My high school commencement speaker told my graduating class that high school was the last time in our lives when we’d spend so much time co-mingling with people from every social status and sector of society. Look to your left, look to your right. Here sit the grocery store workers and the attorneys, the teachers and the electricians, the gas station attendants and the homemakers, the artists and business owners. Today, the future doctors may be sitting next to the future farmers, basking in a shared accomplishment, but that’s an occurrence unlikely to happen again after you turn those tassels and toss your caps in the air.
That was the message (more or less, with 18 years of dust to dull the details). I’m not sure if it stuck because I thought it was bogus or sad or a fascinating window into what adult life was like. And until I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail 16 years later, I believed it was true.
I was surprised to learn that the AT, as the trail is called, has a rich culture unto itself, and long-distance hikers comprise a gritty subculture within the AT community. Hiking, like public high school, is a great equalizer. On the trail we sat around countless camp sites and rehydrated meals with people from dramatically different walks of life. There was Yogi, an 18-year old, fresh out of high school and taking a gap year before settling down to live in a van. Puddles was a New England real estate broker and a supporter of President Trump. Jack* was a professor of environmental law at Harvard. Okie was a retired truck driver from Oklahoma who adored Reba McEntire and Carrie Underwood. Ambassador was British and a mid-career dentist until she quit to become a life coach. Seven and Double Tap were a young Midwestern married couple, both nurses. River was a retired state trooper, proud of her unit for embracing her and her wife as a same-sex couple on the force. One Pole was a military veteran, Ninja was a teenager from the Bronx, and Essence was a West Coast teacher celebrating her 25th wedding anniversary with an East Coast dalliance.
The diversity of profession, political leanings, social class, age, sexual orientation, and nationality was like a high school reunion that invited every graduating class from the last 60 years. There were life-long campers and people who’d left white-collar lives to see if nature was actually as therapeutic as they’d heard. The trail gave shelter to homeless, helped unlikely couples find love (however temporarily), and indeed, was a balm to the wounds that life inflicts, whether through poverty, loss, divorce, abuse, or pressure-cooker professions. Trail culture unifies a rag tag group of people whose daily life is reduced to walking, collecting water, eating simple meals, burying toilet paper, and swapping stories of challenging terrain and weather. It’s an elemental lifestyle, and it seems to speak to all of humanity.
So, I could have gone through life believing that high school and the Appalachian Trail were outliers, rare times of life when social strata co-mingle rather than staying separated by varying degrees of privilege. But then…coronavirus. Environmentalists have long known a truth that I dare say broader society ignores: we are all inextricably linked, both through natural systems and the social & economic systems we’ve created. COVID-19 doesn’t care about our artificial boundaries – it doesn’t care if you’re the Prime Minister or a cashier, whether you’re a man who loves the 2nd amendment or a man who loves other men (or both). Coronavirus is the greatest of equalizers, and now we’re all back in the same high school, on the same trail, breathing the same air, sharing limited resources. Hikers are humans laid bare, highly aware of our reliance on natural systems and each other. Much like hiking, coronavirus exposes both our innate strength and our innate vulnerability.
The coronavirus pandemic has united all of humanity on the same side of a giant problem, perhaps for the first time in collective consciousness. (Climate change is arguably another such problem, though we haven’t exactly taken a unified approach, and as time goes on, the national coronavirus response becomes similary fractured and divisive.) However, we’re in fact always on the same side – we all have the same basic needs: breathable air, drinkable water, nutritious meals, a community to belong to, and a way to get rid of our waste that doesn’t leave shit in someone else’s camp site. So, if we can’t escape the fact that our lives influence and depend on others’, if we’re all working toward the same goals, let’s act like it. Collaboration has been proven over and over again to have more positive social outcomes than competition. I say often as an experiential educator that knowing isn’t the same as doing. So, let’s DO something. Let’s actively practice ways of living that respect – even celebrate – our differences and respect others’ needs to live. Let’s stop leaving our shit in other people’s camp sites.
How do we do this? Here are ten ideas I’m going to work on in the coming months.
With hope for the future and gratitude to anyone who will join us in our efforts,
*Trail names are a part of long-distancing hiking culture. With the exception of Jack who didn’t yet have a trail name, I didn’t change names to protect anyone; these names are simply how I knew this band of merry men and women, and I’m quite proud to know each one.
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.
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:
We’ve hiked 870 miles of the Appalachian Trail. That’s more than one third! (By 140 miles if you’re looking for specifics.) Bill Bryson, considered an authority on the AT based on his wildly popular book A Walk in the Woods, only hiked a third of it. The Proclaimers won millions of hearts with their grand romantic gesture of writing a song about their willingness to walk a great distance for love… only 500 miles. When we first discussed hiking the entire AT, we debated doing it in 3 major chunks over 3 years; that might have allowed us to keep our jobs but still feel seriously accomplished about our annual mileage. All of this to say: One-third feels like a big deal!
Fear not, the trail keeps us humble. (Falling down regularly is a good way to avoid getting overly confident.) The statistics on thru-hike attempts that end in the first few weeks are intimidating, so we’re ecstatic that we’ve made it this long and this far. If we break an ankle tomorrow and have to head home early, we’ll still be awfully proud of what we’ve accomplished this summer. The following are some of the most memorable experiences from these 870 miles. Fair warning, this is not a “favorites” list; many of these are happy memories, but they’re not all sunshine and rainbows. (Actually, none involve rainbows. 97 days of living outside, many of them rainy, and we haven’t seen a rainbow.)
Our first two days on the trail were beautiful. Then the rains came… and stayed for 11 days. Thanks to some impressive gear, mainly our Oboz boots and our Clark Jungle Hammock system, we stayed blissfully dry…at least for the first 8 rainy days. By day 11, Lindsey was cooking a blister, but Travis was quick to fix it up and neither of us has had one since. (Knocking on wood as we type that.)
On May 21st, we hit two major milestones: 100 miles and 501c3 status for Tenderfoot! We realized both of these things shortly after crawling into our hammock after our first 15-mile day. Exhaustion turned into giddiness and Lindsey may have disturbed every hiker in camp as she tearfully and incredulously announced each achievement.
501 Shelter was a much-anticipated place to spend the night: Rumor told us that it had 4 walls and a door (rather than the usual open 3-walled structure), and it was so close to a road that a local pizza place routinely delivered. The day before we got there, we encountered a trail angel handing out chips and cookies at a trailhead. Lindsey had been craving Fritos but happily settled for the salt-and-vinegar that Ice Man offered. (Some trail angels serve up trail magic on a regular basis and are inevitably christened with a trail name by thankful hikers.) Not only did we get pizza at 501 shelter, but Ice Man showed up with Fritos, having gone out to buy them specifically in the hopes of running into “Songbird” on his hike that day.
Delaware Water Gap is the last stop in PA before the trail merges with I-80 to cross the river into New Jersey. We timed our arrival perfectly– The local Presbyterian church runs a hostel and the congregation serves a potluck dinner every Thursday for hungry hikers. That meal, shared with open-minded and open-hearted parishioners, was like the warmest of hugs.
While waiting out some rain (more rain, what a surprise!) on our second day in the Garden State, we ran into three women who had just spent the night in the lodge of a closed camp. “It’s a mile off-trail and looks totally run-down, but it’s on federal lands now, so they can’t really tell you not to camp there. Plus, it still has electricity, so you can turn on the lights and charge your phone!” We got directions and headed that way. Todd Lodge turned out to be the last structure on a road that ran through not one, but two camps. The first was still bright with fresh paint and well-manicured landscaping, and we half expected to see campers come streaming out of the dining hall. Eventually, though, as we followed our directions to “just keep going”, the buildings looked more and more sad and the trail became quite overgrown. We passed a half-burned building, unlabeled, a rotting pool house with inflatables still inside, plenty of KEEP OUT signs, and a beach with overturned canoes, long-forgotten. We were starting to get pretty creeped out and considered aborting our mission, but we saw one more structure through the trees and alas had arrived. We kept the lights off the whole time to avoid being detected, we shared our food with mice, and we slept poorly, but we left the next morning feeling like we got away with something cool.
New Jersey is surprisingly one of the most heavily bear-populated states on the Appalachian Trail. We’re told this is due to development condensing their habitat down to the corridor between major highways and the Delaware River. We saw our first bear as we left the deserted camp, and it was a relatively uneventful interaction: bear crossed the road, glanced at us, we sang loudly, bear slipped silently into the woods. A week later, however, we surprised (and were surprised by) two bear cubs playing in the middle of the trail as we crested a hill. They went running in opposite directions, we scrambled backwards, one reversed course to follow the other…and then they sat at the top of the hill, watching us in the hopes we’d go away. Moving forward on the trail would have meant moving closer to them, and we didn’t know where Mama Bear was, so we were stuck. We stayed that way for 20 minutes: clapping, banging our hiking poles together, singing, and trying to scare them away while they sat, scared to move, and hoping we’d go away.
Unlike 501 Shelter, Brinks Shelter had no reputation that preceded it. It should have. We planned to stop in for lunch and to collect water from the stream, but plague-level mosquitoes cut our stay short. Lindsey went the .2 miles to the water source and had to stop along the way to put on full rain gear to cover as much skin as possible. She emerged 15 minutes later making unintelligible noises and wildly slapping at her hands and face. She climbed the hill out of the shelter area while 4 liters of water (an extra 8 pounds) swung from her pack and Travis followed, smacking the hordes of mosquitoes that covered her from head to toe. She still calls it the worst 15 minutes of the entire hike thus far.
(Sorry, no photos of the bears nor the mosquitoes. We’re not trying to get eaten by anything, large or small, while we snap a selfie.)
Sheer rock surfaces and poorly marked trail made NY our least favorite state so far, but there were two redeeming factors.
1. Being relatively close to the Big Apple, the trail crosses roads fairly often in this state. At seemingly every crossing, hikers are greeted by delis run by clever people offering hiker deals. Blazes are the paint marks on trees and rocks that mark the trail; different colors denote different things. The AT is marked with white blazes, and side trails are blue. When someone cheats and skips trail miles via car, it’s called yellow-blazing. In some areas it’s accepted for thru-hikers to “aqua-blaze” the trail by kayaking parts where a waterway runs parallel to the AT. In New York, hiking the AT is known as deli-blazing.
2. West Mountain Shelter is .6 miles off trail, an unheard of – and horribly inconvenient – distance out of your way. However, with the promise of a NYC skyline view, we opted to put in the extra mileage. #worthit
We happened to be in CT for Lindsey’s birthday and decided to splurge for a night in town. We were lucky enough to be the only guests at Cornwall Bridge Inn for our middle-of-the-week stay, so we had their pool, hot tub, breakfast nook, and reading room all to ourselves. It was pure delight to escape the Hiker Super-Highway and have our first truly quiet, solitary time in 6 weeks.
Travis’ birthday is 4 days after Lindsey’s and we had crossed another state line by then. (New England is so rewarding that way – frequent border crossings make you feel like you’re making serious progress!) After a birthday breakfast of rehydrated pineapple upside-down cake, we hiked in 110° heat to a pond where we cooled off. While there, we met a couple who became the most incredible trail angels we’ll probably ever encounter. They shared their lunch with us — full of fresh produce and homemade goodness, and then they offered to let us stay at their house that night. Sure enough, when we finished our mileage that afternoon (a grueling 10 miles in the heat), they met us at a road crossing and took us to their lovely home in the Berkshires. We got showers, did laundry, and snacked while they made lasagna. They even had an ice cream cake in their freezer, which they cheerfully pulled out and stuck candles in when they found out it was Travis’ birthday. In the morning, we chatted over a 3-course breakfast about the months-long road trip they went on when they were young and broke and in love. We hope to be them 40 years from now.
Upper Goose Pond is another one of those shelters that’s far off-trail but worth the work. It’s a beautiful, 2-story cabin situated on a large pond with a dock and free canoeing. Volunteer caretakers spend a week there at a time, hauling potable water in by canoe, and making morning coffee and pancakes for the hikers. We plan to return as caretakers sometime and do some trail magic: we’ll pack in chocolate chips, blueberries, and real maple syrup, and really make those pancakes shine…or cause pre-diabetes.
North Adams was the last town we visited on our way out of Mass. We weren’t planning on stopping, but Travis loves himself a good (and bad) Chinese buffet. When we discovered a bikes-for-borrow stand at the the trailhead, there was no stopping him from pedaling toward over-stuffed contentment and eventual self-disgust. His dreams were shattered, however, upon our sweaty arrival: Closed on Tuesdays.
Hitchhiking is a legitimate form of transportation in Vermont, so reliable that a local told us she often thumbs her way to work. We hitchhiked twice: into and out of Manchester Center, a lovely if expensive tourist town that had exactly what we needed– a laundromat with loaner clothes so we could wash everything in our packs and walk around town in borrowed style. On our way into town, we were picked up by a man whose puppy escaped the vehicle as we were loading in…and it ran across a 3-lane highway. Travis gave chase, eventually catching the dog with the help of several motorists who angled their cars to corral the dog toward the berm. When that excitement ended and we were alas on our way into town, we discovered that our poor driver had recently had a stroke…and should not have been driving. It was a terrifying 5 miles. On our way out of town, we were picked up by a generous woman who offered us Twisted Teas…then popped the tab on one of her own as she drove along. She explained that she was driving between jobs and needed some refreshment to make it through a very long day.
Some days we just don’t feel like hiking. After an 8-mile morning and a nap in a farm stand’s yard, we were dragging ourselves back to the trail. We passed a house, a barn, and a man on a mower: “You guys know about the secret hostel?”
“It’s upstairs. Check it out and stay if you’d like, I’m going to keep mowing.”
We followed his gesture and climbed the steps into the loft of his barn, only to discover….full-size beds! Electricity! Christmas lights! Wifi! We quickly decided to end our day short, and the fun just didn’t stop coming. That evening, the owner of this donations-based hostel drove us to a pub that was hosting live Irish music. We didn’t get to bed until 11:30, three hours later than our usual, but it was worth every tired step the next day.
This list represents only a handful of the hundreds of big events and micro moments that have made the last 3 months unforgettable. We didn’t include any of the visits we’ve had from some of you, but that’s only for the sake of brevity. The rare times we get to see familiar faces and hug people who know us and care about us…this is what keeps us going. We love, and perhaps even need, reminders that people are at home cheering for us. We’re so deeply grateful to those of you who have driven all the way to the trail, tolerated poor communication/haphazard planning as we hiked through no-service zones, and tracked us down at random country road crossings.
Finally, our tally sheet as of today:
Falls: Lindsey – 6, Travis – 3
Record number of days between showers/laundry: 13
Visitors from our real lives: 9!
Realistic expectations are a good defense against disappointment, so when planning our thru-hike, we read as much as we could about what we should expect. Several previous hikers said that life on the Trail is constant misery, or at the very least mild discomfort, occasionally interrupted by moments of awe, elation, and satisfaction that make it all worth it. When you’re reading others’ experiences, it’s hard to fully understand the depth of what they describe: the physical sensations, their emotional responses, the experiences of tasting, smelling, seeing, hearing, touching. Personal experience is indeed the best teacher.
So, as we neared the end of our first month, we were starting to understand what those hikers meant about misery and mild discomfort. You know how angry your feet feel at the end of a 12-hour day at an amusement park? That’s how ours feel each night, and we’re told by those who have gone a lot farther than us that this never goes away. (This is why we insisted on a hammock over a tent; at least our feet start each day in a decent mood.) There are the mosquito bites, the skin rubbed raw under our backpack straps, and the occasional headache from walking into a tree limb while intently staring at the ground to avoid stepping on sharp rocks. Some of the discomfort isn’t physical but mental, and just comes from constantly being on high alert: There’s a rattle snake sunning on the trail ahead, don’t step on it. Did you hear that rustle? Was it big enough to be a bear? Speaking of bears, did we hang the food bag high enough? Careful, you don’t want to spill any food and invite creatures to your campsite. Ugh, I forgot to apply sunscreen. UGH, we have to do a tick check. I have something stuck in my tooth, maybe I can use my fingernail– STOP! Do not put your filthy hands anywhere near your mouth! Oh, nice to meet you, Day Hiker. I’m sorry, I can’t shake your hand because we’re very cautious about the spread of germs out here. I didn’t bury my rain gear at the bottom of my pack, right?
And then there’s the tedium: set up camp, cook, sleep, cook, tear down camp, walk, set up camp. Trail life was getting pretty monotonous for a few weeks once we figured out our routine…but then came those moments of awe, elation, and satisfaction. Thank you, Northern Pennsylvania, for really livening things up.
We’ve come to think of the 229 trail miles in Pennsylvania as paved – not in gold, not in asphalt, but in rocks. Pointy ones, of every imaginable shape and size. As a local warned us shortly after we crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, you’ll go miles in PA without touching the ground because you’re boulder-hopping. So, we were walking along, eyes pointed at our feet to navigate the trip hazards, when Travis stopped dead in his tracks and pointed to the right of the trail. “It’s a black rat snake,” he explained. “They’re really docile. I could probably pick that guy up. We had one at Camp Joy, and–” Before Travis could finish explaining that his job as an outdoor educator involved handling snakes to show the campers, the snake lifted its head high and wiggled its tongue at us. When we fell silent but didn’t move, it came charging forward. We backed away quickly, stumbling over the rocks, and it eventually slithered away. It didn’t go far, though, and then we heard….a trickle of water? Wait, is the snake… peeing?!
High alert, but then….we survived! And experienced something novel! (Ok, black rat snakes aren’t venomous, so we were going to survive even if it bit us, but it could have really upped the misery factor.)
We walked on, unknowingly making our way toward a rock formation known as Knife Edge Cliffs. (We try not to look ahead at the terrain to maintain some excitement for the unknown. Also, this way we don’t have to dread steep climbs.) We started scrambling up the southern end of what would become an incredibly high, narrow, long ridge of boulders. We’re climbing, Travis in front, when I see something fall off his pack. As it bounces down the rocks, I see that it’s his beloved coffee mug…and it just disappeared in a crack in the pile of boulders. Disinterested in leaving plastic on the mountain, and even less interested in losing a close friend (you become attached to the few things you carry day after day), we dropped our packs and started searching. A visual scan revealed nothing. The flashlights on our phones, still nothing. Then Travis says he thinks he can squeeze into the crack from a different entry point and look around with his headlamp. I’m not loving this idea, but as I debate the pros and cons, Travis straps on his headlamp and starts crawling in. After verifying there are no snakes denned up in there, he looks around for the mug. “I can see it! Buuuut, I can’t reach it.”
Meanwhile, I’m outside sitting on a rock and explaining the situation to all the curious hikers who keep passing by. One gentleman, a day hiker with narrow shoulders, offers to help. Travis has gone as far as his broad shoulders will allow and can’t reach the mug, so he backs out, and sure enough, this stranger straps on our headlamp, gets on his stomach and wiggles on in. After some time and finaggling, and no doubt some discomfort, the man announces that he has the mug in hand. Getting out took some time, and we were feeling bad about the guy being in this position on our behalf, but he waved away our concerns: “I love a challenge. This made my day.” He didn’t have a trail name yet, so we called him Spelunk. Spelunk, you made our day, too.
We safely stowed the mug inside a pack and continued ambling up the boulders. We hadn’t gone 50 feet when we got to the most impressive, intimidating ridge line we’d seen to date. With nothing but air to our right side and a steep jagged rockslide to our left, we walked along a narrow stretch of rock. The rocks were in jumbled piles in some places which required us to abandon our hiking poles so we could use our hands to climb over. In other places, the rock face was sharply angled, so we clung to the top edge with our fingertips and scooted along sideways, looking for crevices with our toes. It was exhilarating and oh-so-satisfying to make it across unscathed. Between the adrenaline rush and the physicality of the day, we were sure we’d sleep like babies that night.
Enter misery. (We foolishly let ourselves forget briefly that thru-hiking is a lot more discomfort than exhilaration.) That night, the temperature plummeted lower than any night we’d yet experienced, and it rained. We learned a few things. First, our rain tarp is awesome. Haleluia! Second, Travis is a hotbox who rarely gets cold, but when he does, it puts him all out of sorts: cranky and unfocused, staring blankly at nothing like he doesn’t know what he should do next. Third, we learned that there was a good reason that my sleeping bag was on sale: There is no filling in the panel that runs down the middle of my back. We both woke up a little cranky that morning.
While we try not to know what lies ahead, sometimes the terrain’s reputation precedes it. This was the case with Lehigh Gap. It’s a nearly vertical, mile-long climb up a bald, rocky mountain that was stripped bare when the area was home to a zinc smelting operation. (It’s now an EPA Superfund Site.) There’s no tree cover, no wildlife, no potable water — nothing but endless 360° views. We heard about it for more than a week as people planned how they were going to make it up and over. Take the bypass trail and avoid the worst of the climbing? Pay $15 to have someone drive your pack to the other side so all you have to carry is water? Or just eat a good breakfast, stretch, and muscle your way up? We chose the latter, and we couldn’t be happier. It was the most challenging, most exhilarating, most rewarding mile of the trek to that point, and nothing has beat that single hour yet. We started below the tree line, and the trail was steep enough that Travis’ boots were at my eye level when he was two steps ahead. As we broke through the trees, the trail turned into a towering pile of boulders. We stashed our hiking poles and switched from hiking mode to rock climbing mode as the white blazes (trail markers) zigzagged us toward the clouds. We stopped every few minutes to take in the view of the river and valley below, the defunct zinc operation, the tiny town where Travis witnessed a motorcycle accident the day before. The wind was wild and as it whipped around, Travis laughed just as wildly and hollered into it, competing with it to be heard.
We’d been hiking with a woman who paid for the slackpacking option, and she was given a Hannah Montana bookbag to carry her essentials. This inspired us, and when the three of us got to the very top, Travis pulled out his phone and we did a celebratory dance to Miley Cirus’ It’s the Climb. We were drunk on adrenaline, madly in love with the Appalachian Trail, and utterly forgiving of all the misery.
A few weeks have actually passed since Lehigh Gap, but it remains one of our favorite trail memories. We’re moving into New England and we expect that we’ll soon have several new experiences to compete for favorite status. In the meantime, we’ll keep trudging and sharing the micro-moments via Facebook and Instagram.
Lastly, our updated tally sheet:
We’ve been nomadic forest-dwellers for more than two full weeks now, the longest either of us has ever spent camping or backpacking. Two weeks isn’t much out of a 6-month stint, but it’s been enough time to notice our brains wrapping around our new lifestyle. A few examples of our shifting realities, (and our apologies if our honesty isn’t refreshing!):
-Deodorant is futile. We haven’t worn it since May 10. When you sweat eight or more hours a day and have shower access once a week or less, deodorant is a waste of money and pack weight. We knew we had acquired the hiker funk when we stopped noticing the odor of other thru-hikers who’ve been out here for a while, but could smell the squeaky clean, freshly showered day hikers long before they passed by.
–We’ve become raccoons, meaning we scavenge for trash cans and are delighted to find them. At home, most people mindlessly fill trash cans and put them by the curb once a week so that the trash can magically disappear from our lives. Trash cans – and trash – are seemingly everywhere. On the trail, however, trash receptacles are scarce and if you create trash, you’re carrying it with you. At least you better or your name is mud, because the hiker who finds what you left behind will feel a sense of responsibility for packing it out and will curse you all the while. There’s a strong commitment out here to maintaining a natural, primitive, seemingly untouched environment. So, we carry our trash for miles, then click our heels together at the sight of somewhere to unload it. (For these reasons, I am surprised and a little disappointed at the general food culture out here: lots of processed, individually wrapped stuff. But, I digress; that’s a topic for another day.)
– Tromping through the mud is the best! Until it isn’t. This was true for the first few days because mud patches were softer and gentler on our feet than hard-packed dirt and all the rocks that Pennsylvania is famous for. After 9 days of rain, however, the mud patches had graduated to endless mud miles. It stuck to our boots, eventually engulfed them, kept them wet, and made each foot step all the heavier. So, the adage holds true: everything in moderation, including mud.
-Moldy Beans, Gazelle, and Butter Bear are people. It’s an A.T. tradition to be christened with a trail name, one bestowed upon you by a fellow hiker. We had to wait a few days to get ours, but we like them. Travis is now Galaxy, the result of three people in a 24-hour period telling him he looks like Chris Pratt from Guardians of the Galaxy. Someone suggested the name Star Lord since that’s the character’s actual name, but such a moniker felt like too much to live up to. I think the resemblance to Pratt’s Jurassic World character is actually stronger. What do you think?
I’m now Songbird, a name that may not need much explanation. My tendency to interrupt my conversation partner with snippets of songs has not been dampened by the trials of the trail. I was relieved that I’d already been named by the night that I got cold and wet enough to threaten to dip my freezing toes into a hiker’s piping hot lasagna. I almost forevermore became Lasagna Toes.
-Meeting our basic needs basically takes up all of our time. We’ve been surprised by how little free time we have. In two weeks, neither of us has finished reading even half of a book, and we’ve barely missed the deck of UNO cards we meant to bring with us. We stop hiking around 5 or 6:00 most evenings, then set up our hammock (or claim space in a shelter if it’s supposed to storm….which it has about half the time). By the time we do some foot care, collect water, cook, enjoy one of our shockingly delicious dehydrated meals, do our dishes, brush our teeth, stow anything edible out of bear range, and locate the privy….well, it’s about 8:00 or later and starting to get rather dark in the trees.
Hiker Midnight, as it’s called, comes around 8:30 or 9, and past that point it’s plain old rude to be making noise since most people are in their sleeping bags already. We read for a few minutes, perhaps post to social media if there’s service, and crash. The sun – or occasionally a persistent whippoorwill – wakes everyone up around 5:30, and the tear-down, fuel-up process begins: pack, eat, hydrate, hike. Rinse (or on a really lucky day, wash) and repeat. We’ve only taken one zero day so far (when you hike zero miles), and we had such grandiose plans for all the time we thought we’d have for recreation…but we ended up spending 5 hours washing our clothes in the hotel room bathtub and drying them with the hair dryer and iron.
We’re looking forward to the days when we’re really settled into the routine and hopefully more efficient at it. That UNO battle is still calling our names, and we’re looking forward to blogging more often. (Thanks for your patience while we got our feet under us, and if you want more frequent but brief updates from us, follow us on Facebook or Instagram.)
So, the tally sheet so far looks like this:
Stay tuned, or better yet, come visit and become a part of this adventure story! We’ll happily take a zero day to sit at a campground and roast marshmallows with you.
by Lindsey Rudibaugh
My family has a long tradition of celebrating the first day of spring with a picnic. No matter the weather, my mom loads up picnic baskets with chicken salad sandwiches, a variety of other mayonnaise-based dishes, puppy chow, root beer, what we call banana dip, and plenty of bananas, among other treats. We spread out a checked tablecloth — on the grass if we’re lucky enough to have warm weather, on someone’s living room floor in the more likely event of snow/wind/general wintry weather — and we savor. We savor the flavors that we haven’t had in months, and we savor each other’s company. I often call the annual Spring Picnic my favorite holiday. It’s an immediate family-only event, and significant others are only included once they’re really significant. The menu is simple, the guest list is simple, and so, we get to simply enjoy without the stress often associated with more grandiose holiday celebrations.
This simplicity is what Travis and I wanted to capture on our wedding day. We wanted the focus to be on good food and good people who genuinely wanted to spend time together. Hence, we started planning our spring picnic-esque wedding as near to the first day of spring as we could manage. (We started this planning after Travis proposed — a great story oddly full of patriotism that we’ll happily tell you all about if you ask.) Pugh Cabin, a tiny rustic venue in Malabar Farm State Park, turned out to be an ideal spot. It held a maximum of 50 people including the two of us and it was near Mohican State Park which is where we both remember first falling in love with the outdoors. (For Travis, that was the result of trips down Mohican River with his dad; For me, that was the result of selling enough Girl Scout cookies to win a free trip to summer camp.)
We considered having all of our guests sit picnic-style on the floor, but in the end we decided to have our own private picnic in front of the fireplace.
Our wedding, similar to the way we’re feeling about our impending thru-hike, humbled us. We couldn’t invite everyone we’d ever imagined having at our side for the big day, but everyone who came added a little bit of magic. My sister bought a mannequin head to practice hairstyles since she lives in Virginia and couldn’t practice on my actual head. Our moms baked desserts. Travis’ brother got ordained so he could officiate. My family built a photo booth. Our friends flew in early and helped with countless details, other friends tended bar for free, another friend created piano arrangements of our favorite songs and played them for the ceremony….This list goes on. Getting us hitched was an incredibly collaborative effort.
The whole wedding day tribe, just after we exchanged our vows. Present: Selfie sticks, 1. Sticks in the mud: 0.
The same can and should be said of our Appalachian Trail thru-hike. We have yet to take our first steps, but we’ve already lost count of the number of people who have helped us get this close to embarking. Our student personal trainer joined our team in September and has helped us tone tiny muscles that we might have otherwise missed. My mom is serving as our Trail Mom, meaning the person responsible for mailing us our resupply boxes. Co-workers have given us books to read, and sales people at outfitter stores have gotten completely distracted from work as they tell us about their own AT experiences. Volunteers are cat-sitting for us, friends have gone on training hikes with us, and our doctor gave us a just-in-case antibiotic prescription. We’ve been offered a free place to store our belongings while we’re hiking and a free place to live afterward. People we weren’t able to invite to our tiny wedding have never-the-less gifted us things from our Honeyfund list, things like first aid, winter coats, sleeping bags, and wool socks. Kindness has come at us from every direction, at times rather unexpectedly. Everything we read tells us that once we’re on trail, this will only continue. Trail magic, as it’s called, is kindness offered up by strangers, weekenders, past thru-hikers, trail town residents: a fresh-from-the-fire hotdog, a cooler full of cold beverages, a trail-side omelette, or some simple fresh fruit.
I’ve never been particularly good at asking for or accepting help, but recent experiences have reminded me that the greatest accomplishments are not achieved alone. I’ve never felt more committed to the goal of bringing Tenderfoot to life; serving our region through living our mission will be our long-term effort to say thank you for the hours spent helping us prepare, the money donated, the time spent reading our posts and cheering for us. We hope you’ll hang in here with us a while longer because we have quite a ways to go. 2,190 miles to be exact….
by Lindsey Rudibaugh
Once upon a time, Travis got a haircut he really liked. Then, as he reports happens too often, the woman who gave him this great haircut told him she was leaving that particular salon. He sat there in her chair, taking in this bad news and thinking about how haircuts in his life are a lot like mayonnaise, and he nearly missed the silver lining that the hair dresser shared as she continued talking. “I’m going out on my own. I’m going to do house visits now to cut people’s hair.” To Travis, this was a welcome twist. I can get a good haircut without even leaving my apartment? Let’s do this! He got her information, then went about life as his short, scissor-fresh tresses slowly turned shaggy and began to look unfit for an office-bound professional. About a month passed and it was time to call Emily.
Emily arrived to Travis’ downtown Alliance apartment with her kids in tow and they settled into the couch to watch cartoons. She made small talk as she got started on the haircut, but quickly broached the subject that she clearly couldn’t stop thinking about. “How do you live here? Aren’t you scared? There are so many people walking around.”
Hmmm. No, we weren’t experiencing a zombie apocalypse that would provide reasonable explanation for feeling terror at having people walk past your apartment. No, there was no known gang activity in the area. Emily had seemingly voluntarily started a job that required her to go to relative strangers’ houses, so no, there was no reason to suspect she suffered from anthropophobia (fear of humans). Oh. Wait. There it is. She’s not afraid of humans generally, just perhaps the sector of the population represented by those walking in our vicinity upon Emily’s arrival. Emily, it would seem, was a little bit racist.
I share this story for a few reasons, but each shares a central theme: Fear. One of my mantras (I may have too many of these – I worry I’m starting to sound like one of those pull-chord dolls that talks in sound bites. Or like someone’s grandpa.) is “I will not live in fear.” I will not live in fear of new experiences, of new places, of trying new foods, of people who are unlike me. To say I will not live in fear is perhaps an oversimplification or simply untrue. Of course I feel fear; I choose to acknowledge it, call it what it is, then refuse to let it dictate my life. I have not always lived this way.
When I was very small I used to stare at the washer and dryer in our family bathroom. In fear. I dreaded the day I would have to learn how to use them. It seemed inevitable and looming. Would I be able to measure out the right amount of soap? How would I know how much was needed? Would I melt my stuffed animals’ eyes in the dryer? Would I overflow the washer? Would I fall in and drown? Or get spun around until I was dizzy and puking and then we’d have to start the wash cycle all over again? Dread. Fear. Dread.
In 4th grade a teacher sent me to a storage closet to get… something that I don’t remember and is unimportant to this story. I got to the closet and for whatever reason my eye was drawn to the very top shelf where an ancient-looking box sat. On its side, written in sharpie and all caps, were the words “DRIVER’S ED BOOKS”. A shiver went down my spine. Someday people will expect me to learn how to drive. What if I can’t reach the pedals? What if I run over one of our cats? My mom would cry for days. Cars are so big, how the hell can I be expected to control one? (Fourth grade is also when I decided to try out profanity and found that I quite liked it, though I often only said bad words in my mind for fear that an adult would overhear and be disappointed in me.)
The point is, when I was young, the idea of learning to do adult things sparked real terror deep inside me. I wasn’t one of those kids who watched the adults or even the older kids and longed to do what they could do. I was happy being a kid, reading my Baby-Sitters Club books, solving crimes before Nancy Drew figured them out, and playing in the woods. Eventually, I started to want to do the things the strong female characters in my books did: have people trust me to do important things, help people solve problems, start a business. Without realizing it, I stopped being fearful and started to do things. I no longer even thought to wonder if I actually could.
This empowered version of me is the one that stuck around throughout high school and college, making me twitch in annoyance when people said things like, “You want to try out for cheerleading? So many girls are trying out, you’ll never make it” and “Why would you want to study abroad?! You could die and no one there would care about you!” or, despite several incident-free trips abroad that I felt demonstrated my ability to handle myself, “Don’t drink the water! Don’t go out after dark! Don’t eat fresh fruit!” That’s a joke, right? You want me to go to Costa Rica and not eat the endless buffet of fresh pineapple? My favorite was when people suggested I shouldn’t go to a Spanish-speaking country because people might talk about me right in front of me and I wouldn’t know what they were saying. What a limiting way to live, I thought. In fear. Fear of failure, fear of bodily harm (which is sometimes warranted, but often preventable with a little knowledge and caution), fear of the unknown, fear of ridicule that might happen but you won’t know if it does. I really didn’t grasp how pervasive this is until I was in my first job out of college, teaching high school Spanish. I was 22 and organizing a field trip to Pittsburgh. The paperwork was in order, the fees were paid, and we were loading up the bus. The more experienced teacher I had asked to co-chaperone approached with a group of other teachers. One of them asked, “So, you’re really going to do this, huh?”
“You’re going to take a busload of high school students to the big city.”
Well, we’re driving to the city but then we’re getting on a boat where we’ll spend the whole evening….
My co-chaperone chimed in with “She’s fearless.” Wait, I thought. I’m doing something brave? Should I be fearful? What am I missing?! Up to that moment, I’d felt only enthusiasm for this trip. I felt prepared. I was excited. My students had signed a conduct contract that they’d drafted themselves. They were going to salsa dance on a boat with high schoolers from other schools and they were going to try new foods (because that was in the conduct contract– you try everything unless you’re allergic). They were excited. Moments before pulling out of the school parking lot, I come to find out that field trips aren’t really part of the school culture because the teachers don’t trust the students to be civilized/careful/responsible/respectful in new environments.
I’m glad I didn’t know until it was too late. We went, we felt great about our salsa moves, we cumbia-ed badly, we tried marzipan, and we came home unscathed. (Aside from the exchange student who had decided that part of her U.S. experience should include piercing her tongue…which she reportedly did in the school bathroom right before getting on the bus.) I learned some valuable things through this experience. First, show high school students – or anyone for that matter – some respect and they just might return the favor. Second, I could not, would not let fear shrink my world and keep me from doing things that could be great. I had never thought of myself as fearless (remember the dryer and the washer and the driver’s ed books) but if fearless is what I had to be to create meaningful experiences for myself and my students, then fearless was what I would strive for. Or more accurately, at least not paralyzed by fear.
So, this brings us back to Emily who was afraid of the people walking around our predominantly African American neighborhood when she came to cut Travis’ hair. To her credit, let me point out that she came anyway. Fear did not stop her from bringing her kids and working to build her business. (Maybe she read Baby-Sitters Club books, too.) As one of my very smart college students pointed out on the first day of our class together, fear of each other, of entire groups of people, comes from ignorance. As such, knowledge, understanding, and experience are its best antidotes. (I may have done some paraphrasing there.) I was afraid of doing laundry, and then I learned how to do it. Turns out, the drowning hazard is actually slim. I was afraid of driving, and for a while I did it quite badly, but now I feel no flutters of nerves when I start the car. I was nervous that people in Costa Rica would roll their eyes at my imperfect Spanish or that taxi drivers would try to charge me exorbitant rates, assuming that I was a rich gringa. Taxi drivers are actually my favorite people to talk to in Spanish-speaking places. They have great recommendations for places to explore, and they’re happy to answer my questions about random Spanish vocabulary. When we are brave enough to let experience replace our fear of the unknown, our worlds grow, our skills grow, our circles of support grow, our capacity to feel empathy and love grows, which means (research shows) the love and empathy we receive grows. Sometimes we get stung a little (ex: some shrunken laundry, two totaled cars, and a Costa Rican pickpocket), but WOW, the pros far outweigh the cons. I hope that Emily got home from Travis’ haircut and reflected on the fact that she came to our neighborhood and nothing scary happened. Maybe she’ll try it again someday, and maybe she’ll eventually let her experience alter her beliefs.
One more thought to share. Our college students talk with trepidation about “adulting”, about entering the buffer-free zone of life after graduation. Looking back, one might say that fear of adulting was what I experienced as I sat on the edge of the bathtub staring at the washer and dryer. Our hope is that Tenderfoot facilitates experiences that help students live through fear rather than in fear, navigating their way toward empowered, capable, open-minded adults who fill their own lives and others’ with meaningful experiences. In the meantime, we’re trying to model all of the above. We’re getting married next month, and many people have half-jokingly suggested that perhaps we’d like to wait until after our hike to say I do. We’re attempting to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, and people keep suggesting perhaps we’d like to just do the trail in shorter sections over time so we can keep our jobs and our comfy house. We’re launching a non-profit, and we often hear some version of “Why not just start a business and charge people to come stay at your homestead? It would be so much easier financially.” Absolutely, all of this caution is worth considering, and we’ve had lengthy conversations about these valid points. But we keep coming back to the fact that, while there are easier paths forward, all of the reasons to leave the one we’re on are rooted in fear. We feel that fear, we let it make us more careful and more calculated, but we’re not letting it rob us of incredible experiences.
Note: In case you got this far and are still curious about why, in Paragraph 1, Travis was comparing haircuts and mayonnaise, I’ll explain: He continually rides a roller coaster of anticipation and then disappointment with both. He claims that good haircuts are hard to come by and when he finds one, he gets excited, tells the hairdresser they now have a loyal customer, and then inevitably learns that this talented person is going to be moving/quitting/otherwise unavailable for future haircuts. Similarly, mayonnaise is one of Travis’ favorite condiments and he asks for it on perhaps every sandwich he’s ever ordered in a restaurant. I can attest that it nearly always is left off. Inexplicable.
Another note: Emily’s name was changed in the hopes that, if she ever somehow stumbles upon this blog post and recognizes herself, she feels protected and respected enough to not feel like this was a public shaming, and can instead take to heart our genuine hope for her continued growth.
What’s in a name? Allow us to explain! Choosing a name for our non-profit was not something we took lightly. In fact, laboring over it set us back weeks in progress toward getting formally established. These weeks were punctuated by Lindsey walking through the house singing Muppet Classic Theater’s Gotta Get That Name (a rather persistent childhood memory due to its catchy, repetitive refrain; watch at your own risk). In addition to frequent singterruptions, this decision-making process led to some quality time with good people and good food: We brainstormed over locally roasted coffee and farm-fresh eggs at our favorite coffee shop. We exchanged ideas over sushi and pad thai with friends who are also starting a non-profit. We discussed over packed lunches with our Accountability Crew (colleagues from the job Lindsey quit to give this endeavor her full-time energy), and we deliberated over trail food while on our first serious training hike. These hours of conversation were structured around a few criteria. First, we knew we were going to call this a lab because we wanted something that suggested active learning in an experiential setting. Next, we we were pretty sure we were going to include the term Fair Trade Learning because that’s the kind of entity we want to be: one that respects and uplifts the communities we’re involved in, both economically and ecologically. (Watch for a future blog post to further de-mystify Fair Trade Learning). So, we had arrived at “____________ Fair Trade Learning Lab”. That’s already sort of wordy, so we knew we wanted just a single word to go in that blank. The agony of finding one simple, perfect word!
So, how to narrow the choices? We considered something that spoke to the Appalachian region, the area we call home and where we intend our non-profit to serve. Naturally, apples came to mind. According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, this region is the most biologically diverse foodshed in North America, and apple varieties constitute roughly a third of that biodiversity. Of course, the fact that Lindsey’s hometown also holds an annual Johnny Appleseed Festival made it seem like we were on the right track with this apple thing. So, we considered the word apple in various languages. In Spanish, it’s manzana. Too intimidating and perhaps frustrating for people who care to pronounce things correctly. What about ‘Zana? No, we’re getting too far away from anything that will have meaning for the average Ohioan. How about the word apple in the language of a regional Native American tribe? That idea led to several entertaining hours deep inside a research rabbit hole, but the outcomes were all rejected for the same reasons we rejected the Spanish versions. What about specific apple varieties, like Gala? We fell in love with that for a few days because planning the gala opening of Mount Union’s Giese Center for the Performing Arts is the job that brought Travis back to Alliance, OH and reunited us. However, Galas are a mainstream apple that you can buy in most grocery stores year-round because they’re grown in all the chemically-dependent ways we rail against. Plus, how do you pronounce Gala? Gay-luh? Gal-uh?
The apple thread wasn’t working, but we liked this direction of something natural and edible that’s native to our area. Pawpaw? Um…nope. Travis suggested Buckeye, and for a while we ran with it: “We can make and give out buckeyes for Christmas! And our logo can have rounded mountains in the color scheme of buckeyes!” Despite these great reasons (insert laughing/winking emoji), Lindsey remained resistant because her primary association with the word was Buckeye Beverage, a liquor store adjacent to the diner where she grew up. Checking the word buckeye in the Ohio business database for name availability was the nail in the coffin for this idea: There were 8,572 other enterprises in Ohio with the word buckeye in their title. Call us hipsters, but we didn’t want to be on that train.
We started thinking that the edible/natural/regional criteria was a dead end. If not that, then what? We debated answers to that question while finishing a hike on a section of the North Country Trail, which is marked by blue blazes. For anyone unfamiliar with the hiking world, as we were not that long ago, blazes are paint marks on trees and landmarks that help you follow the trail, and often, trails become known by the color of their blazes. The Appalachian Trail, for example, has white blazes. As we hiked along that day, we romanticized the idea of each of our students blazing their own trail, choosing their own color by the end of their time with us, and having some sort of ceremony where they explain the various blazes that marked their most significant learning along the way. So….Blazes Fair Trade Learning Lab? Wait, should we pick a color that aligns with what we’re all about? Yes! Green Blazes Fair Trade Learning Lab!
…Perhaps you’re much faster than us and have already realized why we decided we needed to curb our enthusiasm for that idea. Being sustainability-minded folk, the color green was a natural choice, but being sustainability-minded folk, we figure we’re already going to have to battle being dismissed as hippies. Putting the word blazes in our name would make that battle hard enough, but green blazes? We now find it hilarious that we arrived at that idea in all innocence, with enough excitement that we tried to rationalize it even after realizing the subtext that Green Blazes would carry.
So, still no name. Gotta get that name, gotta get that name, gotta get that name. We’d love to tell you that landing on Tenderfoot was a really dramatic moment after the hours and hours of agonizing. Rather, it was fairly simple and low-key, like many of our moments together: We’re in the car, driving toward a destination that neither of us now remember, and talking about our recent decision to quit our jobs to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. We had committed to such a drastic move in service of the goal of launching this non-profit. We could treat the hike as a fundraiser, collecting per-mile pledges, and in the process of hiking, we’d get better at the self-reliant, low-impact lifestyle we plan to teach. So, driving along, one of us suggests that perhaps our name should somehow overtly tie the hike and the non-profit together. Travis casually says, “What about Tenderfoot?” YES. We love it for both its literal and folkloric connotations. It captures both how our feet will undoubtedly feel for 6 months and the notion that this place we’re creating is welcoming to the proverbial tenderfoot, the inexperienced.
Having become too excited too quickly at other ideas, we approached our new favorite name with caution. We Googled it to see what comes up first. No strip clubs or other nefarious associations, excellent. We went to the library and found books on the subject to determine whether or not it carried any connotations we had not considered. (Our apologies to the young man whose studying was interrupted by our dramatic reading of one of those books. We thought we were alone.) We ran the name by our Accountability Crew, and tested it out with friends and family. The only hesitation we encountered was the idea that a tenderfoot is someone who doesn’t know anything, and that this has carried a negative connotation in folklore. We’ve decided that this is a reason to embrace it rather than shy from it– let’s embrace the idea that not knowing something is an opportunity rather than a shortcoming. This has to be our attitude if we want people to be vulnerable enough to experiment, try new things, and both fail and succeed with us. Never cooked before? Awesome, you’re going to feel so accomplished when you successfully get your first dinner on the table. Never collected eggs before? You might hate it, but you’ll have a great story to tell if that rooster takes an interest in you. Never mowed the grass before? Let Travis show you. He loves it, and that just might be infectious. Never started a non-profit before…?! You get the picture. We’re all learning here. Let’s embrace our Tenderfoot status and amaze ourselves with just how much we can grow.