The W Stood for Woman

I recently submitted this piece into a contest but didn’t win, so you get to enjoy it instead. My brain is toast from lots of exciting new developments this week. I’m doing an abysmal job of two posts per week at the moment, but the ideas are here. I have a ton of recipes I need to post at the request of friends, and those will come (promise) but first, since it’s Valentine’s Day, here’s my favorite love story.

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“Obie! Shhh! He’s nice!” I called out to my four-legged canine companion while he barked at an approaching fellow hiker.

“I am nice!” the young man grinned back to me. Looking up at him, I thought to myself, he is nice. He walked up to my hammock with a map in his hand. “Do you know where the nearest water is?”

“There’s a lake maybe half a mile up the yellow trail, but that’s the nearest water I know of. I have some whisky if you want!” I offered. I’d finished the majority of my four-day loop, leaving myself only about a mile to go back to my car tomorrow morning. I was celebrating my hard work by hanging in my hammock, barefoot, while my socks dried.

“No thanks. My map said there was a spring around here somewhere.” I hopped out of the hammock to grab my map and check it against his. Mine didn’t show a spring nearby, so I pulled out a PDF map I had on my phone. While we scoured the maps, the conversation flowed. His name was Travis, he was out just for one overnight, and he was hoping to tackle the AT in sections. We talked about where we lived – me in New York, him in Philadelphia – and where we’d traveled. I admitted Obie, the dog, wasn’t mine, and I was dog-sitting for a friend, but I couldn’t have chosen a better hiking buddy for my solo trip. After about fifteen minutes of conversation, no closer to finding the spring, Travis headed back to his site, and I climbed back into my hammock to watch the sunset.

I had come out to the woods this weekend alone to test myself. It had been over a year since my previous solo trip and the long northeastern winter had made me restless. I’d rather be outdoors than have a roof and four walls encircling me, and there’s something so strengthening about carrying your home and food on your back for miles as our ancestors did.

I lit a small campfire of collected downed wood in the fire ring as dusk set in. While I helped my little flame grow, Travis came back around the rocks.

“Did you find the water?” I asked him.

“Nah, but it’s all good.”

“I still have some whisky.”

“No thanks.” We talked a little more about what brought us both out this weekend as I stoked the fire. I felt like I could talk to him forever. I finally got up the nerve to ask him for his number.

“Let me get your number – I’ll send you that link to the PDF map I have to help you plan your next trip. I don’t have service here though, so I’ll text you tomorrow.” He gave me his number and I had him check to make sure I typed it in right, and I put my phone back in my pocket. A little while later, he went back to his site for the last time. Obie the dog and I hung out as dark descended, watching the fire burn, listening to the sounds of the forest and the caterpillars falling from the trees. I wondered if we would see Travis in the morning on our way out, but I was in no rush to wake up early. We had a short hike and a long drive, and I didn’t want to leave the woods.

Obie and I were among the last to leave the William O’Brien shelter area the next morning. Day hikers were beginning to come through the area while we packed up and hiked out to the car, past the lake I’d told Travis about.

At the car I changed into sandals and texted Travis to tell him we’d made it out and hoped he enjoyed his weekend. Then it was a two-hour drive back to Long Island, a huge burrito for dinner, airing out my gear, and a hot shower.

The next day I went back to work – back to the office, a computer, four walls, and a roof. I sent Travis another text in case the first hadn’t gone through – my service in Harriman was so spotty, I couldn’t be sure. That evening I finally got a response, but not the one I was hoping for: “My name is Kathy, I don’t know who you’re looking for, but please stop texting me.” By this point I’d told a few friends about Travis, and they all told me he must have given me the wrong number on purpose, or he was married and that was his wife, or something. I didn’t believe it. I’ve met lots of people during my travels, and there was something different about Travis and our conversations on the Appalachian Trail, but I didn’t know what to do.

Two days later, I was sitting in a bar alone when one of my friends met up with me and asked me why I was sad. I told her about Travis and the wrong number and how I was at a loss as to how to find this guy. I hadn’t given him my number and I didn’t know his last name. All I knew was the general area where he grew up, where he lived now, he enjoyed hiking, he was in his mid-30s, and he had traveled extensively through Europe.

My friend asked to see my phone and the number as I’d typed it in. She took one look at the number, said, “I don’t like that 6 in the middle. Change that 6 to a 5.”

Skeptically, I did as she suggested, and sent another text. “Is this Travis?” Immediately, the little dots popped up on the screen that showed someone was typing back. I looked at my friend. No way.

“Who’s this?” came the message.

“Sarah from the woods?” I’d meant to type an exclamation point, but I was so excited I hit the question mark instead. I knew it was him.

“Where’s the map you were going to send me?” he replied.

“It’s him! It’s him!” I said to my friend. I couldn’t believe it.

Our conversation had started in the woods at a shelter on the Appalachian Trail in Harriman State Park. We lost each other for a few days, and found each other again with the help of my friend’s wacky idea about his phone number. That text conversation started around 7:30pm and we didn’t stop talking til past 10pm. Texting turned into phone calls, and, three weeks later, phone calls turned into visits. Travis drove what should have been just under three hours to visit me. Instead, with traffic, it took him nearly seven. He still walked in the door with a smile – the same smile that had crinkled the edges of his eyes and made his face light up in the woods.

Two weeks later, we headed back to the woods for our first backpacking trip together. Since then, we’ve continued to hike, backpack, and adventure as a team. Our first week-long vacation together included a thru-hike on the Presidential Traverse along the AT in the White Mountains – one of the most challenging hikes either of us have done. A year after we met, we went back to the O’Brien shelter and covered more miles on the AT in New York. We’ve also logged some miles on the AT/Long Trail in Vermont and are hoping to complete it as a thru-hike in 2017.

I moved in with Travis last year, and he proposed to me after we hiked (of course) down to a secluded black rock beach on the Big Island of Hawaii in November. We’re planning to elope on a hiking trail – just like how we met.

I’d taken that solo trip to challenge myself, to remind myself that I was capable of more than the daily grind, and to shake off the long, cold winter. I had no idea I would meet my adventure buddy, my soul mate, my sweetheart, while barefoot and sweaty, covered with dirt, with my socks hung on the hammock straps next to me. Perhaps I would have tried to clean up a bit, but I think there’s something to be said for how we met. We were doing what we both love: being outdoors, being self-sufficient, being active. There was no pretense about why were there. We had no need to impress anybody else – and thus, our solid friendship grew into a beautiful partnership.

And about his map, the little piece of paper that started this whole thing? We looked at it again. I noticed it didn’t specifically say there was “water” where I’d been sitting. It simply had a large blue W in the spot. I first joked it was for the whisky I’d offered him, but we both know now why his map had it and mine didn’t.

The W stood for Woman.

Wander Lost

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why we travel. I love the thrill of getting on a plane and heading off to some faraway place as much as anyone else, but seeing three VERY DIFFERENT friends post the EXACT SAME photo of the EXACT SAME SPOT in Iceland within the past six months has me wondering: what do we get out of traveling now? If you’ve already seen the photo on Instagram and you followed your friend’s Facebook Live tour while they were there, why do YOU  need to go see it too? Are we really traveling more than generations before us did? I think the media wants us to believe that, and I’m not necessarily saying I disagree, because travel is absolutely easier now than ever before, but it’s also very, VERY different. A century ago, authentic travel might have involved a rickety wooden train somewhere in Europe, or a khaki outfit in the African bush, or a very long boat ride to Australia. Your experiences would live within you, probably in your journal, and perhaps only if you were quite fortunate, in photographs. Your friends couldn’t easily click a button and have the same experience two weeks later, as long as their bank accounts approved.

So why do we do it? We say we’re seeking “authentic” experiences, but those are so few and far between now. Is it REALLY authentic if you’re taking the SAME photo as every other visitor? What was this area like before travelers decided it was a worthy destination? Can the environment support the amount of human traffic now passing through?

These are very real questions. There’s a village in Norway that’s become an Instagram destination that can’t handle how many tourists have recently swarmed in. National parks are full of people who drive in (or drive to the top of the mountain), take the same quick snap of the same spot everyone else does, and hop back in the car – or worse, people who’ve never hiked want to get a picture so badly, they head into the wilderness wildly underprepared. I can’t tell you how many people we encountered last weekend who were lost in Harriman State Park, hiking without food, water, shelter, compass, nor any directional sense whatsoever. We aimed them in the right directions, but the sun was setting fast and they had miles to go. Even extremely remote areas like the Colombian Amazon are becoming top destinations.

And yet, as this happens, we know less and less about the world immediately surrounding us. I’ve lived in my condo for nearly a year and just last month, finally saw the inside of my downstair’s neighbor’s place, when he sheepishly asked if I had jumper cables. I don’t event know his last name. In another country I might be able to ignore a fussy baby at a restaurant because I’m preoccupied with an unfamiliar view outside the window, but at home, I would likely be very frustrated a child was interrupting my nice meal. I can meet people once or twice, befriend them on Facebook, and then not even say hello next time we’re in a group setting together.

What is going on? We go on these epic adventures that, if we’re speaking plainly, really aren’t that epic compared to the travels of generations past. We’re going farther faster, but I’m pretty sure American pioneers are 100% more badass than ANY of us catching a plane in yoga pants these days. And then we come home, and go back to work, and complain about our daily life, and how we wish we could travel all the time, and we’re back in our ruts. We’re more hypermobile than ever before, and that’s not a good thing. Our health is suffering as we sit in front of screens and earn our vacations by straining our eyes and flattening our backsides. We get “inspired” to visit certain destinations because someone else went there first. How about we just spin the globe and go where our fingers land? No, that would be too difficult/too time-consuming/not interesting (or Insta-worthy) enough. So what are we getting from traveling?

Lots more on this topic to come.

Why do you travel?

Fear of the Unknown

During our initial night hike into Harriman State Park, Obie and I were walking an unfamiliar trail lit only by my headlamp on a mostly moonless night. I’ve done night hikes before, but not usually with those conditions.  As stated in earlier posts, we came across some unusual sights – lightning bugs, pale bats, reflective eyes staring back at us in the darkness.

I’m currently sitting in the airport awaiting a plane to Las Vegas – my first time out there. I’m not much of a gambler nor a club-goer, and I’d rather do as my new friend Baby Bird did, and go rock-climbing in the Nevada desert, but it’s a business trip that will be capped off with a bachelorette party. These are all new experiences for me, and pushing me outside my comfort zone, which brings us to fear of the unknown.

That Friday night in the woods my headlamp found two eyes staring back at me, maybe 30 yards away and to my left. They didn’t move, didn’t blink, didn’t flinch. I whistled and no change. Obie didn’t bark. I couldn’t tell whether he couldn’t see them or just didn’t care.

I weighed my options. I could stop walking and pitch the tent a few feet from the trail, hoping I’d find a flat spot. That was technically illegal and also would be difficult to find in the dark, but it was an option. It also meant whatever was staring at us would know exactly where we were and be able to find us easily. If it was indeed something dangerous, setting up camp in its line of sight wasn’t the smartest idea.

I could turn around and go back to the Jeep and spend the night in the vehicle with Obie. My seats lay flat and we had enough gear in terms of sleeping bag and pad to be comfortable, but I knew I’d feel like I was missing out if I turned around. I’d planned 3 nights in the woods. I wanted 3 nights in the woods, not in my car.

I could keep moving forward – on a trail that would lead either toward or away from the glowing eyes – and face my fear head-on. It wasn’t so much fear of what was looking at us, but what it wanted to do with us. The unknown.

We walked forward, approaching the eyes with caution. I kept glancing around us to make sure no other eyes were closing in and to keep an eye on where the trail was headed. The closer we got, the tighter went my grip on Obie’s leash with one hand and my knife with the other. I tried to keep my breathing steady in case Obie realized we weren’t alone and got nervous too.

As we ascended a small hill and slowly came toward level with the eyes, the creature owning them came into view.

The doe snorted in our direction, eyes fixated on my lamp, and – finally – put her head back down to graze.

I had been hesitant with fear due to a grazing doe – a sight which, during the day, wouldn’t faze me in the slightest. But in the dark, not knowing what I was looking at, she seemed much more intimidating.

In life, as in the woods in the dark, fear of the unknown can be paralyzing. Fear of the unknown is also nearly always more scary than whatever it is you may actually be facing. Sure, it could have been a bear or a mountain lion, or any other number of potentially harm-inducing animals. But if I’d turned around and let fear take over, I wouldn’t have accomplished anything. I would have left being nervous about returning. Instead, by facing the fear, I found I had nothing to worry about. Remember that quote about “the only thing to fear is fear itself”? My fleeting fear could have robbed me of a night in the woods at a most peaceful site atop a ridge with a beautiful view of the moonrise.

It’s those moments that remind me why I travel often, and often alone – why I want to try new things and push myself beyond my comfort zone. As my friend Sean often says, “When is the last time you did something for the first time?” Fear of the unknown can prevent those first-time experiences that require you to rely on yourself, make a choice, live with the consequences, and come out the better for it.

Today, let’s all try to remember to put on our Nikes, and just do it.

Night Hike

This post comes from hand-scribbled notes I took during the Harriman Memorial Day trip. More stream-of-consciousness than eloquent prose, but it gives an idea of the simplicity of thought when alone in the woods.

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We walked past a bat the color of the inside of tree bark. I’d never seen one so pale.

We walked through countless spiderwebs. I had one in my mouth for steps and steps.

We walked past creeping ground-dwelling flashing bugs whose flashes would intensify as we approached, only to be rejected by my unfeeling headlamp upon our arrival.

We saw a dog and a human high above us on a ridge. Or, I saw. The two eyes of the dog stared back at us first. It didn’t bark. Didn’t move. The faint headlamp glowed behind it and off to the right. Maybe it wasn’t a dog.

Maybe the human didn’t know he wasn’t alone.

We walked up to a deer that frightened me for a solid five minutes. Five minutes isn’t a long time unless you’re alone in the woods without a gun thinking you’re facing off with a mountain lion. It didn’t move when I whistled nor when I talked to my dog. So I got myself together and kept approaching.

She raised her head softly to gawk at us when we got about ten feet away, but didn’t run.

We found the shelter – a place neither of us had ever been – in the dark. A group of young men were there already and we walked past, Obie first up the ledge, then me, knees first with the weight of the pack on my back.

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We found a good place to put our tent and set up camp in the darkness. It was cold but I didn’t want to cook. My dog tried to eat my sandwich and I remembered I put raisins in all of the peanut butter sandwiches. Why did I put raisins in all the sandwiches? I pulled a crust off and shared it with him, but he had his own food. After I shared my peanut butter sandwich with Obie I sat in the hammock to watch the moon set, whisky in hand.

It was a cold and windy night on the ridge but we made it just fine.

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In the morning I was reminded of the importance of why I always test my gear prior to a trip: I burned my oatmeal because titanium heats faster than aluminum. Obie seemed very interested in my oatmeal but I didn’t want to feed him burnt oatmeal. There was no protein in it.

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Then I remembered living in Colombia and the dogs there ate oatmeal because the people ate oatmeal, and the dogs ate what we ate. Oatmeal, pasta, popcorn, whatever. Not much protein, but they were happy to have food.

Now Obie is eating a rock. He has been eating it for hours.  I am eating rice and beans because I needed something more substantial. This campsite is crowded and I’ve had to keep him tethered since this morning. I hope tomorrow’s shelter is more private so he can run around and chase rocks.

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We made a friend. Maybe he’ll join us for whisky and a fire later.

Harriman State Park, Memorial Day 2015

**UPDATE** I FOUND TRAVIS!! I was hanging out, being bummed, when my friend surprised me at the bar I was at. She looked at the phone number, said, “I don’t like that 6. Put a 5 there. It’s my lucky number.” I’d already tried a few other numbers to no avail, but I figured what else did I have to lose?

“Is this Travis?”

“Who is this?”

“Sarah from the woods?”

“Where’s the trail map link you were going to send me?” IT WAS HIM!!

Now on to the posts about the actual hike!***

This past weekend I took myself on the longest solo hiking trip I’ve ever done. I’ve done longer solo backpacking trips, and longer trips hiking and camping with others, but this was the longest both day- and mileage-wise I’ve undertaken alone.

Well, that’s not entirely true. My friend Tim let me borrow his amazing Chesapeake Bay Retriever for the duration of the trip.

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He. Let. Me. Take. His. Dog. Into. The. Woods. Alone. For. Four. Days.

Tim is currently my favorite person in the world, although as he tells it, he “didn’t even do anything.” He “let me” take his most prized companion into the wild by myself. Well, Tim had to be out of town and needed someone to babysit Obie. Obie has come over to play a few times and I adore him – he’s the same size as my beloved Zelda who passed away a few years ago, and just as – if not more so – well-behaved. I told him I’d be delighted, but that I had a four-day trip planned.

“Obie loves camping.” Done. I picked him up, complete with backpack and food, and off we went.

I’ll post a LOT more about our actual hike in following posts, but this post isn’t about our hike. This post is about the fact I am trying to #FindTravis – a fellow awesome hiker who stumbled upon Obie and me chilling in the hammock at O’Brien shelter on our final night out, Memorial Day weekend.

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I was barefoot, letting my socks dry, when Travis came around the side of some rocks, startling Obie. He barked but I told Travis he was friendly, and Obie mellowed out. We started talking and I hopped out of the hammock to compare maps and trails with him.

We talked about different countries where we’d stayed out late drinking, the coolest places we’d camped, and how neither of us were ever home. Harriman was about an hour and a half away for both of us and the perfect escape from our grown-up, indoor-centric, daily lives. He lives in the Philly area and was camping with a friend (I never saw the friend).

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Obie and I made our dinner after Travis went back to his friend. I built a fire and he came back a little later but declined the sip of whisky I passed over. I got his number to text him the website where I’d gotten the good intel on places to park and plan hikes from so he could use it too. We had no service and I told him I’d send him the text later on. I admitted to him – the only person on the hike  I told – that Obie wasn’t actually my dog because I’m not home often enough to have one these days.

Many miles and a day later, I discovered I’d input his number wrong when a woman named Kathy told me she had no idea who I was looking for but it wasn’t her. And that’s why this post is here, and where you come in: I’m trying to #FindTravis so we can go hiking together in Harriman. I don’t know which number I typed wrong, and I don’t have a whole lot of information to give. So, help me #FindTravis – he lives in the Philly area, he was hiking/camping with a friend in Harriman State Park over Memorial Day 2015, he’s in his 30s, has been known to home-brew some beer, works in marketing, and has traveled to Utah and Belgium.

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Help me #FindTravis so we can plan an awesome return hike this season!