Hammock Habitation: a Hennessy Hammock Gear Review 

Disclaimer: So I very much hope none of you have been laboring under the very false impression that I am in any way an expert in backpacking or hiking. I’m am average person who only recently began to take an interest in the activity. That being said, I believe the opinion of a novice can be just as valuable as an expert, if taken with a grain of salt.

Today I want to focus on one of the most essential pieces of equipment for a backpacker: the sleeping quarters. There are many options for a hiker when it comes to how to rest your head. Some choose to bring just a sleeping pad and take their chances in a shelter or under the stars. Some a simple tarp that can be pitched. Others choose from the endless varieties of tents. Personally, I made the decision to hammock camp. If you’ve ever researched the subject, hammock campers tend to believe very strongly in this choice, I seem to fall into that camp.

So why did I choose the hammock? Well I knew I didn’t want to rely on a shelter while thru hiking, the privacy is nearly nonexistent and I wished neither to be exposed to the smell of other hikes while I’m sleeping or expose them to my nearly prolific snoring. I considered a tent, noting the obvious increase in privacy, something I found important as a woman. My decision in favor of a hammock came down to comfort. I am individual with a history of back issues and the hammock offers comfort and support that sleeping on the ground cannot.

So now down to the nitty gritty of choosing the hammock. I considered an Eno hammock or maybe an amazon cheap parachute hammock, but one brand stuck out more than the rest. I liked reading about the passion put in their products and just had a gut feeling that this was the best decision for me. So basically it was guesswork and a little magic combined with an obsessive combing of reviews that led me to choose a Hennessy hammock.

Hennessy is a company founded by Tom Hennessy that specializes in hammocks of high quality. They offer a few varieties, but I settled on the Hyperlite Asym Zip. With a pack weight of 1lb 12oz, it’s light and easy to carry. I thoroughly enjoy the asymmetrical design of the hammock. This allows me to extend or sleep on my side without feeling an uncomfortable dip in my spine. The built in bug net is convenient and creates a comfortable cocoon to enjoy without gnats and mosquitos. With bonus bug proof, water proof, and windproof features, the one year warranty was just a cherry on top.

When ordering my new hammock, I was lucky enough to receive a solid deal. As a free add on to my Hyperlite, I also acquired a Hex Asym Rainfly 70D polyester, a free set of snakeskins and water collectors, and an upgraded 72″set of straps. All this for a whopping $190. In preparing to write this review I revisited the Hennessy website and found the same hammock, with only 42″ webbing straps and no snakeskins for $279.95. I am quite happy with my lucky timing.

Despite the awesome deal I got, I would still say this hammock is worth the 280. Prior to the first backpacking trip I described in the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Part One, I had not had the opportunity to set up my hammock. So, the morning before the trip was spent in the front yard of my sister’s home pouring over videos that described fancy knots and confusing explanations for how to appropriately hang the hammock. This was confounded by the rambunctious nephew running circles around the whole operation and the refurbished Mario cart crashing into my hammock tree. It was about this point that I said fuck it, I’ll figure it out. And I did just that, the formatting of the hammock and rainfly making it almost intuitive to set up. In addition, I found my disorganized and amateurish attempts at sloppy knots had no difficulty in holding me up all night. What I’m saying is, even am idiot can hang this hammock and sleep easy knowing it’s not coming down.

The products I used to supplement my hammock set up included:

An additional snakeskin to separate the hammock and rainfly in the event of rain. This allows the hammock to stay dry.

A Klymit Hammock V, I find this to be rather cumbersome to inflate and deflate. Though I appreciate the shape and the extra comfort it provides in a hammock, I don’t see it as a necessary alternative to cheaper rectangular options. In addition, I did not get an insulated version, a decision I regretted deeply on a chilly night. I don’t think this was $100 well spent. 

A Halti Summerlite +40° mummy sleeping bag. This works for now, but I am considering upgrading to an under/upper quilt. It’s not terrible quality for a $40 sleeping bag, but it’s certainly not warm enough for a cold night.
Finally, some basic lightweight tent stakes that I picked up at REI.

I have spent both overly hot and overly cold nights in my hammock, though not at the fault of product. Overall, I would highly recommend Hennessy Hammock. It is super light, well made, comfortable, and easy to use. I cannot wait to test it’s limits to find out just how well suited it is for me. So if you care about the opinion of an average Joe, take my advice, buy a hammock. (But also get some insulation, that shit is fucking freezing when it gets below 65 at night.)

Honestly, it’s probably better to check it out yourself than listen to my gibberish.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Part 2

Part 2: Failure 

My second  backpacking trip came a couple weeks after the first. My plan was to section hike all of the 41 miles of the AT that pass through Maryland. I planned to hike for three days, going 10 miles the first day and a little over 15 the following two days. Obviously this was a drastic increase from my first trip, as I planned on doing more in a single day than I had in three. My reasoning is that all three days would be full days, while on the first trip, we left around 5pm the first day and needed to be out of the woods by 8am on the third day. In addition, I was undergoing this trip independently so my pace was likely to be faster than the group trip. As you may have guessed in my tone and the repetition of the word “plan,” this trip did not go as intended.

In this instance a bit of background seems important. For whatever reason, I haven’t been feeling terribly well over the last month, meaning I was experiencing a flair in my depression and anxiety. It had begun to set in just before my first trip, so I was able to stymie my negative emotion enough to function normally on the trip. When I returned I spent nearly a week on my couch. My eating habits were declining and the apathy was extreme. There was no specific cause for the spike in depression and anxiety, and sometimes it’s just like that. I decided to take this trip because I am not certain when I’ll have the ability to do so again and I thought perhaps it would be enough to jar me from my mood. With the mindset of self exploration and a hope for an overdose on endorphins I walked into the woods on Wednesday morning, intending to be picked up at the other end of Maryland on Friday.

So, here are some of the things I learned.

1. Maryland privies  are horrendous.

Get on board MD, NJ is doing a much better job on this front. Honestly, I almost died when I went in there.

2. Audio books are great entertainment, but companions are better.

I know that my trip next year will be a solitary one, and I am prepared for that, I would even go so far as to say I’m happy about that, but it is a far cry from a gaggling gang of family surrounding you. I’ve hiked alone plenty of times, but with a full pack and no one to commiserate with, it can be a bit more trying on the resolve. In addition, groups set a pace and inspire competition; a solo hike requires large quantities of self efficacy, because you are the only one determining how far you go. Given my mental state, self efficacy did not abound at the time.

3. Sometimes it’s better to be surprised by what’s ahead.

I had hiked a couple miles into Maryland when I ran into an old man, clearly a backpacker based on dress and gear. He stopped me to ask about the terrain ahead of him and I told him it was rocky, but not terrible. He responded by informing me that I had some hard rocks ahead that he had difficulty coming down. It was with a bleak outlook that I continued ahead. It was indeed hell to climb those damn rocks. I’m not sure of the incline gain, and I’m certain it is not difficult I’m comparison to other parts of the trail, but my weeks of apathy took their toll in that climb. Knowing about it did not help, in fact the dreaded that built prior to the steep part of the trail made it all the worse. 

Almost at the top!
4. I really need to invest in some legitimate hiking clothing.

By the end of the 10 mile day my clothing were drenched with sweat. A combination of increased pace and humid and hot conditions caused much more drastic perspiration on this second trip. I know I will have to adjust to a less than pleasant scent while on the trail, but appropriate sports wear may help with the odor of a hard days labor. Not to mention the discomfort of wearing damp clothing while hiking.

5. Everyone warns you about how cold a hammock is but no one mentions how fucking hot it can get.

As I lay in my hammock I thought I might die of heat exhaustion. Honestly I was more hot lying in my cocoon than I had been carrying my pack all day.

6. Blisters are the devil.

For real, they may be the most evil thing in existence. At about mile 2 I could feel one of these malignant growths forming on my left heel. As I had on shoes I’d gone over 100 miles in and the same Wrightsocks I have always worn (if you’ve read my other posts you might be asking why I haven’t replaced them yet, the answer: I have no idea) it was a surprise to me to see the magnitude of my blister. At about mile 6 the worst happened, it popped. I stopped around mile 8 for lunch, at about 3pm, when I removed my shoes and socks I was horrified to see the monstrosity on my heel. It was dirt clogged and the skin was barely attached. Of course in this moment I recall exactly where my first aid kit is, under my bed at home. I did the best thing I could think of in the circumstance and poured hand sanitizer on it. Jesus fucking Christ. The pain was awful. So I sat for about a half am hour airing it out, then I closed the skin back over the rawness and continued on my way. It took about 2 hours to go the remaining two miles due to frequent brakes and a slow limping progress.

Gross, I know. This was the blister in the morning.

And this is the blister after another night following some first aid.
7. First aid kits are really fucking important.
As I’m limping along, I can literally fucking see the shelter when I roll my right ankle. There was this amazing popping sound and my immediate thought was “wow, that’s probably not good.” It didn’t hurt all that much though, so I got busy setting up camp. I got fresh water, had dinner, and set up my hammock. I tucked in early to wake up and get a head start. I woke up with a raging need to pee and every intention of asking one of the other hikers at the shelter if they had a spare bandaid so I could continue on my way. Yeah fucking right. I tried to stand up from my hammock and nearly fell and peed my pants as my ankle refused the weight of my body. As I limped my way to the privy I had the dreaded realization that I didn’t know if I could do it. I pondered what to do as I slowly broke down camp. When I finished I sat down on a rock and cried because I’d made the determination that there was no way I could walk 15 miles with both damaged ankles. The only thing to do was to call for a ride out. I made the less than half mile walk to the car stumbling as I couldn’t decide which ankle needed me to limp more. It took about a half hour to make it to the road.

8. Mistakes happen.

Sitting on that rock I was devastated. Telling myself I was stupid for forgetting bandaids and clumsy for rolling my ankle. But I have to forgive myself, because mistakes happen. Yes I forgot bandaids, but it’s unlikely a bandaid would have prevented my ankle sprain. With the limping and exhaustion and my already well developed talent for tolling my ankles, it was bound to happen. 

At one point the trail crossed a river and I failed to see the white blazes and so followed a side trail for about half a mile. While on that path I found one of the more beautiful sights I’ve seen from hiking. Well, aside from overlooks, nothing beats the view from above. My point is that if I hadn’t made that mistake, I never would have found the pool. Plus I found some amazing raspberries along the way. 

I mean, it wouldn’t make the cut for middle earth, but damn I thought it was pretty.
9. Knowing when to withdraw is not weakness.

As my left ankle is still raw and my right ankle is still swollen and it’s been over a week, I would say both were serious enough to warrant ending my trip. As this was intended to be a learning experience anyway, what I figured out is that I need higher boots, better socks, and to bring my first aid kit. I have to forgive this failure as it does not set the tone for my thru hike. An injury is not actually a failure and taking the time to recover requires strength. If I had kept going it would not have been strength, it would have been stupidity.

Overall it was not a bad hike, but it had its hardships. I got some amazing views and spent my first night alone in the woods. Each time I push myself I grow stronger and more ready for a longer commitment.

The amazing view from High Rock, MD.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Part 1

Part 1: Success

A few weeks ago I took my very first backpacking trip, ever. Terribly exciting, right? The trip consisted of 2 overnights and a total distance of 14 miles on the Appalachian trail in New Jersey. Our party was myself (obviously), my oldest sister, C, her husband Ce, and three of her children, J, K, and A. A, though a wild and adventurous boy, unafraid of running into the middle of the street if given the opportunity, is still too young to navigate a hike, so spent the trip on C’s back.

I learned a few important lessons I’d like to iterate.

1. The sun rises in the East.

Unfortunately for my exhausted mind, on day three I forgot this important bit of navigational information and was insistent that the lake on our east, was the one indicated in the guide book to the west. The devastating realization that we were not as far along as I thought we were was not good for morale. Thank you C for pointing out the error in judgement.

2. No matter how many times you say a mountain is not a mountain, it’s still a mountain.

J came up with a wonderful inspirational motto for our hike: “tis not a mountain, but one foot in front of the other.” Unfortunately the two large ridges we had to scale up and down disagreed with her statement.

3. When hiking in a group it’s far easier to be the fastest than the slowest.

The person in front can hike ahead and wait for the stragglers, but the latter is forced to keep going in an attempt to keep up with the fastest. It creates an imbalance of exertion. Also, a 28lb child who is prone to bucking and steals all your water while he hangs out on your back makes it really hard to keep pace.

The relevant beast.
4. Appropriate underwear are vital.

If you wear boyshorts with a lacy border an then buckle a hip belt over top the for 3 days, you will get a rash on your lower abdomen from the chafing. I don’t recommend it. I really should expand beyond a thousand pairs of the same style underwear.

5. 2 lbs of spaghetti is never a good idea.

Honestly I don’t know when this is ever too little food, even for 6 people. We only used like a quarter pound and had to carry the rest out. Portioned meals are an excellent idea.

6. Bug spray ratios and reapplication are not as hard as I expected.

In the whole bunch we only got a single tick. The basic rules of thumb I’ve learned is deet on the legs and natural eucalyptus lemon bug spray on the top half. Reapply when the gnats get too annoying.

7. Throwing your cooking pot across the field at a shelter is never productive and actually rather rude.

After spilling my Ramen on the ground I may have thrown my jet boil as far as possible in a fit of hangry rage. This did not assist in the acquisition of food into my belly, but did spread food particles in a bear heavy area. I apologize profusely to the other hikers on the trail for my poor judgement and lack of care.

8. If you trip with a top heavy pack, said pack with slide forward and smack the back of your head which, in turn will lead you to smash your face on a rock.

No permanent damage done, but I did break my favorite sunglasses and ended up laughing hysterically as a lump formed on my head and my family looked on worried. I recommend head injuries while hiking even less than wearing lacy underwear. I have to say it was a rather funny experience and I wasn’t hurt badly, so it all works out. 

In memory of my sunglasses.
9. Hiking with people you love has both ups and downs.

The obvious benefit is the shared memories with your loved ones. Bonus, less embarrassment about the more taboo bodily functions that occur in the day to day, as those barriers have long since broken down. The negative is the other side of that same coin. Because we are family there is a certain amount of rudeness allowed that would not be acceptable among strangers, or even friends.

10. Everything will hurt. 

It really really did, but once you warm up, it improves. But I mean everything. But it was worth it.

I want to wrap up with a quick review of some of my gear. I carried a hennesy hyperlite asymmetrical zip, and I absolutely love it. It went up easily and I was relatively comfortable sleeping. I was freezing though, so I may need to invest in an under quilt. My ULA catalyst pack sat comfortably, I especially appreciated the straps which allowed for 3 across the body buckles, which helped distribute the load. I will definitely go more into detail about my gear in a later post when I feel like it. I really can’t praise these two pieces enough. One thing I’d like to say is don’t waste money on BodyGlide, it doesn’t do shit. Here is a great video with some alternatives and a better explanation than I can give about the previously mentioned product.

https://youtu.be/QFwKzk2mRJY
Finally, I’d like to say thank you to my sister and her family for the amazing support you give me and for the adventure we went on together. I’d additionally like to broaden that thanks to my entire family. All of you have been more supportive than I could dream of. Each and everyone of you is vital to my success and has helped me on the path to where I am today.

P.S. I thought of a couple more things I learned.
There was some crazy wildlife, I was unaware that porcupines lived in New Jersey. We also saw some tiny baby birds, wild turkeys, and various rodents.

SO LITTLE!

People will mock you if you just try and relax in your sleeping bag and happen to be in the middle of a parking lot.

It was just warmer, alright!?

I really need to invest in legitimate hiking clothing, regular t-shirts and lularoes aren’t cutting it. 

Me, Myself, and I

So this is a post I’ve been considering for a couple weeks now and it will be a bit different than what I’ve written previously. I know its been quite a while since I last posted and ny only excuse is the struggle I felt in deciding what was important for me to write about here. Hiking will be a tangential subject in this post. I would also like to add a couple disclaimers before diving in. First, for those who know me in real life, nothing I say here is targeted at a specific person or meant to comment on a specific situation. Second, I want to provide a trigger warning for mental health and trauma, though nothing I talk about is terribly graphic, it may be upsetting to anyone who has dealt with or is dealing with a similar situation. Third, despite my status as a social worker, I am not even close to an expert in mental health, what I choose to discuss is based on my own experience and every person will have an entirely different perception of their mental health. Finally, I want to say that this is not an easy subject for me to write about and I have never discussed most of these things in such a public forum, please understand that I feel a certain amount of discomfort in the telling.

I am not entirely sure where I want to begin, so I will dive right in. I have often struggled with my mental health, beginning in high school I experienced a number of episodes of depression. This was compounded by a difficult time at home. I am the youngest and as my elder sisters left the nest, I found myself the outlet for frustration in an unhappy relationship. I have no desire to speak poorly of my mother or step father, but I would categorize my final two years of high school as some of the more difficult years of my life. I believe this is a common feeling for many teens, but the general unhappiness of this time left me ill prepared for appropriate functioning when I finally left home.

At 18 it was politely requested that I remove my remaining belongings from my childhood home, I was graciously taken in by my sister, L. An unfortunate reality of watching an abusive relationship for over a decade is the lack of opportunity to learn what a healthy partnership looks like. I spent my first few months of independence from home deeply involved with a young man who was not well at all. His mental health issues inspired jealousy and suspicion which caused him to attempt to control me and the decisions I made. Eventually he was hospitalized and gave me the impossible choice of ending our relationship while he was in a safe place or fearing that if I were ever to feel unhappy in our partnership and choose to end it, he would end his life. Ultimately I decided his life was worth far more to me than our relationship and I wished desperately that he could focus on his recovery and not me. He chose to end all communication with me and the experience left me with terrible guilt over my apparent abandonment of someone I loved.

If I hadn’t already committed to social work as a career, I would have then. I felt a complex mix of emotions, guilt certainly, sadness over the loss, but also overwhelming relief because I no longer felt responsible for another’s life. The second major event which damaged my mental health is much harder for me to discuss. If you know me in real life, I would like to request that you do not reference this in our future conversations. I believe this came about due to the vulnerability caused by my first relationship. I felt I had to commit to someone who wanted me simply because they wanted me and I did not wish to be the source of any further pain. In my freshman year of college I was raped by someone I trusted and had begun to develop a romantic engagement with. I was left with no physical damage of any kind, it was not overly violent or traumatizing, but it was a clear violation of what I had verbalized and physically communicated. Following this occurrence I had a great deal of confusion about what actually happened and whether my recollection was accurate. I made excuses and rationalized my feelings of violation away. I remained dating him for a few more weeks while he became increasingly more insistent that we spend the night together, something I refused to do following his assault. I ended our relationship, but continued afriendship while suppressing my memory of his violation. Unfortunately my confusion was only compounded by the reaction of my friends. The only thing I can say is that they were likely uncomfortable and did not know how to respond to what happened. I received little to no support from my closest confidants which engendered even greater feelings of uncertainty and unhappiness. The result was the ending of a close friendship as one of my suite mates chose his company over mine in order to facilitate her rise in social standing. She routinely placed herself in a vulnerable state, drinking heavily and placing herself at the mercy of him and his frat brothers. While they remain close, I have not spoken with either in years. I do not believe he is overall a bad person, I think his actions stemmed far more from a sense of entitlement to my body than a violent desire for control. It is only in the last 6 months that I have been able to accept and begin to heal from this experience. I would like to say that I did not for a moment consider reporting the event to any authorities, I am not naive enough to believe that it would result in any repercussions for him. If anyone else is harmed as a result of my silence, I am so sorry.

My depression after this became far more intense. There were times in which I wanted to stay in bed for days. I was often afraid of myself, I could no longer trust my own mind. I was afraid to drive a car because I wasn’t sure if I would be capable of resisting the urge to intentionally wreck. I contemplated overdosing on over the counter medicine and I committed acts of self harm. I think depression is a difficult thing to understand if you’ve never experienced it, but I’ll try. It’s the feeling of hopelessness that you’ll ever be ok. It’s the grieving for the person you once were. It’s shame that you can’t make yourself better. It’s the guilt you have for making loved ones worry for you. It’s the frustration you feel when others don’t understand. It’s the worst pain imaginable without any obvious cause or solution.

The fear for myself was compounded by the knowledge that my father committed suicide. I often fear that I am like him because of my depression. I avoid using drugs or drinking heavily because I fear evoking the part in myself that is his daughter. The one benefit of my family history is the protective factor of an understanding of exactly how suicide impacts a family. Eventually I sought help. I was medicated and I improved. Despite the dissipation of suicidal ideation, I was still not myself. As I delved deeper in my education I gained a better understanding of my mental health. An unfortunate reality is that understanding does not always lend to improvement. I eliminated all self harm, but began to use food as a comfort. I began to work overnight, this combined with full time school left little time for sleep. I once more experienced a decline in my mental health. At this time I was also in a terrible relationship characterized by infidelity and emotional abuse. I pushed my body too far at work while consuming the most unhealthy food I could find. The result of this was a serious back injury, leading to surgery. The end of my relationship and the opportunity to end our cohabitation was the beginning of my self care. I sought treatment for my back injury and my health ranked higher in importance. Surgery and the termination of my job were further milestones in my journey to self improvement.

I was eating better, I began to exercise, (finally something about hiking!) and I started therapy. My time in therapy has vastly improved my mental health. As I began to recover, I also began to think about my dreams. Beyond the boring ones, like career and education. I started a journey of self discovery. If I had considered hiking At at any other point in my life, I would have dismissed it because I did not believe in my own ability to accomplish anything, let alone a 2200 mile hike. Though I can attribute my far more stable mental health to therapy, hiking is the foundation for the new self I am creating. The confidence engendered by a successful hike is unlike any I’ve ever experienced. I was unable to hike over the last week, my therapist commented on a noticeable change in my demeanor. I feel more alive, more like me when I’m on a trail. I am truly looking forward to what I find on my thru hike.

I fear that in our world it is so easy to disregard the feelings of others. Technology allows us to disengage from the real person behind the screen, facilitating unkind words and degrading exchanges that were previously impossible. The phenomenon of ghosting in a relationship, or ceasing all communication without explanation or warning, leave people feeling hurt and confused. People use social media to paint a picture of bliss and success to mask the pain and suffering in their lives. People lie and cheat while claiming to love and honor. Each of us has only this one chance to live in this world, why is that we choose to act for ourselves? We are social creatures, we crave companionship and closeness, but push others away. I am no exception, I have hurt people and I am likely to do so again, all I can do is make a conscious effort to be good to others. The other day I took to the trail in a fit of frustration due to a number of poorly managed social interactions. The time to myself allowed me to contemplate the importance of one shitty person in the scheme of my life. The peace and understanding I gained from a simple 5 mile walk in the woods revitalized my patience for the world. I want to experience what life is like on the trail, to return to a more primal existence. I want to feel that community and support. I want to smile at people as I pass them and I want to talk to strangers without fearing their intentions. I believe that the AT will help to accomplish these desires and make me into a better person, someone more capable of kindness and appreciation for a fellow man.

I know this post has been both convoluted and a little irrelevant, but I thought that it would provide further insight into my motivations and the foundation from which I am beginning. Thank you for reading and bearing with me. I just believe that this was a necessary, though difficult, part of the story.

Pushing Limits 

Two posts in one day!? Yeah, just making up for last week, I was moving guys, give me a break. This week I took my very first steps on the AT. It was beautiful and everyone was so much nicer there than anywhere I’ve ever hiked. Seeing the sign that read “Appalachian trail” was magnificent. The overlook at Weverton had my heart all aflutter, despite the couple making out a few yards away. For the precious moments that I had with only three others, it was very affirming. Unfortunately we were soon overrun by what appeared to be a field trip and I had to dodge photo bombing a bunch of selfies. 

Back to the beginning. A friend of mine, J, invited me to go for a hike on the Monday following a Memorial Day cookout with our friends. If you’re following my story, you may remember in The Big Reaction I spoke about a friend who doubted my prowess in hiking. Well, they all did, this hike felt very much like a test, I went in knowing that J thought I was going to do poorly, or be very slow, or display some other shortcoming.  Anyone who knows me knows that I am stubborn as fuck, and if there is one thing I hate, it’s being told (whether explicitly or implicitly) that I can’t do something. So I set out that day to prove not only to my friends, but also myself, that their doubts don’t mean anything. 

After staying up well past 2 and moving all day Saturday and most of Sunday, I begrudgingly rolled out of bed at 8am. From there I drove to pick up a fairly hungover J from the house where the cookout was held. I brought him home to change and pack a quick lunch (turkey, cheese, and butter, GROSS), and we headed on our way. Not long before we reached Gathland State Park, our starting point, we made a quick stop at Sheets. I went in the bathroom and had a quick talk with myself. I looked into the mirror and saw a face with dark circles under the eyes and a look of fear. This was the longest hike I had ever been on and I was already feeling pain down my right leg due to my back injury being irritated by my move. But, I wasn’t going to fail. 

We arrived at the park, me with my day pack and water bladder, wearing hiking shoes. J in goddamn Jordan’s and carrying a backpack that contained 2 water bottles, a pack of cigarettes, and his turkey sandwiches. Away we went. I find that the first mile is almost always the most difficult for me, my muscles are cold, my body hasn’t adjusted yet, the beginning is still reasonably close enough to turn back. Finally, I’m starting to hit my peak when suddenly I feel like someone is knifing me in the gut, like I’m about to vomit and shit my pants at the same time. For those of you not familiar with what an ovarian cyst is like, this is how I experience them when they rupture. I’m lucky, my polycystic ovarian syndrome, or shit ton of cysts on my ovaries, presents with hemorrhagic cysts, so basically a slow leak rather than a sudden burst. What this means is I’m in pain but probably don’t need to be hospitalized. The joys of womanhood. 

So here I am standing in the middle of the woods in quite a lot of pain trying to prove myself with this hike. I’m proud to say that I didn’t even consider turning back, I stood for about 30 seconds and calmly explained what was happening to J. He watched me with a mixture of concern and a clear attempt to suppress the thought that I was probably being a drama queen. I probably was. We began walking again and I made it about half a mile before I needed to rest again. Leaning against a log I went to battle with myself. 

Now for my nonsequitor, but my tangents almost always have a point, so be patient. There is a concept that I use frequently in my professional life. Imagine your mind is a house, with separate rooms dedicated to the separate parts of yourself. For example, a woman might have a room for her motherhood, her role as a wife, her profession, her obsession with some band or TV show, her humor, her depression, and so on. The number of rooms is pretty incalculable, everchanging, and totally unique to the individual. If done properly, this can help close the door on parts of yourself not helpful for certain roles. For example, your mom room should be away from your professional room. I doubt yohr boss would appreciate being talked to like a toddler. I use this in my social work practice because it helps to isolate the parts of me that wouldn’t be helpful to a client. The room with my potty mouth gets closed, my personal experience that may influence how I view a client is sealed, there is a room for my judgement, and one for my shock and strong emotions. This allows me to treat a client in the best way possible because my mind is clear of the factors that could impact my professionalism. This also helps maintain boundaries between worker and client and allows me to disengage from the more shocking or terrible things I hear. This may seem cold, but it it’s necessary to protect myself and provide the best treatment I can. Another wonderful concept you’ll find I’m social work fairly often is mindfullness, for those not aware of what this is, here is the Google definition: 

” a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique. “

Back to the original story as promised, I got through the remaining 12 miles of that hike through the application of these mental tools. Anyone telepathic would have thought I was an idiot, my mantra was “close the door” as I repeatedly forced my mind away from the pain. I practiced mindfullness by focusing on my present. I listened to the sound of mud squishing at each step, the feel of rocks under my feet and the strain of muscle in my thighs, I smelled sweat and the pungent odor of J’s cigarettes (seriously! Who smokes while hiking!?). Through this constant mental battle and a hand placed firmly on my abdomen, I made it to the overlook. At one point during the trek, I told J that I was taking the lead because I knew I would be slower and I thought it would be easier to set the pace, he informed me that he was content with this and that we were actually hiking at the pace he would normally go. I smiled then with what must have been feral ferocity, luckily J didn’t notice as he was both behind me and preoccupied with mushrooms or his cigarettes or some such nonsence. Either way, I don’t think he understood that significance of the exchange. 

We made it to the overlook and sat down to enjoy sunshine and lunch. I removed socks and shoes and began to scale the rocks barefoot. The view from Weverton is amazing, the river and the train tracks make quite a scene. Eventually perturbed by the amourous couple and gaggle of teens, I made it back to my sunning rock. I shoveled a bunch of walnuts down my throat and we were off again. The half an hour rest had allowed my muscles to cool so the first mile back was excruciating. I had lost my mental focus and my whole body was sore from the first 7 miles. But I did it, and we hit our stride once more, making mile 11 our fastest mile, a fact I find rather astounding. We spent the last few miles in amicable conversation, both of us elated to be so close to the end and preemptively proud of our accomplishment. When I walked out of the woods in was awash with relief… because there was the bathroom. Guys I still haven’t gotten the courage to pee in the woods. 

Before I close this post with something adequately inspirational I have one more story to tell. As we started the hike I rolled my ankle a few times, apparently I’m blessed with flexible ankles because this is a near daily occurrence and I’ve never sprained one. Due to this, J was certain I was going to faceplant into the mud. I had the reciprocal certainty because of his ridiculous foot wear (Jordans, really!?). Guess which one of us took the tumble? I haven’t laughed so hard in quite a while as I did when I watched him stagger to his feet all muddy, cranky, and flushed with embarrassment. I felt a bit guilty about the laughter, but there was some definite triumph mixed in with the guilt. Here is this guy, an avid hiker, who doubted my ability, and I’m the one who stayed on my feet. 

I’ll admit that my confidence in my prowess was a bit dampened by the fact that J probably had a bad hangover, but still, I made it through my longest hike yet, exhausted, sore from moving into a third floor apartment with no elevator, and doing war with my ovary. I know it will be different with more than a day pack, but God it felt good and I’m taking a step in the right direction. We finished our day off with a bit of reckless speeding on the hour drive home, gotta make that turbo whistle, and like a lot of chipotle. Overall I’d say it was a success. 


 

Let’s talk about socks baby. 

So anyone who spends any time on their feet knows shoes are important. But anyone who is doing any kind of long distance knows that socks can be just as vital. When I was doing my research on appropriate dress for hiking, I saw the recommendation of merino wool and I was all about it. However, when I went to browse around REI, I came across Wrightsock, the coolmesh 11. They were $13, more than I’ve ever spent on socks, but not unreasonable, especially when you consider the alternatives.

On first putting them on, I’m comfy as can be, they’ve got decent arch support, they’re the perfect thickness and they’re double layer to prevent blisters. They’re soft and breathable, everything you want in a long distance hike. Plus they’re a great turquoise color! Anyway, my first time out with these socks and I’m already in love. No blisters, much less arch pain (a chronic problem for me), overall great stuff. So I’m thinking that these would be great for my AT hike, they’re light and comfy, and I really want something durable that feels great.

How about NO. Despite the clear benefits of these socks, there is a major draw back. I wore them on an 8 mile hike with no problems, lots of extra comfort from my usual. So, I decided to take them for a 13.5 mile hike on the MD portion of the AT. At about the 7 mile mark, we paused for some snacks and to take in the view (I will go more in depth about this hike in a different post) and I took off my shoes to wander around the rocks in my bare feet. I noticed immediately that the outer layer of my seemingly magical Wrightsocks have split open. Ripped straight across just below the toe seam.

These socks didn’t even last 20 miles before tearing open. I’ll be honest, prior to purchasing these socks I’ve been hiking in some real cute novelty socks with sea otters on them. My point here is that I’m by no means an expert, but I won’t be buying these socks again. If I’m being fair, they’re advertised as being for “light” hiking, which I wouldn’t use to describe 13.5 miles, but the terrain was not difficult, so I guess it balances? I regret that the benefits of these socks didn’t last long, and maybe it was a fluke, but I wouldn’t trust 2200 miles to them. So, the search for the perfect socks continue.

The Big Reaction

For some my determination to hike AT is unfathomable. Most recently I was discussing the topic with a friend and his response to my statement “I am going to hike the Appalachian Trail when I graduate next year” was an immediate “you?” Now, he insists that he did not hear me when I said “I” and was seeking clarification, but I will take liberty to doubt this. I get it, I’m kind of chubby, I’m short, I have expressed only a limited interest in hiking within my friend group, I don’t seem like the type to take on such a task. However, what I found most important in the exchange was not his visceral doubt, but my response to it. Without hesitation, I laughed out loud. His doubt is not my doubt, and my ability to see humor in his negative response was reassuring to me, because it speaks to my own confidence in my ability.

Now, I would like to take the opportunity to tell you a bit about how some of the important people in my life reacted. Now, to avoid any strife or suspicion of favoritism, I have placed these in order of seniority, rather than the actual order I told them.

My mother asked my why, that was her first question. I explained that it was simply because I wanted to, and she said OK. Days later, after I published my first post, I called her and she told me, “I read your blog, I’m in.” She asked about how I was going to get my gear and what she could do to help. Her eagerness was very reassuring to me, as I was expecting more opposition. She did express worries about my safety but decided it was best not to dwell. Her desire to help was actually overwhelming as she began to ask a multitude of questions I had yet to consider.

For the sake of their privacy, I won’t name my sisters, but I have four. The eldest, C had a very similar response to that of my mom. She asked me why and accepted my response. She then told me about a man who was biking for charity and suggested I could do something similar. I jokingly mentioned that she would probably have me tagged before I leave and watch every step I take. In all seriousness she told me how our other sister doesn’t like to give her flight information anymore because C tracks her progress through the air. She spent the next few days sending me links about how to seek sponsorship and a GPS tracker she expects me to carry.

Next would be T, I spent three days and called her about 4000 times before I actually got to speak to her. When we finally talked (on my mother’s phone because I got lucky and called her when they happened to be together) her first response was, “so wait, you’re inviting me right?” This is the sister mentioned in my first post, who seems to share my passion for hiking. We then discussed gear and she immediately added me to a facebook flea market to find cheap gear. She took the further step of connecting me with a friend who put me in touch with a gentleman who has been immensely helpful in starting me on the path to collecting my gear.

L, I think, was the most concerned. Everyone who knows her will know exactly the tone she adopted when I told her about my plans. She said nothing for about 30 seconds before saying “Oh my God Jax” in a tone that was a mixture of fear and exasperation at the fact that she has been given such a ridiculous sister who loves to try her patience. I am sad to say it was not the first time I have heard this phrase and it is unlikely to be the last. I’m assuming she did some quick googling and this likely did nothing to assuage her fears. I expressed some concerns about how I would manage my bills while away and she said simply “that’s what you have me for.” More recently she has begun planning our trip to Maine this year to see how well I do in the 100 mile wilderness to better inform my decision to go NOBO or SOBO.

Finally, I, of all of my family, she accepted my decision with the least questions. I don’t have any anecdote for our exchange due to the circumstances at the time that I told her. We were both dealing with a rather tiresome individual who had been testing our courtesy and hospitality for nearly a week and I believe by the time I told her about my trip she was beyond the point of offering any sort of emotional reaction beyond acceptance. Yet, her support is no less important than that of any of my other sisters.

My cousin, J, has also been essential in the journey I’ve taken. She will be my practice partner all this summer as we both become more skilled hikers. She has promised to make fun of me when I carry my full pack on a day hike and she has been my constant companion on the trail. Honestly, none of this would have happened if not for her. Back on that first day we went hiking together, I began a path that will lead me to Springer Mountain.

The support of my family is absolutely vital to me in all my endeavors, but their desire to help me with this momentous task is so inspiring to me. I fully expect to see them at a variety of points during my hike. Whether dropping me off at the beginning, hiking alongside me in the middle states, or cheering me on at the finish line, I am certain I have a wonderful family who will be invaluable.

I do feel the need to offer one more anecdote so everyone can understand just what it is I’m working with. My step father, for whom I have lots of respect, but also a great deal of resentment, reacted in a slightly disheartening way. I discussed completing a thru hike with him prior to me actually committing to the endeavor, but his words have left me slightly apprehensive about actually telling him I plan to make the hike. He told me a story about a woman he had met during his travels who smelled very unpleasantly. Apparently she used her odor to deter sexual assault while completing her thru hike. He did not tell this story as a cautionary, rather as an interesting thing he had learned, and thought nothing of how this might impact me. He offered neither support nor objection and this has left me wondering about what he will think of my decision.

There are people I did not mention here and I want to say thank you to them as well. I have not and will not forget any support I have been provided. Overall, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive. I don’t know what I would do without each and every one of you and all that you do to love and support me.