Saturday, July 27, 2013

A First

A hiking group I belong to planned to hike Mt Evans. I nervously agreed to give it a try. Nervous is perhaps an understatement. I was anxious and maybe even a little scared. What if I am not able to do it? What if I have to turn around half way and go back to the car? What if I get altitude sickness? This is not that far out of the question... I once was in a bike race at high elevation and couldn't finish because I was getting dizzy.  But mostly, what if I just can't do this? I know I said that already, but it was a pretty big worry.

We left from Arvada early in the morning. I had tried to go to sleep early the night before, but I was too nervous. I was very glad for coffee to start my day. Our plan was to hike up Guanella Pass, which would be a round trip 8.5 mile hike and a 3,100 foot gain on the ascent. (I feel like a real adventurer saying something like "on the ascent" - I could be hiking Mt Everest...okay not really).
View from the parking lot

The beginning of the hike felt a bit like England and a bit like hiking through a jungle, at least what I think hiking through a jungle would be like. I say this because we were pushing our way through willows (which seemed jungle-y to me) and through mud (which was very like my Pennine Way journey). In fact, I was ankle deep in mud pretty quickly. Fortunately, my boots are used to mud. They don't even flinch, and neither do I. Some of my hiking companions were trying very hard to avoid the mud. I tried initially, but once I sank the first time, I just decided it was best to just walk right through it.
The source of the mud?

The group

The end of the willows brought a short walk through a lovely meadow filled with flowers - columbines, Indian paintbrush, elephant flowers...

So far, this hike was going pretty well. I was definitely slower than everyone else, but there's nothing new about that. All too soon, however, we started to climb up a gully. The trail was covered in scree. With my inherent clumsiness, this meant that I had to go even more slowly in order to keep my footing.  Or maybe I was going more slowly because now we were seriously starting to climb.
Looking back from the start of the gully
We were at over 11,000 feet now and the altitude was starting to affect me. My legs felt heavy and sluggish. Every few feet I wanted to stop and rest.  I tried to remind myself that slow and steady wins the race, but it was hard when I fell further and further behind the group with every step. A fellow hiker, Jenny, was kind enough to come back for me. She patiently encouraged me to keep going and waited when I felt that I had to stop to breathe.

At the top of the gully, we headed across an open space, liberally populated with rocks. It seemed less steep, and so I thought maybe Jenny and I could at least keep pace with the group now. However, the altitude made every step a challenge for me. I was getting frustrated. I had been running 5 days a week leading up to this hike. Why wasn't that training helping me? The top of the mountain wasn't even in sight yet, according to Jenny. I wanted to quit. I wanted to turn around. Fortunately, my desire to succeed, to finish overrode my increasingly tired muscles.  I started to repeat my little hiking mantra in my head: "one foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other..."

I encouraged myself, I cajoled, I made promises. Slowly I made it to the western ridge of Mt Evans. Now I had to climb through rocks on the side of a mountain. I was nervous; after all if my clumsiness got too bad, I could go tumbling down the rocks. At one point I did stumble and smash my shin on a rock. My heart was pounding. "Too close!" I thought.  I determined that even if it took me a lot longer, I needed to be sure of my footing. Fortunately, the remainder of the scrambling was uneventful.

Finally, finally, I made it to the summit! It was filled with people, most of whom had driven up the mountain. It was almost overwhelming to have so many people suddenly surrounding me.  Mostly, however, I felt such a huge sense of accomplishment. I did it! I made it! It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't quick. But, I succeeded.

The typical shot with sign...

The four 1st timers in our group

I don't remember feeling quite this sense of accomplishment with any of my academic achievements. I guess it has to do with my love of challenge. When I feel that there is a chance that I will not be able to do something, and then I triumph, it is exhilarating. It makes me feel alive.

The hike back down was definitely easier although the gully was a challenge again. Rocks were sliding out from under my feet, and again I needed to move slowly to keep from falling. Fortunately, I had company. Tessa and I took our time as we gingerly walked on top of the scree in the gully.
Tessa and Katina

When we reached the willows, it was almost a relief to sink ankle deep into mud. At least my feet weren't sliding!!!
Back through the willows
In the end it had taken us almost as long to get back down to the car as it had taken to climb. I was so proud of myself. All of the struggle and doubt was worth it! I am now hoping I can climb another 14er soon.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Pictures from a couple of hikes this summer

I did a few nice hikes this spring/summer. Rather than write about each one separately, I thought I'd just post some of the pictures.

In May, my brother John and I went for a short hike at Elk Meadow Park in Evergreen.

Life from apparent death is always powerful

In July I hiked with a group from my church on the Flatirons in Boulder.  It was a fun day, even though we got caught in showers on the way back down.

Lunch break on the way up!

Our hike leaders - Lannea and Nathan

Right before the rain
 Exploring Colorado has been a fun way to spend the summer!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Postscript to the AT

Chuck and I spent a day in Hiawassee before my friend, Jill, picked me up for my flight back to Colorado. It was a little frustrating to know that I had finished my hike only 9 miles short of the Georgia-North Carolina border, but such is the way of things when you have only a finite amount of time to hike.

It was a bright and sunny day. We checked out the stores advertising hiker supplies, wandered through the grocery store restocking Chuck's food, and just generally moseyed through town. Spring had definitely arrived, and I enjoyed seeing the flowering trees and hearing the busy birds.

We drank  coffee and played a little Scrabble in the local grocery store (I won't mention who won...).

We spent the last hour or so back at our hotel in the lobby where we ran into our friend, Chris. Chuck and I had joked that his walk made him look a little like a penguin, and so Chuck gave him the trail name of "Emperor."  I had not gotten a trail name in my short time on the trail. Emperor and Chuck had both independently suggested "Trooper" because, I assume, I was just such a good trooper despite the challenge and my lack of experience. I thought perhaps "Turtle" was more appropriate, but as I was leaving the trail, we didn't really settle on anything.

Around 7, Jill arrived to pick me up. We drove Chuck back up to Dicks Creek Gap and watched him hike off into the woods, a long journey ahead of him. I hoped his journey would continue to be filled with beauty and community, and I wished that I could continue with him.

My hike on the Appalachian Trail was filled with so many things: challenge, beauty, snow, sun, frustration, elation... Ultimately, I hope to continue hiking. It's good for my soul.
At journey's end

Monday, April 1, 2013

Day Eight: Just before the Cheese Factory Site to Hiawassee

Chuck was up early and that meant that I was up early. Those who know me will have a sense of my mood. It was not helped by the fact that today was likely to be my last day on the trail. I found myself wishing I could just continue with Chuck, just keep walking, stay out here. My practical side tried to dismiss the idea, but it proved harder to banish than I would have thought. So, as we set out, I tried to figure out whether I actually could.

I have spent most of my life trying to obtain and achieve the things in life that society expects me to want - house, family, job... I can honestly say that before I started these walks, the idea of living a life without the stability of a job and a place to live never entered my mind (even as a crazy idea). Never once. However, some of the things I've enjoyed the most in my life have been things that "never occurred" to me before I did them - living overseas, for instance. So, could this be another of those things? The answer was not apparent, and I ruminated all day.

Our morning started with a climb up Tray Mountain. We passed all the other hikers (at least 20) who had been caught in the rain at the Cheese Factory the night before.  Don't misunderstand, I was not suddenly able to walk twice as fast as the day before. We were just starting earlier than most. Everyone we passed was just getting up and ready.

The sun came out quickly, and it was clearly going to be a beautiful day! After 3 miles, we stopped for a break at Steeltrap Gap. We basked in the sun, ate a bit, and just enjoyed the day.

I know...a bunch of dead leaves. I liked the sunlight on them.
Our break was all too short. Soon we were climbing up the silly-sounding Young Lick Knob. In England, the name would sound perverted. But, I assume that the "lick" part had to do with a mineral deposit and the "knob" meant "a prominent, rounded bump along a mountain ridge" (thank you Wiktionary!). Still it was a ridiculous name. Fortunately, the climb was short and I was soon on to contemplating other things.
And yes. It's actually a picture of me
My last big climb of the hike was up Kelly Knob, an almost 900-foot climb over a one mile stretch - 17% grade! I was happy that despite the steepness, it didn't seem as difficult as the climbs at the beginning of this journey. I was improving!

We descended from Kelly Knob down to Deep Gap Shelter where we debated stopping for one last night outside. At the shelter we took the time to pull all of our gear out of our packs to allow it to dry. There were a few people already at the shelter, but it was already starting to seem a bit crowded. We decided that we would just take an extended break and continue on the 3 1/2 miles to Dicks Creek Gap, where we could get to Hiawassee.

It proved to be a good decision. A troop of Boy Scouts descended on the shelter shortly after we made our decision. They quickly took over more than a third of the area. We watched them putting up tents or hammocks, arguing or playing with each other. I smiled a little sadly to myself when it became obvious which boy was the son of the troop leader. He wasn't really liked by the other boys and didn't want to sleep outside. I hoped he would learn to make friends with others someday.  Life is lonely without friends.

We headed off towards Dicks Creek Gap. The walk down took us back into green, leafy, jungle-looking areas, with pretty little streams.
Soon we reached our destination. We were in luck. A trail angel named Oscar, who had just gotten off the trail from a section hike, was waiting with fruit and candy for hikers. He offered us a ride into Hiawassee and we gladly accepted. As we piled into his truck, I wished the AT a fond farewell. It was a hard, but enjoyable walk. 

We interrupt this blog ....

For those who have been patiently reading through my adventures as I've published them, I apologize for the long delay between posts. For those coming to this blog after the fact, hopefully you can just treat this as a weird intermission.
I have struggled to write about the last couple of days of our hike. I had a similar experience when writing about our hike on the Pennine Way.  In part, finishing the blog entries about the trip is like the end of the hike itself. There's a bit of a let down - having to return to the "real world."  I think the world when I'm hiking is more real than the world I return to when I finish. I would be happy to just wander the world on foot.
But, this time's post-perambulation let down has been much, much harder. My depression has been severe. Returning to normal life has been hard. Work is stressful. Life at home seems devoid of color in comparison. I miss my friend. 
Why has it been so hard? I don't quite know. I've been walking with depression for a long time (at least since being a teenager). It comes and goes - valleys and peaks. A lot of times I feel normal, and sometimes it just lurks below the surface. This time, though, is/was one of the worst - a pit of despair.
My tendency is to try to keep this hidden. People don't like being around depression. And who could blame them? I don't like being around it. I only wish I could walk away from it. I've tried all kinds of things over the years - counseling, pretending it doesn't exist, more counseling, medication, counseling again, sleeping a LOT, talking to a few select friends... It's a genetic thing for me unfortunately - a chemical imbalance in my brain. Or perhaps that's what makes it easier for me to live with it.
If you have never experienced a true depression, I envy you. The best description I've ever read of what depression is like was sent to me very recently by a dear friend. My own severity has lessened, but I'm not "normal" yet. The edge is duller though, otherwise I wouldn't even be able to write this. So, hopefully soon I will be able to get back to my writing here. Thanks for your patience! (actual publication date June 9, 2013)

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Day Seven: Red Clay Gap to just before the Cheese Factory site

It was a windy night. I was exhausted and drifting off to sleep while Chuck played music on his little mini-tablet, when all of a sudden we heard a noise. Or, actually, I really didn't hear it; I was half asleep. Chuck heard it, and he thought maybe it was a bear. So, he let out a large bark hoping that the bear would be frightened away. I essentially jumped out of my sleeping bag. It turned out to be branches moving in the wind. Chuck felt a little silly I think, but he did have a great dog impression.

We woke to mist and fog. We packed up our gear and prepared for another walk. I realized that it was Easter Sunday. I hoped we'd reach a spot where I could get reception on my phone so I could call my family.  As we set off for the day, we couldn't see particularly far in front of us (maybe 15 feet). The path was covered in small jagged stone slabs.  The fog made our journey a bit eerie but also quite beautiful. We were in good spirits, strolling contentedly.

When we walk together, Chuck usually has me go first. He doesn't really tell me why, but I doubt it's gentlemanly manners. I think it's because I'm slow, and he can ensure he doesn't push me too hard if I set the pace. Funny though, sometimes I think I work more when I have to lead. I don't want to disappoint or bore or frustrate the person I'm walking with. If I'm in the back and I fall behind... oh well, I expect that. In the front, there are "expectations." Most of the time, I know those expectations are something I make up in my head. Fortunately, I felt fairly confident today, and I was not really worried about whether I was moving quickly enough.

There's something about mist and fog that I just love. It makes me feel a little as though I'm walking through an enchanted forest. Or maybe it reminds me of England. The fog is not as dense as some of the days we spent on the Pennine Way last year. Although I miss England, it's nice that our path wasn't completely covered in mud.

We made our way down Blue Mountain to Unicoi Gap, where we met a trail angel named Crystal. Crystal was handing out bananas, Reese's Peanut Butter Eggs and granola. She'd driven two hours to come and meet hikers and spread some kindness on Easter. Chuck and I got the last of the Reese's (lucky us!), and we hung out with Crystal and the others for a bit. The fog finally lifted as we sat.
We decided we should probably start moving again. So, we hoisted our packs and started to climb Rocky Mountain.  As I walked, I mused about how funny it was to find a "Rocky Mountain" outside of "the" Rocky Mountains.  The climb was relatively steep, 13% grade, but there were lots of things to see along the way - twisty tree-like vines, far off mountains, and our first flowers!

I was excited to see the little tiny flowers starting to come out.  I realized that I was getting an opportunity to really watch the season change from winter to spring - to see the small changes that happen from day to day or from hour to hour.  I normally am so busy working, living, running around that I don't always notice when things start to sprout and bloom.  I think it's good for me to have this time with nothing to consider but the world around me.

We reached Indian Grave Gap and saw a couple of groups of college-aged hikers had stopped to smoke some pot.  Chuck and I decided we'd keep moving... So much for looking around for the Indian graves! We started up Tray Mountain.  
I love this picture!
But... not as much as I love this one!
Our guidebook said we were approaching an old cheese factory site. It seemed an odd place for a factory. Maybe that's why it was an abandoned site.  We would never actually see it.  At this point in the day, Mother Nature decided She had been kind long enough. We'd heard all day about storms, and I can't really explain why we didn't move any faster earlier in the day. We were headed down the side trail towards the factory site and a water source when it started to pour! 

In England, we sometimes walked all day in the rain. You just had to deal with it there. But, Chuck was not very excited about spending time in this rain. We both got stressed out. We back tracked to a flat spot and started trying to set up the tent, in the rain.  It was just a bad decision all around. We were soaked, and now the tent was soaked too. Tempers flared. It wasn't pretty.

Eventually the rain stopped (and it was still light out). We moved the tent around and attempted to dry as much as we could. It was an early end to the day, and we were both frustrated with our earlier relaxed attitude. But, alas, we lacked the ability to go back in time. So, we lit a small fire and made some dinner. Slowly the stress level abated. 

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Day Six: Just Past Wolf Laurel Top to Red Clay Gap

We were the first ones up again. We wanted to get an early start as there were more warnings of rain or thunderstorms coming. It was overcast and a little cold. Our first climb was called Cowrock Mountain. I wondered briefly why they had named the mountain so strangely - I saw no rocks that looked like cows or like cows would have anything to do with them.

No cows in sight on Cowrock
After the seemingly misnamed Cowrock Mountain, I could only hope that the next peak (Wildcat Mountain) would also fail to live up to its name. The climb was brutal, an 18% grade. As usual, I quickly fell behind Chuck and was getting passed by everyone we'd camped with the night before. But, I was determined not to let this bother me today. "I think I can, I think I can..."

When I reached the top, Chuck was patiently waiting for me. He was talking with a young man who'd passed me not long before. Wombat had finished high school in January (he was home-schooled) and now he was following a dream to hike the Appalachian Trail before starting college in the fall. He had so much energy and was going fast (he'd started only a couple of days before). He seemed like a nice kid, one his parents should be very proud of.

Amazing views!
We seemed to be making good time today, despite the hard climb, and so we decided to take a little mini-siesta once we passed Hogpen Gap. We found a nice spot and quickly took the weight off our backs (and feet). Chuck decided lunch would be cream cheese and pink salmon. Not my idea of "yum" but he seemed to enjoy it.
I had a less interesting lunch of bars and a little Babybel cheese. Mostly I just wanted to enjoy the feel of the sun (which had finally decided to make an appearance) on my face as I lay on my back in a pile of leaves. It was glorious!

All along our walk, we've seen interestingly shaped trees and vines - funny lumps and bumps,strange twisty vines reaching up to very high branches. This section of the trail seemed to have a lot of unique sights. How do they grow that way? Is it some kind of disease or just a weird mutation?
The bumpiest tree I've seen so far

The trail seemed to be easing up on us, and we meandered our way down to the Low Gap Shelter around 3:30 in the afternoon. There were already quite a few people in the shelter and more camping in the area. We weren't really ready to call it a day, but we thought a break could be a good idea. So we decided we'd stock up on water and have an early dinner before we put in another couple of hours. We found a spot near the source of a stream that ran down to the shelter and spread out for an extended break.
On our way down to the shelter we had encountered a man in his early 60s who was really struggling and clearly suffering. He had been wanting to do the hike for a long time, but he'd also had a couple of bypass surgeries in the past couple of years. He just didn't seem to be up to the challenges the trail was throwing him. It had taken away his appetite, and he looked exhausted. While we were taking our break, he decided he was done and made arrangements to be picked up in the next town in a couple of days. He was so defeated. Chuck had tried to encourage him to take a day off to see how he felt, but you could tell the man was just done. I felt sad for him and grateful that I wasn't being forced off the trail by my own body. The more time I spend on this trail, the more I don't want to leave it in a few days.

As we finished our break, the hordes started to descend on Low Gap Shelter. Every few minutes more and more hikers were arriving. There were already at least 30 people and more were reportedly on the way. Chuck and I decided it was probably time for us to escape!

Once again, the trail was literally peppered with springs and little waterfalls. Chuck and I both love nature's "water features" and these were all worthy of adoration. When we reached a waterfall with a little pool at the base, we decided it was time to be nice to our feet for a change. We sat by the pool and soaked our feet. The water was very, very chilly, but it felt wonderful. We kept our feet submerged as long as we could stand.

It would have been great to camp right there, but there was no spot. So, on we went. The trail was lovely - we were surrounded by trees with leaves. I couldn't ask for more (except maybe someone to massage my feet).

We finally settled for the night at Red Clay Gap. We'd walked 12.9 miles, our biggest day so far. Although most of the day had been warm and sunny, we knew rain was coming. We found a spot we hoped would keep us sheltered from the brunt of the storm and settled in for the night.