Wednesday, December 17, 2014

37. Freedom from Pop Culture

Sometimes the internet gives me an out of body experience. Typically this happens when I am in the midst of reading something incredibly mundane, and a feeling comes over me like a creeping chill. I will be on page 14 of some list like "17 Child Stars Who Turned Out to Have Murdered Their Identical Twin and Stolen Their Identity!" and suddenly I am struck by my place in the universe. I think about the grand scale of the cosmos, the profound improbability of my having been born at all, and the infinite factors of history, society and sheer chance that went into my actuality on this tiny, unassuming planet in the vacuum of space. And here I am, looking at the face of a person I've never met and only vaguely recognize from that time they pretended to be someone interesting on a two dimensional pretty-picture-machine.

In other words, existence is pretty damn cool, but sometimes I waste it by looking at famous people on the internet.

What's funny about this is that I really don't care about these people at all. I don't! And I'm not just one of those people who says she doesn't care, while secretly pawing through Cosmo at the drug store and feeling smugly superior about how much plastic surgery someone's done to their face. I actually, seriously don't care. I still can't tell the difference between Katy Perry and Zoey Deschawhatsit and I don't ever want to be able to tell the difference because I like the idea that it's the same person and she is just OWNING THE WORLD.

The problem is that living in society rather than hiking means that I have almost constant access to the internet. That means that in spite of myself, I am on facebook or other websites. And because the internet was designed by evil scientists to get us all to buy more weight loss pills, almost every page has at least one picture of some famous person with really white teeth trying to sell me happiness in the form of a car, or a dress, or one of those awesome vacuum-suction machines that you use to just suck the happiness straight out of other people.*

*This product does not exist, but if it did, I would destroy it with my Care Bear Stare.

For some reason, even though I don't care on any philosophical level about any of this hooey, I still catch myself being inexplicably drawn to these links, like a zombie staggering toward a plate of brains, or a little spaceship sailing unawares across an event horizon. By the time I realize what's happening, it's already too late to escape.

When I was a few months into hiking, I felt a sudden blissful awareness that I had not spent a single moment of my time looking at red carpet dresses or feeling any pressure to come up with some sort of opinion about some stranger's naked rear end. I loved that when I would very briefly surface once or twice and check the internet, I had no idea what anyone was talking about in regard to pop culture, and I had a solid excuse.

When people get all caught up in pop culture stuff, they get really confused when you don't also know all of the gossip they know. There's really nothing wrong with wanting to know gossip! It's fun, it's light, and it helps pass the time when you're trying to avoid doing paperwork at your job. That's why I've always tried to be just a little bit in the know, so that I don't hurt anyone's feelings or come off as being a jerk on her high horse. But if you live in the woods, no one can feel badly about you being pop culture illiterate!

"Oh, did you hear about so-and-so's cranium reduction surgery?! About time! That dude's head was HUGE!"

"I didn't hear about that."

"Why not?! It, like, broke the internet."

"First of all, you're not even speaking proper English. You can't break the internet because the internet is an immortal god of evil that feeds on our sweet human essence, and it cannot be broken. Second of all, I've been living in the woods for the past six months."

"Oh. That's cool."

The other excellent thing is that you can continue to use this excuse for months afterward, even when it doesn't apply anymore.  I want to clarify that I wasn't trying to escape other people talking about pop culture, I was trying to escape the part of myself that was inextricably drawn to it.

If you live in the woods you can escape from all of this. And if you long-distance hike, then you also can escape the assumption that you're just a crazy guy that lives in the woods.

Win-Win!

Love,
Clever Girl

Monday, December 15, 2014

38. Going a Bunch of Miles Without Realizing It

Sitting down heavily on a log, I breathed a sigh and immediately set to the task of unearthing something to eat. The motion of pulling off my pack, swinging it around to the front and sitting down was so natural to me that it required no more thought than breathing. I found a ziploc bag full of decimated cheez-its, dug around until I found a spork, and started spooning the dry orange gruel into my mouth. Boy howdy it sure sounds appealing when I describe it that way, right? I swear it's delicious! It's like... eating cheez-its, but without as much effort, because someone else has already done most of the chewing for you! Nope. Sorry, not better. 

Anyway, as I was stuffing my mouth with pulverized cheese bits, Dumptruck pulled out the trail guide and pawed through it aimlessly.

"Hoffur haff we gun toduy?"

"Come again?" Dumptruck asked politely, dusting orange glitter off his nose. I swallowed.

"How far have we come today?" 

"Oh..." he looked back through the guide as I sporked another mound of cheez-it into my mouth, "Twelve miles?"

"What?!" A veritable fireworks display of cheez-it dust propelled itself out of my face in an atomized orange cloud. It's possible at that point I was doing it on purpose, just to see what I was capable of. Luckily for Dumptruck, he had side-stepped just in time, and watched the little orange snowflakes drift down through the atmosphere with mild interest. 

"But it's not even lunch time!" I exclaimed, looking up to see where the sun was in the sky.

"I know," said Dumptruck, a little awed himself, "how did we do that?"

For the first month or two on the trail, I was keenly aware of every single mile I walked. I sometimes caught myself counting steps, and I had to force myself to stop or go utterly mad. Several things factored into this sharp awareness of distance. One factor was the physical aspect of it: the simple truth of the lack of muscle. I figured out pretty quickly how far I could walk before I'd get sore, which meant I was always aware of how far I walked. The other factor was simply the new-ness of it all. My brain had little else to focus on, other than the walking, and so I checked the map far more often than I needed to. Time and distance were inextricably tangled up together.

But somewhere along the way, other things made their way into the forefront of my mind: my friends, the weather, an audiobook, laughter, heartache, fear, joy, and all manner of other beautiful things that can occur only to a physically active mind allowed to be bored. That and food. I spent a lot of time thinking about food. Eventually the distance didn't even cross my mind. We might go ten miles in a day or twenty-seven, and some days I was more aware of the distance than other days. But every once in a while I'd suddenly check in with myself and realize that I'd been walking pretty darn fast for hours without really even noticing it at all. 

I know I've written a lot about how the experience was so much more meaningful to us than the distance itself. But now that I live in the regular world again, I really appreciate how truly rad it was to be able to go so far without even realizing it. Unless I make a conscious effort to run, I probably only walk maybe a quarter of a mile in a day without really noticing. That means in order for me to walk twelve miles without realizing it, I'd have to go TWENTY FOUR DAYS before it happened. When I was hiking that could happen just in a morning.

And that's pretty darn cool.

Love,
Clever Girl

Friday, December 12, 2014

39. Body Hair

I hate to do re-posts, but I have to admit that there's no way I'll ever be able to top the initial way that I wrote about my leg hair while I was on the trail last year. So here it is again, in all its glory:

----

Hair is a funny thing. Women grow it all the time. SURPRISE. But there are countless industries based on the removal of said hair. I don’t really want to get into the feminism side of this, since you’re not here to see my soap box (which is good, because I'm a thru-hiker, so my soap box is empty because I am utterly filthy). But, the whole thing is a bit conflictual for me. Suffice it to say I believe that one can be a hairless feminist. The important part is that you find you hotter with or without hair, whatever your own preference is for making you want to make out with yourself more. Because really, isn’t that what’s important anyway?


Before I left on the trail, I lived in New York City. Everyone who’s NOT from NYC has this idea that you can get away with anything in New York. There is the magical land where everyone is crazier than the last person, so you can act like a total loon ball and people will say “Hey! Well, at least she’s not squatting in the middle of the intersection of 8th and 43rd, reading a newspaper and taking a poop.”
Au Contraire, my lovelies.

New York City is chock full of people who are teeming with PRIDE, and if you are deviant enough, you will be shunned. The people of this city do not want to associate with you, sit near you, nor make eye contact with you if you cross the thin line from being “fashionably eccentric” to “a freak.” In addition, they will openly mock you. Gleefully. Apparently, hairy legs don’t just cross that line, they leap over that line like an Olympic Hurdler, in a blur of fuzzy medal-winning glory.

I do need to qualify what I mean by HAIRY legs. I don’t have cute, soft peach fuzz. None of this: “D’awww, look at that little hippie girl!” Nay. My leg hair is the Kool-Aid Punch Bowl of the follicle world. It smashes through walls with the sheer audacity of its existence, sending children scattering and shrieking into the night like goats fleeing El Chupacabra. If you were Samuel L. Jackson, my leg hair would be the horde of silent, deadly velociraptors, which devour everything but your arm, and then leave said arm resting in such a place that it could be found later by the main heroine, like an April Fool’s joke of pure goddamn terror.

Clever girl.

Some combination of my genes made it such that hair grows on my body like the amazon rainforest, creating a veritable canopy, under which all sorts of fascinating and horrible creatures can thrive. However, due to some cruel cosmic joke, the hair on my head is like thin, wispy candyfloss, and I’m 99% sure that I will become as bald as a monk by the time I'm 35. At that point, I will wear lots of bandanas. Or rainbow clown afro wigs. I haven't decided.

I didn’t leave myself unshorn because of an attempt to make a statement. I wasn’t trying to evoke any sort of emotions or provoke any thought. No. It’s because my hair is made of thick, NASA-grade titanium. Though I have tried every single shaving product that has ever existed, whenever I do shave my legs, I get huge patches of gristly, ingrown hairs and red splotches. Furthermore, it grows faster than acne on an adolescent. I would shave in the morning, and by 3pm, there would be visible hair and my legs would feel like shark skin. It simply wasn’t worth it. And I didn’t mind having hairy legs, so I figured, why would it matter?

As it turns out in New York, it did matter, and I was verbally assaulted and physically threatened on several occasions precisely because of my legs. Also, they were really hot in the summer. So I rid myself of the leg hair by shaving or waxing in the summer, and just let the hair grow in the winter. When I decided I was going to hike the AT, I realized with great delight that I was going to be living in the woods and no one would expect me to have hairless legs. In fact, perhaps my gorilla skin would be revered, perhaps something of which I could be proud.

And proud I was, my friends. The entire 3 months of the trail I have yet to meet anyone, male or female, with hairier legs than mine. Who cares if I felt a little bit like a Greek Satyr, balancing my human body awkwardly on a pair of furry goat legs? So what if people would mistake me for a man? I had sincerely no choice - having access to a potential shower at most once a week makes it impossible to shave, as I would then have to suffer the aforementioned red welts and stubble immediately afterward and for days on end.

----

Turns out that I was correct. My leg hair was admired by other hikers. It was pretty great to go from a place where my leg hair got me physical threats of violence, to a place where grown men would look at me and say "Wow," with utter respect. 

I like my legs hairy. I also like them shaved. I like them however is most convenient and fun for me at the time. If you're a hiker, you don't have to worry about anyone giving you any crap for your hair. All the men have beards like prophets, and all the women have legs like neanderthals. Well, because the universe is unfair, most women grow dainty peach fuzz on their legs. But even though I was an outlier, I was respected even more for it.







Love,
Clever Girl

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

40. No Time - Just the Sun

"Hiker Midnight" is the time when all the little hikers snuggle themselves into their sleeping bags, and count sheep bears. Hiker Midnight is universal, but it's not a specific time of day. Nay, it changes with the seasons. Sometimes Hiker Midnight is at 9pm and sometimes it's at 4pm. You guessed it: Hiker Midnight is when the sun goes down. Once the sun goes down, the day is over, and it's time for sleeping. It doesn't matter if it's at a time of day when normal people aren't even out of work yet. Is the sun down? It's bedtime.

Early on in the trail I once slept from 4:30pm until 7am the next morning, because that was when the sun went down and when the sun came up. I've written before about how glorious it is not to have to wake up to an alarm clock. But one of the truly fabulous things about long distance hiking isn't just the lack of an alarm clock, it's the lack of all clocks. What time of day should I eat lunch? Doesn't matter! Eat when you're hungry! What time of day should I start hiking? Whenever you start! What time is it right now? Don't know, don't care!

I understand why clocks were invented. It's good to know what time of day it is, otherwise functional society probably wouldn't have happened. It's hard to make a plan with people coming from lots of different directions without knowing when that plan is supposed to happen. "Just show up, and hope that someone else is there" is not the greatest organizational strategy. It's especially not good for dinner plans, because all that happens is the first person who shows up gets to eat all the free bread and the last person who shows up gets a bite of dessert and the bill.

But sometimes it can be nice to live the way that humans lived for thousands of years before we had to get off our lazy bums and invent democracy. There is something immensely soothing about having a literal circadian rhythm, meaning, your rhythm is actually dependent upon the sun. We don't have good night vision, we were aren't really put together to be night-dwelling creatures. And yet somehow, we find ourselves waking up in the dark to drag ourselves to the coffee machine, and going to sleep long after the sun is already lighting up the other side of the world. I blame Copernicus! That brilliant bastard! If we could have just stuck with the Ptolemaic system with the Earth at the center of the universe, none of this nonsense would have happened, and we all wouldn't be spending $5 on Pumpkin Spice Lattes at 6 in the morning.

Not having to know the time, but following the track of the sun across the sky, is a beautiful and simple way to live. Being a hiker allows us a temporary foray back into that simpler time. That lovely, simpler time of terrible disease and being regularly mauled by tigers.... Maybe being an ancient human wasn't so fun after all.

Love,
Clever Girl

Monday, December 8, 2014

41. Sunset

The day before Dumptruck dislocated his shoulder, our hiking day was cut short by a control burn. I wish I could explain to you why control burns happen, but apparently it is good for a forest ecosystem if every once in a while a whole bunch of it burns down. I believe that this is good science, but it feels very counterintuitive. Personally, if a professional doctor told me that, for my health, she would need to set me on fire, I would be very suspicious of her. But I guess the ecosystem of my body is different from the ecosystem of a forest. For example, there is hardly any lichen or moss growing on the north side of me.

We were down south, and Shanty Town (our hiking group) consisted only of Hotdog, Apollo, Whistle, Dumptruck, The Hunger and I. In my original post about the control burn, I briefly mentioned our short day, but neglected the best part. Here's a section from the original entry on 4/11/13:

No thru-hikers were being let through a 6-mile stretch of the trail due to the fire, and were being rerouted up to an overlook to camp. Shanty Town, though feeling a bit sad that we could not make up some extra miles, set up camp and watched the near mountains turn into Mordor. While we watched the mountain burn on one side of the bald and watched the sunset on the other, I macraméd my hiking poles. I have no excuse for this, except that they didn't look aggressively granola enough for me. 
What I didn't talk about why this was the best sunset of all time. 

There were a fair amount of stranded hikers on this particular mountain, due to the fact that none of us wanted to be set ablaze. As dusk started to settle in, everyone migrated out onto this really beautiful hill, to sit and watch the sun set over the horizon. There were maybe 10 people or so, sitting quietly, enjoying the view and chatting politely to one another. This was still early on in the trail, when people were still clinging to some last shred of manners.

I decided it was high time to just blow that right out of the water.

I turned to Hotdog and Whistle, and started chanting quietly, in a tune all too familiar,

"Pink pajamas penguins on the bottom..."

Hotdog and Whistle immediately joined in, and the three of our voices joined together, in a rhythmic, nonsensical chorus. A couple of the other hikers glanced at us and went back to their conversations, not knowing how deeply we were committed to our childhoods. Once you start a Disney song, you will finish it. 

At the appropriate time, I began,

"From the day we arrive, on the planet..."

Whistle continued, "And blinking, step intoooo the sun..."

Hotdog continued, raising her voice slightly louder, "There's more to see, than can ever be seen..."

"More to doooo, than can ever be doooone."

Still, we were being respectful, our singing was nice background noise, not interrupting anyone's conversations. 

Until, of course, the chorus arrived. 

"IT'S THE CIIIRCLE OF LIIIIIIIIIIFE!"

"BABADABADADOOOOOO."

"AND IT MOVES US AAAAAAAALL!"

And so on and so forth. All three of our voices joined together, and as the sun really did roll high in the sapphire sky, we finally allowed ourselves to be free of regular societal expectations placed on adults. We were on a mountain. The sun was setting. It was still early, no one was sleeping. The people around us were dumbfounded, and maybe a little bit scandalized. The funny part about this, is that less than a month later, everyone would be indoctrinated enough into the culture of hiking that not only would no one have been offended, absolutely everyone would have joined in.

Notice us on the left with Then Hunger. Notice the other four people leeeaaaning away from us.
But really, doesn't that look like the Lion King sun?! It was impossible to resist singing!

The song ended with a fully committed "OOOUUUUFFFF LIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIFE!" 

And then there was silence.

Dumptruck clapped for us, enthusiastically. Someone else coughed quietly. All the other strangers went back to their conversations.

I've never been more proud.

Here are some more sunsets!










Love,
Clever Girl

Friday, December 5, 2014

42. Sunrise

Full disclosure: In an entire six months of living outdoors, I think I only woke up early enough to see the sunrise at most maybe three or four times. This doesn't reflect poorly on hiking. Nay, it only reflects poorly on my character. That aspect of my character being the sleepy aspect. I woke up with the sun every morning, but I enjoyed lazing around in my sleeping bag for a while before emerging. At first I liked doing this because it just felt nice to laze around. But then after a while it became something I would do just because I could. Like that first time you buy an entire cake when you're an adult and eat the whole thing in one sitting just because there's no one around to tell you not to do it. But about halfway through you realize that this was a bad idea, your parents were right all along, and your tummy hurts.

See, the longer I stayed in my sleeping bag, the harder it was to get out of my sleeping bag. Particularly when it was cold outside. For the first couple weeks on the trail, Apollo and Dumptruck were determined to get up really early, and we would wake up to alarms before the sun came up. We'd stumble into our frozen hiking boots and tromp down the trail with our headlamps on. I put up with this only once or twice before I begged them to STOP THE MADNESS and just let our bodies rest for the amount of time they needed to rest. 

I think my favorite sunrise was in Harper's Ferry, on the morning that Dumptruck, Grim, Whistle and I did our 44 mile day. We'd woken up at four thirty in the morning and already hiked seven and a half miles. We stopped just before a bridge and ate some snickers bars totally healthy protein rich organic snacks*!

*These snacks were not totally healthy, protein rich or organic**
**They were snickers bars***
***I'm sorry I tried to lie to you, I'll never do it again.

This is not from that morning,
but it's a good representation of
my fab hiker fashion.
I was wearing the five dollar sunglasses I'd just bought the night before, the ones with green cheetah print... the most fashionable accessory possible for a hiker. I remember specifically looking around at those three and thinking that they were the most beautiful, brilliant and insane people I'd ever had the pleasure to know. The shadows crept inward toward the trees as the sun slowly made its way up past the mountain ridges, and I saw the hope and sense of adventure reflected in their eyes. Then again, it might have just been the caffeine-induced mania I was seeing in their eyes. But it was inspiring, regardless.
Dumptruck often woke up before the sun, but he didn't take very many photographs. 

It think it was because he liked to simply sit and absorb the sunrise without trying to capture it. He only wanted to take it home with him in his heart, rather than in pixels.








Love,
Clever Girl

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

43. Americana

I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that if you do your long distance hike somewhere not in America you're going to encounter significantly fewer small American towns. In fact, I might go so far as to say you will encounter exactly zero small American towns, when you're somewhere that is not America. I don't think I've ever typed that word so many times in one paragraph, let alone in my entire life. AMERICA.

One of my favorite things about my experience hiking the Appalachian Trail was being able to spend time in tiny towns that I otherwise never would have seen. Because it's Appalachia, there were a fair amount of old mining towns that had fallen on hard times. Some of the towns felt stuck in a time warp, things moving just a little slower than the world around them. Right before I left on my adventure I had been living in New York City, so I had lost sight of the beauty of small town America. Not that I didn't appreciate it, but I didn't ever get to see it.

The air was different somehow. Maybe it was the proximity to the mountains, or maybe it was because it felt like everyone in these communities actually saw one another as real human beings.

Moving northward, I got to see the subtle, interesting changes in village atmosphere from the South to the North. Every community, regardless of its relation to the Mason Dixon line, had its kindness and its hardness. The warmth and the cold came out in different ways, but it was all there. There wasn't a single town in which I had a bad experience. Every little bastion of civilization had a unique charm. Not every town had a man named Froot Loops living permanently in a motel, offering to give me a free tattoo in room 102, but then again, not every town is Pearisburg.

Not every town had a giant brontosaurus statue in between the library and the gas station, but then again, not every town is Glasgow.



Here are some of the most odd, but lovely, little bits of Americana along the Appalachian Trail.








You need to click on this photo to read the captions around the dog.








Love,
Clever Girl

Monday, December 1, 2014

44. 100 Degrees

Have you ever gone on a walk, one single walk, that started like this:


And ended like this?


ONE WALK. Just one!

That's a hell of a walk.

There was a day in the Smokies where the Wind Chill was THREE degrees, and there was a day in New Jersey where the Heat Index was ONE HUNDRED AND FOUR degrees. Just in case my capital letters were too startling for you, I will spell this out in a different way: In the span of one walk, I experienced a span of 101 degrees. Now it makes more sense how I got hypothermia, frost bite AND heat stroke! I just like to make sure that I get to experience the full extent of my adventures, you know, by putting myself in all the types of perilous weather situations.

My favorite moment of being in freezing cold while pretending to be in warmth:
Sitting in a shelter in while a blizzard raged outside, using my spork to eat a bowl of fresh snow mixed with powdered lemonade. It hurt so good.

My favorite moment of warmth while pretending to be in freezing cold:
Sweating buckets in my 23 degree sleeping bag during an 80 degree night, because I was simply too exhausted to unzip the sleeping bag.

If you hike for long enough, the seasons change around you. Sometimes hiking feels like being on one of those treadmills on an old movie set, where the scenery is on a loop of canvas behind you. The trail looks the same beneath your feet, but the world rolls past. Sometimes the set designer dumps a bunch of snow on you, then buckets of water, then points a heat gun at you until you feel like you're melting, and then dumps more buckets of water.

But you get to experience the full breadth of the untamed environment, its highs, its lows and its middles. And you get to know life's one true constant. Not death, not taxes. Sweat. No matter the temperature, no matter the day or the environment, you will always sweat. Three degrees or one hundred and four degrees, your body finds a way to make you soaking wet.

Love,
Clever Girl

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

45. Foggy Mornings

Something about fog in the mountains always makes me think of Tolkien. I think it has something to do with the surreal unreality that mist brings. It settles like a cloak, the edge always just out of reach. There is a bubble of visible landscape around you, and that bubble moves as you do, but you can never quite reach the wall to pop it and unveil the world. Fog is hovering water, playing tricks on you as it gently rises to the sky or settles to the ground. 

Sometimes while hiking I would come to the edge of a cliff, look out, and see absolutely nothing at all. Just a cold, blank, grey nothingness. I often called this "the loading screen" as it reminded my forcefully of when I played old video games from the 90's. Sometimes if my character moved too quickly, the landscape became grey blank, until the graphics engine could catch up and fill in my world around me pixel by panicky pixel. I liked to pretend while hiking that I was just in someone's game, and if I waited long enough, the graphics would coalesce. 

But in real life, fog doesn't render. Eventually it will, if you stand still long enough, the fog will lose its density and the environment will begin to build itself back into place around you. But that could take hours, or days, depending on the tenacity of the fog. And so I had to content myself with knowing that I would never see what was on the other side of the fog, because I had to keep moving on.

Even though views are beautiful, and absolute treasures for hikers, sometimes the lack of a view was equally breathtaking. In our regular lives we are constantly bombarded by visual stimuli, constantly having to integrate what's important and what we can ignore. Maybe sometimes we space out and stare into the middle distance, but it's quite rare that we will be staring a literally nothing. But with the fog, you can lose yourself in a literal nothingness. Though, really it's figurative nothingness, because fog is a thing. It's just a thing that makes everything else (the trees, the rocks, the sky and the horizon) go into temporary hiding.

Foggy mornings on the trail made it easy for me to tell stories in my mind of grand adventures gallivanting across fantastical landscapes, with magic and dragons and princesses saving other princesses in distress. Because if the horizon is invisible, anything could be out there. The mist, coupled with the vibrant silence of the wilderness, was a perfect recipe for infinite possibility. My imagination is pretty powerful, but it becomes unstoppable when given a truly blank slate. 








It looks like I'm talking on a cell phone, but I didn't have a cell phone.
So either I'm scratching my face, or talking into an invisible cell phone.









Love,
Clever Girl