Wednesday, October 22, 2014

57. Stupid Challenges

Regardless of how humble you are, once your body is strong enough, you can't help but be tempted to try to do crazy feats. Whether or not you follow through with those temptations is your own business. But the truth of the matter is, if you do long distance hiking, you will eventually be strong enough that you could do crazy feats, if you so chose. Which is pretty cool. I can't say that actually doing these challenges are a good idea. In general, I would say they are not a good idea. But they make good fodder for one day terrifying and/or boring your grandchildren.

Somewhere along the way, someone got the idea that the four of us (Whistle, Dumptruck, Grim and I) should try to do the Four State Challenge. The Four State Challenge involves starting in Virgina and walking to Pennsylvania in one day. This is a challenge that is issued by no other authority than pure group mind idiocy. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has no bearing on this. There are no awards, or prizes. It is simply an act of sheer will power, for which you receive no accolades other than bragging rights.

I can't say that I hiked the AT for bragging rights, but I CAN say that I hiked the AT for the community and relationships, and if Grim and Whistle wanted to do this challenge, then I was willing to try it.

You can find the full account of the day here: Grim Determination. I recommend you go read that first, and then come back here. I'll wait. I've got a cup of hot chocolate and it's a nice rainy night, so you do you, friend. I'll be here when you get back.

Welcome back! I am going to trust that you actually went and read that, because I have some photographs now to supplement how it actually went. Dumptruck took hardly any photographs that day, because we were just blazing like Tron through the woods. I took barely any photographs either, because I wanted to save all my iPod battery to be able to play music for Dumptruck and I to listen to to keep ourselves sane for 18 hours of hiking.

But at the end of the day, when we finally collapsed onto the ground, Dumptruck did take out his camera and took just a few photographs that accurately sum up what was going on for us physically, mentally and emotionally. I was like a numb exoskeleton, and Whistle was like a 4-year-old child that was coming down from accidentally eating an entire bag of chocolate covered espresso beans.

When we finally made it to the Mason/Dixon line, it was both glorious and disappointing. For all the heartache and hallucinations* when I had been hiking, a part of me was hoping for something a little more glorious at the end. A bouncy castle or something, or at least some balloon animals. But alas no, there was only a wooden cross. 

I thought I would feel something more when I got to the end of that challenge, maybe something explosive and accomplished. I did feel pretty badass for hiking 44 miles, and I wouldn't go back and change my decision to do it. But it felt strange to do something so huge without a real motivation. Should "just because I can" be enough of a reason to do something? Maybe I didn't have a motivation before I did it, but I had a motivation afterward. I was proud of myself for trying something like that, for doing something scary and big and maybe a little stupid. 

But that's part of the beautiful, incredible story of being alive. We allow ourselves to take risks, to be part of this grand adventure of living. Sometimes we have a really good reason to throw ourselves into something crazy, and sometimes we feel compelled, because our feet just keep moving in spite of ourselves. 

Clever Girl

*P.S. Whistle: "Heartache and Hallucinations" Band name. Called it.

Monday, October 20, 2014

58. Callouses

"Hold up, there's something wrong with my shoe."

I stopped and turned around, my breath steaming in front of my face. I pushed the hood of my jacket back, to see Whistle more clearly in the foggy mountain air. My forehead was still gently throbbing from earlier in the day when I hiked directly into a low hanging tree branch. I had been so focused on avoiding slipping on ice and snow that I forgot to pay attention to my environment. 

"What's up?" I rubbed my forehead and watched as Whistle leaned a hand against a tree, reached down and yanked a hiking boot off her left foot. She was standing in slushy, icy snow, and to avoid dunking her sock into the mush, she gingerly balanced herself with her boot-less foot on a large rock. I noticed that her sock was soaking wet, and my suspicions were confirmed when Whistle turned her shoe upside down and poured out about a third of a cup of melted snow water. Pursing her lips in concentration, she then stuck a hand into her hiking boot and started rummaging around.  

A few seconds later there was a ripping sound, and Whistle's hand emerged holding the entire insole of her shoe, a mangled, ripped mess of fabric and insulation. She frowned.

"Well that's your problem right there," I said.

Whistle slid her left foot back into the hiking boot shell and then went through the exact same process with her right foot. 

"Hmmm," she said, now looking at the two handfuls of dripping, mushy hiking boot insulation.

"We can probably get you some new insoles in town. Were those inserts?"

"Nope, those were the factory insoles, sewn into the boots," Whistle responded, bouncing a little on her toes to test out how her boots now felt.

"What are you standing on now, then?"

"I guess... I guess it's just the top side of the rubber bottom of the boot. There's no more fabric in there."

I opened my mouth to respond, but Whistle grinned and said, "They feel MUCH better now." 

Whistle never did get new insoles. We went through several towns, and she insisted that her boots were much more comfy without any insoles at all. She had built up the right sort of callouses, and no amount of padding was needed. Once the weather got warm enough, she changed over to wear Chacos, a type of hiking sandals, and threw her old boots in a motel trash can in some town.

To a hiker, building up callouses is like collecting coins in Super Mario by jump-smashing your head on the underside of a brick block over and over again. It's difficult and painful, but ultimately satisfying. 

By the end of the trail my feet were like leather, even though I wasn't hiking barefoot. When I was barefoot, I could walk on gravel without being much impacted. Our boots dissolved around our feet, and we kept walking until our feet touched the earth, and then we'd finally get new boots and start all over again.

That hiking boot has got no sole!

The "Boot Tree" in Neels Gap, where discarded boots go to heaven.

Drying out boots and socks.

Apollo's hiking boots, about a fourth of the way into the trail.

Yes, those are Whistle's calloused feet on the shelter's picnic table. No, no one cared.

At a shelter in the Shenandoahs. Notice the boots to the left with duct tape.

I don't know this hiker, but Dumptruck snagged this photograph.


Whistle's first pair of Chacos eventually ripped across the ball of her left foot, creating
a sensation that she described as "Nail Foot" in which it felt like a nail was being
driven into her foot at all times. She had to get new Chacos.

New yellow Chacos pictured here, alongside the feet of their owner, Miss Whistle.

Near the New Hampshire/Vermont border

Barefoot hiker!
Clever Girl

Friday, October 17, 2014

59. Sweat

Whistle and I were hiking into the White Mountains, and the day was swelteringly hot. We knew we were heading straight up a huge mountain, and we were already covered in sweat. Often, I would hike wearing only a sports bra, and Whistle would usually wear a gray sports bra with an open button-down shirt. On this particular day, I just so happened to be wearing a tank top, while Whistle had packed away her shirt and was just rockin' the sports bra. Trust me when I say I spent probably 2 straight months wearing no shirt. Ladies wear sports bras to the gym or when they're out on a run, so I always figured that it was perfectly fine to just wear a sports bra while hiking. It's within context! I wasn't shopping at Bloomingdales, I was walking over mountains. There was no escaping the heat, but I could wear as little clothing as possible while still being decent.

A photo from this specific day!

Very recently we'd passed a road crossing, so there were several day hikers on the trail around us. Whistle and I were chatting away about something, probably something philosophical and thought-provoking (The structure of D+D Character Sheets) when we passed by a young couple hiking down the mountain with two children. One of the children was an infant in a bjorn on the mother's back, while the other was a 3 year old toddling along.

The family stepped aside for us to pass, and I offered a cheery "Hello!"

In return I was given the dirtiest of dirty looks. If this look was a mobster, it would be the kind of mobster that cheats at cards and then throws the other guy in the East River. Dirty. 

"You might consider putting on a shirt," she sneered, looking past me at Whistle, her voice absolutely soaked in passive-aggressive contempt, while trying to cover the eyes of her toddler. 

The Feminist Bronx in me immediately roared to the surface, and I opened my mouth to say something totally boss, but Whistle (luckily) spoke first. She flashed the woman a genuine smile, completely side-stepping the disdain.

"It's hot today!" she chirruped, not sarcastically, as though she took the woman's words at face value, rather than absorbing the grouchiness. A few minutes after we passed them, Whistle began whistling behind me, clearly in a good mood. I was meanwhile glowering about the utter rudeness of the woman.

"Did that bother you?" I asked Whistle.

"Did what bother me?" She replied, concerned.

"That woman."

"Oh, her? Nah. I figure, I'm just lucky that I don't have to live my life being miserable and judgmental. It's probably pretty exhausting. If anything, it just makes me sad for her that she has to carry that burden. I like being happy."

Well said.

In the context of regular life, we can sometimes get caught up in the way we look to other people. Especially with sweat. There is an entire aisle in the grocery store dedicated to making sure that people can hide the fact that they sweat. Don't get me wrong, I like wearing deodorant. Sitting in an office all day, I'm glad that I don't have to get random whiffs of molted green onion coming from myself. 

But being in the woods, I don't have to care about sweat, ever. No other hiker cares if you have pit stains, or if there is dried salt on your face from the sweat that collected there and then evaporated. No one cares what you smell like, and no one thinks its weird if you wanna hike without a shirt. Day hikers might have judgment, because they've never experienced what it's like to be unshowered for a week, and being able to be perfectly at peace with the reality of the human body.

Bodies are GROSS. And it's AWESOME.

Rinsing off some sweat at a river!

Drying sweat off ourselves with the cool air whooshing out from underneath a road!


Bug net = triple the sweat. But hey, no bugs in the face!

This day was so hot.
Clever Girl

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

60. Doing Laundry In Trail Towns

"Oh god, I really have to wash this rain gear," I said, lifting the rain pants to my nose, breathing a tiny breath, and then recoiling in horror. I was in Fontana Dam Inn, one of the fancier trail town hotels. This was before I was slated to head up into the Smoky Mountains, to face the reality of my own mortality. But at this point, the stinkiness of my rain pants took precedence!

"What are you going to wear while we do laundry?" Apollo asked, reasonably.

Each hiker owns less than 10 items of clothing. Most hikers have only one of everything (pants, tshirt, long-sleeve shirt). The only items in multiple are socks, as most folks have at least 2 pairs to exchange each day. Nearly all male hikers have only one pair of underpants, or no underpants. I was a bit of a princess and carried 6 pairs of underpants. Regardless, over the course of a week, every single item of clothing got filthy with sweat, rain, mud, and heaven knows what else (but hey, it's all organic!). That means that when we were in the vicinity of a laundry machine, we were both delighted and a bit flummoxed. How does one clean all of one's clothing, while also having to stand in a laundromat? Most laundromats frown on their customers being stark naked.

The only solution to this problem was to wear one's rain jacket zipped to one's throat and rain pants. This ensemble included no underpants, of course, because all underpants needed to be washed. You can always identify any thru-hikers staying in trail towns, because they will invariably be walking around in full rain gear, even though it's perfectly sunny outside. If you live near a trail town, and you see such a person, you can safely assume that their laundry is currently being done somewhere nearby, and also, they're wearing nothing but a birthday suit under that rain gear.

But then, what was I to do when my rain gear also needed to be washed?! See how many loads I could get done before the owner of the laundromat called the cops and kindly asked them to escort my skinny nekkid butt out of there? I bet I could get at least the first load started in the washer. I can see the headline now: NAKED HOBO ARRESTED IN LAUNDROMAT WHILE SCREAMING "NO PAIN NO MAINE."

"How about I just give you all my clothes, I'll stay here in a towel, and then next town, we'll switch turns? So, next town I'll do all of your laundry?" I suggested, looking at both Apollo and Dumptruck with puppy dog eyes. They agreed, which was very magnanimous of them. I went to the bathroom, jumped in the shower, and Dumptruck then collected all of my clothing. After I got out from the shower, I wrapped myself in an admittedly small towel, and settled on the hotel bed to watch Dragon Ball Z. By myself. As a grownup.

Suddenly, the hotel door opened. I didn't even look up, because I assumed it was Dumptruck or Apollo returning.

"Uhhh..." I glanced up, my eyes nearly boinging out of my head as a parade of about 10 hikers tromped into the room. I only vaguely knew some of them, as this was near the beginning of the trail. Later on, this would be a completely expected, normal experience that wouldn't even elicit the slightest reaction from me (hikers just walking into other hikers' motel rooms unannounced, like college). But this time was VERY startling, because it was unexpected. But it's just part of the hiking community that's not usually advertised on in trail guide books. There is no privacy on the Appalachian Trail, none at all. And because no one has privacy, no one cares or judges. It's actually kinda nice.

I glanced down at myself to see if the tiny towel was covering enough of myself to be decent. It was, but just barely. I immediately rearranged my facial features into what I hoped was a look of cool, hippie, whatever-ness. Like, "Oh, a bunch of strangers marching into my hotel room to watch Dragon Ball Z with me, while I am in the world's tiniest towel? That's cool. Whatever, man, we're all human." Most of the hikers didn't even flinch, but there was one young gentleman, who was maybe in his early 20's, who turned the most beautiful shade of scarlet. Some conversation was had, while he determinedly stared at a spot exactly a foot above my head.

Several hikers just sat down on the end of the bed to watch cartoons, and I quietly slid under the bed covers and pulled them up to my nose... because I was, cold, or whatever, not because I was mortified. No way, man! I'm totally cool! I was just cold! Shut up!

And that's how Dumptruck and Apollo found me an hour later, when they returned with the laundry. 

Eventually I bought a $2 "Town Dress" to wear while doing laundry.
It's a good look!

The Hunger's laundry outfit.

I urge you to check out my leg hair.

Doing laundry at the firehouse in Daleville, VA, and sewing patches on our
backpacks to pass the time. Nothing like wearing a rain jacket inside on a hot day!

Laundry clothes at Neels Gap, our first hostel stop on the trail!
Also: cat.

Wearing rain pants and a jacket, on a perfectly warm, sunny day.

Wearing borrowed clothes from a hostel. You can see Apollo carrying the
trash bag full of all our laundry! What a guy!

Whistle would like me to point out that her phone is being held in
her dress. She does not have robot breasts.
Laundry in Erwin, TN

Clever Girl

Monday, October 13, 2014

61. How your Pack Fits You

You know that stereotype about how women love having shoes? Not every woman, of course, that's what makes it a stereotype and not cold hard fact. A cold hard fact would be to say that all women love having bones. Bones are pretty essential equipment, as far as human existence is concerned. Maybe they've never realized that they love having bones, but if you make a woman imagine what life would be like without having a skeleton, they will recognize that bones are pretty, y'know, nifty.

I heard a theory once that the reason that some women love shoes is that no matter what, once you're fully developed, your shoe size basically never changes. The shoes always fit, once you know your size. A lady might go through different dress sizes, or different pant sizes, and sometimes a lady might not always feel totally happy with how she feels about the way those sizes fit. And that's okay, as we've established. But shoes will always be the same size, and there's always at least one pair out there that could be considered "cute" to someone. To me, a cute shoe is one that is covered in mud and has paracord for laces, but each lady to her own.

If you've spent enough time with hikers, you may notice that when a hiker finds a perfect new backpack, it produces the same high-pitched keening of excitement that can be heard coming from ladies who find the shoes they love. You may also find that though hikers drag their backpacks through all sorts of trials, through sweat and snow and mud, they still love their backpacks fiercely. Their pack is their safety, their baby, their home.

Never in my life have I owned something that fit me more perfectly than my backpack. Over the course of 6 months, it became part of my body, and honestly, the shape of my hips changed to accommodate its weight. The first day it felt so heavy, so big and cumbersome that I could barely understand how I was supposed to carry it all the way to Maine. By the end it felt like an extension of myself, and even though I knew it must be heavy, I no longer felt the weight. It rested against my spine, it pushed me up mountains, and it allowed me to lean on it when I grew weary.

At the beginning of the trail, I was convinced that I would come up with a name for my pack. But I never did. I don't think I could name it, because it wasn't separate from me, it was part of me. It had everything I needed, and eventually, things I didn't even need, but wanted.

Would that I could seek to have a mind with so little clutter as my backpack, to find my thoughts with such an ease and grace.

This is Hancock - he had every hiker sign his backpack!

Clever Girl