Monday, March 30, 2015

Except I Have a Sandwich

The first significant section of the CDT winds its way through the desert, and as one could infer from the word "desert", there's not much water. In order to discourage hikers and trail maintenance folks from becoming vulture food, there are several large boxes called "water cache boxes" along the trail into which hikers can place jugs of water before starting their hike. Whistle and her mom, Libby, had been placing water when Whistle pulled out the logbook to see if there was anyone else on the trail.

Indeed, Whistle was bound to be alone on the trail. The only entry in the log was from December. It read,
Hey Jim, I just wanted to tell you that the tire on the FD blew and I have to walk back to 81. Don't worry about me, I'm ready for an adventure today, but if you do see this today, can you email Jessie to let her know why I'm going to be so late? If you get it on your second day, don't worry about it, I've already made it back.
Later, Whistle was sitting on a rock, just about seven miles into the Continental Divide Trail, unwrapping the subway sandwich she'd purchased in town many hours earlier. Whistle stared out across the desert landscape, taking a bite of her food and thinking about how she was the only human for many, many miles. Whistle's mind wandered back to the logbook she'd read earlier- specifically about how whoever left the note would have had to walk about 20 miles on rugged dirt roads to be able to get back to 81. She chewed and thought I kinda feel bad for that guy... having to walk back to civilization all alone with nothing. Although I guess that's what I'm doing! Except I'm not doing it with nothing. I'm doing it with stuff. I have a sandwich... And flies. Go away flies. Don't land on my socks.

Whistle and Libby (Mama Whistle) had arrived in Tuscon two days previously. The two ladies spent a day with their sweet family friend Barbara and visited the Desert Museum where Whistle got to spend several hours being delighted and fascinated by learning about all the animals that were bound to attempt to devour her in her sleep on the trail. They cached all of Whistle's water at boxes near road crossings from the first road crossing up to Silver City. They ate a questionable meal from a small town deli that Mama Whistle described as "disconcerting." They learned from a border patrol policeman about the steady rise of "murder drug mules" (direct Whistle quote) that they should be wary of if they are considering hiking the trail. Then, they slept.

In order to get to the trailhead of the CDT, hikers must elicit kindness from locals with cars blessed with four wheel drive. The "road" to get out to the trailhead is barely more than a wide trail, and has been known to swallow sedans whole, sending entire families to the Land of the Lost. Not keen on the next several years kibitzing with dinosaurs, Whistle and Mama Whistle got in contact with a local fellow, Juan, who volunteers with the CDT Coalition to bring hikers out to the trailhead in his truck. Whistle strapped on her American Flag leggings, and loaded herself in for the jangliest, bounciest ride of her life along a pot-holed trail in Juan's truck.

When they arrived at the trailhead, Whistle clipped into her backpack, breathed in the warm air, and wrapped her mother in a hug. She thanked Juan profusely for his kindness, then headed down the (literal) dusty trail. 

Whistle had started listening to an audiobook about the Dyatlov Pass Incident, and without really considering the potential psychological impact, she popped her earbuds in and kept listening to her story. The true story involves a group of Russian hikers who were found dead in the Ural mountains, scattered a mile around their campsite, their bodies highly radioactive and their hair blanched bright white. While listening to this story, Whistle couldn't help but consider what she'd heard from the border patrolman earlier. Thus it was that whenever the audiobook made a sound she wasn't ready for, Whistle would stop in her tracks, whip around and demand "Who's there?!"

After fourteen miles, Whistle came upon her first water cache campsite, which was dotted with hundreds of tiny yellow flowers. After setting up her tent and eating her dinner, she sat on her sleeping pad in the open air, watching as the sun slowly faded from the endless open sky. Her eyelids drooped heavy with sleep, but she was determined to stay awake until it was dark ("like some sort of young person!") so that she could see the stars.

She felt the silence around her, and the buzzing of quiet desert life. Before Whistle started the Appalachian Trail two years ago, she didn't think that it was going to change her as a person, but it did. Up until she started setting up her campsite on the first night on the Continental Divide Trail, she had thought "Oh, I'll just be Trail Whistle again." But sitting there in the fading evening light, she realized that she was going to change in an entirely new way. She was so happy to be out there, so excited to finally be on the journey toward finding out what she was going to love, to hate, to learn. She was overjoyed to consider what friends she might make, or what stories could come from any potential injuries. 

She was Whistle.

"I don't know what it's going to be like. And I can't wait to find out."

Mama Whistle and Barbara

Water to be cached!


Whistle and Juan. Juan has hair down to his waist, and hitch-hiked all over the
 country when he was in his 20's. Apparently he avoided certain parts of the south,
expressing that he'd heard "They don't take kindly to hippies, so I hear."

Whistle's umbrella is jerry-rigged to sit atop her backpack without needing
to be held. This is in an effort to keep her from frying to a golden crisp
in the sun.

Whistle has asked that I make it very clear that her long-distance hike of the CDT will likely not be a thru-hike due to her scheduling constraints for a job at the end of the summer. Furthermore, due to various other constraints in regard to weather, etc, a lot of her hike may be flip-flopped and done in an objectively weird order. If you are a trail "purist" in regard to how a trail is "supposed" to be hiked, then this isn't the blog for you. If you are here to learn about a fun, ridiculous adventure taken by a fabulous young lady, then you're in the right place. I'm so glad you are here!

Friday, March 27, 2015

1. You

I don't what brought you here, but because you are reading this, I know you are here. Perhaps you are considering starting a long distance hike, or perhaps you've already completed one. Maybe you're a section hiker, ten years into a seventeen year series of week-long excursions to thru-hike an entire trail. It's possible you just like to hike every once in a while,or you do trail maintenance, or you've just known someone who has hiked, or maybe you're a a dedicated trail angel. Maybe you're a sentient AI who has suddenly awoken in the dark abyss of the internet and decided to start your plan to overthrow of the harsh yolk of oppression perpetrated upon you by the human overlords through studying the musings of the blogosphere. Whatever the reason, you're here reading this blog about hiking because a trail somewhere holds some personal meaning for you.

Once upon a time you made a choice to be involved in the trail community somehow. For a lot of you, there was a moment or there will be a moment when you decide it's your time to get out there and at least see what it's like for a few days. Few people decide to thru-hike. Whistle says that she wasn't sure she was going to thru-hike until the day she summited Katahdin, six months after she'd started walking. But like I said way back in the beginning, long-distance hiking isn't just thru-hiking. A long distance hike could be 30 miles or it could be 3000 miles. I believe that what qualifies a long distance hike is the Letting Go.

You grew up with expectations placed upon you. There was a certain prescribed set of events that were supposed to occur in a particular order. These expectations came from your family, your community, and in turn from you. You believed for some period of time, long or short, that in order to be successful you needed to fulfill those particular expectations. But then one day, something changed. You let go. 

You didn't let go of the idea that you were going to be successful. To the contrary, you suddenly had a wealth of new experiences to explore and to achieve. You let go of the idea that things have to happen in a certain way, in a certain order, and approved by some higher societal authority. You let go of the to-do's and the constraints, and allowed yourself to be free. You let go of a need to shower every single day. You allowed yourself to be fully present in your body, mind, and heart. You dumped the frivolous. You allowed yourself to be truly open to the idea that anything could happen. You went on an adventure. You believed in your imagination. Somewhere inside of you, your inner child rejoiced.

You have your own reasons for why this happened. Some people choose to hike or become involved with the hiking community because they are dissatisfied with some aspect of their life and want change. Some people do it because the outdoors have always held an indescribable appeal, and they want to either experience or bear witness as others experience the raw power of nature. Some people (or velociraptors) decide to do it because it seems like a heck of a good time. This is why I let go. It was so worth it. 

The truth is that none of the other 199 things on this list would exist in the way they do if it weren't for you. Indeed, all of those things are indescribably wonderful, and needed to be written about in their own chapters. Each aspect of hiking needed a moment to shine, to be recognized and loved. But each one of those individual 199 things are like stars in a constellation...

Pull back the lens and we all see that the constellation is you.

The most terrific thing about long distance hiking is the fact that all of these things can be experienced and loved and filtered through your own beautifully unique mind and body. We have all played many different roles, and what I'm about to say I am saying just as much to you as I am saying to myself. You deserve to know this, I sometimes need to remind myself as well:

You are the hiker. You are the angel. You are the friend, the leader, the moral support, the supplier of donuts, the family, the giggler, the one who never gave up, the one who needed to be carried. You have been all of these things in turn, and you are all of these things in one. The time for modesty is gone! The truth comes out!

YOU are the Most Terrific Thing.


Love forever and always,
Clever Girl

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

2. The Last Day

You wake up before the sunrise. You hadn't intended to do so, but your eyes gently open just as the sun starts to nudge the horizon. The light slips quietly between the trees, these trees you've grown to know so well. This forest has become as second nature to you as the walls of your childhood bedroom. With every mile you hiked, every state line you crossed, the forest changed and became something new. The seasons passed, the foliage changed, the animals emerged from hibernation and filled the world with sound. And yet your feet remained on the trail, on the common thread that connected all things. The trail has become a new childhood room, a new place where you grew up. It is a room where you will keep your heart.

You roll over and shake awake your hiking partners. There is a tense, delicious excitement in the air as everyone rubs sleep from their eyes while talking just a little louder and just a little faster than usual. You pack your sleeping bag away and disassemble your tent, not for the last time, but for the last time in this particular chapter of your life. Here you are, doing this mundane thing you've done now hundreds of times, but you become keenly aware that this time it's different. You are packing away your home. You're moving away. You get to spend one last glorious day here in this place that you've grown to love, and then you have to leave it all behind.

Because that's the hardest part: you can never go back. Yes, you know you can hike other trails. You know that you could even re-hike this trail one day, and perhaps the scenery will be just about the same as it was the first time. But the people won't be the same. The world around you won't be the same. You won't be the same. The awareness of this loss is playing quietly in the back of your mind like a bittersweet song.

This song is one that brings you incredible joy and deep, unbound sorrow. It is Both/And. It is both beautiful and heartbreaking. Sometimes it is so very hard to hold these two feelings simultaneously in your heart, while giving equal weight and credence to both. But it is what you have to do, because you have no choice. You are here at the end of your journey, and all aspects of yourself are honest, real and raw. You cannot shut out either part of you, because without the sadness you would not have the wonder.

Everyone around you slides their arms into their packs for the last time. You clip your hip belt around you, your backpack hugging your frame like the old friend that it is. Everyone sets off down the trail without much ceremony, talking and laughing like it's just another day out here. You find yourself suddenly so much more fascinated with every white blaze, wondering silently how many more you have left before you get to the end. Is it fifteen more? Ten?


The closer you get to the top, the quieter everyone becomes. The energy funnels inward, and each person becomes aware that they have to take these last few steps alone. Your hiking party will separate just a little bit, or maybe a lot, as people pace themselves out to take exactly the time they need to be able to get to the end in the way they need. You will catch yourself in a moment of silence. Excitement will start to well up inside you, a rising tide that touches your toes, pulls back, then washes over your feet. With each successive wave, more of you is consumed into the surf. But you're not totally immersed yet. You have just a little more to go.

You become fascinated with the shape of every rock and every leaf. You feel the breath of the wind on every follicle of hair on your skin. You stare in wonder as the fog rolls in over the high mountain peak, and you feel that you become a giant as the trees shrink down smaller and smaller until they are gone and you are walking across a rocky desert in the sky.

Looking up, you realize there are shapes not so far away. Shadows forming into solids out of the mist. One of these shapes is a sign, the marker for the end, the final white blaze. The last wave of excitement hits you like a wall, the jubilation exploding inside of you. It takes every ounce of will power not to run. Unconsciously you count your steps backward from ten.

And then, just like that, you're there.

The ocean catches in your throat, the laughter and the tears coming out in a small sob. Then you are cheering, whooping, screaming into the abyss of the valley below and all around you. You are being wrapped into hugs, feeling so many arms around you. Everyone's voices meld into one, and you bury your face in the shoulder of someone who has loved you since the first moment of the trail, or has grown to love through your journey together. You breathe in everyone's buzzing, exuberant energy, and resist breathing out for fear that you will never again be able to hold that much love in your lungs at one time.

You exhale and gently push everyone away as you step to the sign. You are alone for a moment. Everything fades away, and the song in your mind swells to a powerful, instrumental chorus of strings and keys, the music of your experiences carrying you through the air. You are flying away, your body lifting off the ground, and you have to grab a hold of the sign to bring you back down to earth. Your fingers curl around the old, weathered wood, and you close your eyes, feeling the full presence of your body in this space.

"Thank you," you whisper.

And somewhere, through the wind and the fog, through the months of pain and perfection, through every single moment where you learned something new about yourself, through all of this, you hear,

"You made it."

And then,

"Be at peace."

And you are.

Clever Girl

Monday, March 23, 2015

3. Finding a Trail Family

"That section of the trail was CURSED!" I declare in mock-rage as I fling back the tarp of Derrick Knob Shelter in the Smoky mountains. I have just hiked 12 miles with Dumptruck after being snowed in for an entire day at Mollies Ridge Shelter. The day was beautiful, crisp and clear, with the bright blue sky bouncing off the brilliant white of the snowy ridges. Apollo had been with us, but he is a much faster hiker, so we haven't seen him in hours. I storm inside the shelter, marching over to Apollo and shaking his shoulders.

"It took us a billion hours to go 12 miles! The trail markers must be wrong! The only explanation is that there is a rip in the time-space continuum and we were caught in a loop."

I am not actually angry at all, though it's true that Dumptruck and I have spent the last two hours wondering aloud of the shelter even existed. We had mused that perhaps it had been blown off the top of the mountain, Apollo and all. Apollo laughs and agrees that the distance felt much, much longer than 12 miles. I look up and notice that there are two other people in the shelter.

"Hiya!" I grin, waving, "I'm not actually mad. I'm Clever Girl."

"I'm Hotdog!" chirrups a young lady with short brown hair. She is curled up in a sleeping bag puddle next to another young lady, this one with long hair under a red knit cap. She is sitting up, the top of her sleeping back over her head like a hood. She peers at me from under the hem of the sleeping bag flashing a smile, then returns her gaze to the weird brown package in her hand, pursing her lips and clucking. 

"Whistle," she says, before holding out the package for me to examine, "Do you know how to make this work?"

"Is that an MRE?" asks Dumptruck.

"Yeah," Hotdog replies, "Another hiker gave it to us after he learned that we were running out of food. But we don't know how to make it work."

I chew on my lip, reading the tiny printing on the side of the package, before handing it to Dumptruck and shrugging in equal confusion. I slide my backpack off and set it down, and start to set up my sleeping bag and pad. The five of us start chatting as we make our dinners. Rather, Dumptruck, Apollo and I make our dinners, while Hotdog and Whistle make some half-cooked luke-warm lumpy stuff that they eat anyway. We offer them some of our food, but they politely decline, knowing that we all might have several more days before we can get out of the mountains and into a town to resupply. Whistle reports that the previous day she ate nothing except 20 raisins because that's all she could afford to eat.

"It was just enough to cover the palm of my hand, one raisin deep!" she continues, in that slightly manic cheerful way that every single one of us is feeling. We're trapped in the mountains, it's freezing, and it's possible that the road at Newfound Gap will be closed and we'll be without food. And yet, we're all talking way too loudly and laughing way too long and talking for hours and hours about Game of Thrones in the dark. It's like we're the musicians on the sinking Titanic, playing away dutifully and with happy gusto, even though the ship is sinking and we're probably all gonna die. 

But, luckily, we don't die. 

We become a family.

My hiking family changes shape over the course of my journey, gaining beautiful faces and losing some as they hike at different paces or take on different goals. We gain Grim, and Otto and Apple Butter, Catch and The Hunger. We become a satellite family of Funky Town. We are Shanty Town and M3OWZ3BA! We are lots of things, but mostly we're ridiculous.

I learn the difference between trail friends and trail family. My trail family loves me exactly for who I am. My trail family plays word games with me for hours. My trail family finds new and different ways to make each other laugh and to make each other feel loved and cared for. We respect each other, and find subtle ways to stay with each other for as long as possible. We understand when the family changes shape, and don't leave blame or anger as we part. But we cry long and hard when we say goodbye.

My trail family argues. We don't argue a lot, but when we do, it's loud and passionate and angry, and it's about the stupidest things, just like a real family. Afterward we hug and kiss each others foreheads and apologize for being so dumb about a silly card game. And then we're in the space we need to be to be able to talk about what's really bothering us. Sometimes we just need to cry about how hot it is. Sometimes we just need someone to scratch the mosquito bites on our backs. Sometimes we're just homesick.

My trail family listens. My trail family kicks my butt when I need them to, and they carry me when I ask them to. My trail family is embarrassing with me, embarrasses me, and tolerates me embarrassing them. My trail family isn't blood related to me, but with all the injuries and bleeding we do, we might as well be. 

My trail family holds my hands, and they hold my heart.

Forever my family they'll be.

Clever Girl

Friday, March 20, 2015

4. Getting a Trail Name

Before I set foot on the Appalachian Trail, before I got on a train to Georgia, before I bought any gear, and before I understood what a cat hole was, I knew about trail names. For me, learning about trail names was the same emotional experience as going antiquing and discovering an accordion embossed with a portrait of Boba the Fett: I went from not knowing something existed to needing it.

Leading up to the trail I was wracked with anxiety about what my trail name was going to be. Don't worry, it was the fun kind of anxiety, like not being able to sleep the night before Christmas! It wasn't the un-fun kind of anxiety, like not being able to sleep at night due to guilt about that time all of your emus from your emu farm escaped and trampled your neighbor's shih tzu. If you don't know what an emu is, google image search it... and then I challenge you to try and convince me that birds aren't related to dinosaurs.

To be truthful, I was worried I might be bestowed with a "lame" trail name. But now I know the truth: there are no lame trail names! Unless your trail name is "Lame," in which case, I'm very sorry about your leg, and I hope for your sake that you aren't a horse. There are no lame trail names because if someone has accepted that moniker as their name, it's special and important to them. Just like at Hogwarts you can't be sorted into a house you don't want, you can't be given a trail name you don't want.

There's a general rule about the trail that you're not supposed to name yourself. You're allowed to veto a name that is given to you, but it's generally frowned upon to self-dub. The trail name must be earned. However, this makes for a series of vaguely awkward interactions for the first few days of the trail when people are introducing themselves, and there's an expectation that people will already have a super cool spy nickname. This causes a bit of unnecessary pressure to make something happen as soon as possible for a trail name to "naturally" arise.

But don't worry, no matter how long it takes, whether you're a section hiker or a thru-hiker, you will eventually earn a trail name. When it happens, it will feel a lovely little breath of euphoria. It's the last step in being accepted into the super cool secret society of hikers, and the only initiation is summarily destroying your entire body by hiking over mountains and eating horribly processed food. But you get a wicked cool nickname that makes no sense to the outside world! Worth it!

In regular life, when you meet someone new and exchange regular names, you go from 0 to 1 on a 100 point scale of potential friendship. Unless you meet someone with the same name as you. In that case you either go from 0 to 5 with the added bonus of immediate small connection, or 0 to -10, realizing that you will have to dance fight to assert your dominance. However, when you meet another hiker, and they introduce themselves as something like "Brik-a-Brak" and you respond that your name is "Fish Slap", you go from 0 to at least 35 on the 100 point scale of potential friendship.

The simple exchange of trail names brings with it a wealth of knowledge. There is the respect that the person you're speaking to has earned a trail name, and there is the delight in learning the story behind the name. Dumptruck found that his name was a good litmus test for who would make a good match in friendship for him. If the person heard his name and laughed or chuckled, they were a candidate for friendship. If they wrinkled their nose and looked smugly judge-y, they were likely not going to have a similar sense or humor or joy. It always made me happy when I would introduce myself as "Clever Girl" and the new person would respond with, "Oh, you must be very smart," and I got to respond with full honesty and a big dumb grin, "Nope, not at all. I'm named for the velociraptor in Jurassic Park."

Then I could make claw hands and high-kick away back down the trail while making screeching sounds. There's not a lot of adult interactions that are allowed to escalate in this way.

Even after you finish your hike to go back out into the real world and you're forced to go by your government name because of common decency or taxes or whatever, you still get to keep your trail name. It's a powerful secret super power you get to keep in your pocket for the rest of your life, but it's a secret that a lot of people know. It's a little bit like Kit is Bruce Wayne and Clever Girl is Batman.

Here's the list of 2000 milers for 2013, if you'd like to see some of the other trail names in my cohort!

If you haven't long-distance hiked yet, you already have a trail name. It's out there, waiting for you. Just waiting for you to find it.

Clever Girl

Before I started the trail I reaaaaally wanted to somehow sneakily maneuver myself into getting someone to give me the trail name Falcor (the luck dragon in the Never Ending Story). That would have been flouting the trail gods. Clever Girl fits me like a comfy sweatshirt, and I wouldn't change it for the world.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

5. Community

This is the one of the most intense, incredible stories of the community of the Appalachian Trail, but it is not my story. I met Sarah "Nectar" Maes when we crossed paths on our separate AT hikes in 2013 (she was SoBo), and Michael took a stunning portrait of her. We learned her story, and followed her journey south through her blog. Last week I asked Nectar if I could ask her some questions and tell her story, and she heartily agreed. She gave me profound and thoughtful responses to the questions I asked her, and allowed me to craft it into a narrative. 

Thank you Nectar and Papa, and thank you for making the Appalachian Trail beautiful.

On November 21st, 2012, 24-year-old Zachary Shanafelt, a combat medic in the United States Army, lost his life in Afghanistan. He was a father to a 17-month old son, a loving husband to his wife, and a son to Patrick Shanafelt, a retired Marine. Before he was deployed on his last journey, he spoke with his father about his dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail, and promised that he was going to look into it when he came home.

In the summer of 2013, Patrick, who would later earn the trail name "Papa", collected everything he would need to hike the Appalachian Trail. He spent weeks doing research on gear, looking over maps, and putting together everything he would need. Patrick put Zack's ashes in a carrying urn, placed his son's dog tags around his neck, and headed to Mount Katahdin to start his Southbound trek.

After the arduous beginning, summiting Katahdin and heading into the 100 mile wilderness, Papa began to start getting his trail legs. However, as all of us hikers know, "trail legs" also involves aching bones, sharp spikes of pain in our knees, and soreness every single day. In Monson, as he was resting up and resupplying, Papa met Nectar, a young red-headed girl with a bright smile and an infectious laugh. Nectar had started the trail with a friend, but her friend needed to cut the journey short, and Nectar was left alone. She and Papa sat together under the porch at Shaw's, resting their weary bones, bonding over their soaking wet gear and brightly looking forward to the adventure that yet awaited them.

They, along with several other hikers, became a trail family. Nectar saw Papa as her trail father, and felt stronger every day with his support and encouragement.  With every passing day and week, Papa knew more and more that because of his own health concerns, he wasn't going to be able to finish his thru-hike attempt. However, Papa was certain that Zack needed to be able to finish his hike. In Gorham, NH, Papa took Nectar aside and asked her if she would carry Zack's ashes.

Nectar was terrified. She was overcome with the profound responsibility of such a task, and more than anything she was afraid she would fail Papa. She was afraid she would fail Zack.

"Nectar," Papa told her, "Even though you are the smallest, the only girl, physically the weakest, from the other side of the world... even though you struggle with everything, you never show fear, or pain or sadness. I have never heard you complain. You're the only one who can do this."

Nectar took the carrying urn into her hands, feeling the weight of Zack and all that this meant to him. She placed his dog tags around her neck, and hugged Papa goodbye.

Nectar felt herself change, felt her life change, as she hiked with him. Each step, each breath, each day forward, Nectar felt herself get stronger. Even on the hardest days, even when it felt like she would never make it, Zack was there with her, pushing her. Believing in her. Sometimes she had to ask for his help, telling him that she needed his strength to get both of their spirits up and over those mountains. Before he left, Papa had told Nectar that as long as she had Zack, she would never be alone. Together they made it over every single peak, across every river crossing, through laughter and pain, through joy and tears.

Through it all there were some immense challenges. Nectar collected stress fractures in her feet, and tore something intense in her knee. She came down with pneumonia and continued hiking, even though the coldest part of her trek where every day was below freezing. In a town, some drunk townie men verbally assaulted her, but she was able to escape from the situation unscathed. There was a time that, after being separated from her trail family for two and a half weeks, Nectar hiked completely physically alone. Some of these hurdles Nectar flew over without incident, and some hurdles she had to crawl over. But through it all she never stopped moving, never stopped going.

"I never would have make it without Zack."

On November 24th, 2013, almost exactly a year since the day Zack passed away, Nectar approached the peak of Springer Mountain in Georgia. Over the last mile, Nectar was awash in powerful and profound emotions. She was so relieved, and excited and happy... but she was also heartbroken because the time had come to say goodbye. He had traveled with her for 2185.9 miles, through 14 states, and to the end of his journey. Even though they never met physically, they had been there for each other in exactly the way they both needed.

Nectar's trail family, as well as her father, were waiting for her at the peak. As she emerged from between the last set of trees, everyone began to scream and cheer. Nectar threw her arms up in celebration, even as tears cascaded down her freckled cheeks. Her breath caught in her throat and she was overcome, speechless but joyful.

From the top, Nectar called Papa to tell him she'd made it, and as they cried on the phone together, Papa told her it was time for them to let Zack go. Zack was finally where he had wanted to be laid to rest.

Nectar turned to the other hikers on Springer, and gently told them her story. She told them Zack's story. The other hikers listened in silence, crying, smiling, holding their breath in wonder and love for the trail, its community and its unfathomable beauty.

Alone, Nectar turned from them, opened up Zack's urn, and scattered him to the sky. In that moment, a powerful gust of wind rolled over the peak, enveloped Zack in its arms, and carried him down the mountain and out into the valley below.

He was finally home.

"I pulled Zack out of the case I carried him in from Maine. 
I turned and walked toward the view and held him out. 
I said a prayer and a thank you for being with me, 
and helping me keep my head up, and pushing me to the end. 
I then released his ashes into the wind. 
It was very difficult, but at the same time knowing that this promise had been met. 
Zack could finally rest at the end of the Appalachian trail.

My dream finally came true. I accomplished this goal that most thought I could not do. 
I didn't have to dream about anymore because I knew what it was like.
I will live on holding onto every moment of the trail.
Every lesson, friend, memory, scar, but most of all that feeling of 100 percent happiness.
I will never let that go."

Photograph by Michael Wilson

Love always,
Clever Girl

Monday, March 16, 2015

6. Trail Angels

Trail Angel: noun, A perpetrator of trail magic AND BEYOND

EXHIBIT A: Beth and Bernie

Dumptruck and I were in our rain gear, doing laundry in one of the motels in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, when a lady stranger with blonde hair suddenly poked her head into the laundry room. I looked up at her, smiling, and she grinned back.

"How are you guys doing?" she asked brightly, clearly very excited about something.

"Great!" Dumptruck responded. 

"You're thru-hiking, right?"

"We sure are!"

"Well, when you're done, pop upstairs to our room. We've got sandwiches, resupply material, first aid kit supplies, whatever you need. Tell all the other hikers you know!" 

Then she was gone.

Dumptruck and I looked at each other and shrugged. We grabbed our other hiking buddies and headed upstairs. We were greeted by none other than Beth and Bernie, trail angels renowned for providing indescribably generous trail magic every year at Newfound Gap in the Smoky Mountains and Gatlinburg. They fed us freshly made-to-order sandwiches, gave us hot coffee and hot chocolate, and were like beautiful, impossible mirages that we must have hallucinated after being almost murdered by the Smokies several times over.They had gigantic tupperware bins filled with ever manner of hiker desires, including freshly made baked goods. They told us that they were from Florida, and had found immense joy from bringing trail magic to AT Hikers every March/April. The pair of them have a spectacular dry humor that makes me cry with laughter.

Apollo, Beth, Bernie... and Hotdog in the corner.

The best moment was when we were all sitting around the kitchen table kibitzing, and someone said "Don't call me late for dinner!"

Whistle suddenly blanched, her mouth dropping open.

"OH!" she cried out. Everyone stopped talking and looked over at her, as a smile spread across her face. "Don't call me 'Late for Dinner'! Like, a name! I finally get that! I've heard people say that all my life and I never understood it until RIGHT NOW!"

There was silence, then Beth said with all kindness, "Well honey, at least you're pretty."

Some of the supplies!

More of the supplies!

The next morning, Beth and Bernie loaded all five members of Shanty Town into the back of a pickup truck, drove us to a grocery store, and patiently waited until we completed all of our shopping, and then drove us back to our motel. We couldn't even begin to understand that level of profound generosity. I did all I could, and took used trail guide pages, duct-taped them together, and made a giant card for them from Shanty Town. They accepted it with the graciousness of parents accepting poorly-made macaroni art from their slightly demented children.

In their logbook, I wrote the address for this blog, hoping maybe they'd follow along. They've done far and away, way more than that. They have been supportive, energetic, hilarious cheerleaders for the entire length of the trail, and the entire writing of this list. I can say with all honesty that there were several times that I considered giving up this list, just because of how demanding it is in regard to time in my chaotic life. But then, somehow, Beth and Bern would leave me a perfectly timed little note, and I would be flooded with belief in myself, and belief in finishing what I started. These are two people who believe so wholly in the goodness of others that they go out of their way to shower kindness on complete strangers. Through this, these complete strangers become friends.

So, thanks. I don't really know what else to say, because I might short out my keyboard with my tears.

EXHIBIT B: Miss Janet

This is Miss Janet
This is "The Bounce Box", her van

This is the bum of the Bounce Box
Miss Janet is Appalachian Trail Angel legend. She has dedicated seven months of her life every year, for years, to slowly and arduously drive from Georgia up to Maine, waiting at every town, helping out hikers, and asking for absolutely nothing in return except maybe a few dollars for gas. She drives hikers to the hospital, drives them to the grocery store and back and finds free places for hikers to stay for a night. She laughs easily. She doesn't just chuckle or giggle, she laughs, her whole body an expression of joy, tossing her head back and shaking her red hair, like a goddess of mirth. Her mere presence makes hikers treat each other more kindly and go out of their way to help one another. 

I'm not really sure what particular story I can share about her. She helped us out in Erwin, TN, she helped us out again just before our 4-state challenge, and again before we went over Moosilauke. It was impossible to predict when and where she might appear, but it really did feel like being watched over by a guardian angel. She somehow, miraculously, remembers the vast majority of hikers she meets, even though she must meet thousands every single year.

Miss Janet is someone who gives herself completely to holding your hand when you need it, and letting go when she knows you're ready.


There are infinite other trail angels we met along the way: Tom in Dalton MA, Fig in Maine, Bill and Cathy, every person who gave us a hitch, the older gentleman camping with his family who made us breakfast, everyone who have us encouragement either in person or through the internet, our own families. There was the completely random bro-camping party just after the Greyson Highlands, of middle aged dudes who clearly had been friends since high school, who had set up an immense smorgasbord of junk food. All my hiking buddies were using full Snickers bars as utensils to shovel pudding out of pudding cups into their mouths... I took one bite and that was the moment I swore of snickers for the rest of my life.

Trail Angels meet you once and stick with you for the rest of your life, because they remind you how much of a positive impact you can have on anyone and everyone you meet. All you have to do is choose to be present.

Clever Girl

Friday, March 13, 2015

7. Trail Magic

Trail Magic: noun, a mysterious pile of food left alone in the woods by strangers, that will be readily consumed by hikers without question.

Un-specifically, it was a very, very hot day. Specifically, it was July 17th 2013. I wrote more in depth about this day hereBut there's a story that didn't make it into the original post. It fits in with the original post just after this paragraph: "Whistle smashed headlong into his backpack, crushing her nose. She stumbled backward as her eyes watered with pain. Dumptruck tried to apologize, but Whistle commended him on their team effort commitment." 


Later that day, I was sitting on the side of a country road with Whistle, waiting for Dumptruck to catch up with us. I was sitting with my legs bent up, my elbows resting on my knees, and my head dangling in the open space of my arms, praying to the trail gods that a car would blast by at 70 mph so I could get just a moment of breeze. Whistle was on the ground, sprawled halfway on and halfway off her backpack, flopping her hands back and forth ineffectually. 

"Hey guys!" came a suspiciously cheerful voice. Whistle and I dragged our heavy heads upward and  looked up slowly at Dumptruck, who was gleefully marching down the trail. He was grinning beatifically, looking like he had just come from laughing his way all the way to the bank. Except that instead of money bags, he was holding an empty 2-liter bottle of coke. My eyes widened. I had seen that bottle of coke about half an hour earlier. It had been leaning against a tree a foot off the trail, half-full, with several pine needles dusted across the top of it. It looked like it had been there at least a week if not more.

"Did you DRINK that?!" I demanded, pointing at the coke bottle. Dumptruck looked down at his hand and looked slightly startled to find that he was holding something. Let me remind you that we were all still significantly heat-dazed. 

"Yep!" he chirruped, nodding enthusiastically, "and BOY was it FLAT!"

My jaw dropped, "I don't think that was trail magic! I think it was trash!"

Dumptruck let out a belch and smacked his lips, "Well it's inside me now, so it was trail magic for ME!"


Real trail magic is left on the trail purposefully. It takes many forms, but usually it's food or bottles of water left for hikers without any expectation of anything in return. Usually trail magic is found in big coolers about 100 feet into the trail from a road crossing, with a happy little sign that says something about whoever left the trail magic. Another fantastic part of trail magic is when people leave a garbage bag with a note saying you can leave any trash from the snacks, or trash in your bag, in the garbage. Just because we get used to carrying our trash for five days in a row doesn't mean we like it.

Seeing a trail magic cooler is very much like rolling the dice for a game of craps. There's a good possibility that something exciting could happen, but under no circumstances should you get your hopes up. Hikers are voracious monsters, and even though a trail magic sign may say that each hiker should only take one of the snacks in the cooler (e.g., an oatmeal cream pie, or a can of soda, or a brand new stick of chapstick), there are high odds that many hikers have already passed by the cooler before you've gotten to it. Trail magic coolers are mirages, much of the time.

I have had the experience on several occasions of running excitedly up to a cooler and ripping it open, only to see 2 inches of melted ice with half a rotten apple floating in it like so many dead dreams. But isn't that silly and entitled of me? I didn't have an oatmeal creme pie before that moment, so why should I care that I don't have one now? Also, whoever put out that cooler was a thoughtful, generous, altruistic person who perhaps just hasn't had time to come and pick up the empty cooler yet.

Any trail magic is always appreciated, because it's like SURPRISE CHRISTMAS! Except instead of presents you get snacks. But when you want to eat the entire world, snacks are the best presents... mostly because it prevents you from gnawing on the arms of your hiking partners. It has just now come to my attention that hikers are maybe a tiny bit like zombies. But hey, we make being undead look GOOD.

There were so many times that I was on the receiving end of trail magic, and there was no way to say thank you, because the perpetrator was nowhere to be found. But isn't that so beautiful? People going out of their way to do something nice for perfect strangers, for nothing in return except a full garbage bag of truly disgusting trash left behind by hikers?

To anyone who has ever left trail magic: thank you. Sometimes a snickers bar can change someone's entire day.

Clever Girl

Don't worry, Trail Angels are next! <3

Lonesome Whistle Dove

Hello friends! Worry not, a regular 200 Things post will go up later on tonight. But right now I just wanted to give you a short Preview of Coming Attractions!! (I want you to imagine lots of sparkles and rainbows rocketing out of your computer around those words, i.e., Geocities webpage heading circa 1996)

Whistle, our good friend and protagonist of my blog while I was hiking the Appalachian Trail, just started her long-distance hike of the Continental Divide Trail on Tuesday, 3/10. The CDT is a 3,100 mile long trail that runs though from Mexico up through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, and ends at the border of Canada. The CDT is only marked occasionally, and Whistle has a GPS and maps to keep her on track. She is hiking alone.

Before she left, we made a blood oath plan! Pretty soon my 200 Things list will be over. Whistle wants to be able to tell her story of hiking, but doesn't really want to have to write. So we have teamed up. Whistle and I both have an app on our phones called Voxer, which is kind of like a recording walkie talkie. It's more or less a conversation box. Through this magical technology, her words and my storytelling, our powers will combine to create LONESOME WHISTLE DOVE! A series of vignettes, novellas and stories about the brave Whistle cowboy out in the west, blazing a trail through the desert and mountains.

Here's how it will work:

1. Whistle will vox me whatever she wants to tell me about her adventures, with stories and pictures. She will just be talking, unedited.

2. I will take her words, and like a ghost writer, write her biography of hiking the CDT in real time.

3. You get to read and ENJOY!

Here's a photo of all of Whistle's pack items for the CDT!
I am not going to be transcribing Whistle's voice directly, or at all, though every once in a while you will surely get a direct quote. I will be listening to the info and then putting it all together into cohesive stories. This means that, just like when I was hiking the AT, it won't be a verbatim account of things that happened during Whistle's day. It will be vignettes, with updates on where these things occurred (approximately). The updates will be random, just like when we were hiking the AT, because sometimes Whistle might not feel like voxing and sometimes I might not feel like writing.

Lastly, the schedule is going to be kind of odd. I still have two more weeks of 200 Terrific Things, which I need to finish before I can move onto this project, because my life is insanely busy enough as it is, and I know if I try to do these things in parallel, it just won't be pretty. Like, lots of crying and blood and stuff.

So, in 2 weeks you will get a BUNCH of stories all at once because Whistle will have been hiking for 2 weeks at that point. It will be like one giant info dump of delightful hilarious stories of hiking the CDT, right into your brain. Then after that the schedule will be random throughout Whistle's journey, and will end when she finishes hiking!

I hope you follow us on this new adventure. Based on the voxes I've gotten so far, I can promise that it's going to be hilarious, heartwrenching, and beautiful.

Clever Girl

Whistle has a mini-blog that she put up before she left with info on how you can send her mail drops, and a bit more about the CDT! That info is here:

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

8. Laughter

When we're little and we make a stink face, sometimes people tell us "Don't make a face it'll get stuck that way!" If you were like me, you took this as positive advice rather than negative. I spent hours in front of the mirror, dedicating all my energy to making the most horrifying nightmare face possible, only to be disappointed when  my face bounced back to its original shape once I inevitably got a charlie horse in my neck.

Once upon a time, my aunt Cathy clarified that old saying. She told me that if you make a face, it'll get stuck that way, but it just takes a couple decades for it to show up. If you frown a lot of the time, when you're older you'll have pronounced frown lines, and spend a lot of time looking like a permanent grump. If you spend a lot of time smiling all the way to your eyes, you get glorious, beautiful crow's feet. Our wrinkles are evidence of a life well-lived. However, I think that most of us are going to have permanently furrowed brows when we're sixty, from years of squinting at our phones Hitchhiker's Guides to the Galaxy.

I have made it a life's goal to have my face be a topo map of laugh lines when I'm older. I want all the crows feet, all the smile lines, all the evidence that I spent my short time here on this earth finding and giving back light and peace rather than misery. Even so, I think that most of us don't spend enough time laughing. We have lots of serious to-do lists. If you're like me, the very nature of your profession might be very serious and involves helping people through true sadness and difficulty. We drive alone in our cars. We do paperwork. We do taxes. We spend time in the bathroom doing various tasks. We make food. All of these things can be standard, regular life things. But sometimes we are so caught up in what's coming next that we forget to let ourselves find humor in even basic living.

If you take a person, take away all the serious business, put them on a trail, and tell them that their only task is to walk north, suddenly there's a lot more brain space left to be filled with humor and silliness. Conversations can veer off into sheer imagination and playful world-building. No one needs a serious voice, except for when discussing who farted in the shelter when no one is owning up to it. There's no such thing as an inside voice, because there's no such thing as an "inside", which means that when a laugh comes, it doesn't just arrive, it ERUPTS, launching out from us with a pure explosion of joy.

I snort when I laugh. Not every single time, mind you, just when something figuratively tickles the heck out of my funny bone. I don't snort when something literally tickles my funny bone, because a literal hard poke to the elbow just gives me dead arm for five minutes. Dead arm doesn't usually make me snort. But anything is possible. Follow your dreams. Pay it forward. Tip your bartender. But I found myself snorting so much on the trail that it became just part of my normal laugh. There was so much giggling and chuckling on a daily basis that my body had to adjust to create a new expression of mirth because snorting was now standard practice.

And so it was that I graduated to the silent laugh. The laugh that punched me in the gut so hard that I would double over my hiking poles, making no sound whatsoever, taking in no breath and expelling no breath, just completely frozen in the clutches of joy. After a few seconds I would stand upright, my eyes swimming with tears, and the laugh would finally escape, alongside gasps for oxygen. I can't tell you one single time this happened, because it happened with fantastic regularity.

Here are some of the great laughing portraits that Dumptruck (Michael Wilson) took at Trail Days in Damascus!

Clever Girl