I hadn’t fully thought it through, I was simply in awe of every person I’d ever known who decided to throw everything they needed to survive in a backpack and start walking. Since I’d moved to Asheville nine years earlier I’d heard many tales of survival from the trail. One girl I’d met in college with two long dreadlocks dangling from the back of her dirty blond head of curls, mentioned it in passing our entire semester of Spanish. She recalled sleepless nights in trail shelters when we learned the word frio for cold. Our Day of the Dead presentations stirred memories of her time spent walking through Virginia with a woman name Josie who shared stories of her grandmother and the lavish street parties they threw back home.
Then I met a man in Asheville who looked at me with eyes of wonder and laughed while stirring a pot of coconut rice, sharing his trail stories as I glanced over refrigerator photos of year after year of ‘Team Ninja’ and their victorious summit of Mount Katahdin. It had changed him. It was where he found his tribe. I fell for him because of it. It wasn’t his body or his style, what he did for a living or how much money he made. It was his dedication, his ability to have a profession and maintain this essential wild, animal self. Just thinking about how stubborn and tenacious you’d need to be to walk in the woods with little more than your clothes, a tarp with a few poles and the food needed to sustain yourself for months on end pushed me to take on this challenge too, to begin that journey for myself, with him, alongside him…
We made the decision late November to leave the following summer. My mind reeled as I rushed over to his house with questions day after day. I even moved in just two months later so we could spend bubble bath hours and endless coconut rice dinners talking it all out. He had a system for this. I mean he really had an intricate plan of cutting off toothbrushes, building lightweight stoves out of beer cans and weighing out all the things. We tested tents in our living room and on the trail. We bulk ordered polenta and protein bars. We outfitted my 10 year old Australian cattle dog Bella with her own pack and lightweight bowl system. My boss graciously gave me a month’s paid time off. We shipped boxes to Hot Springs, NC with winter gloves and additional supplies.
Just eight months later a friend drop us off on the North Carolina / Tennessee border with our backpacks and walking sticks.
The first day was muggy summer hot, where your clothes stick to every inch of your body. My stomach was in knots. We hiked six miles, adjusting our bodies to the weight of the packs, our feet to the slope of the trail. Then we came to this loud humming cylindrical building with government warning signs to “Keep Out.” We laughed, citing alien activity, investigated a while then flung our packs on a nearby overlook, built a small fire, boiled water for polenta then set up our new home and fell asleep curled in our small and determined wolf pack. The next few weeks were glorious hell. The first seven days were grueling 85 degrees, my body struggling to hold the new weight of carrying all the things. We climbed the steep hills, hop-skipped down the declines, spotted bear tracks and scooted snakes off our path. Bella hurried along excitedly with her small red pack, carrying kibble and tuna. We’d walk together and fall apart.
My mind wandered so freely at times that my body seemed to float right along that path, above it almost, and other times my legs felt like they’d simply burst from the compounding heat and weight, mile after mile. The 35 pound pack intensified, as I climbed, pulling on my shoulders like a sleeping child and digging into my hips around mile six and seven each day. Little did I know that by the end of the trip, I’d be skipping into mile ten dreaming up moppy-headed characters I envisioned seeing in the snow covered trees, singing and sweating, wild and free.
We’d stop with the other hikers, share snacks and cross-legged rests together on fallen trees, talk about the things we’d seen along the way. Another two weeks in and we’d gotten so comfortable it was as if we’d lived in those woods all along. We woke up earlier, walked a little longer, screamed from cliff faces, collected water from the tips of a leaf’s trickle and dreamed of ice cream sandwiches and warm showers. We even had a friend leave us an entire trash bag filled with peanut butter, beer and Twizzlers near a park the trail passed through. We sat on the side of the road with big kid grins as we plundered our gifted treasure. The most simple society things were once again so highly revered when we weren’t inundated with endless access and choice, when we weren’t allowed the option to indulge. We had enough to get by and that in itself changed us, slowed us, returned our bodies and minds to their natural resting place in nature.
We watched rain turn to hail. I sang a song about it. Moss built the fire each night and taught me how to throw a bear bag to keep our food safely hung in the trees away from the bears. A group of cubs clambered one day down a hill as we walked along the other side. We stayed in hostels and made friends with through-hikers. At night we’d take turns reading ‘A Walk in the Woods’ and burn what we read in the fire the next day to drop unnecessary weight. My skin became coarser, my hair thickened and my legs felt more like a horse ready to be saddled and worked with each passing day. I felt strong. I felt home.
One thing Moss always said to me was, “You have to plan your life around the trip instead of trying to plan the trip around your life.” That’s true for anyone wanting to do something like this. You’ve simply got to decide it’s something you need, like water, like breathing, like the adventure your life should be, that our lives should all be sharing in together. Happy trails.