Last week, we were living a favorite poem by Wendell Berry. We always enjoy the peace of walking in nature along the Appalachian Trail.
Hmmm…my head is full of trivia about shelters and distances and water-sources. My mouth aches from grinding my teeth in my sleep. The gear closet is mostly emptied. And the chaotic mountain of hiking “stuff” has been organized and contained in two simple backpacks.
It Must Be TIME! Time to head back to the woods. Time to get one more extended-release dose of nature before winter hits. Time to explore another piece of the Appalachian Trail.
We looked over our gear list. We set aside warm-weather clothes. We gathered a variety of layers for staying at the right temperature as we hike. (Goal: put layers on and off as needed to limit sweaty clothes. This helps us stay warm when we stop for a break or for the night.) We put together a cozy outfit for cold nights in camp. (By now, it is approaching freezing temperatures at night in the mountains down south.)
We went on a shopping expedition to the grocery store to fill our packs with 6 days of food. We like the foods we have tested on previous trips, so the shopping is quick and easy. Grab this, snatch that, pay the bill, out the door. But then the big job begins… repackaging this big pile…
This will be a short trip—just 6 days of hiking. We are wimps who prefer to avoid cold, rainy days. We even pushed back our departure so we will be driving on this gray, wet day instead of backpacking in the pouring rain.
See you in a week! It IS time! We are headed to the woods!
I am passionate about backpacking. I feel fully alive when I’m living in the woods. My daughter feels the same. Beyond simple pleasures, however, hiking is a key therapy to manage her anxiety and mental illness challenges. Nature brings her peace. So we return to the woods again and again, no matter who questions the risks or suggests we should pursue “safer” activities for her. We continue to backpack because of her disabilities, not in spite of them. There are many of us who love outdoor activities and love someone with disabilities. Because we understand both worlds, we must be the ones who speak up. We need to stand beside those who might be discriminated against. Anyone who dreams of taking a walk in the woods should be encouraged. Outdoor adventures should be available for everyone.
I am passionate about backpacking. I have also become an advocate.
Advocate: 1. a person who speaks or writes in support or defense of a person, cause, etc. 2. a person who pleads for or in behalf of another; intercessor. Synonyms: champion, proponent, backer.
When a hike is successful, everyone celebrates the courage and perseverance of the blind thru-hiker or the one with artificial legs. But what happens when things go wrong? Do tragedies or close-calls “prove” that the nay-sayers are right? How does the outdoor adventure community find an appropriate balance between personal freedom and personal responsibility for participants?
This year alone, a variety of incidents along the Appalachian Trail have provoked strong opinions and arguments among hikers in online forums. An older man with Alzheimer’s got confused and was lost for a few days. A person with brain cancer wanted a friend to take her on a first-ever backpacking expedition. A young man with Multiple Sclerosis needed intervention when he overheated. Parents are taking very young children on an attempted a thru-hike (walking almost 2200 miles from Georgia to Maine in one long trip). Are these “okay?” Or should the mythical “someone” intervene and prevent such risky behavior? And, if prohibition is such a good idea, then who decides which situations are okay and which are too dangerous?
Whenever there is a close-call or a tragedy, fingers are pointed at the ignorant adventurer, at the family, at the doctors, at search and rescue personnel. Online discussions grow heated. It seems so clear to some readers that the person with mental illness or with physical disability should be protected (even from themselves) by not allowing them in the woods.
Usually, I step away from contentious arguments. However, in a recent online discussion, I realized I can’t just run away from conflict and find peace in the woods for myself and my daughter. I must not just write posts about the adventures I am privileged to take. I must also build bridges for everyone to pursue their own passions. It would be a sad day if the only hikers on the Appalachian Trail were those who were young, perfectly fit folks carrying perfect gear. (Hmmm…that would eliminate both of us and most of the hikers we meet!) With proper precautions and an attitude of taking personal responsibility for one’s decisions, even those with disabilities can continue to enjoy outdoor adventures.
Last week I shared the truth about the Appalachian Trail: it is not merely a walk in the woods. There are more “secrets” about backpacking the AT: hikers must stay alert and watch their step. There are often obstacles to be crossed along the way.
For a footpath in the forest, it is surprising how often the AT crosses roads. Sometimes there are nice road signs that alert passing motorists to slow down for hikers. Other times hikers have to cautiously watch for passing cars whose drivers have no idea that there is a trail crossing the road. Along the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive, the AT often comes out on one side of a pullout or parking area. It can be hard to figure out where to re-enter the woods on the other side. Sometimes the trail maintainers are kind enough to add arrows to the pavement to point the hiker in the right direction. There is something scarier than road crossings, however. There are times when the hiker walks into a clearing and has to cross a railroad track. Daughter and I practiced listening and feeling through our feet for a rumble around the curve before safely crossing in the silence. (We often wondered what it would have been like to be standing that close to the tracks when a train rushed past!)Sometimes, the hiker feels like a rat in a maze. In jumbled rocky areas, side trails can be confusing, especially if there are no clear blazes. The first time a hiker encounters a fence crossing can be intimidating. How in the world does one climb a steep stile ladder with a pack on the back? And then there are the tight gates that keep cows or horses from escaping a pasture. They can be difficult to navigate with a bulky pack. Even when the trail stays in the wilderness, there are obstacles for hikers to navigate. In the previous post, the various styles of water crossings were discussed. (See post HERE). Sometimes the obstacles in the path are living critters. Other hikers tell of surprising a bear or deer in the trail or having to carefully navigate around a rattlesnake. Happily, we have only seen (harmless) black snakes… Finally, nature herself sometimes puts challenges on the trail. There are giant boulders to conquer, such as this landmark: The Guillotine. (Actually, it is far easier to walk under than its name implies.) Any time there is a big storm, trees may fall across the trail. Eventually, trail maintainers will cut through them to clear the path. Until then, it may be possible to walk around the fallen giant. (This one almost beat me: it was too steep to climb around; it was too tall for me to step up onto and jump down on the other side; it was too wide for me to manage a sit-and-swivel. I finally took off my pack and crawled over. I’m so glad daughter didn’t think to take video of my awkward performance!)Other times it’s the over-under dilemma! (Daughter crawled under with her pack on, getting her knees dirty. I took my pack off, tossed it over the log, then crouched and duck-walked under.) Hikers have to be ready to conquer any obstacle. Don’t forget to WATCH YOUR STEP!
The Appalachian Trail wanders beside many beautiful creeks. I could sit for hours in the cool air near a fast-flowing stream and relax to the sound of water splish-splash-burbling as it hurries down the mountainside.
The AT, however, rarely stays sedately beside the waterway. For some reason, the trail-builders move the trail from one side to the other of far too many streams. If shallow, the hiker just splashes through the water, hoping to keep boots dry. No stress…just one more trail experience. When the stream is deep, there may be stepping stones. It can be challenging to hop from rock to rock or to carefully navigate teetery, tippy stones. This adds an element of uncertainty to a hike. (Will I fall in? Will I get wet today?!) However, after days of heavy rain, those wobbly rocks are submerged. With rushing, roaring water, fording a flooded stream can be a dangerous adventure. In my opinion, it doesn’t happen often enough, but it’s a relief to find a sturdy bridge over tumbling water. While hiking this spring, with 23 straight days of rain in May, we often had to slog our way through swampy, boot-sucking mud. Sometimes this was on the trail itself. Other times the trail crossed areas that collect run-off without becoming flowing streams. In locations that frequently have muck, the trail-builders sometimes erect a simple bridge which is greatly appreciated. The volunteer trail-maintainers do amazing work. However, some structures are low priority and gradually fall apart. In this particular swampy area, it was hard to choose between getting wet, muddy boots, balancing across a big log or risking a rickety bridge. (I tried the bridge, daughter braved the muck. It all ended well…) Fortunately, wonderful sturdy bridges have been built to safely take hikers across major streams and rivers. (I loved the irony of this: the James River Foot Bridge, designed only for foot traffic, was actually named in honor of long-time AT hiker/maintainer Bill Foot.) Even the sickening sway of a suspension bridge is better than swimming with the fish while juggling a heavy pack overhead. (And let’s not talk about the probably poisonous snake we saw in this river when we walked to the banks to refill our water reservoirs, okay?!) Mountain streams are beautiful to walk beside…but it certainly eases a hiker’s mind when there is a bridge over any troubled water!
Seeing a huge snake in the trail is another matter. First, it makes one’s heart stop! Then there are mind-racing decisions to be made: what kind of snake is this? Is it poisonous? Will it be aggressive? What should I do? EEEEK! (We saw a number of harmless black snakes and racing-striped garter snakes crossing the trail this spring. Other hikers found rattlesnakes in the path.)
(Check out a news story about the Dino April Fool’s prank HERE.)
Of course, “everyone” knows that hiking the Appalachian Trail is a Walk in the Woods. Mention backpacking on the AT and folks can picture the dirt path wandering through forest glades. Sometimes the dirt path climbs up (or down) a steep hill. Other times it leads to an overlook with beautiful views of valleys below or mountain ranges to the horizon. But the Appalachian Trail is much more than a mere walk in the woods. Finding a section of path with (relatively) smooth dirt is a relief. Far more often, footing is precarious, filled with tree roots, propped up with logs or rock retaining walls on steep hillsides, zigzagging with switchbacks or climbing man-made steps. (Thanks, trail maintenance crews!) Now you might point out all of the above are still variations of a dirt path wandering in the woods, which is true. However, sometimes the path is hardly visible. Underlying dirt is covered with dead leaves or with fallen pine needles. At times the path continues through woods, but is a difficult clamber through jumbled boulders and tippy loose rocks. (Keep an eye out for blazes to stay on the path!) There are many miles of the Appalachian Trail that are not in the woods at all. The path may be a steep walk over tilted bedrock. (I can’t imagine crossing this when it’s wet and slippery…) Or the path may cross meadows–on top of mountains or across farmers’ fields. (There were cows on the other side of this hill, laying in the shade and chewing their cud.) It would be boring to wander a dirt trail under trees for mile after mile after mile. We are happy that backpacking the Appalachian Trail is much more than merely a walk in the woods!
Before we left on our most recent backpacking adventure on the Appalachian Trail, a friend asked if we ever forage for wild foods. I admitted that I was nervous to do so, afraid of mis-identifying plants and eating something poisonous.
Last fall, we happily enjoyed windfall apples and pawpaws. Mmmm…sweet and juicy. What a treat while hiking! And we hear rumors that early summer offers plenty of opportunity for picking wild strawberries and wild blueberries while walking.
This spring we tried a few delicacies from the woods. Daughter asked why it smelled like home-cooking while hiking one day. I realized we were walking past huge amounts of wild onions. She picked some to try.
After pulling off the outer layer/leaves, she tore them up and added them to our dehydrated rice meal. They added a lovely bit of spice and we were excited to find them many other nights to add to our dinners.
One long hiking day, I was tired of eating trail mix and sweet candies. I really wanted some fresh veggies or fruits to crunch. Then I remembered that violets are edible flowers. And I happened to be surrounded by those wildflowers at that moment.
I’m certain it will be a very long time (if ever) before I pick fungi or mushrooms on my own for us to eat. These are the most risky to identify correctly. Another hiker described her family’s tradition of picking morel mushrooms each spring to feast on. She explained where they were most often found and which plants usually grew nearby. I THOUGHT this was a morel mushroom when I saw it, but chose not to risk picking it. Besides, we had no frying pan nor butter to saute it properly! A few hours later another hiker came walking into camp, carrying a few of these same mushrooms to eat for his dinner.
This hiker was confident of his identification so after he chopped it up, soaked it in boiling water, rinsed it, then cooked it with his pasta, we tasted a tiny bite. It was still a little bitter but the texture was definitely like chicken. (He soaked it longer and rinsed it more times the next day and said it was sweeter.)
Our usual hiking-food gets boring after eating the same thing for weeks at a time. It was certainly nice finding extra flavor to add occasionally to our meals. I think we will do some research this summer and see what other things we can add to our hiker-pantry on our next backpacking trip.
NOTE: when picking wild foods, please remember to only take a small amount from any given plant. That way there is plenty left for other humans and for wildlife! This limited foraging also allows the plants to thrive and produce more food throughout the remaining season.
Everyone expects the beautiful views enjoyed while traveling in the mountains. But how many of us discipline ourselves to focus on the tiny details along the trail? Daughter and I were challenged to search for Nature’s Hearts on our recent backpacking adventure on the Appalachian Trail. (You can see a blog post with photos of our finds HERE.) In that quest for small treasures, we discovered many other camouflaged creatures. Here are a few of our best tips for playing hide and seek with nature:
Look for Movement. The shapes and colors of critters often blend in with the background. Flutters and flickers are an invitation to look closer. More than once we found groups of butterflies gathered in a heap on the ground. Sometimes there will be a burst of movement, then the creature freezes. Patience will pay off when the critter eventually moves again. Or perhaps you will notice the tiny quiver of a lizard breathing.
Listen for Sounds. Trills and songs might help you find a bird in the underbrush or in the treetops. (These are usually hard to photograph…unless you are carrying a heavy telephoto lens.) Dry leaves crackling or rustling might eventually reveal a snake, or a chipmunk, or a BUG!
Look for the Wrong Shape or a Different Color. Snails are the same color as the leaves or rocks they hide among. However, their rounded shells stand out against angular backgrounds. There were many times we noticed bright colored fungus or lichen on trees and rocks. Often, if we looked closer, we would find drab slugs. This is one of my favorite photos from the entire trip. We actually saw a group of deer wandering across the campsite, nibbling at bits of grass. When I walked closer to get a better photo, this young deer put the trees between us, and then froze, hoping I wouldn’t notice him…
Walk in Silence. I’m sure some of you wonder if we encountered bears. Not this time, although other hikers had problems with Yogi trying to steal food sacks at some of the shelters we had stayed at earlier in our trip. We tend to make noise when we hike: laughing, singing, talking, telling stories. Most animals, including bears, will move away if they realize a human is nearby. So, if you WANT to encounter more critters, move silently through the woods.
I’m curious. What’s your favorite critter sighting? We would love to hear your hints for finding more tiny treasures in Nature’s game of Hide and Seek.
There is a story frequently told among AT hikers. It explains how to identify the type of hiker (day hiker, section hiker, long distance/thru hiker) using the simple M&M test: When three M&Ms are scattered along the trail, what does the hiker do? The day hiker walks right past the candy, never noticing it. The short section hiker stops and picks up the candy. Following “Leave No Trace” principles, this hiker puts the M&Ms in her trash sack to carry out of the woods. The long distance hiker, always starving, throws off her pack, grabs the M&Ms and pops them into her mouth. Then that long distance hikers scrambles to find any other candies that might have been dropped!
(Are you wondering which type of hikers we are? If we drop our own candy or trail mix, we pick it up and eat it. After all, we need every calorie we can get! But no, we don’t eat trash candy left by others. Perhaps that is the difference between long-distance section hikers and thru-hikers?!)
(Thanks to daughter Nettie for taking the photos and daughter Andowen for being the model.)