by Lindsey Rudibaugh
It’s 4 am. I awoke at 3:00, painfully aware of some pressing biological needs. I tried ignoring all of them in favor of sleep, but after a short 5 minutes I (very) begrudgingly found my headlamp and TP in the dark, unzipped the hammock, found my shoes, and hobbled into the trees.
3:08: I returned to the hammock and gratefully nestled back into the warmth of my sleeping bag, determined not to lose too much sleep over nature’s middle-of-the-night call. As I lay here restlessly, I became fully aware of another biological need: water. I was rather parched, no doubt from the super-salty cheddarwursts we packed out from town last night and cooked over a campfire. (Only the 2nd time we’ve actually cooked over an open fire… can’t wait to become car-camping enthusiasts after this.) So, I sat back up and drank some water, saying a mental thank you to Travis for filling a bottle and putting it in the hammock right before bed.
Water safely stowed, I closed my eyes again, trying hard to will myself to sleep. I focused on my breathing. I tried to keep my mind blank. I counted. Numbers made me think of the mileage we need to do tomorrow, then about how much money we spent at the grocery store. And alas, a third nagging biological need broke through my subconscious: food.
I am hungry. I ate dinner –and a lot of it– 8 hours ago, but my gurgling, grinding stomach would have you believe that it’s been 8 days. Between the hunger pangs and the thoughts of all the delicious things in my food bag, hanging in a tree just a few short feet away, I can’t sleep. This has increasingly been a problem lately: I am consumed by thoughts of food, and I want to gorge on it like a chain smoker lighting up cigarettes.
Someday, I might be embarrassed by how food-aggressive I’ve become. Yesterday was a town day, and I asked a waitress for a recommendation off the menu. When she obliged, I responded with, “That sounds too small. What will get me the most food?” After eating an entree and dessert, I was ready for another entree, but Travis steered me back to the trail before I could eat our entire bank account.
That time Travis threw caution to the wind and we both ordered two breakfast platters. Photo credit: River.
Most hikers agree that the availability of food in town– fresh food, much of it already prepared for you– makes it harder and harder to walk back into the woods as “hiker hunger” takes hold. Early in our hike, we hypothesized that hiker hunger was actually more of a sugar addiction problem. Our fellow thru-hikers seem to subsist on quick, empty calories like Poptarts, Ramen noodles, and honey buns. We heard people talking about risking bear encounters by keeping Snickers bars in their pockets at night. Snickers, not peanuts or jerky, or anything else that might offer some nourishment. However, time and experience have made me a believer: Hiker hunger is real. It took a month or two longer to hit us than it seems like is typical, and we credit our wholesome, dehydrated diet for that. When we pull things like broccoli and peppers out of our food bags at busy shelters, we’re often accosted with jealous questions. “You have real food?” “Where did you get that?” “Do you think your mom will send me food, too? Knorr Sides are getting old.” So, I’m incredibly thankful for all the effort and forethought we put into dehydrating our meals before we left, and I’m immeasurably thankful to my mom who has continued to run the dehydrator, seemingly around the clock, since we left. Towns are alluring not only for their restaurants and grocery stores, but also for their post offices where we pick up our resupply boxes and see what creative recipes Mom has cooked up. (We dehydrated like line workers; she dehydrates like an artisan chef.)
Hiking through Maine was sheer torture, not because (ok, not only because) of the difficult terrain, but because of the state’s incredible bounty of diverse mushrooms. Fungus here looked like it should be growing on the ocean floor or on the mythically beautiful planet of Pandora in Avatar. Their vivid colors told me to beware, but so many of them so closely resembled food that I nevertheless found my mouth watering: Oh my gosh, there’s grilled pineapple on the forest floor! Ooh, the way that one’s decaying, it looks like cheese pizza. Who knew a mushroom could be as perfectly round as a lollipop? Please, you wild seductress, don’t tempt me with your perfect mimicry of cotton candy! And french fries! And deep-fried cauliflower! Surely fair food as a whole was inspired by a hike through Maine. Mmmmm, are there any fairs happening around the trail this weekend? Drat, fair season is over. Maybe we can find a festival.
And so the merry-go-round of food-seeking thoughts continues to turn, all day, mile after mile. I’ve recently asked Travis several times if he’s pregnant as hiker hunger has prompted him to try some wild combinations: raspberry jam and mayo on a tortilla, anyone? (Don’t. Even hungry, he said it was bad.)
The experience of being non-stop insatiable while living out of easy reach of modern conveniences has made me very reflective on my attitude toward civilization. Before this hike, I often bemoaned our societal addiction to, well, many things that aren’t shining examples of sustainability: food processing, kitchen appliances, seemingly anything else you can plug in, the overwhelming array of choices for every product imaginable in grocery stores, each with its own elaborate packaging. I now have a better understanding of how we arrived here. Being hungry is uncomfortable. Eating only dehydrated food leaves you craving the taste and texture of something fresh. Whole fruits and vegetables taste decadent and oh-so-nourishing, but without refrigeration, they’re rare treats. Food is essential to life, highly influential to both our mental and physical state, and so it makes perfect sense that our relationship with it has evolved to make it plentiful, readily available, and delicious. (Or at least packed with sugar and fat so we crave it and our biology believes we’re in no danger of starvation.) While our household will probably continue hand-grinding coffee beans upon our return to normal life, I’m excited to return to some other conveniences that civilization allows: a stationary living space with a kitchen where I can store food without having to carry it. A refrigerator, a freezer, our beloved cast iron skillet. A tea pot and a stove on which to use it, and an oven to bake all the fruit cobblers and roasted veggies that I’ll alas be able to have because, again, refrigeration. Albeit guiltily, I’m looking forward to being able to drive to a grocery store and pick up anything I need or want within hours of deciding I need or want it. Travis is excited for me to have regular access to Mexican restaurants so he never again has to hear me pine for chips, cheese, and margaritas for 4 straight months.
All of this to say, forgive us if you invite us over for dinner after we finish this hike and you don’t have any leftovers for your lunch the next day. Be gentle but firm when you tell us not to talk with our mouths full and to wait until everyone has had firsts before we go for seconds. It may take us some time to reacclimate to social food norms, but we’re excited for the transition.
Alas, this middle-of-the-night bio break has become rather long, and I’m ready to indulge another biological need: sleep. Breakfast–oatmeal with dried bananas and peanutbutter– is on the other side of a few more hours of shut-eye.
The quick tally: