Sunday, June 27, 2010

Mud, pain and deer on the Appalachian Trail

Some people devote their lives to hiking the Appalachian Trail. They hike a little bit at a time, taking years to finish. The trail runs from Maine to Georgia. That's a whole lot of the U.S. to cover (about 2,178 miles to be exact). I used to think it had some historical significance, like it was a trail used by Native Americans or early pioneers. But no, it was just an idea that some guy had in 1921 to create a really long trail as part of the national parks system connecting several national parks, as well as state and county parks. Pretty cool idea. And now we get to hike it. So that's exactly what Ciprian and I did on June 14th. Well, a little snippet of it, anyway.

We were in the Berkshires with my folks. They'd set up at a place in Hancock, MA for two weeks, right in the heart of the Berkshires. Our first few days were relaxing. We visited Mass MOCA, admired the innovative contemporary art on display, ate lunch at a local diner, drove through the hills and valleys between Hancock and Williamstown, and even drove to Bennington, VT for a change of scenery and to visit the famed Bennington Potters shop.

By Monday, Ciprian and I were ready to take our exploration to the next level. It had been raining off and on for several days, but Monday was dry, if slightly cloudy, and we wanted to be outside. We drove to the top of Mount Greylock with my parents. Once there, we set off on our own. We thought we'd take a short hike, just a couple of hours. After consulting with the very knowledgeable ranger named Ellis, we had our route. The first half, about 2 miles, would be on the Appalachian Trail. The remaining 2-2.5 miles would be on local trails. We were making a loop. It was considered a "moderate" level hike. It was unclear to us what that meant. Moderate for whom? For a fit, 25-year-old? For a middle-aged woman with arthritis? We didn't know, but we figured it couldn't be that bad.

Our supplies for this hike were limited and we were not really dressed properly. I was wearing blue jeans and a sweatshirt which I guess isn't that bad, but lightweight, quick-dry camping pants would have been better. We both had hiking shoes, which was a good thing, but I had not brought a knife or a compass. Luckily it was a well-marked trail, so the compass was not needed. The knife however would have come in handy when we were breaking dead branches to use as walking sticks. Some people scoff at the idea of walking sticks, but when you are hiking a muddy trail, the things can be life savers, especially when going down a steep, slippery slope. And there were plenty of muddy slopes primed for slipping.

We began our hike casually, walking at a medium pace, admiring the woods around us, stopping occasionally to take it all in. It was a leisurely hike. We were not the only people on the trail of course. There were two older ladies hiking in the other direction, two younger ladies hiking a larger section of the Appalachian Trail, and a few men here and there, most of whom kept to themselves. It was not busy, but we enjoyed having short chats with a few of the people we passed. Most of them had serious hiking sticks. They looked like they were meant for cross-country skiing. I don't know ski lingo otherwise I would be more specific. Regardless, it was clear that everyone but us had put a lot of thought into their hikes. Granted, most of these folk were on longer hikes than we were, but I felt a twinge of naïveté creeping up on me.

After the first 45 minutes or so we stopped to have a snack. So we rested a bit, then went back on our way. At some point, perhaps an hour and a half into the hike, I started to wish that we'd chosen a shorter route or that we had not been so leisurely in the beginning. I started to worry that we would not make it back before dark. There was probably no real risk of this, but hey, what did I know? Maps are not always accurate, especially trail maps, and I figured anything could happen. I also thought it was a sort of murphy's law. We did not have enough water or food and no knife. How could I forget the knife? Surely something would go wrong.

Once we left the Appalachian Trail for the local trails, my spirits and energy rose a bit. We started noticing tracks in the mud - deer tracks. I grew up in the midwest and seeing deer in our backyard was not terribly uncommon, but seeing deer in the woods during a hike is magical. I kept paying attention to the tracks, quietly hiking along, hoping to see the deer. I thought it striking that the deer was actually walking on the trail, not veering from the path. Then I remembered that animals like paths too. In fact, they often make their own if we don't do it for them. Eventually we made it to the tip of our loop, the point at which we would start going back toward the car. The deer trail ended and we never did manage to spot the animal. My disappointment faded when we found a picnic table overlooking hills and valleys. We filled up on cashews, almonds and water. I was beginning to feel a bit more confident about the hike. Yes, the trail was muddy and that was slowing us down, but maybe we would get home before dinner after all. Still, there was another two miles of unknown terrain to hike.

The last leg of our adventure was in many ways the most difficult. Because we had originally hiked up and then downhill, the end of our hike was largely uphill. My knees were aching. I should stop here to mention that I have mild osteoarthritis. Being mild, I generally don't pay much attention to it. But at this point in our hike, my left knee felt like it was going to explode. In my slow, labored movement up the trail, I wondered, how will I ever hike again? I want to be a more active person, not less active. Can my arthritic knees and back survive this? What seemed like hours later, but was probably only about 30 minutes, we made it to the road. Our hike had taken us 3 1/2 hours. This was certainly longer than it "should" have taken, whatever that means, but it was not as long or as arduous as I'd feared. Yes, I was in pain, but that would pass. Now that the hike was over I could appreciate the pain and the beauty around us that made it worth every ache. We drove back to the place in Hancock and threw our muddy jeans into the wash.


Christina Prints said...

Very inspiring, Pam. Makes me want to hike, but only a litte bit on an "easy" trail. And washing the pants was probably a good idea. :)

Monica said...

How awesome! It's so great that you take the time to write about this and record your adventures together. Robert and went for an hour hike in the Shenandoah Valley in Virgina,one part of our hike crossed the great Appalachian Trail. We stopped and took dorky pictures that we still have to this day.

To more wholesome fun filled soul opening adventures!


Anonymous said...

The only part of the App Trail I've ever been on is this exact same part. Wasn't on it as long as you were, though. Just walked along for an hour or two.

I'm about to go and do a little arduous hiking in the Adirondacks this weekend. Well maybe if it doesn't rain.