Pennsylvania Rocks!

I promised myself when I began the Trail and this blog that I wouldn't sugar coat my experience--I'd paint an accurate picture of life out here. It isn't easy to share the hard parts, though. (Now, having had an hour's rest, I can also say what a beautiful challenge for a writer: conveying trials without aggrandizing them or whining).

As you've probably guessed from the above, I've had a rough go since returning to the Trail. My time off, both in DC and in Charlottesville, was fantastic. I was able to connect on a deep level with friends in the city, but also able to let loose and relax; I enjoyed the celebration of my little sister's graduation, yet also shared quiet moments with each family member. I was lucky to have that time, but I also started to get used to the comforts of the world. I needed to relearn my hiking routine, filled with blowing up my mattress each evening and no longer requiring a hot shower to greet the day. I can't finish my own meal, look around at the others' dishes and hope I'll get their leftovers. Really, none of that had changed, but I needed to embrace that lifestyle again.

Last time I came back from a trail vacation, I was joined by my cousin and had company to look forward to. As I left my parents on the side of a road in PA, it was a struggle not to look back--I hiked quickly simply to put distance between myself and that goodbye. I knew that these next few days would be lonely until I found a fellow hiker to join me.

Still, none of that would be so bad if it wasn't for the worst part: the Pennsylvania Rocks. Everyone warns you that PA is rocky and difficult, but I didn't expect it to take such a toll on me. It is truly amazing how nature has pushed every single rock to have a point facing the sky. Carefully treading through the maze of spikes hasn't necessarily slowed me down (I've still been able to accomplish some large days) but it has worn me out. Instead of having my natural gait and pace, I have to dance across the tops of boulders. I'm unable to zone out or reflect because the technical difficulty of the trail requires my full attention--so I feel each mile go by throughout the day. Each wrong steps brings pain either with a stubbed toe or sore sole. The rocks have done a number not just on my feet, but have destroyed the treading on my boots and even snapped one of my hiking poles! Even the views are rocky (see picture above). Of course, PA doesn't just offer stone hopping, daily rains, snakes, and ticks have all done their part to welcome me back to the AT.

Yesterday, about midday when I was feeling particularly low, I ran into two hikers I knew from earlier on, Digger and Phat Sister. We had a nice reunion and decided to hike together for the day, before they were getting off trail for a Zero. Their company lifted my spirits, until I found myself unable to keep up. Unphased by the boulder hopping, they were somehow speeding up in the rock patches instead of carefully placing their feet. They called it "controlled falling" and used their momentum to fly by. Before this, I had never really struggled to keep up with someone before, so falling behind was a mental blow on top of my physical weariness. They did admit to hiking more quickly to try to impress me, so it seems we all have some insecurities about our relative speeds.

Eventually, I realized that the very thing that allowed me to be so successful on other parts of the trail was holding me back here; my reliance on hiking poles limited me from trusting my own footwork. The AT clearly packed a few lessons into these moments: remembering that this journey is neither a race nor competition and I shouldn't find value in my comparison to others, as well as recognizing that becoming too reliant on any one thing will limit my flexibility in new situations. There's a philosophical idea that if man has a "why," we can endure pain more easily. I found that to be true; these lessons sustained me for a bit...until I stubbed my toe again and frustration took the reins.

It's not all bad, I enjoyed reconnecting with old friends and today there was almost no rain. I can't say that I've enjoyed PA, but I certainly will remember it for the challenge. And I did manage to score some awesome Trail Magic in my last town, so the people are at least fantastic. In two days, I'll be in New Jersey and one state closer to Katahdin!

Trail Vacation #2


After hiking some huge days (150 miles in 5 days!), I'm ready for another Trail Vacation. This time, I'll be heading back to Charlottesville by way of D.C. to celebrate my little sister's college graduation! But for now, a few housekeeping items.

Email Updates: I've posted this before, but I want to make sure it's easy for people to follow my blog. If you're interested in getting an email update the morning after I update, simply fill out the information below:

Mail Drops: I've planned out a few, but more will come after my break. The first one I'll literally pass through but won't be staying long so feel free to write me as I love hearing from you, but please don't send me a large package as I won't have time to sort/eat through it.

Arrive by 5/24: Port Clinton, PA 19549 (Letters/Small packages only here, please)

Arrive by 5/27: Delaware Water Gap, PA 18327

Quotes: Thank you to those of you who have emailed me quotes so far, but I am still on the hunt for more! If you come across any quotes about struggles, journeys, self-understanding, or nature, please send them my way! 

Next Steps: Since I've passed the halfway point (and almost hit 1,200 miles!) I wanted to remind you that one of the main reasons I am out here is to raise money for Next Steps. If you've enjoyed sharing in my journey, please consider donating to support this awesome cause.

As always, thank you for your support and for following my journey! I'll be back on trail on Sunday 5/21!


Mid-point Musings

Back in Tennessee, a man named "Time Out" told me that he made it to Harper's Ferry years ago and then quit. He said that the halfway point comes with joy, but also a mental battle of remembering why you're hiking. Having scarcely hit 300 miles, I couldn't fathom how someone would hike more than 1000 miles and then just quit. No physical injury, no life event that calls you from the trail--just deciding that you're done.

Now, having crossed over into Pennsylvania, I think I understand his decision a bit more. Don't worry, the idea of quitting early is still far from my mind. And yet, as I left Virginia, I realized that I had gotten what I expected from the Trail so far.

I have toiled in nature: facing snow, wind, rain, and even a burn zone. I've walked with Spring, watching trees and flowers emerge from Winter's slumber and slowly bud. Along my path, I have met bears and a bobcat, slept among mice and spiders, and marveled at the stoic patience of a heron.

I have found my strength. What once required physical rest every few steps now passes by unnoticed. I relish the moments when my glasses fog over, for I know I am being truly challenged. My days of eight miles have grown to twelve, then twenty, and now often thirty. For the first time, I feel physically at my peak.

I have deepened relationships, both old and new. In hiking with my father, my friends, and now my cousin, I have learned more about their lives. When you lose your breath, either from exertion or natural wonder, you share more freely. I have grown comfortable with strangers--sleeping beside people I've met mere minutes before, accepting rides into town, and offering what little food I have to share. I am no longer afraid of who might hurt me and finally open to changing with those I meet.

With that in mind, I could easily walk away from this journey and still call it a success. Despite not reaching Katahdin, I've managed to experience what I had hoped for and then some.

So why keep hiking? Wouldn't it be easier to spend these next few months with family and friends, able to sleep in a bed, shower when I want, and have a flushing toilet?

It would be, that's obvious. But, despite not being at rest, hiking has helped me be at peace. As I've journeyed, I've walked through memories, both joyful and painful. I've reflected on fears and hopes and gained a more grounded understanding of myself. I've also gotten the unexpected from the Trail.

I understand my body more deeply. I spend each morning with a ritual of massaging my feet, preparing them for the day ahead and taking note of pain points. I get to experience how my hungry body takes in food and immediately sets about transforming it into nourishment and energy. I know the limits of my resilience and have come to appreciate my ability to recover.

I am also more comfortable living among nature, not just in it. I woke up one morning to three spiders curled up in my sleeping bag near my head for warmth. Usually I would have been terrified, but instead I simply brushed them away and set about packing up my things. I no longer mind the scurrying footsteps of mice at night nor the cracking of branches signaling a large animal nearby. I don't mind the dirt or smell and wear them as a badge of honor.

I've learned to appreciate accomplishments for myself. I've climbed to the top of fire towers alone, crippled by my fear of heights, but exhilarated all the same. I wasn't pressured out of my comfort zone, I pushed myself there of my own accord. I've taken in sunrises and vistas, no camera or phone, just allowing the moment to sink in.

Each of these moments hold unexpected lessons. And with each memory, what I learn gets carved just a little deeper into my being. Because I know that it's true that some lessons we need to learn more than once. So, I keep hiking, despite knowing that I've gained what I expected, hoping that there's more to come. I can't imagine that the Trail is finished with me yet, so I intend to finish it as well.

Rain in the Shannondoahs

For the past week, I've been lucky enough to hike with my cousin Shannon through the Shenandoahs (or should we call them the Shannondoahs?). The national park is filled with beautiful vistas along Skyline Drive so it's pretty accessible for tourists and day hikers to enjoy, offering Shan (trail name: Trix) the chance to see both aspects of the community along the Trail. The best part about Shenandoah though, is that there are restaurants spread throughout the park along the AT offering hungry hikers a chance to fill up on food and warm up before heading back out.

It was at one of these restaurants (they're all called Wayside) that a woman approached the two of us politely asking, "Are those your backpacks outside?" The question was pretty redundant--I'm scarfing down both the pancake breakfast and the egg special, we're covered in mud, soaked through from the rain, and we were the only other people in the store. Still, she wanted to check because she was an aspiring thru hiker coming out for her first test week, but she just wasn't sure what backpackers do in the rain.

I came up for air from my bacon long enough to respond, "You keep going." She seemed a little surprised--whether she was just now noticing the number of stacked plates in front of me or that there wasn't an alternative option to avoid getting wet, I'm honestly not sure. I told her not to worry, that eventually you get used to the rain.

But if I'm being completely honest, I'm not sure that is really true. I don't imagine I'll ever truly get used to the weight of my boots sloshing around and soaked with water. Or the nights of sleeping in a shirt dripping wet because I don't have a spare and need it to dry for the next day. I'll never stop being surprised that, despite having rain gear, a pack cover, and waterproof bags, water seeps its way into every corner of my belongings. I'll never truly get used to the rain, but I also won't let it stop me.

Now, you might be thinking, "This sounds pretty awful to endure, I'd never want to be out there in those conditions." But the thing is, while I might not enjoy the rain, I had a spectacular time this week with Shannon. We were some of the first hikers to go through the burned area after the fire cleared. We saw a snake, met a bear mama and cub, and even startled thousands of crickets into a frenzy. We enjoyed the views along the trail, and laughed together when the fog completely blocked other vistas.

Hiking with Shan was particularly special because we reunited on the Trail three years after finishing the John Muir Trail together. She was there for me when, one year after San Francisco, I needed to reclaim California in a positive way and understand my inner strength. She carried my weight then--both physical and emotional, and helped me find myself. Now, three years later, a lot has changed for the both of us and it's been really special to share part of my journey with her.

Unfortunately, rain was not the only struggle we faced this week on the trail. Shan put up with some major blisters (without complaint), but ultimately suffered from a knee injury that is cutting our time together short. She is a trooper though, hiking over 100 miles through considerable pain and still managing to laugh the whole way. It's been cool for me to be able to repay the favor and take some of her weight this time.

All in all, while it perhaps wasn't the trip we expected, it's been a stellar week together. It serves as yet another reminder that even when life along the Trail doesn't go according to plan, it will still be an incredible experience.

A request

Friends and family, I need a favor! I am collecting quotes about struggles, journeys, self-understanding, and nature. I have one for each day along the AT so far, but I am quickly running out. If you know of one that you love, please email me at with the quote & who said it.

I promise to do a real blog update soon. Thank you!!

There Will Be Climbs

I often let my blog posts simmer in my mind for a bit. An idea might take root but I give it time until it's clear what my message will be. This post has probably been the one I've mulled over the longest so far, and has been harder to write, but I think it's important to share.

I've mentioned before that one of the main reasons I am hiking the AT is to experience the community along the way. After what happened to me in San Francisco, I lost faith in other people. I feared meeting strangers and saw them as potential dangers; I constantly worried about my safety and the safety of others. I didn't recognize this until I was on the John Muir Trail with my cousin and witnessed her openness toward the other hikers along the way. I remember wanting to share in that connection but was held back by insecurity. I wasn't ready to trust again.

In therapy, I worked hard on exploring those fears and regained some of my extroverted nature. Still, my world in Charlottesville felt small and I felt called to explore the bond that ties thru hikers together. That, among many other reasons, is what inspired my hike.

So a few weeks ago when I hit the Trail Magic jackpot, I was overjoyed. I left with a full belly, but more importantly a deep appreciation for uninhibited kindness. I called my parents the next morning, though, and my Mom said something that has stuck with me.

"What if someone had hurt you again? How would you come back from that?"

I'll admit, while I'm doing my best to be safe and aware, at the time that thought hadn't crossed my mind out here. Yes, people do bad things to each other for no reason at all; I am painfully aware of that fact. And yes, something could very well happen to me again, which would be devastating.

And yet, in that moment, I actually felt a calmness wash over me. The fear that had paralyzed me in so many situations seemed, in a way, ridiculous. Living with the constant awareness that someone could hurt me would also require missing out on the magical experiences I've shared in these past few months. It's a risk, true, but one I find I'm now willing to take.

I can't give the AT all of the credit for helping me reach this point. Just a few months ago, I struggled with my therapist about how life would still be painful. At the time, I felt that people should have some sort of "pain quota," that once something truly life-changingly horrible happens to someone, they should get to float through the rest of life pain free. It sounds silly now, but it took me a while to come to terms with the fact that it wasn't realistic. There will be sadness, there will be tragedy, and there will be pain. That's life.

Accepting that has helped me realize that I am stronger than I've ever given myself credit for. I have spent almost all of the past four years crawling out of a dark place and into one where I feel whole again. Should something horrible happen again, should someone destroy my trust in others, I will recover. And I will work just as hard to regain the perspective I have now from this journey.

I don't think I could have fully understood this lesson if I hadn't ventured onto the Trail. Out here, I have come to accept that there will always be more climbs. Difficulties and challenges await, and it is all we can do to meet them head on. That, and perhaps along the way share in the connection that makes our journey worth it.

And we're back!

My week off in Charlottesville was so restorative! I saw tons of friends, ate great food, showered more than I want to admit, and gained back about 8 pounds! Of course, the highlight was getting to take part in the wedding of two of my best friends--Matt and Claire. My parents were in town for it, too, since my Dad officiated; so great!

It was hard leaving on Sunday, but was made easier by the arrival of my cousin Shannon who will join me for about two weeks.

I'll keep this post short, but wanted to share my next post office stop. We're still figuring out our pace together so it's hard to post too many towns ahead, but I'm doing my best to guesstimate.

Arrive by 5/10: Harpers Ferry, WV 25425

Finally, people have asked what has been the most helpful items I've received in packages, so I thought I'd share. Protein bars and candy bars are always appreciated. I got little Nutella packets once which was awesome because they're light and tasty. I've also gotten tiny Tabasco sauce bottle (maybe 1 oz) and packets of olive oil--both light but add flavor/fat to my dinners. I always feel a little weird requesting food because I promise I am eating well, so please don't feel pressured to send me anything. Mail is just as fun to get as packages!

RSS Feed and April Review

I've had a few people ask for a way to subscribe to my blog, so I am testing this out. I'm hoping that it works! Fingers crossed! I've also tried to allow for comments on the we'll see if these changes actually happen.

Now, onto the April Recap:

Total days on the trail: 60

Total zero days: 7 (Extended vacation in Charlottesville helped)

Total near-o days (less than 8 miles): 7

Total miles covered: 861.3!

Total average mileage: 14.35 miles/day

Average mileage for April: 15.84 miles/day

Starting body weight: 161 lbs.

Current body weight: 151 lbs. (Gained a lot of weight back with these days in Cville!)

Starting base pack weight (no food/water): 31 lbs.

Current base pack weight: 22 lbs. (Yay summer gear!)

TRAIL MAGIC: 27 TIMES! So grateful!

Wildlife seen this month: A Bobcat, PONIES!, 1 snake (this was a big one), and countless deer.

Total number of wipe outs: 4

Total number of times I've gotten lost: 3

Total number of snow storms: 3

Total near death experiences: 1

Total dollars raised for Next Steps: $1966


Short Term Hiking Buddies

I set out on the AT with a mission to engage with the community along the way. While some might think it's funny or strange that I went to the woods to find connection, that is one of the most special parts of the Appalachian Trail. The AT will change your perspective and open your world not only to spectacular natural beauty but also the raw vulnerability of people walking through their struggles.

As I have traversed the mountains in the south, my journey has been impacted by hundreds of other hikers. I began my journey with my Dad, gaining insight into his life as we strengthened our trail legs. Shortly after he left, I found my first "Trail Family" in Farasi and Freud, who helped me trust in the path and reframed what a successful hike would look like for me. After some time, I listened to my body and began pushing my limits, ultimately becoming something of a "Trail Orphan." As I hiked alone, I have gained a renewed sense of confidence and appreciation for my own strengths. Still, even as I hiked solo during the day, I often would engage with other hikers in the evenings. Both hiking alone and with a Family have benefits, but they also limit your experience in a way.

In the days before leaving the AT for to reenergize in Charlottesville, I discovered what I call the Short Term Hiking Buddy. This has tended to be someone I had met before in the trail--perhaps I passed them on day or we were at a shelter one evening, but didn't really get to know on a deep level. When we've reconnected, we bypass the "nice to meet you" with the joy of seeing a familiar face out on the Trail. Energized by that elation, I've found myself adjusting my hiking plan for that day to match their stride. Driven by good conversation, but also free to do our own thing, hiking with a STHB strikes a nice balance between the internal and external reflection I do along the trail.

What's unique about a STHB versus with a Trail Family is that you still retain your self-driven adventure. There's an unspoken agreement that you'll hike together for as long as it makes sense and you're both enjoying it, but there's no hard feelings when you split up. We're at a point in the trail where there are more options to resupply in towns, so people get off at different points depending on how much food they carry. There's no pressure to plan with another person, but simply enjoy the company of another hiker for as long as it lasts. This leads to a cyclical nature of relationships: introductions fall quickly into a deeper connection, trust develops and our truest selves are exposed, inside jokes and adventure keeps you laughing, and this leads to a sense of sadness yet understanding when its time to depart.

That sorrow of goodbyes is one thing I have worked hard to come to terms with along the trail. It is difficult, because when hiking you never know if or when you'll see someone again, so the goodbye feels both permanent yet with the potential for a surprise reunion. It is in those moments when I've gained a sense for how other hikers have impacted my trip and raised questions that I hope to answer for myself. One STHB is my age and yet three years sober, out on the Trail to push himself and find his strength and be an inspiration to others struggling with alcoholism; leading me to question for myself how I can inspire others. Another STHB is questioning her pathway for her career, deciding whether to start over or move forward with graduate school; helping me reflect and gain reassurance that my own path to graduate school is the right one for me. The stories we have shared challenge me to go deeper than reflection on my own would have taken me.

These goodbyes have also challenged me to grapple with the fact that good things will come and go along the Trail (and in life), and its best to just try to enjoy them while you can. I have been told more than once in my life that I am a planner--an interesting comment because I see myself as spontaneous and always in the moment. Still, the Trail has a way of forcing you to see a more true version of yourself, and I have come to accept that I think through the future more often than I am able to live in the present. In regularly having to part ways with STHB's, I have started to accept change and savor the memories I have with them. I am working on seeing these goodbyes as the start of a new journey and not the end of a good friendship. Besides, you never know when you might turn a corner and reconnect, and that's reason enough to keep going.

I bounced along the trail with two STHB's for the last week before getting to Charlottesville, Seam and Puzzles. Seam is from Texas and we had actually met way back in Neel's Gap (where my Dad and I were hit with a snowstorm). Puzzles is from Michigan and we had met briefly in a coffee shop in Damascus, VA. Both of these hikers started off with a partner who subsequently has quit the trail, and so they were just getting used to what it meant to hike alone but were happy to engage with a new friend too. It just happened to work out that once Seam hiked ahead (he enjoys night hiking), I'd run into Puzzles, and once Puzzles and I split up, I'd run into Seam again. As a result, I was never really alone but could still enjoy the freedom of the outdoor

Despite the trail community, you don't instantly become best friends when you first meet someone new out here (of course there are exceptions). More often, I'll meet someone in passing on the trail or at a shelter and be able to feel them out briefly. I've found that it's usually the second time I see someone that I feel more of that deep connection. I think it's the combination of a familiar face in the woods and the ease of slipping into deeper conversation after the first meeting. With a STHB, there's no real planning

I struck a balance between searching internally and externally for those powerful moments that seem to come so frequently along the Trail.

Ask and You Shall Receive

In the few days since my last post, I have been overwhelmed with the sharing nature of hikers and non-hikers alike. So, to be clear, the rumor about Virginia's lack of trail magic has been successfully debunked. It's hard to explain why or how it happens, but there is an instant camaraderie among people interested in the AT experience. I want to do another post soon about my connection with other thru-hikers, so this one is going to focus on one Trail Angel who has gone above and beyond.

My original plan today was to hike 6 miles, hitch into Buena Vista, resupply, eat a big fast food lunch, and hike 5 more miles up the trail. I was intent on this because I wasn't able to find a buddy to split a hotel room with in Daleville and so had to splurge on a room alone--all of these town stops are breaking my budget!

Surprisingly, I caught a hitch relatively easily as the rain was coming down and a couple took pity on me. Their brother is hiking the trail but a little ways ahead of me, and so we shared nice conversation before they dropped me off at the Food Lion. I did some shopping (picking up probably too much food, the issue with shopping before I have lunch) and the rain was still coming down. Now, rain I'm fine with, but the forecast called for some severe lightning, so I began debating getting a motel room (again, splurging since I was resupplying alone).

Just as I had decided it was worth staying, Adam approached me asking if I was a hiker. We chatted briefly before he offered me a ride to Hardee's since his family member owns a hiker hostel (remember that first one I stayed in with my Dad in the snow?). On the way, he said he was headed to lunch at a local place with a great special and I was welcome to join. After a huge meal, he insisted on paying and asked where he could take me next. When I wanted to be dropped at a motel, he offered up a room in his house for free.

I know some of you are probably thinking "stranger danger," and "oh my, he's hitchhiking?" But out here these things are the norm. I promise that I pay attention to the details and do my best to feel out someone before trusting them so fully.

But Adam is no ordinary Trail Angel because he simply wanted to spend all day with me. He's an electrician who travels for work for months at a time and usually works 7 days a week but was given a day off due to the threat of lightning. Who knew that Mother Nature could be so fortuitous to alter both of our plans to bring us together! He also took me out for beers and a great dinner too! I have never experienced someone so willing to give to a stranger, and all he asked for in return was good company.

We talked about all sorts of topics that are normally taboo--religion, gun control, politics, etc. and while we may not have always seen eye to eye, there was a clear sense of respect. We both were keen to not only share time with each other, but relish how we could learn from the other. I am restored not because of the hot shower and large meals (though those definitely help) but because Adam was so willing to give of himself to a complete stranger. I often think about my life off trail and his generosity is something that I hope to emulate.

Rumors about Virginia

There are a lot of hiker rumors about Virginia, and so far I haven't found them to be true.

For one, people say that Virginia is flat and "you'll fly." It's true that I've been able to accomplish some big days of hiking since entering Virginia. Still, they haven't been easy! And these mountains are FAR from flat. Instead, there are lots of "bumpy" up and down sections that seem to go on forever. The nice part of hiking along the ridge line is that it's usually paired with stellar views.

There's also the sense of the "Virginia Blues." Since VA is about a quarter of the trail, and since a lot of it is filled with tunnels of rhododendron bushes, it's easy to get down mentally on the trail. I've actually loved it though! Being in Virginia, I have gained a new energy of connecting with my "home state." I wear my UVA hat with pride every day, even though I'm currently hiking in Hokie country.

Quick side note--I will never understand college rivalries. I have had people say some nasty things right off the bat, just because they saw my UVA hat. Still, most people have been incredibly nice, or jokingly make a comment that I'm brave to wear it.

There's also the rumor about Trail Magic: people say that once you hit Virginia, you'll rarely see any Magic. I've seen huge numbers of day hikers, but haven't gotten to share a snack and conversation with them very frequently. I did get some unexpected Trail Magic when, dehydrated by the heat, I had a bloody nose and this group offered me much needed water. They're in a band called "Spoon Fight" so check them out!

I know many of you reading along are in Virginia and not far from the trail, so I urge you to take part in Trail Magic! Drive to a spot near the trail and sit in a parking lot, enjoy the weather, bring snacks and music, and get to know some hikers. You'll witness sincere gratitude and hear some awesome stories. If you don't have the time to hang out, I've also seen people drop off snacks and a trash bag, but make sure to collect it later!

Since I'll be taking a break at the end of the month to celebrate a friends' wedding, I am not going to put up mail stops just yet. Whatever package you would have sent, save for another hiker and share in the Magic. For those of you further away, I promise I'll resume mail posts in early May! I've loved getting mail and packages from you all and really appreciate your generosity.

Pacman or Packman?

Without fail, as I reach a town and immediately seek out the nearest all-you-can-eat buffet (today's was Chinese), I have a local approach me to ask, "What's the Trail really like?" Honestly, it's a pretty difficult concept to describe: boiled down its walking through the woods but it's also a lot more.

Because of these encounters, and the fact that I literally have hours each day alone with my thoughts, I've done my best to come up with similes for my experience. In a way, backpacking is what I imagine pregnancy might be like: you gain extra pounds you have to lug around (your pack), you crave all sorts of food combinations, sometimes the idea of taking even 10 more steps seems unbearable, yet other times you're struck with how beautiful and inspiring this experience is. I recognize that there are a whole lot of differences between the two as well, and I'm incredibly thankful that I'm done after about 6 months, not 9!

The other day, though, I realized that hiking the AT is almost like a game of Pacman. I follow the white blazes that mark the trail just like Pacman eats the white dots in the game. Occasionally, I snag a meal and get some extra points (though instead of cherries I'm usually eating a protein bar). I'm constantly haunted by the ghosts of potentially trip-ending issues: major injuries, financial insecurity, loneliness, mental fatigue, and simply time. Pacman is also chased by these ghosts but is able to conquer them when he powers up by eating the larger dots. I, too, have been able to overcome these worries, usually with the help of emotional support from off the trail or poignant moments of reflection while on it.

I had one such of these moments just last night. I pulled another big day (over 29 miles!) and surprisingly was still feeling strong. I made it to this radio tower that had stunning views that opened both east and west. I felt torn--I could continue another 5 miles to a shelter, or I could stop when I was feeling good and enjoy the scenery. I chose the latter and was rewarded with a cold but spectacular sunrise. As I ate my morning pop tart and watched the purple of night bleed into the red of dawn, I couldn't help but think of how lucky I am to be out here. The main difference between my journey and Pacman's is that I get to enjoy these special moments.

This may or may not have helped you gain a sense of what it's "really like," out here, but it's the best I can do at this point. Perhaps you'll have to get out on the Trail someday to experience these moments yourself.

The off-trail community

If you've been following my GPS, you may have noticed that my map has been updated less frequently (sorry!). That, and when I do update it, I haven't been going as far. Don't worry, I haven't been holed up in an emergency room with a trip-ending injury. I've actually had a really great reason for slowing down: I'm connecting with people from off of the Trail.

As I crossed into Virginia, I knew that I was going to start seeing people I knew from life outside of hiking more regularly. I didn't expect to be met with such overwhelming support!

Danielle and Catherine picked me up during my first night in Damascus and showed me a night on the town in Abingdon. I knew these two lovely ladies through friends at UVA, and we all did the Virginia College Advising Corps as well. First, they took me to a great brewery and then to some incredible barbecue. I ate and drank until I was completely full (something that rarely happens these days) and they even insisted on paying for it all. They also offered me a place to stay but I didn't want to overextend their hospitality and opted for a cheap hostel.

The next day, I zeroed in Damascus and was met by another UVA friend, Martha. Martha actually grew up in Abingdon and is used to helping hikers out and offering trail magic. Even though we didn't know each other well before I began hiking, she reached out and we had a fantastic meal learning more about each other's lives since graduating. She's an opera singer and so I learned a ton about that industry! I hope to hear her sing one day.

I left Damascus and hiked for about a day and a half before stopping to join up with my first year roommate, Matt, and his brother, Jason. Matt will get married at the end of this month and wanted to hike with me for his bachelor party. I had picked out a cool section in Virginia called the Grayson Highlands that offered stunning views and the chance to see wild ponies! What I hadn't planned on was record colds and snow in April.

Matt and Jason, to whom I've given trail names of BlueBaery and StrawBaery (their last names are Baer), were troopers. The Highlands, while beautiful, are very exposed. High winds blasted through our layers, making the already frigid temperatures pretty unbearable. Top that off with over 4 inches of snow and even the most seasoned thru hikers were pretty miserable. These were some of the harder conditions I've hiked through on this trip, it was their first overnight backpacking trip, and we managed to go 25 miles!

Sharing these moments over the past week with friends old and new has been really special. I had expected to find a community of hikers while on the AT, but the level of support I've had from friends and family off the trail has been a fantastic surprise. This trip has filled me with gratitude for so many reasons, but this past week added a new dimension to why I have loved this journey.

Finding what was lost

My adventure on Thursday in the wind got to me more than I had realized. For all my talk of feeling good pushing onto the next shelter, a big part of me was looking forward to being in a hostel for Friday night. Friday's hike shouldn't have been difficult--it was easy terrain and much shorter than I had been going on average. Yet, I found myself struggling on hills that I'd normally barely notice and arrived at the hostel pretty worn.

What got me through the hike was knowing that soon I'd have a bed, a hot shower, a few beers, and words of support from family and friends. Kincora Hostel outside Hampton, TN was recommended by my uncle, but was not what I had expected. There were more than 10 cats roaming outside (I am not a cat person), the bunk room didn't have lights and smelled of mildew, I had no service and there was no wifi, and there was no alcohol permitted. Honestly, I considered a way to politely try to leave, but figured in the end it was a step up from a shelter in what could have been a stormy night.

I didn't get what I wanted at Kincora, but I got what I didn't know I needed: communion. When I first saw a therapist, I spent months dealing with the idea of loss; after traumatic experiences, it's common to feel a vague sense of loss. Together, my therapist and I began naming some of those losses: my confidence in my strength, my sense of invulnerability and playfulness, my willingness to take risks, and we worked to find ways to either regain what felt lost or accept that it was okay to lose. That wind storm left me physically fine but emotionally rattled--I had lost my sense of wonder in the journey. I hiked from mile marker to mile marker, focused on quickening my pace to beat the rain and constantly looking ahead to see if the shelter was near. It was exhausting.

Hearing Bob tell stories of the countless hikers that have passed through helped me place my own struggle within the context of the trail community. I am one of thousands who has toiled along this path and is seeking to learn something deeper from it. Instead if swaddling me with the niceties of modern comforts, he helped remind me that there's a lot to take from the hard times--it's not only about loss. Spending an evening with him and other hikers was more important than having wifi.

Bob doesn't just run a hostel, he also is a major driving force behind trail maintenance. His stories about the work that goes into planning, creating, maintaining, and improving the trail so that others like me can enjoy it were inspiring. Less than a mile from his hostel is a gorgeous bridge that was built without the use of power tools so as to not disturb the animals. Near that is an impressive set of stone stairs built entirely by a female volunteer crew. There is more than natural beauty along the Appalachian Trail, there's real craftsmanship that often goes unnoticed.

I left on Saturday morning with a completely different outlook than I had on Friday night. I felt rejuvenated and ready to tackle what looked to be a day of difficult hiking. Instead of getting worn out, though, I found myself paying attention to the trail itself and saying thanks to the countless volunteers who helped create it. I took side trails for better views of the morning light and stopped to wonder at the privilege of experiencing this beauty. I found the joy of the journey again and gained a deeper sense of gratitude, and I owe it all to Bob.

One month down!

First, a word about mail. I learned the hard way that if you plan on mailing me anything, it's got to be through the US Postal Service. UPS and fedex won't work. Also, on the topic of mail, feel free to send me food :-) I'm literally a bottomless pit and my tastes have changed. Many of you will be surprised to hear that I've craved sweets--I've even eaten an entire jar of frosting! Here are the next mail stops:

Arrive by 4/14: Pearisburg, VA 24134

Arrive by 4/19: Daleville, VA 24083

Now onto the more exciting stuff! Here's a by the numbers recap of March!

Days on the trail: 31

Zero days: 1

Near-o days (less than 8 miles): 5

Miles covered: 401.9!!

Average mileage: 12.96 miles/day

Average in the past week: 18.36 miles/day

Starting body weight: 161 lbs.

Current body weight: 149 lbs.

Starting base pack weight (no food/water): 31 lbs.

Current base pack weight: 25 lbs.

TRAIL MAGIC: 13 times!!

Wildlife seen: 4 deer, 1 horse, 1 snake, some hawks, falcons, and woodpeckers, and countless mice, chipmunks, and squirrels. And some trail dogs if you count those!

Number of wipe outs: 3 (this is actually pretty low compared to others, and one was because of that crazy wind).

Number of times I've gotten lost: 2

Number of snow storms: 2

Near death experiences: 1

Times I've regretted this trip: 0!!

On taunting Mother Nature

The spark notes version: don't do it.

Let's rewind a bit. After my first zero day in Hot Springs, I was feeling fantastic--the "I'm young and invincible so let's see what my body can do" fantastic. I've been upping my mileage to over 20 and still feel pretty great. The downside to my newfound endurance is that I've left a really cool hiking group and haven't found a new crew that's my speed yet.

Anyway, on Wednesday, I'm going over Roan Mountain which is one of the last big climbs before you reach Virginia. It is a beautiful day, I find some trail magic halfway up, and I'm taking my time and enjoying myself (singing Taylor Swift of course). After Roan, there's Carver's Gap--a popular place to drive up and go for an easy walk with great views. I meet a few families along the trail and I'm stopping to chat and take many pictures; life could not get any better. One woman asks, "What's the biggest challenge you've faced?" And here's my mistake, friends, I said that I've been able to handle everything so far.

I move on and make my way to Overmountain Shelter (pictured above). I am pumped for this one: a) because the name is similar to Underhill and b) because it's a converted barn. My buddy Rooster and I get there, set up, and then the wind starts. Not a big deal since I'm already at the shelter but you can tell it'll be a cold night. Then as more people arrive, there's talk of rain all day Thursday and maybe even Friday too. People are talking about taking a zero at the shelter but I brush that idea off; when hiking the AT there's going to be rain.

The next morning, the wind was still howling but no rain yet. We were down in this valley so I wanted to get over the mountain before the rain got too bad. As I take off, you can see these clouds just flying by at crazy speed. I'm climbing up and up and the wind isn't letting up, it's starting to push on my pack a bit. Still, I'm enjoying myself so I sing at the top of my lungs and howl with the wind as I go. But the thing is, I keep getting higher on this exposed bald and as I do, the wind is only getting stronger. It's still not raining, but clouds start whipping by so fast that I'm getting pelted with bits of ice. As clouds close in, I can only see about 10 feet ahead and behind--I have no clue how far I've gone but I know that I'm in a bad spot.

You know how sometimes in cartoons they show a bird blowing backwards in the wind? That happened! It blew so hard the sometimes it was hard to take a breathe and my glasses actually iced over. The wind was so strong that it actually LIFTED me with my pack and threw me 6 feet. It was insane and I was terrified.

I huddled behind a rock for a bit and did a quick check to make sure I wasn't bleeding and hadn't lost any gear. I debated trying to wait it out there but it was so cold that I needed to keep moving or risk hypothermia. I crawled for a bit, but the ground was so cold that it wasn't worth it. Finally, I bolted from rock to rock for a total of 5 frighteningly unforgettable miles.

Once I hit the forest line and was off the ridge, everything was fine again. The wind was blowing overhead but it was as if the whole ordeal had never even happened. Well, maybe that's not entirely true--there were dozens of fallen trees. Thick trunks snapped across the trail and you could tell these were fresh. One hikers phone alerted him that 80 mile per hour winds were in the area and I believe it!

Eventually, I got down to a road and had the choice of pushing on 9 miles to a shelter or going to a hostel. I'm pretty happy that I continued onto the shelter because it ended up being a nice easy hike and I want to get to a hostel my uncle recommended for Friday night. Also, there's something about not retreating to modernity after an ordeal like that. But if anyone asks me what my biggest challenge has been, I'll now have a clear answer!