What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
Eighty-five. That's the number of times I fell (butt or chest touches the ground) while hiking all 2,175 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Nearly half of the falls happened in the first 300 miles, particularly in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. In the words of a hostel owner, 2010 was "the year of the snowshoes." I refer to it as the year of the snow.
I grew up in a family where my parents regularly dragged us out on day hikes. I was a "fat kid" with some social anxiety, and while I enjoyed the views, I always felt demoralized by being the slowest in my family. I avoided physical activity in high school and college and could usually be found with my nose buried in a book. So it was with some personal surprise and the surprise of my family when I declared that I would thru-hike the Appalachian Trail after college.
To my parents' dismay, I was adamant that I didn't need to find a hiking partner before starting. Whenever someone heard of my plan, I was barraged with worry over how unsafe this decision was, how something bad was sure to happen to me. (Fact: the woods are statistically safer than my home city.) This barrage of concern was also coming from a from the fact that I am a woman and therefore more vulnerable and something would surely happen to me, that I had to have someone else, preferably a male companion who would protect me. Friends and family fell into this mindset — people who were otherwise cognizant of feminism, misogynist gender norms, and inequality.
Lucky for my parents and friends' peace of mind, I met an ex-marine, Silver, on day 3 who ended up being my hiking partner for the rest of the trail. Proof for me: he never used his super-duper marine skills to protect me. Nor did the ex-Ranger, Ghost, when we added him to our little band of hikers.
While hiking, I met a handful of other women: a pair of sisters whose collective trail name were The Picnic Sisters, a woman who went by Snow White, and a woman I had grown to know over one of the online AT forums who had a series of trail names, including Shlep. There were a few other women here and there, but most of the thru-hikers I met were men, typically around my age (23 at that point) or a little older.
People are always curious to hear about my experience being one of very few women thru-hiking, as if my experience being in a male-dominated community is so very different from being in any other community's gender mix. In middle school and high school, I always felt, as many do, a little estranged from most of the social groups. I typically found a small group of like-minded souls to surround me, and this was no different on the trail.
I personally never experienced harassment, particularly sexual harassment, on the trail. I attribute this to just the character of my fellow thru-hikers, but it's more than that. The community of thru-hikers looks out for one another. One thru-hiker I know got the trail name Snowplow because he broke trail through two feet of untouched snow down a side trail to get an injured hiker to safety. I remember being warned by other hikers at the Doyle hotel in Duncannon, PA, that there was a shifty character at the first shelter out of town. We skipped that shelter and moved to the next, remaining wary. While much of the tangible benefits of this community were keeping each other apprised of each others' whereabouts and adventures, it was also a way for all of us to be held accountable for our behavior. Act badly in some kind of way and others would hear of it.
While one of my hiking partners, Silver, could always neatly hop from tipping rock to tipping rock over a stream, I was the one who did a face plant while walking down a shallow incline. I literally tripped over my own feet and ended up face down in the dirt. When I asked Silver how much dirt was on my face, he told me "not much." Unluckily for him, there was a bathroom with plumbing and a mirror 10 minutes down the trail. My face was caked in dirt. My only regret is that I didn't get a picture.
I fell the most in the first month and a half on the trail, when I was my most out of shape and heaviest weight. On the fifth day of my thru-hike, I woke up and everything was white. While the first part was fine (who doesn't like playing in new snowfall?), once it got to the point where there was six inches of snow on the ground — a foot on the ground — it got harder. I had lost my appetite days before, and the 15 miles before me were the longest I'd ever hiked in a day, including without a 35 pound pack on my back. I was unsure of my capabilities. At times, I barely had the energy to move one foot in front of the other. I forced myself to eat occasionally, but this was one of the times where I had so completely lost my appetite that even small amounts of food were impossible. The driving force that got me through the day was to not be left behind, to not be alone.
Over time, the snow melted, but almost three weeks later, we started climbing up to the ridge line of the Smoky Mountains. About halfway through the first day, it started snowing. It didn't stop for the next three days. I can remember falling as my foot sank through old, icy snow and landing on my pack. As I found myself staring at the sky again, I wondered if I would ever see anyone ever again. I repeated this once every 50 feet or so.
I felt weak, broken, and tired of the snow. One plus side, however, was that I wasn't focused on how I looked. Instead, I was focused on how functional my body was. I had a knee that wasn't holding weight properly, skin was rubbed off my lower back, and none of my clothes were dry.
A week or so later, we reached Damascus, VA. I had no idea what I looked like. With no mirrors, it's harder to see the changes happening to you. We ended up staying in a small bed and breakfast, where I finally was able to find a scale. I had lost 20 pounds in the course of a month. When I looked in the mirror or at my body, I couldn't see the weight loss, but the scale said it had happened. I celebrated this event by eating a giant calzone. My hiker appetite had finally kicked in.
Looking back, as someone with a history of eating disorders,I am shocked that I was able to eat as guilt-free as I did. Before my thru-hike, I didn't like my body; I hated that I saw myself as fat but accepted it as the way things were. I didn't see myself as worthy of having a body I deemed attractive. I ate my emotions and hid behind my body, rather than allowing myself to be vulnerable to others. I can recognize the signs of my disorder as it persisted through my hike, but they were subtle and didn't stop me from fueling my body properly. In all honesty, the manifestations of my disorder probably helped strengthen my body and slow the rate of weight loss, which is actually a good thing.
My body had become a tool, rather than a presentation of self. I was fueling the tool to attain this goal that I had set for myself. I didn't berate myself for the calories, I wasn't able to stare at my face in the mirror every day and pick apart just how ugly my chin was or how small my eyes were. Instead, I woke up, ate enough food to get me through the first half of my hike and struck out for a shelter around 15 to 18 miles away.
I watched deer, frightened a bear away by throwing rocks at it, and met southbound thru-hikers (Maine to Georgia). I followed The Picnic Sisters' journal entries at shelters, looked for news of friends who were a day or two behind us, and chatted with thru-hikers passing us. I learned a lot about myself on this 2175-mile sabbatical from life. I have confidence in my ability to achieve goals I set out. I now know I can survive tough situations, and that if I build a community of caring people around me, they will lift me up.