Wednesday, October 30, 2013

180. Epsom Salt

It was 6 days in, and my feet were already starting to rebel. I had done everything I could think of to prepare for blisters: I broke in my hiking shoes, I put on moleskin and duct tape over hot spots, and like any good Irish woman, I spent several minutes every day giving my feet a good stern talking-to about not wimping out.

It was to no avail. The blisters came on like a tidal wave of molasses: a slow, sticky, inevitable doom. Nearly every toe had blown up to twice its original size, and some parts of my heels as well. I ran out of moleskin after 3 days, and duct tape only made it worse. The rest of me wanted to keep hiking, but my feet were having none of it. Each step felt like that moment in Star Wars when the Emperor is zapping Luke with his lighting bolt hands. What do you want from me, Trail Emperor?! YOU CANNOT CONVERT MY FEET TO THE DARK SIDE BECAUSE THEY DO NOT HAVE ANY JEDI POWERS.

But there was an answer. There was a simple, easy, perfect solution. Amputation? Robot Feet? Learning how to hike on my hands instead? No, it wasn't as cool as any of that.  It came in a carton and was found in a KMart.

Here is the recipe for fixing blisters. We would do this every time we were in a town (every week or so) and it was a miracle. Prepare for your life to change:

1. Fill a tub 3-4 inches deep with very warm water.

1a. If you are in a skeezy hiker motel that has only a shower lined with black mold, there are still options. We used buy disposable foil lasagna tins because they were big enough for feet!

2. Put a bunch of Epsom salt into the water and mix it up. There's probably a correct ratio, but we didn't have any sort of measuring device because we're hikers and that would be ridiculous. Usually it was just "pour for a while." If you're using a tub, you should just use the whole carton of Epsom salt.

3. In my first aid class, we learned that you, in general, shouldn't pop a blister unless it is big enough that it's going to pop while you're walking around in your boots. In other words, if it's going to rip open on its own anyway, it's better to pop it in a clean, controlled environment. Pop any perilous-looking blisters you have using a STERILIZED sewing needle or safety pin. Make sure you do this in a clean space, and do only one, clean poke. If you're feeling brave, squeeze all that goo out of it.

4. Put your feet into the Epsom salt bath!

5. Relax! Leave your feet in there for at least 10 minutes, or, if you're like me, leave them in there until the water is cold.

The Epsom salt hardens up the blister skin and turns it into a callous. IT'S LIKE MAGIC. When were were in Hiawassee, Dumptruck, Apollo, Granite and I all had a drink and sat with our feet in the bathtub together like bros (pictured below). For the first month of the trail, every time we stayed overnight in a town, I would soak my feet at least once. I would soak them more often if I had the opportunity.

Blisters be gone!

Clever Girl



Monday, October 28, 2013

181. Loss of Standards, Part 2

A bright spot of blue stopped me in my tracks. I had been hiking, head-down, focused only on forward momentum. The ground was a wash of brown leaves, as the snow of winter had melted away but spring had not yet made its presence known. The only thing green on the trail so far had been rhododendrons, which muscle on in spite of whatever weather they may weather. We hiked in a muted palette. I felt like a roving boulder in my brown pants, a strangely mobile part of the landscape. This lack of color stimulation left me with a lot of time to think, which led to me coming up with all sorts of cheesy descriptions of my environment, to which you have now been subjected. Barf.

I stopped walking and squinted down at the blue thing in my path. What could it be? This did not seem to be a natural color. I hoisted up my pant legs and crouched down like the catcher at the old folks' home baseball game, groaning with the weight of my wobbly backpack. I narrowed my eyes at the mystery item, reaching out a gloved hand and gently pushing some dirt aside, like an anthropologist dusting for dinosaur bones.

My efforts were not in vain, as I unveiled a perfectly preserved blue M & M. Because it was halfway buried in the ground, I can only imagine that it had been there for at least a few days. I put it in my mouth without even thinking about it, and let myself savor the sweet, surprise treat. Lucky me! I thought, casting about to see if there were any other discarded nuggets of joy laying half-buried in the dirt around my feet.

It was like Easter, if the Easter Bunny had gotten addicted to playing Tetris on his iPhone and forgot to get any chocolate eggs until the night before the holiday, and when he went to the store, they were completely cleaned out of candy and the only thing left was one bag of regular M & Ms, and he had to sprinkle them far and wide around the world, which means there would be only one M & M for every 100 square miles. It's okay, Easter Bunny. I've been there.

Otto once explained to me that the difference between types of hikers can be easily distinguished based on their reaction to finding a dropped M & M on the trail. This is funny to me because it's absolutely true, and it also gives the impression that lost M & Ms is a big enough occurrence as to be used as a litmus test for hikers. The company should change its slogan to: Melts in your mouth, not on the ground even after it's been left there for several days/weeks/months.

Reactions to finding a lost M & M, as explained by Otto:

1. Day Hiker: Will notice the M & M, feel sorry for the person who dropped it, and keep hiking.
2. Weekend Hiker: Will pick up the M & M, briefly consider eating it, look around furtively and may actually eat it ONLY if no one else is around to see their shameful behavior. They will then scurry away as quickly as possible, pretending like it never happened.
3. Long Distance Hiker: Will eat the M & M without hesitation (even if there is a passing boy scout troop watching in horror) and immediately look around for more discarded candy.

This seems so normal to me now that I almost didn't even consider writing it up as a blog post regarding the lowering of standards. However, I realized that you simply CANNOT USE this same litmus test to gauge how comfortable people are in other environments. For example, it is helpful to remind myself of the place I lived before I went on the trail: New York City. I like to imagine myself walking down Canal Street with thousands and thousands of strangers all going who-knows-where and dropping god-knows-what on the sidewalk. And there's that open fish market with all of the live crabs just crawling all over the place, in between the store with the full duck carcasses hanging in the window and the place that sells fake Prada handbags stuffed with I <3 NY t-shirts.

And there, in the puddle of water pooling underneath the Home Depot paint buckets teeming with live crustaceans that just want to die, maybe there would be a dropped M & M.

Reactions to finding this lost M & M:

1. Tourist: Will take notice of the M & M, find it disgusting, and use it as an example to tell their friends back home about how gross the city is.
2. Man who is in NY frequently for business: Will kick the M & M to the side to get it out of their line of site.
3. New Yorker: Will simply not notice it. Ever.

Just because someone becomes comfortable somewhere doesn't mean that their standards start to slip away. This is a trait unique to the trail. Part of becoming comfortable with the life of the trail involves acting really gross sometimes and not even realizing it. Because we have to carry all of our things, whenever there is something surprising and special, we don't really realize how dirty it might be. Furthermore, I like to distinguish that things on the trail are dirty, because they are just covered in natural dirt from the Earth. Whereas things in a city are filthy, because they are covered in a cocktail of chemical filth from every echelon of horror.  This difference makes me feel better.

I think it's like turning into a neanderthal.

It's pretty great.

Clever Girl

Friday, October 25, 2013

182. Loss of Standards, Part 1

I have thought long and hard about how to capture the way that a hiker's worldview will shift over time. I've discovered that it really can only be demonstrated through a series of vignettes that show the slow, inevitable descent into behavior unfit for normal society. It doesn't happen all at once. But the question is: why? Why do hikers become such heathen hobos? What compels us to forget the very basics of societal upbringing? Why do would we walk into a movie theatre and try to pay with several crumpled, filthy one-dollar bills out of a ziploc bag? And when the cashier gives us a questioning look, why do we feel like the correct response to explain our behavior is,

"Oh, this? It's great because it's light and waterproof!"

No, hikers, most people don't select their wallet based on the wallet's ability to withstand being thrown into a river or easily carried up a mountain by someone who's being chased by a bear. Most people spend money on their fancy wallets because they believe it can be a statement about what kind of person they are. Black leather wallet? Cool and edgy. Brown leather wallet with dark embroidered edges? Rich. Duct tape wallet? College kid with free time and an ability to follow instructions on YouTube. Dirty, crinkly ziploc bag? Insane person.

There are so many things that we take for granted in regular life and so many things that might feel obnoxious or bothersome to us. I feel like the reason that we have pet peeves is because we have the choice to remove ourselves. In regular life there are so many more choices, which means that we can find so many more ways to be picky. If we can choose to leave or change our circumstances, than we can spend a lot more time being annoyed, grossed out or bothered by something. We know we could technically get away from it, so there's no reason to be at peace with it, so its presence is grating.

For example: someone clipping their fingernails on the subway during your morning commute. You can be furious about it for 30 minutes because you know your stop is coming and you're going to be able to get away. If that same guy was on every single subway you ever went on, not only would he have terribly short and probably painful fingernails, you would probably learn to ignore it, and eventually it wouldn't bother you anymore. Or, at least I hope so for your sake, because you seem nice, and I would hate it if you ended up going to jail for jamming someone's nail clippers up their nose. 

When you can't remove yourself from a situation; when you can't fix a situation, you find ways to simply accept your lot. Instead of being bothered or grossed out, you simply let it be. Thus how it goes with being a hiker. We have so few options for ways to change our daily circumstances that when things go awry, we have no choice but to accept it and keep moving. Furthermore, when little gifts come our way that give us some extra choices or extra potential for happiness, we do not shun or ignore these things. Even if, from an outside perspective, our actions would be crazy.

My first vignette comes in the form of Outside Dog (Odie), a hiker who is a truly spectacular human and who hiked with Whistle for the beginning of the trail. Trying to describe Odie is a little like trying to describe what your tongue is doing while you are talking: it's impossible, but you just know it's super cool, and kinda weird, and way more complicated than you could begin to imagine. 

In Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Outside Dog was walking alone down the sidewalk, wearing his backpack, beard, and american flag headband. There were a lot of locals and tourists milling the street. Outside Dog was making his way along, all alone, on his way to meet some other hikers (us), when he passed a park bench. On the park bench was a cheeseburger, still wrapped in its Burger King wrapper. There was no bag, no person sitting near it, and no clues as to where the burger could have come from and into whose mouth it was destined to go.

Outside Dog stopped mid-stride, picked up the cheeseburger in his hand and held it over his head.

"IS THIS ANYONE'S CHEESEBURGER?" he called out to the group of people at large. Some people turned to look, most people shrugged, and no one claimed ownership. Distantly, an unidentified someone in the crowd called: Eat it!

And so he did. Standing there in the middle of the sidewalk, as people moved around him like water around rocks in a stream, he ate that cheeseburger.

He said it was delicious.

Clever Girl

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

183. Scratching Mosquito Bites

During my thru-hike, the morning sun woke me every day like a hungry cat. I could roll over, hide my face, grumble and whine, and it wouldn't matter. Like a cat, the sun cares not for the pithy needs of a sleep deprived human. It would reach down its soft paw and gently prod at my cheek over and over again, insistent and unyielding. And, like my cat, if I ignored it for long enough it would eventually break out the claws. In the case of the sun, the claws were the sweltering heat that would fill up my tent the longer I refused to acknowledge its presence.

And yet this dance continued every morning. I was always the last one up in my hiking group, laying as still as possible with my eyes clenched shut, pretending that boiling in my own sweat was relaxing. Dumptruck, Whistle and Grim would be sitting around outside, eating breakfast and respectfully talking in low voices. Meanwhile, I would daydream about being a mammoth frozen in an iceberg. I like to think that my imagination is powerful, but I really only got as far as being able to feel like a snow cone left on a sidewalk.

One such morning I woke up to the sound of a stranger saying,

"Stop scratching."

Silence followed this unsolicited command, and then a few moments later, sounds of retching filled the quiet morning air. I blinked the sleep out of my eyes and asked in a sleepy voice,

"Whistle...? What... what is happening?"

"She's barfing," explained Grim matter-of-factly.

My sun-boiled sleep-brain was completely unable to organize an understanding of what I had heard. These were the facts, so far as I comprehended them:

1. A stranger had chided somebody about something
2. Whistle's response was to throw up

In my limited knowledge of animals, I remember learning that some creatures will yak on themselves as a defense mechanism. At this point Whistle had earned her second nickname, Ralph, for the number of times she had spewed on trail. However, I hadn't been witness to her hurling on herself to protect herself from the judgment of passers-by. Clearly, I needed to actually sit up and find out what the heck was going on.

I sat up and stared blearily out of the mesh of my tent, and gently asked for an explanation of what the blazes was going on.

Apparently Whistle and Grim had already packed up all of their things and were getting ready to hike, but were waiting for a few moments to see if I was going to show any signs of life. In the meanwhile, Whistle had begun scratching the mosquito bites on her legs absent-mindedly. This had been happening with increased frequency as the spring weather had come over the trail and the mosquitos had begun to rev up into an insane fervor. Both Whistle and Grim were like mosquito candy, and were covered in what seemed like 1,000s of bites. One of Grim's knees was twice as big as the other one because of all of the bites-on-bites.

As Whistle was sitting there, gnawing miserably on a clif bar and scratching away at her pock-marked legs, a day hiker came breezing by along the trail. He was an older gentleman whom we had never met, and who offered no greeting or good morning. He simply caught Whistle's eye, told her to stop scratching her bites, and went along his way up the trail.

Whistle, Grim and Dumptruck all looked at each other, bemused by this random hiker's remonstrations. Whistle shrugged and picked up her water bottle. She decided to chug it so that she could fill up at the nice creek before she started hiking, and to get the taste of clif bar out of her mouth. She chugged away with abandon, and apparently, her body was unhappy with the sudden introduction of an entire liter of water. Before she could say that Bob was her Uncle, cookies were tossed.

I don't think that the joy of scratching ones' mosquito bites has anything to do with losing your lunch, but the two things are now inescapably linked in my mind. Like Peanut Butter and Jelly. Nuts and Bolts. Scooby and Shaggy. Bites and Barfing. All matches made in heaven!

I would not advise that anyone scratch their bites. Especially not thru-hikers, because then it will all just get worse. That stranger on that long-ago morning was not only rude but also correct. These things, rudeness and accuracy in statement-making, are not necessarily mutually exclusive. We probably just shouldn't do it. For the most part I was able to resist the urge because I didn't want to make any scabs, and in some bizarre way, I didn't want the mosquitos to feel like they were the boss of me. I enjoy anthropomorphizing animals in the interest of self-preservation.


If I was able to go an entire day without giving in, I would occasionally reward myself with a few precious seconds of feverish scratching. I don't think I have to describe to you what it feels like to scratch a bite, because you probably know.

Oh, you know.

Clever Girl

Monday, October 21, 2013

184. Bouldering

Whistle and Dumptruck

Dumptruck has a photography blog!!

THANK YOU to these 2 (from Clever Girl). I was driving back from Pittsburgh and it was going to take me way past midnight, so I enlisted the help of these two amazing people to guest-post for me. If you have any interest in possibly submitting a guest post (illustrated or written!) let me know!

Friday, October 18, 2013

185. Appreciation for Clean Dishes

When I was in preschool my family lived on Key West, one of the tiny islands off the coast of Florida. We were living on a military base with a lot of other kind and well-meaning families, and one might think it would be a coven of safety, except for all the animals that kept attacking my sister (a dog, jellyfish and pelican). I remember quite a lot from this time in my life, which I reckon is impressive considering that I was only 3 years old. The memories are quite random though, and I don't know why my brain selected certain things for permanent storage while throwing other things away.

I should be happy that I have such an abundance of memories, but really all it serves to do is make me really nervous when I look into the eyes of 3 year olds and think about how their tiny brains are encoding and filing things, even before they have a full grasp on language. I can't help but wonder why some things get retained while other things get thrown out. For example, I wonder if that 3-year-old I saw the last year will one day tell the tale of how she was in an elevator jam-packed full of people and she saw some lady's skirt get caught in the elevator doors and get yanked up over her head as the elevator descended, while everyone screamed and pointed and panicked. I wonder if she will remember that I was horrifyingly enough wearing underwear covered in monkeys. I wonder if it will take up precious brain space that could have been devoted to remembering seeing her baby brother for the first time, or learning how to use the potty. I wonder if I should feel guilty about this, on top of already feeling utterly mortified.

We lived in two different houses over the 10 month span that we lived on Key West. The first house had a pool (SO FANCY), and I used to spend countless hours throwing various objects into the pool just so I could watch my sister Ellen look exasperated and then swim down to retrieve said objects. Ellen also used to catch a lot of tiny green lizards, the kind that lose their tails when feeling threatened. I would watch her dash around and deftly scoop up the little creatures in her hands, my head tilted to the side like a half-dumb puppy. 

There's a video of Ellen and I from this house, and it consists mostly of her emulating an adorable miniature tour guide, leading Dad and the video camera around the house and talking about its many features. Meanwhile, I shuffle behind her the entire time, picking my nose and looking sour, repeating "Daddy. Dadddyyyy. Daddy. Dad. Daddy," in a thin, plaintive voice over and over again.

At the second house we didn't have a pool. We didn't have a dishwasher, either. But we had an avocado tree, which I enjoyed falling out of on a regular basis, getting the wind knocked out of me and staring upward at the sky spinning overhead, while Ellen was scrambling nimbly to the top of the tree and declaring "Golly I can see for MILES!" 

Occasionally, I seriously contemplate how successful I would have been in life if not for feeling motivated and inspired by Ellen. She never rubbed it in my face that I was a little bit behind her, quite to the contrary, she was always patient. Even when she caught me furtively licking the vanilla scented plastic muffins that came with my Strawberry Shortcake doll. She conceded to lick them once also, before gently informing me that they were probably not for licking, given that they were make of plastic. To be fair, those muffins smelled DAMN GOOD.

One time, I was "helping" my mom wash the dishes in the kitchen sink. I was standing on a step stool, up to my arms in soapy bubbles, dunking the plates into the water before handing them to my mom for actual cleaning. At some point, Mom informed me that she had to go to the bathroom, that she'd be right back, and that I should wait right there. She left, and for a minute I stood obediently on my step stool, glancing around the kitchen. 

Of course, my eyes found the jar of cookies sitting on the top of the fridge. My soapy hands sliding precariously all over the place, I clambered up onto counter and tottered over to the fridge, reaching up toward the jar of cookies. It was, sadly, far out of my reach. You might think that this story ends with me attempting to leap for the cookies, and falling in some sort of spectacular fashion. Or perhaps, I might have picked up some plates and thrown them at the cookie jar, in an effort to knock it down from its fortress-like perch. 

But, alas, no. After a few seconds of strained reaching, I gave up all hope on the cookie jar, and turned to look for something else to snack on. My eyes fell upon the yellow bottle of dish soap, sitting innocently on the edge of the sink. I couldn't read yet, but I could discern that there was a lemon on the label.

Lemons, I thought to myself, I like lemons.

Sitting on my ankles on the counter in a puddle of water, I reached forward and wrapped my tiny hands around the bottle. In my memory, this next part goes in slow motion, my future consciousness trying in vain to reach back in time and knock the bottle out of my hands. I tilted my head back, mouth open and hungrily awaiting lemony deliciousness. I lifted the bottle, took aim, and squeezed.

A fair amount of the liquid had gone pouring down my throat before it occurred to me that though it was not exactly the tastiest candy I'd ever had, it had a delightful foamy aspect. I stopped drinking, took the bottle away from my mouth, and smacked my lips appreciatively. Immediately, I felt something rumble deep within the recesses of my bowels. I furrowed my brow in confusion. I felt the earthquake travel up through my belly, up my esophagus, and a thick, hearty burp forced my mouth open.

Curiously, a large bubble floated away from my face.

Happily, another burp came out of me, resulting in several more bubbles joining the first one, floating through the air in a merry parade of rainbow delights. I clapped my hands in glee! I was a bubble robot! 

When Mom returned from the bathroom, she stopped dead at the entrance to the kitchen, her mouth dropping open in horror, as I shouted happily "Look Mommy! Look what I can do!" The look on her face as she watched me belch bubbles was like the sort of look you give a dog when it's contentedly eating a different dog's droppings. Like, Jesus Christ, you know what's happening is absolutely nightmarish and that you should probably do something about it, but you are simply paralyzed in shock and revulsion.

Mom was jolted out of her paralysis when I reached for the dish soap again, to refuel. She ran across the kitchen and snatched the bottle before I could get my grabby hands on it.

"Hey!" I protested, offended that Mom had not been impressed by my magical discovery. Instead, she put the dish soap on top of the fridge (next to the unreachable the cookies, to add insult to injury), wrenched open the fridge door, and pulled out a gallon of milk. She took the cap off the milk and thrust it out to me.

"DRINK THIS," she demanded.

I surveyed my mother for a moment. My tiny child brain attempted to make sense of the situation. There was only one explanation.

Clearly, she had gone bananas.

"But... you always tell Daddy not to drink milk right out of the -"

"I don't care! Drink it!"

"Ooookay," I said with a shrug of my shoulders, and set to chugging the milk.

After I had downed about a third of the gallon, she took it away from me and looked me up and down as I sat on the counter amongst the dirty dishes. I was wet and covered in a sticky mixture of dish soap and milk, little bubbles clinging to my lips. The seismic tectonic shifting I felt in my belly at that moment was beyond that of an earthquake. It was more like the silence before the sudden and destructive eruption of a volcano.

I'm not going to tell you what happened to my body next, because I don't want to alienate you. 

But it's okay. I'm better now. I've had 23 years to recover.

This was a long and meandering preamble to talking about the washing of dishes. On the trail, you could rinse out your pots and bowl the best you could using your water bottle, but all that really served was to smear the ick around. After a week of being on trail, we would drag ourselves into town and finally be able to rinse our dishes out with soap and water. This was pleasing, because it helped to alleviate the quiet, persistent nagging in the back of our minds that we were slowly and thoroughly poisoning ourselves.

Whistle, bless her heart, was not the most effecient when it came to cleaning her cooking pot after use, which led to the development of some delightful frothy mold that blossomed all over her cooking materials. I didn't blame her. After a long day of hiking, the act of having to clean your dishes was awful. This made it all the more satisfying when they could actually be cleaned.

Because then, even if it was only for a day, you felt like you weren't slowly killing yourself via old couscous.

Clever Girl

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

186. Growing Up

I've decided that some of the items on the list will be preceeded by longer stories from other times in my life; because that's how they make sense to me.

I have always been a fan of enclosed spaces. I'm not sure what the opposite of claustrophobic is (claustrophillic?), but that would be me. There are several good things that have come from this: exceptional hide-and-go-seek skills, sky-high tolerance for being squeezed in with my face firmly planted in a stranger's bosom on the subway at 8am, and the firm belief that I will always be able to successfully elude any murderer who might be looking for me. Let's be honest here, even Hannibal Lecter wouldn't think to look in the dryer. 

However, there are also some negative consequences of this proclivity for close quarters, the worst of which is my completely unconscionable tendency to hog the covers. I find I sleep more soundly if I feel like canned refried beans wrapped lovingly in the soft embrace of a flour tortilla, cheesy dreams melting soothingly over my beany body... and leaving whomever I may be sharing the bed with nothing to warm their freezing bodies but their seething fury.

It's really not as romantic as I make it sound.

As a kid, when I was upgraded from crib to bed, my parents circumvented their fears of me falling out by tucking in the covers around the mattress SUPER tight. This effectively pinned my body in place like a blade of grass under the foot of a giant. I relished this, much to the bemusement of my parents. As soon as they left the room and turned off the light, I would slowly wiggle down so that my entire body was encapsulated under the layers of sheets and comforter, my nose being squished down and my breath super-heating my little space pod of glory. One night as I lay there (wondering if this was what bananas felt like inside their peels, and whether or not bananas would even think about such things when they could be spending all their time fretting in hellish anxiety about what the inside of a monkey's mouth feels like), I was struck by a brilliant idea.

Ever so slowly, my movement impeded by my straight-jacket of covers, I wiggled and inched over to the edge of the mattress. With gentle trepidation, I let my body tip and slide over the edge of the bed. My hypothesis had been correct: the sheets were tucked in so tightly that my body was suspended in midair, pressed against the side of the mattress. My child-body was so light that the sheets had no trouble whatsoever sustaining my weight, holding me in place 4 feet above the ground. I almost cried out in joy, but stopped myself, fearing that my parents would come in and wrest me from my gravity-defying cocoon of delight. So there I lay, my hands curled up under my chin, drifting gently to sleep under the assumption that this is what it felt like to sleep in a cloud, floating in the sky.

In the morning I woke up to my mom calling my name in desperation. She had come into the room and seen the perfectly made bed, suspiciously lacking the little child-lump. 

"I'm here!" I managed to cry, muffled though it was with my lips squashed against the side of the mattress. I reached my hands up onto the surface of the bed and hoisted my body back up to where it belonged. My mom was briefly disoriented before she figured out what I had done. From that day forward for the next couple of years, I continued to suspend myself as I went to sleep. And so it was, my dreams populated with marvelous tales of weightlessness.

One night, not so different from any other night, I was floating above the ground, hovering comfortably on the tipping point between awake and asleep. Suddenly, something shifted. My eyes shot open just as the sheets rapidly unfurled from under the mattress. I gave a yelp as the blankets flew up and unceremoniously vomited my helpless ragdoll body out onto the hard floor. I lay flat on my back, gasping for air, watching the sheets float gently downwards, like wisps of judgmental fog. For a few moments I lay there in shock and confusion. Had I done something to offend my bed? Was there an earthquake? Had someone boobytrapped my bed in an effort to quell my whimsical fancy-time? After a period of letting increasingly bizarre explanations bounce around in my head, the hints of real understanding began to tease at the edges of my 8-year-old consciousness. These hints coalesced in my brain, resolving into one, clear truth, which I whispered aloud in stunned disbelief,

"I'm too big now."

I continued to lie on the ground, struggling with my newfound knowledge. Looking down at my pajama-clad body, I tried to measure the distance from my face to my feet. My toes were, upon closer examination, considerably farther away than they had been even a month before. I sniffled a little bit, not quite sure where the sudden, all-encompassing sorrow was coming from. All I knew was that an indefinable something was slipping away from me. I suddenly clambered to my feet, and padded down the hall to my older sister's room, who was 10 years old at the time, while I was 8. I opened her door quietly, and climbed into her large double bed. Scooting over, I poked her shoulder gently until she opened her eyes and blearily regarded me in the darkness.

"Wh.. what is it?" she asked.

"What's it like to be big?" I asked, my voice quavering.

"What?" she repeated, rubbing her eyes with her knuckles.

"I said, what's it like to be big? To be grown up?"

She looked at me, her wide-eyed little sister, probably looking a bit more like a lemur than a child.

"It's a lot like being small. Except you're taller."

"Oh. That's not so bad."

"Nope, not so bad."

"Can I sleep here?"


This life-affirming experience was a bit dimmed by the interaction the next morning, which involved my sister furiously trying to convince me that not only did I steal all the covers, but I also steamrollered her body no less than 3 times. She stated unequivocally that I was never to sleep in her bed, ever again, but that she loved me anyway and hoped I felt better. I stomped my foot and growled that yes, I did feel better, thanks (because I did).

I didn't mind growing up so much after that.

When we were on trail there were several times when Whistle, Dumptruck, Grim and I would talk about how the trail was letting us mature in a new way even though we were already adults.

We were growing up through allowing our childlike enchantment with the world to come back to us. 

And oh, how it has.

Clever Girl

Monday, October 14, 2013

187. Cards

When I was a child, my father told me that the most important thing to carry with you was a deck of cards. Specifically he said that they were essential for anyone who was ever going to go hiking. He told this to me with the sort of gravitas that did not invite questioning, and so I believed it completely. For a long time I didn't bother to ask why cards were so important. I figured it was because they were fun, portable, and maybe possessed some added level of bonus that I wouldn't understand until I was a grown up. Thus it was that I always carried a deck of cards with me in my backpack, my purse or back pocket. Maybe they would be the thing that would save me from death via espionage; a high-stakes poker game where the person who could provide the cards would win the whole thing.

When I was packing for the trail, Dumptruck and I spent what felt like 100 hours or more unpacking and repacking our backpacks. We were trying to get to the lowest weight possible and eliminating any unnecessary items. Everything was stripped to the bare minimum, but we had quite a while to question our choices, which meant that some things were eliminated and then returned and then eliminated again. After much hemming and hawing, I had only 3 things that were ostensibly useless but were important to me:

1. A mockingjay pin from my mom
2. A safety pin with a rainbow of tiny, colorful animal zipper pulls (I ended up giving one of each of these to Grim, Whistle, Otto, Hotdog, Apple Butter, Apollo and of course Dumptruck)
3. My deck of cards

A few days before we left for the trail, Dumptruck and I were sitting on the floor in my parents' dining room in Maine, all of our hiking stuff strewn about us on the floor. Dumptruck reached out over his own moat of various hiker stuff and picked up my cards.

"Do you really need these?" He asked, not accusingly, just curious.

"These are as important as my First Aid Kit!" I exclaimed, reaching over, plucking them out of his hands and clutching them to my chest like an orphaned puppy.

"Fair," said Dumptruck, grinning.

"Besides," I added quietly as I replaced the cards in the pile of other Important Things, "Dad would be so disappointed if I left them behind."

The deck of cards ended up being truly quite useful. There was many a rainy, cold night in which several hikers were crammed into our 3-person tent, all holding cards in our blue fingers and yelling at each other in good cheer. No one ever carried any change to flip a coin, so the cards could solve any simple disputes with a "cut the deck for the highest card." One night they served as a high form of entertainment as Dumptruck taught 5 other somewhat inebriated hikers the physics of how to throw cards like Gambit from X-Men, and being in the motel room was like being inside of a constantly shaking snow globe. I had to buy a new deck of cards after that.

Something that I hadn't intended but ended up being cool was that the deck of cards became my wallet. No one carries wallets on the trail. Most folks will just have a zipoloc bag with their atm card, credit card, drivers license and any loose cash they might have on them. I had the ziploc bag thing for a while, but was afraid of bending or breaking my bank cards with my pack getting thrown around so often. So I slipped my 3 cards (atm, credit and license) into the deck, and they were able to stay nice, snug and safe.

When Mother Trucker and Dump Daddy (Dumptruck's parents) were visiting us, Mother Trucker also pointed out that the card-deck-as-wallet method was great for keeping my important things secret! I never felt like I had to keep things secret from other hikers, but maybe if I travel somewhere crazy in the future and I don't want to get robbed, that could work better than one of those weird wallet things that straps to your torso. Or perhaps when I'm caught up in that espionage scenario I mentioned earlier, I can keep the high-level security secret codes written on the face of the Ace of Spades.

As we were getting onto the train in Boston that would take us down to Georgia to start our trip, my dad gave me a hug and asked,

"Do you have a deck of cards with you?"

"Sure do!" I responded.

"Good," he said, "Then I don't have to worry about you ever getting lost."

Later, as we were sitting on the train, Dumptruck turned to me and looked me right in the eye.

"Alright," he sighed "I give up. Why are the cards so important when you're going into the woods?"

"Well, if you ever get totally lost, and you're all alone, and you have no way to get help, then the only thing that can save you is cards," I answered matter-of-factly.


"Just sit down and start playing Solitaire. Within 5 minutes someone is guaranteed to walk up behind you and tell you where to put the next card. It's the law of the universe."

Clever Girl

Friday, October 11, 2013

188. Unitards

I will be honest, this one is not necessarily pertinent to all long-distance hiking. I suppose it is pertinent to a previous entry, regarding clothing on the trail. That is to say: You can wear whatever you want.

There is a magic to living on a trail. I aim to explain and explore all the types of magic, whether they come in the form of food, hugs, or a warm place to sleep. Sometimes this magic is logical and sometimes it is completely bonkers and makes no sense whatsoever. Regardless, we as hikers have to appreciate the magic when it comes, no matter the form.

As winter began to turn into spring and then hurtled headlong into summer, all of us were desperate to find new ways to be able to manage the onslaught of heat. One of the ways was finding new sleeping arrangements. Most of us had winter sleeping bags, meaning they were rated to be effective at 20 degrees or colder. Our previously beloved cocoons had become useless saunas of misery. Dumptruck and I combated this problem by sending our sleeping bags home and replacing them with a pair of fleece blankets (one with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the other with Batman). This would have been perfect if we hadn't jumped the gun about 2 weeks early, leading us to spend 14 nights shivering underneath neon-colored superhero faces.

Whistle had been traveling with a zero degree bag, which was far too hot as of May. A well-loved older summer sleeping bag was in storage at her parents' house, and she called her mom to arrange an exchange of hostages via the postal system. At the post office she happily collected her summer bag, sent her old one home, and packed her backpack to continue on her adventure.

That night, as she unfurled her new bed and set to snuggle inside, she felt something lumpy at the foot of the bag. Curious, she reached down and grabbed what felt to be a bundle of fabric. She pulled it out, confused. When her eyes set upon it, her mouth dropped open in flabbergasted delight. The smooth, silky fabric ran over her fingers in a waterfall of silver and gold. She stretched it in her hands, testing if it really was as she truly remembered. Somewhere, distantly, angels began to sing.

It was a unitard.

As the story goes, many years ago Whistle wisely spent $5 on a "bag o' unitards" from the local collegiate theatre department. The bag contained a set of 5 different, yet somehow bizarrely cohesive, used dancer's unitards that looked like they were snatched right off the set of a Pat Benatar music video. She handed each of these gems out to her friends, saving one for herself. The one she chose was a beaut' of silver and white, with golden yellow streaks and a strange sweater-material leg warmer on one of the arms. Truly a testament to the fashion prowess of the species.

The unitards went on many adventures together, individually and as a team. Those were the glory days of hoop earrings, bright colors, hair perms and jelly shoes. Yes, it was somewhere around 2010, and Whistle says she's not ashamed at all. With laughter and excitement, the unitards lived a hay-day of glory, until one by one, they were forgotten. Passing from the minds of their owners like so many toys cast aside by maturing children. Sad and lonely, the unitards faded from history, falling into the rivers of forgetfulness, like the One Ring.

The last time Whistle had been in the company of her unitard was on some camping trip in which she had brought it along for laughs. When she changed into her camper PJs that night (she wasn't a thru-hiker then, maybe she had PJs! Who knows?!), she left her unitard at the bottom of her sleeping bag, where it was left in storage for many moons. She had completely forgotten about this until she saw the unitard again, and had to dig through distant memories to understand how the universe had delivered her this magical present.

It rested in its sleeping bag tomb until it was unearthed once more during a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, brought forth from the depths to reign again. Whistle carried this surprise unitard with her from Virginia all the way to Katahdin, where it was worn on the summit. Whistle can be seen dancing in this gem in our summit video. She hiked it in several times but only on special occasions, mostly because she needed assistance to get in and out of it, and this became a problem when she needed to relieve herself.

We can ask questions about the workings of the universe, about spirituality, about coincidence or fate. We can shake our fists at the heavens and demand answers. Or we can just accept that sometimes gifts come in the form of long-forgotten unitards with several large holes, and that there is no answer to the question: why?

Clever Girl

On Katahdin

Aquablazing in the Shenandoahs

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

189. Highs that Contrast the Lows

This is a story from right after I got hypothermia in the Smoky Mountains in March of this year. I'm just going to jump right into the second part of the story, so I would recommend reading the first part for context!


They say that shivering is the best way to warm up. On the plus side, apparently you don't have to be conscious to shiver, as your body will do it for you. At some point in the middle of the night I woke myself up from all the shaking. It was like waking up inside of a washing machine, where I was the agitator and the sleeping bag was the laundry. I was completely tangled up, my hair an insane mess of a squirrel's nest somewhere inside my woolen hat.

Inside the shelter it was pitch dark, but I could hear the breathing of the 20 some-odd fellow hikers all jammed into our 3-sided stone sardine can of a shelter. The wind was howling outside in the night, whipping through the skeleton trees and never allowing the freezing snow to come to rest. The ripped and barely functional tarp that had been strung up over the opening of the lean-to was crinkling back and forth with the indecisive wind.

I snuggled deeper inside my mummy sleeping bag, feeling like a swaddled baby. Dumptruck had thoroughly wrapped me up; my arms were pinned to my chest like I was The Mummy or Dracula, getting some much-needed shut-eye before my next ghoulish dinner party with Boris Karloff. My hand had been thawing all night, saving me from further stages of frost bite. The healing came with a wave of pain, and I clenched and unclenched my fist as though I were some cool badass instead of just a freezing hiker popsicle.

Eventually I fell back asleep, and when I woke, it was to the dim gray movement of morning. The blizzard wasn't finished, and though everyone already felt insanely cramped in the tiny shelter, no one had the nerve to hike on. Only 2 hikers left the shelter that day. One of them was Grim, before we were conglomerated into our hiking family. I had met him briefly a few days previously, and he had seemed like a kind fellow, but I had no idea that I would one day count him among my best friends.

I just remember him standing at the ripped opening of the tarp, looking out into the frozen white tundra. I watched him from inside my sleeping bag, hoping that he was going to be okay, but not really understanding what was happening. He, along with everyone else in the shelter other than Apollo and Dumptruck, were basically strangers to me. He whispered to himself "I'm not stupid... I'm not stupid..." before stepping out into the swirling fog and disappearing. I later learned that he had made it 6 miles to the next shelter, but also had the fun adventure of advanced hypothermia.

The morning wore on with the quiet misery of survival. Everyone in the shelter was quiet, or spoke in low tones as though they were at a funeral. A funeral to mourn the passing of fun. There was a cloud of unspoken fear. Everyone was worried about even making it out of the Smokies with enough food, let alone continuing on their thru-hike. I remember there being so many people; so many faces that I can't remember, and others that I came to know quite well over the next few weeks on the trail. But in my memory of this day, they wore all the same grizzled, tired face. All the noses were bright red, all the cheeks flush with cold. All the eyebrows with little beads of ice clinging to the hair.

Somewhere around noon, I rolled over in my sleeping bag and stared up at the ceiling of the shelter, the silence of 23 people feeling loud in my ears. I don't know what inspired me to do it, but all of a sudden, I began to sing.

"All the leaves are brown..."

Before I could finish the lyric, 5 or 6 people picked up at the appropriate time and echoed back to me all the leaves are brown...

"And the sky-y is grey..."

10 people now, harmonizing in the relief of hearing human voices, And the sky is greee-eeey.

"I went for a walk..."

I went for a waaaalk.... 15 people now, and someone tapping on the wood of the shelter floor in rhythm.

This went on for the duration of the song, my lone voice carrying the main lyrics, and nearly every single other person in the shelter singing along with the echoing harmony. When we reached the chorus of California Dreamin', everyone sang at the top of their lungs, the warmth of community swelling in our chests as we sang. Because I continued to lay in my sleeping bag, looking up at the ceiling while I was leading this spontaneous sing-along, it was hard to believe that I was not simply imagining it.

But it was real. People clapped at the end, laughing and patting each other on the back. We were strangers who suddenly realized that we were all experiencing this, this awful thing, experiencing it together. And that made us family, even if it was only for a brief moment. Shortly thereafter, someone produced a large bag of rice, and someone else had beans, and someone else ventured out into the cold to dig up some fallen branches to make a fire. We all ate together, passing around bland food that felt like the food of kings. Laughing or crying it didn't matter, we were going to survive.

And the next day, when we all one by one trickled away from the shelter to trudge through the thigh-high snow drifts, we were rewarded by a perfect blue sky.

Clever Girl

Monday, October 7, 2013

190. Mile 100

The moment passes without you even noticing. You had been looking forward to it for days, and yet it sneaks by you like your parent's birthday. The reason is because somewhere around mile 100 is when you finally start to feel like maybe, possibly, you could be getting accustomed to this hiking business. For the first time since you started, you are actually able to let your mind wander sometimes. That isn't to say that things stop being interesting. Rather, you don't need to stop and collect your jaw off the forest floor every single time you see a rhododendron grove anymore.

Before you were a hiker, the idea of walking 100 miles seemed preposterous. Sure, you think, I've walked way over 100 miles in my whole life, but it accumulated slowly over time. The concept of hiking 100 miles, unbroken, without stopping to do anything else other than walk, sleep, pee and eat? That felt almost impossible.

And yet, there is a moment when you come across a small stream, or some other insignificant landmark, and you have an inclination to check your guidebook. There, in plain print, you learn that you passed the 100 mile mark about a mile and a half ago, and you were too busy humming or picking your nose or laughing with another hiker to notice. 

At first you are a little bummed, cursing your past self for its inattention. But that moment lasts so briefly that it is quickly forgotten to be replaced by a sheer, all-consuming feeling of awesomitude. You! Little ol' you! You walked 100 MILES. 

You wonder how you could have ever been shaken by the thought of a 5k. Granted, it may have taken you anywhere from 7 to 12 days to get here, but the time doesn't matter. Your pace isn't important because you still got there. You still made it this far. And it's even cooler that you didn't just drop dead after 100 miles. You kept going without even noticing. You're just that cool. 

The longer you hike, you gradually start to forget to celebrate the passing of each 100 mile marker. But there is a little part of you that celebrates it quietly somewhere in your subconscious. It's the little voice that allows you to be able to embody yourself through hiking; you hike for the experience rather than the accomplishment. You are not hiking to be able to brag about it later in life. You are hiking to experience it as it happens.

But that doesn't stop you from letting out a whoop of delight when you realize how far you've come, and how capable you are becomming. 

You're a beautiful beast.

Clever Girl

This post is also my 100th blog post here on Trail Kit!

Friday, October 4, 2013

191. Impromptu Dancing

Impromptu dancing definitely isn't something that is unique to long-distance hiking. It is also popular for: cleaning your house and using your broom as a dance partner, getting dressed in the morning and using your shoes as a pair of drumsticks, and standing in the security line at the airport and pulling one of the TSA agents into an elegant waltz. One of the above three options carries with it a higher likelihood of leading to arrest, but you'll just have to figure that out through trial and error.

There's that phrase "dance like no one is watching." I spent some time thinking about that on the trail, and wondering if, for me, it is simply backwards. There were plenty of times that I would be standing on the top of a mountain, all alone because my hiking pace that day had slightly separated me from my hiking group. If I happened to be listening to headphones, the combination of the scenery any the epic music would come over me like a sudden fever. Dance fever.

At this point, I knew that no one was watching. I was in the middle of the woods. It's possible that some squirrels had stopped to judge me, and that the trees flowing down the mountainside in front of me were actually an ocean of Ents. But there were no people, no one to ask what I was doing, no one to raise an eyebrow at my embarassing an insatiable love for Katy Perry. Sometimes another hiker would catch me dancing, and they would either join in or just laugh cheerfully and keep going. This is the magic of the hiking community. 

When I would crouch down, throw out my hands, and then slowly rise with the encroaching crescendo of music in my ears, I wouldn't be preparing to dance like no one was watching. To the contrary, in my head I was a rockstar and this was my music video, and you better believe that I danced like the whole world was watching. If I believed that a huge audience was below the cliff, screaming Clever Girrrrrrrl!! Then I would dance with an abandon similar to Snoopy on his doghouse. This type of thinking could be motivated by my almost complete inability to be embarassed (except for trying to shoot a basketball in front of young people. Heavens, I'd rather get teeth pulled).

Sometimes in the mornings, everyone would be a little sluggish. We'd be bleary-eyed and sleepy, groaning with soreness as we pulled on our backpacks. If there was no one else camping nearby, Whistle would pull out her phone and play a dance song. For the members of M3OWZ3BA!, sudden music is infectious and irresistible. We would wiggle our bums and bob up and down as best we could (intense dancing is difficult with a giant backpack on). It always worked better than coffee, better than a splash of cold water, better than a shower.

Community silliness is the best way to wake up, and the best way to keep going.

Clever Girl

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

192. Spring Cleaning is Lifting Your Tent Up

It's May, and you're sitting in your pajamas, watching television. You're holding a cup of coffee and settling into your Saturday morning. It's been a hard work week, and you really just want to relax. 

Suddenly: the unthinkable happens. A Home Depot commercial comes on TV. Or maybe it's a cleaning product commercial, or a commercial featuring an ethnically diverse yet attractive group of neighbors mowing their lawns and high-fiving. You shift uncomfortably in the couch, glancing around and trying to shake the creeping feeling of spring cleaning

You try to sink into the couch and duck under the encroaching cloud of guilty feelings. You try not to focus on anything too carefully in the apartment or house, but you can't help it. You are inundated with a flood of to-dos that have been hovering just outside your peripheral brainspace. Your mind goes through a shot-by-shot run-through of all of the things in your home that have become filthy; each image is like a gristly crime scene photo, exaggerated to horrifying proportions in your mind. Each thing leads to the next, making you painfully aware that as soon as you start the spring cleaning process, your entire weekend is going to be shot. Maybe even multiple weekends. 

You curse yourself silently. Why do I need so many THINGS?! You demand an answer of yourself, but no answer comes. You decide that this year, finally, you're going to just throw everything away and live in an empty skeleton house where all the walls are made of poured concrete and the only cleaning you'll ever have to do is to drag the hose inside and spray everything down with water. But already you know that's not feasible. You have that one friend with the iron will-power who has been able to become a minimalist, but you're just not that way. You know that if you threw everything away, you'd just buy it all, all over again, wasting so much money and grief in the process. 

Nope. You're just going to have to clean.

You leap to your feet, looking for something, anything to convince yourself that it's not really all that bad. It can't possibly be that much cleaning, right? Seized with inspiration, you grab the corner of the couch you'd been sitting on and drag it away from the wall. It's a mistake. You gasp audibly as your eyes are assaulted by an onslaught of visual monstrosities. Dust bunnies the size of real bunnies roll around, clinging to half-built lego pirate ships, a long-forgotten dinner plate with god-knows-what congealed on it, 17 different cap-less pens, the dog leash you've been trying to find for 6 months, and enough loose change to fund your next 25 trips to the laundromat. 

It doesn't matter if you live in a 1-bedroom apartment or a huge mansion: things just accumulate. It's okay. Some of us are like big, featherless magpies, nesting anywhere that we spend more than a day. Even if we try desperately to clean up after ourselves, we don't spend all of our waking moments trying to keep things perfectly clean. We're more human than that.

But when you're a long distance hiker, you simply never have the ability to accumulate, and cleaning is like a dream come true.

You wake up in the morning in your tent, yawning and stretching out against the soft comfort of your sleeping pad, blinking against the sun that's streaming in and bathing you from all directions. You go through your routine of packing up all of the things inside your tent; stuffing your sleeping bag, putting on your hiking clothes, flicking slugs off of the outside of your tent by thwacking them from inside, sending them hurtling away to go slime all over something else.

After climbing out and pulling everything out into a pile to be organized into your pack, you notice that a fair amount of dirt and leaves have gotten into your tent. You put your hands on your hips, staring at all of that freeloading nature. You're a hiker! Even a half an ounce extra of dirt to carry makes a difference. 

But out here, you don't need a vacuum. You don't need a broom. You follow these simple steps:

1. Open the front door of your tent all the way
2. Pull up the tent stakes (put them away immediately otherwise you'll lose them)
3. Stand at the front of your tent (still fully assembled), grasp the poles, and lift the tent straight up into the air

All of the dirt, dust and pine needles come flying out of the opening at the front of your tent, fluttering down to rejoin the earth. In 20 seconds, your entire home goes from dirty to clean. Gone are the days of hours of vigorous scouring and scrubbing, until one day when you go back to living in the regular world. Then you'll spend a lot of time day-dreaming about being able to just pick up your entire house and shake it out.

Clever Girl