Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Into the Woods

Joe and I were swimming one evening with our friend Anita. Maybe we were talking about what I might write next, and I was telling her about my new fascination with hiking the Appalachian Trail.
“It goes from Georgia to Maine,” I said. “You start in March and finish in September, hiking over the mountains. If it rains, you hike. If it snows, you hike. You don’t wash for days or weeks. You carry your own food, water, and shelter on your back. Sometimes you go for long periods without seeing anyone. It’s just you and the wildlife—ticks, snakes, bears, and more.”
My brother turned to me and pointed out, “It’s everything you don’t like.”
Was that true? Joe and I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains. The woods were part of our childhood, and I entered them unafraid. I hiked and climbed without a care, didn’t mind getting dirty, and gave no thought to wild animals. But something happened between that rural childhood and my current life as a retiree who spends most days indoors. Nature went by the wayside for me, so I’ve been taking steps to find out whether I might like hiking now.
First I took a class at our local REI store. The topic was how to pack for the AT, and I already knew much of what the instructor said. I hadn’t done any of it, but I had read a dozen books by then. It was interesting to see what he chose for gear and to examine items as they were passed around.
I love gear, but it’s expensive, so next I signed up for an overnight backpacking trip for which REI will supply everything but our hiking boots, rainwear, lunch, and snacks. This is in Georgia, a convenient location only because my son and his family live only a few miles from the REI store sponsoring the outing.
At the beginning of the summer, before I was infected by thru-hiking fever, I cleaned out my bedroom closet. There on a shelf were my dusty 30-year-old hiking boots, so I tried them on. Why did I keep these gunboats? I wondered, throwing them onto the Goodwill pile. Size 10 indeed.
After I signed up for the backpacking trip, what was the one thing I had to buy? Boots. Technology has made hiking equipment lighter, but it hasn’t shrunk my feet. The new ones are Size 10 ½.
The backpacking instructions specify that our boots be broken in. I wore mine around the house for a couple days, but the way to break hiking boots in is to go on actual hikes. Yesterday I drove to a county park near my home and hiked one of the nature trails. Alone, the way I would have if I’d been getting on the AT.
I was nervous to be heading out for a hike. What should I take? What should I wear? Would there be ticks? Animals? I realized I had no daypack, no walking stick, nothing to hold my water bottle except my hand, and a serious lack of pockets for what I wanted to carry. You don’t take a purse on a hike.
On the way I turned on the car radio to a prophetic chorus from “The Reverend Mr. Black”:

You got to walk that lonesome valley,
You got to walk it by yourself;
Oh, nobody else can walk it for you,
You got to walk it by yourself.
And I did.
The hike in Sharon Woods was fun. I liked being in the woods for a while on a summer day. I didn’t need my loud whistle (three blasts equal “Help!”), and my boots didn’t give me blisters. It was all good, but now I understand how hikers develop their distinctive sweaty aroma; after one hour I had the first traces of it.
Will I go on to thru-hike the AT? Will my experiences be the subject of a new book? I’m not convinced the world needs another hiking memoir, but I’ve already written the epigraph just in case. It’s the chorus I heard on the way to my first hike.
A special thanks to park rangers, in particular the woman at the Sharon Woods Visitor Center who made me feel so welcome.