Monday, March 31, 2014

126. Learning that the Hardest Way Can Be the Easiest Way

I can see the back parking lot of the Burger King, clearly visible, about 150 feet away. I am standing at the edge of a grocery store parking lot somewhere in New Jersey, my pack  slung heavily over one shoulder, several plastic bags of recently purchased groceries hanging from my hands. I have 2 choices for my adventure:

1. Directly in front of me is a tangled mass of brambles. Behind the brambles is a steep 6 foot slope to a river, 10 feet in diameter. There are a few large rocks in the river, and on the other side of the burbling water, the slope is also very steep. There is no clear path, because this is not a place that people are meant to walk.

2. To my left, the parking lot stretches for about 300 feet before it comes to a short paved car bridge over the river. All of my hiking partners have already started walking across the parking lot, headed for the logical river crossing.

But my brain, so used to following one cardinal direction, cannot possibly go so far out of my way when my goal is directly in front of me. The Burger King gleams in the hot summer sun, light glinting off the several overflowing dumpsters in its neglected back lot. The only thing between me and a $1 ice cream cone is my own sense of dignity and some wet trash. Distantly, I hear someone call my name, confused as to why I was not following the group. 

It's far too late for that. I have tied the plastic bags of free-swinging groceries to the straps of my backpack, and I am already pushing aside brambles. I step over the low concrete threshold and immediately slide forward down the steep rocky slope. Why in the world would I walk all the way over there, when I could cross this potentially dangerous suburban cesspool and get to Burger King in half the time?!

I have entered into the strange, otherwordly dimension of "nature in the middle of suburbia." This creek has probably been here for centuries, and the rocks under the water have shifted only slightly as the world around it was paved. Small birds and discarded fast food cups live in begrudging harmony. Here, a little brown lizard scurries away from my clumsy monster foot steps, and hides inside a styrofoam container with the moldering remains of what could only be chinese food. There, a sparrow pulls threads out of the lining of a discarded shoe. 

This is the unsettling, strange marriage of my two worlds. On one hand, I have been living in the woods, traveling through pristine landscape, kept trash-free and beautiful by all the hikers that have come before me. People who will carry a small wrapper for 100 miles rather than drop it on the ground. And on the other hand, there are the towns I hitch-hike into for supply runs, places where there trash cans abound yet no one can seem to actually throw anything away properly. And here, in this little creek, is a little bit of both. Earth going on, striving to be Earthly, and humans going on, trying to crap all over it. And little ol' me, being ostensibly lazy while also taking the hardest route possible. This is the human condition.

Meanwhile, I am indelicately making my way to the creek's edge, and then hopping across several large rocks. Though the water laps around the rocks, the exposed surfaces are bone dry because of the stifling summer heat. The plastic bags of groceries swing wildly around, throwing my balance off and making me look like the drunkest tight rope walker in the world. I hop-scotch my way across the creek, and then scramble up the far side, grabbing onto the posts of the hot guard rail to hoist myself up. I throw a leg over the railing and then drop down into the back parking lot of the Burger King. I drop my backpack outside the door, and wait for everyone else to show up. 

They do, a few minutes later, confused as to how I got there before them.

I guess I could have also put this entry into the "Loss of Standards" category, because I am completely certain that if any non-hiker saw my Oregon-Trail-Eqsue ill-advised river forge, they would assume that I was insane. Or, at the very least, a bit of a moron. 

Anyway, my $1 ice cream was delicious. And for posterity, here is a photo of Whistle from that very same day, trying and failing to properly eat a hamburger:

Clever Girl

It's possible that Whistle also crossed the river with me (??) I honestly can't remember. IT WAS TOO HOT.

Friday, March 28, 2014

139c. Shelter Logs, Part 3

I know this is going back out of order, but I have received an amazing email from EarthTone, a delightful and supportive gent who runs the Appalachian Trail Museum in Pine Grove, Pennsylvania. This has necessitated that I add another entry to the Shelter Logs list, which is technically back at #139. I would not recommend that you be eating while you read this entry, because there's a lot of glitter.

DT and CG,

From time to time I receive a large envelope from the ATC [Appalachian Trail Conservancy] that contains a shelter log that has been filled up and has been retired.  We save each of these shelter logs in our storage unit for future reference and maybe use at the museum.  My boss will take anything and a used up shelter log is one of those anythings.

So, today, I get one and it is the Walnut Mountain Shelter log just outside of Hot Springs.  Of course, when I get one of these I must page through it so see if any of the trail names are familiar to me.  Lo and behold, not three pages in, with a date of 4/4 I find a Shanty Town entry.  The drawing immediately drew me to it as something I might have seen before.  

The attached picture is the log entry.  I'm sure you remember the circumstances.  Falling ice and breaking limbs everywhere. It was when you decided your group was cursed or jinxed.  :)

So, I start paging through some more and all of the sudden remember that Hot Springs was the hotbed of Noro Virus last year.  And looking at your entries from this time, it was when Whistle was suffering from the dred illness.  I quickly reminded myself to wash my hands after looking through, but continued on.  It was a fun read.  I saw lots of trail names that I recognized as I keep track of a lot of hikers and also to see the transition of the entries throughout the year.  From Spring time NOBOs to summer time college students and other hikers to the SOBO crew that comes through in the fall.  I Love My Job.

I wrote him back and informed him that he should indeed wash his hands as thoroughly as possible, as Whistle began upchucking bright orange vomit exactly 4 hours after she wrote the shelter log entry below. This one is in Whistle's handwriting, but I drew the gravestones.

I also want to point out that this was almost 2 weeks before we met Apple Butter, but apparently she was RIGHT BEHIND US! Her entry is at the bottom of the page below ours! How cool is that?!

I spoke with Whistle about this last night, and we had an interesting discussion about LNT (Leave No Trace). She had been using a large, gallon-sized ziploc bag to hurl into while she was ill on that April night. It was quite literally too dangerous to go outside to vomit, due to the ice storm and the falling trees. 

The next morning she was not keen on hiking out a squashy ziploc bag of barf, which was kind of like... Never mind. I just tried to think of a good metaphor for a squashy ziploc bag of barf, but then I realized the truth is the only way to describe it. However, the ground was completely frozen solid outside. So she used a rock to smash her way through the top layer of ice,  dug a hole in the cold dirt, and then poured the neon orange rainbow into its final resting place. Then she kicked dirt back over it. 

Because she is a very good person, she then gingerly zipped the top of the empty, though thoroughly disgusting bag closed, folded it up, and packed it out of the woods, where it would subsequently be thrown away in a public garbage can somewhere in Hot Springs. 

I would love to say that the garbage can then became the epicenter of all Noro Virus, simply because it would make Whistle into Typhoid Mary and then we'd all be (in)famous. However, we cannot claim to have that level of plague power, as there were already several reported instances of Noro Virus from other places on the trail before Whistle got the bug. She was just very early on in the domino chain.

I hope that was not altogether too quease-making for you, and if it was, I hope you are sitting near a ziploc bag, that the ground outside is not too frozen for you to dig a grave for your glitter, and that you are mindful of Leave No Trace, even when you think you might be dying.

Clever Girl

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

127. Jumping Off Bridges

The trail pops out onto a road, and the tell-tale double blaze bids us to take a left turn. As we descend the hill, walking on the left-hand side of the small country road, we see a large river up ahead. There is a person standing on a tall bridge over the river, his feet on the small ledge on the opposite side of the thick concrete railing. His arms are held behind him, like winged victory, and he leans out at an angle over the open air. He hesitates, watching the water rush by far, far below him.

Then he lets go.

Cries of excitement explode from somewhere underneath the bridge, where our hiking companions are all sitting on rocks, drying out in the sun after their own launches. He is in the air for only a few seconds before he crashes into the water below, his body disappearing into the swiftly flowing green depths. Dumptruck and I get to the bridge crossing just in time to peek over the railing to see Grim swimming robustly over to the rocks to meet everyone.

I cross the bridge and make my way down to the gathering of damp hikers, following wet bare foot prints back to their origin. Without a word, I drop off my backpack, remove my shoes and socks, and head back up where I came from.

As I round the corner to start making my way to the center of the bridge, my body still hasn't quite figured out what's happening. It is blithely doing its job, putting one foot in front of the other, following orders like a good body should. My mind knows that I cannot give any indication to my body that I am about to do something dangerous. My mind knows that given the chance, my body will spring into action to protect me, releasing a flood of hormones to cut off access to my frontal lobe, allowing my lizard brain stem take over and send me fleeing back down the road and barefoot across Vermont.

The trick will be giving my body the order to jump before it has any awareness that it's jumping. That means that I will not be able to stand on the edge of the bridge, holding onto the railing and giving myself time to "make up my mind." Because then it will already be too late, and I will never let go. They'll find me, 10 years from now, a desiccated mummy, and they'll have to pry my skeleton fingers off the railing.

Isn't so much of our lives this way? Before that first kiss, before that interview, before getting up on that stage. We can spend all the time we want beforehand, making the decision, weighing the options, but there's that "do or die" moment. If you don't leap right then, then you'll never leap at all, because your body and your mind will get locked into a battle. And unfortunately, when that battle ends in stalemate, the only option is to retreat.

I reach the middle of the bridge, and Dumptruck raises his hand to say hello to me. He opens his mouth to say something, but I have already grabbed the railing, and I am practically hurling my body over it. My toes have only a second to touch the ledge on the other side, because I am using the same momentum that took me over the railing to take me out into the open air. I push off on one foot, deciding in that split moment that I want to spin.

And I spin... out into the weightless atmosphere. Just as my toes leave the solid bridge, my body becomes very aware of what I have done, but it cannot do anything about it. In a last ditch effort to regain control, it forces a scream from deep within my lungs, and the animal sound explodes out of my mouth. I spin nearly 3 full times, my scream spiraling out around me, the siren of my voice Doppler-Effecting its way all over the valley below.

The drop takes just long enough for me to wonder if perhaps I have fallen into a wormhole, and I will fall forever, like Alice down the rabbit hole. I open my eyes just as the impact into the surface of the water SLAMS my mouth shut.

Then there is nothing but silence. The green blue water is everywhere, and the weightlessness of the air is replaced by the rushing, insistent weightlessness of water. I am motionless for the tiniest fraction of time after the impact, my body plunging deep below the surface. Then I begin to kick, my body furious at me, but relieved to be unharmed.

Popping my head out of the water, I hear the cheers of my hiking companions, and I swim over to them, laughing and happy. I reach the rocky outcropping where everyone is sitting, feeling confident and proud, grinning from ear to ear.

And as I pull myself out of the water, I notice a tiny, 2-inch long crawdad crawling on the rock near my hands, just beneath the surface of the water. I SHRIEK, I SHRIEK LIKE I AM DYING, and I launch out of the river like someone lit a waterproof stick of dynamite under my butt. I am halfway across the rocks before I can catch my breath.

Isn't so much of our lives this way? That we can be fearless enough to do something like fling ourselves off of a bridge extremely high in the air, but we are scared silly by a harmless* tiny lobster?

Clever Girl

* Crawdads are not harmless. They are the WORST.

Monday, March 24, 2014

128. Jumping Into Lakes

In regular life you have to plan a day to go jump in a lake. Unless you live on a property with a lake on it, odds are pretty good that if you find yourself jumping into one, you had probably been planning on it. It's not a frequent occurrence for someone to be driving home from work, fully clothed and maybe on their way to do other errands, to suddenly pull over to a lake alongside the road and just fling themselves in. Just one good fling! 

But while we were long-distance hiking, if we came upon a lake, we could just jump right in. The only decision that needed to be made was what percentage of our hiking clothing were we willing to get soaked. Douglas Adams wasn't kidding that a towel is a good travel companion: a towel is something I missed very frequently while on trail. But if it was a sunny day, we could just hang out until we felt we had let it evaporate enough. 

I was going to try and explain it in a new way, but I think one of my posts from the trail does a solid job of summarizing the, ahem, freedom of jumping into a lake on trail.


Thud, thud, thud THUDTHUDTHUD

"Don't look at meeeeeee!!"

Like most humans, when bade to look away, my instinct is to immediately focus in on the thing in question with laser-like intensity. I looked up from the water just in time to see a tall, muscular, bearded man running as fast as he could down the dock to the lake. He was also naked as the day he was born, clutching his hands over his exposed nether regions. In what seemed like slow motion, Grim launched off the end of the dock, his nude form hurtling through the air over our heads like a fleshy, low-flying 747. On a nearby shore of the lake, two elderly fly fishermen in wader overalls and bucket hats stared at the spectacle in open-mouth shock. All of us in the water had been frozen in surprise and glee. Suddenly realizing the fast encroaching danger, we all scrambled to get out of the way. We dove aside just in time for an explosive tidal wave to crash over our retreating faces. 

In the water was Catch, Cascade, Pretzel, Hugs and I. Lounging on the dock was Dumptruck, Whistle and The Hunger. Our group of 9 had been driven back to the trailhead by Ma Buddha, well-rested and bellies full of raspberry pancakes. We had started hiking around noon, and knew that we likely wouldn't make it very far. Thus we made the best of it, stopping at every view and possible chill-out point. After a few miles, the trail went directly through the well-manicured lawn of an inn that often caters to hikers. There was a long dock on a gorgeous lake, and everyone was looking out at the water wistfully. Someone mentioned the idea of jumping in, and I immediately dropped my pack, ripped off my shoes, sprinted down the dock and hurtled myself into the water. Everyone else followed in quick succession. 


Dumptruck took some great photos on that particular lake day, including one of a nude Grim leaping into the lake, which is decidedly not family appropriate. So, alas, it did not make it into this post.

I suppose this could be under a large umbrella post about the spontaneity of living the life of a hiker. There is an overall goal, a general destination, but every day you get to choose your own adventure. And sometimes that adventure is just getting soaking wet in your underpants, in the good way.

Pretzel leaping #1 (Hugs is in the water). Look at those hiker calves!

Pretzel leaping #2

Pretzel leaping #3

Look at my tiny hands in the water!


Drying off
Clever Girl

I will do my best to cajole Dumptruck into providing more photos for these posts. There are so many beautiful, fun pictures that didn't make it into the book, and didn't make it onto the blog because there was no way to get his pictures on here after the share functionality broke on his camera while we were in Virginia (thus why a lot of the photos on the blog after May or so are just from my iPod).

Friday, March 21, 2014


Today is a momentous day. Today is the day that I finally have to say goodbye to a lifelong dream: to become a famous rockstar and then die tragically at the age of 27, like all of the greats. But, alas my friends, today I turn 28 years old, and I have to bid adieu to that long-lost and enormously ill-advised aspiration. To be fair, I spent most of my 27th year living in obscurity in the woods, so the odds of me somehow learning to play some electric instrument and then taking the world by storm were summarily diminished.

Though I will not be able to go 27-year-old rockstar heaven, I will be able to have the rest of my life. And that seems like a pretty fair trade.

I had all intention of writing a legitimate blog post today, but then several friends from out of town SURPRISE-VISITED me (assisted by the sneaky ninja skills of Dumptruck and Jessica), and are here for the weekend. I do not wish for you to think that I have neglected you, dear readers, but it's my birthday, so with my deepest apologies, I beg your forgiveness for the lack of satisfying Saturday morning reading material. I have been simply having too much fun, being surprised out of my wits so thoroughly that I cried. I cried like a toddler who had just been told she was going to Disney World, and she'd be able to wear her Buzz Lightyear costume the entire time.

In lieu of a good post, I leave you with this, a photograph of one of my 2, erm... robust cats (Captain Malcolm Reynolds) laying across what should have been a perfectly wholesome game of Mall Madness, that instead ended in feline terror.

Notice the relative size of his paw to the rest of his body. He is larger than the pillow I
use to sleep with at night.
Thank you for your patience and understanding. Regularly scheduled programming will resume on Monday.

Clever Girl

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

129. Spare Change

I don't remember the first time it happened, but I'm sure it went something like this:

I am a small child, sitting next to my father on the couch. My legs are just long enough that my feet can bounce a little, my ankles resting on the edge of the cushion. We are watching the BBC's 1988 miniseries production of "The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe," being played back on a scratchy VHS that was recorded directly off of PBS. I am learning from the miniseries that Turkish Delight is a type of candy so delicious that it would make a boy betray his entire family to an evil snow queen. I make a mental note to never take candy from strangers, but to buy myself some Turkish Delight once I am a grownup.

My dad asks me if I would like anything from the kitchen. I say yes, please, I'll have a fudgesicle, which I will inevitable smear all over my face even though I'm way too old to be smearing food on my face. Fudgesicles are my achilles heel of mess-making. As he stands up, approximately 50 cents, made up of various different coins, rains out of my dad's pants pockets on to the couch.

Each coin bounces in slow motion in my mind, the early evening light coming in from the window to reflect off of each glorious disc: Beautiful, thick round nickels, cheeky, slender dimes, one robust quarter, and several hard-knock pennies. It is a waterfall of riches, a cavalcade of opportunity.

"Wait," I say, "Some change fell out of your pocket."

My dad turns around and looks at the smattering of loose coins, "If coins fall out of my pockets on the couch and I don't notice, then you can have them."


I like to believe that this last part happened. I like to believe that I was a thoughtful enough child to have alerted my father to his loss, and gotten permission to swoop, hawklike, onto any couch my dad sat on for the rest of my childhood. Although, if we're being honest, I don't think that I said anything. I think that I watched him leave, and then scooped up the change like a magpie, hypnotized by the shininess.

From then on, it was a silent battle between me and my sister. We tried to keep it fair, taking turns with who would get to collect the treasure after my dad left the room. It never amounted to more than 75 cents at a time. But sometimes we would lose track of whose turn it was, and we would each sit on either side of my dad on the couch, giving each other the side-eye around his shoulders. When he'd get up we would rock-paper-scisssors to decide who got the loot or something. I don't quite remember how we solved this conundrum, but I know that it never escalated to fisticuffs.

This was back when I still appreciated pennies. Every penny was important. If I got 5 pennies, that was an entire individually sized caramel that I could buy from the gas station/restaurant and the bottom of the road. The gas station/restaurant that declared in 5-foot-high bold lettering: "EAT HERE GET GAS." Pennies were gold! I never understood how they could be so easily discarded and forgotten by adults.

Because that is what we do as adults. We ignore loose change. Whether or not we realize it, change is literally cold, hard cash. Dollars are neither cold nor hard, unless you freeze them in a block of ice because maybe you're in the mob or something and it just seems like a good idea. We mostly pay for things with cards. But sometimes we pay in dollars. Afterward we toss the loose change into random pockets, or in little cups in our cars, or into the bottom of cavernous purses or backpacks never to be seen again. If you're like Dumptruck, you'll walk around wearing jeans whose pockets have long since gotten holes in them, and you spend an entire day with one coin after another raining out of the hem of your pant leg and left behind you like a trail of breadcrumbs.

I started to notice something very quickly while hiking the Appalachian Trail: change is HEAVY. If you let it pile up, then you can be carrying around an entire quarter of a pound of money that could be converted into dollars that would only weigh a few grams. And as a result, I started being incredibly mindful of my loose change, and paying for things exactly. I would not leave a town until I had (wisely) spent all of my coins. If I wasn't able to spend all of my coins on wise things, then I would use them on unwise things, like a rocket ship ride outside of a grocery store.

Because of my vigilant adherence to this rule, I think I probably ended up saving myself at least $20, if not more. Have you ever stopped to think about how much money you have lost in loose change in your lifetime?! I realize that this is just another addition to this 200 Terrific Things list that might not seem as though it is directly related to the physical act of hiking. But that's just the thing. A lot of what was great about long-distance hiking is how it helped me to be more aware of myself, and more mindful of doing things carelessly.

Since I have stopped hiking, I have continued with this (occasionally obnoxious) behavior of using up all of my loose change whenever possible. Just yesterday I paid for a hot chocolate at a drive-thru window with a dollar, 2 nickels and 17 pennies. And you know what? It felt pretty good.

Clever Girl

Monday, March 17, 2014

130. Surviving an Ice Storm in Your Tent

There are certain experiences that allow you to look at modern inventions, e.g., a house, and realize just how truly majestically magical they are. In the grand scheme of human existence, solidly built houses are just a wink in time. We survived for 1,000's of years?, 100's of years? a very long time living just in piles of mud and sticks with maybe leaves and stuff (?) and it is coming to my attention that I have a significant lack of knowledge regarding human history. What I'm getting at is that we spent a significant portion of our species development without living in these protective roofed cubes. And yet we feel like we need them!

What makes us, in regular life, so scared to sleep outside without a solid structure built around us? Have we really grown so accustomed to this luxury that we've become soft and wimpy? Probably! But not in the way that you might imagine. The truth is that throughout all of human history, we've always been soft and wimpy. All else being equal, in a fight against a tiger, we are basically just noodly flesh bags. But who has two thumbs and an ability to create tools? THIS SPECIES.

So we learned how to use our thumbs to take things apart to make other things, other incredible inventions like houses and irrigation and plumbing and insulation and the Slap Chop.  And although we might not need all of those things all the time, in certain situations they are imperative. At some point we realized that no matter how much chanting, stomping and butt wiggling we tried, we could not control the weather. Living structures are the only way we have found to be more powerful than the weather, and it is a fallible system.

On the Appalachian Trail, we hardly ever stayed in shelters. Dumptruck and I preferred sleeping in our tent, mostly because it cut down on the likelihood of finding ourselves in the middle of an amphitheater of snoring. More honestly: I talk in my sleep, and I felt bad imposing the random indecipherable soliloquies on innocent strangers. I might have mentioned this before, and I'll probably mention it again, but somewhere along the trail in Pennsylvania, I woke myself up singing Sinatra's "Fly Me To the Moon" in full baritone. Meaning: I was singing so loudly that the sound of my own voice is what roused me from sleep.

The only exception to this rule was when the weather was dangerously bad, or just ceaselessly wet, we would opt to sleep in a shelter. Especially when there was snow or ice that would break the trees and drop giant pieces of wood like bowling balls from the sky, we thought sleeping in a wooden lean-to with a roof was probably safer than risking it in our tent.

But there was one night that we were not so lucky. Dumptruck and I were hiking with Whistle, Hotdog and Apollo, though on this particular day, Dumptruck and I had fallen a distance behind. The snow had started to melt, but then a freezing rain had come through, covering the wilderness in a quarter inch of slick, tail-bone cracking ice. The last threads of sunlight were disappearing from between the branches when Dumptruck and I slip-slidded our way up to a shelter. There were a lot of voices coming from inside. Too many.

We pulled back the ripped tarp that made up the 4th wall of the lean-to, and found that the shelter was packed with people. Both platform levels were jammed with way too many hikers already, and the floor was covered in an endless sea of hiking gear. Whistle, Hotdog and Apollo apologized profusely for not being able to save us a spot, but that was absolutely fair. Shelters are first come first serve, and we just didn't make it in time. Dumptruck and I realized pretty quickly that we were, as Charles Dickens would so eloquently describe: shit out of luck.

We dug through the ice and snow just outside of the shelter with our hands, trying to shovel out a spot that was somewhat level. We tried to pick a spot that had the least amount of tree cover, to hopefully avoid wayward branches falling on us. I can't say that I slept very well in our tiny fabric tent, as the silence of the wilderness was punctuated by the sounds of the howling winter wind, and the more alarming sounds of trees breaking and large branches crashing to the ground close by. I passed the time by pretending that I was one of the first nomadic settlers of North America, somehow surviving the endless winter, and not even being able to brag about it to anyone because prehistoric nomads don't put up with that kind of nonsense.

I think the next morning we probably could have set some kind of record for packing up and peace-ing out. Even though it was scary, and we woke up to a lot of new tree shrapnel on the ground that wasn't there the night before, there was something pretty cool about surviving the elements without the conveniences of modern living.

Humans are capable of so much more than we give ourselves credit for. Even if it's just making it through a terrifying night without wetting our sleeping bags.

Clever Girl

Friday, March 14, 2014

Pi Day Pi-union

It's March 14th, exactly one year since Whistle and Hotdog met on the Appalachian Trail. It also happens to coincide with Pi Day (3.14), a day in which people eat as much pie as possible and then attempt to recite as many digits of pi as possible. These two activities usually need to be combined, because then the violent vomiting that comes from all the pie-consumption can be used as a suitable excuse for only making it to 15 or 16 digits of pi.

"Oh no," you can exclaim, "I totally knew more digits, but whoopsie, I'm too busy barfing up this rainbow of pie."

To celebrate this momentous anniversary for Whistle and Hotdog, as well as to have an excuse to eat like monsters hikers again, we all met up for a tiny hiker pi-union (Pie + Reunion), and consumed four pieces of pie each... We each ate an entire half of a pie. I feel ill, and happy. Just like how it should be.

Whistle took this photo at 3:14pm on 3/14, next to the hiker's
equivalent of a pie, last year during her thru-hike, and after
she met Hotdog. They bought little pies together, and
celebrated the beginning of an awesome friendship.

The plate translates to "i 8 sum pi" or,  "I ate some pie"

Hotdog brought party hats, as well as dinosaurs that grow
in water.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

131. Candy

I am standing in the candle aisle of the grocery store, my arms crossed, my eyes quickly scanning the shelves. I have grown so accustomed to recognizing the colors and fonts of the things I like that it takes mere seconds for me to be able to make a decision. I purse my lips together and make a small huff sound, as though being sassy at the shelving is going to make it magically produce what I'm looking for. But it doesn't work. The store just doesn't have big enough bags of candy to justify the cost.

Leaving the store, I head over to an empty spot in the parking lot where several other hikers are sitting in a semi circle. There is a silent ritual going on, where everyone is emptying their food from its original packaging into more practical ziploc bags. There are plastic bags and packaging everywhere, and it looks a little like christmas morning. It's a contained sort of chaos though, and everyone is so mindful of picking up every tiny piece of trash they create.

I drop my pile of groceries to the ground, feeling a little dejected. I am about to sit down when I see a pharmacy a couple hundred feet away. Not willing to give up so easily, I grab a few loose dollars and jog across the parking lot into the Rite Aid. Once inside I head directly to the candy aisle, hoping against hope that I will actually find what I want.

The shelves are completely empty.

There are a few battered bags of black licorice, but otherwise, nothing. I hang my head, knowing that I will have to just survive until the next resupply point without any candy. A red-shirted employee walks by and asks me if I need any help finding things.

"Oh," I say sadly, "I was just hoping for some candy."

"We're remodeling, and we're trying to get rid of all of our candy stock. It's in that back corner, and the large pound-bags are only $1.50," he gestures vaguely toward one corner of the store, but it's too late, because I'm already halfway down the aisle, doing that weird fast-walk-skip thing that people do when they actually want to run but think it would be rude given the location.

I turn a corner and find a pile. Literally a pile of candy bags. I crouch down, my eyes glittering like Nicolas Cage's eyes glittered over the Declaration of Independence. I grab a pound bag of Sour Patch Kids and a pound bag of Skittles, clutching them to my chest and promising to love them forever, at least until I'm finished eating them.

I get back to the pack of hikers in the parking lot just as Grim exits the grocery store. He has the same look that had been on my face minutes before. The look of disappointment.

"All they had was chocolate bars," he says in a deflated sort of way. "Is it too much to ask to just have some Skittles?"

"No sir!" I declare triumphantly, and tell him about the candy bag pile in Rite Aid. Without explaining himself, he turns back around, goes back into the grocery store, goes to the customer service cashier, returns all of the candy that he had purchased approximately 45 seconds previously, comes back out into the parking lot and bee-lines it to the Rite Aid. We started out the trail with trail mix, until we realized all we really wanted was the M & M's. And then we just quit beating around the bush and succumbed to buying giant bags of candy at every re-supply stop. I'm sure it's not healthy, but when you're in the woods, you don't have a whole lot of other methods of concrete motivational rewards.

The next day I am halfway up a mountain, feeling exhausted and hot. I stop and reach into a zippered pocket of my backpack, producing one of the many ziploc bags of tooth-rotting confections. I sit down on a rock and hold up a Sour Patch Kid to my face, looking at it carefully. It looks back at me, or rather, it's weird squished semi-face makes a vague approximation of looking back at me.

"Hello there," I say to it.

"I know we may just have met, but you are going to be my personal trainer. I am going to eat you, and then I am going to finish hiking up this mountain. You get nothing in return, except that you get to fulfill your purpose. Thank you for your sacrifice, weird little sugar man."

I gingerly place the piece of gummy sour candy on my tongue, and let it dissolve for a few seconds, enjoying the hypnotic, zen moment. Then, with my eyes still closed, I stuff my hand back in the ziploc bag and grab a fistfull of sour patch kids and jam them all into my mouth. It's way more than should be eaten at a time, and it feels a little bit like trying to chew a big wet sock. But it is oddly satisfying. I generally do not abide chewing like a dinosaur, but if there's no one around to hear it, it doesn't really make a sound.

Clever Girl

Monday, March 10, 2014

132. Kill Your Scale

I want to talk about weight. Specifically, I want to talk about numbers and scales. I want to talk about how I just went to the doctor last week, and the nurse told me that I was overweight. I am going to tell you exactly how heavy I am right now (heresy!), and about how even though I am training for an Ultra Marathon, a licensed medical professional told me that I need to lose weight. And I'm going to tell you how hiking the Appalachian Trail finally, after 27 years, broke the spell of the scale.

October, 1997

I was in 6th grade the first time that I became aware that "weight" was a thing.

My uppity northern California public middle school was on a field trip to a science museum, and there was a scale that would tell you your weight on the moon. The scale had a huge red digital readout that showed your "Earth Weight" and your "Moon Weight." One by one the popular girls climbed up onto the scale and, clearly missing the entire point of the fun scientific tool to help understand how gravity works, they only focused on the "Earth Weight" readout. They all squealed at the revelation that they were 70 pounds.  

"Oh my gaaawwwd," one of them whined, "I'm 74 pounds. I'm so fat."

Her friends did not disagree with her. They carefully avoided eye contact with her, while making a series of small non-committal sounds, like a chorus of tiny preening song birds.

I had spent a lot of my adolescence up until this point at farming Montessori schools, and I was a recent and unwilling inductee into the clique culture. Hearing the 74-pound girl say she was "fat" was very confusing for me. I had never thought about size or weight, or had any understanding that it was something that could be used in a demeaning way. As far as I could tell, she looked like a normal 11-year-old.

Without realizing the impact it was about to have on me, I climbed up onto the scale and looked upward at the glowing digital numbers. 

"Oh my god," I heard a girl hiss to another girl, clearly stifling a laugh, "She weighs 90 pounds."

There was a wave of quiet snickers that emanated out from the group, and I felt my face start to get red. I climbed down from the scale and shuffled off after the group, hanging my head and feeling strange. Let me reiterate: I weighed Ninety Pounds. That's lighter than most large dogs. And yet somehow, this group of twittering 11-year-olds had made me feel like my body was something to be ashamed of. This was my first experience with the power of females in numbers, and my first experience with how absolutely horrible it felt.

When I got home, I tearfully related the story to my older sister. I told her that I must be some giant blob monster and no one had the heart to tell me before now (In fact, I was a creepily skinny skeleton monster and I'd simply hit a growth spurt before some of my peers, and was a few inches taller than them. But the other girls hadn't seen me that way. They'd seen the number on my scale, saw that it was 20 pounds heavier than them, ignored what I actually looked like, and reacted to me as though I was somehow damaged).

Though teary eyes I sniffled, "Is there something wrong with me? Am I fat?"

It is to my sister's enormous credit that she did not simply slap me across the face. 

Instead she took me by the hand and made me stand in front of the mirror in the bathroom. She told me that I should never weigh myself ever again. She said that scales are not important, that the number isn't important. She asked me if I liked what I saw in the mirror. I told her that I hadn't really ever thought about it before, but that yes, I suppose I didn't mind what I saw. 

"That's all that matters," she said with finality, "The number on the scale doesn't tell you ANYTHING. If you like what you see, then it's perfect. If you look in the mirror and decide you want to start working out, then that's what's right for you. If you look in the mirror and decide you should eat more sandwiches, then that's what's right for you. You're allowed to be mindful of yourself and be as healthy as you can. But the scale cannot tell you how healthy you are."

Then she went off to play with her Star Wars toys. 

1997 - 2013

Even though my sister's advice was sound, beautiful, and taken to heart, I still very easily fell victim to our culture's insane preoccupation with women and how much they weigh. I would chirrup my sister's advice to myself after each time I had to get weighed at a doctor's office. I would think I was unaffected by the number I saw on the scale. A number that was always very slightly bigger than it was "supposed to be" for a woman of my height. And then without even being consciously aware of the connection, for a week afterward I would drink nothing but a smoothies for "lunch" and silently relish the sick satisfaction in the back of my mind about the ache that comes from being perpetually hungry. 

I have been through countless cycles in my life where I would decide to be more physically active, but then would notice the weight gain that came along with it. And then I would quit. But my brain didn't allow me to make that connection - it came up with a zillion excuses for why I should stop working out that had nothing to do with the fact that I was gaining pounds. 

"It's cold outside," "I didn't sleep well last night," "I hate the smell of my clothes after I work out," "My iPod isn't charged," "It's Arbor Day," etc. etc.

Even though I was getting healthier, I was getting heavier, and that made me feel like I was "doing it wrong." So I would quit. 

Physical fitness for women is insane about numbers. It feels like every single year at New Year's, at least 1 out of every 4 women I talk to makes a goal to lose 10-15 pounds. A lot of times ladies don't have a resolution to be more fit, or to be able to accomplish a distance in swimming or running or walking (Don't get me wrong, there are absolutely lots of people who make resolutions this way, I'm just talking about the fact that some folks focus on the weight). Instead there's these resolutions to lose pounds. I do not blame these women for wanting to lose the weight, because I know exactly what that desire feels like.

I haven't ever owned a scale. I didn't own a scale because I was "above" them, or thought that I was cooler than scales. I didn't own one because I knew that if I did own one, I would be a slave to it in spite of myself. I have spent my entire teenage and young adult life trying trying to distance myself from that part of me. The part of me that surfaces like a monster every time I go to get my yearly physical and I take that wobbly, nervous step up onto the scale, hoping that I am not ashamed by the number that I see. The part of me that doesn't come from me, but comes from the messages we get as women. The part of me that the feminist inside me wants to strangle, but has never quite succeeded.

My Facebook newsfeed is inundated with "Sponsored Ads" about Losing Belly Weight! and Look at How This Celebrity Lost Weight! and Try This One Crazy Diet Thing and You Will Weigh Less Than Your 6-year-old Niece! Starve Yourself And Finally Be Successful in All of Your Endeavors! Follow This One Secret Or God Forbid You Will Weigh More Than 125 Pounds and Everyone Knows That If You Weigh 126 Pounds or More, You Will Be Ostracized and Alone Forever! 

Meanwhile, Dumptruck recently showed me his Facebook newsfeed, and it is completely inundated with sponsored ads about gaining muscle weight, gaining muscle weight, gaining muscle weight. 

Why is it not okay for a woman to have muscle weight? If we look "good," and weigh the "right amount" but we have no muscle mass, what have we accomplished? 

For my entire teenage and young adult life, my weight has consistently fluctuated between 127 and 135 pounds (until now). Do you feel like it is ridiculous that I could ever feel like I weighed too much? Good. IT IS RIDICULOUS. I know with every fiber of my being that I have no idea what it's like to struggle with weight, and I have no right at all to complain about my weight. 

And so I never did, I never complained to anyone about how I looked or what I weighed. But that didn't stop the private never-ending mental battle that waged blood and war across my self esteem. On one side was the logical part of me that knew I was perfectly healthy the way I was. And on the other side was that flock of little preening song birds, twittering away and snickering every time I picked up a donut or tried wearing short shorts. 

March, 2013

When I was at the Laughing Heart Hostel, during my Appalachian Trail thru-hike, everyone was talking about the scale in the bathroom. Everyone was asking each other, "How much weight have you lost?" The trail absolutely whips people into shape, and for some folks, that does involve losing weight. But even among a group of healthy athletic hikers, the language is still focused on weight loss, rather than fitness gain. It's not because we're bad people. It's because we've been trained to look at health this way. To look at it like a number.

There were several occasions during my time on the trail in which I was able to meet-up with non-trail friends, people who I'd known before I started hiking. These are all good, sweet, well-meaning, respectful people, and the first thing almost every single one of them would say was,

"Wow! How much weight have you lost?!"

Then there would be the open-mouthed jaw-drop when I would tell them that no, I hadn't lost any weight, in fact, I had been gaining weight. 

"How is that possible?" they'd say, "You look so healthy!"

And there it was. The single most incorrect assumption that we as women make all the time: the only way to look "healthy" is to "weigh little." When in fact, I looked and felt 10 times healthier than I ever had in my entire life, and I was steadily gaining weight. Little did I know it, but this was the start of my escape from the tyranny of the scale. The only way for me to be able to finally accept that I didn't care what I weighed was to do the scariest thing possible: actually allow myself to gain the weight.

This was only possible for me because I was thru-hiking. I had to eat a lot in order not to pass out. I didn't care what I looked like because everyone else was just as unwashed and weirdly shaped as I was. For the first time in my life, I was getting into shape and there was nothing I could do to stop it

March, 2014

"Oh my goodness," the nurse muttered, looking at the weight on the scale and then looking at me. I tilted my head to the side, a little confused smile on my face. I was facing away from the wall and couldn't see the number on the scale, so I didn't know what was happening. This was my first time going to the doctor since finishing the Appalachian Trail. Side bar: Be Ye Not So Foolish! I should have gone and gotten a physical much sooner, but insurance, job, blah, blah, excuses.

I knew that I was very healthy and physically fit. I was wearing pants 2 sizes smaller than the pants I wore before I left for the trail a year previously. I was feeling confident, and I couldn't possibly imagine why the nurse looked like she'd just swallowed an entire lemon.

"Well, technically for your weight and height, you are overweight. You weigh 152 pounds. It's our policy that when we have a new patient who is overweight, I'm supposed to offer you the option of having counseling from one of the doctors about your diet."

I stared at her, flabbergasted. "I weigh One Hundred and Fifty Two Pounds?" I whispered, each syllable feeling like a stone dropping into the bottomless well of my stomach. All of my previous confidence evaporated like smoke. I have never, in my entire life, weighed more than 135 pounds. And here I was, standing on a scale in front of a thin bespectacled nurse, being told that I weigh almost 20 pounds more than I have ever weighed?! 

But then something happened. It was like a small crack in ice, a crack that grows slowly at first until it spiderwebs out and the entire lake shatters. I let out a small chuckle, and then I started laughing, laughing so hard that my eyes teared up. I stepped down off of the scale and started putting my shoes back on, wiping my eyes with the backs of my hands. The nurse turned a little pink, and I shook my head. 

"No, no, I don't think I need counseling about my weight," I said, as nicely as I could, "I walked 2,185 miles from Georgia to Maine last year, and in the 6 months since that time, I've been training for an Ultra Marathon. I'm sure I weigh that much because of my muscles."

 This is me, technically overweight,
according to BMI.
(And my Christmas TRex, which
is still up in March, because it's
hard to tell a TRex that it's time
to get back in the box).
I took this photo the very next morning to illustrate how UNBELIEVABLY STUPID scales are in regard to how they are used when measuring our health. I think that the Body Mass Index (BMI) and weight scales are one of the worst things anyone could use when they are trying to be healthier.

Want to know why?

I know exactly how I could get back into the "Normal Range" of the BMI.

I could stop running.

My muscles would atrophy and slowly be replaced by fat. I would be approximately the same size, and maybe I would be 20 pounds lighter.

I wish that fitness wasn't marketed to women as a weight-loss campaign or a weight-loss option. I think more women would be able to stick with some form of regular fitness if they weren't feeling this pressure of some sort of number they had to attain.

If you've ever "tried to lose 5 pounds" you know how UTTERLY IMPOSSIBLE it is. You diet, you start working out, and somehow, you stay the same weight or gain weight. It feels hopeless, stupid, and embarrassing, and you're eating crap food that tastes like a barn floor. So you give up. That's what I did. Over and over and over again.

If you can give yourself one gift, then give yourself a hammer. And use that hammer to smash the bejeezus out of your scale. Look in the mirror instead, snap your fingers and bring your fabulous. You are absolutely allowed to love exactly what you see, and you're also allowed to decide to make changes.

Do whatever makes you want to make out with yourself more.

Decide what changes you want to make in order to be able to live more, not to weigh less.

Clever Girl

Friday, March 7, 2014

133. Time Roots

It's March 7th, 2014: the one year anniversary from the date that I started hiking the Appalachian Trail.

I have heard a lot of older folks say that after a certain point in our lives, everything starts blurring together. And though I know I am still quite young, I can say with 100% certainty that they are correct. I lived 5 years in New York City, but I have no idea when certain memories there happened. The older we get, the more difficult it may become to place certain incidents. Were you 26 or 33 when that weather blimp crashed in your backyard? Were you 45 or 57 when your cat somehow managed to catch and maul a wild turkey? WHO KNOWS.

After a certain point, once we've crossed the invisible border into adulthood, it's like ending a cross-country marathon by jumping onto a treadmill. The marathon had all of these exciting visuals and emotional milestones, and you could quantify how far you'd gone very easily. Whereas once you're on the treadmill, you keep moving but everything stays the same. You might have a parade of different people using different treadmills next to you, they'll all smell different but they'll all smell funky, and it all becomes a blur. You might have a little digital read-out of your mileage on the treadmill, but you start to be suspicious of what the mile counter is reading. 30!? That can't possibly be right.

But I think I've figured it out. I've solved the equation for why our lives become a squishy blur after a certain point. It's because:


For your entire childhood and young adult life, every single year is easily categorized by your assigned year in school. That time you peed your pants in front of all those girl scouts? 2nd grade. What about time you forgot a bottle of strawberry milk at the bottom of your backpack, and it exploded all over you after you found it weeks later? 7th grade. First time you thought you were in love? Sophomore year in high school. It's a snap! I bet if you think of nearly any memory between the ages of 7 to 22, you know exactly how old you were in that memory.

After you graduated, be it high school or college, or after you got your GED or did whatever it is you did for school that's totally cool, years stopped being nicely segmented into clearly defined and named categories (freshman, sophomore, junior, etc). Lots of people have some memory of what it feels like to be a freshman in high school, or a junior in college. But there's not a solid idea of what it means to be 26, or what it means to be 43. It all just becomes "Your 20's" or "Your 30's" or "Your 30's Again" or "Your 30's Again For The Love Of God You're Not Fooling Anyone."

Time gets away from us. As my sister once put it, "One day you'll look around you and realize that all of your friends are married, have children, and for some reason, they're all teachers. And then you'll realize you're an adult."

I knew that hiking the trail would have a lot of impact on me, in ways that I wouldn't be able to begin to imagine. What I couldn't have predicted is how it has influenced my understanding of the passage of my life. Now instead of just my "20's", I have the time before I hiked, and the time after. It is a rooted solid tree, growing out of the middle of what had been an amorphous flowing river.

This has taught me that for the rest of my life, once every couple of years, I will need to go on some kind of adventure. It might not be a long-distance hike, but it will need to be something that takes up enough time to be transformative, at least in the sense that it plants another rooted tree in that river. When I'm old and wrinkly (and god will I be wrinkly), and my tattoos looks like a Salvador Dali painting, I will want to be able to look back through my life and have places and times to put my memories.

Hiking took me outside and above the passage of time, and through that, I was able to look down at the timeline of my life, and start to make sense of it again.

Happy Trail-iversary to Dumptruck, Apollo, Apple Butter and I (we all started March 7th)! We didn't really "meet" Apple Butter until much later, but we were all there on the same day!

At Amicalola Falls, March 7th, 2013
Much love,
Clever Girl

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

134. Hiking Fast Enough to Generate Your Own Air Conditioning

I am writing this post in the hope that if I am able to remind myself how oppressive summer can be, it will help me to appreciate this lingering winter. Hold up, "lingering" isn't even the right word. Lingering is the thing that you do around the now-empty free samples table at Costco, trying to look casual. You think you look convincing, seriously contemplating that giant 50-count box of Fruit By The Foot, but you're not fooling anyone. You're not fooling anyone because everyone else around you is also lingering, and they're trying to make themselves feel superior and sneaky by judging other people's techniques.

This winter does not linger. This winter is more like the person who follows the Costco employee back behind the bakery counter saying "Please more, please more, please more, please more" until the Costco employee picks up the new basket of thawed frozen raspberry tartlets and chucks it at the person's head. 

I want to appreciate this winter, because it's not winter's fault that it's this way. It's a genetic thing. Passed down through eons of problematic weather family dynamics. I also don't really mind being cold. The problem is that I was going to write about more wintery things that are wonderful about the trail, and I couldn't bring myself to do it. I think that I have to write about the summer, so that I can try and put myself there, instead of here. Here being in my apartment in a 200-year-old house on the coast of New England, with the thermostat set at 40 degrees, and sitting in a tiny room, wrapped in a gigantic down comforter, with a space heater sitting on the desk 10 inches from me, pointed directly at my face. HEATING OIL IS EXPENSIVE. 

Let me take you on a journey to a time when the word "cold" was nothing but a distant, far-away idea. It was so enigmatic and unattainable that you might wonder if it had ever even existed in the first place. There are no air conditioners in the woods. There are no iced drinks. There aren't even any loose papers around to fold in half and use as half-hearted little fans. There is no evidence that things could be anything other that permanently, stiflingly boiling.

It's summer now, and it's possible that you've been hiking for a long time at this point. You might have strong enough legs to hike at a 4 mile an hour pace without even noticing how awesome you are. You are on a flat stretch of trail, and you pause for a moment to take a drink of water. You feel drenched in sweat, soaked to the bone, and simultaneously dried out the crispiness of a dead corn husk. How can you be so wet and so devoid of hydration at the same time? This is confusing. And uncomfortable! 

After catching your breath, you start to move again, and you move just fast enough to generate a small, noticeable wind over your skin. 

And here is where the magic comes. Sometimes in the face of difficult physical circumstances, if you are really, truly determined to have a good time, you are able to latch onto teeny tiny victories and they feel like winning an olympic medal. Let's be honest: hiking fast enough to generate your own air conditioning isn't actually terrific, it's kind of alarming. If you are hot and delirious enough to think that feeling a 1 degree change in temperature on your skin because of your 4mph pace is really awesome, it is probably too hot to be hiking.

What's actually terrific is your brain's miraculous ability to recognize that small, tiny, 1 degree change in your circumstances, and to see it as something grand and awe-inspiring. So often we get so numb to beautiful, small things in our lives, constantly seeking things to be more interesting, more compelling, more quickly digested, more exciting, more heart-attack inducing, MORE! MORE!! MORE!!!

But when you're all alone in the woods, and you suddenly cackle in mad relief and happiness at your magical air-condition-producing abilities, something inside of you changes. You realize that you love being able to be happy with the one slightly positive part of a day that could have been horrible. You chose to latch onto the good part instead, no matter how small. You realize that an ordinary day is actually jam-packed with countless tiny miracles that we have long-since forgotten to appreciate. Like toast, for example. THINK ABOUT TOAST FOR A SECOND. IT'S BREAD. THEN IT'S TOAST, LIKE, 2 MINUTES LATER. TECHNOLOGY IS AWESOME.

For a long time after this, after you go back to your regular life, you will be able to find those tiny joys and victories, and they will be just as satisfying.

The downside of this is that whenever something actually amazing happens, your heart is more likely to immediately stop beating because it's just too much to handle.

Clever Girl

Monday, March 3, 2014

Northbound Prints

Last week Dumptruck was up until 2am for 3 nights in a row, hand-packing all 225 copies of Northbound into boxes and sending them all over the country (and world!).

All the copies of Northbound!

He and my mom tested the packing style by throwing one of the packed-up boxes back and forth across my parents' living room, stomping on it, and flinging it against the wall of the garage. This is how all professional shipping companies, like Amazon, test to see if their products are securely packed. Except they have a bigger budget, so instead of things getting flung against a garage wall, things are instead blasted out of a cannon against a 10-foot cube of solid poured concrete.

In the post office, waiting to be sent to their new homes.

Due to the fact that the independent printing company can only run large number orders of the books at a time, unfortunately more books cannot be ordered individually. However, you can still order individual photograph prints from Dumptruck's Etsy shop! 

Thank you to everyone who supported Dumptruck through the IndieGoGo campaign.

Here's just a few of the photos available for print at the shop. I highly recommend going to the shop and checking out what's available!