“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” – Winston Churchill
The kids, Ken and I headed to Connecticut to kick off summer break on Monday, June 20th. I met my parents (who live in the state) and gave them the kids while we hiked a section of the Appalachian Trail in Connecticut for a few days. I was looking forward to this trip since I had planned it back in the spring. I knew that we would be on the trail during the summer solstice, which would also be the one month anniversary of sobriety for me. The trip did not go exactly as planned, but we got most of what we set out to do accomplished while learning along the way. We covered about 45 miles, but only 39 were AT trail miles – 11 miles short of our goal of completing all of Connecticut. I greatly underestimated the Connecticut section, both its challenge and its beauty. The peaks are not high, but the rolling hills of the Berkshires were tougher than I expected. We were able to see more fauna than any other trip, got to chat with a bunch of thru- hikers and learned a little bit of trail etiquette. Our spiritual symbol for this hike was the state plant of Connecticut, the Mountain Laurel. In Greek Mythology Apollo relentlessly pursued Daphne to the point where her father turned her into a laurel bush to give her respite. Apollo then declared the plant forever sacred. This is why laurel leaves and crowns were given to politicians, olympians, priests, heroes, etc in ancient Greece. “Laurel leaves were used to adorn people with distinctly precious and uncommon insights. Furthermore, the mark of the laurel could only be worn by those who used their higher knowledge and spirituality to serve the public in beneficial ways” (source).
We met my parents at Hoyt Road on the CT/NY border around lunchtime. We let the kids put on our packs, the heaviest we’ve ever packed, and they walked a few hundred feet on the AT with about 35 pound packs. A shake down would have been a good idea, the weight of our packs definitely had an impact on how our hike went. We brought along more than we needed for a few days, but we figured out we prefer comfort for camping more than comfort for hiking. We left the truck at the parking spot, said goodbye to the kids and my dad took us up to the Under Mountain Road trailhead in Salisbury, CT. I thought I had planned this well, but really we should have been dropped off in Massachusetts. We hiked about three miles that afternoon on the trail head, which began immediately with a 300 foot ascent. I had thought that we would do the more strenuous hiking upfront, forgetting that if we had gone south to north instead, we would have our trail legs by the last day, plus our packs would have been lighter but hindsight is 20/20. There was a noticeable difference in the woods at the CT/MA border- there were all pines on the MA side and the forest was darker. We got to the Appalachian Trail just after crossing into Massachusetts near Sages Ravine. Another ascent took us to the top of Bear Mountain, the highest peak in Connecticut (2,321 feet). It is not very high, especially compared to our last summit in Virginia, but we started around 300 feet, so we felt that amount of climbing in one day, especially with our heavy ass packs. That first day we learned that the reason the Mountain Laurel was blooming like crazy is that there was an infestation of gypsy moth caterpillars who ate a lot of the canopy, so that more sunlight got to the forest floor. As we hiked, we heard what sounded like rain, despite the sunny weather, which was actually caterpillar poop falling down. The caterpillars were all over trees, so much so that grabbing a tree for stability meant squishing one almost every time.
We stayed the night at Riga Shelter after debating going another few miles to the next shelter, since we had only logged 3 trail miles the first day, but we thought it would be better to set up camp, relax a bit and get a fresh start for Tuesday. I didn’t want to set up camp in the dark, and I was a little apprehensive about available space since I knew we would see a lot of thru-hikers this trip. That night we had a beautiful view from the campsite which we enjoyed in new chairs from REI and felt good, until at night when Ken realized his pad had a hole in it, and I began to feel very nauseous.
For the last few years I noticed that I was reading more and more about people who gained success, or more clarity after quitting drinking. As I was reading authors who I really respected; Julia Cameron- The Artist’s Way, Michael Easter – The Comfort Crisis, Gabriel Bernstein – The Universe Has Your Back, Jeffrey Ryan – The Appalachian Odyssey, Brene Brown – Braving the Wilderness, and others, a little voice was telling me to pay close attention. They each wrote about quitting drinking and what a positive impact it had on their lives. I ignored that voice up until May 21, 2022. I was a “gray area drinker,” a term that I did not know about until I had to know about it. That night in Austin I put myself in a highly precarious situation because I was heavily intoxicated. I could have died from diabetes had a stranger not helped me out. I woke up so upset with myself that I decided to stop drinking entirely. Somewhat ironically on the month anniversary of sobriety I woke up feeling very similar to a hangover. I had a slight headache, my joints ached and I felt very nauseous.
Tuesday is a bit of a blur for me. We used our new mini stove for the first time for hot coffee, and that made my nausea even worse. I felt really sick, particularly on ascents. I had to stop several times during climbs, which is not typical for me. I know from pictures we took that we were at Lion’s Head view by 7:00 am, we saw a lot of trail volunteers trimming back the overgrown trail, we passed the 1,500 mile marker and that we stopped at Falls Village to see the falls/damn of the Housatonic River around lunch time. At some point between Lion’s Head and the falls I stopped and threw up several times. I’m not sure what made me sick, but I know that it took a lot out of me. I was walking very slowly, and thought about ending the hike early. As Ken was plowing ahead, photographing all the creatures he found, I was fantasizing about dumping stuff out of my pack. I used a trick that worked when I was first getting into fitness. I set small goals. I told myself to make it to the next blaze, and I would focus on just that small stretch. Then the next blaze, etc. I realized this was the same thing I had done to help me not drink. Although I didn’t experience any terrible cravings, I would find myself flirting with the idea of having just one. I would then remind myself that my first goal was to get to one month sober, on the summer solstice, on the trail. I thought it would be this magical day of clarity, but it really was kind of a terrible day. I saw the last hill before the camp site and literally stopped and told Ken I didn’t want to walk up another incline. Eventually I made my way up, slowly, one blaze at a time. We made it to Sharon Mountain Campsite around 6:00 pm, just before it started to rain. After setting up camp, and realizing that I couldn’t eat any dinner, I climbed into my sleeping bag and didn’t come out again until 12 hours later.
I woke up Wednesday with very achy hips but my stomach was feeling better. Ken had not even inflated his pad at all, and attempted to share mine with me so neither of us got too much sleep. We were supposed to hike another 16 mile day and I knew that would have been tough for us. It had poured overnight and luckily all of our stuff was dry, but we had the threat of more rain that day. The trail was slick in spots from the heavy rain, and I fell hard on my knee at one point. Wednesday’s hike took us out of the woods for a few road crossings, we walked near and along the Housatonic River, and around lunch time we had covered about 7 miles. As we passed north-bound thru hikers, we were often asked if we were thru-hikers, maybe because of our packs? We learned that trail etiquette gives those who are going uphill the right of way. Often I was feeling so ill that I would step to the side and tell the other hikers that I needed the rest. It was my ego’s way of taking a break without having to admit that it was for my own sake.
We stopped for lunch at a peak and talked about our next step. Ken knew he couldn’t sleep on the ground again, so he used the FarOut app to see what inns or bed and breakfasts were around. One option would have been to hike to Kent (about another 10 miles) and stay there, or go another 2 miles to a motel in West Cornwall. We chose 2 miles. I was still hiking significantly slower than normal, it was starting to drizzle and we figured we would “hike our own hike,” another new trail term I learned from this hike. The Hitching Post Country Motel was only about 0.5 miles from the trail, so we walked there. I had been fantasizing about carbonated water since my stomach first started to bother me, and passing a gas station, I got really excited to buy one. The small towns along the AT are interesting to visit. Doing the section hikes, often I am so focused on logging miles, that I stop to appreciate what’s around me. It was a neat experience to stop into a town for a night. We got to the motel around 3:00, ordered a TON of food (large pizza, large calamari and a Greek salad), showered and enjoyed running water.
Thursday morning we woke up well fed, well rested and ready to go. If we had booked it, we could have completed 20 miles in a day and finished the CT portion, but instead we decided to meet my parents in Kent and get a ride back to the truck. I missed my kids, and I only had a few more days left to spend time with my parents and sister, so we got a ride to the trail and set off to complete 11 miles. I knew I was feeling better, we were actually talking a lot (more typical), I was able to keep pace and I felt excited to be on the trail.
Thursday’s hike was cool. We started the morning with a good ascent, a few bumps, and then we had a long descent to the Housatonic River. I lived in Connecticut the first half of my childhood before we moved to Massachusetts. Those woods, chipmunks, and babbling streams all felt very familiar to me. My dad used to take my siblings and I on camping/canoeing trips along the Housatonic. I relish nostalgia. About four or so miles of this section is flat along the river, and while we walked along we played our favorite game, “Name That African Country,” which is really us just trying to name all the countries in Africa. We checked our phones and began to reacquaint ourselves with the “real” world. We had one more steep climb and then a descent before Kent. The last big climb was about 600 feet, but pretty much straight up. There were points at which we were climbing big stone steps on our hands and feet. I was concerned that if I were to stand up, the weight of my pack would pull me down. We walked along the St. Johns Ledges for a few miles before beginning a descent that would remind me that I had fallen on my knee the day before. Although I was upset about not completing my overall goal, I was glad that once we got down from the ledge, we would be walking into town to see my family. The town of Kent is quaint and it is going to make a great place to end our next New England section hike.
“The way you handle things is important. There will always be challenges and life lessons as part of this experience. Choose to learn from your encounters” -Unknown. Backpacking while feeling ill was a totally new challenge, more mental than anything else. I am very glad I had that experience. Having been to a few parties and girls evenings out since the hike, I realize that drinking club soda while others are drinking wine/beer is also a mental challenge. As tempted as I was to throw the heavier things out of my pack (power bank, journal, food, water) I was able to power through, same goes for when I am out with friends. At a 4th of July party I found myself feeling jealous of friends drinking, but I stopped and remembered the mini milestones I’ve set for myself. Just like going from one blaze to the next, I will get from one goal to the next, and I will keep the beautiful laurel blooms in mind – “the mountain laurel has been a symbol of hard work and perseverance.”