Friday, November 29, 2013

168. Local Wisdom

"Eye'mmuh gunna tell you sumthin, ladies."

Whistle, Hotdog and I attempted to make eye contact with the woman swaying gently side-to-side in front of us. We did not know her name. We knew her only as "Maw-muh!" as that is what her 2 drunk adult sons called her. The rest of the intoxicated locals around the bonfire were also calling her the same thing, so I decided to believe that "Mama" was her given name. I would have liked to be the maternity nurse who got to sign that paperwork.

Dumptruck, Apollo, Hotdog, Whistle, The Hunger and I were all staying at a Tennessee hostel half a mile down a dirt road off the trail. We were the only hikers staying there that night, and we had spent the day doing work-for-stay with the charming back country groundskeeper, Mark, who ran the place. I was still getting to know Hotdog and Whistle, and we got to bond further over moving several hundred pounds of logs and rocks from one side of the property to the other. As we chatted many different topics arose, including youthful indiscretions, such as breaking into acquaintances' houses to cook them sneaky pancake breakfasts. At one point, Whistle dusted her hands off, looked me in the eye and asked,

"Have you ever been arrested?"

"Nope," I shrugged, "Have you?"

"Not a once. But it's probably good that you and I didn't know each other as teenagers."

"How come?"

"Because," she said off-handedly, picking up an armload of logs and heading toward the door of the woodshed, "we definitely would have gotten arrested."

Near the end of the day, Mark told us that he had a lot of old furniture of which he needed to dispose. He and Dumptruck decided that the best way to do this was to create a gigantic bonfire and just burn all of the old furniture. This led to us all dragging benches, chairs, and stools to a small field behind the bunkhouse, to create a fire that would have been powerful enough to send a small rocket into low orbit. Mark had invited over several of his adult male friends, who brought their mother: Mama.

We all sat around the bonfire chatting, while Mama swaggered drunkenly around. She would start a conversation, lose sight of her intended goal by the 7th word or so, and cover up for the loss of focus by going in for a big hug from whomever she happened to be speaking with. We found her to be genuinely delightful. 

At some point, Mama was standing wobbling a little too close to the bonfire, and Dumptruck swooped in to save the day. He put his arm around her shoulders as though nothing was wrong, and said,

"Hey there, Mama."

"Heeey there..." She swiveled her head back and gazed up at Dumptruck, tilting her head slowly from side to side, probably trying to get his face into focus and figure out whether she knew him. Not remembering his name, she appeared to be trying to figure out what to call him. 

"...Guy," she finished, somewhat lamely.

Immediately, from the other side of the fire, one of Mama's adult sons yelled out sharply,

"HEY! Mama! Show some respect. You can't just call him 'guy'. That's tall guy."

She nodded sagely, jutting out her lower lip.

"Well I do believe they are correct," she mused in her thickly inebriated Southern accent, reaching up to pat Dumptruck kindly on the top of his head. She then turned her head and got us girls into focus. We were sitting on a picnic table, and she swayed forward to look us right in the eyes.

"You girls ever been in love?" she asked, focusing on a point somewhere directly in between Whistle's face and mine. I can only imagine that with both of our faces doubling in her vision, they overlapped to create one, in-focus Whistle/Clever Girl face somewhere in the middle. I'm still not sure if Mama knew how many people she was speaking to. 

"Yes, Mama," I responded respectfully, "Tall guy is my husband."

"Ooooh," she nodded, and then put a hand very heavily on my shoulder, and one hand on Whistle's knee.

"Eye'mmuh gunna tell you sumthin, ladies...."

We waited. Something long, long ago and far, far away had captured Mama's attention, and she stared off into the night sky for a few moments. Her grip on Whistle and I slackened slightly, as some wonderful memory must have played across her foggy mind. Some long-forgotten christmas perhaps, or her first kiss under the old Poplar tree. Whistle coughed gently, and Mama snapped back into reality, picking up exactly where she had left off and tightening her claw-like grip on us. We both squeaked quietly, but bit our tongues, wanting to be polite.

"If yer gunna do one thing in life, you do this one thing fer me, okay? I want you to find a good man. You find a good man, yeh hear me?"

"Yes, Ma-"

"YOU FIND A GOOD MAN," she commanded, then took a breath, gathering herself. "You find a good man and you don't let him go. You dig in. You dig in like a TICK."

And then she hugged us.
Never in my life had I heard such wisdom, and I have my doubts that I will ever hear the like ever again.

You find yourself a good man. And you dig in.

You dig in like a tick. 

Clever Girl

The beginning of the bonfire.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

169. It's Only 15 Seconds from Stranger to Friend

The first time I met Hotdog and Whistle, it was on a blisteringly freezing night in the Smoky Mountains. Apollo, Dumptruck and I had just hiked 12 miles from Mollie's Ridge Shelter to Derrick Knob Shelter. The previous day had been a zero because of blizzards and my need to recover from my rollicking ride on the hypothermia train.

For some reason, the last 6 miles of the day were excruciating. Apollo, Dumptruck and I all agreed that it was ridiculously hard. Even though the sun was out and brightly shining, the snow was still knee-deep and regularly swallowed our hiking boots. For the last 4 miles or so, Dumptruck and I became increasingly hysterical, convinced that we must have somehow missed the shelter. We mused that when we finally did arrive, instead of a shelter, there would only be a pile of rubble with sign displaying the word "BUPKIS" and an image of a rude hand gesture etched into the wood.  

These 12 miles somehow took longer to hike than the 12 miles we had hiked 2 days prior in the oncoming blizzard, near-death hypothermic conditions and frostbite. This was unconscionable for me. It made no logical sense whatsoever. When we arrived at Derrick Knob Shelter, I stomped inside like a 5 year-old attempting to look big and mighty. I punched my fists up and down and marched around the small floor-space in front of the sleeping platforms, demanding one word of the universe with every stomp of my feet:


I wasn't angry, I was simply confounded. How was it physically possible that hiking straight up a mountain in a gigantic blizzard with serious health problems took me 8 hours, but hiking 12 miles across a ridge line took me 10 hours? At this point the only other people in the shelter were a pair of kind looking young women, and Apollo, who had arrived at least an hour previously and already had all of his stuff set up. He hiked fast normally, but he hiked even faster when wearing mesh trail runners in the middle of winter. If he slowed down, the water in his shoes would freeze into blocks of ice. This is otherwise known as motivation.

The 2 girls in the shelter commiserated with me, expressing that the last 6 miles felt impossibly long and difficult for them as well. We eventually surmised that the difference was a lack of switchbacks - that we had gotten used to a certain number of peaks-per-mile, and that number had dramatically increased since getting into this particular mountain range. There was also the snow, ice, and cold conditions to think of, but that wasn't good enough for us. We bonded through deciding that the rangers in the Smoky Mountains were tired of thru-hikers, and were attempting to kill us by putting up signs with false mileage.*

After I calmed down from my snow-induced drama fake-rage, Dumptruck and I set about making dinner. Meanwhile, Whistle and Hotdog produced two MRE meals. If you aren't aware, MREs are strange meals given to soldiers, that self-cook within their packaging. Rather, they self-cook when it isn't below freezing outside, and being operated by 2 desperately hungry hiker women. These particular MREs had been bequeathed upon Whistle and Hotdog by a different hiker who had decided to bail from his thru-hike because of the weather. Because we were likely going to be trapped in the mountains for a while, Hotdog and Whistle decided to try and eat the MREs because, hey, free food is still food. Even if it's inedible.

A series of strange exclamations came from their corner of the shelter as they attempted to make the MREs function:

"Oh god, is it supposed to be making that noise?"

"This smells weird."

"It says it's supposed to be getting puffy. Is yours getting bigger?"

"Mine is frozen solid."

"The steam is burning me but the packaging is freezing cold!"

"I'm going to try and eat mine... It's like a brick."

"I think I like my teeth too much to try."

"...I'm eating my snickers bar."

"I thought that was frozen, too?"

"I've been sitting on it inside my sleeping bag! My butt is like a microwave."

"Try putting the MRE in your sleeping bag!"

It did not work. The MREs were undeveloped and inedible. But both ladies packed out the sadly inedible pseudo-food with dedication.

I decided I liked these girls. Well, I like most everyone, unless we get into a slap fight within the first 5 minutes of meeting each other. But I could tell that I was going to be friends with these 2. Their names were Hotdog and Whistle, and they were destined to become very special to me. My initial positive impression was further proved when later that night, Whistle and I spent several hours sitting in our sleeping bags without headlamps in the complete darkness talking about the Game of Thrones book series. Specifically, we spoke about how George R.R. Martin was treating us like the Smoky Mountain rangers by setting up signs of false mileage, knowing we would keep following his crazy trail no matter if it killed us. 

And thus a beautiful respect and friendship was born between the ladies of Derrick Knob Shelter, and Apollo, Dumptruck and me. Together we formed a raggedy band of misfits, destined to fall, stumble, trip, and eat dirt on our way down the trail. But we had each other to help us to our feet.

Clever Girl

*Of course the rangers don't do this... OR DO THEY?!

Monday, November 25, 2013

170. Finding the Right Allergy Medication

It was 4 in the morning, and the wilderness had settled into a gentle slumber. Nearby animals had finally laid their heads to rest in their piney beds, and somewhere above the trees, a moon was glowing with a steadfast resilience. Hikers in the vicinity were somewhere in dreamland, their bodies thoroughly ensconced in the rebuilding of muscle and the resting of bones.

And there, in my tent, I was surrounded by the calming sound of 10,000 chainsaws attempting to cut down the Great Wall of China. I rolled over and stared at Dumptruck. The sound was, impossibly, coming from his face. As I was in a tiny tent with him with no pillow to bury my head beneath, there was no escaping the ruckus. I struggled with myself for a few minutes, deciding whether or not I should wake him up and ask him to roll over. If I did, it would be the fifth time in the same night. I didn't know at what point it would make me a bad wife.

I have no right to complain. I am sincerely lucky to be married to such an amazing human, one who actually on a regular basis doesn't ever snore. When I was getting to know Dumptruck, it seemed incredible to me that he didn't make any noise as he slept, as I grew up in a family of snorers and sleep-talkers. Every night the McCann household sounded like there was some sort of nuclear reactor revving up to explode. To be fair, it was mostly me. As soon as I am asleep I become a professor with a PhD in the inane. And I have a lot of opinions.

Dumptruck has never complained about my sleep-talking, or sleep-walking. He even conceded to let me hide a key outside of our apartment in New York City because of my (justified) fear of accidentally sleep-walking out our front door and being locked outside in only my PJs when he was out of town. He didn't even complain that time I shook him awake to tell him not to worry, even though there were dragons attempting to take over the city, I would deal with it by stealing a horse and riding it down 5th avenue.

I think I need to stop playing so many video games.

Dumptruck only snores when he has seasonal allergies. Before he moved to New York City, he had no allergies at all, but with every passing year they became worse and worse. Every year around springtime, after gently rolling Dumptruck over to stop the snoring 5 times, I would get up and go sleep on the couch in the living room. He tried many different allergy medications, but none seemed to work well for him. So we suffered together. He definitely had it worse off - allergies are awful. But he slept like the dead.

We had been hoping that when we went on the trail, his allergies wouldn't be as bad.


Apparently once New York City allergies are in your lungs, you will be allergic to springtime for the rest of your life. And unfortunately, in the woods there were no couches to sleep on. As we hiked during the day, poor Dumptruck would sneeze with such regularity that I began to be able to judge our hiking distance based on the number of sneezes. I didn't need a watch at all. Just the regular face explosions from my long-suffering partner. He didn't complain, but I could tell that being eternally congested and constantly crying was slowly getting to him. It probably wasn't fun to have to see the world through a filter of fogginess.

Then, Dumptruck's parents (Dump Daddy and Mother Trucker) came to visit. And they brought some allergy medication from Dumptruck's aunt, who is a nurse, and who knows about these sorts of things. Dumptruck was dubious at first. He felt like he had tried everything. But, he tried it. It was just regular old off-brand Claritin.


Something about solving this problem while being in the middle of the woods was so much more satisfying than it would have been if we'd solved it while living in civilization. Dumptruck was freed from the terrible nose monster, and the wilderness could go back to being wild, without the sounds of human thunder.

Clever Girl

Friday, November 22, 2013

171. Climbing Trees

One of my first memories is seeing the underside of avocados. When I was in preschool living on Key West, we had an avocado tree in the backyard. At the time I didn't know how to appreciate the fact that we were living in proximity to a wizard tree that took energy from the sun and made food. I don't know if you've spent much time thinking about that recently, but now that I am a grown adult who has to spend money on produce, the idea of having a tree that just makes food for free seems frankly magical.

My sister was very good at climbing the tree. I was learning. I think that my first memory is mid-fall from one of the low branches. I can see my hands stretched out in front of me, grasping at the air, silhouetted against a backdrop of green leaves and plump avocados. I think perhaps it was the impact of hitting the ground that joggled that memory from the short term of childhood to the long term of now.

Throughout the rest of my childhood, I have countless memories of standing at the bases of trees, looking up through the web of interlaced branches to see the patchwork sky above. I remember the moment of decision making: were the inevitable sticky sap fingers worth the climb? Usually the answer was yes. But then there as always then regret later on, as I would spend hours trying in vain to pry sap (now matted with lint and cat hair) off of my skin.

As we grow up, we have less opportunity for tree climbing. We have a lot of things working against us. We have to wear professional clothes that we spent our own money on, we have nice shoes, we have schedules, we have nice sapless hands that need to look like regular hands when we're doing our jobs. We're a lot taller than we used to be, so it's harder to find a tree that's big enough to support our weight as we climb. We have places to be, and people who might be taken aback to suddenly see a grown adult drop her briefcase and shimmy up a pine.

But when I had no schedule and there were trees everywhere to choose from, my vantage point of the world began to stretch upward. No longer was my line of sight restricted to 5'7" off the ground. Now it was as high as I could scramble up a trunk, my calloused hands wrapping around the rough bark without trouble. I wasn't the only hiker who saw our trees as mini fortresses. The entire landscape had the potential to be a city of tree dwellers, all popping their bearded faces above the tree-line like some army of absurdly hairy groundhogs.

We could climb. So we did.

Clever Girl on Mt. Springer

Dumptruck somewhere down South

Catch 22

Clever Girl

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

172. No Alarm Clock

Last Thursday, for the first time in close to 8 months, I woke up to an alarm clock.

I rolled over and smacked ineffectually at my phone for a while, hoping that it would simply go away. It did not. My sleep-intoxicated brain simply could not comprehend what the devil was happening. Was this another whippoorwill, here to perch in a tree directly above my head, making whippoorwill sounds until the break of dawn? I attempted to use the same defense I had used against loud birds on trail, and made a series of growly angry bear sounds.

My phone was not impressed.

Eventually I came to my senses and finally understood. Rather, Dumptruck woke up, grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me gently until I stopped sounding like Smoky the Bear being presented with a cake stacked with burning candles. I blinked my eyes open and groaned. This was nothing like the trail.

However, it has been colder than 20 degrees in the mornings, and our house has decided that we're going to hold out as long as possible to turn on the heat. We don't want to have to pay for the oil until the very last minute. So as I threw the blankets off of me, I was blasted with aggressively frigid air. All the hairs on my body stood on end in a completely useless display of attempting to make my body warmer.

Aaah, I sighed inwardly, that's more like the trail.

I began working very soon after the end of the trail, but my schedule up until recently has only been in the afternoons. This has been wonderful for my desire to sleep all the time, play with my cats and watch The Price is Right. Some people fear aging. I fear only for the soul of Drew Carey, as he tries and fails every single day to be Bob Barker. Meanwhile, I embrace living like an octogenarian and know that when I do get old, it's going to be its own excellent adventure. And one day I'm going to win a showcase showdown even if it kills me.

However, the schedule has changed, and now I have finally made the return to normal career living. This means that I have to learn to be one with the alarm clock. It does not respond to abuse. I ask the alarm clock to wake me up. It obliges, in spite of my monster-growling protestations. It's only doing its job.

Can you even imagine what it would be like to live for 6 months, waking up whenever your body wants you to wake up? Do you know what its like to never have to be startled awake before you want to, unless it's because there is a large, angry mammal somewhere close by preparing to eat you? Have you ever wanted to be able to forget the sound of your alarm clock?

Out in the woods, you couldn't wake up to an alarm clock even if you wanted to because- Wait. Nevermind. NO ONE WANTS TO WAKE TO AN ALARM CLOCK. You wake up when the sun comes up. You go to sleep when the sun goes down. There is no such thing as consequences for sleeping late. The worst thing that will happen is that you'll get a reputation among all of your hiking friends for being a completely lazy lump.

And it's fine, because you've got nowhere to go, and all day to get there.

Clever Girl

Monday, November 18, 2013

Hiker Trash - The Photos

Over the past 2 months Dumptruck has been editing down the 19,000 photos he took on the Appalachian Trail, working on them, and putting together a book. His plan is to have it available to buy online by early December. Dumptruck asked me to write the introduction for him, and today I began working on trying to summarize the entire trail into one single page of writing. So far all I have is a bunch of punctuation and a drawing of a mud monster.

Because I spent all day writing about the AT, my brain convinced me that I had already written a blog post. Well played, brain. Since I didn't want to rush one of the list entries, I am going to use my own poor time management as an excuse to plug for Mr. Michael "Dumptruck" Wilson's upcoming feast for your eyeballs.

Not to put too fine a point on it: this collection of photographs is going to blow your mind.

There are several books about the AT with lovely photos. Photos of the wilderness and the nature. No one yet has captured the spirit of the hikers. They call the AT "the people's trail" because of the bizarre and beautiful community it generates year after year. Dumptruck endeavored to authentically document that community, and although I might be biased, I that he has succeeded.

I will let you all know the moment that the book is completed and up for sale! The working title for the book right now is Hiker Trash. That will likely be the name, but I say it's the working title just in case it does happen to change.

In the meanwhile, here are a couple of teaser shots to get you excited! I seriously recommend looking at these on a a computer, and clicking on them to look at them full-size.

You can also follow Dumptruck's blog at:

We will return to our regularly scheduled posting for the 200 things on Wednesday.

Friday, November 15, 2013

173. Hiking Boot Skiing

Sometimes when I watch movies, I get this strange feeling of impending awesomeness. It usually happens in epic action movies, where some regular person is suddenly imbued with a power they must learn to control or understand. Like in Return of the Jedi, when Luke walks up to Jabba's Palace in his cloak like a total badass. Or in The Matrix, when Neo improbably keeps Trinity from exploding in that helicopter, even though physics said "No." Or in Jurassic Park, when Clever Girl the Velociraptor figures out how to open that door to the kitchen. My heart beats faster and I get a chill and my brain throws its fists in the air screaming: YES. Things just got REAL.

I'm not a film director, but I would imagine that they spend a lot of time trying to orchestrate these precise moments of emotion in their audience. Maybe not the exact emotion I was talking about before; although I would love if cheesy romantic comedies or lifetime movies had more explosions and dinosaurs. However, regardless of the genre, I feel like the "chill" is what movies aim to accomplish.

This evening I went to a showing of "Ticket to Ride," a Warren Miller documentary film about Heli Skiing. In case you hadn't heard of Heli Skiing, it involves insanely rich people getting into helicopters, flying up to the tops of gigantic mountains, leaping out of the helicopters and then hurtling down the mountains while strapped to a couple of pieces of waxed wooden planks. The waxed wooden planks are commonly referred to as "skis," or "a snowboard," to make people feel less nervous about the reality of what they are actually doing.

Somewhere in there, I got the creeping feeling of the chill. Somewhere in the back of my brain was a little voice that said "I wanna do that." And, unlike all the movies I mentioned earlier, I might actually be capable of doing the thing I saw on the screen. Unfortunately, I am not a jedi, nor am I The One, nor am I actually a supremely intelligent velociraptor (but a girl can dream). I did, however, learn how to ski when I was 4 years old. It was the only skill that my parents insisted that I learn at a young age, other than walking, potty-training, swimming, and learning all of the words to the entire Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

In the Smoky Mountains, after the blizzards, the terrain was beyond gorgeous. There were so many craggy peaks with snow-covered trees contrasting brilliantly against the bright blue sky. As we hiked through the tundra, our breath forming puffs of smoke around our faces like were were a train of tiny steam engines, it was impossible not to be captivated by the astonishing reality of nature. Everything looked like a National Geographic photo, except we were living inside of it instead of seeing it on the other side of a 2-dimensional photo.

The troublesome part came with the descents. The snow was piled so thickly that it was nearly impossible to find footing. This wasn't so hard with going up mountains, as I could just dig in my boots and scrabble my way up. But going down was seriously tricky. There was nowhere to put my boots that wasn't already a few inches of completely slick slush on top of a few feet of packed snow. When I encountered my first treacherous-looking descent, I thought about sitting down on my rump and sliding. Instead, I decided to be bold.

I leaned forward, lightly planted my hiking poles, then pulled myself down the hill. I would go 6 or 7 feet per slide, balanced upright on my boots, ostensibly skiing down the hill. There was nothing fancy about it - it was really just, as Buzz Lightyear would say, "falling with style." But there was something really fun about moving my way down the Appalachian Trail with no forces other than gravity, without injuring myself. I would use my hiking poles like skiing poles, to gently keep myself upright and to correct any unbalancing. I would often yell "Weeeeee!" because it only seemed appropriate.

I don't know if I'll ever go Heli Skiing. Maybe if I win the lottery, or if a helicopter just lands in my front lawn one day, 007 jumps out and tells me that my country needs me and the only way I can help is by flinging myself off the top of a huge mountain. But barring those scenarios, I will likely only be able to ski like regular people, on a regular ski slope with a lift and a lodge with hot chocolate and less possibility of sudden death via avalanche.

But I'll know that I've been skiing in a place where no one else has been skiing. Even if it was on my hiking boots. And even if it was for only 6 feet at a time. I caught the wind of the Smoky Mountains, and I rode it.

Me in the Smokies. Photograph by Dumptruck.

Clever Girl

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

174. Moon Shadows...

...and no, this is not a post about butts.

Loch Ness
After the trail, Dumptruck and I moved into an old carriage house, built in 1806, on the seacoast in Kennebunkport, Maine. We moved in with two of our best friends, Jessica and Cory. We call Jessica "Loch Ness", an honorary trail name from the many times we have gone camping in the Catskill mountains in upstate New York. She earned it for swimming in a waterfall, and trying to flip her hair back like Ariel in the Little Mermaid. Instead of successfully achieving a Maxim-style hair-flip rainbow of water, she achieved this:

A photo which, to this day, continues to make her laugh until she cries.

The greatest part is that this photo was the third try. After each attempt she would surface and demand in a monster voice, "AM I BEAUTIFUL YET!?"

When the trail name Loch Ness was suggested in reference to this series of sea creature photos, she was delighted. This is but a brief foray into the understanding of why Loch Ness is a best friend.

Also living with us is Whistle, who has become our house elf. She wants to live in southern Maine, but was planning on just sleeping in her car for 2 months because she is leaving for 3 weeks in the middle of November to be in Australia with her family. We were not going to allow her to live in her car, so she has been living on our couch. She cooks and cleans for us, often silently, so no one can catch her in the act and stop her. Therefore: house elf. Like Dobby in Harry Potter, except with smaller ears and longer legs.

All of this has been a lead up to give you an understanding that because we live in Maine, we are now victim to a world with limited sunlight. As of a few days ago, the sun now sets by 4:30pm. I have experienced earlier sunsets, as I went to high school in the northernmost part of Maine, where the sun rose at 9am and set at 3:30pm.... just enough time for you to miss every moment of sunlight because you are inside LEARNING.

Because I am training for an Ultra Marathon, the early sunset and freezing cold temperatures can't get in the way of me running. Why not run on a treadmill, inside where it is safe and warm, you ask? There are a few reasons:

1. I don't really feel compelled to pay for a gym membership.
2. Running on a treadmill makes me feel like a hamster in a wheel.
3. I don't feel like getting into it right now because it is embarrassing and involves me falling down in front of a bunch of fancy New Yorkers all working out their fancy New Yorker glutes and WHATEVER. I HAD. A BAD. EXPERIENCE.

Suffice it to say, I am going to endure the increasingly freezing weather and lack of sunlight because I already paid for my entry fee for that race, and I can't be waylaid by some small, little hiccup like an entire season of snow, ice and darkness in New England. I had been running in the mornings, but with some changes in my work schedule, I have to run in the evening. Today was the first day that I got to see what it was like to run along the seashore at 6:30pm.

I thought about wearing a headlamp, but Whistle made the point that it would likely just end up bouncing around on my face like an angry sparrow. The moon was nearly full this evening, so I decided to just run without any light. There is a sidewalk that runs directly along the ocean that is my running route that has very little tree cover, so I figured there would be enough to see.

As I ran through the icy air, the beautiful sounds of the ocean only somewhat drowned out by the completely embarrassing selection of terrible pop music that I listen to while I run, I started to notice my shadow. I hadn't seen my moon shadow since I had been on the Appalachian Trail, and I forgot how remarkable it was. A shadow in the middle of night.

A lot of us don't notice the impact that electricity has on us. I definitely never noticed until I went on my first long distance backpacking trip. Our eyes are so much more powerful than we give them credit for. Usually the only time we have to try to see in the dark is when we are pin-balling our way down the hallway in the middle of the night, trying to get to the bathroom, but not before we step on some legos, accidentally kick a cat, and hit our heads on a doorframe. This really doesn't give our eyes enough time to get their bearings.

But out in the wilderness, when the moon is full and there aren't any trees to block the light, we can see so much. The world is in black and white, the low light only filtering through enough to activate the rods in our eyes, and we get to see everything in zero percent saturation. In the wilderness, or on the edge of the ocean in a tiny town with no street lamps, or in the middle of a potato field in the middle of nowhere, the moon is as bright as a theatre spotlight.

I wish I had a photograph to show you a moon shadow. I know it's possible to capture, but I haven't dragged Dumptruck outside to make it happen. Instead, I will give you a long-exposure photo of the moon that Dumptruck took on the Appalachian Trail, somewhere in Tennessee. I would recommend clicking on the photo to make it full-size on a computer.

This is the moon! Not the sun!

When we're sleeping, the moon puts on its sun-dress and dances across the horizon.

Clever Girl

Monday, November 11, 2013

175. Audiobooks on Rainy Days

There were some days when I would wake up and know for certain that it was going to rain. We couldn't access weather reports, so we didn't usually know what was in store for us. However, as my body began to settle into the habitat of the wild, so did my mind settle into a heightened understanding of small hints and clues about what the sky was going to do. I wasn't consciously aware of the little things that my mind was picking up on, but they would all secretly coalesce into an overall, basic understanding: Either I'm going to be soaked with rain or soaked with sweat. I was like the elderly wise woman in storybooks whose old bones could tell when the thunder was coming.

Hiking in the rain was often thrilling, but that will be its own post. Today we're going to talk about the days when the rain was simply wet. The days when no matter what we did, absolutely everything we owned got as wet as if it had been thrown overboard into the middle of the ocean, immediately snagged by a giant squid and dragged down to the echoing depths of the deep sea. Those were the days when hiking became only marching. The days with no views to speak of, as the sky blurred itself into a muted gray blanket. The days when the idea of getting out of your tent felt like willingly walking the plank.

Not everyone brings an mp3 player with them on the trail, and I completely respect that. I think I would have survived just fine without one. If I had hiked in the 1980's and my only option was to bring a walkman and a suitcase of cassettes, I would have abstained and been perfectly happy. But if I had hiked in the 1880's, I would have possibly considered hiking with a phonograph and a set of gramophones. Just because. When your pack already weighs 100 pounds because it's the 19th century, what's another 75 pounds of pack weight?

I found that having an mp3 player was sometimes exactly what I needed to keep my brain functioning. I rarely listened to it because I wanted to save it for when I really needed it. 

The mp3 player became a respite from the trail; a few hours of escape. And there were only a few times when I needed that escape. Being able to sink my mind into a story being dramatically read to me was sometimes exactly what I needed. It kept me from ever letting those bad days days become potential quitting days. In fact, I don't even want to call them bad days. I'll call them slump days. Because that's the sound it would make it my head as I would trudge through the mud. Slump. Slump. Slump.

I actually had very little music on my mp3 player, mostly I had only audiobooks. I also, strangely, didn't download any podcasts. Mostly it was just books I had wanted to read. I wanted to have just enough to carry me through the trail for the times I needed it - and not so much that I would be tempted to constantly have my headphones in and miss the sounds of the natural world around me. Sounds such as my own heavy breathing and nearby thru-hikers belching. Humans are beautiful creatures.

Here are the audiobooks I "read" while on trail! It may seem like a lot, but I'll remind you: it was 6 months! So time spent listening wasn't that high. I liked all of them quite a lot.

1. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
2. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
3. Ender's Shadow by Orson Scott Card
4. Bossy Pants by Tina Fey
5. The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams
6. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
7. Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde

Since finishing the trail I have continued to read the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde, as well as the Ender-verse series. 

There is something wonderful about an audiobook. Reading is the best, of course. But the very beginning of human interaction and community began with storytelling. When a story is being given to you, not just through the written word, but the spoken word, there is a different bridge to imagination. A bridge that can, just for a little while, take you out of your rain-soaked, dirty, gross thru-hiker life and transport you to the stars.

Clever Girl 

Friday, November 8, 2013

176. The Effect that Caffeine has on Hiking Speed

I suspect that I will likely write a few different posts about coffee, and how it is so rare and beautiful on trail. However, as an introduction, I would like you to understand why coffee affects me quite so intensely. First, I will say that on the improbable occasion that I would consume coffee, I would hike so fast that I could keep up with Grim. This is impressive, because Grim has legs faster than a steam engine. The reason that coffee has such a strong impact on me is because I can't actually drink it more often than maybe once a week. Thus, when I do have it, it's like having access to a controlled substance.

The following is the story about the reason I had to quit coffee.


Before I crawled up onto the crinkly paper-covered "bed" that would trundle me inside the round white space tube, I caught the nurse staring at my legs. I was standing in a dimly-lit room somewhere on the upper east side of New York City, nothing but me, the nurse, and a gigantic MRI machine which was humming to itself in a self-satisfied sort of way. I was a 23-year-old grad student wearing nothing but a pair of mismatched socks (one stripped blue and yellow, the other white) and a thin hospital gown that stopped just above my knees. This meant that my triumphantly furry legs were like beacons of embarrassment. 

The nurse glanced up and caught me looking at her, and blushed as red as I was already blushing. Clearly she'd been trained not to say anything about the grooming habits of her patients, but I could tell she was surprised, considering I had come straight from work wearing a smart pants-suit and blazer. Can't judge a hippie by her work costume.

The inside of an MRI machine sounds like a bowling league of angry hornets. Not just angry hornets, but angry hornets on an aggressive bowling team who are deliberately ignoring the large "PLEASE DO NOT LOB THE BOWLING BALLS" sign. The nurse gave me a pair of gigantic earmuffs before I went in, making me look like a white-haired Princess Leia, and warned me that "the noise might be a little weird." Instead of this irritating me, it actually lead to me falling into a bizarre half-sleep, where my waking dreams were haunted by large-footed men stomping down cavernous cathedral hallways, wearing tap shoes and occasionally revving a chain saw. 

While this may sound nightmarish, I pictured this man as a rather kindly church gardener (a retired vaudeville star) simply making his way out to the backyard to prune the fig trees.

This experience had arisen from the fact that I told my doctor a month before (in August of 2009) that I'd been getting "very weird headaches" which consisted of briefly blinding flashes of white light followed by half of my face going numb. She sent me to a neurologist.

That neurologist sent me to get an MRI, as well as an EEG, so that he could peer down his nose through his spectacles at gigantic readouts and images of my brain and tell me once and for all that instead of a corpus callosum, the only thing holding the two halves of my brain together was a pair of toothpicks and a piece of chewing gum.

The EEG was a nightmarish experience all on its own. I had made an appointment for early on a Friday morning, and the receptionist to whom I spoke gave me directions to the hospital. Come Friday morning, it turns out I had been given directions by the receptionist to a street corner in the middle of nowhere. I did not have a smart phone at this time, so I called Dumptruck in a panic, asking where the nearest hospital could be. 

There was one about 10 blocks south, or one about 35 blocks north. I tried to call the hospital office about 7 times but no one picked up. So I walked south 10 blocks, got to that hospital and navigated my way up to the 5th floor where the EEG room was. Turns out it was the WRONG HOSPITAL, which resulted in me breaking down in tears at the WRONG OFFICE, clutching my cup of coffee (no one had told me that you have to sleep for an EEG to work), sobbing out of utter and complete frustration of the fact that I was being led on a wild goose chase for my potentially broken brain and my terrible graduate school insurance wasn't covering any of it.

The EEG nurse took pity on me, and told me that they had an extra opening, so they could squeeze me in. She set me up on a stretcher with heaven only knows how many sticky-pads stuck to my head, forehead, and chest. All the cables leading away from my skull made me look like I'd just busted out of my pod after being released from the Matrix. She told me to take a nap. Which, after an hour of running around the city in frustration, drinking about 3 cups of coffee, and having an absolutely shameful nervous breakdown in front of a total stranger, was COMPLETELY IMPOSSIBLE. 

I can't imagine what they possibly gleaned from that readout other than: "Frankly, this woman's sleep patterns look like she's awake."

Furthermore, the drinking fountain was just outside my "nap room" and the nurse left the door open, so the couple of times I almost drifted off, I was startled awake by someone slurping water and letting out a series of satisfied "Aaahhs" that I thought were only supposed to happen in commercials for Dasani Water.

When the nurse came in and took all the sticky pads off my head, she told me I could use the nearby bathroom to "clean up." I crossed the hallway to the public restroom, and on the way, I passed in front of a small child holding his mother's hand. The child looked absolutely stricken upon seeing me, and drew close to his mother. I was confused, until I got into the bathroom and saw myself in the mirror. I let out a little squeak of horror. All the gummy-sticky stuff the nurse had used to affix the sensors to my head had made my hair look like I'd fallen asleep under the exhaust pipe of a gumball factory. 

I was due back to work in 45 minutes, and so I had only one choice. I washed my hair in the public restroom sink, and then dried it with the hand-dryer. A woman came in while I was halfway through this process, and just started laughing uncontrollably. My reaction was to start laughing as well, bent over, water dripping off my forehead and my nose, hunched over under a weak hand-dryer, my hair wobbling around ineffectually in its "wind". This was an experience I was destined to repeat while hiking the AT.

I got to work in time. My hair was handsomely voluminous that day.

Thinking I had done all my duties, I went back to the neurologist, who told me I had to now to get an MRA, which is just like an MRI except that they injected me with this weird chemical that apparently made my blood glow. What was that? Oh, yes:


Also, it made me nauseous and vomit-y. Which is less cool. After the second round in the MRI machine I stumbled home and curled up on the couch to watch several episodes of X-Files reruns and wait to die.

I did not die. Which is great.

I went back to the Crypt Keeper again, who looked at all my collected brain data and told me that there was something "odd," which turned out just to be a slightly overlarge vein. So, this neurologist told me that he was going to prescribe me something for the migraines. He gave me a choice. He said, verbatim :

"You have two choices. You can get Topamax, which will make you skinny. Or Depakote, which will make you fat."

I just stared at him, in his office which smelled vaguely of mildew, his uncountable framed diplomas and certificates leering down at me from his close-set walls.

"There are no other side effects, for either of them?" I asked, meekly.


I had heard several unhappy stories about Depakote, so I decided I would try this mysterious Topamax.

I went to the pharmacy, filled my prescription, and started taking the pills as prescribed. Here is what I experienced:

1. I was sitting with someone at work, when they asked me if there was a vending machine in the building to get a drink. I wanted to tell them "No, but there is a water fountain down the hall."
Unfortunately, I could not remember the word for "water."
I fumbled with my words in my mouth, my thoughts like so many bullets fired in vain into a pool full of hard tack molasses.
After about 15 seconds of rolling my tongue over and over and becoming red and sweaty from my efforts and my humiliation, I was able to lisp out a feeble:
"There is a.... foun...tain... down the hall."
At this point I still could not remember the word for water.

2. On my way home, I got on the subway train going the WRONG DIRECTION. I did not notice my error for THREE EXPRESS STOPS (roughly translates to about 10 minutes of utter catatonia)

3. As soon as I got home, I looked up "Topamax side effects" online. The first thing that I learned was that Topamax was developed for extreme epilepsy and schizophrenia. The second thing I learned was that a vast majority of folks who took the medication had bad experiences. The reason no one was happy with this drug was that the nickname was "Dopey-max". It, quite literally, makes you stupid.

I threw away the pills.

I decided that I had been had.

I started researching online, and after about 30 minutes of intense searching, I discovered somewhere on WedMD that a small facet of people who are addicted to coffee start to have very strange headaches. Apparently what happens is that if you are very addicted to caffeine, your body becomes utterly dependent on a certain level of intake, every day. Thus, if you have slightly less or slightly more than your norm each day, you go through intense, crippling caffeine withdrawal. It reported that it is very rare, but that it happens. At this point in my life I was drinking about 3 cups of coffee a day. I started to think about it, and I realized that my bizarre migraines, though seemingly random, tended to happen somewhere in between cups of coffee.

My first reaction was frustration. In all of this, with all of these doctors, not a single one had asked me about whether or not I drank coffee. My second reaction was that I was going to quit caffeine, cold turkey, get over it in a week, and deal with the consequences. I figured that was a better solution than measuring my caffeine out in exact increments every single day like a prescription.

My caffeine quitting journey is a story all to itself, and perhaps I will share it with you another time. Suffice it to say, I was completely fine after about 9 days, and I have not had a single migraine since then. Not one.

At least now I have several gigantic envelopes filled with uncountable x-ray printouts of my brain. Once I die and finally become a world-renowned artist a la Picasso, my family can auction off the x-rays of my brain for billions of dollars.

Clever Girl

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

177. Inspiration

I spent 3 days rewriting Macklemore's "Can't Hold Us" into a rap about the Appalachian Trail.
I spent 2 days learning how to actually rap.
I spent 1 day mixing all the audio.
I spent 3 hours making construction paper puppets.
I spent 1 hour talking it up to Dumptruck, Whistle and Loch Ness to convince them to make a video with me.
I spent 30 seconds coercing Whistle into singing the chorus.

We spent an evening making a video. Mostly we laughed a lot.

Clever Girl

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

178b. NAPS TWO!

Dumptruck has continued to edit his photographs, and has unearthed more napping photos. And so, MORE NAPPING!

Whistle: NAPPING!


Broken Pack (BP): NAPPING!

The Hunger: NAPPING!

Clever Girl: NAPPING!

No really, she looks like a dead body. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

178. Naps

When you're an extremely athletic unemployed hobo, you need to recharge your energy sometimes. Luckily, for all of the aforementioned qualifiers, you can nap whenever and where ever you want!

The unchallenged champion of the random nap was Catch. He was like the Hare in the Tortoise and the Hare. He would bound ahead, super fast, and then we would catch up to him an hour or so later, completely passed out in a patch of dirt in the sun. He had no shame in regard to when and where he decided to nap. It was often directly next to the trail. Sometimes it was on a rock in the middle of a river. One time we (literally) stumbled upon him, bundled up in only his sleeping bag, like a giant red caterpillar parallel to the trail, with an open, half-finished box of donuts on the ground by his head. He is a hero.

Without further ado, I present to you:


Apollo: NAPPING!



Whistle: NAPPING! With her hair tied over her eyes to block out the sun.

Whistle and Clever Girl: NAPPING ON A FIRE TOWER!

My personal favorite! Clever Girl: NAPPING ON THE LAWN OF A BAR/PUB IN NEW JERSEY.
I had not a drop to drink. It was just time for a nap.

All of these photos were taken by the fabulous Dumptruck!

Dumptruck has started going through his 19,000 photos from the trail, so I'm going to be able to start putting some of them up here on the blog! He is working on putting a book together, and I am super excited about it. It'll probably be out by the holiday season! More updates about that as things go by.

In the meanwhile, here is his blog (that has a link to his website)! He hasn't put up much trail stuff yet, but if you are interested in his photo stuff, this is the place to go:

Clever Girl

Friday, November 1, 2013

179. Loss of Standards, Part 3

Hey everyone! Before I get to the storytelling, I have some news:

I have officially signed up to run an Ultra Marathon!

The 50k is part of the Pineland Farms Trail Running Festival in New Gloucester, Maine, on May 25th. I am also planning on doing a 50 mile race in Vermont next September, but I wanted to start with the 50k (a little over 31 miles). I have been running a lot since I ended the trail, but now I have something in particular to train for. I may include some info about the training as I go along if anything interesting happens! Mostly it's just a lot of long-distance running, pretending I'm being chased by a really really fat, slow T-Rex.

I started a team for the race: M3OWZ3BA! If you are a runner, or a hiker, and you feel like being bizonkers with me, then let me know if you'd like to be part of the team!


There was a day that it took our group 5 hours to hike 5 miles. The heat was so unbearable that we were all delusional and insane. I chronicled a bit of this day on this blog post here, (the little section about Dumptruck sitting down in a waterfall, and Whistle running headlong into Dumptruck's backpack) but I didn't get into the specifics of how truly nightmarish it was. For the most part we were just giggly and spent a lot of time staggering around. Just like good, healthy, athletic adults!

Overall that day we hiked 12.7 miles, but we did the first half of it between the hours of 5am and 8am. It was so brutally hot and buggy for the middle part of the day that we were genuinely concerned about our safety if we continued to hike. So we waited. And waited. But the heat did not abate. We were motivated to continue on, however, because Grim had hiked ahead to meet with a friend, we hadn't seen him in days, and we were planning on meeting him that evening in Kent, CT. 

Somewhere in the early afternoon we decided we could just go for it, but take it slow. We became increasingly hysterical as the day progressed, shuffling our feet and cackling madly. I have spent a while trying in vain to remember why our conversations were so funny. I remember the content perfectly well. However, in black-and-white type, none of it is humorous. It's just regular conversation. But we couldn't stop laughing anyway. We were like 12-year-old girls at a sleepover. A sleepover where instead of talking about boys and braiding hair, we decided to hike over mountains in a heat index above 100 degrees and almost 100% humidity. The effect is the same, as it turns out. If only my 12-year-old self had known! Ah, the heartache I would have been spared!

Near the end of the day, I got a burst of energy that sent me hiking ahead of Whistle and Dumptruck. The energy probably came from the part of my animal brain that was seeking shelter; the part of my brain that's supposed to kick in when there's an actively erupting volcano somewhere behind me and high-tailin' it is probably my best option. I had plenty of water and food, and I wasn't really in any danger. I just needed to reach my destination so that I wouldn't have to be moving in the heat anymore. My solution was just to move faster. This solution, in retrospect, is never a good one.

The last part of the day involved a steep descent that switchbacked over a cascade of loose bowling-ball sized rocks. My speed didn't slacken, in fact, it increased exponentially as heat exhaustion and bad judgment coalesced into me basically sprinting down the hill. I could see the road between the trees far below, and I wanted nothing more than to be at the bottom. I didn't slow down except for the moment when I tripped and launched forward with the speed needed for rockets to escape earth's gravitational pull. I hurtled forward, and in that moment, I happened to throw my hiking poles out in front of me. The tips of the poles jammed into the crevices of the rocks in front of me, and the handles of the poles smashed into my pelvis, stopping me like I had been rammed in the stomach by the shoulder of a football player. 

I stood there for a moment, wheezing and doubled over my hiking poles. I spent a little while mentally scolding myself along the lines of Clever Girl? No! Silly Girl! Rocket Girl! CLOBBER GIRL. Tangentially, Clobber Girl and Cleaver Girl are alternate identities bestowed upon me by Whistle. Clobber Girl is when I am flail-y and just as likely to injure myself as someone else. Cleaver Girl is for when the zombie apocalypse happens.

I righted myself and languidly made my way down the rest of the trail, like nothing had happened. Oh, don't mind me! Just out for a lovely afternoon stroll! 

About 100 feet from the road, resting against a tree, was a half-drank 2-liter bottle of Coca Cola. There was no trail angel note. There was no other food or drink evidence around. It was not a gift from the trail gods. It was trash, and it looked like it had been there for a few days. I looked at it longingly for a moment, but I drew the line at liquids.

I sat at the road crossing, sweating and drinking water. Whistle joined me a few moments later, near tears for relief. 

"Did you see that bottle of coke?" I croaked.

"Yes," she sighed. "I thought about it, but I couldn't do it. I just couldn't do it."

10 minutes later, I looked up to the sound of Dumptruck making his way out of the forest. He emerged carrying a now, very empty, 2-liter bottle of coke.

"Did you drink that?!" I asked, shocked and impressed.

Dumptruck grinned.

"It was flat. And delicious."

Clever Girl

I'd love to give you a photo of this, but neither Dumptruck nor I took any photos this day because we were debilitated.