It was mid-morning. Seven women about to be in the wilderness sat in a circle with our gear as our guide explained the next order of business: “I’m going to show you how I pack a backpack.” The thought of that brought memories of my morning in the hotel room. I had already packed and repacked my own backpack, trying and failing to fit everything I needed in it.
How did people take layers of warm clothing? I couldn’t even cram my lightweight wool sweater in the remaining space. Where did they put enough food for several days? I’d barely found a place for my snacks. I hadn’t even brought my sleeping bag liner, or a stove, or fuel. Even though I’d purchased lightweight gear and clothing, packing it had been such a struggle that I dreaded this next activity. I wanted to sit in the sun and watch. Instead, I emptied my pack.
Our guide distributed huge black trash bags and told us to line our packs with them, and that was the moment the light clicked on for me. Yahoo!
The main cavity of a backpack has an opening with a drawstring at the top. That top section is made of soft material. On my pack it’s squished down under another pouch. I knew it was there, but I hadn’t paid much attention to it because my pack also zips open from the front like a suitcase.
I pulled up the top section, opened the drawstring, and stuffed the deep trash bag down inside to fill with my gear and food. It was going to work! Until that minute, I’d had no idea how to pack a backpack.
TIP: Even the basics must be learned.
When everyone was outfitted and packed, we caravanned to a campground in North Carolina. There we parked and rode a shuttle to Newfound Gap, a popular trailhead on the AT. I already knew that I was fortunate to be in this group. As we entered the woods, I looked around in wonder at the beautiful trees, clear sky, and sun-dappled path. Despite the wording from the Frost poem, I remember thinking I love this.
We were maybe one-fourth of a mile in, hiking single-file, when my left foot slipped on a wet rock, throwing my body off balance and setting my 28-pound backpack in motion. I fell backward from a standing position with both arms outstretched and a trekking pole strapped to each wrist. The fall seemed slow, yet I was helpless to stop myself.
I’d given my age when I had applied for this hike, along with the assurance that I was in shape. At 69, I wasn’t surprised to be the oldest member of our group, but I was determined to keep up. What must our guide be thinking now, to see me topple over like the trunk of a tree?
Luckily, I fell on my fat pack and was not hurt. Perhaps I had screamed a warning; the women behind me were in the clear when I landed. A fall can happen in a second, and it isn’t necessarily age related. We all have to be alert to what’s under our boots. My one casualty was a trekking pole that snapped in two. Our resourceful guide fixed it with duct tape. Awesome!
Note to self: Never be without duct tape on a hike.
“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.” They also go up and down mountains for miles, as we did on our first day. During the uphill climb I looked ahead to see if or when the trail would level off to give us a break. Our march seemed relentless, and I had to request a few stops. Occasionally our leader paused to point out a plant or creature endemic to the Smokies. With every step of my boots I began to pray that she would discover another flower or mushroom to stop and show us.
I reached a point that day when I asked myself WHAT IN THE WORLD I had been thinking when I told people I was going to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Was I crazy? I didn’t even want to be here. My legs were shaking, my shoulders ached from carrying my pack, and all I could see ahead was more trail. Now I knew: My little hikes around the lake at home, and even in the woods, had been nothing compared to this.
Our destination for the night was a shelter our guide had reserved. Because it was afternoon before we began hiking, we had to cover ground. I was already walking like a zombie, the result of sore muscles in my legs. Could I make it?
Yes. Yes, I could. All I had to hear was the possibility that if we didn't stay on task, we could be breaking out our headlamps and finishing the hike in the dark.
To be continued…