behold, monson

Eric got me to seriously consider hiking the Appalachian Trail by saying (maybe not even totally seriously) that we could get a dog after if I did it. So, long story short, I did it.

This weekend, I finally got my reward. It happened a full eight weeks earlier than we expected (another long story), and we had one evening to prepare. But we’re thru-hikers now so we ran around frantically with a slight air of chill. Then on Sunday, we brought home Monson.

We wanted to name him something that would remind us of the trail. Monson is the last town in Maine before you finish, and I have good memories of that place. Chill and beautiful, and there was good food too. I left there on my last reserve of energy and will. We were launching into the last stretch.

He’s a good dog. Doesn’t cry all night. And he does “sit” already, sometimes. Clover, my cat, already taught him he better not go near her (he’s terrified of her right now). And, bonus, she realized she needs to up her game because she has competition now, so she’s been extra sweet.

We start puppy classes on Thursday, thankfully. I can’t wait for the advice. And until he’s old enough to go hiking!

AT thru-hike gear remix

It’s very, very hard to believe, but this year’s AT thru-hikers are starting to hit the trail. Which means this review of the gear we carried is pretty late to be of help to any of them. But not everyone who backpacks is an AT thru-hiker, so hopefully it’ll be useful to someone.

You can find a run down of what we started our thru-hike with here. We finished with pretty different stuff and made changes along the way. A perhaps too long summary is below.

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We kept our Elemental Horizons Aquilo packs + pack covers the whole way. These were awesome. They were durable, comfortable, light, plenty big enough even for long resupplies, and the covers don’t blow off in the wind. The covers, like everything else in the world, aren’t 100% waterproof, but with a trash compactor bag lining the inside, the stuff in our packs never got wet, even when Eric’s pack rolled into a stream. Eric, who carried a lot more weight than I did in an effort to get my knees to the finish line, managed to snap the frame of his at the end, but they replaced it and a broken buckle for free (I broke the buckle tightening it too vigorously). Bonus fact: Eric’s pack was named Frumpy Grumpy. Mine was R2D2.

Clothes + Rain Gear:

We started in April, finished in October, so we had cold weather on either end, boiling temps in the middle, but never snow. We started with a cold weather setup, sent that home in a piecemeal fashion as it got warmer (some went home around Pearisburg, the rest in Waynesboro, VA), then got back a slightly adjusted cold weather setup in Killington, Vermont (just in time!)

My general strategy (and Eric’s, to a lesser extent) was to have hiking clothes and camp clothes. Super ultra-lighters might scoff and carry just one set of clothes, but it was important to my mental health to have something “clean” to wear when the hiking was done and while sleeping. In theory I would have put on the cleaner clothes when going into town, but in practice that never happened. Sorry, townfolk.

The specifics (if I say nothing about it, that means it was good):

Katherine:

  • 1 Stoic long sleeved merino wool baselayer shirt, for sleeping.
  • 1 Patagonia capilene long sleeved shirt, for hiking when it was cold.
  • 1 Patagonia capilene tanktop. For everything, especially wearing while everything else was getting washed.
  • merino wool leggings, for sleeping. Went home in summer, when they came back I hiked and occasionally slept in them.
  • Be Present yoga pants. Hiked in them until it got hot, then sent them back for shorts. Next time I’d just use my wool leggings to hike in.
  • Synthetic t-shirt. Hiked in it most of the time, slept in it during summer when instead I hiked in a tank top.
  • Rab synthetic insulated jacket. Love. I protected this thing with my life from water, dirt and sweat. It’s like a wearable hug at the end of the day.
  • Marmot Precip rain jacket. Boo! I hate rain gear. Sent it back and used a GoLite chrome dome umbrella instead, rigged to be hands free. I did get the rain jacket back in New England when I was afraid of being wet and cold, but I no longer expected it to keep me dry, just prevent me from freezing since I would not risk my insulated jacket getting wet.
  • Arcteryx rain pants. Also boo. Same thing, sent them home in favor of the umbrella when it was warm, then got them back in New England for when wool tights weren’t enough.
  • SealSkinz waterproof beanie. Uncomfortable to wear with my dreads, and stupidly heavy. Also, with an umbrella you don’t need a waterproof hat. Sent it back early on and wore a fleece Buff instead.
  • SealSkinz waterproof socks. Also heavy and dumb. I kept them through the Smokies just in case we got snow, then sent them back.
  • Zpacks fleece mittens + rain covers. Lame. It’s hard to do anything with your hands in the one-size-fits-all mittens and the rain covers weren’t even sort of waterproof. I sent them home, then in New England switched to thin gloves and latex disposable gloves to put over them when it rained.
  • Merrell barefoot trail runners. I went through a ton of shoes on the AT. The winners ended up being the Altra OlympusThey’re zero drop and have a roomy toe box, but also plenty of cushion. Like, a ridiculous amount, more than I would ever choose in regular life, but on the rocks in New England, oh man. So sweet.
  • FITS socks, Stoic socks. Nope and nope. Both wore through quickly and don’t come with a lifetime guarantee. Darn Tough socks are the winners, forever and ever. I had two pairs to alternate hiking in, and one pair for sleeping. Maybe excessive, but when you’ve been hiking in wet feet for several days, there is nothing, nothing, like putting on a dry, clean pair of socks in camp.
  • Dirty Girl gaiters. My most complimented piece of gear, weirdly enough. For me, they were essential, because I’m highly sensitive and can’t continue walking with even the tiniest speck of dirt in my shoe. These are so light and and effective, especially with the Altras which have a built in velcro gaiter trap. The gaiters come with velcro for you to stick on the back of your shoe, but I found this hilariously ineffective. Don’t rely on that. You need to glue it with the strongest glue you can find.
  • Bandanas. I had one for a pee rag and one for wiping sweat/thing back my hair/drying things/whatever. A pee rag is not that gross if you rinse it out whenever you get water (which is a lot) and it’s way better than carrying and burying a ton of little bits of TP or, in my opinion, doing the drip dry thing.

Eric:

  • 1 Ibex long sleeved merino wool baslayer shirt.
  • 1 Under Armor compression t-shirt. He used it rarely but carried it the whole time. it came in handy when his hiking shirt was wet or on really cold nights.
  • 1 Stoic synthetic leggings. 
  • Marmot hiking pants. Sent them back when it got hot, then stuck with just shorts with leggings if it was cold.
  • Addidas synthetic t-shirt. 
  • Marmot synthetic insulated jacket. 
  • White Sierra rain jacket. Ditched for umbrellas, got it back in Vermont mostly for cold protection. Even less waterproof than the precip.
  • White Sierra rain pants. Same story as above, but didn’t get them back in New England.
  • Zpacks fleece hat. Lightweight and warm, wore all the time.
  • Zpacks fleece mittens. Sent back. I think he actually went gloveless through the Whites and Main because he’s crazy.
  • FITS socks, Stoic socks. Darn Toughs win for Eric also. It’s hard to beat getting a free replacement pair when yours wear out.
  • Dirty Girl gaiters. An animal stole one of his in Tennessee so he didn’t have them after that, but not because he didn’t like them, just because it was too much trouble to order new ones and he can handle a few twigs in his shoe without having to stop walking.

Shelter + Sleeping:

  • Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 tent. This tent made it 800 miles with us, but it had serious problems. It was too small for two people to live in consistently (it’s just fine for weekend trips), and it only had one door, so you had to crawl over the other person’s face to get out. And the vestibule was small. Also, it was difficult to ventilate when it got hot. We got the TarpTent Double Rainbow in Waynesboro and loved it. It had slight splash back and condensation problems, but all single wall tents will, and we got better at setting up to minimize those. They forgot to seam seal it the way we asked, and that was a bit of a disaster, but once we sealed it ourselves it held up great in rain. It was super roomy, had two doors with plenty of vestibule space, and was only a tiny bit heavier than Fucking Agnes. Which is what we were calling our first tent by the time we sent her home.
  • Thermarest NeoAir XTherm sleeping pads. Can’t say enough good things about these. We used 3/4 length ones and put our bags under our feet. They were very comfy and warm, super thick, packed down small, didn’t take too long to blow up. Neither of us got a leak the whole time, and Eric will tell you I didn’t baby mine at all. I was happy to have this as my bed for six months.
  • JagBag silk bag liners. These were also awesome. They’re pretty, for one, and they add a bit of warmth and let you feel like you’re sleeping in actual sheets. When it was really hot, we could sleep on top of our sleeping bags in just the liners.
  • Tyvek groundsheet. 

The sleeping bag situation: When we started, I had a Mountain Hardware 20 degree bag and Eric had an old bag of unknown temp rating from Academy. When it got hot, I sent my 20 degree bag home and got a lightweight summer bag. Eric slept in his liner and a (light, cheap) fleece sleeping bag we found in Waynesboro. I’m not sure why all this sleeping bag juggling happened, but when it got cold again, Eric went for a three layer system using my summer bag, his fleece bag, and his liner. I got a zero degree down bag from Feathered Friends (which is probably my favorite piece of gear because it felt like crawling into a happy nest every night). I guess we did that so that we’d own two winter bags and also because shipping sleeping bags around is cumbersome.

Cooking + Water:

  • Caldera Cone + alcohol stove. Worked great for us since all we really did was boil water, and that’s all an alcohol stove does (no simmering). It’s very light, but if you want to control your temperature in a way other than lifting the pot away from the flame, go with a canister.
  • 18 oz plastic fuel bottle
  • Evernew .9L titanium pot. Made it the whole way, just exactly the right size for us.
  • 2 titanium sporks. We both think sporks are unnecessary. A spoon will always do, and it’s easier to scrape your pot with a spoon.
  • Sawyer Squeeze Mini water filter. Pros and cons. We put ours in-line in our Platypus water reservoirs, which made it easy to refill. You just fill the reservoir and then go, filtering as you drink. The downside is that after awhile, no matter how much you back flush it, the filter slows down and it takes a little effort to get water. We both started to miss just drinking freely. The Sawyer is definitely easy and light, but I think next time we’ll use the two bottle system. You filter through the Sawyer into one bottle, then fill the other with unfiltered water and put the Sawyer on as a lid. Then you can drink freely from the filtered bottle and squeeze more when it’s empty.
  • Zpacks cuben fiber bear bag + very thin cord. Eric wished he had thicker rope so it wouldn’t cut his hands when pulling heavy bags up. Confession: we didn’t hang our food much north of Hot Springs, except in New Jersey, and we got rid of the hanging stuff altogether in Vermont. We also didn’t have any problems that way.

Med Kit:

  • 4 medium band aids, replaced as needed in resupply boxes, but they weren’t often needed.
  • moleskine
  • 1 pack antibiotic ointment, honestly wouldn’t bother carrying this again, never really used it
  • KT tape. They should have sponsored me. My knees and/or ankles were tapes almost every single day of this hike and every single dayhiker would stop and ask me about it. I used precious phone battery to watch application videos sitting on a log on the side of the trail many times. I can recite the intro and outro for you, if you want.
  • liquid band aid. Sent it home after awhile because of the weight. It was a luxury item because I hate having tons of hangnails when you’re constantly shoving your hands into bags and stuff.
  • 2 alka seltzer cold medicine tablets. I would get pills instead of tablets that have to be dissolved in water.
  • Handful each of turmeric, ibuprofen, benadryl

Technology:

  • iPhone + charger + headphones. Had to replace the headphones only once. A ziplock served as my “protector case” and, amazingly, my phone survived. It even thrived. The expensive bulky (heavy) cases are unnecessary.
  • iPro Trio lens kit (attaches to the phone). Broke less than halfway through, but was cool while it lasted, especially the wide angle lens and the macro.
  • iCast microphone. Almost never used.
  • Soundlogic external battery. This one wasn’t very good at holding a charge, and we never got two full charges like it promised. We switched to another one that held a charge slightly longer.
  • Stickpic. Never used. Selfies all the way.

Miscellaneous:

  • Outdoor Research waterproof stuff sacks. We sent home the heavy waterproof ones and got some lighter ones instead since the trash compactor bag kept things dry anyway.
  • 4 cuben fiber stuff sacks. We stuffed our clothes in these and they made it all the way, but just barely. Cuben fiber is wimpy, though light.
  • Pocket knife. Useful for everything.
  • AT Guide. I will find it very hard to go back to regular topo maps.
  • SheWee. Dumb. Just squat, it’s not that hard and you will definitely not pee your pants at all.
  • Sea to Summit bug nets. We carried these forever, then sent them home just in time to get slammed by bugs in Connecticut. You can just survive without them.
  • Baseball cap, visor. I only used a visor because hats don’t fit over my dreads. These were useful for the first part of the  hike before the trees had leaves, but we didn’t use them much once spring came and sent them home.
  • Sunglasses. Nah. Occasionally I wanted to put a pair on, but it wasn’t worth trying to keep them from getting smashed.
  • CamelBack 3L water reservoir. We switched to Platypus and liked it better. They were easier to hang and didn’t pop the way the CamelBack did.
  • Black Diamond headlamps. They were good, mostly a just-in-case item. We used them some but not a ton until the end of the hike when it was getting dark earlier.
  • Black Diamond Z Pole trekking poles. They were light but they took it hard out there. They were already a year old before our hike, so we weren’t too surprised when by the end they were rusted in position and the wrist straps had fallen off, and then both of mine just fell apart. REI, amazingly, refunded us completely. We used them for two seasons, one of which was an AT thru-hike, and then they just took them back. I don’t know how that happened.

So there you have it. I have way more opinions than this, but this is already my longest blog post, so I’ll leave you be. Happy hiking!

uncomfortable

As hard as hiking the Appalachian Trail was, the hardest parts for me have been before and after. The dismantling and reassembling of a complete “life”. Intentionally walking away from what was essentially a pretty good setup. We both had jobs, I walked to mine. Our apartment was nice, the walls weren’t white, I had a community at my yoga studio. It wasn’t easy to purposefully walk away from all of that, knowing we wouldn’t come back to it. And it has been difficult to withstand the dis-ease, the unknowing, and waiting of trying to recreate all of that. It’s uncomfortable, very uncomfortable, to be alone in a new place. There’s a lot of up-in-the-air-ness. I have to fight my urge to have everything settled, right away, because I know it just takes time.

After all, we’ve done this twice before. We cobbled together a life in Seattle, then again in Oregon, though we had help there. We even made a weird little life for ourselves in our tent every night for six months, wherever we were. And now we’ll do it again in Pennsylvania. The discomfort all that brings is the price for it. I don’t know why it has to be that way but it is. And so, here we go.

On the trail I managed to endure a whole lot of discomfort in the pursuit of a goal. My knees (enough said). It was hot, it was cold, there were bugs, it rained. There was wind and sun and heavy wet fog, all of it. It’s harder, somehow, to translate that—pursuit of a definite, markable, physical goal—into regular life, where things are less obvious. It was reassuring, on the trail, to have numbers, miles, pages in the book, all indicating forward progress. The end was a known place, a known distance away. It was nice to have that clarity of purpose. “Get a job” isn’t a place like Katahdin. I can’t see how far away it is on the map, but I’ve got to walk there anyway.

Last week I walked. I did something really uncomfortable, in pursuit of my unknown destination, “get a job”. I opened my dusty resume (it still had my maiden name on it), and wrote a cover letter. Funny to realize it had been years since I’d done that. I used to help people write cover letters all the time. I would dream cover letters. And now it’s an old skill that needs some oiling. But I wrote it, put it in an envelope, and walked out the door, a little over a mile to a Montessori preschool. And gave it to someone. I shook hands, I smiled, I left. It was uncomfortable, like a twenty mile day or a long hike on rocks, but afterwards I felt the same sense of progress and accomplishment. I did something. For some reason, it’s satisfying for us to do things. That’s just the way we are.

The shadow side of that is that we’re also happy to stay comfortable. It’s easy to avoid discomfort. That’s what we’re “supposed” to do, according to the deep wiring of our brains. But the ultimate irony is that we don’t live in the environment our brains think we do, so we can’t just go with the instinct to stay safe and comfy. It’s its own indicator, I guess. As long as you have these moments of discomfort, even purposefully choose it sometimes, you know you’re walking the right way.

one month later // more reentry observations

It’s been a little more than a month now since we finished our thru-hike. A few more things I’ve noticed:

We sit way too much. Of course I’ve heard all about how terrible sitting is for you (“sitting is the new smoking!”), but in my pre-trail life I didn’t perceive that I sat all that much. My job as a preschool teacher kept me on my feet most of the day, and I biked or walked to work and most places around town. I ignored the other sitting I did. Then I spent half a year without chairs in my life. When we came back, all the sitting killed me. I realized I was sitting to eat food. Sitting (in a car) to get myself anywhere (neither Delaware or Baton Rouge is bike or walking friendly). Sitting to chat and tell stories about the trail. Sitting to read. To write on the computer. To watch a football game. To wait at the bank. At first, if I was sitting “too long”, maybe longer than half an hour, I’d start to feel an actual rising panic. It must be how some kids feel having to sit all day in school. It sucks.

So many strangers. This is another one I knew beforehand but feel more now. On the trail, people we passed said hello, almost invariably. They usually also asked how it was going or wished us a good hike. When you walked up to a shelter, you made an effort to be friendly with the other people who were there. And you saw a limited number of different people each day (unless you were in town). In real life, people ignore each other on the sidewalk. They often don’t even look up from their phones to realize they’re about to run into you. If you stand at a bus stop with six other people, you all ignore each other and stare deeply into the palms of your hands (phones again). In general, you don’t need to be that awesome, because you don’t know the people you’re around and you’re probably not going to see them again. It isn’t that everyone is really mean and cruel. It’s just that there’s an extra effort toward connection that, in general, people made on the trail that I don’t see being made in real life.

Lessened attachment. Eric and I were minimalists before our hike, so I’m pretty practiced in the art of giving things up. However, there were a few ill fitting t-shirts and things I’d carted around a little too long because of emotional attachment or wanting to be the sort of person who owned these things. After not seeing or using them for half a year, I came back and found I didn’t care about them that much anymore. Hooray!

No one knows who I am anymore. When were hiking, I was a hiker. Everyone knew it, by my clothes, my bag, my stink. There was something comforting about an identity I was proud of being broadcast silently to everyone around. There was no question about who I was or who other people thought I was. And that’s something I never would have expected myself to say before. I’d expect myself to not want to be pre-judged based on my appearance. But the first time we went out in Millinocket in regular clothes, I felt a little sad. How will everyone know I’m a hiker?, I thought.

I’m still me. Hiking the Appalachian Trail gave me some insight into myself and was a special kind of chance to develop and strengthen my coping mechanisms. But it did not fundamentally alter my personality or erase any of my struggles. While I didn’t expect it to, I secretly hoped it would. Just a little bit. But I’m still very sensitive, physically and emotionally. I still struggle to accept that about myself and let it be okay, rather than worry about how everyone else perceives it. And I still catch myself entertaining for far too long daymares about people I love getting in car accidents.

But I’m a better me. The other day, I conceived of a project, went to Home Depot and bought supplies for it, and built the project…all in one day. Old me would never have gotten that done. I’d sit on the idea for awhile before I got motivated enough to venture into Home Depot. Then I’d get really overwhelmed in Home Depot and leave there with the supplies but completely drained of energy. So, wait a few more days before attempting to build. Then probably get frustrated in the building process and let a few more days go by while I worked on it fitfully. But this time I did it all in one day and it worked! So, I’m proud of that. I’ve also been pretty good at managing our unemployment. I’m making lists of things to do and getting them done. I’ve had very few moments of despair where it’s three in the afternoon and I’m walking around not knowing what to do with myself.

On the one hand, it feels like it’s been a long time since we were living on the trail. On the other, it’s only been a handful of weeks. They weren’t kidding when they said that the post-hike time is hard. I’m figuring out how to re-conceive of a world that is now at once familiar and strange. And I’m figuring out how I’m different and how that changes my relation to everything. Figuring, figuring, figuring. It’s a mental thru-hike now.

reentry

The first weird thing about being back was the size of all the toiletries. I used a regular (not travel sized) tube of toothpaste and it felt stupidly huge in my hand. The sixteen ounce bottle of contact solution, which we don’t have to carefully ration anymore, looks like it will last us an entire year. Then, it was funny to see Eric in normal clothes. A plaid shirt instead of the bright blue one synthetic one I’ve been looking at (and smelling) every day for half a year.

Everything else hit me like an avalanche. I’ll be perfectly honest right away–reentry to regular life has not gone the way I envisioned, and I have not handled it like a graceful and zen hiker.

What I wanted, what we joked about often on the trail, was to spend the first three or four days in isolation, eating good food and moving little. We said we’d just lay in the basement at his parents’ house, in the dark, and watch TV with the sound on very, very low. I wanted to sleep an unbelievable number of hours each day. I wanted to cover my legs and knees in ice and not move, not speak, not walk, nothing. Just simply recover.

Clearly, I’d forgotten what real life is like. What actually happened was we had a two day car trip. That meant sitting still for hours at a time, which I hate anyway, and going at very high speed, which I was not used to. I felt queasy and stiff and stressed. Then there were a lot of people to interact with, all of a sudden. Cashiers and waitresses and friends and everyone is lovely, truly, but it’s exhausting. I couldn’t get a decent night’s sleep to save my life. For a few days I had a delicious beer or cider every evening, and that much alcohol really wrecks me. What I’m saying is: instead of quiet, dark, slow and intentional reentry, we’ve been in the real world. Where it’s loud, bright, fast, and there are a lot of people and none of them really understand where you’re coming from at this moment.

Of course, we also now enjoy constant access to clean water of our desired temperature, and a hot shower every hour if I want one. When it rains, we can decide if we want to go out in it or not. I have enjoyed being totally ignorant of the weather, instead of constantly trying to find out what’s predicted. And there is an abundance of  clean, flat, waist-high surfaces to place items on. (It’s funny how much I appreciate counters and shelves now. My best friend and I used to make fun of shelving when we were in college. We’d say, “What a waste! Why do you need another thing just to elevate your shit??” and laugh. I have changed my position.)

It’s complicated. All of a sudden, we got all these lovely things we’d been missing. But also all of a sudden, no more forest. No more pitch black nights and fresh air. No more simplicity of purpose, no more grand project. Our trail friends are gone. We stopped walking all day. Instead of brains flooded with exercise endorphins, we have brains flooded with anxiety about what we should do next in life and boredom about what we should do next right now. The days are long in suburbia, and it’s hard to fill them with only one book and no car and limited money. We’re still living out of a backpack (er, suitcase) here in Delaware. I haven’t gotten to go home yet, see my sweet cat again, sleep in my beloved bed, use my computer and write in my journal and drive my car around a city I know. I want to see my dad and my sister and know where everything goes in the kitchen and where I can get grass-fed beef bones. It is hard, hard, hard to be patient.

What a surprise. The work didn’t end when the trail did.