Become What You Are

I did not look up. I kept my eyes cast down, not wanting it to end. I stepped  mechanically, my mind no longer worked to keep my feet moving. It was simple to walk — one foot found its place amongst the rock, then the other. Five months prior, I began a two thousand mile hike that would change my life. The end now stood in sight, the final stretch of trail running out before me over the massive tabletop of Mount Katahdin.

I thought of what it meant to be who I am. I thought of what I had learned over the past months, and about what it means to be alive in the universe. All these thoughts whirled through my head as I took my final steps toward the signboard, one foot finding its place amongst the rock, then the other. I breathed in, closed my eyes, and extended my hand. I reached out and touched the weathered wood scripted in pale white paint — “Mount Katahdin, northern terminus of the AT.” My journey was over. There was nothing left to do but descend the massive upheaval of earth and begin the next part of my life.

Before my trip, I was always focused on “becoming” something. I always wanted to get a new title, make more money, and have more responsibility. I pursued my future at the expense of the present. But during my thru hike of the Appalachian Trail, I discovered that life isn’t about “becoming” anything — it’s about being what you are.

Knowledge is perhaps the most valuable thing we collect in our lives. Knowledge breeds curiosity and the urge to discover and create. New ideas shape the way we interact with the world. They create new frames of reference through which we organize the immense amount of data we receive every day. And through this attainment of knowledge, something amazing happens: we begin to create on our own.

I know of no higher calling than to learn and create. That is my goal in life. I do not care for the title of writer or teacher — they are only tags connected to me. I care for the will that is inside of me to gather and understand, and then create that which is not yet created. The work may be an essay, a work of fiction, or a blog post. Or perhaps it is the unfolding mind of a child who finally realizes the power of a word they have just come to understand. That creation is wholly new, never before seen in the universe — and it is something awesome.

When I walked off of Mount Katahdin, I took with me a new point of reference from which I viewed the world as a whole. I saw myself not as a person struggling through life on the Earth, seeking to reach some fulfilling endpoint. I saw myself as a manifestation of the universe itself, with the capability and potential to learn, create, live, and love. At the time, I did not know specifically what I wanted to do — all I knew was that I wanted to do something worthy of me.

I set out on a new path in life. No longer would I search for something to “become.” I would relish that which I already am. I would collect knowledge and create new things. The knowledge I seek is all around me. It is in books, nature, people, and understanding. There is so much of it that I will never be able to grasp it all, but I will try. And with the knowledge I do attain, I will create. My creations will become new pieces of knowledge, perfectly manifested pieces of myself, ready to be absorbed  by those who seek it.

I seek to attain the titles of writer and teacher. But those are not who I am. During my time on earth, I will further who I already know myself to be — a collector of knowledge, a spirit of creation, and a manifestation of the universe itself.

To Tend a Garden

Last year, we planted a garden. My father, brother, and I cut the three rectangular boxes. We stained and sealed the squared wood and sat the straight lines into trenches. The boxes hugged the earth’s short slope, the first boxed tier dropping to the second, and the second down to the third. In the bottom box, we dug out the roots of an old tree that stood there years ago, removing the dirt covered memory of the scarred trunk and gnarled branches. We moved the earth with our hands and had visions of a garden that would take shape upon that small plot of our yard.

I never saw the seeds break through the dirt and into the sky. I did not see the fruits of our labor harvested and eaten. I left for the trail soon after we planted. But I knew they were growing because the frames were well laid, the earth was good, and the seeds were strong. I could imagine the growing vines, the reaching greenery, and the broadening leaves.

This year, I will plant it and watch it grow. Already, I pulled the scattered weeds from the soft soil and prepared the wood frames for another year of weather. I retrieved the compost bin out of the shelter of the garage and nestled it into its corner of the yard, the musky casting ready to sustain the living plants. My hands worked at the straggly weeds, pulling them free from the ground. The earth clung to my sweaty legs and the sun burned against my white flesh.

I am happy to be home this summer, and not just for the garden. Because like the garden, I will tend to those I love. I will weed out the problems as they arise and enjoy the fruits as they come forth. I will enjoy my moments with all of creation — whether that be garden, friend, or the thing that we can’t quite describe — the thing that makes up all of what there was, is, and ever will be.

Because as the wise  one, Joe Dirt says, “Life’s a garden, dig it!”

Sausage Thighs the Destroyer on the AT

Hiking the AT is something I only became familiar with last year.  To be honest, I am pretty sure I did not know what the AT was before Sir Stooge started his adventure in May of 2013.  I followed his blog and vicariously lived through him for the months that he spent on his adventure.  I was AMAZED and slightly confused about what a hiker’s life was like.  Trail magic, zeroing, shelters, and trail names were all very foreign terms to me!  But, I learned and my interest grew.

I would say I am a pretty out-doorsy kind of girl.  Growing up on a farm, I like walking around bare foot, and being dirty doesn’t really bother me… at least for a day or so!  However, I had never had the experience of camping or hiking.  So, when Sir Stooge and I started planning our three day hiking trip, I was a little nervous for a couple of reasons:  Two nights in a tent?  Pop-tarts and freeze dried dinners?  No shower or bathrooms? Despite my worries, deep down, I knew I really wanted to like hiking.  It meant so much to someone I deeply care about, I was determined to enjoy it!

So our adventure began with a day and a night in Harpers Ferry.  It was an awesome day with great weather and some hilarious experiences!  What a funny town Harpers Ferry was, it was very quaint and historic.  We had a nice lunch at Private Quinns (: and enjoyed watching some good old West Virginian crime from where we were sitting.  Apparently someone was not skilled at cutting down a tree, which fell on a man’s precious baby: a giant ford F250.  From there we walked the mile or so back to the Tea Horse Hostel.  Sir Stooge decided to take me on a small section of the AT that ran right up the hill to the hostel.  And that was when I had my first doubt — it was HARD.  I am a runner, and I consider myself to be in pretty good shape — but after our small walk back on the trail, I was winded and my heart was pounding!

The next morning we woke up early and I was able to enjoy the delicious waffles made by Laurel, the owner of the hostel.  But even better was the company we had while eating: Cannonball, a northbound thru hiker, and Bob and Cathy, thru hiking southbound.  My first experience with thru hikers, their stories, and their appetites!! WOW, I think Cannonball ate about five waffles and took two for the road, it was amazing.  Listening to Sir Stooge talk to them and reminisce about his time on the trail was pretty neat.  I was beginning to understand a very small glimpse of the life of a hiker, and I think I liked it!

We packed up, filled up our waters, and headed out!  It was a BEAUTIFUL morning.  The sun was shining; we were happy and well rested and ready for the adventure ahead.  I immediately started thinking about all of the things Sir Stooge and I were going to converse about.  I was ready for some deep awesome convo alone in the woods!!! Haha, was I wrong.  The first three miles or so were BRUTAL.  I could barely catch my breath while trying to navigate the uphill rocky path ahead of me, with a 15 pound pack on my back and two awkward poles in my hands, which were apparently supposed to help me??? Well they weren’t!!  I was hot, and my new “hiking pants” were big around the waste and super tight on my thighs! What’s up with that?

Needless to say it took me a few hours to adjust to the feelings, emotions, and ways of hiking.  All the while Sir Stooge was encouraging me from a distance. He would hike slightly ahead of me, always staying within ear shot and stopping every couple of minutes just to check in.  It was sweet, because I knew he wasn’t used to hiking with an amateur like me.     We stopped for a snack of trailmix and Clif bars.  I couldn’t believe the amount of stuff we were eating, but Sir Stooge kept reminding me that we needed the calories — it was going to be a LONG day.

The forecast was calling for rain and some afternoon storms.  We were prepared for it, and the sprinkling started around 11.  However, it never came down as hard, or stormed like they said.  I actually enjoyed the rain and by lunch time, around 12:30, I was also enjoying the hike!  The ground had leveled out a little, I was beginning to get a hang of the awkward poles at my sides and realized they really DID help on the uphill climbs.

It was around this time that we started passing some other hikers on the trail, mostly heading in the opposite direction.  A northbound hiker named Symbiosis gave me the name “The Destroyer”.  Still not convinced that he didn’t give every trail-nameless person that name, we decided it would at least play apart in my soon to be discovered trail name.  I loved, absolutely loved, meeting other people on the trail.  I have to be honest, Sir Stooge did most of the talking.  He knew how to converse with seasoned hikers, I didn’t (:  However, listening to their conversations was intriguing!!  Within a few questions most people shared their stories of why they were hiking and where they were going — at least their simple stories for why.  When the conversations ended and we moved on, I would spend the next minutes, hours thinking about them.  Did they have families, were they married, did they like being alone?  As I would share my observations and questions with Sir Stooge he would usually say, “Geez Leah, that didn’t even cross my mind”.  Haha, I guess it’s a girl thing.

The day went on and our goal of reaching John Lesser shelter was becoming a reality!  Along the way I also received my very first trail magic — a very well put together draw string bag of snacks, a bracelet, and ibuprofen from a boy named SnackTime and his hiking partner Teacher.  They were out for a month of hiking and exploring as part of SnackTime’s homeschooling experience.  How awesome!!  Sir Stooge and I spent a while after that talking about what an incredible experience hiking the trail is for a boy of SnackTime’s age, around 13.  I was over the top thrilled about my trail magic as well (:

Right after meeting SnackTime we decided to stop for a snack ourselves.  More trailmix, and I think a pop-tart.  I could definitely get used to eating this way and not feeling guilty!  It was at this time that I sat down and started to complain yet again about how tight my thighs were in my hiking pants.  The zip off by the lower end of my thigh made my leg look like a sausage!  Well, there it was.  As Sir Stooge said the word “Sausage Thighs,” we both looked at each other and knew. My trail name would be Sausage Thighs the Destroyer.  It was a name that took me a while to embrace, but I would eventually say it proudly.

We reached David Lesser Shelter around 2:30pm.  It most certainly felt like at least 6:00pm for me. I was spent after my 8.1 mile hike, I was defiantly a newbie.  We hiked down about of ¼ mile to replenish our water supply in a fresh spring — awesome experience and delicious water.  Upon our return it was time to set up camp and go to bed?  No, it was only like 3:30 at that point!  After a delicious freeze dried dinner, a red velvet poptart, and a trip to the “privy,” it was time to settle down and finally rest.  We decided to socialize a bit with a fellow hiker named Derek who had sprawled himself out in the shelter.  And what an interesting time of socializing that was!  At this point I realized that every hiker is a character and every hiker has a story to tell.

It was a cold night, for Sir Stooge that his.  He had generously given me his sleeping bag and opted for three sleeping bag liners for himself — which was quite an interesting experience to get set up.  He looked and probably felt like a mummy, a very chilly mummy!  I, on the other hand, was sweltering hot.  Our extreme temperature difference made it a very interesting night and I was thrilled to see light coming through the tent in the am.

Within an hour we had cleaned up camp, ate breakfast, and started our journey ahead.  We had decided our next destination would be Bears Den Hostel, not a tough choice after a night like we had!  I was thrilled and ready for my 11 mile journey.

Day two was much different from day one.  My poles were my partners in crime now, they saved me from some falls and were great to lean on during those steep inclines.  I also felt like I was becoming more comfortable with the silence of hiking.  I felt my mind drifting in and out of an odd state of consciousness throughout the hike.  During one of our snack breaks, I was explaining to Sir Stooge the odd things I found myself thinking about while walking, and I kinda liked it.  Now this was only my second day of hiking, so I can’t claim to have been completely in the “Zone” but I was again getting a small glimpse of WHY someone would hike miles upon miles.  My mind felt free and whimsical, kinda like a kid again.

It was a long and hard day of hiking 11 miles.  We met many more hikers, including a 71 year old man with the type of drive that just blows your mind away!  My first instinct, as a nurse, is always to assess someone physically.  As soon as I saw him in the distance I was like, “His posture his terrible, he looks short of breath, he needs our help!”  But, I was wrong.  He was definitely older and his body was most definitely not in ideal hiking condition.  But, he believed in himself and was determined to do what he could.  How amazing what our bodies can do when the mind is set on a goal.  AMAZING!

Alas we had reached the Bears Den Hostel, which did not disappoint.  It was so quirky and cool!  We enjoyed more conversation with fascinating thru hikers from ages 22-65 — some more quirky and open than others. (; The pizza and ice cream treat was delicious.  Sir Stooge and I also had an awesome time looking at pictures of thru hikers from 2013, a lot of which were his friends.  The sleeping conditions were way more comfortable than the night before.  Although I was a little disappointed that I could not come back and brag about sleeping TWO NIGHTS in a tent, I could not have asked for a better hiker experience.

Thursday morning came way quicker than I wanted it to, and it was time to go home.  We got a ride back to Harper’s Ferry from a former thru hiker named Strings.  We had a great time listening to him talk!  He told some funny stories.  When we got back to Sir Stooge’s car I took a picture of myself, hands in the air — I did it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I hiked 20 miles and stayed in a tent 1 night! Hahaha, I successfully completed 1/100 of what AT thru hikers do every year, minus the fact that I also had two nights’ stay in a warm comfortable hostel with food and showers.  Amazing.

I come away from this hiking experience with a very very small glimpse of the life of an AT thru hiker.  And I mean like very very small glimpse.  Sir Stooge commented on the fact of how packed my three days were with awesome hiker experiences from trail magic to crazy hikers. An actual thru hiker himself told me that I really did experience a lot!

This account of my few days is probably too long and wordy. (: that’s kinda my personality coming through.  But, I will try to sum it up here.  I was nervous to be dirty, eat poorly, and poop outside.  Most of those things happened without a second thought!  I was excited about deep conversation and leisurely walks through the woods.  Through the exhausting climbs and rocky paths, I began to enjoy the silence that can be between two people who love each other.  I love Sir Stooge, if you haven’t figured that out, which may have something to do with my successful hiking experience.  There is just something about being with the one you love in a place they love — I think I could do that everyday.