Did you know that first-time backpackers overpack? And do you know what they overpack? Their fears. They pack too much food, too many first aid supplies or extra rain gear.
I learned this truth while hanging out at a campsite for an evening of conversation with three women who, for the third year running, committed to backpacking a portion of the Appalachian Trail in September. I got to snap photos of their practice hike, which they did at Terry Andrae State Park up the road from Milwaukee.
If you are a regular reader, you will recognize Ellen (right), whom I profiled last year. You loved her story, making it as viral as it could be on this corner of the internet. It got hundreds of shares.
Ellen’s trail nickname is “Scout.” Next to her in the photo is Rachel, aka “Bluebird.” And on the far left is Sandi, whose singing abilities earned her the nickname “Patsy Cline.”
It was Patsy Cline who first came up with the idea to hike the AT. Years ago, she’d read “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk,” an inspiring account of a 67-year-old great-grandmother who hiked the AT with a blanket and sneakers. Patsy said she had nothing else to do, and heck, maybe she would lose a little weight. So she declared her intent on Facebook, and asked if there were two or three women who wanted to join. “No whiners,” she specified.
In twenty minutes, Scout and Bluebird said they were in. Yes! From college days in Oshkosh to the Appalachian Trail fifty years later.
Next, they prepared — shopping at REI, reading “Wild,” “A Walk in the Woods,” “Becoming Odessa,” testing their equipment, even in the rain. Bluebird divulged that she had trouble sleeping in the days before departure — bear anxiety gnawing at her. And on the night before their departure as they laid out all their equipment in their bedrooms, they got scared. “Like a soldier going off to war,” is how it felt.
The first day on trail was hard. I asked them how early into the day did they realize that Grandma Gatewood was a total badass. Scout said the dominant thought going through her head was, “I have f&*#’ing bit off way more than I can chew.” That night, exhausted Scout stumbled on a rock and tipped over the pot containing their dinner. Never mind their hunger, it was the possibility of a bear attack that worried them now.
We know from the photos that no one was eaten by a bear, but take a moment to imagine them that first night, untested, apprehensive, trying to get comfortable in their sleeping bags, and wondering who would be the first to admit they made a mistake.
The next morning, under a steady downpour, they decided that there would be no talk of quitting until Day 3. In fact, no changes would be made until after Day 3. They strapped on their packs and walked into the weather.
By evening, they found a shelter, full of people, but dry. An older man welcomed them in, and Ellen wondered aloud where to change out of her sopping clothes. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Everyone’s too tired to look.”
The next morning as Ellen shoved her soaked shirt and pants into her pack, the same gentleman stopped her. “Wear your wet clothes,” he said. “They’ll dry on you.”
On that day, which was Day 3, the women experienced their first water crisis. They detoured to a side road and as they came out of the woods, a passing Army truck stopped. A soldier, from Appleton Wisconsin no less, asked how he could help. The women requested a ride to town for water. “This is a water truck,” said the soldier. “Camel up!”
At this moment, the women began to trust the universe. Trail angels appeared over and over.
And by Day 5, they began to understand the meaning of the hiker’s acronym, HYOH, or hike your own hike. Together, they decided to detour into town, lighten their packs, and get a shower and food. They nicknamed this break their “time in the red tarp.”
By Day 6, they recognized that they were no longer twenty years old. Going 5-6 miles a day was a better pace for them.
By Day 8, their ailments disappeared. No more sore backs, no asthma, no stomach issues. They weren’t eating as much, so they weren’t pooping a lot either.
By Day 10, they decided to limit how often they exclaimed at the majesty around them. It was getting a little tiresome to hear each other calling out, “Can you believe this view?!” twenty times a day.
By Day 2o, they had completely stepped out of their lives. They were not teachers, mothers, wives, grandmothers. They were simply ‘hikers.’ “I loved my little tent at night,” said Scout. “The woods were my home.”
On the last day, they met a guy who asked how long they’d been walking. When he heard three weeks, he said, “Oh, you’re at the point where you can keep going forever!”
It’s true. These three can’t stop. That first time, they walked through Georgia and North Carolina. Last year they did Virginia and West Virginia. This year, the plan was to begin at the Delaware Water Gap National Park on the border of PA and NJ, and end in Harper’s Ferry, WV.
Third trip, however, was NOT the charm. A couple weeks after their practice hike at Terry Andrae, Patsy underwent emergency gallbladder surgery. Bluebird and Scout departed for the AT without her, with plans that she would join the last leg of the journey with a very light backpack.
Then, the prelude to Hurricane Florence drenched Bluebird and Scout. They found themselves completely alone on the AT, with high winds, slippery terrain, and worse weather coming.
Bluebird and Scout rolled up their sleeping bags and drove back east to Southern Illinois where they picked up Patsy from a Greyhound station. Reunited and dry, the trio spent a glorious week exploring the rocky terrain of the Shawnee National Forest. I’ve had a few texts from Scout, describing snake migrations, stone bridges, and moonlit swims. Here is her last text:
Just want you to know I think I may be in heaven. This trip has led to adventure, each day flowering open to new experiences and people in a most sacred space of wilderness. Little did we know that leaving the Appalachian Trail would open such doors. Our last night in the school bus on the farm made us just shake our heads in wonder at the lives brave people choose to inhabit.
They are due home on Sunday. They will again be changed. Their biceps will pop out. They will not tire when walking the dog up a big hill. They will better understand what is really important. The urge to lighten their packs will follow them into their houses where they will let go more and more of material possessions in favor of authentic experiences. And their children and grandchildren will rush to their sides, eager to hear their tales from the trail.