Embarking on the final 500
Reflections in the rain
My feet are soaked, the night is dark, my dog is shivering, and I fear any minute I may slip on the icy-slick rocks. Like walking down the a waterfall, I’m swimming and sliding, more than I am hiking. Nothing is really waterproof, my friend says, which includes every article of clothing I’m wearing.
“This is a lousy time to be search-and-rescued,” I think, having been subject to that before (see past blogs). I survey the steep terrain and moonless sky, and figure I’ll be waiting at least till morning if I fall and break an ankle here.
“Must keep going,” I think, while also wondering, “How long do my feet have to be wet before I get trench-foot?” This is my 4th day in wet socks. Who knew that hiking Vermont would feel like soldiering through Vietnam?
The debrief on a detour
Somehow this 12-mile breezy hike into Stony Brook shelter (just past Killington, VT) has turned into a never-ending 17-mile slog.
How, you ask? Because I may or may not have become “temporarily disoriented” (a term I prefer to “lost”) up around the Sherburne Pass and Deer Leap trails earlier today.
To be fair, it’s something of a maze where the AT overlaps with day trails, departs from the Long Trail, and branches off to a spur trail leading to- you guessed it- a very enticing hiker breakfast:
So with belly full and Lord Huron singing through my headphones, I found myself circling a labyrinth of what I swear were all white blazes- but a route that clearly took me off course.
This resulted in an extraneous five miles in which my inner dialogue went something like, “Didn’t I just see that same tree with the red paint on its bark?” To the ends of the earth would you follow me… “Surely that’s not the same sign I passed an hour ago, right?” There’s a world that was meant for our eyes to see… The music kept playing, and I kept walking.
Getting lost isn’t the worst thing
I enjoyed singing and savoring the sun and the lingering taste of pancakes (with real maple syrup they don’t charge you extra for!)
And thought about the times I’ve found myself circling back to the same problems and foibles, the same relational patterns and professional mistakes. The moments you feel like, “Wait, haven’t we been here before?”
My sense of being directionally challenged felt like little more than a momentary lapse until I checked the map app on my phone and realized how far off course I’d gone.
“Seriously?” I thought. “After 1700 miles you’d think I’d have this figured out.”
But sometimes you have to learn things the hard way, again.
Why are we here?
Once I realize how much time and mileage my carelessness has cost, I resign myself to the road ahead- another 8 miles, only now in the rain. Which turns to thunderstorms. Which turns into floods, as I can barely see my shoes beneath the river that is now the trail.
“I came back on trail,” said a new friend of mine, “because it’s where I’m the best version of myself.”
At midlife he’s doing a re-set of sorts, leaning into his new sobriety and contemplating next steps after a recent layoff.
I get that- “the best version of myself.” Hiking the trail sometimes feels like a traveling summer camp for grown-ups, where we can be something truer than we were during the school year.
On trail I feel more relaxed and capable, open to whatever comes. Trail friends express the creativity and wonder they experience out here: less hurry, more noticing.
With so few things under your control, uncertainty feels less scary. The days seem simpler and more hopeful, conversation deeper and less forced.
Laughter comes easy when you’re all equally drenched in sweat or rain. And when you admit to something foolish (like getting lost) you’re sure to hear a resounding “Me too!”
I also get the re-set concept. Most thru-hikers fall into one of two demographics: 35-and-under or 55-and-over.
The former tend to be starry-eyed, athletic, and full of possibility. They’re taking a gap year before grad school or making a rite of passage before college. The latter tend to be well-heeled retirees with wives and kids back home to cheer them on and visit them on trail.
It makes sense that the younger and older ages are ideal for thru-hiking: whether physically, practically, or both. I think of these two groupings of people primarily as “the ones who got life right the first time.”
But those of us hiking at midlife often have the highest stakes. We’ve given up more to be here; we have less to go home to. We find ourselves in between jobs, marriages, addictions, decisions. We’ve had more things go wrong, and been lost more than once. The trail’s where we go because it’s the one place we can come exactly as we are- and feel something like found.
But maybe at every age we find a version of ourselves here we didn’t expect. Or perhaps we suspected it all along- this simpler, kinder, heartier glimpse of ourselves; it just takes a few storms to uncover it.
Back to the storm
“Keep going,” I coach myself. “No search and rescue tonight.” I sing Brandi Carlile songs. I check how many miles left to go. I think of Civil War soldiers and their heavy gear.
I can’t even look for a stealth site to pitch my tent, because my lighter’s dead and I won’t be able to cook dinner or breakfast without one. My friend Audible has a new lighter waiting for me if I can just make it to Stony Brook shelter tonight.
My dog Ollie pulls me toward a tree. He wants to make a bed of pine needles and call it a day. Poor little guy; I wonder if PETA considers this animal cruelty- hiking him 17 miles in rain and thunder, while his wet hair sticks to his face and he looks up at me forlorn.
Well, I think, at least if I’m ever injured and in a wheelchair, that handicap-accessible section of the VT trail will be doable. I love whoever thought of that – to create a quarter-mile of flat stretch right by the biggest waterfall.
Finally I arrive at the shelter, where they readily make room for Ollie and me, wet gear and all. It’s all guys, and one of them- Chewbacca- says, “You’re Sprout? My friend reads your blog and says ‘hi.’ I have a text from him here to you. I met one of the AT you-tubers earlier too. This is like my week of celebrity sightings!”
I take off my sopping Royals hat, dripping water on the wood floor. My hungry tired flooded brain cannot compute. Did he just say celebrity?
I laugh and thank them for squeezing us in, and Audible- like a worried parent- says, “Where have you been?” I start to answer but suddenly see that Ollie is shaking his wet coat all over an unsuspecting hiker’s sleeping bag, and I rush to get him off.
“It’s okay,” a voice says in the dark, “I have a dog too.” This is Crash, a recent high school graduate from Florida, out hiking the trail with his friend Rank.
Sunshine after the rain
Crash and Rank, their real names Charlie and George, both from Tampa, will form a short-term trail family with Ollie and me for the next three days. They came just to hike the Vermont section of the AT, and this is their first time in the northeast.
The next morning in the shelter, they tell us of their land of alligators and swamps, devil-rays and Disney. They marvel at seeing the wilds of New England up close: “Bro! Beavers are real!” They discover fireflies for the first time, and dare each other to jump off the West Hartford bridge.
Ollie joins their pack and thinks they’re his brothers. I don’t know how we’re the same pace but I suspect they slow down some for me.
Over the miles we talk about music and movies, politics and philosophy. We talk family and foster kids (Charlie has a foster brother) and Florida culture. We talk about gear and God, weed and ambition, Hooters and heartbreak, rugby and theology.
And here’s the thing- if you’d asked me a month ago what I know about the inner lives of young guys, I would’ve said “next to nothing.” If you’d asked me what I have in common with two still-teenage boys from Florida, I would’ve said “Also nothing.”
But here’s a bit of trail magic- time and again out here you discover you have 90% more “Just like me” with everyone you meet, than you ever thought possible.
So much so that when Linda in West Hartford invited us to her porch for snacks and said, “So you’re hiking the AT with your sons?” I laughed and almost said “Yes.”
There’s this part in the Bible where the Apostle Paul writes a letter to a young man he’s mentoring:
“Exhort an older man as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters…” (1 Timothy 5)
One of the miracles of thru-hiker life is this idea of trail family: it’s more than a cute phrase for fleeting friendships.
“Trail family” for me connotes the way we’re thrown together with people we’d likely never cross paths with in real life, in a setting where quick bonds form that are more than superficial.
When you share bandaids and Benadryl, Gatorades and gear repairs, slowing down for the weariest and taking breaks with the most blistered, you forge a kind of intergenerational interdependence- treating each other less like strangers and more like siblings, mothers, sons.
Hiking with Crash and Rank made me miss talking to my younger brothers- back when we lived in the same house and would debrief the day together, or go for ice cream. Things change fast when people move away and have families of their own. It’s easy to lose touch with the new people they’ve become.
One thing trail family does for me is invite me to reach out better to my own family- to be curious about them in the way I am with people I just met. To not assume I know them already, or that there’s nothing new to discover.
Hiking with the Florida boys, I also realize how vital it is to get out of our own generational feedback loop. From Gen-Z-ers, I learn how they see the world of climate change, social media, spirituality, and nature. I’m reminded that the different age groups aren’t different species- but essentially similar humans with a unique lens from the era in which they entered the world.
So long, Vermont
We’ve finished the 150 miles of Green Mountains, and receive a heroes’ welcome in Hanover. Starting with a free meal in Norwich (see above), we get free hikers’ breakfast and lunch the next day across the river. With a place to stash packs at the Dartmouth Outing Club and dozens of at-the-ready trail angels for shuttles and lodging, this is the hiker-friendliest town I’ve encountered!
I bid the Florida boys farewell and feel a little sad. The trail won’t be the same. But I hope to hear from them in years to come about the music they’re producing, the law they’re studying, the new trails they’re blazing. As they would say, “The vibes will be immaculate,” when it comes to their future.
Smarter by the day
Hiking into an Ivy League institution right before entering the last two states on the AT, feels like earning some kind of degree. A masters, perhaps, but not a Ph.D. That’s reserved for those who pass the White Mountains and Maine- full of research, tests, and maybe tears. Will we make it? We’ll see. But first Ollie insists on some Ivy League swag:
Gifts from the one that got away
Once I applied for a minister job in Burlington, Vermont. I wanted it so badly, and got to the final round of interviews where it came down to two prospective pastors.
They picked the other candidate, but before that point I was asked to preach in what’s called “a neutral pulpit.” That’s where you go to an assigned church to preach, so the search committee can come see you without the rest of the congregation knowing what’s up.
My neutral pulpit assignment was to a Congregational church in Barre, Vermont- and I was there for all of an hour, but got to lead most of the liturgy, preach a sermon, and meet their people. Unbeknownst to me then, out of that day would emerge three lasting friendships- not with the folks in Burlington, but in Barre.
One of those, Cary, came to pick me up from Hanover this weekend, and took me to her home near Montpelier. There I got to see her sister Nancy, who listens to my current sermons from afar and has written me encouraging notes, and Cary’s husband Carl- who cooked up the most exquisite Mexican feast and then drove Ollie and me to our vet visit the next day (don’t worry- he’s okay).
Over an incredibly cozy stay at their home, Ollie and I received a welcome fit for a king.
Shauna Niequist says, “The heart of hospitality is about creating space for someone to feel seen and heard and loved. It’s when someone leaves your home feeling better about themselves, not better about you.”
But in this case, both things were true. I felt such deep admiration for them, and also more in love with my own unique life.
From Cary and Carl and Nancy I learned more about flower farms and protein bars, addiction counseling and second chances, Vermont culture, cancer survival, and what a living love story looks like over time.
What I want to say is this- sometimes you don’t get the thing you wanted, but you get something else – something more surprising and beautiful than you could’ve hoped.
You knew it was coming…
This past Sunday – while it was still raining- I went to church at the Dartmouth UCC congregation on campus. I wasn’t sure how they’d receive a wet dog and disheveled woman in hiker clothes, but they welcomed us in.
The music of a Dartmouth student harpist floated through the pews, and it felt like the stringed notes of the biblical David, whose harp soothed a troubled King Saul.
Just when I swore this Sunday I wouldn’t cry, Reverend Mandy opened her prayer: “Holy God, teach us to rest in you. For you are our truest destination, peace with you is our deepest home.”
And turns out it was Mandy’s last Sunday before sabbatical. Every part of the service affirmed the surrender of rest and pause, renewal and sabbath.
Mandy’s very countenance embodied the rest she preached about, and I marveled at the tenderness with which she spoke to her flock.
What would it be like, I wondered, to be as relaxed and present as Mandy- on a Sunday morning of all things? How many years of meditation did that take? Could I bring something of “the best version of myself” back to my church?
Or is it more about providing the kind of hospitable space that leaves people feeling better about themselves, instead of better about their pastor? I felt all those to be true in that time of worship at Dartmouth.
Today is our nation’s birthday (with caveats and disclaimers, to be sure), and tomorrow is my own. Birthdays, I find, bring a time to take stock of where you’ve been the past year, where you thought you’d be by now, and where you actually are:
Hello to here.
If you’d told me ten years ago I’d be spending my 47th birthday in front of a fountain in Norwich, Vermont, brushing off the dog hair from my leggings and blogging about the Appalachian Trail, I wouldn’t have believed it.
If you’d told me I’d be here sans kids or husband or home- I might’ve been sad and surprised:
“No family? No book deal? Not even a bold new vision to mentor youth or start a non-profit or build a tiny house?”
What have you been doing with your life? I might’ve asked my future self.
Ada Calhoun, in her book on Gen-X women at mid-life called Why We Can’t Sleep, writes:
“We’re the first women raised from birth hearing the tired cliché ‘having it all’ – then discovering as adults that it is very hard to have even some of it. We kept hearing again and again that we could be anything we wanted to be. So, if we happened to fail, why was that? The only thing left to blame was ourselves.”
But on the cusp of my 48th year on earth, I’d like to hang up the hat of self-blame and arbitrary goalposts. Let’s toast to a sabbath rest from all that.
‘Cause here’s the deal:
Even my friends who have those things- the partner, the kids, the home equity and professional achievements- still wonder whether they’ve done it right:
Whether they’re happy enough and their are children okay. Whether their relationships are healthy and their gifts are used to the fullest. Whether the trade-offs have been worth it. Whether there’s still time for undiscovered dreams.
“My expectations now are way lower. I no longer believe that at this age I should have rock-hard abs, a perfectly calm disposition, or a million dollars in the bank. It helps to surround myself with women my age who speak honestly about their lives.”
So here’s me, speaking honestly about mine:
It’s both lovely and lonely. It’s at points humbling and exhilarating. Just as our country’s history is both glorious and gruesome, noble and lamentable- my history by this point has plenty of paradox.
My expectations are indeed lower on some things- the perfect body, the storybook family, the unlimited ability to change the world.
But in other ways, I expect more: the time is short to become a kinder daughter, sister, and aunt. The years ahead are fewer to learn guitar, write a book, adopt a child, start a community, fall in love.
So with my remaining time on trail, I hope to make it to Mount Katahdin. But with my remaining time in life, I hope to spend fewer minutes on mindless distraction, fewer words on complaint, less money on momentary pleasures, less mind space on self-judgement.
Rock by rock
Everyone gives me warnings about what’s coming this week: “You ready for the Whites?” raising their eyebrows as if to say it might be out of my league. They’re referring to the White Mountains and the steep climbs above treeline that lie ahead.
I remember similar warnings about Pennsylvania, Lehigh Gap, the Stairway to Heaven, the muds of Vermont. On trail and off, people always seem to have a cautionary word about what’s waiting for you.
“Rock by rock,” I smile. “We’ll just take it slow, steady as she goes.”
Year by year, mile by mile. Leaning into what I love, seeking help when it gets hard, resting when the spirit says stop.
For anyone else who needs to hear this- your years are a gift. You’re just the right age. Your trail family is there, if you look around. Your soul will hit refresh, if you walk toward what you love.
And no matter what warnings people give you about what lies ahead, just take it rock by rock.
The vibes will be immaculate.