Friday, January 31, 2014

144. Spit Takes

The five of us squished ourselves into Apollo's car, which he had been able to temporarily re-acquire because he had been at his parent's house for a day. It was late June during our thru-hike, and Apollo had been long-planning a barbecue with his family in New Jersey when he reached the section of the AT that went relatively close to their house. He was several hundred miles ahead of us at this point on the trail. Through a long chain of round-about communication down the trail, Grim, Whistle, Dumptruck and I were able to get picked up by Apollo for a day of delightful merriment, and then a ride back to the trail afterward.

Whistle was clutching a treat, some sort of chocolate ice cream coffee milkshake concoction from a fast food restaurant, covered in whipped cream and sprinkles. She was silently sitting in the middle seat, eyes closed in blissful happiness, ingesting as much of the slushy sugar fest as possible in one breath. Her cheeks were puffed out to the side, her mouth completely full of the stuff. Grim sat with Apollo in the front seat as we drove down the highway, chatting animatedly about the fun things that would happen at the house, such as swimming in the pool and eating food cooked in a bona fide kitchen. 

"Oh, oh, do you guys have a horse shoe pit?" asked Grim.

"No," said Apollo, without missing a beat, "We keep our horses above the ground like normal people."

Being in proximity to the resultant spray of chocolate-y dairy that exploded from Whistle's face was a little like being trapped inside the car with a loose fire hose. It only lasted for a second, as most spit takes do, but the aftermath was expansive. From her place in the middle backseat, Whistle had managed to propel bits of her drink all over the backs of the seats, the knees of me and Dumptruck, the faces of Grim and Apollo, and all the way onto the inside of the windshield. There was a layer of one-molecule-thick vaporized coffee all over everything.

Apollo and Grim silently raised their hands to touch the gooey coffee face-spray on their cheeks, while Whistle's jaw dropped open in embarrassed horror at the destruction she had wrought. Dumptruck, glancing around at the scene, adopted a look of pure delight. All of these things put together was too much for me, and I succumbed to a giggle-fit so intense that I had to curl up into a tiny ball to keep myself from peeing my pants a little bit. 

"I, I'm so sorry," Whistle stammered, wiping coffee dribble off of her own chin and ineffectually reaching forward to try and smudge some of the spit off of Grim's face, "I'm just so used to being in the woods! I forgot what it was like to be in a confined space!!"

It was true, one of the most immediately endearing qualities I first noticed about Whistle was that she laughed very easily. This is an incredibly charming quality, because it makes whoever told the joke feel totally awesome. There is nothing quite as satisfying as delivering a joke and getting your intended audience to laugh. It is even more enormously satisfying if the result is not only a laugh, but such a complete breakdown of bodily function in the face of humor that your intended audience spits liquid all over themselves.

While hiking, the ratio of time of drinking water to not drinking water is a little higher than in regular life, so there's always just better odds of making someone laugh while their mouth is full. The bonus of being in the wilderness is that when you inevitably Spit Take, is that it's completely, 100% fine. Nothing on your person can get any filthier than it already is. The rocks and trees don't mind a little bit of accidental water misting. Heck, maybe the person in front of you might even appreciate the cooling-off effect on the back of their neck if it is a hot day!

It got to the point where Whistle laid down a law that none of us were allowed to speak at all if she was in the midst of drinking anything. She would lift her water bottle to her lips, someone would start to speak, and her eyes would open wide in a plaintiff, pleading sort of look that said, "Please, please have mercy on me. I am thirsty and I want to be able to actually drink without spluttering everywhere."

But be wary, my fellow hiker. Be wary of the spit take when you re-enter society, or have to exist in it for a short period of time during your hike. People don't take as kindly to all the rocket-propelled saliva. But when you're out in those woods, spit away, my friend.

Spit away.

Clever Girl

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

146. Trail Treasures

After a certain amount of time, hikers' eyes adjust to the organized chaos of the natural world. Even thought it's a riot of color and ostensible randomness, somehow we get used to it. Any slight deviation is immediately recognizable, our eyes like laser beams for any tiny sparkle in our path.

It's like finding a diamond in the rough, except that it's trash! Fun trash! You'd think we were finding gold in the Yukon based on our disproportionate level of excitement about little bits of human refuse. It's usually "micro-trash" like accidentally dropped bits of granola bar wrappers, an empty ziploc bag, or if you're lucky, an entire sandal. Don't get me wrong, the AT isn't covered in garbage, it's just that with the amount of people (day hikers, weekend hikers, fabulous raccoons with a penchant for pizzazz), every once in a while things gets dropped or fall out of packs without being noticed.

You may or may not know this, but once you become a long-distance hiker, you are bestowed sacred super powers that must be used to extend the longevity and ecological health of the trail. One of the super powers is the development of x-ray eyeballs that can spot long-forgotten garbage from 15 feet away. ISN'T THAT EXCITING!? It's only a matter of time before there is a long-distance hiker graphic novel, where hikers are kind of like the X-Men, except smellier, and their super powers are things like "Can dig a perfect Cat Hole" and "Can eat absolutely all of the things."

Sometimes we get lucky and find things that don't just add to our ziploc baggie of "things to carry around for weeks because I keep forgetting to throw it out when I'm in a town." Sometimes we find TREASURE. One time we found a bottle of Dave's Insanity Hot Sauce. And one time Dumptruck found a button in the middle of the trail. A spectacular button:

Those eyes. Like windows to the soul of kittens. Look at that face! So perfectly pathetic! It was like it was just waiting there on the trail, wishing someone would find it. Dumptruck carried it proudly displayed on his pack for days before we found its original owner, who said that he could keep it. 

Pirates, X-Marks-The-Spot is for gold and gems. For hikers, X-Marks-The-Spot is for keeping the trail healthy and clean. Leave No Trace! LNT! And if you're lucky, sometimes you find real treasure.

One time I found a penny!

Clever Girl

Technical Difficulties!

Hey there sportsfans! I updated this last night from my iPod, but apparently it didn't upload! I didn't notice until just now. AND NOW IT'S GONE. CURSES. I'm not really sure what happened, except that perhaps it was eaten by the Internet ether. I will try and rewrite it ASAP right now. It might not be up to the snuff of my regular writing because I will be trying to re-pull it out of my memory, but I'll do my very best!

Thank you for your understanding and patience!

Love and indebtedness,
Clever Girl

Friday, January 24, 2014

147. General Disregard for Social Norms

Dumptruck put down his menu and looked down at himself.

"I think I need a new shirt."

The Applebees waitress raised an eyebrow, but to her enormous credit, resisted the urge to comment and walked away with our orders. Dumptruck was wearing his white Columbia polyester t-shirt shirt that he'd been wearing for the entire trail. We were in Pennsylvania, and though we had just done laundry, Dumptruck's shirt had long since given up the idea of presenting itself as white. It was ripped and stained in an intricate pattern of mottled brown gradients that would make the most experienced of tie-dye artists salivate with jealousy. That is, if they liked their tie-dye to look like it had been made by repeatedly using the shirt as a coffee filter for making Kopi Luwak*

Grim, Whistle and I tilted our heads to the side to observe Dumptruck in his shirt.

"Time for a new shirt," I said.

"Yup," agreed Grim.

"I like it how it is!" encouraged Whistle.

Dumptruck, now resolved, got up from the table.

"I see a sports store on the other side of this parking lot. I'm going to go see if they have anything."

He weaved his way through our shameful pile of stinky backpacks, pausing to open a zipper and pull out a ripped old ziploc bag of crumpled dollar bills. He was gone for 15 minutes or so, and when he returned, he was wearing a shiny, brand new, nicely-fitting Under Armor shirt. It was very, very new. It was also very, very white.

"Why did you get ANOTHER white shirt? I give it 2 days before it just looks like the old one," I teased him, but I was actually a bit flustered because he looked so dashing in his new getup. He grinned and slid into his seat at the booth just as the grease-laden calorie buckets of our lunches appeared.

"It's too hot for any other color! But wait, I have to tell you what happened. I went into the store, and there were just a couple of guys in their 20's behind the counter. I was the only one in there. I walked up to this display of shirts and picked up one that I thought might be the right size. I held it up and caught the eye of one of the kids.

"'Hey, can I try this on?' I asked. He said 'Yeah.'

"So I just pulled off my shirt in the middle of the store and tried to put on the new shirt. It was too small, so I was struggling for a while with my arms stuck inside of it."

"Wait," I stopped him, "Did they SAY anything when you just stripped down in front of them?"

"I didn't strip down! I just took my shirt off!"

I stared at him. He blushed.

"ANYWAY," he continued, "One of the kids was like 'Uhhh, you know, we have dressing rooms...' At that point I had gotten out of the smaller shirt, and I was just standing in front of the display without a shirt on, pawing through the shirts to try and find the right size. I suddenly realized how completely insane I must have looked, but it was way too late. What was I gonna do, just walk out of the store shirtless? No! I wanted to get a new shirt! So I found the right size, put it on, and then walked up to the counter. I had to lean over the counter so the guy could find the tag and ring up the shirt. He even found a pair of scissors and cut the tag off for me. I asked if he could throw away my old shirt for me, so he did. He just took it and tossed it in the little trash can behind the counter with the tag from my new shirt.

"So, what do you think? Do you like it?" He struck a model pose in his new shirt.

"Yup," I nodded, a mouthful of greasy pretzel bits, "It's perfect."

Clever Girl

*Kopi Luwak or "civet coffee," refers to the beans of coffee berries once they have been eaten and excreted by the Asian palm Civet.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

148. Repurposing Baby Wipes

"Oh... Oh my god."

"What?" I looked up from my activity, which was systematically emptying all of the contents out my backpack to try and find one of my gloves. I was up to my armpits, leaning over my pack, scrabbling my hands blindly around inside. I had been digging deeper and deeper into the contents of my bag, pulling out a ridiculous assortment of things. It was like being Mary Poppins, if Mary Poppins had suffered a terrible head injury and completely forgot what it meant to be a proper British lady.

"What," I saw that the stranger was pointing a dramatic finger at one of the things I had pulled out of my backpack, "is THAT?!"

I followed her accusatory gesture and saw that she was indicating the gallon-sized ziploc bag of filthy brown rags sitting by my foot, where it had been tossed moments before.

"Oh, those are just baby wipes," I shrugged.

I was momentarily confused by her look of utmost horrified revulsion, but then I realized the mistake.

"Oh! No! It's not that. It's just mud!" I cried out, pulling my arms out of my backpack and waving my hands back and forth as though to scatter away the nightmarish notion of saving and carrying around baby wipes that had been used in their intended manner. And yet, in response to this, she gasped in an even more scandalized way.

"Oh my goodness," I rolled my eyes, "Mud from my LEGS."

She raised an eyebrow, shook her head at me and then walked away. This young hiker was a very fancy young lady who was visiting her thru-hiking boyfriend and hiking with him for a few days. We were at a shelter in Vermont, and most of the night was had endured her fancy-lady protestations about the dismal conditions in which we were living.

Meanwhile, I had been feeling rather clean and well-groomed because Dumptruck and I had just received a new shipment of dehydrated baby wipes from my mom.  This was a trick that a previous thru-hiker had taught Dumptruck and I before we left, and we had thoroughly enjoyed it throughout the entire trail.

1. Get baby wipes!
2. String up a bunch of clothing lines and clothespin the baby wipes up to dry. This has the added benefit of making your kitchen or living room look like there's a lovely afternoon tea party going on, decorated with 100 tiny white flags.
3. Let it all air dry! This takes just about a day.
4. Pack out the baby wipes with you! If you are lucky enough to have folks send maildrops to you, you can have them send you these! They will be super light because they don't have any water or moisture.
5. At the end of a day of hiking, if you're wearing shorts, your lower legs will be COVERED IN MUD. Frankly, even if you're wearing pants, there will be mud inside your socks. This is one of the certainties of hiking life. Take out a dehydrated baby wipe and pour a little bit of water from your water bottle onto it to rehydrate it.

Campers! Bum wipes: Not just for bums anymore.

Some of you folks that know a bit about outdoor gear might be wondering why we didn't just wear shoe gaiters. Mostly it's because we were too cheap to buy any, but it's also because a lot of gaiters just can't stand up to the long-term abuse of thru-hiking.

This is a completely unnecessary luxury, but I loved it because it kept the inside of my sleeping bag from accumulating months worth of dirt and mud. It also helped me feel a little cleaner in general, considering I wouldn't shower for a week at a time.

The only downside was then having to pack out a bag full of used baby wipes and scandalizing  the general population.

Worth it.

Clever Girl

Monday, January 20, 2014


Whistle (my hiking partner) studied entomology in college. That's the study of insects and bugs and things. This is not to be confused with etymology, which is the study of how to teach insects how to properly use the English language. Both are quite tricky, and both mostly consist of just trying to pin the insects down so they'll quit moving and pay attention already.

While we hiked the trail, Whistle was always very good at identifying the weird little arthropods that would be crawling all over us and our possessions at any given time. This was especially helpful when she could let us know what sorts of things we should be mindful of in regard to our general well-being and health. 

At some point she was hiking behind Dumptruck when she let out a tiny "Yip!" sound and smacked his backpack hard with her hand. Dumptruck stopped and turned around, confused.

"What's up?" 

"Oh, nothing," she shrugged, "You just had an Assassin Bug on your backpack."

"A WHAT?!"

"It's nothing. It wouldn't have killed you. It just would have hurt for weeks afterward."

Throughout our adventures, I sometimes remembered to snap a little photo of the invertebrate critters with my iPod. Today, I sat down with each of the photos and asked Whistle to explain to me what they were. She dictated some things to me, which I wrote down verbatim. We agreed that she wasn't allowed to look anything up, she just had to try and identify them from memory. So if there are any other entomologists out there, be nice! She hasn't had to know this stuff for almost 2 years now!

For each insect I have provided Whistle's Scientific Identification, followed closely thereafter by my own scientific identification. Also, I have included what I think they would be saying if insects could talk.


Whistle's Scientific Identification: It looks like a Tomato Hornworm, but I don't know for sure. That would be Manduca quinquemaculatum (that's genus, species). They're pests. They eat all of your tomatoes, all year long. Just kidding, they only eat tomatoes in the summer, when there are actually tomatoes to eat. They're closely related to the tobacco hornworm.  But really, it could be a lot of different sphinx caterpillars, but I'm too lazy to look it up. It's pretty! They're also really squishy.

Clever Girl Translation: It looks a little bit like if a yellow chicklets and a gummy worm had a baby. So I will call it Worst Movie Candy Bug.



Whistle's Scientific Identification: So, that's a dragonfly. You can tell it's a dragonfly because of the way that it is. It's a big fatty, which is one way to be able to tell that it's not a damselfly. Dragonflies and damselflies are Odonates. You can generally tell the difference because damselflies are skinnier and they usually rest with their wings folded above their backs, but dragonflies always rest with their wings outstretched (flings arms to the side to demonstrate). They have hilarious aquatic nymphs that look like spiders and they can eat tadpoles sometimes. Yup. That might specifically be a Blue Dasher, but I'm not sure.

Clever Girl Translation: D'aawww it is adorable and I will keep it and it will be my pet and I will call it Cornelius Von HopperBottom the Third.



Whistle's Scientific Identification: That's a katydid. It's in the family Tettigoniidae. They're Orthopterans, like grasshoppers and crickets. You can tell them apart from grasshoppers because grasshoppers have little stubby knob antennae, whereas katydids have long filamentous antennae. They like to hang out on the tops of trees, or the tops of Dumptrucks. Also, they sound like aliens. SOMETIMES THEY ARE BRIGHT PINK. LOOK IT UP.

Clever Girl Translation: This dude rode on Dumptruck's hat for hours! I will call it Hat Bug!



Whistle's Scientific Identification: I'm pretty sure that's a Black Widow, but I can't tell super well from the picture, but that's what I remember. I don't want to be held responsible for remembering this, because it was at the beginning of a 24 hour fugue-state (Clever Girl translation: 5am on the day that we got up and hiked 44 miles). This was crawling on my tent. Black Widows are in the genus Latrodectus! P.S. You shouldn't be that afraid of Black Widow spiders because it's really hard to die of a Black Widow bite, especially if you are a healthy adult. You should be more wary when it comes to picking up Wheel Bugs, which also won't kill you, but will hurt a lot. Also, Wheel Bugs are not at all related to spiders. Shut up.

Clever Girl Translation: YIKES. THAT'S A BLACK WIDOW. I'M OUT. PEACE. 



Whistle's Scientific Identification: This is a Dobsonfly. They are Megalopterans. They have aquatic nymphs (babies) called Hellgrammites which are horrifying monsters that can be 8 inches long. I saw one that was 8 inches long, anyway. Once they're not gross water monsters, they fly around and scare people but the real truth is that they won't hurt you. The males (like this one) have huge ridiculous mouth parts to basically show off to potential mates. They will never bite you.

Clever Girl Translation: I'm hereby knight you: Giant Nightmare Face Bug.



Whistle's Scientific Identification: This is some kind of sphinx moth. I'm too lazy to look up what kind. If you're sensing a pattern here, with the sphinx moths, good job. I don't care very much about Lepidoptera. They are shiny and pretty and showy and they get lots of attention from enough other people. My favorite sphinx moth, no wait, my TWO favorite sphinx moths are the Pandorus Sphinx moth which looks super cool and clearwing bee-mimic moths that you can catch with you bare hands in front of people, convincing them that you have just caught a bee in front of your hands. Then you can scream a lot, and then let the moth out of your clutches. The way you can tell a moth apart from a butterfly is that butterflies have clubbed antennae (antennae with little balls on the end), and moths have feathery delightful sensuous antennae. Welcome to bugs.

Clever Girl Translation: I found this on a bathroom wall somewhere in a state park in Pennsylvania(?). I will call it Beautiful Bathroom Bug.

Clever Girl

P.S.A. From Whistle:
Remember kids, even though millipedes might smell delicious, they are poisonous. Do not eat them.

Friday, January 17, 2014

150. The Magical Green Thumb

I have never in my life been able to keep plants alive. Year after year, wilted heartache after wilted heartache, I decided that enough innocent bonsais, spider plants and succulents had died on the sword of my hubris. I vowed never to buy another plant, convinced that I was cursed somehow. I tried very hard, but every plant I ever owned just loved to die.

This is the sort of thing that'll get to a girl after a while. 

But all that has changed. After the trail ended, I was gifted a few plants as housewarming gifts for the new apartment. I say "new apartment," as though we somehow would have been able to have plants at the "old apartment," i.e., our tent. Regardless, I accepted the plants with a mixture of gratitude and horror.

As soon as those plants were in my hands, I knew it was a countdown to the moment that they would slowly shrivel and dessicate like so many sunbathing vampires. I delicately placed the plants in the windows of my little New England apartment, and waited for their inevitable descent into Eleanor Rigby-type malaise.

But that's not what happened.

No, quite to the contrary, I have kept EIGHT PLANTS not only alive but thriving for months. One of them is even an ORCHID. These plants are totally rockin it in a freezing cold apartment that hardly ever gets above 55 degrees because we're trying to save the environment (read: save money) by abstaining from using the thermostat unless it gets well below freezing. NOT EVEN THIS HAS KILLED THE ORCHID. ISN'T THAT INSANE?! I AM SORRY FOR ALL THE CAPS LETTERS. AM I MAKING IT WORSE? I THINK I'M MAKING IT WORSE.

Before I go any further, I want to recognize that what I'm about to talk about teeters dangerously on the border of flimflam, hokum, balderdash and, well, bullshit territory. In accordance with this, I want to introduce you to the POPPYCOCK-O-METER. 

This is a helpful scaled meter, from 1 to 10, that I will use to rate my different theories on why I have suddenly obtained magical green thumb abilities. A rating of 1 means that it is only vaguely unlikely, whereas a rating of 10 indicates full-blown unabashed claptrap. 

For a meter, I will use my fingers which are, at this very moment, stained completely green. I was making homemade play-doh. It turned out exactly as it was supposed to, and not nearly as delicious as we always think it should be. Seriously, play-doh has no right to smell so salty-good and then taste so much like outdoor public pool water at the end of the summer.

Anyway, let's move on to:


Theory #1:

Maybe Clever Girl has just matured enough in both years and mind to actually water her plants at the appropriate times, and with the appropriate amount of water.

Poppycock-O-Meter Rating: 2. 
Because Clever Girl will never completely mature. Case in point: her hands are currently stained green from making homemade play-doh for no other reason than just feeling like it.

Theory #2:

Maybe Clever Girl just happened to be gifted plants that are easier to take care of than the plants she's had before

Poppycock-O-Meter Rating: 6

This is ridiculous. Say what you want, there were no easy plants for Clever Girl, and she tried SO MANY DIFFERENT KINDS. There were just plants that died, plants that took a little longer to die, and wax plants bought from arts n' crafts stores.

Theory #3:

Clever Girl was blessed by a magical Appalachain Trail forest fairy and given nature powers.

Poppycock-O-Meter Rating: 10
This is absurd. Magical forest fairies do not grant special powers. They bite.

Theory #4:

Somehow, throughout her time and months existing fully in the natural world as a long-distance hiker, Clever Girl's energy was shifted slightly toward a subtle understanding of plantlife. Perhaps she learned to be aware of the tiny, previously imperceptible way that plants communicate and give off their own energy. Perhaps the quietness of the woods brings with it a long-term gift for hearing the voices in the silence of the woods; for hearing the inaudible spectrum changes in the language of plants.

Poppycock-O-Meter Rating: ????
Well that was a steaming crock of...

Clever Girl

In case you're wondering, I think it's Theory #4. Sometimes things happen that we don't understand, but that make the world just a little more magical, and I think that's okay.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

151. Bizarre Trail Pets

I have always had a conflictual relationship with rodents. When I was in 3rd grade, I convinced my mom to let me babysit the classroom guinea pig babies over Christmas break. My sister and I spent hours constructing mazes out of blocks to see if we could train the fuzzy mobile golf balls to find treats. They found the food approximately 50% of the time, which was scientifically intriguing by our standards. They pooped everywhere 100% of the time, but we could not decipher the statistical significance of that. They would make and equal amount of squeaky-toy noises when they found the food or when they were relieving themselves on the carpet. This was puzzling, and completely threw off our findings.

My general understanding of having a rodent as a pet was that one would have to resign oneself to the smell. I have nothing against rodents at all, but I only tried to own them once, and it ended in a terrible disaster, so I've never tried since then. Some are admittedly cuter than others (e.g., chinchilla, capybara, chupacabra, (oh no, I just started listing strange creatures that start with the letter "C" (Sorry about that (HOW DO I GET OUT OF THESE PARENTHESES?!)))), but all of them carry a certain musk. In general, I think that they are meant to live outside, and being in a cage is just generally troublesome. As it goes with most creatures. Especially if you have a dwarf hamster that has figured out how to pry open the bars of her cage, and will wake you up in the middle of the night by crawling all over your face. Don't worry, when I accidentally thwacked her off my face in my sleep, sending her sailing across the room, she landed on a pillow on my roommate's bed. Unfortunately that pillow was currently being occupied by my roommate's head.

At Sassafras Gap Shelter we met a hiker named Domino. He had a ferret. This ferret's non-hiker name was Splinter, but his trail name was alternately Breakfast, Lunch or Dinner, depending on the time of day. Domino was a pretty hardcore ex-army guy built like a brick privy, and it was pretty endearing that he took very gentle care of his furry little friend. Splinter would ride on the top of Domino's pack throughout the day, and would sleep with him, curled in his sleeping bag. 

I have heard that ferrets are a bit ornery in general, and that they might be more likely to try and eat your nose hairs than give you a hug. But apparently some of them are quite sweet and cuddly. Splinter was one of the latter breeds. Not only did he sleep in my lap while Domino and other hikers were making dinner, he also would drink water out of a bottle cap and very gently take proffered food out of people's hands.

Basically, Splinter/Breakfast/Lunch/Dinner was perfect for the trail because he was outside all the time, which meant that he was never stinky. He was trained to wake Domino up in the night when he had to do his business, and Domino would open the tent, let him do his thing, and then Splinter would crawl back inside. Domino never had to deal with most common and unfun side effect of owning a rodent: cleaning out the cage. Ferrets were more or less the perfect trail pet. Not only was Splinter a solid gold chick magnet, he also scared all the resident food-stealing mice out of the shelter. The only "problem" was when he snuck out of Domino's sleeping bag in the middle of the night and went prancing across several other hikers, causing a wave of startled screaming and general flailing.

I immediately wanted a trail ferret, but Dumptruck talked me out of it, and I appreciate that. I wouldn't have known what to do when I returned to real life and would have to introduce my ferret to my cats. They wouldn't have been friends. There would have been a lot of civil debates and accusations of political tomfoolery and questioning of each others' moral character and such. That, in addition to the hissing and slapping one another about. Heavens. I say!

I met another hiker briefly that had a rat as a pet. Furthermore, there are several tales of people having trail cats that ride on folks' backpacks. It always pleased me to no end when I would hear about these bizarre trail pets. People and their weirdo animals, traveling the globe together. I always wished I could have had a trail pet.

At least I had Whistle.

Clever Girl

Monday, January 13, 2014

152. Being Okay with Going the Speed Limit

The first time that I got behind the driver's seat of a car after hiking the Appalachian Trail, I was utterly terrified. This wasn't because I hadn't driven a car for 6 months. It was because I hadn't driven a car in 5 years. I hadn't had any reason to own or drive a car living in New York City, and before that, I had only driven for a total of 18 months. I got my driver's license when I was 21 years old, had an old stick-shift Geo Prism with 280,000 miles on it until I was 22, and then I moved to New York City. I called the car "Scamp" because it was like a mangy old dog that you can't help but love, and also because it smelled vaguely of noodles. Like, all the time.

After the trail, I knew I was going to have to bite the bullet and learn how to drive again. As awesome as it is to live on the coast in New England, it is severely lacking in the "All-Encompassing-Underground-Subway-Railroad" department. Which is probably good because it absolutely would be destroyed by frost heave. If you live in one of those states full of people who like sunshine and perpetual summer, it's possible you don't know what frost heave is. Take off your sunglasses and stop smearing that sunscreen on your nose for a second, because some knowledge is about to, as they say, be dropped.

Frost heave is when water seeps down underneath roads in the fall, freezes and expands in the winter pushing the road up, then melts away in the spring, leaving giant feet-wide empty bubbles of asphalt in the street that explode and disintegrate magnificently when driven over, summarily ruining the car's suspension. There are so many people in New England that have accidentally fallen into The Land of the Lost that there's whole support groups for it. I can't imagine what that would do to underground tunnels. Thus: no subways. After that completely unnecessary tangent that I could possibly delete but I won't because INTEGRITY, I will move on. So I guess I shouldn't complain about a lack of a subway, because it would just be full of lobsters anyway.

I was quite nervous when I got into the driver's seat of our "new" car (read: 210,000 mile Subaru Outback, the State Car of Maine). I was completely convinced that there was now an invisible ticker floating above my head, just waiting to count off the thousands of mailboxes and trash cans I was going to run over and send flying into the sky, their contents exploding out into the open air like so much confetti.

I did fine re-learning how to drive this past Fall of 2013, and the only victim of my Return to Adulthood was an empty plastic water bottle that had blown into the street. I accidentally ran it over, and then hit my head on the ceiling of the car because I was so terrified of the sound of the EXPLODING BOTTLE that I rocketed upward out of my seat.

The thing that I have found to be so incredible is the speed. Before I hiked the trail, even when I was a passenger in a car, I never really understood how fast we were moving. I would expect that, in general, people would drive at least 5 to 9 miles over the speed limit at any given point and that was normal. Obeying a 25 mph speed limit felt like trying to do The Worm in a shallow kiddie pool full of snot. So slow. So painfully slow. Also, gross, somehow? I don't know. R.I.P. That Metaphor.

But I noticed something almost immediately when I began driving again. I was going 15 mph through a zone, and I glanced to my right. I couldn't help imagining that I wasn't driving, but hiking. As soon as I attempted to picture a person propelling themselves forward at the speed of the car, I was almost sick with how fast that would be. That would be a 4 minute mile, which some people are capable of, but is RIDICULOUSLY FAST.

I only looked to my right for a fraction of a second before I looked forward again, but that fraction of a second was enough to remind me that I used to only be able to get from one place to another by the propulsion of my feet. I was reminded that cars are miraculous, magic-machines that get us from one place to another at an insane wizard-speed. And with that, I have never been in a rush to get anywhere anymore. Don't get me wrong, I don't hold up traffic. But if I'm stuck behind someone going slow, I know that it just doesn't matter. I'll get to the grocery store eventually. My friends will forgive me if I'm a few minutes late. I'll get to work on time because I left on time. For the first time in my life, I am okay with going the speed limit.

Clever Girl

Friday, January 10, 2014

153. More Miles Than Degrees Club

I rolled over in my sleeping bag, almost completely blind to the world outside. I wiggled around a little bit to dislodge my arms, and crept my fingertips up toward my face to try and find the tiny opening. I had sinched the head space of the sleeping bag down to the most minuscule size possible, in order to minimize the flow of freezing cold air. This is something I would often do when it was really cold. The downside was that if I didn't keep my nose and mouth perfectly aligned with the itty bitty oxygen hole, then I would start to slowly suffocate inside my bag. But I'd be warm! So there was that.

My fingers scrabbled blindly around inside the pitch-dark prison of the sleeping bag. I finally found the opening, and slowly started to pull on it, in order to widen my window to the outside world. The first thing I noticed was that the material all around the opening of my sleeping bag was crunchy, coated in a fine layer of ice. The second thing I noticed was that the sun had started to rise. Low-angled, cold winter sunlight was starting to give shadows and definition to the other bundles around me, giving shape to the other huddled hikers.

I pulled on the string until the opening was just wide enough for both of my eyes. I heard the soft sounds of hikers gathering their things and packing up around me. I wasn't ready yet to venture out of my cocoon, so I stared up at the ceiling of the wooden lean-to of Sassafras Gap Shelter, and listened to the quiet conversations of my fellows. We had only been on the trail for 2 weeks at this point, so most of the voices I heard were strangers, people I had only started to know, and people I wouldn't ever see again. As is the nature of the trail, and the flux of hiking speed.

"Oh my god, it's so cold."

"Look at all the snow!"

"It would look more beautiful if I was inside looking out at it."

"What's the temperature? Does anyone have a thermometer?"

"Yeah, I do, hold on, it's on my backpack. Here it is, it's.... yikes."

"What? What is it?"


"Seven what? Seven DEGREES?"

"Yes. Seven degrees Fahrenheit."


After listening to this, I snuggled down even more staunchly into the warm cave of my sleeping bag, turning my head away from the opening to plunge myself back into the comforting darkness. It was my kingdom, my safe space, my stinky wonderland. And no one was going to stop me from staying in it FOREVER.

"Clever Girl, we should get moving."

I pulled my buff up and over my face and sighed. I knew I was going to have to get up, and I knew I'd be motivated as soon I was outside of the bag. I was going to try and think of a metaphor to describe what it's like to be inside somewhere very warm and be forced to go out somewhere very cold, ALL DAY LONG. But I don't think it needs a metaphor. It exists perfectly well all on its own.

I was able to get up, pack up, and stuff a frozen block of Pop-Tarts into my mouth. I don't know why I remember those Pop Tarts specifically that day, but they were raspberry. With the taste of tangy, chemical berries on my tongue, Dumptruck, Apollo and I headed out and up on our way.

We hiked 15.2 miles that day. It was only 7 degrees outside. My brother-in-law said that this is known as the "More Miles Than Degrees Club," or, as I like to call it more affectionately, "Why We Outdoor Enthusiasts are the Dumbest."

You earn membership in this completely made-up not-at-all-real-but-kinda-cool-anyway club if you run, hike or walk outside for more miles than there are degrees Fahrenheit. If it's negative degrees, then you have to hike backwards while eating a jar of nutella and singing the National Anthem. I'm not sure how many other times on trail we reiterated our membership to this club, but it was probably several times. I didn't even get hypothermia that first day, but probably because it was a clear crisp day rather than, say, a blizzard.

Dumptruck says that he really regrets not taking a photograph of the ice that had formed around the mouth of my sleeping bag that day, the only part of me visible being my icy red nose. He has since made up for missing that moment by taking a photograph of me from earlier this week, when I went running in the morning for a distance and in a temperature that very firmly put me back in the more-miles-than-degrees club. Toward the end of my run, when the icicles were obscuring my vision, I knew he'd probably want to capture it. So when I made it home, my butt a solid block of ice, I knocked on our own door and hollered in that he should bring his camera down. So he did.

Clever Girl

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

154. The Potential for Cheering Up

Whistle told me a story today about a time before we met her and Hotdog. This was early on in the trail, when every single mile was fascinating, incredible, and full of endless pain. They were headed down a mountain toward the Nantahala Outdoor Club (NOC), an outfitter and restaurant that was directly on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. Whistle told me that it was, for whatever reason, incredibly hard that day. Her knees were hurting, her feet were hurting, she was exhausted and cranky. The trail leading down toward NOC felt like it went on forever, each step sending a series of reverberating lightning bolts of aches to the still-fragile early-trail knees.

Whistle and Hotdog both were feeling a bit forlorn. They knew that if they could just keep going, they would be able to make it to a great little restaurant. Endless fresh food, cooked by someone else, was waiting for them. But sometimes knowing that something great was at the end of the day made the day itself feel awful. It was a little like being a donkey with a carrot dangling in front of its nose, tantalizingly out of reach. Furthermore, early on the trail it was impossible to gauge how long it was going to take anyone to hike any distance. All we knew was that it was going to "take a long time, be really cool, and all of us are going to hurt like we just somersaulted down 7 flights of stairs."

In a fit of pique, Whistle fished her cell phone out of her backpack and called one of her best friends, Elizabeth. Elizabeth had always been very supportive of Whistle, and was good at being direct.


Whistle explained her current circumstances, about the long hard day, and the NOC looming forever on the edge of the horizon. She expressed that both she and Hotdog were feeling pretty bummed, and that they needed some words of encouragement. 

On the other end of the line, there were a few moments of silence, then Elizabeth spoke.

"Let's get straight. Your problem right now is that you don't want to walk downhill for burgers?"

"Well, yes. But... But I'm tiiiiiirreeeedddd," Whistle whimpered, in that endearing pathetic kind of way.

"Alright. Let me tell you about my day. I woke up at 5 am to drive an hour to work, where I've spent the entire day being yelled at by my boss."


"Do you feel better?"


"Good. Love you, bye."

Whistle hung up her phone with a smile on her face and a little spring in her step. She shared the conversation with Hotdog, who also felt a lot better. They made their way down to the NOC, and ate the crap out of those burgers.

When you're out in the wilderness hiking, even if it's only for a few days, or for weeks or months, all it takes is a small reminder that brief freedom from the regular constraints of society is perfectly worth all of the pain of hiking. Being able to have that opportunity, no matter how short or long of a time, is an incredible privilege. Even when you have to work super hard to get the time off and save up the money to go on your adventure, it's still a privilege that you are able to get out there and do it. Sometimes being reminded not to take that privilege for granted is all it takes to be positive. 

It's not always easy to be cheered up on a long-distance hike, but every once in a while, that happiness is closer to your fingertips.

Clever Girl

Monday, January 6, 2014

155. No Motion Sickness

I went for a whale watch when I was 12 years old, and I didn't see a single whale. This was not because there were no whales to be seen. Indeed, my sister told me all sorts of amazing tales of seeing the grand majesty of the world's largest mammals. She even saw them surface and blow great columns of icy sea water like geysers over the endless horizon. The boat heaved and rocked on the swells of the sea, tilting and weaving like a drunk football player trying to navigate a field of drunker opponents.

I, meanwhile, was exercising my own interpretation of a "blowhole" over the side of the ship. I was clutching the rail, leaning over the edge and expelling a colorful rainbow of gifts to leave to Poseidon, the God of the Ocean, otherwise known more fondly as He Who Loves To Make People Barf. I coughed and shakily righted myself, wiping the back of my hand across my mouth. I looked blearily to the right, and saw 2 young boys gaping and laughing at me with their mouths hanging open. As an adolescent, I was generally pleasant and polite to strangers. But at that moment, I wasn't having it. I narrowed my eyes at the boys.

"Oh, I'm sorry," I said, interrupting their laughter, "Would you rather I did it INSIDE THE BOAT?!" And I made a move as though I was about to hurl in their general direction. They went pale and scampered away, their feet slip-sliding all over the wet sea-sprayed deck. I felt a little bad about it, but the guilt was swiftly mitigated by the fact that I immediately started hurling again over ramparts.

My entire life has been plagued by motion sickness. I was never able to go on another whale watch. My father was a Captain in the Coast Guard, and one time my sister and I were allowed to go on a 3-day excursion on his ship. We were going to go down the East Coast! We would get to hang out with cool sailors! Maybe there'd be whales! It was a giant ship, so maybe my motion sickness wouldn't be so bad! My sister spent the whole 3 days being an awesome mascot for the crew members, learning all the ins-and-outs of the ship, eating in the mess hall and playing cards with the old salty dogs. I think she even got to steer the ship at one point. I was (truthfully) very happy for her. However, I meanwhile spent the entire 3 days curled in a miserable ball in my dad's quarters, clutching my belly and hoping to die. I think the sum total of all the food I ate for those 3 days was: 5 gummy worms and 1,000 saltines.

One bonus of having terrible motion sickness was that it afforded me the privilege of sitting in the front seat on long car trips. As my father would so poetically say: "Pukers to the front!" I was not afforded the same level of kindness while living in New York City, as the closest thing to a "front seat" on a city bus is the sideways-facing gum-encrusted plastic molded nightmare chair positioned directly below a collection of armpits. Furthermore, it is inadvisable to yell "Shotgun!" on public transportation.

You might not be cursed with this affliction of over-active inner-ear fluid. Thus, this one probably doesn't apply to you. But this is from the perspective of someone who sees any sort of travel as some sort of morbid Hansel-and-Gretel journey with puke in place of bread crumbs. The fact that I was going to be able to make my way (albeit slowly) over a great distance without ever having to feel nauseous was incredible. I was going to make my way from Georgia to Maine, and I wouldn't ever have to feel ill in the process.

This might seem like it is a small victory. But sometimes what makes something great is not the presence of greatness, but also the absence of horribleness. Feeling nauseous is one of my least favorite feelings in the entire world. It feels like my body is betraying me, making me feel utterly icky for no real reason whatsoever. In general life, we are frequently expected to get places quickly, via car, plane, bus or train. But I was able to exist outside of that expectation for a while. It was sweet relief.

But then I went ahead and got Noro Virus anyway.

Clever Girl

Friday, January 3, 2014

156. Getting to Feel Like a Badass

In general I don't spend a lot of time being really brave and cool. That's not to say I'm a complete wimp, but in general day-to-day life, there's just not as much opportunity to put oneself in the line of danger. But being a long-distance hiker, there are all sorts of ways to get yourself into bizarre and perilous situations! And not even on purpose!

My hiking group was particularly notorious for more or less working our way through an entire First Aid handbook. We just wanted to make sure we covered all our bases. If we ever decide to be Wildernesss First Responders, we are going to be SO PREPARED.

It's been a while since I listed out all of the crazy, dangerous things that happened to me and my hiking group, so I figure this is as good a time as any to put it all in one place. So here it goes, in as close to chronological order as I can manage:

1. In the very first 15 minutes of the entire hike, headed to the top of Mt. Springer for the trailhead, Clever Girl slips on some ice, busts open her knee and smashes her head on a rock 
2. Surprise blizzard
3. Clever Girl getting late-stage hypothermia
4. Clever Girl getting frost bite in her right hand
5. Near starvation
6. Dumptruck falling and briefly dislocating his shoulder
7. Dumptruck losing so much weight that he worries he might have to leave the trail for malnutrition
8. Trapped in the Smoky Mountains because the road to Gatlinburg closed
9. Locked out of out own hotel room (this one wasn't actually dangerous, but I wanna leave it in)
10. Trail covered in ice and slush causing Hot Dog and Apollo to get swollen terrible shin splints
11. Whistle falling on ice and seriously injuring her knee
12. Getting to the last shelter in the Smokies and finding it full, such that Dumptruck and Clever Girl are forced to tent outside during an ice rain storm
13. Meeting a neonazi!
14. Hotdog's feet becoming two giant oozing uncontrollable blisters
15. Getting caught in a freak hailstorm on top of a bald with 70 mph winds
16. Ice collecting so heavily on all the trees that the trees split, crack, fall, crash and explode into a thousand pieces of wooden shrapnel and ice all around us as we sprint through the forest with our sleeping pads wrapped around our heads as helmets
17. Whistle getting hit with the Noro Virus before we knew the Noro Virus was a thing such that she is up vomiting mysteriously neon orange puke into a ziploc bag all night long while Hot Dog and I sit up with her at a loss of what to do
18. Hotdog and I both getting struck directly on the head with large chunks of falling ice
19. Dumptruck ACTUALLY dislocating his shoulder and not getting to the hospital for 7 hours
20. Hotdog getting a bizarre pus-filled rash all over her entire body that landed her in the hospital for 3 days on a continuous IV drip of benadryl and antibiotics
21. The Hunger falling twice on the same ankle and being unable to hike for a week and saying these words exactly: "GO ON WITHOUT ME" 
22. Clever Girl getting Noro Virus
23. Clever Girl getting Noro Virus AGAIN
24. Dumptruck getting Noro Virus
25. Clever Girl getting dehydration and heat stroke so badly that she has full-blown seizures for 30 minutes
26. Clever Girl getting bit by black flies and having no EpiPen and having to eat a continuous diet of benadryl
27. Clever Girl almost stepping on a Copperhead Snake
28. Grim getting Lyme Disease, surviving 30 days of continuous antibiotics while hiking in 100+ degree heat
29. Clever Girl getting stress fractures in her left foot
30. Clever Girl falling backward off a small cliff and being CAUGHT by Dumptruck who was directly below her
31. Grim accidentally kicking a rattlesnake sunning itself on the trail
32. Clever Girl twisting her knee and breaking a small bone her left hand
33. Dumptruck and Clever Girl hiking through a thunder storm where lightning was visibly striking the ground less than 200 feet away, several times.

Granted, the only times that I was actually close to death were temperature related (hypothermia and the heat stroke), but all of those other things were pretty gnarly too. For context, let me give you a list of the injuries and things I sustained in 2012:

1. Getting a cold.
2. Getting a cool scar on my arm from playing an insane game of Paintball, in which I was shot from 3 feet away.

That's it.

So I'm trying to convince you that hiking is awesome, right? And I choose to give you a list of all of the nightmarish things that happened instead? Here's why:

Though we went through all of that, we still considered the whole hike to be super awesome. Imagine how much positivity had to go down in order to outweigh all of THAT?

Also, being able to be a badass for a few months is pretty cool.

Clever Girl