To most people in my Los Angeles art-music-fashion social circle, primitive camping and hiking fourteen miles a day for six days straight doesn’t sound like anything resembling a vacation. I believe that if they experienced it in the way I have, though, they might think the exact opposite. I fell into backpacking by accident about four or five years ago. A former roommate asked me to accompany her and some friends on an epic trip to the top of Mt. Whitney. Then I caught the bug. Now I usually do at least two, 3–7 day backpacking trips a year, sometimes solo, sometimes with friends. Some people go on yoga retreats or do juice cleanses to revive or take respite from city life, but I go backpacking.
This past spring I decided to do a section of the Appalachian Trail beginning near Clingman’s Dome and ending in Hot Springs, North Carolina. For the 70+ mile journey, I chose to go-it alone, not out of a great desire to be alone, but more out of necessity. Complicated schedules, my ambitious itinerary, and the fact that I have very few friends that share the hobby and are also adequately equipped, make it difficult to find a good partner. My hike happened to coincide with the same time of year and direction of a large majority of the thru-hikers on the AT: those individuals that traverse the entire 2,190 miles of the trail in one 5–6 month trip. Because of this, it became a bit of a reconnaissance mission into a potential AT thru-hike of my own.
In our modern world, there aren’t many opportunities for the average person to have true adventure. Gone are the days when you could hop on a ship sailing the “New World,” join a traveling circus, be a frontiersman, or venture out West in search of gold. Lands have been claimed, roads paved, barter systems abolished, and infrastructure put in place. That is why, to me, thru-hiking is so exciting. The trail still feels undiscovered, at least by the majority of folks and friends back home. There are beautiful alpine lakes, cliffs, caves, and waterfalls where no road or modern infrastructure can take you. You must use your legs to carry you, be sustained entirely by what you have on your back, and sleep in a new place every night to reach destinations unknown to many. You can disappear and reappear at will, stay in a town or keep moving through, take a photo or simply just take it all in, like a little secret only shared between you and the ancient earth.
You’re on your own out there in the wilderness. While not nearly as dangerous as making a left-hand turn against rush hour traffic in L.A., there is danger in the knowledge that if you fall and sprain your ankle, there won’t be an Uber pulling up to ferry you to the hospital. But something about knowing you are twenty or more miles from the nearest highway, town, or power line feels freeing. The success of your trip is solely based on your ability to plan, pack efficiently, listen to your gut, and be a self starter. Society’s normal rules don’t apply. Body odor is to be expected. You can wear the same outfit every day, and it’s the only situation where you can sleep out in the open and not worry about someone robbing, arresting, or shaming you.
My relationship with my body changes on those week-long hikes. No longer is there “food guilt.” I am a vehicle for forward movement and need fuel. Achieving my mileage goals and making camp for the night are the only objectives. At home I usually have a laundry list of little and big things that need tending to. Out on the trail, life is simplified. Watching the sunset every night is the norm. I might write in my notebook next to a rushing river for a bit… or not. I might meander around for an hour gathering wood for a fire, learn a new card game, or get to know the people camping next to me. I can’t say I’ve experienced being in a group of strangers more delighted, at-ease, and accepting of one another; the exertions of the day’s hike leaving us all on a more equal and open playing field. Food, a warm fire, and a place to rest becomes our unique heaven.
I’m reminded on the trail of our miraculous ability as humans to adapt. It happens sometimes slower than we’d like and some people start out from a higher vantage point, but in the end we all grow stronger as we move forward. Regardless of whether you reach your ultimate goal, you are changed by simply continuing on for a length of time. Also, I’m reminded to take advantage and take heart in the rivers of life. The thirst quenching moments of good friends, fun, and relaxation where we can soak our aching feet, wash the dirt away, and appreciate the beauty. I also know, however, that I can’t stay by the riverside forever. There are miles ahead.
On the fifth night of my trip, I pushed on a little further than planned and ended up “stealth camping” alongside a group of hikers I hadn’t camped with before. We got along so well that I invited them to share the cabin I’d rented in town for the final night of my trek, as they didn’t yet have a place to stay. I was tempted to continue on with them after we arrived together in Hot Springs. I was so tempted that I spent a good part of my last day on the trail going over in my head all the loose ends I would need to tie up in order to be gone from my regular life for five months, so tempted that I called a friend for advice (he said I should go for it), so tempted that I physically felt the intoxicating call of adventure giving me goose bumps.
I knew I’d miss feeling my body grow stronger everyday, bathing in lakes, drinking the water from the inside of mountains and knowing that for every city I passed through for a resupply or a rest, I got there by simply putting one foot in front of the other. I had to go home though. I had to finish some things I’d started. Pay those bills and put out that record. I had to play a show I’d been rehearsing for, update my portfolio, sell some old clothes on Etsy, invest money for future retirement, find a suitable partner to grow old with and ……..#&%$!!, get me back on the trail!
Alathea Reese is an accomplished musician, artist, and hiker living in Los Angeles, CA. She performs under the musical moniker of Dr. Fadeaway. You can find her music on Spotify or at drfadeaway.bandcamp.com/. Follow her adventures at @lathie and @drfadeaway.