Having taught Freshman English for years, I couldn’t help but think about the ties to my last hiking adventure to the cycle of a “Hero’s Journey.” Two years ago, sitting at a friend’s house debating what our “Eat, Pray, Love” post divorce moments would be, I said that I wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail. I do not think of myself as a hero, but as Elizabeth Gilbert once said, “the hero’s journey is simply who we are as human beings.” I chose to mirror the journey I have been on to grow personally, emotionally and spiritually with a physical journey, but anyone who chooses to grow is on some sort of journey and becomes the hero of their own life narrative. I am not sure why I picked the AT as a goal, other than the fact that I loved hiking and I was desperate for time alone to process and all I wanted to do was sit by myself in the woods. My initial call was intercepted by Covid, but came back in January when I decided to start planning/training and working on how to make hiking the Appalachian Trail possible. Last Thursday I finally started the actual journey in earnest.
I loved just about every part of my first backpacking trip. I had planned to do the entire stretch of the Appalachian Trail that runs through Maryland, but the good people at REI kindly advised my friend and I not to try to tackle so many miles on what would be the first trip for the both of us. The Maryland section is generally known as “the walk in the woods” part, but our trip still had a total ascent of 5,139.1 feet, so I understand their concern for 2 relative newbies. We cut my initial plan down to 31 miles total by starting from the parking lot at Wolfsville Road and heading southbound to Harpers Ferry, with an overnight at the Dalghren Backpacker Campground. The preparation that went into this trip was extensive, included hours at REI and bundles of money spent to look and smell homeless – but I am thoroughly hooked and will gladly continue to spend time and money to one day cover all 2,190 + miles of the Appalachian Trail – and maybe into the Canadian section of the IAT.
I met up with a friend from my gym a few weeks ago and told him about my hiking. Like many people he thought that sounded ambitious and fun, but unlike anyone else, he was interested in doing a trip with me. The traditional Hero’s Journey includes either a mentor or guardian that helps the hero cross the threshold into the unknown, or special world. For me, this was not a mentor, but a “missing piece” – an adult with some free time and a desire to accompany me. Ken picked me up at my house around 4:30 Thursday morning and we drove out to Wolfsville Road to park his truck and begin our journey. I had used the Maryland Challenge Hike for a lot of my information and planning, so I knew we had to cross a road to head south (double checked on Guthook) but I did not realize that the initial part of the day would be a steep 500 or so foot ascent up to the ridge. Around 7:00 am we crossed the road and started to climb, knowing that we had likely overpacked and would use this trip to figure out what we would and would not need to bring next time. Ken is a fellow CrossFitter and kills me in workouts, so I just put my head down and climbed – staying just under the point where I wouldn’t be able to talk anymore. I didn’t want him to know that it was a difficult climb for me so I only once admitted that I was “feeling my calves.” It was a hell of a way to start off a hike, but it warmed up our legs and got us ready for the day.
Often when I’m hiking I think about the oil and the spoon metaphor from The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo. It’s been a few years since I read the book, and looking it up today I read that the whole point of the parable was to teach the boy the secret of happiness, which is essentially staying focused on your goals while remaining grateful for all that surrounds you. After the initial ascent, the trail evened out and it was a nice walk along the trail to Black Rock overlook and Annapolis Rock. I had previously been to these parts, so while I was happy for the rest, I was anxious to keep going to a new section of the trail. Once the hero departs on his journey, he leaves the ordinary world for the special world, and that is what the rest of my time on the trail felt like. Once we crossed the highway overpass, I was in an extraordinary world, even if it took me through a narrow section of the trail that ran through a neighborhood, and across the road. Something as simple as keeping my phone on airplane mode was so much of a relief that I said several times, “life is better on airplane mode.” Parts of this section of the trail are not isolated, which is a great way to cut your teeth, but I still felt a part of another world since I was unplugged for hours at a time. This was incredibly refreshing, particularly giving up my inclination to micromanage what is happening with my boys when I am not around them. I never would have known that there was a Washington Monument in Maryland, or that it was built as part of a 4th of July celebration to honor the first president. Ken shared that he had driven under the pedestrian overpass that crosses Route 70 many times in his life, and never knew about the Appalachian Trail. I felt like I was able to hike this section with the right amount of concentration on both the oil in the spoon, while taking in the beauty that surrounded me.
We met several people that day that could be considered mentors – for example a man who we met at the Washington Monument. He was a SOBO hiker who recently retired from the army and was on his first backpacking trip ever. We met a thru-hiker who just lives on the trail now, goes into town to work for a few days, and then sets back out, “Trouble.” An older couple stayed at Dalhgren the same night as us who had been hiking the trail in sections, and were currently on their way to Tennessee. We met another couple at Gathland State Park on our second day who told us about their oldest daughter’s thru-hike last year and about how she is now flipflopping the PCT. They had a younger daughter on the trail they were waiting for, and had also been hikers and backpackers. Ken hadn’t known much about the culture of the AT, and I had read about it and had met a few people here and there, but being out on the trail for 36 hours we were able to connect to people who seemed to understand what we were all about because they had once been new, too.
I decided we would hike to Dalhgren on day 1, about a 14 mile hike, mainly because there were tent pads, toilets and running water. We arrived around 3:00 and realized that physically we could have done the whole Maryland stretch in two days, but we were glad that we had enjoyed the day, stopping a few times to take in the views and talk to people and just talk and laugh our way along the trail. Thursday’s weather was idyllic. It was warm, but not too hot or humid. The sun shone down, and we were shaded under the canopy. I know this was a gentle way to enter into backpacking, with tent pads, a bear pole, an Inn up the street we bought some food from and running water. Thursday night I was journaling when a katydid sat next to me on the picnic table. It startled me and I swatted it away, but it kept coming back. According to expressionsoftheuniverse.com, “A katydid will aid in strengthening senses and perceptions of the seen and unseen so whatever transformation stage you are in will be time to be aware, mentally and spiritually sharp. [Their] wisdom includes jumps across space and time, leaps of faith, jumping without knowing where you will land, astral travel, leaping over obstacles, new leaps forward, ability to change careers quickly.” The katydid became this trip’s spirit animal and reflected the leap it took to cross into trail life and culture. By the time we left the campground Friday morning we had trail monikers signed into the log.
Charlie, my youngest son, once said “we are not lazy hikers, we are true hikers.” This proved true for our second day of the trip. It poured rain overnight. I woke several times to the sound of angry rain pelting the tarp over the tent. The original plan was to wake up around 4 and get going, but we waited until 6 when it eased up a bit – and when I couldn’t hold my pee anymore. Waking up next to the trail, breaking camp quickly and starting to hike right away is something I cherished. I have always had to sit and drive for a long time to get a good hike in. We set off in a drizzling rain and I anticipated being disappointed by the clouds, and slipping all over the place, but it wasn’t the case. After we ate lunch at Gathland State Park, we got caught in pouring rain. Throwing on rain gear on feeling my boots and socks become increasingly soggy didn’t bother me, in fact it was exhilarating. The temperature was warm enough that the rain felt refreshing, and I was glad to have had the experience, knowing that I will eventually hike in all types of weather. “Great hearts steadily send forth the secret forces that incessantly draw great events” (Ralph Waldo Emerson). The more I experience life with an open heart, the more rewarding events I find available to me. We talked at length about how backpacking can help anyone detach from the real world for a bit, reconnect with nature and yourselves, and find growth in the discomfort.
We stopped to rest at Weverton Cliffs and sat in the sun to dry out a bit and take in the last views from the top of the ridge before dropping down and walking into Harper’s Ferry. The view from Weverton was the best of this section. The cliff sits about 500 feet above sea level and overlooks the Potomac River and the surrounding mountains. Often a hero finds themselves not wanting to return to the ordinary world. In many respects I did not want to come down from that high. This was my last trip before school began again, and I knew Monday was fast approaching. I had read that the last few miles into Harpers Ferry are tough because it’s flat and boring, which all proved accurate, but crossing the bridge into Harpers Ferry, taking off the pack (which weighed about 25 pounds when I left) and drinking a beer in a bar was the reward. The dividend from this trip was the reassurance that I am on the right path. My “eat, pray, love” post-divorce journey includes physical, mental and spiritual challenges. I keep adding to my cache of friends who will venture out with me and become hooked on exploits. I learned a lot of very practical things about backpacking on this trip, but my paramount take away is that the more comfortable you get, the less you need – which applies to this hero’s ordinary world too.