Thru Hiking to Happiness

Self-confidence/self-esteem/happiness with yourself, whatever you want to call it, I’ve struggled with it since those lovely tween years. I could point fingers and say it started with the stereotypical pressures of being a dancer, but some people handle that pressure with the utmost grace. I guess I wasn’t prepped to deal with the constant scrutinization of my weight, body or how much I ate. Teachers would tell me to lose a few pounds and “tone up” despite having a normal figure, and I’d see dancers around me starting to starve themselves and be rewarded for that. We stared at ourselves in mirrors as we danced and saw every tiny flaw that we could possibly perfect whether it be the body or the dance technique. Seeing my imperfections so much, I started dreading being seen or heard by others. I felt insignificant and unworthy.

My insecurity manifests in my daily life as awkwardness, but that’s why you love me, right? I used to weigh myself 5 times a day. I would avoid looking at people so I wouldn’t have to talk. I’d let someone else give their opinion first so that I could pretend to agree with it in hopes that agreeing would save me from putting my own ideas out there. I can thankfully say I’ve improved on these things in the past few years, but my AT thru really has been chicken soup for my insecure soul.

How does taking a simple walk in the woods work such wonders on your mental state? It does sound a bit extreme, I know. Do the trees whisper “you’re amazing, you got this!” as you traipse through the forest? Some might say yes. I know a hiker who thought all the birds tweeting at her were giving her sounds of encouragement. Another hiker I was with laughed and said that he thought their calls were just mocking his ineptitude. Everyone has their own interpretation, clearly, but here’s what has gotten me out of my shell a bit:

1) Holding Yourself Accountable

Making my own decisions and goals that only I care about if I reach. No one is bothered if I don’t do the 20 mile day that I set out to do. There’s no pressure, it’s just living out my trail life in the exact way that I want to. That simple. It’s just me doing what I want to do, and it works out for me. I’ve kept myself alive, I’m making miles and I’m slowly getting to Maine. Realizing that my choices and decisions are valid is a huge step toward accepting myself.

2) Viewing my Body as a Tool

You see some of your parents’ old tools in their basement. They may have their quirks, you have to jiggle the wrench handle a few times before it can do the job, but it works. Despite what imperfections I can see with myself, my body is climbing mountains every single day. I’ve made it over 1,400 miles now. My legs are extensions of my trail runners. My back is an extension of my pack. The body I have is strong and can accomplish more than I ever imagined.

3) Everyone is Gross

All thru hikers smell like a pile of poo, they have dirt smeared all over their body and they drip sweat. There’s no mirror to scrutinize each part of my body or face. There’s just equally gross people around me who could care less about what I’m wearing or how I smell. It’s freeing to not worry about how I appear to others. All I can see is how far I’ve hiked, and how much I’ve achieved in the day.

4) Talking is Easy

There’s a sense of community and trust between hikers. We all have miles, gear and crazy trail stories that we can bond over during dinner or setting up camp. Most hikers are stoked to hear about other’s experiences, and it’s made me aware of how important each of our days are. No one is out here to nit-pick your stories or conversation. The genuine nature of people out here helps me feel less anxious to share my thoughts.

5) The Forest is Yoga for those Who Hate Yoga

I get a lot of questions concerning what I think about during those long hours hiking. Honestly, for most of it, I think of nothing. I stare at the ground, because if I look up for two seconds I’ll be face planting into the ground, and think of nothing. I hear my breath, I hear the birds and I hear the slight squeak of my pack. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to meditation. When my mom drags me to yoga, I can’t ever seem to “clear my mind” as the teacher encourages. So, the hike is truly a time where I can let everything fall away and just be. Lesson of the day: if you hate yoga as much as I do, getting outside is just as good as Shavasana.

There’s never a simple, easy or real “cure” for insecurity, but the trail has come pretty darn close for me. It’s the most relaxed and happy I’ve ever been. My body is strong, I’m seeing how capable I am and there’s an immense sense of support from the trail community. So, hike yourself happy, folks.

If you want to follow more of the day-to-day happenings, follow me on Instagram: @SeeBagsGo

P.s. if you’re wondering why it looks like I’m wearing the same clothes in every single picture. It’s because I am.

Halfway Thoughts

A hiker asked me how it feels to know that I have to do all this over again now that I’ve hit the (historical) halfway point. He sounded defeated as he told me, “for me, it seems crazy that there’s so much more ahead of us.” All I could think about was how exciting it was to understand that there are about 3 months of new views, new struggles and new people ahead of me. So, here are some halfway thoughts about what’s happened so far:

1) I smile more when the weather is bad

There was a day and a half of a wild storm, so a few of us hikers decided to take a zero day in a shelter. Luckily, it was Partnership Shelter, one where the top half was fully enclosed and pizza just happened to deliver to us. We spent the whole day laughing and hanging out as the storm raged on outside. The roof started leaking and we all had to strap together our tarps to create a roof #2. We were in good company with full bellies.

Of course, there were also the Smoky Mountains where there was a foot of snow with thigh-high drifts. I thought about how nice it would’ve been to have my skis with me. We walked 13 miles over the tallest part of the AT and then down to the gap where we planned to hitch into Gatlinburg to resupply for food. The road out of the park at that gap was closed due to the snow storm, and it was coated in snow and black ice. The crew we were with convened in the only shelter at the deserted gap, a heated bathroom. Wallace, Hot Tang, Kyle (Calves) and I decided we would walk down the road into Gatlinburg, an extra 13 miles. The whole time on the hike down, we were slipping and falling. All of a sudden, you’d see poles fly up in the air and a hiker sliding around. Despite the snow pummeling my face at 50 mph, all the falls and my body pain, I couldn’t help but smile or laugh.

More recently, the past 5 days coming into Harper’s Ferry have been plagued with severe thunderstorms and flooding. The trails look like streams, which have proved to make way-finding slightly confusing. Usually, you can follow the path because it’s obvious what the trail is. Now that the trail looks like a stream, there was a time or two where I actually started walking in a real stream instead of the trail. I made it without getting lost, but coming into town I had mud up to my knees and was completely soaked. Some man and his kid at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters asked me how the weather was. I just laughed and said, “technically, it’s awful. But it was a great hike today!” They definitely looked at me weirdly. But it’s true. Foot stuck ankle-deep in mud, I was still smiling. Granted, some of the trail is now closed and they’ve warned hikers to skip the Maryland section of the trail due to dangerous conditions. So, I’m taking a zero in town to give it some time and will head out tomorrow despite the warnings.

2) I’ve switched from partner hiking to “solo” hiking

It was great to get comfortable with the trail by starting off the adventure with a familiar face. It did allow me to get lazy, if I’m being honest. Mostly because of the fact that I was more relaxed about how quickly I got from place to place. Kyle was more stoked on making miles quickly, so I’d let him decide which shelter he’d want to go to each day. I also piggy backed on his bear hangs 99.9% of the time. I like to call that just being efficient. Why do another hang when two food bags could easily fit on one rope? See below for Chongo and Kyle struggling to do a bear hang for all three of our food bags in a pine forest.

Now that I’m “solo” hiking, I obviously do my own bear hangs and decide which miles I’m going to do when #StrongIndependentWoman. But really, it’s been cool to experience both “solo” hiking and partner hiking. I put solo in quotes because even though I’m not hiking with a set person, I’m never actually alone. There are people around me at every shelter, camp spot or hostel. Everyone hangs out as they cook dinner over their camp stove and swaps stories about the hike so far. Sometimes you’ll hike the same miles and end up hiking with people for a week or so and get a loose trail family going on. It’s really an ebb and flow of the same and new people all the time. I’ve never felt lonely or scared on trail (feel better now, mom?).

Sadly, though, in the Shenandoah National Park, my foot started hurting so I took a few zero days and slack packed for a bit (mom graciously took time out of her schedule to come down and help with that). That means that I let a lot of my friends hike on ahead of me. So, now I’m in a zone where I’m not too familiar with the people around me. I’m bummed to lose the fun hikers I know, but that’s part of the adventure. I’ll meet new people, and I’m sure I’ll catch some of the oldies I got to know in the beginning somewhere down the road.

3) You get to know people very quickly on trail

You’ll hike with someone for three days, but you feel like you know their whole life story. No one is shy about sharing their complex background. It starts out with the “why are you out here?” question, and it all opens up from there.

4) Word travels faster on trail than gossip in a high school

After I got food poisoning, I’d run into people on trail that I hadn’t even seen in a week or so and they’d ask me if I was feeling better.

Or, the way I got my trail name Bags was because the first day I wore my trash bag as a pack cover in the rain, people were talking about how there was “some bag lady” hiking around. Two weeks later, I started hiking with a guy who I guess had seen me that day. It starts to rain, I put on my pack cover and he goes “holy shit, I’m hiking with the bag lady!”

You also read a lot in the shelter log books. So, hikers will get information from those and let other people know what’s going on. For example, someone might write “look out for the rat snake in the shelter, got bit by it last night,” and by the next day most hikers will know who got bit and at what shelter. Don’t worry, that didn’t happen.

5) People are insanely generous

There are people who set up their car with snacks, sometimes a grill and drinks. They’ll sit at where the AT crosses a road and feed the hungry hikers passing through. We love this sort of trail magic. One man I came across was cooking eggs and hash browns with all the fixings to go with them.

Another time, Hot Tang, Kyle and I were in a town and about to call a shuttle service to take us to the trail. A wild looking man spotted us from the road, whipped his car into the parking lot of the hotel we were standing in front of and parked nearly on top of our feet. He stuck his thick beard out of his car window and said, “you guys need a ride to the trail. I’ll take you.” Turns out it was Wokman, a guy who had thru hiked a few years ago.

Navigator, a section hiker from Rhode Island and a volunteer for the Appalachian Mountain Club, saw me in peak agony in Trent’s Convenience store. I was feverish, nauseous and feeling all in all like death. It was going to be freezing cold that night, and I was dreading setting up my tent. Clearly seeing I looked awful, she asked if I was ok. I explained what was wrong, and she drove me to a hostel for a night then made sure I switched to a nicer hostel the next night to wait out the sickness. She was a true angel at that moment. I was in the middle of buying nearly 6 hand warmers to stick on my body for the cold night I had ahead of me.

After a zero day at the nicer hostel, I felt better and booked it 11 miles into Pearisburg to meet up with Kyle and Chongo. I didn’t take any breaks, so I didn’t notice when my tent fell out of my backpack. The next morning, I was packing up my stuff in the town’s motel where I had just slept and realized my tent was gone. I was freaking out. How could I have lost it? That tent is basically my home. I had lost my home. WHAT AN IDIOT. I know I can have my dumb moments, but this was another level. There was really nothing I could do at the moment because there wasn’t an outfitter in town, so we had to keep walking. Kyle wanted to stop at Hardee’s for breakfast (it was on our way to the trail). As he snagged food, I saw a guy I passed on trail the previous day. I asked him about the tent, and a driver from the nearby hostel poked her head out of the car and said, “we have it! Stickers brought it in yesterday.” So, she drove me to Angel’s Rest hostel, Stickers gave me my tent and she drove me back to trail. I’d met Stickers a few times before, so it was cool that someone I knew had saved the day.

I’m ready for these weird, coincidental and fun moments to keep on coming as I walk my way to Katahdin in Maine. Follow me on Instagram for more frequent updates: @SeeBagsGo

What I Eat on my Thru

With days of now consistently hiking over 20 miles, the body needs fuel. I get hangry if I haven’t eaten in the past two/three hours. As you’ll see though, I have clearly developed a healthy, fool-proof eating regiment that helps keep my body in shape. Honestly though, my hiker diet is every mom’s worst nightmare. Check it out:

Breakfast:

Cinnamon Brown Sugar Pop Tart
One packet (2 pastries)

Lunch:

Lunch is continuous snacking throughout the day since I realized it’s easier than finding vegetarian lunch options in the small-town gas stations where we tend to resupply on food. Usually consists of food like:

Sour Patch Watermelon
About 2 servings per day

Nature Valley Peanut Butter Biscuits
About 1-2 per day

Skittles/Gummy Bears
About 2 servings per day

Fruit Snacks
About 4 packets per day

Pretzel Sticks with Nutella
Handfuls until my hangry self is satisfied

Peanut M&Ms
More handfuls because this is how protein gets ingested on trail

Water flavoring
About once every other day because water gets boring out here

Dinner:

Knorr Pasta Sides
Mostly because it takes the creativity out of dinner, and I’ve gotten really tired of 2 ramen packets a night.

Favorite flavor is definitely the broccoli cheddar.

(Evidence that I sometimes eat vegetables when in town)

This all seems like a child gone rogue with sugar, but it’s worked so far. It is hard to find vegetarian options in some of the small towns where we resupply for food, so I’m slowly trying to find options to swap out as we continue on. We passed the quarter way sign a few days ago, and I’ve already had to size down my pants. It seems a bit ridiculous that I’ve lost weight when all I eat is sugar and definitely gorge myself when in town. We went to an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet in Erwin, TN for two full hours and legitimately waddled out of the restaurant and continued to do nothing but lay around with food babies all evening. Can’t complain about eating and not feeling like there’s a consequence. So here’s to more good food and great trail times.

How to Break Down a Thru Hike

The plans are set, the pack is stuffed and your shoes have been worn in just enough. As you start in on the hike and you have countless hours to think about how many more miles you need to go, it gets overwhelming and the enormity of it can almost make you stop in your tracks. Occasionally to the dismay of my hiking partners, this is how I’ve dealt with making a huge goal seem approachable.

1) Don’t count miles

Yes, you have to make sure you have enough food to get you to the next town. That requires a miles-per-day estimation, of course. While I’m walking, though, I try not to think of where we are in the day. I don’t want to know how far the gap we just passed is from our final destination. If I had the chance, I’d probably go nuts checking Guthook for how far I’d gone in the 10 minutes since I last looked. I’m not trying to make myself crazier than I already am.

2) Get excited for town

With lots of hard work being pushed into each day and mountain summit, it’s sometimes hard to feel like you’ve kicked back. The thru is obviously fun and challenging, but even the most serious hiker needs a break and time to over-eat food that isn’t ramen or Snickers. Town days help you to collect yourself, rest and balance the tough with the easy. I may or may have not used this time to eat full pizzas and take multiple naps in a day.

3) Collect conversations

The trail takes on a whole new meaning when you start focusing on the amazing people you meet. There are a huge range of people who are stupid enough to walk 2,000+ miles with nothing but a tent and some jerky. We’ve met people from many different countries, veterans with wild stories of their pasts, individuals using the trail to heal themselves and some who are just using it as a placeholder before starting another chapter of life. Nearly everyone on the trail has been friendly and fun to meet. At the shelter each night, we gather around the picnic table with our Pocket Rockets and JetBoils to swap stories over camp food.

4) Embrace the struggles

When we hiked 13 miles in a foot of snow then realized we had to hike 13 more miles on the closed road into town to resupply, we were feeling rough. The road was snow mixed with sections of complete sheets of black ice. All of a sudden, one of us would flail our arms, wipe out and slide down the road. Through the wind, snow and pain, I couldn’t help but laugh at how we looked ridiculous when we fell.

5) Don’t plan ahead

If I wake up every morning on the trail planning the final day when I hike up Katahdin, I’ll go nuts. Each day is (here comes the cheese) its own journey, and only looking at the end result is going to diminish the weird, hard and crazy times between Springer and Katahdin.

It still feels like we’re babies on the trail with having only made it what looks like just an inch on the big map. But now that we’ve made it to Hot Springs, NC and conquered the Smokies, it’s nice to know we have some miles and stories under our hipbelts. The stat that keeps getting thrown around is that 50% of hikers drop out of the AT at Hot Springs. Luckily, we’re some of the crew that’s carrying on.

Hit up my Instagram for more frequent updates: @cdismukes