Friday, July 30, 2010

Same Structure

Just in case you are worried I am "emaciated," the word both Emily D and Becca used, fear not. I am exactly the same weight, exactly, as I was two months ago. My body's much stronger and my legs are much hairier, but really I look the same.

I do eat more, like a lot more. They say hikers use about 6,000 calories a day. That roughly translates to: Pre-breakfast, Breakfast, Second Breakfast, Lunch, Ice Cream/Cookies, Snack, Dinner, Dessert. Good thing I LOVE food.

On the trail, I'm usually eating:
pita bread
ramen noodles
black bean soup
clif bars
vegetarian chili
split pea soup
and an assortment of Mountain House freeze-dried dinners

I also carry spices--cinnamon, salt, pepper, oregano, curry powder, turmeric--in little plastic button bags. Even with spices though, trail food gets boring. Thus, combinations of the above items (ramen noodle-oatmeal, hummus-tuna) provide interesting, if questionable variety.

Anyway, food is well and good, and my body is healthy and happy, and for that, I can't be grateful enough.


Me and "Shake Down"

I don't know what made "Shake Down" ever want to hike with me again. After our crazy week in NJ, only a trail addict would come join me again. The second night of our week together in NJ, we didn't make it to the shelter I had foolishly imagined we could reach in one day. So, as night rolled in, we decided to set up camp on top of Rattlesnake Mountain. The only water sources we passed were dried up mosquito pits, meaning we had to camp without water. Our little tent sat on top the rocky bald peak of the mountain. When a thunderstorm rolled in around midnight, we could only laugh, loudly and fearfully. We could not have picked a more vulnerable campsite.

We survived the night, and we made it into a town the next day to rest and recover. Unfortunately, the Forest Motel was not what we envisioned. The "manager" picked us up from the trail. She was old, her back seat was filled, totally filled, with toilet paper, paper towel, and tissues. She said she was homeless. Nobody loved her except her cats. And her cats were dying. A doctor had stabbed her with a needle in her 50s, and when she tried to sue him for the damage he caused, the doctors, the lawyers, the government, her whole family, turned against her. Now she was 70, constantly in pain, and alone. We tipped her generously, and then rushed into our room. We almost began talking about mental health issues, before we realized she was in the room next to ours and could definitely hear our conversation. Instead, we talked loudly about what a great place the Forest Motel is. I felt exhausted.

The motel reminded me of "Fargo." The bed head-board was a plain 2x4 nailed to the wall. A few fading and wrinkly posters were screwed into the wall, just in case somebody tried to steal them. The place smelled like a nursing home. Mirrors were everywhere. They were positioned in bizarre places in our room. They were outside on the motel and surrounding buildings, on the trees, on the rusty swing set near the parking lot. It was very, very creepy.

Our luck changed, thankfully, for dinner. Across the street, a 5 star authentic Italian restaurant allowed us grungy hikers to dine. The spectacular food and wine restored us, and recharged us for our re-entry onto the A.T. We slept deep and hit the trail early the next morning.

In light of that crazy NJ week, I don't know why "Shake Down" would ever leave her house again, but she ventured out with me again, a third time, totaling about 94 miles this year!

"Shake Down" and I reached Bennington, VT last night. We both fell in love with it. Bennington is a funky and wholesome town. The posters and business cards in the South Street Cafe advertise yoga, massage, folk concerts, bluegrass jam sessions, "Center Yourself" pottery classes, and dog classes.

Bennington knows second-hand clothing stores are better than first-hand. Bennington houses have porches and rocking chairs. Bennington has carrots, broccoli, and squash in Mexican burritos. Bennington doesn't answer cell phones. Bennington doesn't like facebook, or computers in general.

When I think of Bennington, I will remember the car I saw on main street today: a yellow VW Bug painted with flames like a Hot Rod. It's quirky and artful.

Now, I'm off again, to Rutland, VT to meet my brother Calvin! I hope to run into "Split Pea" aka "Teen Wolf" aka "The Prince" in the hostel there (a friend from NJ), and to see Emily H in Hanover, NH sometime after that. In the words of "Stambler" (a fellow Steady Ambler), "This trail keeps washing me off and filling me back up."
Thank you, A.T.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

CT and now MA

Connecticut was thick with tall pine trees. The scent of pine was so strong I hoped it would stick to my clothes and work as deodorant. The red pine needles on the forest floor gave me a bounce in my steps. In these woods, morning sun rays streak through the pine trees, and as the wind blows, the trees' shadows on the ground look like a kaleidoscope turning.

My incredible family came and hiked with me for a week through these forests. I savored every second with them, on and off the trail. But now that they're gone, I only miss them more. I miss Mom's ecstasy over a clean pair of socks. ("New socks?! I feel like a new person!!") I miss Will imitating Mom imitating a thru-hiker (head down, hunched over, bobbing up and down, big steps). I even miss Will and Ellen laughing about farts late into the night. Every night. (Their trail names are appropriately "Lard Butt" and Butt Face" respectively. They politely used each others' names at every opportunity). I miss Dad and his punny humor and and his steady, congenial presence. My dear family! Come back! Luckily, wonderfully, my brother Calvin is joining me for some time before he heads back to Germany this fall.

Anna C came out too! and "Shake Down"! "Shake Down" may insist she's not thru-hiker material, but she's joining me again in a few days, so we'll see...
Their company was like water on a hot day. I had missed the company of people who already know and love me. People who have to love me! People who know good food and make a scene about good food like I do. People who take smirking pictures like I do. (Anna, did you SEE that photo of us?) People who give me hugs and back massages. They say you need 10 hugs a day, so I had been short on hugs for nearly two months!

One of my favorite moments with the family was on the second day. We were short on water and the few stagnant streams we did pass, were not drinkable even if filtered. We decided to push on a few more miles to the next clean water source. Only minutes later, we encountered Trail Magic. A thru-hiker from 2007 left us clean water, cookies, and watermelon with a note saying "Trail Magic."

Trail Magic may sound campy or hokey, like the trail names, but before you judge, I challenge you to come out here and sweat and stink. Then you can decide how you feel about Trail Magic. Plus, once you hear a few burly, bearded men praising Trail Magic, it may sound cooler to you, as it is.

After our dose of Trail Magic, Mom, "Mama Bear", had the generous idea to give back to the trail. I'd grown used to being the needy recipient, so it hadn't crossed my mind that I could be, instead, a Trail Angel. A few days later, we brought plums, Oreos, and water to a road crossing on the trail. We felt positively Great about ourselves. I'd like to do that more often. Maybe I could live somewhere near the A.T., like the Cookie Lady I passed yesterday. The Cookie Lady makes about 1500 cookies during the summer months when hikers pass by and stop in to her house. I met the Cookie Man and told him he was a lucky guy. He agreed.

Since they've left, I've entered into MA. The first person I encountered in MA was a man on a motorcycle who drove past me at a road which crossed the trail. He was cranking "Cecilia, you're breaking my heart!" I got the feeling MA was going to be a good state.

Other than these darned mosquitoes, I've been right.

Earlier this week, I decided to take a day off from hiking, and work at Moon in the Pond Farm in exchange for quality organic food, a shower, and a place to pitch my tent. The farm reminded me of the movie "Babe" or E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web". Animals were everywhere. Geese, ducks, chickens and turkeys wandered around like they owned the place. The roosters tried attacking me and the farm intern, Matt, a bright eyed, high school sage. I also met Bri and Josh, two earthy and earnest farm apprentices, who are committed to their garden beyond reason. Josh dreams of the weeds growing in his sleep, and Bri will fight any fight to help her vegetables grow. I admired all three of them.

I could've gotten sucked into staying longer on their farm with their company, but I am committed to my hike. I've got to travel on. And with each day Northbound, the mountains get steeper, the trees get taller, and the views get more breath-taking.

On one mountain top view, the song "America the Beautiful" rose up in me. It's easy to become cynical, what with all the heart-breaking injuries to Earth, like oil spills and mountain top removal, but this hike is making me fall back in love with the United States. We have spectacular beauty here. I am overcome with gratitude for the people who have protected areas of the U.S. like the Appalachian Trail.

"O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain."

On the A.T., I've walked through the amber waves John Steinbeck describes. I've walked over purple and blue mountains. I've stared up at the spacious skies. At night, that sky has made me aware we are hurtling along at a crazy speed, in a lonely universe, and I've clung to the ground as though I'm on a roller coaster.

And actually, this journey has been very much like a roller coaster. The ups and downs come faster and harder than I could have imagined. And I'm hanging on as best I can.

With Love,

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Next Mail Drops

I plan to be in Dalton, MA 01226 on July 21 and Killington, VT 05751 on August 5.

Hanover, NH 03755 ETA August 10

Please send any letters General Delivery as previously directed. LOVE, N.P.

Friday, July 16, 2010

But Why?

People always ask.

Why would you CHOOSE to carry a 30 lbs pack in the woods, alone, for days and days, with bears and strangers and “just add water” food, without a roof or a shower?

Sometimes I answer this by talking about the inspirations behind this trip. There was the summer I worked at Tree House Adventure Camp (and lived in a tree house all summer). There were the epic family vacations canoeing in Canada and hiking in the national parks. There have been the Macalester College Outing Club trips every spring break. This last year we were backpacking in the Smokey Mountains, NC, in unexpected snow. One night, we didn’t reach the shelter as planned, and ended up pitching a 4 person tent on the side of a snowy mountain in the dark. All eight of us smooshed into the tent and then prayed all night we wouldn’t slide down the mountain. It was sometime during this trip that I knew I wanted to hike the A.T.

I think the most accurate answer to this “why” question is actually, simply, because it feels good. My body loves the smooth and steady exercises, and my brain does too. The birds are my alarm and the sun my clock. I wake up around 5:30, break camp around 6:30, hike until it’s too hot, around noon. Then I take a long lunch break or siesta until 2:00. Here I’ll take off my shoes and socks (that’s essential), I’ll read for awhile, see how far I’ve gone that morning, and then see how far it is to the next shelter or camp site. Once I’m rested, I hike until I get there. I make dinner, set up my tent and my sleeping bag, brush my teeth with my toothbrush (which has half its handle cut off to reduce space), put on my one clean shirt, and crawl into my tent just as the night settles in. This outline is very flexible, but it provides me enough structure to keep my body and my brain moving steadily along, healthy and happy.

This trail is my element. I sleep deeper than ever before. I wake up more alive than ever before. I eat food more reverent than ever before. I jump into more rivers and meet more interesting people than I have anywhere else.

Becca sent this poem to me by Mary Oliver entitled “Wild Geese.” It has been The Poem of my hike.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

So that’s why.
Thanks for your love and support everyone,

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Odd New York Town

For 40 days and 40 nights there was no rain (practically). The springs dried up. The wild blueberries and blackberries shrivelled up. The hikers got crabby. N.P. went to into Peekskill, NY to find airconditioning.

There she bought a vanilla milkshake. A 400 lb man asked her to describe drinking it in detail because he was on a diet and still needed a vicarious milkshake. A Jehova's Witness talked to her in a coffee shop about yoga and then God. A "sister" told her to call her mother, NOW, and then gave her pamphlets on Pentecostalism.

Then N.P. went into a cosmetology school for an 8$ hair cut and a 9$ pedicure. She was terribly excited because her poor feet hurt after 400 miles, and she hadn't cut her hair since October. She instantly regretted the hair cut, as per usual. The pedicure was worse. She had thought her feet were quite pretty until Luigi began touching them. She'd never met someone who disliked feet as much as Luigi, a scrawny teenage boy who was allegedly a cosmetologist in training.

N.P. left the town confused and very ready to get back in the woods.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

5 Weeks Out

I spent this last week with Anna F ("Shake Down") in New Jersey. Anna's going to send me some words about it all, since I have little internet access and I'm setting off on the trail again in 20 minutes. On the whole, we've decided hiking the A.T. is very like pioneering the Wild West. More to follow.

Next mailing stop:
Salisbury, CT 06068
ETA: July 12
(send General Delivery)


Friday, July 2, 2010

Short Story

I was at the base of Blue Mountain, sitting on my pack, map spread out on the trail, deciding whether to turn back and walk half a mile back for water at a shelter I missed, or go forward and hope for some water source.

"Lefty," a bulky, tattooed, twenty-something hiker, came up to me on the trail. He stutter-stepped a bit, looking like he needed to talk. I blandly asked how it was going. He breathed out really big, pulled off his pack, and sat down on it facing me. I didn't really know him, we'd only exchanged names the day before, so I was surprised. We began what was effectively a Clearness Committee (a Quaker discernment practice).

"Lefty" had met a local Port Clinton girl. He had fallen in love. Should he turn around and go get her? Or should he finish the trail and then go back to her?
He wanted to complete the trail.
But this was the girl of his dreams.
But he had already hiked hundreds of miles.
But then again, she had sparkly eyes.
But he'd respect himself more if he finished the trail.
But she liked him too.

The pros and cons went on.

I didn't know him, so I didn't have a strong opinion, but I got wrapped up in this decision process anyway. I was thrilled to witness a critical, highly charged moment in someone's life. Finally, he decided he'd keep going, then come back and marry her immediately afterward.

I gave him my well wishes, and then turned back to go get water. It was a painful hike South because I could've used that energy to get one more mile down North. Hikers agree each mile off the trail is psychologically exhausting. Each step backwards was heavy. It was like slow-motion hiking with a 80 lbs pack. I made it to the water, exhausted beyond reason, and ended up taking a two hour break reading Walden. Eventually, I set off again.

100 paces from where I had run into "Lefty" earlier, I saw him again. I began laughing. He smiled sheepishly and hugely.

He said he climbed up to the very top of Blue Mountain, and physically could not take one more step. He knew what he wanted (Ashley), and he didn't care anymore if he was "being a girl," he was going back to be with her.

Again, I teased him about it, he liked being teased, and simultaneously, whole-heartedly supported his decision. He reminded me of the Thistle Weeds growing in the Steinbeckian tall grasses out here: fuchsia flowers that are prickery on the outside, but soft as a bunny's tail in the middle.

Thanks "Lefty".