Hi, I'm Jennifer, and my purpose for going on this trip is to feel empowered to go out camping on my own by the end of the weekend.”
This was what came out of my mouth when our guide Jenn asked us what we would like to receive from our three-day hike on the Appalachian Trail, and it was the truth; but what I really meant was “Hi, I’m Jennifer and I want to hike this whole trail some day—all 2,190 miles of it from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Katahdin, Maine; and I want to see if I really have it in me.”
Five of us, all women, circled up to explain why we wanted to spend three days living out of the packs on our backs. I, a strong grandma, an activist mom and a business woman from Long Island all came with a similar want — to feel confident and strong, and to get away from the “stuff” happening in the world today. What we didn’t know at the time is that we would come back three days later with different names, and new perspective on life.
Before the trip, we were sent a suggested list of what to bring, and on arrival at the “Trail-er,” we were each given a loaner backpack, tent, and sleeping pad, as well as snacks and food for the weekend. Now the “paring down” begins. Paring down is tricky. You lay out all of the stuff that you think you will need for the weekend on the floor in front of you, and your guide gives you gentle “suggestions” on what to keep, and what should stay back. She reminds you that you will probably be wearing the same clothes for more than one day. You think this is gross, but you trust her because she looks strong and knowing, and she currently smells pretty good. I chose to leave behind an extra sports bra, long-sleeve shirt, pair of leggings and shorts—and honestly the only thing that I really missed this particular weekend was the shorts. Deodorant was considered a non-essential, but I brought that anyway.
We learn to pack in a scientific and orderly manner, and to my bewilderment I am able to fit everything in my pack. You start by lining your pack with a garbage bag in an attempt to keep wet stuff wet and dry stuff dry. Next, you stuff your sleeping bag into a pill-shaped sack, magically making it about the size of a medium bag of chips, which you then place in the bottom of your pack. Then you shove your tent in, filling all of the empty spaces. You place your gallon baggie with all of your clothes for the weekend, and your sandwich bag of toiletries in next. Finally, you top it off with your food bag and your toilet paper, trowel and hand sanitizer. They go last, because they are the most important. Other various things will be in the pockets of your pack, like your tent stakes, sleeping bag cover, etc., but you get the main idea of the art of packing a backpack. We split up the other essentials that we will share and cinch everything up. Strapping our sleeping pads to the back of the pack, “Voila!” There you have it! Twenty-seven pounds’ worth of everything that we will need to spend three days in the woods. (Quick side note: our guide also carried the first aid kit, a knife and the propane for the stove, among other things. She was a badass packrat.) “Are we ready?” We all nervously decide that we are. Because I am in a lovely pre-menopausal phase where I never know when I’m going to get my period, I run back in and grab four tampons. This would later prove to be a wise, but inadequate decision. And our hike begins …
Starting in the parking lot just below Max Patch in North Carolina, Jenn teaches us to haul our bags safely to our back, which buckles to click and what tabs to pull. As we take a starting line picture, I notice that a ladybug has landed on my wrist. “A ladybug for good luck” I say to myself, and we are off.
Hiking is way different than trail running. It will take me a whole day’s worth of hiking to feel comfortable with this beast on my back; to finagle it so that it fits my body without digging into my hips and shoulders, and to settle into the slow and steady pace of endurance. But I am doing it. Once again I tread the sacred ground of the AT, marveling at the 360 view of patchworked trees of the fall mountains. As we officially enter the trail, the crunch of slippery leaves makes it evident that we will face challenges today, but I am giddy with excitement and, after wearing a mask all day for six months, a bit intoxicated by the fresh air. Except for the fact that my 10-year-old capris running tights keep slipping down to my butt leaving the pack to chafe my lower back, hiking the 6.7 miles to the Walnut Mountain Shelter is a success for all. The warm, golden hour sun sets on the horizon as we settle in to camp, each staking our claim of space for the night. Jenn patiently helps each of us to wrangle our tents into some shape of balloon animal, then, turning on our headlamps, we all start to gather sticks and branches to build a fire. I watch Jenn gather leaves and small branches to get the fire started, and she teaches us how to tent the sticks. My headlamp sucks. I have three headlamps at home and I chose to bring the one that barely spits out light, but I volunteer to help Jenn go get water, because my desire to learn EVERYTHING camping is so strong. I’m surprised to see that the water source is a very small, slow flowing puddle. We used a cup to try to get the most amount of water and least amount of sediment into the cup so as not to clog the filter too quickly, and then poured that water into a bladder to be filtered. It was a very slow process. “You have to be patient and gentle when getting water,” Jenn told me. What she was actually telling me was “you have to be patient and gentle if you want to live with nature.” That became my theme for the weekend. I was impressed that we were able to take creek water and make it delicious—and disappointed that as many times as I have been out running or hiking in the woods that I have not utilized this process. To run trail races you have to be patient for sure … but waiting for your water to slowly drip into your Nalgene bottle was never something I experienced while trail running. We came back from our water trip to a smothered and dead fire. Again, Jenn patiently and gently taught us that a fire needs air to burn, and how to make a wind tunnel to get it going again. Childhood memories of burning palm fronds in Florida began to flood my brain. “I remember how to do this!” I thought to myself, and decided that my job for that evening would be fire keeper. Keeping a campfire burning is pretty much like keeping your relationship hot. It takes consistent effort and hard work. It takes patience and gentleness. But man … is it warm and cozy.
We were all pretty much starving at this point as we read that our dehydrated food choice would take 20 minutes to “cook” in boiling water. While waiting for my “chili” to cook, I scarfed down about six Trader Joe’s super sweet mini peppers. I was surprised they tasted so delicious. When our dehydrated bean chili magically became a dinner, we silently scarfed it down like hungry wolves, and I let the fire die down as we all headed back to our tents.
From experience, I knew that nature would present its lessons during the course of the weekend and, crawling into my coffin-like tent, mine were about to begin. Did I mention that my headlamp sucked? I could barely see to try to organize my stuff, but changing my clothes I notice that I have indeed started my period. Thank God I brought tampons. Deciding that it’s a bit chilly and I need to start piling on some of the clothes I brought, I slide into my sleeping bag and instantly feel nauseous. Damn those peppers. Noticing I have a cell signal, I try to text Greg.
“Hey- are you there?” I ask
“Hi!” he responds. I feel a bit relieved. “How was your first day?” he asks.
“Awesome- except I really feel like I’m about to puke.”
“LOL” he responds as I manically unzip every zipper I have just methodically zipped, and run behind the nearest tree to throw up my dinner. Sometimes nature teaches you what you need to know. Scarfing down food = bad. I send one final text to Greg.
“I just threw up- but I feel better now. I think I better just go to sleep.
“Good idea” he concludes. “Goodnight. I love you.”
I do actually feel better—so I settle into my sleeping bag. The goddamn zipper is stuck and I go into full-on panic mode. For Christ’s sake, how am I ever going to hike this whole entire trail if I can’t get the zipper up on my sleeping bag? What was I thinking that I could even be a person who camps out overnight? My immediate thought is to ask someone for help, but then I remember “patience and gentleness.” I slow down, realize that the fucking sleeping back is inside out, zip myself up like a mummy, and fall asleep on the hard, cold ground. I asked for empowerment, and sometimes that means figuring it out by yourself.
I awake on Day Two to a magnificent sunrise filtering through the trees. The nausea is gone and it’s a new day. I am able to eat grits, and the instant coffee tastes as good as it was made from any expresso machine. Life is good again, and as we confidently pack our bags to set out for Day Two, I notice a ladybug on my backpack again. Now, according to the website World Birds of Nature, the ladybug is a symbol of happiness and positivity. “Most importantly, you accept her as a powerful ally making important changes in your life and you know that transformations are on the way. Now is the time of fruition for your dreams and wishes.” After six months of COVID, feeling lost and several crazy-ass health issues, I could use some trail magic. I hope that the ladybug means I will find some today. We leave Walnut Mountain shelter with the plan to hike 6.5 miles to Garenflo Gap. We start together, and see our first thru hiker heading south. With about 200 miles left in her journey, she is “almost there!” She looks strong, but seems a bit sad that her journey will be coming to an end. We head on to a steep downhill where Grandma slips on the fallen leaves joking that she has “fallen and she can’t get up.” We deem her with a new trail name, EMA- which stands for Emergency Medical Alert! Business gal and I opt to hike up to Bluff Mountain at a pace that is a bit faster than the rest of the group, resting halfway in a green patch of grass. A continued climb takes us to the top of the mountain, where we snack on cheese, salami and olives, and find out that Joe Biden has just been named President-Elect as the 46th president of the United States of America. Activist mom is in tears, as we find out that in the past six months, her father died of COVID in an Atlanta nursing home, and she and her daughter have spent their time going to poor neighborhoods encouraging people to vote. We are happy, and the meandering downhill is easy. The introvert in me decides I need some time alone, and I pick up the pace a bit, but then gently and patiently I decide to wait for the rest of the group as Jenn chooses a campsite so we can set up for the evening before it gets dark. I proudly put up my own tent and my equipment is much more organized than the scattered mess the night before. We eat another magic meal from a bag, this time a kale-and-bean mix for me, while Activist Mom seduces us with stories of homemade hot chocolate and the pastries that she bakes at home. Her new trail name becomes Little Debbie. Closing up shop pretty early, we head for our tents. I can text, but have no cell signal, so even though it’s only 8 p.m., I roll over to go to sleep.
At 1 a.m. I realize that I am bleeding all over myself. I’m down to one tampon, and I have no choice but to use it. I’m so filled with worry about what I am going to do that I can’t sleep. Patience and gentleness, I think. What do I have on me that I can use? I use the last tampon, shove a Buff into my underwear and pray that my youngest daughter is still awake talking to her friends on Snapchat since its only midnight Central Time.
“Hey- are you still awake?” I text.
“Yep- just about to go to sleep” she replies.
“I need you to google something for me,” I plead. “Google- what do you do if you are in the woods and you don’t have any feminine hygiene products.”
“Like tampons?” she asks. “Yes, like tampons.”
After a few minutes, I hear back from her. “It says to take a sock and wrap it in toilet paper.” Oh thank God. I have an extra sock, and I have toilet paper. “Ok. I can do that,” I tell her.
“Ok…..good luck. Have a good night mom.”
“You too sweetie….go to sleep.”
Even though my right hip is lying on a bumpy root, I think about all of my friends who would give anything to be in the position I’m in right now, and fall asleep.
On Day Three, I stay inside my tent to pack up my baggies of supplies, and to survey the damage, then head into the woods with my brand new Injinji sock, trowel and roll of toilet paper. I roll up the sock and wrap in a few layers of toilet paper using it like a maxi pad. I have no idea how I’m going to keep up with this for the day, and my waste bag (which I have to pack out) is beginning to look like evidence from a crime scene. “Everything is figureoutable “I say to myself, and go to join the others for breakfast. Over peanut butter tortillas and coffee, we laugh as Little Debbie shares her encounter with animal eyes as she was squatting to pee last night, and I share that my crotch is toasty warm from the sock. There are no boundaries in our conversation anymore. We have become a team.
I send the team a quick reminder that it is 8:20 a.m. and we said we would leave by 8 a.m. to get back to Hot Springs. “Are you ready to be home? EMA asks.
“No. That’s not it at all” I say. “I just really need to get to a tampon.”
The final 6.6 miles back to Hot Springs starts with a climb. Business Gal has what it takes when it comes to climbing–and as she leaves us in her dust, we deem her The Energizer Bunny. EMA, Little Debbie and Jenn (who now shares that her trail name is One Day) and I cruise for three hours. Jenn has been picking up things that she finds on the trail during our whole weekend, not limited to a romance novel that claimed “you won’t be able to put it down” so she didn’t, a machete, and a bag of jerky someone left behind. As she bends down to pick up yet another piece of trail trash, we joke that she has everything in that pack of hers. “I bet she even has a needle and thread!” Little Debbie joked.
“Yeah … everything but a tampon I say.” Jenn’s eyes get wide.
“Oh my gosh Jennifer! I bet I have some in my first aid kit. As a matter of fact I know I do.” She opens her first aid kit to find five tampons and three pads of various thickness and saves my day. I clean up, add the sock to my bag that I’m using to hide the evidence, and we carry on, passing two more thru hikers before our last rest for lunch. Energizer Bunny climbs out of a creek with two bags of water and we are set for our last supper.
Jenn (One Day) wins the food award for the weekend. Everything we have had to eat has been fresh, and delicious. We’ve munched on various cheeses, cold cuts, olives, fruits and vegetables, as well as hot breakfasts and lunches —nothing like what we thought our trail choices would be for the weekend. We celebrate our final meal with a toast, and with full bellies we head out for the final three-mile stretch.
Seeing the town of Hot Springs in the distance, a familiar wave of excitement mixed with a touch of depression rolls through me. I’m always a little sad to get off of the trails and back to civilization, but I can imagine how uplifting it must be for a thru hiker to have the possibility to eat a cheeseburger and sleep in a bed.
I was pretty excited for that cheeseburger myself, but oh my God was I ever ready for a shower! I’m pretty sure I have never been this rank, not even after my ultra-races. As I approach the Hot Springs trail head, I am honored to see etched in stone that this part of the trail is maintained by the Carolina Mountain club, and there my ladybug is, waiting for me on the rock.
Jenn nicknamed me PG, for the patience and guidance that nature taught me that weekend was so much more than could be taught by any guide. It’s cool to accept the name given to you by others, but you are also allowed to make up your own.
My trail name is Ladybug.
Here I am, making changes in my life. I believe and trust that nature will teach me all I need to make my dreams and wishes come true.
It’s time to start planning