Get Me On The Trail

The summer going into high school, my experienced mom friend Berta patiently led my best friend, our moms and me onto the trails of Panthertown Valley, NC for the weekend. After setting up camp, we ventured out on day hikes with a hand-drawn map. We were so lost five miles into some forgotten logging road that when we picked up a bit of cell service we resorted to calling the map maker, desperate to see if he could steer us back on course . Despite our ridiculous amount of stuff, my very close call – or rather, step – with a rattle snake and our total lack of experience, that trip was a blast. It only made me more trail hungry.

After the Panther Town glory days, I spent each of my high school Christmases building up my backpacking supplies – stuff sacks, sleeping bag and pad, stove, water filter, tent, and finally a backpack for graduation. Going to Roanoke for college, I had every intention of using these supplies and diving into the Outdoor Adventure program on campus.

Intentions are not actions. Did I backpack? No. I did homework.

Fast forward to Fall Break of 2012. After I had been lugging this awesome backpacking gear around for years, I decided it was finally time to utilize it. 
My spontaneous friend Wesley agreed to go on an overnight trip with me down the Chatooga Trail, right on the Georgia-South Carolina border (We didn’t hear banjo music, if any of you Deliverance fans were wondering). At least I had a fairly accurate printed map this time – even if it was only because I signed up for a free trial of a trail map website. I was in the throes of midterms, and planning was minimal. I picked Wesley up in Columbia on the way, and he didn’t even have a sleeping bag. 
“I lent it to a friend; I think we’ll be able to meet up with him in Clemson.” This is Wesley for you. I gave up long ago on trying to be prepared or make a plan more than a day ahead of time. Even though the sleeping bag didn’t come through, in general, things tend to work in Wesley’s favor. He has far more backpacking experience than me, section hiking through Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee on the AT last summer. The problem is, he just goes, making things work out along the way. 
After he shivered through the night and a considerable dose of lactic acid built up in my muscles, we decided that rather than turning back and re-hiking the trail to reach the car, we would go ahead and press on to the end of the fifteen mile trail. A few more miles and we would be out to the road, where we could probably hitch a ride.
As things do for Wesley, all worked out. We hiked the whole trail, and after about thirty minutes of sticking our thumbs out, a construction worker drove us back to the trail head. After just two days, my body was exhausted in a way I had never before experienced..

I mean look at this guy. Wesley is the epitome of adventure.
But I have a confession. Even though I have all this gear, and I love the mountains, and I’ve hiked hundreds of trails (albeit at too fast a pace — I’ve scared off a few too many potential hiking buddies), those two trips are my only backpacking experiences. It makes it kind of comical that I was seriously considering section hiking half of the AT this summer. I have poured over the way-points in a thru hiker’s guide, I read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, I’ve spent hours researching what to pack and how to pack and what to eat and where to sleep. In lieu of months on the trail, though, I have chosen an alternative six days through Shenandoah National Park.Though this is much wiser, nearly 100 miles is still a mammoth when the longest you’ve ever backpacked is a weekend. Ready or not, as of tomorrow afternoon, Wesley and I will be at it again.
I am simultaneously so ready…and so not ready. I am tired of planning. I know what we’re eating, I’ve figured out where we’re sleeping and how long we’re hiking everyday. When I was planning, it was fun, and I got pretty excited. But now I just want to stop thinking about it and let my legs start doing the work. Much as I appreciate Wesley’s down-for-anything attitude, communication and cell phone use  is not a strong point for us, and you can imagine how helpful a guy who didn’t bring his sleeping bag last time has been during this round of planning. I like having a plan. Wesley just goes for it. Nothing wrong with that; in many ways it’s a lot easier. But it puts a lot of pressure on me to figure all of this out for both my own and my mother’s peace of mind. Right now, I so deeply desire an experienced teacher who wants to – pun intended – show me the ropes of backpacking, but it looks like experience herself will be my teacher. She’s one of the tougher ones.
When I was packing to come to Roanoke, I just frantically stuffed all potential gear the night before I left. Out of curiosity, I stepped on the scale. 41 pounds. Without water OR the tent. Oh God. For a 137 pound female, that equates to a minimum solid 11 unnecessary pounds on my back. I consulted some expert backpacking friends, I cut a lot of luxuries (so long fresh pairs of underwear). I displaced a whole bag of gear I was once taking. I added half the tent. It felt lighter, I felt good. New grand total? FORTY-ONE POUNDS. Jesus. Half a tent cannot equate to that bag. HOW is that math even possible?
So I’m leaving tomorrow, and my pack is still 41 pounds. I don’t really know what to do, and my anxiety continues to rise. The only solution I have is to cut half the food and find a place to drop it in the middle of our trek. Fortunately Shenandoah is a long, skinny national park, and near sighted retirees cruise straight through it on the scenic Skyline Drive, so I’m not totally in the isolation of the deep woods. I’ve been told I can buy a milkshake along the way. I’m also worried about the average thirteen to fifteen miles a day I’m aiming to hit.  I am a strong, fit female, but I don’t know what my body is capable of. It was pretty sore after our last trip. 
Right now, I’d covet your prayers. First to cut this weight from my pack. It’s becoming laughable (though it certainly won’t be on the trail!). But more seriously, to be honest, I’m pretty fed up with all of it. The excitement has passed, and I am so over planning, even though the plan is so alarmingly nebulous. Wesley is meeting me in Roanoke, but I still don’t know when. I’ve been talking too long to too many people without doing. I just want to get out on this trail that has daily consumed many of my thoughts the last few months. Shenandoah is notoriously one of the most popular sections of the AT, brimming with fauna, ecological diversity and wildlife. Once I’m actually in the spring season green tunnel of the Appalachian Trail, I think I’ll enjoy myself.  I just need to get on the trail.

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