Preparing to hike the Appalachian Trail
Virginia Beach, Virginia 1/3/2015
It started with By: Lillie A Stack
jealousy of my sonís freedom. He and his friends grabbed the freedom to explore Europe, to be free from responsibility for a small time. I had never had that much freedom and I wanted it.
Three years ago my son Nick and his friend Alex decided they were going to walk Spainís El Camino de Santiago, a Christian pilgrimage thousands of people begin each year from popular starting points across Europe, to make their way to Santiago de Compostela. Most travel by foot, some by bicycle, and a few on horseback or donkey. Many take it as a religious pilgrimage, following in the footsteps of Saint James the Apostle, the Way he took to his final resting place.
I was skeptical of Nick completing it. He weighs all of 145 lbs. and looks like he needs to be force fed. At about five eight, you would think a stiff breeze could blow him away. He has never been one for exercise. He played quad drums in his high school marching band and he was a sight; a tall stick with four large bulges at his waist. It was a true wonder he didnít fall over from all that weight. He earned a Bachelorís degree in Jazz Studies from University of New Orleans and is now a working musician. You know, sleep all day, work half the night, drink the rest
To my surprise, Nick and Alex walked the entire 500 mile Pilgrimage. In toe shoes, no less.
For six weeks Nick sent me post cards, posted photos to Facebook and Skyped with me. I was reminded I've always longed to travel somewhere, to see other places, for a break from what my generation deems ďnormalĒ. I could never put my finger on where or what it was exactly that I longed for. The Camino is a Pilgrimage you walk to cleanse your spirit. Iím not a spiritual person, so if not this, what?
A few years later Nick told me he, Alex and their friend Tomas were going to hike the 215 mile John Muir Trail, which begins in Yosemite National Park, California, and ends at Mount Whitney, at 14,505 feet the highest summit in the contiguous United States. They would take three weeks to thru-hike the trail and would carry all they needed on their backs.
I began researching the JMT and backpacking. I told myself that I'm still his Mom, so I worry. I needed to know the dangers and what was needed for that kind of adventure. But that wasnít all of it. The truth was I wanted to go. I found myself demanding of myself: Why was I always the responsible one left at home while everyone else went to find excitement, adventure, solitude? I was again jealous of my son and his freedom.
I knew he would need to keep it light. I suggested that I help lighten his expenses a bit by dehydrating some of his meals. I had just been gifted a small dehydrator and had been drying fruit with it. I thought this would be a great way to be involved without actually being on the trip. He jumped on that idea right away! I mean, free food? He found a great site, www.thrueat.com, and picked meals he thought he would enjoy. I started dehydrating veggies and meat. It was so cool! I loved it - watching the reduction in weight by removing the water, rehydrating the veggies at home to get a feel for time and texture. I also liked knowing I was making healthy meals and he was eating ďMamaís HomemadeĒ food on the trail. I hoped I could give him a little comfort in case things got hard. I put words of encouragement on each meal, along with the preparation instructions.
As I did this I started reading Wild, by Sheryl Strayed, and as I read of Strayedís struggles this small flutter started in my gut. It was nothing yet, just a flutter, a tiny longing.
The meals were ready along with the rest of the equipment and Nick and his mates drove out to Yosemite to start their hike. He texted me along the way - they were driving the trail to drop resupply boxes along the way, they left the car at the terminus of the hike, they hitched back to their starting point. I always knew where they were and what was happening. I lived through those texts, the closest I could come to being there.
Meanwhile, I finished Wild, and the flutter became a beat, though I didn't know what I was going to do with it. I mean, Hell! I was 55 years old, fat, out of shape, and the most non-athletic person I knew. I couldn't even walk up stairs without wheezing. I could never think of hiking. But it's s all I was thinking about. Oh, to be alone on a mountain, responsible for only me.
Wouldn't that be wonderful?
Nick and his buddies are three days into their hike and Nick texts me that already Alex has had problems. His tent collapsed in high wind and the poles broke. It rained the first two days. Now it's day three and while filtering water, Alex fell in the river. Then he cut his foot badly. Heís fed up, frustrated and is staying put to dry out. He encourages Nick and Tomas to move on to the next campsite, he will catch up. After much soul searching they continue. Iím texting back, trying to be as supportive as possible. They hike on to the next camp site, or so they think. They veered inadvertently from the trail and hiked instead to a campsite meant for the following night. They are now two days ahead of Alex and there is no way to reach him. Nick texts me in a panic. Distraught at leaving his friend behind, exhausted and with sinking spirits, Nick canít think productively. He calls me. We talk out all the scenarios of what can be done. They can't stay where they are for two days, thereís too little time, food and money. Other hikers coming to the campsite tell them Alex is okay and back on the trail. They wait a day and he catches up, exhausted. He has had enough. Nick and Tomas reluctantly say goodbye and continue.
I'm surprised how close I feel to all this, as if it were my hike. I find myself wondering, what would I do if I found myself in that situation? I really don't know, but I want to find out.
On day six I get a distressing text from Nick. He is ill. He's having chest pains, and trouble breathing, he is light headed and having trouble with the feeling in his extremities. He canít finish. I'm devastated. I try and convince him to just lay low for a day, but he wants to go home. I'm sorry for Nick. I know how much he has invested in this. He planned for a year, saved for a year, and now it's over.
I feel like it has happened to me. I had invested so much of my desire and yearning into Nickís hike. I was hiking vicariously through my son. Although I would never want Nick to believe this, I feel as if I were also let down.
Yet that beat inside me got louder and stronger. I'm not sure why, but I knew that in order to do something about that beat I must take better care of myself. I joined a fitness center and after a few months I was stronger, faster. I began to feel better than I had in years. That beat got stronger too, and became a longing, like the longing I felt for my son when he was away from me. Now I was sure: I would hike.
Where? Retrace my sonís footsteps, find my own? While my son was between hikes, all he did with his outdoor friends was talk about hiking, and as a result, he talked to me about their plans. Nick and his friend Jason planned to thru hike the Appalachian Trail in 2016. As they planned they asked others to join them. Because they would be going through so many states and knew people in most of them, they had people wanting to join them a few days here and there. I thought, thatís it! Perfect for me. I would have someone to hike with, someone experienced, people I knew and loved. I was so pumped!
But neither Nick nor Jason could afford it. I found myself with this uncontrollable beat I couldn't stop, pushing me to hike, and no one to hike with. Could an old lady hike alone?
That beat is stronger than me. I know I have to hike and I need to do it now. I can't be away from my husband for a six month thru hike but I live in Virginia, the Appalachian Trail is almost in my backyard. I can section hike the Virginia leg of the AT. I can hike it myself. Iím going.
The day after I made that decision I spoke to my trainer, Amber, telling her of my plan. Amber was very supportive and together we made a one year training plan to get me in the kind of shape it takes to backpack 550 miles on the AT. That very same day I started the hard work to get me there.
It's seven in the morning. I usually sleep until nine. But at this ridiculous hour I'm on the treadmill at the fitness center. Two miles in 30 minutes? Not bad for an old broad.
Next is squats, up and down, up and down, like endless hills.
I hate squats.