by Lindsey Rudibaugh
When you fall down in the woods, you get dirt and twigs in unfortunate places. It makes you angry. It leaves you bruised, scraped up, embarrassed. Feeling defeated.
The ‘ol fall-down-and-get-back-up adage is perhaps a little tired, but lately I’ve lived it so literally that it feels like fresh, deep wisdom. It’s sort of like hearing your parents say “Love is blind…and deaf, dumb, and stupid” throughout your whole childhood, rolling your eyes each time, and then feeling the first sting of making a serious misstep in the love department. It’s like being a kid and hearing grownups caution you with “Better safe than sorry” but never having experienced regret yet. Until words reflect our own lived experience, they can sound hollow.
So, right now I want to stand in the back of a truck with a megaphone and have someone drive me through the streets as I shout, “If you fall, get back up! You can do it! Yes, you can! ¡Sí, se puede!” But unless you’ve fallen down recently, it won’t be as moving as it is in my imagination. Maybe I’ll settle for a meme. Or a blog.
While hiking the Appalachian Trail, Travis and I fell down A LOT, though admittedly, I kept to a more consistent schedule. We read Zach Davis’ Appalachian Trials before we set out, and he warned that falling down was inevitable. He estimates that a thru-hike averages 5,000,000 steps. You can’t reasonably expect to take 5 million steps without ever having a misstep, particularly while hiking over rocks and roots and through gallons of mud. If you have a misstep only .001% of the time, that’s still 500 missteps. Some of those are just simple toe stubs. Some are near-misses when you catch yourself with your hiking pole. But some missteps are the all-in variety, the kind that [mean] people watch on the internet and laugh at. The following are descriptions of our 5 most epic, all-in falls. If you’re not the type to watch a train wreck, you could stop reading here. You know where this saga is ultimately headed: to a rallying cry of “Get back up! You can do it! Yes, you can! ¡Sí, se puede!”
#1 – Ending the Wait
My first fall didn’t happen until nearly three weeks in. Waiting for it was agony, but my patience was rewarded with two falls within 10 minutes. We needed to go 14 miles before 4 pm so we could pick up our supply box at the Port Clinton, PA post office. Travis ran ahead in the last mile, and I slowed down to navigate the steepest descent I had experienced to that point in my whole life. I didn’t want to tumble forward, so I loosened my pack straps to let the pack lean backward a bit and counterbalance me. I must have overdone it, because moments later I was sprawled out, staring at the canopy as I slid down the mountainside, having fallen backwards onto my pack. I sat up, yelled “Finally!” to the watching squirrels and seemingly laughing birds, then carried on. It didn’t take long before I was once again on the ground, this time log-rolling my way toward the edge of a switchback. By the time I caught up to Travis in town, the fear and minor pains from that second fall had put me in a foul mood. His suggestion that I needed to eat got him a snarl until he pulled chocolate bars out of our supply box. I ate two, deciding one was a celebratory treat for alas getting the first fall over with and the other a consolation prize for falling twice.
#2 – Getting Initiated to the White Mountains
I had a pit in my stomach about the White Mountains of New Hampshire from the moment we decided we were going to thru-hike. It’s widely considered the most difficult section of the Appalachian Trail; it includes Mount Washington, home of the worst weather in the world and the place where stupid people, among others, go to die according to a very callous memorial on the summit. We spent 13 days getting through the Whites which are dotted with occasional huts: off-the-grid lodging where high-budget vacation hikers can sleep and be fed in between day hikes. Each day, a few lucky thru-hikers earn a night’s sleep on the dining room floor in exchange for helping the crew (or cru, if you’re a member) with chores. The first hut we came to was at Lonesome Lake. Our hike in was awful, but our spirits were lifted upon arrival to this beautiful spot. (My favorite picture from the whole 7 months is one I took here.) We played UNO with a young family, ate leftover brownies, and secured a night under a roof by agreeing to do morning chores. (Thru-hikers typically don’t like the morning shift because it means you get a late start to the day, missing hours of hiking with sunlight. This became our niche. We had decided to go super slowly and carefully through the Whites, so… “Sure, we’ll do morning chores!” This got us a yes every time we asked if work-for-stay was available.) After chores the next morning, we set out in high spirits, bellies full. We got a mere few hundred feet down the trail when it took a hard right. It only took me a few seconds to realize that continuing straight meant I was no longer on the Appalachian Trail, but I cursed those few seconds for weeks. I stopped short, pivoted on the pointy rock I was standing on, and then BAM! I was on the ground. My elbow made contact with that pointy rock on the way down, and the rest of my body then landed on said elbow. There was blood. There was instant bruising over my whole forearm and tricep. I couldn’t grip my hiking pole without pain, and while Travis bandaged me up, I cried tears of self-pity. I wondered if it was broken, and cried harder because I knew if it was, that just meant I was going to hike the Whites with my arm in a sling. We’d made a pact that if our legs could still move us, we’d keep moving. It throbbed with each step that first day, but it felt a lot better after a night’s sleep.
#3 – Earning Passage into the 100-Mile Wilderness
Getting through the White Mountains meant leaving New Hampshire behind, but more falling-down fun awaited in Maine. Maine boasts the single most difficult mile on the trail as well as the most remote stretch. Before entering the infamous 100-Mile Wilderness, the trail is routed near the tiny town of Monson where hikers are urged to stock up with no less than 10 days’ worth of food. (Most hikers ignore this because of weight; we took enough for 7 days.) Once again motivated by limited post office hours, we more or less ran 16 miles before 3 pm. To be frank, this hiking day was a shit show. One of Maine’s primary trail features is rocks. Giant ones. Slabs of rock that are steeply angled and slippery from the seemingly ever-present mist of high mountains. A few miles into the day, my right foot went flying out in front of me on one of those rock slabs, and my left leg got caught under me, bent at the knee as I slid down, my hiking poles useless on the smooth, sharply angled surface. I eventually stopped, took stock, and decided I had fared okay. I continued on around a bend just in time to see both of Travis’ feet fly out to the left as his body fell to the right and hit the ground with lightning speed. He, too, had fallen victim to a giant slippery rock slab, this one sideways, climbing to the right and descending to the left so the angle makes you wish your right leg was shorter than the left. He immediately yelled “I’m okay!” This was a system we’d been practicing for more than 1,000 miles: Communicate quickly after falling so that the other person doesn’t have to worry very long if this was the fall to end our hike prematurely. Travis said he was okay, but he stayed down, cursing and grumbling. I understood. He was physically fine, but sometimes the fall just makes you angry. I quietly shared that I had just taken a spill, too, and we gave each other a knowing nod as he lay on the ground. He accepted my extended hand to get back on his feet, and we got back to hiking. I’d like to say that this was the end of our adventures in falling that day, but alas, it was only the end for Travis. I fell two more times, both in that same awkward position with my left knee bent under me as I slid down a rock slab. By the third time, the weight of defeat made it really difficult to struggle back to my feet yet again. I was livid with the trail builders who would call this rock pit a trail. I was mad at myself for not just plopping down on my butt and sliding down the rock to begin with. I was scared, and therefore mad, about heading into the 100-Mile Wilderness with a sore knee instead of feeling fit and strong as I had at the beginning of the day. I was mad at Travis for wanting to do this whole stupid trail thing to begin with. I pitched myself forward onto my stomach to get the weight off my awkwardly twisted knee, and there I stayed. Angry tears flowed as I indulged in a brief, irrational rant that ended with, “I don’t WANT to get back up!!!”
#4 – Falling to Fight Hypothermia
Obviously I got back up, but of course, only until the next fall (which mercifully, wasn’t for a few days). The next really memorable spill came after we had finished the northern half of the trail and returned to the middle to start marching southward. The first two weeks of our south-bound trek were miserable with rain. Hurricane Florence was upon us, and we stayed wet and wind-burned for 14 solid days. On day 12, we set up our hammock in rain that was blowing sideways, sneaking under our rain fly. We woke up on day 13 to find that our rain gear had alas given out– water was running down the interior walls of the hammock and our sleeping bags were wet. Dehydrated food inside plastic ziploc bags, inside a dry bag meant for water sports, was wet. Stretching my nerves even tighter was the fact that the temperature had dropped considerably over night. We were now wet in 40 degree weather, prime conditions for hypothermia. We packed up and got on our feet, the best way to warm up. Very shortly, I found myself impersonating a skateboarder riding a rail– I stepped on a stick running parallel to the trail, slid along for a second, my feet flew into the air, and then I was on my back in the mud. What followed is one of Travis’ favorite stories to tell, so forgive me if you’ve already heard it. Face up to the rain, I stayed on the ground with my pack quickly getting drenched in the river that the trail had become, and my deep-seated terror welled up from that pit in my stomach and came hurling out of my mouth: “I don’t want to die of hypothermia!” Travis stepped into my field of vision and very calmly replied, “You’re not going to die of hypothermia, but you should probably get up.” That fall shook my composure, but it ultimately did me a great service: It spiked my adrenaline, it made my heart pump, and fear of hypothermia faded as my inner furnace burned hotter.
#5 – Becoming a Thru-hiker
Somewhere in Virginia, we were cruising through a state park, enjoying a rare sunny day. (It’s hard to remember exactly where in a state that claims 554 miles–nearly a quarter– of the Trail’s total 2,190 miles.) I was in the lead, also rare, and the trail was hopping with happy day hikers taking advantage of good weather. I was moving at a good pace and was determined not to be slowed down by a branch across the trail. I stepped over with my left foot, only to catch the branch with the toe of my boot. I pulled my right leg forward to catch myself and instead caught that toe, too, and I went sailing into the air. It seemed a face plant was imminent, but suddenly I became a Hollywood stunt professional. I tucked my head, crossed my hiking poles in front of me, and threw my weight into my right shoulder to flip my body mid-air. I landed on my pack, and sat up feeling…here it comes…triumphant! I was fist-pumping thrilled, delighted to see that Travis had witnessed the whole thing and a little sad that no one else had. I felt like a bad ass. I’d hiked myself tough enough to fall with grace and without injury. For perhaps the first time, I felt like a legit thru-hiker.
Well, I led with the moral of the story, but it can’t hurt to reiterate it. When (not if) you fall down, literally or figuratively, wallow in it if you need to. Feel the rage and the embarrassment, go through the blaming stage, cry at the injustice, maybe laugh at yourself. But you’ll relish your moment of triumph, that moment of alas feeling like a thru-hiker (again, literally or figuratively). Trying new things will make you wince in angst. Messing up at things you’re usually good at might put a pit in your stomach and play on repeat in your head for days. Easy accomplishments are easily forgotten, but hard-won victory is delicious, a story to tell and re-tell, a confidence boost that makes the next fall feel less catastrophic. So, damn it, get back up. Keep falling until you’re good at it and have an awesome story to tell. And please, tell us your story– we’d love to cry and laugh and cheer with you.