do I want for dinner?” “What do other people think of me?” “Am I skinny/strong/stylish/smart/social enough?”

Honestly, I miss being alone. In solitude there were less distractions from God. My thoughts could only entertain me for so many hours per day, so I sought inspiration from the world around me. I was looking for God in every valley and hillside, and God was always there.

As I launch into the fall semester, one of my goals is to actively look for God. I want to notice God in the sunsets, in the hours spent studying, and in the people surrounding me. I want to find God at Duke so that my journey to graduation can be yet another labyrinth leading me home.

KATAHDIN!

I tossed and turned all through last night, listening to the mice scurry around the shelter. Any other night I would’ve been frustrated by the noisy rodents, but this time I simply rolled over a smiled. “This is my last night sleeping next to mice in a dusty shelter,” I thought. This was my last night on the Appalachian Trail. 

I woke up around 4:00am and starting hiking before dawn. I love mornings, so I wanted to fully appreciate my final sunrise on the trail. Plus, I wanted to hike my final mountain, Mount Katahdin, alone. 


I will not lie; Mount Katahdin is a really hard climb, probably the hardest on the entire trail. I scrambled uphill and over rocks for nearly three hours before finally reaching the completely clouded summit. 

Four months ago, I think I would’ve felt bummed that there was no view, but today, it wasn’t about the view. In fact, I couldn’t have cared less that I was surrounded by clouds because all I needed to see was that sign. 


“Northern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail,” it read. And with an arrow pointing south, “Spring Mountain, Georgia – 2189.1 miles”

As the sign emerged through the fog, I raced towards it, kissed it, and proceeded to scream at the top of my lungs. I always want to yell at the top of mountains, but I chicken out when I see other hikers. Not today. Today, I let it rip. My shouts dissipated into the wilderness, and tears flooded my eyes. I couldn’t tell if I was sobbing because I was sad or happy or exhausted or excited or simply overwhelmed. Perhaps, all of the above. 


I sat there crying at the summit until my growling stomach took charge, and I ate my last poptart of the Appalachian Trail. Final Popart tally: 212 individual pasteries. 


The only downside to summiting alone was that I had nobody to take my picture, so I sat around on top of the mountain for an hour until a kind day hiker arrived and snapped a few shots for me. Then I hiked down the Knife’s Edge to the Heron Taylor Trail and met my parents and few miles from the bottom, and we hiked to the car together.

Knife’s Edge


In all honesty, I feel like I am simply taking a Nero today and will hit the trail again in the morning. I’m not sure when it’ll hit me that I finished my hike. Grant captured it best when he comforted me saying, “It’s just a bit longer zero than usual. I think you’ll always be between hikes.”

And so, with that my extended zero has begun. I have been awake for far too many hours now and am emotionally exhausted beyond belief, so more of my final thoughts will come in the next few days.


I thank you, God, for this most amazing day today! 

The Beginning of the End

Yesterday I crossed the 2000 mile marker. Yes, 2000 miles. Not 500, not 1000; there isn’t even a song about walking 2000 miles, yet here I am. 


I passed the sign made out of sticks twenty miles into a hard day, and as I sat there snacking on my Teddy Graham’s I couldn’t help but think, “This is exactly how somebody should feel after walking 2000 miles.” I felt hungry, dehydrated, sunburnt, tired, sore, and oh so proud. 

With less than 200 miles remaining, I’ve started thinking about what the transition back to normal life might feel like. What will I miss about the trail? How can I bring some of this back home with me? 

In true Wonka (Emma?) fashion, I’ve made some lists.

Stuff I Will NOT Miss

– Having to filter water or play Russian roulette with giardiasis

– Waking up with swollen, painful feet

– Making unoriginal small talk with hikers every night and day about miles, gear, food, and other hikers

– Bugs and snakes

– Eating the same foods over and over

– Finding mysterious bruises, cuts, and rashes 

– Being covered in sweat and dirt for weeks at a time 

– Running out of battery when all I want to do is listen to music or call a friend or talk to my parents
Stuff I Will Miss

– Eating all the junk food in the world while still losing weight and gaining muscle 

– Falling asleep exhausted and proud of myself every night

– Waking up with the sun every morning

– Meeting inspiring people and hearing their life stories 

– Having time and space to meditate and think all day long

– Looking out over vast mountainous landscapes (the views never get old)

– Poptarts

– Listening to the birds 

– Being able to go anywhere at any time because I have everything I need on my back

– Getting random trail magic from strangers that brightens my entire 

– The simplicity of my schedule and responsibilities (i.e. Walk north along the white blazes and survive) 
To be perfectly honest, I am ready to finish my hike now. I am starting to miss my friends and family. I want to eat fresh fruits and vegetables. I want exercise to be an activity that I do for a few hours rather than my whole day. I want to shower and smell good and wear clean, pretty clothing. I want to brush my hair and not find bugs. I want to wake up in the morning without aches and pains. I want to learn new things and have intellectually stimulating conversations. 

There are so many aspects of trail life that I will miss deeply, but I am comforted by the fact that the trail is not going anywhere. I can come back and do trail magic or go for weekend trips or even hike the whole thing again! (Don’t worry, Mom, I have no current plans for a second thru-hike.) 


As I continue towards Katahdin, my number one priority is to enjoy life. I am hiking only what feels comfortable and fun; my days of pushing my limits are behind me. I want to know the people I meet, soak in every view, swim in the Maine lakes, eat so many Poptarts that I get sick of them, and fully appreciate what a privilege and blessing this hike is. 

Stoveless, Bruised, and Tired

When I came back to the trail in Virginia, I left behind my stove. This decision was mostly based on my increasing laziness each night and my subsequent desire to avoid cooking and washing dishes. I rarely miss hot food and actually have more variety in my diet without cooking. Occasionally, I’ve gotten pretty gourmet with my no cook creations; other times I stick to the hiker basics. 
Here’s my normal daily food schedule:

First Breakfast – Poptarts or Overnight Oats

Overnight oats with dehydrated blueberries and strawberries

Second Breakfast – Protein Bar (Favorites include ProBar Cookie Dough, Cliff Builders Mint Chocolate, and Special K Red Berry)

Morning Snack – Various other bars (Cliff, Kind, Lara, Nutrigrain, Luna, and more)

Lunch – Whole Wheat Tortillas/Pita/Bread, Peanut Butter, Turkey Pepperoni, Raw Almonds, Craisins, and more

Getting fancy with some avocado!

Afternoon Snack – Granola bar or granola or Honey Bunches of Oats cereal

Dinner – Rehydrated ramen and vegetables with a flavored tuna packet, raw almonds

No cook ramen with rehydrated veggies

Dessert – Fancy 70% dark chocolate with peanut butter 
And of course, all of these meals and snacks are supplemented by anything else from my pack that I can afford to feast on without setting myself up for starvation later. The hiker hunger is full force right now meaning that I am essentially always hungry. I knew that I felt more hungry since beginning my hike, but ever since Massachusetts I can’t seem to eat enough. I also hadn’t lost any significant weight since Georgia until I weighed in at the hostel in Gorham, NH and am down 8 pounds. 

Crushing miles in the Whites

These changes are by no means surprising though because New Hampshire and Maine are hard! I definitely am working harder for each peak and falling hard on my butt during many descents. In fact, today I slipped and fell six times. Luckily, nothing was harmed except my pride. 

This is what my face looks like 90% of the time while hiking

There’s a saying on the trail that by the time you reach the White Mountains you’ve done 80% of the miles but only 20% of the work. I definitely underestimated the mountains in the north and walked too far during my first few days in the Whites. I did 21, 16, 22 in order to meet my brother at the Mizpah Hut. We then walked lower mileage together through the Presidentials, but by the time I reach Gorham the next day, my body broke down. 

Hiking with the brother in New Hampshire
Second higest point on the AT

Every joint and muscle hurt; I lost my appetite and felt feverish. With the symptoms of Lyme’s disease looming overhead, I took two days off to recover and see if I was just exhausted or actually ill. I stayed at the White Mountains Lodge and Hostel, and the staff cared for me like family. By the third morning I felt well enough to try hiking but almost turned around 3 miles into the day because it was so hard and my body ached so badly. I sat on the first peak teary eyed and fatigued. To my rescue, two friends named White Rabbit and Sorority Steve slowed down to hike behind me and distract me through the rest of the miles to the shelter. 

Now, a few days later, I have much more energy and am confident that my aches and pains are simply the results of hard hiking, not disease. (Although a blood test will still be in my post hike debrief, just to be sure.) 

The 14th and final state!

I entered Maine on July 1st, and it still feels surreal to be in my final state. I’ve spent the last four months telling everybody that I’m hiking to Maine; now that I’m here I’ve had to change my response to “I’m hiking to Katahdin.” I have less than two weeks of hiking to go, so you can expect my next blog to be about my jumbled feelings of excitement and dread as I near the end of this journey. Happy trails! 

One of the many lakes in Maine

Where the Wild Things Are

I debated for quite a while whether I should use the above title for a blog about wildlife or my fellow thru-hikers, but in the interest of keeping my friends as friends I decided to stick to animals. 

Some hiker trash i found hanging out in Vermont

Many aspects of hiking for twelve hours every day become monotonous – the food, the schedule, the staring at roots and rocks for miles under a canopy of green. Yet, so much happens each day too. The best analogy for how time works on the trail is summer camp. 

“A day feels like a week; a week feels like a day.” 

A two hour uphill climb feels impossibly long, and I check my watch routinely only to find time standing still. But by the end of the week, the last town feels like it was yesterday, and everything’s a blur of wonderful memories. In the midst of repetition, one aspect that always stands out is interesting, new, or scary wildlife. 

To date, I have seen 11 bears, 2 rattlesnakes, 1 bobcat, 2 porcupines, 9 turtles, 1 owl, 4 wild turkeys, and countless deer, chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, mice, toads, lizards, and nonvenomous snakes. I’ve told a few animal encounter stories already, but bear with me for a few more. 

A black snake coming down a tree.

The Midnight Gnawer

Did you know that porcupines like salt? Like a lot. Like so much that they will actually chew on wooden surfaces to get the salt from where sweaty hikers sat and slept. 

Pennsylvania was not my favorite state for many reasons, but one night was particularly irritating. After a draining and treacherous day of rock scrambling through 90 degree heat, I stumbled into a shelter just before sundown. Exhausted, I moaned as I had to trudge 0.3 miles down a steep hill to the spring and back up again. By the time I finally had eaten and could crawl into bed, I fell fast asleep before my head even hit the sleeping pad. Not long after I heard somebody scraping wood. “That’s strange,” I thought. The other hikers in the shelter started stirring and waking up. Finally a headlamp pierced the darkness to reveal a porcupine eating the bench of the picnic table, exactly where I had been sitting to eat my dinner. He then proceeded to gnaw on the shelter all night long, inches from our heads. 

Since then I have encountered one other porcupine shelter. I’d never seen a porcupine in person before, so I actually enjoyed these encounters and spent a lot of the night giggling at the ridiculousness of it all. 


“Bob” the Cat

Despite my usual tendencies to leak constant singing and laughter, I spend the majority of my time hiking in complete silence. There will be the occasional gasp when I slip or curse when I roll my ankle, but usually it’s just the rhythm of my breath and footsteps playing on repeat all day long. I actually think that spending so much time in silence has improved my hearing. I can always tell when a road, stream, or shelter is coming because I hear the noise before it becomes visible. And when I went to see Finding Dory in theaters in Hanover, the blaring surround sound hurt my ears and gave me a headache. 

One huge advantage of my newfound sensitivities to sound is my ability to hear animals rustling in the bushes. At first I thought that every leaf moving was a bear coming to rob me of my food, but quickly I learned to differentiate the chipmunks from snakes without even looking.  

On Friday, June 17th, I was cheerfully cruising down the trail in Vermont when I heard leafs moving and sticks cracking in the distance to my left. It sounded larger than a rodent, so I paused and scanned the woods. Far away, looking directly back at me was a tan animal about the size of a medium-large dog with short pointed ears and a non-bushy tail. I only saw the face for a few seconds before it turned a smoothly strolled deeper into the brush. I didn’t think much of it at the time and resumed flying down the trail, but that night I realized that I had absolutely no idea what animal I had seen. My first thought was fox, but it was far too large to be a fox, plus it didn’t have a bushy tail. 

A few days later in town, I turned to Google to solve another of my vague curiosities. Vermont mountain mammal. Wikipedia popped up with a list of New England animals. I scanned through the cats and dogs subsections and confirmed my hypothesis that I saw a bobcat. 

I didn’t get a picture of the bobcat, but here’s a fawn

A Bear-y Close Encounter 

I have seen eleven bears so far on my hike. Five in Shenandoah, five near the NJ/NY border, and one in Massachusetts. For the most part, black bears run away when they hear people coming and cause no problems whatsoever. However, as mentioned above, I occasionally walk in near silence. 

My last night in New Jersey I was feeling disappointed that I hadn’t seen any bears yet because apparently it’s the highest bear density on the trail. So naturally, I wrote in the shelter logbook, “What happened to all those Jersey bears?” Well, I found them bright and early the next morning.

I was planning to hike 26 miles into New York through a hard, rocky section, so I woke up with the sun and got an early start. I was the first to leave the shelter and flew down the trail, racing around every bend. Suddenly, as I rounded a sharp corner, in a flash of events I saw two tiny cubs climb up trees and a mama bear take three lunging steps directly at me while growling the most vicious sound I’ve ever heard. She then scaled another tree as I stumbled backwards to retreat around the corner while banging my sticks together ferociously. Frozen, I felt my heart pounding as I processed what had just happened.

Clearly, the bears and I spooked each other, but thankfully everybody fled and no one was harmed. In the world of fight or flight, I’m grateful for the latter. Slowly, I started making non-threatening noises from around the corner until the three bears descended and scurried down the trail. Completely shocked by what had just happened, I sang for the rest of the day. My throat actually got sore from so many hours of singing because every time that I stopped I saw another bear and had to keep going. I saw five bears in total that day, some of them more than once. 

Sunset at Mt Killington in Vermont

I’ve omitted mileage in this post because it takes too long to type up every day, but in case you’re wondering I am about to enter Maine! More to come soon.

 

Oh yeah… New Hampshire is hard.

Days 84-89: How to Hike 20+ Miles Every Day…and LOVE IT

By the numbers,

June 5th: Day 84, Miles walked – 25.6, Miles since Springer – 1454.0, Poptart Tally – 69.5

June 6th: Day 85, Miles walked – 23.0, Miles since Springer – 1477.0, Poptart Tally – 70.5 (Connecticut) 

June 7th: Day 86, Miles walked – 25.6, Miles since Springer – 1502.6, Poptart Tally – 71.5

June 8th: Day 87, Miles walked – 24.4, Miles since Springer – 1527.0, Poptart Tally – 71.5 (Massachusetts)

June 9th: Day 88, Miles walked – 21.1, Miles since Springer – 1548.1, Poptart Tally – 71.5

June 10th: Day 89, Miles walked – 20.6, Miles since Springer – 1568.7, Poptart Tally – 71.5


I like to hike fast and far. I like to challenge myself physically and mentally, to push my limits. Throughout my trek, I have been struggling with finding the right balance between feeding my desire to hike nonstop and pausing long enough to appreciate the beauty around me and to genuinely know the people I meet. 

This past week I found myself around less NOBO thru-hikers and on easier terrain, so I crunched out some miles. In fact, I averaged about 23 miles per day. Going for a 23-mile day hike is one thing, but doing it day after day after day is a whole new challenge both mentally and physically. 

As I’ve been walking, I started compiling a checklist of steps for how I am able to walk big miles every day. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

Step 1: Wake up with the sun. Don’t roll over or delay getting out of bed. But also don’t ever set alarms. Your body needs sleep to recover; it’ll tell you when it has had enough rest. Pack up your sleeping bag and sleeping pad first so that you can’t collapse back into bed part way through the morning routine. Don’t eat breakfast or go to the privy until you are completely packed up – it’s extra motivation to keep moving. 

Step 2: Fuel your body well and often. Calories are energy; you need them to power your muscles. I tend to wake up hungry, so I front load my daily food intake by eating breakfast as I walk out of camp, a snack about 1.5-2 hours later, then another snack 1.5-2 hours after that. This usually ends up looking like food at 6:00am, 8:00am, 10:00am, then lunch at 1:00pm, another snack at 4:00pm, and dinner at 6:00pm. I have also stopped eating as much candy on the trail. I still enjoy Poptarts, but in general I find that my body craves more protein and less sugar. 

Step 3: Take regular, short breaks. Similar to my meal pattern, I prefer to take 2-3 twenty minute breaks as opposed to 1 hour long break. If I sit still too long, I just get stiff and lazy. That being said, the occasional panoramic view or lakeside beach may warrant a longer hangout. 

Step 4: Just keep walking. When you inevitably hit a wall (for me it’s usually around 3pm), just keep walking. The only way to make the pain of walking end is to keep walking and reach your destination. Walking faster makes it end faster too. This is why I frequently speed walk or jog the last few miles of any day over 25 miles. Once camp is within reach, I want to arrive as soon as physically possible. But even if you only move at 1mph, it’s still better than sitting still because sitting still quite literally gets you nowhere. 

Step 5: Look up and smile. Hiking is a really enjoyable activity if you stop hiking long enough to enjoy it. Spending 10 hours a day staring at roots and rocks can get old, so it’s important to remember frequently why you are hiking. Maybe all it takes to put a smile on your face is seeing a bunny or hearing a goofy bird call. Or maybe it’s remembering a hilarious childhood home video or awkward IM conversation from middle school. Or maybe it’s another hiker who reminds you to smile. Regardless, smile and be grateful for the life you’re living. 


I may be hiking fast these days, but it is not because I feel rushed to finish, nor is it because I want to beat others to Katahdin. In all honesty, I simply enjoy big mile days. Each night I lay down exhausted in the best way possible, and each morning I wake up rejuvenated and ready to climb more mountains. I feel proud of myself for powering through hard days and unpleasant conditions with a smile still on my face. I love everything about this challenge, even the parts I hate. 

10 states completed, 4 states to go

Days 78-83: Strengths and Weaknesses 

By the numbers,

May 30th: Day 78, Miles walked – 20.5, Miles since Springer – 1317.8, Poptart Tally – 64.5

May 31st: Day 79, Miles walked – 25.0, Miles since Springer – 1342.8, Poptart Tally – 65.5

June 1st: Day 80, Miles walked – 18.5, Miles since Springer – 1361.3, Poptart Tally – 66.6

June 2nd: Day 81, Miles walked – 26.4, Miles since Springer – 1387.7, Poptart Tally – 67.5 (New York)

June 3rd: Day 82, Miles walked – 21.9, Miles since Springer – 1409.6, Poptart Tally – 67.5

June 4th: Day 83, Miles walked – 18.8, Miles since Springer – 1428.4, Poptart Tally – 68.5


I distinctly remember despising self evaluation activities in elementary school. I was okay at identifying my weaknesses or “Areas for Improvement,” but I could never identify my strengths. 

In his book “Authentic Happiness,” psychologist Martin Seligman defines strengths as traits that are acquired, while talents are innate. Talents, such as natural physical abilities, can only take you so far. A talent for hiking will not cause somebody to complete the entire Appalachian Trail. Rather, strengths like grit and perseverance come in handy on a daily basis. 

Since going to college, I have become much more confident in both my talents and my strengths (thanks largely to the support of the Baldwin Scholars). I am learning to unapologetically embrace my abilities, to ask for help when I need it, and to thank those who make my successes possible. 

On this hike, I have had more time to reflect on my biggest character strengths, especially the strengths that serve me on the trail.

My first strength is that I have grit. According to Wikipedia (so obviously it must be true), “Grit in psychology is a positive, non-cognitive trait based on an individual’s passion for a particular long-term goal or end state, coupled with a powerful motivation to achieve their respective objective.” Ask my parents, or anybody who knows me well, and they will tell you that once I decide I want to do something, it takes a force of nature to stop me. Sometimes folks describe this as “stubbornness,” but I disagree. “Stubborn” is defined as unmoving or fixed, but my determination is always moving me forward to achieve new goals and break new boundaries. My grit is dynamic and empowering. 

Secondly, I am passionate. One of my biggest strengths and weaknesses is the intensity with which I feel emotion. When I hurt, I hurt deeply; and when I rejoice, it bubbles out to those around me. I am an “all in” kind of person, meaning that I commit fully to the things and people I love. 

Third, I am resilient. Resilience is defined as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, toughness.” My parents gave me a bracelet a while back that read: Fall Down 7 Times, Stand Up 8. This is my unofficial motto because I fall down a lot, both literally and figuratively. But I’m glad that I fall down because it means that I’m taking risks and pushing my comfort zone. A game of Ultimate Frisbee would be lacking if nobody dove for crazy blocks and catches, and I think life would be equally unfulfilling if I didn’t lay everything out once in a while. I’m thankful for my falls, but I am even more grateful for my ability to keep standing up, to be strong, to be resilient. 

People often ask me if I’ve considered quitting at any point of this hike; the answer is no. I cannot fathom quitting. I will reach Mt. Katahdin because I have grit, because I am passionate about this adventure, and because I have resilience to always stand up one more time. 

The bear exhibit in the Trailside Zoo in NY, also lowest elevation on the AT
On a rainy day, I put the “sun” in my sundress.

Days 69-77: The “W”

By the numbers,

May 21st: Day 69, Miles walked – 26.3, Miles since Springer – 1135.3, Poptart Tally – 55.5

May 22nd: Day 70, Miles walked – 22.3, Miles since Springer – 1157.6, Poptart Tally – 56.5

May 23rd: Day 71, Miles walked – 18.0, Miles since Springer – 1175.6, Poptart Tally – 57.5

May 24th: Day 72, Miles walked – 23.1, Miles since Springer – 1198.7, Poptart Tally – 58.5

May 25th: Day 73, Miles walked – 24.2, Miles since Springer – 1222.9, Poptart Tally – 59.5

May 26th: Day 74, Miles walked – 26.5, Miles since Springer – 1249.4, Poptart Tally – 61.5

May 27th: Day 75, Miles walked – 23.5, Miles since Springer – 1272.9, Poptart Tally – 62.5

May 28th: Day 76, Miles walked – 20.1, Miles since Springer – 1293.0, Poptart Tally – 63.5

May 29th: Day 77, Miles walked – 0.3, Miles since Springer – 1293.3, Poptart Tally – 63.5 (Bye PA, Hello NJ!) 

Thumbs up for Pennsylvania! (sarcasm….it sucks)

The jagged rocks pounded on my swollen feet once again as I hobbled through another Pennsylvania boulder-field. The oppressive summer heat and lack of water sources left me parched and fatigued. As I pressed on, a familiar thought floated through my mind: “The only way to make it stop is to keep walking.” 

There comes a time each day when exhaustion wins and I’m tempted to sit down and never move again. A few days ago, this moment of defeat was prompted by encountering two rattlesnakes on the trail, less than a mile apart from each other. I never thought that I was afraid of snakes, but apparently I am. In fact, I am terrified of snakes, well, at least the poisonous ones. After nearly stepping on the first one, I jumped backwards and froze. Every other snake I’ve seen has slithered away upon noticing me, but this one just hissed and stared right at me. I tried to make noise and scare it off the trail so that I could pass, but it wouldn’t budge. Glancing around, I hoped for another hiker to emerge and deal with the situation for me; nobody came. The brush was dense, but not wanting to get any closer to the rattler, I wove my way through the thorns vigilantly monitoring my venomous friend on the trail. 

Rattlesnake #1

When I finally resumed hiking, my arms and legs looked like a mean cat had been thrown at me; twigs and leaves were embroidered in my ponytail, and I held my breath and jumped at every rustle in the leaves. The rest of the day I felt emotionally exhausted, and thus the hiking just wasn’t fun. Yet, as always, the only solution to my weariness and discomfort was to push on to the next shelter – to keep walking. 

Each day/week/month/adventure has its high points and low points. My mom and I like to discus these emotional trajectories as the “W.” I first heard about this concept at orientation for a program called DukeEngage. The idea behind the W is that when we embark on a new adventure, for example a new internship, we generally start off energetic and enthusiastic. Everything is exciting and new. Then, as time wears on and routines settle in, there comes an emotional dip or slump. We start to wonder, “Am I really happy here?” and “How am I serving this community?” Next, as the end approaches, we notice all the good aspects that we will miss, and we’re back on a peak of the W. The second dip is always the hardest; it comes the day after the adventure ends. Maybe it’s the first day home after study abroad or a vacation or camp. And finally the last peak occurs as you gradually learn to readjust to your normal life post-adventure. 

At least it’s still pretty

I have experienced this pattern many times, including on my thru-hike, and right now I am definitely in the first big dip. During a long, five month hike, I have and will continue to ride the W up and down repeatedly. Just like the terrain surrounding me, the low valleys are important because they make the mountain peaks stand out, but they’re not always fun. 

I’m mostly out of my slump now because I finally escaped Pennsylvania, went to church in Delaware Water Gap, ate some apple pie and ice cream, and took a glorious zero in town with about 12 thru-hiker friends. The weather is warm and summery, and I even bought a sundress to hike in because I missed dressed. I’m happy to be on the trail and gliding north through New Jersey! 

Goodbye forever, Pennsylvania!
Some of the crew in Delaware Water Gap!
Toast and I are happy hikers!

Days 61-68: Halfway to Maine

By the numbers,

May 13th: Day 61, Miles walked – 16.2, Miles since Springer – 996.0, Poptart Tally – 50 (Grant here)

May 14th: Day 62, Miles walked – 14.6, Miles since Springer – 1010.6, Poptart Tally – 51 (Grant here and 1000 Miles!)

May 15th: Day 63, Miles walked – 12.5, Miles since Springer – 1023.1, Poptart Tally – 51 (Grant here)

May 16th: Day 64, Miles walked – 10.4, Miles since Springer – 1033.5, Poptart Tally – 52 (Grant left)

May 17th: Day 65, Miles walked – 31.1, Miles since Springer – 1064.6, Poptart Tally – 53

May 18th: Day 66, Miles walked – 14.3, Miles since Springer – 1078.9, Poptart Tally – 54 (Mom arrived)

May 19th: Day 67, Miles walked – 18.1, Miles since Springer – 1097.0, Poptart Tally – 54.5 (Mom here and Official Halfway Point)

May 20th: Day 68, Miles walked – 13.0, Miles since Springer – 1109.0, Poptart Tally – 54.5 (Mom left)

The halfway sign post

“Ohhhh we’re halfway there, ohhhhhhhhh, livin’ on a prayer!” (If you like Bon Jovi and exquisite trail music videos, watch this video.) 
In the past week of hiking, I’ve checked off numerous landmarks. I hit the 1000 Mile marker, finished Virginia, arrived to Harper’s Ferry, finished West Virginia, hiked my longest day yet, finished Maryland, and crossed the official 2016 Halfway Point. 

And to top it all off, Grant and my mom came to visit me on the trail for a few days each. Grant hiked with me from Front Royal, VA to Harper’s Ferry, WV, and my mom came in southern Pennsylvania. 

Grant and I soaking in the sunlight and good views

Unfortunately for Grant, he got caught in some of the cold, nonstop rain we’ve been having, and he came during a notoriously difficult section of the trail called “The Rollercoaster.” It is 13.5 miles of nonstop climbs and descents. 

The worst rollercoaster I’ve ever been on

Selfishly, I was super glad to have Grant’s company for the Rollercoaster because he brought lots of smiles and interesting conversations to pass away difficult miles. 

Grant and I at the ATC Headquarters

My official ATC halfway photo

And ultimately he was rewarded for his positive attitude with two trail magic encounters. We received hot chocolate and cookies from the caretakers at the Blackburn AT Center, and we got a feast of veggies, fruit, beer, ice cream, candy, and hot dogs from another thru-hiker and her friends. 

TRAIL MAGIC!

However, the most interesting part of Grant’s visit was by far our overnight at the Stoney Brook Organic Farm. If you’ve never heard of the Twelve Tribes Spiritual Communities, then give them a search on Google. They offer work-for-stay on their farm near Harper’s Ferry, so we helped put in the fields in exchange for a bed, hot showers with soap, laundry, and free meals. I don’t have enough space in the blog post to describe them fully, but I’ll just say that as a Cultural Anthropology major, I was FASCINATED by the entire experience. 

The day after Grant left, I decided to challenge myself and hike 30 miles in one day to finish up Maryland and enter Pennsylvania. Unlike my last 30 mile day, this time I had the full weight of my pack. I have a strict “No Alarms” policy out here, so I woke up and hit the trail by 6:40am. I then walked and walked and jogged and walked until 6:00pm when I finally crossed the Mason Dixon Line. I felt surprisingly okay after such a long day, although my stomach hurt for two days afterwards as my body tried to figure out what exactly had just happened. 

Still time for selfies on 30 mile days
Made it!

Doing big miles out here makes me want to run a marathon at some point when I finish, but that’ll most likely have to wait until after college since I need to build up sprinting muscles, not distance running muscles, for the upcoming ultimate frisbee season. 

Mama Wonka takes the trail!

My mom arrived the day after I hiked 31 miles, so I was glad to have an excuse to walk at a more leisurely pace. It was her first time backpacking ever, and she crushed it. We went twice as far as I expected, all by her choice. It’s safe to say that my competitive spirit comes from her. She enthusiastically bubbled, “We can go farther!” and “I thought we were in front of them.” She even slept in a shelter one night, despite having read all my reports of mice and snoring people. And like any good backpacking trip, her visit included a feast. 

We devoured everything except a bit of leftover pancake

Hopefully she caught the bug and will be going on more backpacking adventures in the future. 

Happy campers at the end of a long day

Overall I have very mixed feelings about being halfway done. I was thrilled to get here, but I don’t want it to end any time soon. Luckily, half the Appalachian Trail is still a pretty darn long distance, so I don’t have to worry about going home just yet.