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On the Appalachian: New England blues

Into the Woods

On the Appalachian: New England blues

Appalachian Trail
Appalachian Trail

I was swirling Riesling in my mouth sitting in a plush armchair with one muddy boot crossed over the other leg waiting for a call that would never come when I noticed the hotel manager walking in my direction.

Wearing clothes rank with sweat, I postured up hoping I could fool him into thinking I belonged in this hotel. The $250 a night room was obviously out of the question. I shouldn't have even sprung for the glass of wine.

The manager had apparently been keeping an eye on me since I walked into the hotel lounge, ragged, asking about wifi so I could do some research for a phone interview that afternoon.

I had walked 25 miles through heavy humid air and pouring rain the day prior. Sweat formed and rolled into my eyes until the rain washed me clean. By the time I was sitting in the hotel lounge i was ready to be out of Connecticut. Bobo and I had lost Bubba when he accidentally walked backwards three miles, adding six miles to his day. After my 25-mile day, Bobo was a half-day behind me as well.

It was after that long day of walking in the rain that I met a man who reminded me of the man I set off with two summers ago in Maine. The rapid fire mechanizations of this Connecticut man’s mind, which were still somehow lyrical, matched only one other I had known, someone I considered synonymous with “home” for years.

It was unsettling how easily a chance encounter with a stranger upturned my fixation with solitude. A cork-topped bottle of whiskey passed around a fire pit and I began to feel at home again, even in this strange new place. It made me wish I could stay in one place a bit longer, but that wasn't how this story was meant to play out.

The pink-lined mountain laurel flowers are withering, turning brown around the edges and falling to the earth below. Meanwhile blueberries grow in clusters all along the winding path. Bright orange, hazy purple and sunny yellow mushrooms erupt from the earth and from the soggy limbs of fallen trees. Some are barely the size of an infant’s fingernail while others are basketball sized -- many could be confused for pancakes or fairy sized umbrellas.

Anyone who has kept up with this blog will recognize the trend, the obsession with self-sufficiency and self-reliance. This walk has always been about the need to prove my ability to survive emotionally and physically on my own.

To whom do I owe proof? I could think of a handful of folks but there's no one demanding proof but myself. From the beginning, it's been clear I haven't been alone. I've been bolstered by friends and family every step of the way.

Still, I've been so hyper-focused on this need to accomplish this wild feat on my own that I've become calloused to hearts I may have bruised along the way. Since the first time I attempted to thru-hike two summers ago, my heart has swelled, burst, cracked, scabbed over and nearly healed… but it's still in repair. A heart still in repair is clumsy and likely to leave marks on others. Like a drowning swimmer, it clings onto whatever will allow it another gasp of air, even if it means pulling down the one trying to save it. It's not fair or just but it's true.

The urge to be alone is still a part of who I am, though my will to walk another 600 miles by myself wanes now and then. Even if you enjoy your own company, 2,000 miles of walking leaves a lot of time to grow weary of the mind’s workings. It's during those moments I remind myself of the need to make my own mind a healthy home. Until I pay attention to dusty corners and chipping paint in that home, everything else will have to wait.

I've been working on focusing on what it is I want to do post-trail, since that time is fast approaching. The Dakotas, Alaska and Montana have been on my mind. Trips to visit friends in new homes in new countries swirl in my mind like wine in my previously dry mouth.

After a slow day of walking and some salty tears over loves that couldn't and wouldn't be, I remembered my mom’s love of cairns as I passed a pile of stones. With my pack still strapped to my back I heavily kneeled down to place one flat rock atop the other. “It's all about balance,” she’d say as she would carefully add rock after rock.

If it all came falling down like a louder version of Jenga, she'd shrug with a smile and start again.

Again and again, we try to make sense and create order out of the chaos within us when it's clear our nature is subject to the unpredictable and often illogical. Being out in the woods with new faces every day and weather that changes in an instant forces you to become more flexible. You roll with the punches, learn to walk in the rain happily and try to remind yourself why you're here in the first place.