Thanksgiving morning I left my boys with their dad, and headed back out to Wolfsville Road in Maryland. I began section hiking the Appalachian Trail three months ago at Wolfsville Road and went south. This trip was not only the completion of the Maryland section, but we also hit the one hundred mile milestone, a small dent in over two thousand miles, but a milestone all the same. As Ken and I neared the exit for Wolfsville Road, I spotted a Peregrine Falcon flying over the highway. I normally write these posts as soon after the hike as my schedule will allow but this time it’s been over two weeks. It’s been so long since I was out there I don’t remember much of what Ken and I talked about, but he did tell me that snowflakes are living organisms, and that they could be the spirit animal of the hike. There is a Zen proverb that goes “A snowflake never falls in the wrong place.” Snowflakes are unique, beautiful, and organic (I didn’t believe this at first) and mirror our lives. We are all one of a kind, beautiful. Further, more and more I have faith that I am on a path that was designed for me, despite the bumps and bruises I get along the way.
This trip almost didn’t happen, but I am really grateful it did. The ecotherapy that came from the trip carried me through a rough week back at school. I enjoyed being back at the spot where my AT backpacking adventure first began, in a whole new season. I was surprised to see a few cars in the parking lot, and not far into the trail we saw a few other hikers, mostly day hikers out for a jaunt before their Thanksgiving meal. We started with a relatively easy incline and then walked across a long field behind an older couple who said they were only out for the morning. After a few miles of breaking in the hiking legs, which wasn’t as daunting as I thought it would be after taking a two month break, I noticed that the biggest challenge was now the leaves on the ground. It made the trail slippery and there were some parts where I sear, it felt like every step forward included some sliding back down. We kept a pretty brisk pace knowing that we had ten miles to hike to get to the campsite and that it would start to get dark around five. We did take a quick detour off the trail to see High Rock near Pen Mar Park and look at all the graffiti on it. It was so slick with paint that no one wanted to get too close to the edge. Around 4:00 we got to Pen Mar Park and saw the sign with the mileage to Maine and Georgia with the overlook in the background, but we didn’t stay long since there is no camping allowed there. After crossing the Mason-Dixon line, we made our way to Falls Creek Camp as the sun began to set and temperatures dropped a bit. It was warmer than I originally thought it was going to be, but I was a little concerned about the temperatures.
I feel a little uncomfortable hiking in the dark. The last mile or so Thursday evening we were heading downhill with headlamps on. If having to wear reading glasses to turn my son’s palate expander isn’t proof enough that I am getting old, I have a harder time seeing in the dark these days. I just trusted my footsteps, descending slowly down towards the ravine. We made camp at Falls Creek Camp. The large creek ran past the camp site and I thought how nice it was going to be to fall asleep being able to hear the water flowing. Someone had left kindling piled up near the firepit, and Ken built a big fire. Our Thanksgiving dinners consisted of protein bars and a clementine. I watched the embers dancing under the branches as I warmed my feet by the fire. I was glad that we had gone to REI before the trip. I had purchased lined hiking pants, and a much needed new sleeping pad. The temperatures weren’t too cold, I bundled in the warm sleeping bag, happy to be on a new pad and was all set to get some much needed sleep when some kind of animal brushed against the tent.
Fear took over. I felt that type of panic running through my veins, like after a near miss of a car accident. My amygdala did its job and adrenaline coursed through my body making me ready to fight or flee. In hindsight, there was no immediate danger. Ken yelled, blew the airhorn and the worst it could have been was a bear, which would have run away. But we camped near a large water source in a valley. All night animals were all around the campsite. I was on edge and I had to count my breathing to slow it down. I had to remind myself that I was safe. I am not a religious person, but my parents are. I was diagnosed with diabetes when I was two years old, and my mom often tells me that at that point she turned all her trust to God because the fear and anxiety of the diagnosis was too much for her. My own son was also diagnosed at two years old, and although I didn’t have the same fears as my mother, I had to find peace with it and not long after his diagnosis I began a spiritual journey. I woke up around 4 having to go to the bathroom, and I heard the wind picking up, rustling the dry leaves. Laying in the dark tent, my brain kept trying to figure out whether I was hearing animals or if it was just the leaves. About the time I had gathered enough courage to leave the tent and pee, a deer came running just past the tent and put my anxiety through the roof. I couldn’t zen myself out, and just kept talking to try to keep the animals away until it was late enough in the morning to break camp. Each time a leaf fell on the tent, I jumped.
Friday we got out on the trail very early and started the day off with a steep incline. It had rained overnight, which had kept the temperatures warmer but by Friday morning the wind was blowing pretty hard and it was cold. I wore all my layers, and put my raincoat on to block the wind. Walking along the ridge, the wind was gusting more, and anytime we stopped moving, I got pretty cold. At one point it began to flurry, the first snow of the season, and I realized this whole trip reminded me of skiing. The lined pants that feel like ski pants, slipping going uphill, how slow and cautious I was walking downhill on slippery leaves and loose rocks. We got water from a park and I ate a snack around noon before a two mile incline. That uphill was tough, and my sugar went low at one point so I had to stop and eat candy. Once again I noticed how quickly my body temperature dropped as soon as I stopped moving. Once we did make it to the top of the ridge, it was more narrow than other parts of the trail I had been on. With the bare trees, we could see mountains on either side of the ridge. There were several sections of rock scrambles and amazing rock formations that the glaciers created millions of years ago. We passed Rocky Mountain shelter and our 100 mile milestone around 2 pm. Ken and I began talking about walking into town and getting a bowl of soup for dinner, rather than spending the night at the Rocky Mountain shelter because at that point the wind gusts had picked up and it felt like it was about 20 degrees out. If we had stopped there, we would have spent the entire time in sleeping bags until the next morning. Pressing on, we made it to Caledonia State Park, I was a little worried about the temperature. The wind was gusting and my hands were freezing despite wearing a pair of gloves. The park was closed for the holiday and we hadn’t made a reservation, so we decided to get a cab into town, eat dinner at a restaurant and spend the night in a hotel.
The week following Thanksgiving break, there were multiple fist fights at my school. The students were angry, on edge and then there was a (fake) threat of a shooting that put so many people on edge that kids walked right off campus rather than stay and wonder if the rumors were true or not. Anxiety about work and some aspects of my personal life dominated these last few weeks. But I have to keep the Zen proverb about snowflakes in mind. “[The] proverb —which combines a meteorological phenomenon as symbolic as snow and human subjectivity— leads us to question the value of the events of our past and the judgments we tend to make about them. In some way it offers us a comforting vision (as comforting as seeing snow fall) in our life and its design.” (“Snowflakes, Symbols of Individual Perfection”) What is meant for me will be.