By SARAH DOOLITTLE, Four Points News
Four years of hiking sections of the Appalachian Trail have taught me much — whether about myself, life or the trail itself — and 2019 was no exception.
This year I hiked across Connecticut and Massachusetts for a total of about 120 miles. The trail was familiar, an old friend: green, lush, bursting at the seams with lifeforms big and small. Ancient trees. Fingernail-sized frogs and fist-sized toads. Orange salamanders and striped racer snakes. Tiny black flies that like to swarm your face and land on your eyeballs.
Some features were new, such as the path itself that wended through the forest, more dirt and soft pine needles than the usual rocks that characterize the trail along previous sections I’ve hiked (Georgia, part of North Carolina, New Jersey and New York). The air, as always, smelled sweet and clean, but here I smelled too the tang of pines heated by the sun and the unmistakable Christmas smell of fir trees.
What changed most significantly was the company I kept. In previous years, I have hiked solo and been glad to do so. Solo hiking has allowed me to hike at my own pace and to keep my own schedule (something that my daily life as a mom to four does not always allow). As the Appalachian Trail (AT) ethos goes, Hike Your Own Hike, and I always have.
While traversing NY in 2018, I met and repeatedly crossed paths along the trail with two hikers who had been hiking the AT together for 12 years. They were rare birds on the trail: section hikers like me, middle aged like me, appropriate married men but still fun as hell. By the time we parted ways at the end of New York, one of the guys suggested that I might hike with them in 2019.
Thus ensued a year of emails about the trail. It took them awhile to commit but in the spring of this year they officially asked me to hike with them again. Needless to say, I was over the moon.
I love solo hiking. A lifetime of Girl Scouting, camping and backpacking in California, along with YouTube videos and books from fellow AT hikers, prepared me well to be on my own in the wilderness. Despite the concerns of others that it’s dangerous to do so, I have never once while hiking alone been in fear. On the contrary, that verdant world nestles me in its arms as safely as a baby in its mother’s embrace.
Still, along the way I encountered tramilies — trail families — groups of hikers who had met in life or on the trail and chosen to tie their fates together as they walked toward Maine.
I wanted a tramily.
And not because the trail itself was not enough; on the contrary, the AT is all that and a bag of chips, a place both removed from and of the world that allows me to be both too, even if only for a week at a time.
But I’ve been on a spiritual journey these past few years as I’ve worked a 12-step program, and the community and sense of belonging that is inherent to that discipline has changed me. After a lifetime of self-reliance, I’m learning to belong, and an invitation to join this tramily seemed like a sign from god.
Here’s what else I’ve learned these past few years: I’m not in charge; the right outcome will not always look like I thought it would; and expectations are just premeditated resentments.
You see where this is going, right?
Despite the best intentions of three good people, it just didn’t work. We met in CT and got on the trail together on a Monday. We were happy to see each other, if a little nervous. We hiked at similar paces, as we did last year. We got soaked in the rain that first day and night and relished a reprieve at a hiker hostel on Tuesday. We enjoyed each other’s company, and I got to experience a 2019 hiking highlight when one of the guys serenaded me from “A Musical About Star Wars,” singing about lightsabers as both Luke and Obi-wan. We didn’t hike together but ate lunch together daily. We slumped together over our dinners every evening, exhausted and famished after hiking an average of 17 miles a day. We hung out briefly, morning, noon and night. They stuck to their routines, honed over 12 years, and I tried not to appear too eager, too needy or too… too me, really. I can be a lot, and I didn’t trust that the full me would fit in.
Not that it would have mattered. By Thursday night, our second town stop, I was finally ready to ask them over dinner how exactly I did fit into their twosome. It was a good conversation, very open and honest, but the bottom line was that I didn’t. In the eternal human contest between the familiar and the new, the familiar won. I was welcome to be trail-adjacent to these two men — and they considered me a member of their tramily — but I was not trail-joined.
By the time we got off trail on Sunday, I had already decided not to hike with them again next year. I didn’t bring it up with them because it was too emotional a topic, and I instead enjoyed that last day together as one does knowing it is a day of lasts. We parted as friends.
Now back home in Austin, it is tempting to look back on the experience and to judge it as good or bad. When I look back, though, I mostly see green: trees, ferns, moss, shrubs and young me, still growing. Life on the side of a mountain can be tough — the elements can be unpredictable and the terrain unforgiving — but it makes me hardier and better able to bend with the wind and lashing rain.
Still, I think I’m mad at myself for nearly missing out. When I was busy worrying what the guys thought of me, I was distracted from the world right in front of me. Lucky for me, inside of me still lives the young girl who grew up going on miles-long walks in the Central Valley of California. I spent summers cruising dusty alleyways for the tree branches and vines that reached just over back fences, their abundant fruit free and made more delicious by my hunger.
Whatever my mental distractions, this year I ate a wide variety of wild fruits on the trail: blueberries, bilberries, blackberries, raspberries, black raspberries, wild strawberries, chokecherries and wild currants. Some were abundant, some I was able to find only one or two. I even tasted a few that I didn’t know (and found them to be inedible). But I would no more stop eating berries because a few were bitter than consider a hike a failure because every moment wasn’t magical.
The trail, as always, taught me lessons that will continue to serve me in daily life. Without trying to force a bad fit, I can give these two kind guys back their duo that brings them both so much joy. I don’t have to (without being asked) try to make myself smaller in order to better squeeze into an already full pack. I can be my too-much self and find a place where I fit just as I am. I can trust that the trail’s gifts are many and that more will be waiting if I only show up.
And I can keep looking for berries. Hunger makes me grateful, and even a meager meal foraged with my own hands can be a feast.
Sarah Doolittle has hiked the Appalachian Trail four times over five years and so far has completed GA, part of NC, NJ, NY, CT and MA.